Why Today There Are No Philosophers, Serious Writers and Critical Artists in US?


Alberto Giacometti, “Jean-Paul Sartre”, 1946

Jacques Derrida was not too fond of Sartre as a philosopher, again and again in his public statements he mentioned him with slightly slapping asides. But Sartre was a fertile playwright, and his analysis of Jean Janet in his “Saint Janet: Actor and Martyr” transcends the level of work of literary criticism. As a human being Sartre is an existential philosopher – he himself personifies a philosopher he could create as a personage in one of his plays. His philosophy is rather a work of art than philosophizing. In other words, he is a philosopher not so much in a technical sense but metaphorically – he is a critical intellectual mobilizing philosophical, psychological and sociological knowledge and artistic imagery to measure the degree of democratic/humanistic genuineness of post-modern Western life.

Several Giacometti’s drawings of Sartre emphasize his presence in today’s culture as not so pleasant (in spite of his popular success exactly as a philosopher in a technical sense). His criticism of society is located not just on the level of the facts of political life and conceptual or semantic structures people and traditions use, but somewhere closer to human heart, to the anxious unconscious of concrete people. Let’s look again at the drawing. Sartre’s concentrated gaze is almost without eyes – it’s pure focus of thought. If it is sight it is sight of thinking. Sartre’s face (and personality behind it) looks sinister to most people (who are afraid of dissimilarity and otherness in general and the uncanny [Freudian unheilmlich] in particular).

For Giacometti’s Sartre thinking means concentrating not on the ways of thinking or acting, not on how people think or are prone to act, but on their feelings, on how human emotions perceive reality (on what in us makes us think and act the way we do). He doesn’t look too far away, above or beneath life. And he, as we see in the drawing, disapproves of what he observes/thinks about. He looks at life without admiration, without even simple curiosity. How to be a philosopher with such an approach to reality? He is rather astonished or even astounded by what he sees. May be, he cannot even believe his eyes/his thoughts.

Giacometti makes the concentration of the pencil lines the visual equivalent of Sartre’s mental concentration – it is through the accumulation of lines (densification of thoughts) that Sartre’s mental focusing is expressed (his face is over-saturated with lines). Why to represent a thinker through lines, through drawing, and not through paint? These lines in Sartre’s portrait are the lines of his texts but also of the visual routs – the lines of Sartre’s observation of what the reality of human life is. But still why not to paint Sartre? Painting can very productively incorporate lines and enrich them by directing and being directed by them.

Paint is too material – it makes human being incarnated. It could make Sartre too fleshy while he, as a critical thinker and skeptical and often sarcastic fiction writer, is at the distance from the immediate flesh of everyday life. Giacometti’s drawings of Sartre tell us that Sartre-the thinker is not an earthly enough to be painted or sculpted. His destiny as a model for the artist is that of pencil and paper, and not even etching. It is the spirituality of a personality like his, of his nature – makes him being not enough or, conversely, too much for paint or solid material. Sartre’s being is in between the lines of his texts, the lines of his gaze searching for meanings of the reality and the lines of Giacometti’s pencil drawing.