Art and Subjectivity (Part 2)


In 1961, following the publication of Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre was invited to give a lecture at The Gramsci Institute in Rome. The lecture was followed by a lengthy discussion with some of Italy's most prominent Marxist intellectuals, including Galvano Della VolpeEnzo Paciand Cesare Luporini. The lecture and portions of the ensuing discussion have now been collected in What is Subjectivity?translated by David Broder and Trista Selous. 

The first part of an excerpt from the discussion on questions concerning art and subjectivity can be read here. Part 2 is below. 

: I think the debate has arrived at a really interesting, almost dramatic point here. After Sartre’s phenomenological description, defended by our friend Enzo Paci, we have arrived at a true question mark. True, we can grant Sartre that his phenomenological description — and I’ll emphasise the word “description” — is a very interesting one. But then we bump into the following problem: what is distinctive about the relation between subjectivity and objectivity such as it appears in a novel? What distinguishes a novel from a historical narrative?

Let’s use this category of subjectivity, for a moment, and consider Mommsen’s History of Rome. This work is famous for this aspect in particular, namely the powerful character of Mommsen’s subjectivity, of his political ideas. The history of Rome is analysed by way of Mommsen’s own subjectivity and political perspective — the perspective outlined by his political ideas — which, we all know, led him to emphasise the figure of Caesar, etc.

So what is the difference, on this point, between Mommsen’s subjectivity and Flaubert’s, between the subjectivity realised in Madame Bovary and the one reflected in A History of Rome? None. What has Sartre done, in truth? Let’s follow his method: with great finesse he presented us a description of the contents of Madame Bovary. He conveyed them to us as should be done today, namely by taking account of society, the social base. But Thibaudet had already done that. In any case, in Sartre this is much more marked. We can also do this for Sentimental Education [1869] and Flaubert’s other masterpieces. But it still remains to be explained why this is a novel and not a historical narrative. It seems to me, therefore, that phenomenological description is a path that leads us to an impasse. But I will say that Sartre’s analyses, which we get a sample of in Critique of Dialectical Reason, are very interesting — a far-reaching, brilliant effort, often even a work of genius.

A VOICE: I’ll specify: it is regressive and progressive, not phenomenological. [This could well be Sartre’s voice; in any case, it is the voice of a convinced Sartrean.]

DELLA VOLPE: Certainly, it is regressive and progressive; but it is the description itself that we could term “phenomenological.” It remains descriptive in character, and doesn’t get to the fundamentals: it does not tell us what the principles of art are, and, above all, what really matters — after all, we could get by just fine without all the rest — namely what the criterion for literary criticism is, the criterion for criticism in the plastic arts and criticism in general. It’s not apparent what criterion it can offer us for evaluating literary works. I repeat: the very fine analysis in Sartre’s regressive and progressive description of Madame Bovary does not explain why these are poetic characters and not historical ones.

In my view, we have to abandon this path. Certainly, it is very interesting to note that the crisis of culture today is a very serious one. We can deduce as much from the fact that many Marxists – or many people who proclaim themselves Marxists – are interested by this form of describing art, which, truth be told, is useless because it does not show us how the historical content becomes poetry, as it does in Mayakovsky but not in other artists in Soviet Russia. That is what should interest Marxists. But Marxists have gone so far in identifying with what Plekhanov called “the signified” — sociological values — and their attitude is so heavily determined by these abstract values, that they open their arms even to Sartre.

Indeed, Sartre has already evolved a lot. What we have been presented with here is a very interesting, very instructive phenomenon. But it seems to me that — to go back to the example that I just gave — we should not follow this path, which is not worth borrowing. For a Marxist, it is a point of honour to be able to explain to a bourgeois, to a man with bourgeois tastes, why Mayakovsky is a poet, a great poet, why Brecht is a poet much greater than all those whom the bourgeois present to us as so many dramatic poets, including Pirandello. Why is Mayakovsky a poet, just like Brecht is?

The path to follow, then — and this is just my personal opinion (I am well aware that almost no one here agrees with me, but I am not too worried by that) — is a different one, which consists of seeing what the elements are that constitute the structure of the work of art. We need that in order to go beyond a vague discourse and get to the concrete: we need to start from language, and, starting from language, show how common, vernacular language acquires a power in a work of art, thus becoming poetry.

