Friday, 10 August 2012

Anti-Semite and Jew: A review essay

by Joel Pearson, August 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1906, at the beginning of what would prove to be a century of great turbulence. Two cataclysmic wars would ravage Europe as ‘modernity’ shuddered through society. In a climate of alienation, marginalization and violence, Sartre developed his diagnosis of the human condition. His writings – plays, biographies, novels and notebooks – explored the problems of “existential thought (la contingence) and the vicissitudes of social history through the troubled lives of individual actors” (Jules-Rosette, 2007:266). With the smoke of Auschwitz still looming large over a continent in ruin after the Second World War, Sartre’s political work interrogated how the devastations of fascism, racism and inequality had erupted, and what their effects were on the individual psyche (Jules-Rosette, 2007:266). In 1944, as the war petered out in Europe and an increasing number of Jews returned home from Nazi Germany, Sartre set out to examine the roots of anti-Semitism in France. Anti-Semite and Jew (Réflections sur la question juive) examined the “interpersonal construction of personal identities” in the dramatic personae of the anti-Semite, the democrat, the inauthentic and the authentic Jew (Walzer, 1995:xxvi). His central claim, perhaps: identity and culture cannot be reduced to timeless essences; they are socially constituted within historical situations; and both individual and group perceptions are intimately tied to the (often hostile) perceptions of the “other/s” (Walzer, 1995:xxiii).

The reception of Anti-Semite extended beyond the French public. “Certain pages of Anti-Semite and Jew,” wrote Frantz Fanon, “are the finest that I have ever read. The finest, because the problem discussed in them grips in our guts” (1952:140). The book provided the central thrust to the fifth chapter of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) entitled “The Fact of Blackness”. “Sartre has made a masterful study of the problem of anti-Semitism,” he wrote, “let us try to determine what are the constituents of Negrophobia” (1952:124). In this essay I will try to identify some of the parallels between what Sartre found in his study of anti-Semitism and what Fanon discovered to be true of the so-called “black problem” in his own studies and personal experience as a black man in a world of whiteness. My intention is not to portray Sartre as the original author of Fanon’s thoughts: Fanon did not simply adopt wholesale Sartre’s ideas and apply them to the colonial situation. Sartre did not ‘cause’ Fanon. The process by which both men developed their later anti-colonial philosophies was instead a dialogical one. Fanon employed many aspects of Sartre’s existentialism, but disagreed with him on many too. And as Fanon was influenced by Sartre, so the reverse was also true. Fanon’s ideas can be detected in Sartre’s writings on colonialism. “Our worthiest souls contain racial prejudice,” Sartre wrote in the Preface to Wretched of the Earth (1963), “they would do well to read Fanon” (18). What follows should therefore be read not as proof that Fanon’s ideas are in fact those of a white man, but rather a demonstration that ideas, both those that support oppression and those that militate against it, resonate across space and time, evolving both consciously and unconsciously through the structures of society and the minds of the people who inhabit it.

In what follows I will examine some of the points of resonance between Sartrean and Fanonian thought. In the process I will point to what I consider to be some of the specific parallels between the ideas contained in Anti-Semite and Jew, and those in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. If I have quoted extensively, it is only because I believed that the lyricism of these two great writers would be compromised by over-zealous attempts to paraphrase. If I have spoken overwhelmingly in the masculine form, it is only because Sartre’s dramatic personae are all presented as male (Walzer, 1995:ix). But to be sure, the positions specified are ones shared by men and women alike.

To begin this comparison, I will examine what are some of the central tenets of Sartre’s existential philosophy. “The first principle of existentialism,” according to Sartre (1965) is that “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.” In the age in which God is dead, there is nothing which we can call “human nature” or a human “essence” because “to begin with [man] is nothing… he will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself”. Thus, the existentialists believe that “existence precedes essence”. This is to be contrasted with the theistic conception, which holds that:

God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and formula. Thus each individual man is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding.

