I must begin with an apology: in this country I do not have a copy of The Republic of Silence to hand. Therefore I write from memory and since for me the reading of a text is inextricably bound up with who and where I was at the time of reading – there may be less of Sartre here and more of my recollection and interpretation of Sartre than is desirable. Nevertheless.
In a 1944 essay entitled The Republic of Silence Sartre begins: “We were never more free than during the German Occupation.”
A strange way to begin, no? What does he mean? As everyone knows – and certainly as everyone living in proximity to the particular time and place from whence he wrote – the German Occupation was a time of profound unfreedom.
Everything – the coercive power of the state, its far-reaching institutions, of the military – all authority and law was ranged against Resistance. And yet, he said, “We were never more free.”
Under Occupation, Sartre claims, all of our actions become invested with moral significance. Under that overwhelming pressure, beneath that imperial weight, against that empirical measure, all that is trivial is stripped away. We do or we do not.
“Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues” he writes, “every word took on the value of a declaration of principles.”
Over and over again under Occupation, one is invited to surrender, to yield up mind and body, to collude in oppression, even to collaborate with one’s oppressors in one’s own oppression. To connive. To betray. To submit to the conquest of the mind and to do this not once, not twice, but constantly until treachery is the very air we breathe. To accept the oppressor’s account of oneself as truth – is that not the very meaning of the colonisation of the mind?
Language mattered. Not for consequential reasons – not because x might lead to y, or because perhaps just perhaps the right words (or the right frame even) might somehow undo Occupation. Language (and not only language) matters because responsibility endures where hope does not. And to my mind it is this – the endurance of responsibility beyond hope – that is the source of the freedom which Sartre speaks of.
Well we are all Occupied now. And beneath this assault there is little enough cause for hope. No knights in shining armour riding to the rescue, no gun-slinging heroes of the wild west, no grand-standing high-minded politicians to lead us to the Promised Land. No justice. Just us.
And like as not, whatever we choose will not suffice.
So welcome to your freedom.
It cannot be removed from you: no torture can excise it, no luxury can exorcise it, no justification can excuse it.
It is wholly and irrevocably yours.
What will you do with it?