Roland Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre died within three weeks of each other in the spring of 1980. Barthes’ funeral in the town of Urt in the Bayonne region of south-west France was attended by a handful of his close friends; Sartre’s funeral in Montparnasse in Paris attracted a crowd of over fifty thousand mourners along a two-hour route. Today, the name of Sartre is instantly recognisable in the media as a touchstone for the ‘committed intellectual’. In contrast the name of Roland Barthes is readily familiar to humanities academics and students of cultural studies or literary theory, perhaps to the readership of ‘elite liberal’ publications such as The London Review of Books, but has little currency with a more general audience. However, what remains untold in this scenario is the fact that from the perspective of today the majority of Sartre’s cold war political interventions look disastrously misjudged, while his philosophy and literature appear, on first inspection, to be somewhat dated, while the majority of the text of Barthes seems, to the theory-hound, fresh and vital some thirty years after his death. Now, Sartre is a fascinating writer, a complex and compelling figure who deserves to be read and reread: we will never be done with Sartre. However, there is no time for that here, this is not a book about Jean-Paul Sartre.
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