Let’s take an example, which I think is a very banal, simple one, but which tells us a lot. Let’s take a line from Browning, which reads “so wore night.”* What tools would we need to convince ourselves, and prove to others, that not only do we feel moved by his words, but that this is poetry? In my opinion we have no other means of doing so than by starting from the text and the elements that compose it. We have to start from questions of language, and note, for example, that we cannot graspthe poetic nature of ‘so wore night’ unless we start out from banal, common language. If we were using that language, we would express the same thing by saying “the night passed.” To grasp ‘so wore night’ we have to transcend ‘the night passed,’ which is a trivial, vulgar, unpoetic expression, but one that cannot be totally eliminated, since ‘so wore night’ is a metaphor. And we cannot grasp the metaphor if we don’t keep in mind what is literally being signified. We find this latter in vernacular language, and not in poetry, as Croce said, following [the linguist Wilhelm von] Humboldt. It is a phrase in the metaphorical sense, a phrase that is a phenomenon of language and in language, in this linguistic system that has norms different from those of other linguistic systems and languages. 

So how can we explain ‘so wore night’? It seems to me that this is already a way of entering into Browning’s verse. If I had to explain it, I would say the following: it is a metaphor, and everyone understands it as one. But the possibility of appreciating this metaphor’s force of expression presupposes what is literally signified: in this case, the verb “passes.” And even having said that much, we are only halfway. We still need to convince ourselves that there is a relation between these two elements, which could only be called dialectical.

Why is this so? Because the one cannot exist without the other: it is and it is not. We understand that ‘so wore night’ is poetry because it is not ‘the night passed.’ But conversely, we cannot explain ‘so wore night’ without keeping in mind the fact that these words entail ‘the night passed’. ‘So wore night’ dialectically contains ‘the night passed.’ ‘So wore night’ shelters the literally signified, which has been overruled but is still conserved within it. I think that it is impossible to deny that.

And this is just a basic example, the most elementary one we could take.

We cannot grasp ‘so wore night’ without ‘the night passed’. But it is just as true that ‘so wore night’ says something rather different from ‘the night passed’; and yet even so, we cannot do without ‘the night passed’ if we are properly to grasp ‘so wore night’. We cannot arrive at ‘so wore night’ or explain this line all by itself, with its famous synthetic immediacy, etc. It cannot be done: these are stories, myths. We cannot arrive at ‘so wore night’ except by starting from ‘the night passed’ and keeping in mind the continual, dialectical relation between the two. We are no longer dealing with Hegel’s dialectic here, since the distinctions between ‘passed’ and ‘so wore’ are entirely respected. Yet at the same time the one does not exist without the other. We can only grasp that this is a metaphor by starting from a literal signified, which it deforms and confers an extension upon. The metaphor is the relation between the literal signified and the content of the metaphor. So we can demonstrate that the metaphor ‘so wore night’ is realised as a metaphor, and can be appreciated as a metaphor, only with reference to ‘the night passed.’

The path to follow is that of analysing technique in art and in the work of art. We have to start from questions of language. I understand the comrades who are scandalised to see these questions of linguistics being posed (and that’s before we even get to stylistic matters, the critique of taste); after all, these questions do not belong to our Marxist tradition. [But] we always evoke Gramsci, and, rightly or wrongly, we can also refer to him in this case. Gramsci ridiculed the famous Bertoni† precisely on account of his idealist linguistics; he wanted to unbind language [Délier la langue: literally it means “loosen the tongue.”] in order to reduce the linguistic phenomenon to the word — the famous complete, subjective, “creative” word — when it is in fact always a phenomenon within a linguistic system.

I don’t think that we can settle for what Sartre says, even if there is a great truth in his argument. It does not allow us to access the problematic specific to art, because the old categories no longer serve us here. In the example that I presented, the example of Mommsen, one of the greatest historians, we can recognise his powerful subjectivity, which indeed we find in his History of Rome. So the criterion of subjectivity — the traditional one as well as your own — becomes useless, because subjectivity is present in the novel as well as in the work of history.