The assertion that man wholly defines himself through experiences in the world over the course of his life not only flies in the face of the divine vision that “man is created in God’s image”; even atheists like Diderot, Voltaire and Kant believed that “each man is a particular example of a universal conception, the conception of Man” (Sartre, 1965). The existentialist turn was thus a radical one, and Fanon too was drawn to it. If existence precedes essence, then arguments that assert the black’s supposedly essential backwardness and savagery fall flat. More than this, if man is what he makes of himself (excuse the masculine), then society is what men (and women) make of it. Fanon (1952:4) wrote that “man is what brings society into being. The prognosis is in the hands of those who are willing to get rid of the worm-eaten roots of the structure”.

Of course, the human agent is not entirely free to see whatever reality he imagines instantiated on earth. The human being is limited: it occupies an organic body which is born and which must die, it is immersed in a physical world and is bound in a specific temporality. This is what might be called our facticity, and none of us can escape it except through a wilful act of self-deception, an act which can only, at best, be partially successful. We will look at such attempts later in relation to both the anti-Semite and the inauthentic Jew. But while the world we inhabit may restrict us, there is again no human essence hard-wired into our facticity. We are limited but not determined by the fact of our embodiment in a physical world. Rather, our facticity is the condition for the possibility of our acting at all. If the world does not exist, then nor can our freedom.

Existentialism, Sartre continues, is underpinned by an ethic of responsibility, of action and of self-commitment: “when a man commits himself to anything he [or she] cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility” (Sartre, 1965). Existentialists believe that we possess an inherent freedom to genuinely choose between a range of options at any one time. That is not to say that the quality of the choices offered is always appealing. Anti-Semitism and racism, to be sure, do not offer the Jew or the black person a desirable spectrum of choice. But even in such oppressive atmospheres, we are free to make an undetermined choice nonetheless. “The slave in chains is as free as his master”, goes Sartre’s famous dictum. Chains only exercise external restriction, but one can never be robbed of the capacity to choose. And we are responsible for the choices we make. We are more than just actors following a script authored by God, or indeed microcosmic manifestations of a “universal Idea”, playing our determined role in its dialectic unfolding, as Hegel would have it (Wahl in Sartre, 1988:5). No. History has no end point, no grand telos. Instead, a vast expanse of nothingness is what stands before us as human subjects. On the occasion we catch a glimpse of this nothingness and we are filled with anguish, for we know that we alone are responsible for what comes next: “we are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free… from the moment he is thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre, 1965). This is what Sartre calls the “human condition”: while limited by our ‘situation’ in a particular time and space, we are nonetheless free to choose how to respond to this facticity and thereby capable of transcending it. This is existentialism’s only assertion of universality: a universal capacity for transcendence, or, as Fanon put it, “the open door of every human consciousness” (Fanon, 1982:181).

A coward is only a coward because he chooses to be so. A hero makes himself thus through his chosen deeds. And the anti-Semite makes of himself an anti-Semite through a “free and total choice” (Sartre, 1948:11). Every moment holds the possibility for any one of them to choose to be something other than what they are (Sartre, 1965). It is anguish that greets the coward who realises that he could just as well have acted heroically up until his present juncture. So too is the anti-Semite in anguish, though he will vehemently deny it: “there are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But [existentialists] affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it” (Sartre, 1965). This is Sartre’s final prognosis of the anti-Semite: he is afraid of the human condition (Sartre, 1948:38). Though the anti-Semite’s choice “emanates from freedom, it ultimately annihilates that freedom” (Sartre, 1965). In his dogged determination to remain what he is and deny that he can be anything other than that, the anti-Semite denies his transcendence and is thus enveloped in bad faith, demonstrating “a basic fear of oneself and of truth” (Sartre, 1948:12). And Sartre (1965) believes we should judge such self-deception harshly:

I can form judgements upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards.

