In the waning weeks of the German Occupation, Jean-Paul Sartre was approached after a performance of his play No Exit. The man explained that the Gestapo was looking for Sartre, and he should meet him the next day in front of Saint-Germain-des-Prés at a quarter to noon, because at noon the next day the clock would strike and angels would appear and Peace would descend on Earth. Sartre, who was curious about people and their experiences, walked over to Saint-Germain the next day, where the man was waiting for him. At noon the clock struck, and nothing happened. “I must have made a mistake,“ the man said, and shrugged, and walked away.

I expect to feel the same in November when I walk over to my polling place. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people telling me that if I vote for X the heavens will open up, and I’m pretty dubious about that, but I’m going anyhow. There will be many, too, who tell me what’s the use, but anyhow, I’m going. Sartre would have reminded himself of Pascal’s Bet, the great French mathematician’s argument that, yes, the chances of the heavens opening up are a zillion in one, but when you consider the amount of the wager (a short walk to the church or polling place and voilà! No more Gestapo!), it’s worth a try.

Sartre must have been delighted by the man’s attitude, an act of pure engagement at odds with those calculations of motive so common in periods of trouble, which usually backfire. My friend Zane’s planning to vote for Obama because he’s sure Obama’s only saying he doesn’t support gay marriage because he has to say so to get elected, which is basically saying that Zane prefers Obama to Clinton because Obama’s the greater liar and that strikes me as a valid reason: Obama lies because he has to, Clinton doesn’t lie (relatively speaking), because she thinks she doesn’t need to, which means Obama’s playing the dangerous game of empowering voters who may eventually feel empowered to call him on the promises he made in their dreams. Maybe he doesn’t really mean it when he says he doesn’t rule out nuclear energy, and maybe he really means it when he doesn’t go haywire and order all the kids to take down their Che Guevara posters because some aging Cuban with more rings on his aorta than his pinky got upset when someone put up a Che poster in the Obama campaign office somewhere.

You can see it in their speaking styles: Clinton doesn’t simply want the job, she wants to be the incarnation of power for her audience, as though their will would become hers. She’s a proscenium stage kind of politician, she stands at the center, in the spotlight, projecting Herself. Obama’s got more of a cabaret style, he’s the performer who wants to please his audience, but like them he’s an outsider, it’s his job, and he’s not really a black guy, just a guy who happens to be black. Watch the way he walks around the stage, bends over to listen and moves the mike from hand to hand: the Sammy Davis, Jr. of politics.

Now some would say, since voting is better than not voting in a Pascalian way, why not vote for, say, the People’s Workers Party, whose chances are not even one in a zillion? Sartre would have answered that he hadn’t turned up at Saint-Germain-des-Prés to see miracles happen but in solidarity with the man, and with his hopes. Just as Sartre had more in common with his philosopher friends than some crazy guy off the street, so, too, I may have more goals in common with the People’s Workers Party; but we’re not talking about shared goals, we’re talking about shared expectations. A few years after this, when André Gide complained that he didn’t vote because it put him on the same level as the cleaning lady, Sartre’s old friend Merleau-Ponty told him that, precisely, was why a man should vote: because it puts us all on the same level of credulity.

Who knows? It’s time to roll the dice. And after all, when the clock struck twelve at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, did the man look up and curse the heavens? Did he complain that he was never going to stand in front of Saint-Germain again, or that God was a liar? Only moonbats do that. Instead he shrugged, and thought, “I was wrong this time, but at least I have hope still, and that’s the thing that matters.” Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.

- Trotsky the Horse



[2/14/2008; revised 7/1/2012]