So we have to follow another path, the path of structural analysis of the work of art. In order to do so, we have to start out from singular, concrete, technical questions, which are not in themselves poetic. Our sensibility is not used to such questions, which force us to mount an analytical effort in order to be able, perhaps, to draw out a synthesis. Of course, all that involves us being able to identify what poetry is. Starting from the example that I have given, we have to recognise what I call the “multi-sense” [polisenso]: the poetic signified cannot be confused with the univocal signified of the historical narrative. The “multi-sense” poetic signified is not the univocal signified pertaining to science, history, philosophy, etc.

I’ll conclude. And I’ll pose you this question: is the example that I presented — which concerned the distinction between ‘the night passed’ and ‘so wore night’, as well as the indestructible, truly dialectical relation between these two elements — only a matter of subtleties and sophisms, or is there some fundamental truth here? Does this relation between poetic and literal expression convince you? And the critic himself, when he is writing his critique — what does he have to do? Croce said that we have to start from the literal signified in order to grasp the metaphorical signified. Ultimately, that could even seem rather banal.

BANDINELLI: I’ll kindly ask all those who want to intervene to pose short questions, for the moment. If necessary they can speak again. So, Gattuso, let’s have your question . . . if you only put it to Della Volpe, we won’t be able to hear you . . .

GATTUSO‡: It relates to the example ‘the night passed’. Indeed, the literal signified of the line saying ‘so wore night’ is still present in the poetic phrase; but we could equally say “the night was destroyed” or “the night dissolved,” or something else of your choosing. The problem is the choice, all the more so since we are translating this verse from English. I would like to know why the poet made this choice, and how the critic can know that this choice was the right one?

DELLA VOLPE: The question is meaningless. The critic knows this by way of comparison. This is a continual dialectical process: by comparing what is literally given — what I call the “literal material,” in this example, ‘the night passed’ — with ‘so wore night’, we measure the gap between the expressive value of each of the two. At the same time, we cannot grasp the second without going through the first. The first is always within the second; it is a dialectical relation. We don’t have one without the other; they are not each other, but we do not have the one without the other. That’s the gap.

A VOICE: Excuse me — I don’t know if [Della Volpe] has finished, but Sartre wants to say something right away.

SARTRE: Yes, because I am very troubled by what Della Volpe is saying, since that would make poetry the metaphorical poetry that Delille§ was doing in the eighteenth century: the work of a poet who is renowned in France but who has a bad reputation. He could indeed coin expressions like “the heroes who put out the fire” to say “firemen” or “the riders pulling a chariot” simply to say people in a cart. In truth, I think that the metaphorical relation such as you portray it, taken by itself, is wholly unable to distinguish a bad comparison — perhaps denoting firemen with “these valiant mortals who put out the fire” — from a good one. In one case, we have a metaphor, that is to say, a process that results in another manner of speaking. That is what we also do, in certain tongues, when we want a novel to talk about sexual themes. We take other words and make comparisons because there is a prohibition, because there is a moral barrier, but these other words are much poorer ones. So it seems to me that the true criterion for knowing whether a set of words works aesthetically is its relation to the totality of the projected object. Personally, I addressed the aesthetic problem only because Piovene and I were talking about subjectivity in art, but by that I did not mean to suggest that subjectivity defines thestructure of art. But if we get to the true problem, then you cannot make an artistic critique independently of the totality, and you cannot consider the slightest phrase or formula apart from as a differentiation within this totality itself; which, moreover, is a totality linked to this other totality, language.

We must start out from totality — that is, the projected totality — and not only from this totality, but from the totality of a language [langue]. “La notte si consumò” [that is, Della Volpe’s translation of ‘So wore night’] is a phrase that works in Italian. We cannot say “La nuit se consume” in French. The poet who said “La nuit se consume” would not be a poet: his choice of words would be no good. Simply because there is a difference between these languages. And here I want to get to this point: this verse is by Browning, and though you can put it like this in English and translate it like that in Italian, we would certainly not translate Browning’s poem into French by saying ‘La nuit se consume’. Simply because — and this is my point — languages [langues] implicate subjectivity. That is what we began to understand, ever since Saussure. What do we understand by subjectivity, in relation to languages? We understand this: that every fact, every fact of exteriority is interiorised in a total system and takes on an internal meaning, that is, one relating the whole to the part, whereas outside of this it was something else. And language [langage] in the form of languages [langues] is this: it is an ensemble structured by itself, with the phonological element, the lexical element, the semantic element, each of which conditions each other, and always synthetically and dialectically; and everything that happens in a language happens to it linguistically. That is, a language reflects all social facts, but it reflects them in its own manner as a language, and there will be new linguistic differentiations internal to the totality. Let’s take the example of two invasions. When the Romans invaded and occupied Gaul, it was the Latin language that prevailed. When the Normans invaded England, it was the English language that prevailed, with a few exceptions. In each of the two cases, the invasions were reflected in the language, not through ready-made facts but through new syntheses, new dialectical forms that introduced themselves, a new relation among words; but these were very particular relations that made this language into something without equivalents — and that makes it difficult to translate poems. So when you talk about a poet, you are entirely correct: it is a man who expresses the incommunicable by way of a subjective whole, the language [langue] — because he apprehends it, because the language is also an objectivating fact. For example, we cannot translate the difference between “mutton” and “sheep” into French [both are mouton]; and similarly we would cause you a lot of trouble with our word bois, which simultaneously means wood for the fire, a forest, etc. [it has no Italian equivalent].