We should rightly judge these people as cowards, not simply because they are running away from the their own freedom, but because they run from the fact that others are free. It is from self-deception that the forces of oppression bubble forth. Indeed, I have yet to mention another aspect of facticity, one that is crucial to our present exploration; that is, that the human subject does not inhabit the world alone. Rather, he finds that he shares it with other people, “and discovers them as the condition of his own existence” (Sartre, 1965). It is only through the mediation of others that we can come to know any truth about ourselves:

Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of “inter-subjectivity”. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are (Sartre, 1965; emphasis mine)

It is unfortunate for the Jew that what many decided to do with their freedom was to make anti-Semites of themselves, and, in the process, a Jew of him. For it is “the anti-Semite that creates the Jew” (Sartre, 1948:101). Not everyone has been wholly convinced by this assertion however. They object to the implication that the Jew is but the figment of the anti-Semite’ imagination which was subsequently internalised by Jews (Rybalka, 1999:165; Sungolowsky, 1963). Jews do exist independently as a distinct cultural or religious group, irrespective of the imagination of the anti-Semite, they counter. And indeed, at times in Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre does appear to attribute the anti-Semite with more of an objective reality than the Jew, who by contrast appears as an almost ghostly figure, purely a product of a wild and racist imagination rather than identifiable being. On this point I would concur. Sartre’s claim that Jews have no history apart from a “long martyrdom [and] a long passivity” (Sartre, 1948:47) that emerged purely as a function of anti-Semites’ invention of the category of “Jew” cannot withstand the fact that there existed a very rich, historical Jewish identity before the anti-Semite invented his impoverished version of the Jew. Jewish identity amounts to far more than simply negation. But while the anti-Semite may not create the Jew, I believe Sartre is not wrong when he asserts that the anti-Semite creates the Jew in the sense of creating an idea of the Jew which, for a time, reigned hegemonic in Europe through the anti-Semite’s cowardly attempts to flee from freedom, from his capacity for transcendence. Indeed, the idea is all that matters to the anti-Semite – he cares little about what history the Jew actually has. His concern is not to find truth. Indeed, as we have elaborated, it is truth he is fleeing. Yes: the Jew loves money, the Jew is underhanded, the Jew is evil incarnate. Sartre (1948:8) asserts that this idea of the Jew, “of his nature and of his role in society”, is one which is formed in advance in the mind of the anti-Semite, a priori – before experience. The Jew becomes entrapped by this fictional idea, he is objectified by it, it makes of him an “essence” – “a substantial form [which] the Jew, whatever he does, cannot modify, any more than fire can keep itself from burning” (Sartre, 1948:27). Every thought, every action is tainted by his Jewishness. Yet Sartre asserts that it is not only the Jew who is enslaved by this vision. The anti-Semite too is (wilfully) shackled by the idea of the Jew with shattering psychological effects. It drains him of humanity, he becomes “a pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt – anything except a man” (Sartre, 1948:38).

Sartre asserts that it is a sense of mediocrity that led the anti-Semite to invent his vision of the Jew. Unwilling to face up to the fact that it is he who is responsible for his own mediocrity, terrified by the vast nothingness that his freedom opens up before him, stricken by the anguish that comes from realising that he could be other than the pitiful being he has shaped up to be, he creates the idea of the Jew through what is a spineless and perpetual act of self-delusion in the hope of escape from his own freedom. And he joins a chorus of people who attempt to do the same:

The anti-Semite has no illusions about what he is. He considers himself an average man, modestly average, basically mediocre. There is no example of an anti-Semite’s claiming individual superiority over the Jews. But you must not think that he is ashamed of his mediocrity; he takes pleasure in it; I will even assert that he has chosen it. This man fears every kind of solitariness, that of the genius, as much as that of the murderer; he is the man of the crowd. However small his stature, he takes every precaution to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find himself face to face with himself (Sartre, 1948:15)

