Why do artists, poets, philosophers, writers, and others who are usually classified as intellectuals leave the ivory tower to “dirty their hands” in the political arena? In an effort to illuminate the intellectual’s struggle to come to grips with the issues raised by political involvement, David Schalk examines the life and thought of five intellectuels engagés in France during the period between 1920 and 1945. From communist to fascist, these figures—Paul Nizan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Mounier, Julien Benda, and Robert Brasillach—cover the full political spectrum, and Professor Schalk studies their diverse reactions to the social, political, and economic tensions of the interwar period.
Broadly defining “engagement” as political involvement that is voluntary, conscious, and freely chosen, usually by intellectuals, the author poses the intellectual’s dilemma in the following terms: “When we are engagé,” he writes, “we fear that we are debasing our highest values; when we are not, we worry that we have become, in Paul Nizan’s trenchant phrase, mere chiens de garde [watchdogs].” He then investigates the origins and the popularization of the concept of engagement in the early 1930s, the arguments used to denounce it and to defend it, its different manifestations, and finally its effects on the socio-political actuality of the world.
Originally published in 1979.
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