So we have the poet who uses these elements, but these elements are not uniquely objective structures — they are simultaneously both objective and subjective, and subjective in an intersubjective sense. So in the artistic fact we have the structured totality that the poet wants to create by way of another structured intersubjective totality, namely the language [langue]. We can never translate Mayakovsky: there are some translations by Elsa Triolet, which can get as close as you like, but you don’t feel the . . .

A VOICE: The impossibility of translating — well, there’s a romantic argument!

SARTRE: No, it is a provisional thesis; but it is a fact that at the current moment we don’t translate poems, the great poets; wedon’t translate them. We translate certain parts where there is a kind of approximation, but other parts we don’t: and some of them are truly, totally, untranslatable. I’ll give you one example, and it’s a very curious one, because he’s a great poet. Now, if you take his words the one after the other, if you take what he says, it’s truly lamentable: I’m talking about Lamartine. In truth Lamartine is not very interesting to read, but it is poetry. It’s a certain type of poetry of his era.

A VOICE: Rather a mediocre poet!

SARTRE: No, a good poet, but one who said mediocre things. That happens to a lot of poets. And you cannot translate Lamartine into another language.

A VOICE: The same goes for Pushkin.

SARTRE: That’s another poet who it’s impossible to translate. And Mayakovsky, too, it’s impossible to translate him into French. And your poets? Petrarch, impossible, it would be senseless. And Shakespeare? In truth, I agree with you that all this is temporary, since it represents a moment: history is not universal, it begins to be universal, it is not completely universal. But this is not a romantic myth, it is a reality, and a reality that I have constantly come up against. I simply wanted to suggest to you that if we want to talk about works of art, then we first have to speak of the idea of totality and the idea of projection towards a totality by way of totalitarian fields, one of which — and on that you’re entirely right — is language [le langage]. But properly taking into account the fact that the choice of words comes from the totality, and it is then subject to this other totality that is language. In particular, the surrealists in France often made for very good poets, very great poets, but they were also poets without metaphor. In their case, you can’t take recourse to the ‘the night passes’ behind ‘so wore night’. That’s not what they wanted. They wanted something quite different. The surrealists wanted to set some words directly next to others that had no logical connection to them, in order to get hold of something that is, or in any case should give you, an objective reality that is simultaneously rationally comprehensible. Isn’t that right? Take the example, if you will, of the “butter horse.” They wrote of a “butter horse”: a horse, then, that would melt in the sun, a horse that could be eaten. Their goal was clearly a sort of self-destruction of language [langage] by itself, allowing us to look for what’s behind it: I am not telling you that they were right or wrong. Poetically, this example is not well-chosen; but they often were right, poetically. Fine, but where does this butter horse take us? Only to horses and to butter: that is, not to expressions, but to the signifying differentiations in language.

A VOICE: Let’s take Pushkin, where he says “Unscathed by northern gales blooms the Russian rose.”¶ Here there is no metaphor, but the same thing is at work here, the dialectical relation between . . .

SARTRE: Ah, yes, here there is no metaphor, there is a real. It’s just that at this moment it is the whole that counts, totality; the totality decides whether you use a metaphorical ensemble . . .

A VOICE: But won’t I find that the same is true for a passage of Mommsen’s?