The anti-Semite is mediocre because he fears being alone. He believes his mediocrity is unchangeable because he is afraid of being free. And he “makes of this irremediable mediocrity a rigid aristocracy” by which he is able to assert his own superiority (Sartre, 1948:28). In this endeavour, Sartre argues, the anti-Semite finds “the existence of the Jew absolutely necessary. Otherwise to whom would he be superior?” (Sartre, 1948:28). It is this dependence that leads Sartre to proclaim “if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him” – a notion which Fanon would echo many years: “have the courage to say it outright: it is the racist who creates his inferior” (Fanon, 1952:69). “‘Dirty nigger!’ (Fanon, 1952:82): like the anti-Semite, so the anti-black racist comes to be imprisoned by his ideas, of blackness and of whiteness. The racist is dehumanised in his dehumanising the black: “the white man slaves to reach a human level … The white man is sealed in his whiteness” (Fanon, 1952:2). And mediocrity, too, lies at the foundations of self-deceptive attempts to deny that the black is but human:

Because my father was proud
The white man raped my mother
Because my mother was beautiful
The white man wore out my brother in the hot sun
of the roads
Because my brother was strong
Then the white man came to me
His hands red with blood
Spat his contempt into my black face
Out of his tyrant’s voice
Hey boy, a basin, a towel, water.”
(David Diop in Fanon, 1952:104).

Fanon, like Sartre, believes that identity is not a natural given, but is rather sociogenic in origin – that is, it is socially constructed (1952:4). It is this – this scandalous invention undertaken by the white racist in bad faith – that leads Fanon (1952:1) to declare on the first page of Black Skin, “at the risk of arousing the resentment of [his] coloured brothers … that the black is not a man.” Rather, blackness was invented “by the other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories” (Fanon, 1952:84). The black is savage, the black is brutish, the black is illiterate: another set of a priori “truths”. Yet Fanon points out a fundamental difference between the plight of the Jew and that of the black person: it is only the idea of the Jew by which condemns him and, as such:
the Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness. He is not wholly what he is. One hopes, one waits. His actions, his behaviour are the final determinant. He is a white man, and, apart from some rather debatable characteristics, he can sometimes go unnoticed (Fanon, 1952:87)

Sartre himself pointed to this potential for evasion: “one may love a Jewess very well if one does not know what her race is” (1948:7). But unlike the Jew, who is “overdetermined from the inside” (Sartre, 1948:95), the black person cannot hope to evade detection. The black skin is a cloak of essentialised backwardness worn on the outside of the body. There is no mistaking it: “The Jew is disliked from the moment he is tracked down. But in my case everything takes on a new guise. I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that the other has of me but of my appearance” (Fanon, 1952:87; emphasis mine).

Nonetheless, Fanon still regards the Jew as “my brother in misery” (1952:92). Indeed, there are more points of resonance than departure in the plight of both the Jew and the Negro. There are marked similarities, for example, in the manner in which both the Jew and the Negro come to discover that they are condemned by a society which regards them as essences. “Some children,” writes Sartre (1948:75):

at the age of five or six, have already had fights with schoolmates who call them “Yids”. Others may remain ignorant for a long time… But however it comes about, some day they must learn the truth: sometimes from the smiles of those around them, sometimes from rumour or insult. The later the discovery, the more violent the shock. Suddenly they perceive that others know something about them that they do not know, that people apply to them an ugly and upsetting term that is not used I their own families.

The discovery process is just as traumatic for the black child: “the first encounter with a white man oppresses him with the whole weight of his blackness” (Fanon, 1952:116). “Look, a Negro!” (Fanon, 1952:82)

Running through the lived experience of both the Jew and the Negro is also a sense of irreconcilable duality within – what W.E.B. Du Bois would call “double consciousness”. I am describing the state in which the subject finds him/herself torn between two worlds. The world to which the subject must accommodate him/herself, the hegemonic order, is one structured by the self-deceptive denial of what the subject knows to be true. It is a world which asserts that the Jew or the Negro is merely an essence. But all the while, the subject lives and breathes the truth of his transcendence: he knows he is not timeless substance but rather a human being whose future is as yet unwritten. The Jewish child, writes Sartre (1948:76), “feels that he is set apart, but he still does not understand what sets him apart; he is sure of only one thing: no matter what he does, he is and will remain a Jew”. Similarly, Fanon writes: “Negroes are savages, brutes, illiterates. But in my own case I knew that these statements were false” (1952:88).

