October 27, 2008

French Expert Expounds Relevance of Sartre

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Have you heard of the renowned French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre? According to Annie Cohen-Solal, visiting arts professor at New York University and former cultural counselor to the French Embassy in the U.S., most “Ivy Leaguers” go through the American education system without ever hearing his name.
Cohen-Solal, a French expert on Sartre’s life, introduced last Friday’s discussion of “Jean-Paul Sartre, the Question of Terror, and the U.S. Presidential Elections” with this question about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author well-known for his international best-selling biography, Sartre: A Life.
Addressing an audience of approximately 35 people, Cohen-Solal discussed Sartre, “the dead, young philosopher,” and considered his relevance in today’s world with regards to terrorism and political change. Cohen-Solal explained that Sartre, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, raised important controversial issues to a level of universal consciousness, “demanding answers from heads of state on behalf of civil society.”
Explaining Sartre’s view, Cohen-Solal said that a responsible citizen must be involved and committed, exemplified by the philosopher’s challenges to the French hierarchy and his focus on issues of decolonization. Furthermore, Sartre did not mind contradicting himself, she explained, in his attempt to raise public awareness of and challenge issues.
According to Cohen-Solal, Sartre was an expert on America, while sharply critical of U.S. politics during the McCarthy Era and during the Vietnam War. Cohen-Solal briefly drew connections between the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq, considering the public protest against each.
In fact, in 1967 Sartre was supposed to host a conference at Cornell, but was disinvited by James Perkins, then president of the University, because Sartre was critical of the U.S.
However, some of Sartre’s comments still resonate in the world today, according to Cohen-Solal. She quoted Sartre stating, “We do not have to regard the U.S. as the leader of the world … we must show solidarity and interest in people all over the world.”
After her main lecture, Cohen-Solal took questions from the audience.
One member of the audience asked, “Why can’t we see ‘committed intellectuals’ today who challenge issues? Do we need them?”
In response, Cohen-Solal insisted on the importance of asking the right questions.
Sartre had a certain “ethical compass,” she explained, and his quest to challenge authority was “not about the right answer, but about asking the right question.”
“What ‘made’ Sartre,” Cohen-Solal continued, was the fact that “He searched. He didn’t take anything for granted. He tried. He tried hard.”
“I thought it was a wonderful event,” said Olga Desyatnik ’10. “[Cohen-Solal] was extremely engaging and interesting, and was very kind to take comments and criticisms from the audience openly.”
Cecilia de Lencquesaing ’11, president of the Cornell French Society, appreciated the relevancy of Sartre’s aims.
“It’s important for a figure to criticize and be heard,” she said.
“It’s what’s missing now,” she elaborated. “We don’t have someone always criticizing. Even if there’s no answer, there’s no clear question why we have such problems with the war in Iraq.”
Adrienne Carey ’09 also enjoyed the lecture. “It was helpful that [Cohen-Solal] discussed Sartre’s relationship with the U.S. and with Cornell.”
Desyatnik also noted, however, that among the audience there were few undergraduates.
“It always saddens me,” she said, “when talks like this are held ‘for the students,’ and there are only four students in the audience.”
This event was sponsored by the newly created Cornell French Society and co-sponsored by the Cornell International Affairs Review.