SARTRE: Yes! But the difference between Mommsen and the poet is that there is an objective ensemble that allows other historians to come along and pull apart Mommsen’s evaluation of certain points. So then Mommsen will be reduced to [renvoyé à] his subjectivity, like — as I was telling you yesterday — our friend who suggested Le Grabuge [as a journal title], and who was reduced to his subjectivity because this proposal was not accepted. Whereas no one would ever think of reproaching Pushkin for having been a poet, saying that he had been transcended, or reproaching Flaubert for having written Madame Bovary. There is a difference, in the sense that the work of art is an absolute: if it is a good one, it remains so; it cannot be transcended, it would be meaningless to say that. Mommsen’s work can be transcended because it is on the level of rigorously objective truth, whereas the work of art is an absolute, precisely because you will never transcend the incarnation of a singular individual. Flaubert was not a very pleasant figure, not someone who you wish you’d been; he died almost a hundred years ago, etc., in a period that was less advanced than our own in all sorts of ways. That said, Madame Bovary remains something that is entirely impossible to transcend, because Flaubert is in it. Whereas, if he had described the society without putting himself into it, it would be a description that we could pick up retrospectively and develop further, as Luporini said; and clearly it would then have a wholly different meaning, however valuable it was as an ensemble. I am simply warning you against separating out the structures of subjectivity too much: all this makes up a whole.

I would add that it’s not accurate to say that I am mounting a phenomenological description. That’s not the task that I have set myself. Rather, what is at issue is to find — by way of a regressive dialectic — the fields of internal meanings that allow us to understand the work of art projectively. When, for example, Flaubert started to consider himself a woman, we have to know how come, when he was almost fifty-five years old and a doctor said to him, “You are a hysterical old woman,” rather than getting angry, he was delighted, and how come in all his letters he wrote “you’ll never guess what they told me — they tell me that I am a hysterical old woman.” We have to understand this; and it’s not that he was a homosexual.

So here is a certain kind of guy who we can’t understand by description, but by . . .

A VOICE: . . . psychoanalysis.

SARTRE: Ah, of course, psychoanalysis. Indeed I don’t see why it should be rejected, as long as it doesn’t have a metaphysical basis, as long as it doesn’t say (as it sometimes does) that it can explain capitalism in terms of some complex, for example. But if we take psychoanalysis simply as a method for objectivating subjectivity, then I don’t at all see why it should be rejected. And what does psychoanalysis teach us, when we take it dialectically? It teaches us about the personal adventure of an individual within a family, through his first years. But what does this adventure represent? It singularly represents the society of a given era. For example, the Oedipus complex — that is, the child’s relation with his mother and antagonistic relation with his father — has no sense for the eighteenth century.

For example, if you read Rétif de la Bretonne’s Mémoires, then you will see that he was fixated — as a psychoanalyst would say — on his father, whereas his mother was not of great importance. And take Flaubert: for him it was his father who counted, because again his was a family of this same era. Conversely, Baudelaire, who was born in a richer, more cultured and more bourgeois family, was fixated on his mother, because already there was this shift in the family . . . And what does that mean? It means that the domestic family, broken by the rise of capitalism, was transforming into the normal bourgeois family, the conjugal family. That’s something very important, and so your psychoanalysis of a singular life is only reflecting a situation that is objective and social.

A VOICE: We still haven’t got to the work of art . . .

SARTRE: But this is very important, because it’s starting from here that you get to a singular work of art.

LUPORINI: I just wanted to observe that I have read Della Volpe’s books. His position and Sartre’s are not really so far apart — within limits, of course. Della Volpe defines the work of art as a closed discourse, and scientific discourse as an open discourse. I think that if we had started the discussion from this point — that is, on the plane of totality, of the interpretation of totality — that would have been more productive. I wanted to ask for Sartre’s response to a question that concerns the great problem of the permanence of art’s value. That is the question Marx posed. I do not accept the answer that Marx gave, but I do agree that it’s the right question. I think that to define the work of art as an absolute, in the sense that Sartre has just suggested, does not suffice to answer this problem. The work of art can be an absolute, but this is an absolute that does not interest us, an absolute that concerns the subject that created it. But what is at issue is the permanence of the value of a work of art, the thing that makes the poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey maintain all their value even for us — we have to constantly reconquer it, for sure, but it is always there. I think that this problem is linked to the difference in the form, the difference in type, between artistic knowledge and scientific knowledge, etc.

