a A whole man, made of all men, worth all of them, and any one of them worth him.a This was how Jean--Paul Sartre characterized himself at the end of his autobiographical study, Words. And Bernard--Henri Levy shows how Sartre cannot be understood without taking into account his relations with the intellectual forebears and contemporaries, the lovers and friends, with whom he conducted a lifelong debate.
His thinking was essentially a tumultuous dialogue with his whole age and himself.
He learned from Gide the art of freedom, and how to experiment with inherited fictional forms.
He was a fellow--traveller of communism, and yet his relations with the Party were deeply ambiguous.
He was fascinated by Freud but trenchantly critical of psychoanalysis.
Beneath Sartrea s complex and ever--mutating political commitments, Levy detects a polarity between anarchic individualism on the one hand, and a longing for absolute community that brought him close to totalitarianism on the other. Levy depicts Sartre as a man who could succumb to the twentieth centurya s catastrophic attraction to violence and the false messianism of its total political solutions, while also being one of the fiercest critics of its illusions and shortcomings.