The error that I want my readers to avoid is one that I made myself. And I made it during Nizan’s lifetime, notwithstanding the fact that we were such close friends that people used to mistake us for each other. One day in June of ’39, Léon Brunschvicg ran into us at the offices of Gallimard and congratulated me on having written Les Chiens de garde, “. . . although,” as he said without bitterness, “you were pretty hard on me.” I smiled at him in silence; Nizan stood smiling beside me. The great idealist left without realizing his mistake. This confusion between us had been going on for eighteen years—it had become our status in society, and we had come to accept it. Particularly between 1920 and 1930, when we were students together at the lycée and then the École Normale, we were indistinguishable. Nevertheless, I did not see him as he really was.
What, in sum, was the cause of his suffering? Why did I, more than all others, sound ridiculous to him when I talked about our liberty? If he believed, from the time he was sixteen, in the inexorable chain of causes, it was because he felt constrained and manipulated: “We have within us divisions, alienations, wars, debates. . . . Each of us is divided among the men he might be. . . .” A solitary child, he was too conscious of his uniqueness to throw himself into universal ideas, the way I did. A slave, he came to philosophy to free himself, and Spinoza furnished him a model. In the first two types of knowledge, man remains a slave because he is incomplete; knowledge of the third type breaks down the partitions, the negative determinants. It is all one, according to this mode, to return to the infinite substance and to achieve the affirmative totality of one’s particular essence. Nizan wanted to pull down all walls: he would unify his life by proclaiming his desires and subduing them.
We lost him; he never lost himself. He was tormented by a new abstraction: to run from one place to another, from one woman to another, is to hold on to nothing. Aden was Europe compressed, and at white heat. One day Nizan did what his father, who was still living, had never dared to do. He took an open car and set out at high noon without a sun helmet. They found him in a ditch, unconscious but unhurt. This suicide liquidated a few of the old terrors. When be recovered, be looked around him and saw “the most naked state, the economic state.” Colonies expose a regime which, in the metropolitan countries, is shrouded in mists. He came back. He had understood the causes of our servitude. His terror became an aggressive force: hate. He was no longer fighting against insidious, anonymous infiltrations. He had seen naked exploitation and oppression, and he had understood that his adversaries had names and faces, that they were men. Miserable, alienated men, doubtless, like his father and himself. But men who “defended and preserved their misery and its causes, with guile, with violence, with obstinacy and skill.” That night when he came back and knocked at my door, he knew that he had tried everything, that his back was to the wall, that all solutions were blind alleys except one: war. He was coming back among his enemies to fight: “I will no longer be afraid to hate. I will no longer be ashamed to be fanatic. I owe them the worst: they all but destroyed me.”
The end. He found his community and was received into it; it protected him against his enemies. But since I am introducing him to the young readers of today, I must answer the question they will not fail to ask: Did he finally find what he was looking for? What could the Party give to this man who had been skinned alive, who suffered to the very marrow of his bones from the sickness of death? We must be scrupulous about asking this question. I am telling the story of an exemplary life, which is just the opposite of an edifying life. Nizan shed his skin, and yet the old man, the old young man, remained. From 1929 to 1939 I saw less of him, but our meetings were all the more lively for being brief, and they taught me much about him. Nowadays, I understand, one chooses the family as opposed to politics. Nizan, however, had chosen both. Aeneas had grown weary of carrying gloomy old Anchises for so long, and with one shrug of the shoulders had sent him sprawling. Nizan had rushed into marriage and fatherhood in order to kill his father. But becoming a father is not in itself a sufficient cure for childhood. On the contrary, the authority vested in the new head of a family condemns him to repeat the age-old pieces of childishness handed down to us from Adam through our parents. It was an old story to my friend. He wanted to finish off once and for all the father who in each generation was murdered by his son only to be reborn again in him. He would become a different man, and would keep himself from capricious behavior in the family by public discipline. Let us see if he succeeded.
The doctrine satisfied him completely. He detested conciliations and conciliators, and most especially their Great Master, Leibnitz. When he was required to study the Discourse on Metaphysics in school, he took his revenge by making a talented drawing of the philosopher in full flight, wearing a Tyrolean hat, with the imprint of Spinoza’s boot on his right buttock. To pass from the Ethics to Das Kapital, however, was easy. Marxism became his second nature or, if you prefer, his Reason. His eyes were Marxist, and his ears. And his head. At last he understood his incomprehensible wretchedness, his wants, his terror. He saw the world and saw himself in it. But above all, at the same time that Marxism made his hatreds legitimate, it reconciled in him the opposing discourse of his parents. The rigor of technique, the exactitude of science, the patience of reason, all that was retained. But the doctrine also went beyond the pettiness of positivism, with its absurd refusal to “know through causes.” The dreary world of means, and of the means of means, was left to the engineers. To the troubled young man who wanted to save his soul, Marxism offered absolute ends: play midwife to history, bring forth the revolution, prepare Man and the Reign of Man. The doctrine did not concern itself with salvation or personal immortality, but it gave him the chance to live on, anonymously or gloriously, in the midst of a common enterprise that would end only with the species. He put everything into Marxism: physics and metaphysics, his passion for action and his passion for retrieving his acts, his cynicism and his eschatological dreams. Man was his future. But now was the time to slash. It would be up to other men to sew the pieces together again. His was the pleasure of cheerfully ripping everything to shreds for the good of humanity.
SOURCE: Sartre, Jean-Paul. Foreword to Aden, Arabie by Paul Nizan; translated from the French by Joan Pinkham. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. (French original published 1960, English translation published 1968).
Nizan specialized in portraits of Leibniz, whom he preferred to depict as a priest, or wearing a Tyrolean hat, and bearing on his backside the imprint of Spinozas hoof.
Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, translated by James Kirkup (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 336. (English translation first published: Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1959.)
[Sartre:] [. . . . ] He refused to introduce us, either to me or Nizan or anyone else of our group.
[Gerassi:] But you were in the same class, listening to the same lecturer, you didnt need to be introduced? You couldnt go up to her and say, What did you think of [Gottfried] Leibniz? I mention Leibniz because you apparently drew him “in bed with the monads and gave it to her. Didnt she thank you? Didnt that start a conversation?
March 1971, in Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates, edited and translated by John Gerassi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 71.
She knew from Maheu that Sartre wanted to meet her. He would have introduced them one day in the Luxembourg Gardens, he said, but she was with another student at the time, and he did not want to disturb her meditations. Sartre tried an indirect approach. He hoped to interest and amuse her by dedicating a drawing to her: he called it Leibniz bathing with the Monads. He did not send it but gave it to Maheu to give to her. She did not record her response. She remembered that Sartre and Nizan had issued a cordial invitation to her, hoping that all four of them could meet.
Margaret Crosland, Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman and Her Work (London: Heinemann, 1992), p. 68.
by Paul Nizan
Bourgeois Philosophy in Action (Excerpts)
by Paul Nizan
"The Philosopher's Mission" by Paul Nizan
de la Filozofo de Paul Nizan
(same text in Esperanto)
and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy
by R. Dumain
Leibniz & Ideology: Selected Bibliography
Spinoza & Marxism: Selected Bibliography (with Basic Spinoza Web Guide)
Marx and Marxism Web Guide
Bergson, apostle of reactionary irrationalism
Habermas & Sartre on silence
Paul Nizan @ Reason & Society
Paul Nizan @ Ĝirafo
Paul Nizan @ Marxists Internet Archive
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