SARTRE: Well, I would say that it’s precisely because art is a closed discourse, in the sense that you have projected from the singularised society onto a totality, which is the description of this same society. We never demand, so to speak, that a work of art give us objective information on a period. Rather, we ask that it give us a more complex type of information: again, not objective information, but its duplication of a period seeing itself, with all its possible blindnesses, all its prejudices — yet, at the same time, experiencing itself, no? What it represents is a totalisation of the period in the form of the individual or group of individuals who made it. Take for example Don Quixote: what is it that makes Don Quixote an enduring work? There is a historical aspect that may interest only historians: the liquidation of a certain feudal society. In an era when absolute monarchies were establishing themselves — and, as such, at the same time as the Renaissance — here we also have the liquidation of a feudal ideology in favour of another ideology, within a man who lived this contradiction. The liquidation of this feudalism — in the form of tales of chivalry, regarding a man who would now simply be a soldier for the king and no longer a wandering knight — is interesting from a strictly historical point of view, if that’s how we take it. But if we read this in a book into which a man has projected these contradictions, then we have to deal with a character like Don Quixote — who is almost constantly ridiculous and sometimes tragic — isn’t that right? With this kind of strange contradiction that is Cervantes’s own. There we have something that interests us, because itpresents us with this whole society as a society that is as lively in its contradictions as the one that we live in.

Do you see what I am getting at? Don Quixote would not be able to connect to us if it were not for Cervantes’s subjectivity, and precisely in the way that Cervantes was very ill at ease in himself, because he was witnessing this separation between two worlds. So, for my part — and I would like to say this, too — I don’t think that a historical character is a historical type. I don’t think that the true goal of a novel — or, at least, of a typical character in a novel — is “typologising.” Rather, I think that its goal is the singularisation of the universal. But singularisation of the universal does not mean typical. It means presenting us a character who in himself — like Don Quixote, for example — is in no sense typical. But in reality, I think it is necessary to represent characters who have a certain degree of obscurity at the outset, which is their individuality, their personality, and whose universality the reader gradually succeeds in discovering concretely, though without ever arriving at the universal in itself. If you see what I mean by that.

Moreover, it is necessary that the character — like Don Quixote, for example — be plagued by manias, a sort of imbecility that strikes right from the outset: that he behave unusually, like a one-in-a-thousand case. And then, without him ceasing to be unusual, we should be able to feel all the contradictions of his era within him. So you have this constant fact, the real and individual fact of the life of each person, namely, that we are incarnations; that is to say, that we are the singularisation of the whole universal of systems within which we live. We are that — each of us is — and that is what our novels show. If we are presented as living in full awareness of what the contradictions are, that does not ring true. However, if we are presented as beings who do not recognise these contradictions, which arehalf-hidden — we can grasp them in part, but in part we can’t — then we are on the terrain of the work of art. Whatever the degree of abstraction or schematisation, here we find the character that each of us is, for ourselves and for others.

A VOICE [LUPORINI?]: Excuse me, Sartre, but I don’t think that suffices to answer the question of the permanence of the value of a work of art, which is linked to the work’s existence, its presence. For example, in an archaeological dig I found a fragment of a work of art from a civilisation that I don’t know anything about — but that, to my eyes, is a work of art, and so the fragment immediately took on an artistic value. All that poses problems of interpretation. It is the immediate incarnation of a value and the permanence of a value, which is something completely different from historical values, etc. And that’s the problem that Marx posed, and I still haven’t found any answer to it, either in you or in Della Volpe or in Lukács, or in general.

SARTRE: Yes, but then I’d say this. On the one hand, you can’t provide an answer to that without an analysis and a study of the work itself. It is impossible to say, in principle, why one work endures and another does not. That’s a problem that concerns the work itself. On the other hand, what is missing, in my view . . .

A VOICE: That is a general problem . . .

SARTRE: Yes, that is a general problem, but it’s one that can only be resolved by particular studies. You cannot decide a priori. And second, both you and we are still lacking a theory of values. Marxism does not have a theory of values. You are missing any such theory. So to you Marxists I say that there is no established Marxist axiological system; indeed, there is no such system — we cannot claim to have found one, either. To be clear, that is still not a given. It’s not true, it is still not a given. Evidently a Marxist axiology does need to be created: it is one of the essential questions. There are elements of it, but it is not a given. So you pose a problem that I think is almost premature, because you want to found this permanence on values, but we have to find these values, establish what they are.