The time had long since passed,” he continues, “when a Negro priest was an occasion for wonder we had physicians, professors, statesmen. Yes, but something out of the ordinary still clung to such cases” (1952:88). This points to another aspect that characterises the lived experience of both the Jew and the Negro: a deep and abiding desire to escape the mould crafted for them but not by them through the passionate hatred of their tormentor. It is accompanied always by a profound sense of inescapability: the more he flees, the more he is trapped. Sartre asserts that the “inauthentic Jew” who seeks continually for a means of escaping his/her Jewishness is condemned to fail: “he wants people to receive him as “a man”, but even in the circles which he has been able to enter, he is received as a Jew”; he is the “rich or powerful Jew… the ‘good’ Jew, the exceptional Jew, with whom one associates in spite of his race” (Sartre, 1948:71). One hears a similar tale of futility from Fanon (1952:88): “it was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor” and “when people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my colour. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my colour. Either way, I am locked into the infernal circle.” One can pinpoint this shared situation to a fundamental problem of recognition. Indeed, it is the case with both the inauthentic Jew and the Negro that “reason” is appealed to in trying to demonstrate that the only essence they carry is that of being essentially human; and it is the case in both that this appeal to reason fails: “people will always reject the proof which [is] furnished” (Sartre, 1948:59). The anti-Semite, Sartre writes (1948:13) is “afraid of reasoning”, wishing only for

the kind of life wherein reasoning and research play only a subordinate role, wherein one seeks only what has already been found. This is nothing but passion. Only a strong emotional bias can give a lightning-like certainty; it alone can hold reason in leach; it alone can remain impervious to experience and last for a whole lifetime. The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; from the outset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons (emphasis added)

Fanon (1952:90) too writes that the belief that the white man could be convinced of the black person’s humanity “Played cat and mouse” with him:

It made a fool of me. As the other put it, when I was present, it was not; when it was there, I was no longer. In the abstract there was agreement: The Negro is a human being. That is to say, amended the less firmly convinced, that like us he has his heart on the left side. But on certain points the white man remained intractable.

And just as Sartre asserts that the Jew “remains like a hard kernel in the circles which accept him” (1948:100), surrounded at all times by an “impalpable atmosphere, which is genuine France” in which the Jew is continually reminded that “he has no part” (1948:59), Fanon writes: “all around me the white man, above the sky tears at its navel, the earth rasps under my feet and there is a white song, a white song. All this whiteness that burns me…” (1952:86). In both cases, the appeal to reason fails. Neither the Jew nor the Negro, it seems, can escape their condemnation through the path of rationality.

This futility of trying to escape does not, however, prevent either from continually trying. And this has the consequence of fracturing what could be a united front of resistance against the forces that objectify and oppress them. Sartre writes of the fact that the inauthentic Jew often turned against other Jews, sometimes displaying even fiercer anti-Semitism than the anti-Semite:

When there is another Jew with him, he feels himself endangered before the others [and he now] looks at his coreligionist with the eyes of an anti-Semite spying out with a mixture of fear and fatalism the objective signs of their common origin (1948:103).

