This morning I was reading Jean Paul Sartre on how people show bad faith by turning themselves into things. For instance, the girl in the theater who does not know her date has taken hold of her hand, because she regards it as a thing, or the waiter who pretends to be his role, dropping all other characteristics and disappearing entirely into waiterhood. It was awkward writing, like much of Sartre. But it was as refreshing as being squirted by a cold hose, because I knew that he would not lie to me, and was not secretly pimping for some cause, nor saying what some constituency expected him to say. Moreover, he was talking about what he thought was important rather than letting that be decided for him by everybody else.
It was wonderful because it was so rare, in our town, to read or hear anything where the author's hand was not on your knee, and where he was not giving footnotes on what others thought, but was telling you what he thought about what it meant to be human and live in this world. And it was exciting to read Sartre whether you agreed with him or not. For he had been a public philosopher; one trained in philosopy but with the whole world as his oyster; and his debates with other public philosophers in France (most notably Albert Camus) had attracted about as much public interest as the World Series would over here.
It had seemed to me for a long time that France had better, or at least more conspicuous, philosophers than we did. And this raised the question of why, in a nation of 230 million people, that already had snails in its kitchens, to say nothing of mistresses in its bedrooms, we have yet to develop one public philosopher, let alone a dozen or so, who, debating back and forth, might give some Tabasco to what is otherwise a very dull stew.
The closest we have come to any such thing was a few years back when Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman, was writing what was really covert propaganda for the Republican Party, and the closest thing before that had been when John Dewey was giving free advice on how to shoehorn oneself into lifelong industrial harness while destroying Western civilization at the same time. But those two had been public philosophers only in that the media had taught the public to regard them as such, and they had not spoken to the vital experiences of human life.
What philosophers we do have tend to be furtive academicians who long ago gave up on wisdom, and who occupy themselves by writing abstruse monologues on subjects that have nothing to do with anything. Public discourse is carried out by newspaper columnists and television commentators. And what the media ask us to believe is that a "wide spectrum" of these (on a stiflingly narrow range of issues) will give us all the public philosophy we could possibly want -- presumably in abot the same sense that near-beer, if we drank enough of it, would give us Scotch.
This is not to knock columnists, who are, by and large, quick, intelligent people who know how to sling the words and how never to be too awkward. Moreover, they tend to be well connected with politicians -- no small consideration in a media-subjugated country, where dominant thought has it that any worthwhile public philosophy will lay off such subjects as why people turn themselves into things, and concentrate on worthier stuff, like what Ronald Reagan really said to Gerald Ford in discussing the vice presidential nomination.
In any case, the important questions -- that have to do with things under our control, and not with gross public events to which we're only passive spectators -- do not get raised, let alone debated. And because of this the media, when they haul off to tell us what thngs mean, are a big snore. And the lords of media would tell you, if you asked, that Americans are too pragmatic, ill educated and anti-intellectual to go in for much reality, and too fond of glibness to tolerate the awkwardness that might result.
Even so, I would not be surprised if there weren't a few million fools out here who, it they're to be condemned to hear 10,000 riffs on what it all really meant when Jerry talked to Ronnie, would also like to hear some discussion of whether it is possible to live a full human life as an employee (a pertiment question, it seems to me, in a city where not all waiters are in restaurants); and whether there are strategies by which an individual self-sentenced to employeehood can maintain self-possession and self-respect; and whether it is really possible to talk to human beings anymore, or whether each of us must drown alone in the national sea of mindlessness; and whether there really are such things as Zombies and whether they might not be in control; and whether the government is not edging over the line from being burdensome to being the enemy; and whether it is necessary for sanity's sake to lie to oneself about the true answer to that; and whether a changed Constitution might not do some good.
American reality, after all, is not two syndicated columnists arguing with each other about the GNP, but the cameraman being paid to focus on them, who is thinking. "I don't give a damn," and who has not had a good conversation since 1967, nor a good time since 1959. Or it is the woman standing in front of the television set, watching with the volume turned all the way down, who is tortured by an obsessive conviction that people are not there when they talk to each other, and who, as she reaches for a hooker of tequila, is thinking, "Either they're crazy, or I am."