A VOICE: Even Marx . . .

SARTRE: But he didn’t have the values for a response; we still need to know how in a Marxist system — like that which we discussed today and yesterday, or how thousands of others have defined it before us — how, in this system, the passage to value, in short, to a norm, can exist. That isn’t already given. And also there is almost always a contradiction — a well-founded contradiction, but still a constant one — between a Marxist’s judgement on an individual and his activity, for example, and the dialectical understanding of this individual as the actual representative of a fraction, of a class, acting as he must act on this basis. There is a problem, here, and this problem has never been dealt with. Yes, from 1945 to 1952 there were abusive versions of value judgements, but there wasn’t the foundation for value judgements. And then there is the reaction — precisely because we made too many unfounded value judgements in this period — that consists of creating a Marxism without values, in which people are what they are, produced by economic and historical processes. That doesn’t work either, and it suffocates any possibility of judging either action or the work of art.

So I believe that this is one of the problems we have; indeed, it is linked to subjectivity, but not . . .

A VOICE: In my philosophical training, I started out with the masterpiece. So I am going to explain my thinking to see if I am truly in agreement. The task is to explicate a Marxist axiological theory . . .

SARTRE: Exactly.

A VOICE: . . . in which the subject, the question of art must have its place. . .

SARTRE: And also a moral . . .

A VOICE: Of course.

SARTRE: But this is an extremely difficult problem, since we could also say that the moral is not possible in the current state of things, that is, with men whose relations are reified, with fetishes, with a struggle that is in itself a violent struggle. We could say that today the moral is impossible, and at the same time that it has to be, if we want to give account of all aspects of humanity.

In my view the two problems are analogous. For example, if I told you that it is clear that in certain circumstances no moral attitude can be taken. Let’s imagine a young man who has become a colonial administrator because he just drifted into this position, or because his family forced him to, and here he is in the colonies. He cannot apply any kind of moral attitude, among the colonised who he is administering. Even if he was as liberal as liberal could be, this would be a liberal neocolonialism. He couldn’t do anything. Similarly, in the relation between a married couple, if one of the two is totally alienated then the other can’t do anything. I have even seen cases where the wife was alienated and the husband wanted her to work, and this — quite proper — attitude in fact led the wife to become even more alienated, because she was working out of obedience to her husband. So either all problems are totally turned inside-out by the current situation, by the current separation, by the current world, or else there is no real possibility of moral action or of axiology. And nonetheless it is impossible to speak for anyone for fifteen minutes without letting out thirty-odd axiological judgements. So we have to take account of that. And there has never been any serious prospect of a rigorous Marxist work on that.


Robert Browning (1812–1889). The line reads: "So wore night; the East was grey"; it is the first line of the fifth stanza of his poem "A Serenade at the Villa" published in his 1846 collection Men and Women. Della Volpe inaccurately renders this phrase as "wore the night", which he translates into Italian as la notte si consumò – literally, "the night consumed itself."

† Giulio Bertoni (1878–1942), a linguist who identified with Crocean idealism and who published Brevario di neolinguistica in 1925 together with Matteo Giulio Bartoli (1873–1946). Bartoli had been Gramsci’s professor, and his former student reproached him for this work. 

‡ Renato Gattuso (1911–87) a painter, he joined the clandestine Communist Party in 1940 and participated in the antifascist Resistance. His Crocifissione (1940–41) is considered one of the most significant paintings of the Novecento. 

§ Jacques Delille (1738–1813), translator of Virgil’s Georgics. His most famous poem is Les jardins, ou, L’art d’embellir les paysages (1782), a poem in four "songs." He was as rapidly forgotten as he was famous in his own lifetime. 

¶ The speaker says "comme s’ouvre legère la rose russe dans le tourbillon de la neige", a reference that the French editors ascribe to Pushkin’s Winter Morning. However, it seems more likely that this in fact is a rendering of line 45 from his Winter: What Are We to Do in the Country? (Зима. Что делать нам в деревне?), which reads ‘Но бури севера не вредны русской розе’ – DB. 

Excerpted from What is Subjectivity?