Fanon too recounts how he tried to find solace and solidarity with his “brothers, Negroes like myself” but, to his horror, “they too reject me, They are almost white. And besides they are about to marry white women. They will have children faintly tinged with brown. Who knows, perhaps little by little” (1952:88)

The anti-Semite will never accept the Jew as a transcendent being any more than the anti-black racist will come to accept the “open door” of the consciousness which inhabits a black body. Another way to explain this intransigence may be to evoke the notion of “secular theodicy” as articulated by Lewis Gordon (2007:7). Theodicy describes the mechanism by which belief in an all-good, all-powerful God is reconciled with the existence of evil – a fundamental contradiction. Despite the death of God, however, this logic remains in the modern era in the form of secular theodicy, which seeks to prove that the existence of oppression and inequality in the world does not negate the ultimate benevolence and justice of the overarching social, economic and political systems which structure our world. Trouillot (1995:84) too points to the operation of secular theodicy when he argues that “built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy”. It is secular theodicy which allowed the anti-Semite to turn a blind eye as Jews were rounded up across Europe and herded into crematoria; it is secular theodicy which attempts to cast black people as “problem people”. Writes Sartre (1948:28):

The anti-Semite is afraid of discovering that the world is ill-contrived, for then it would be necessary for him to invent and modify, with the result that man would be found to be the master of his own destinies, burdened with an agonizing and infinite responsibility. Thus he localizes all the evil of the universe in the Jew.

And later: “the anti-Semite has his conscience on his side: he is a criminal in a good cause” (1948:35). So too in the case of the white person who seeks to externalise blackness from a world of unsullied whiteness: “Indeed no, the good and merciful God cannot be black: He is a white man with bright pink cheeks” (Fanon, 1952:36)

In the Manichaean world of “good versus evil” which the operation of theodicy reinscribes, “no reconciliation is conceivable [between the good anti-Semite/white and the evil Jew/Negro]; one of them must triumph and the other be annihilated” (Sartre, 1948:41). Neither the Jew nor the Negro can wait on the generosity of their tormentors to recognise their inclusion in the human world. The only recourse is authenticity: accepting that the identity which is imposed upon them is as real as a brick wall in that its oppressive effects are not imaginary but experienced perpetually. For Sartre, the “authentic Jew”: “knows himself and wills himself into history as a historic and damned creature; he ceases to run away from himself and to be ashamed of his own kind. He understands that society is bad.” (Sartre, 1948:136). For Fanon, however, the solution is not so simple: “The Negro is a toy in the white man’s hands; so, in order to shatter the hellish cycle, he explodes” (1952:107). Indeed, Sartre inhabited a very different world from that of Fanon. He was white. The “Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man”, a fact which Fanon believed “Jean-Paul Sartre had forgotten” (Fanon, 1952:106).

But Sartre was not a Jew either. And his characterisation of Jewishness in purely negative terms, as a “not yet historical” people, bears testimony to this. Michael Walzer (1995:xiv) points out that many of the Jewish intellectuals whom Sartre would have considered “inauthentic” were “not only trying to escape anti-Semitism and the anti-Semite’s construction of Jewishness, they were also escaping the closed communities and orthodox traditionalism of their own Jewish past – a presence, not an absence”. Thus, while Sartre characterisation of the anti-Semite’s denial of transcendence is chillingly convincing, his prescription for the reclamation of this freedom on the part of the Jew through the assertion of “authenticity” is far less so. Perhaps this is the reason why Sartre ends Anti-Semite and Jew blithely pronouncing the classless society to come: he was not the one stuck waiting for the revolution to come, hungering for the radical overturning of a world which essentialised and condemned him.

By contrast, there was far less distance between Fanon and the object of his study. Indeed, he was the object – ever reaching forward in the hope of seizing hold of his subjectivity – “all I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help to build it together” (Fanon, 1952:85) – and ever finding this transcendence denied. The slave in chains may realise that he is indeed as free as his master, but that does not alter the fact that his bondage is agonizing. Perhaps this is the reason why Fanon ends his chapter on “The Fact of Blackness” in despair:

I feel in myself a soul as immense as the world, truly as deep as the deepest of rivers, my chest has the power to expand without limit. I am a master and I am advised to adopt the humility of the cripple. Yesterday, awakening to the world, I saw the sky turn upon itself utterly and wholly. I wanted to rise, but the disembowelled silence fell back upon me, its wings paralyzed. Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep. (Fanon, 1952:108)


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