Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
playwright, existentialist philosopher, and literary critic. Sartre was
awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, but he declined the award
in protest of the values of bourgeois society. His longtime companion was
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), whom he met at the Ecole Normale Superieure
Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris. His father, Jean-Babtiste Sartre, was a naval officer, who died when Jean-Paul was fifteen months old. Sartre never wrote much about his biological father. More important person in his life was his mother, the former Anne-Marie Schweitzer, a great nephew of Albert Schweitzer. Sartre lived first with her and his grandfather, Charles Schweitzer in Paris, but when his mother remarried in 1917, the family moved to La Rochelle. Sartre attended the Lycee Louis-le-Grand. In 1929 he graduated from the Ecole Normale Superieure. From 1931 to 1945 he worked as a teacher. During this period he also traveled in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. In 1933-34 he studied in Berlin the writings of the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.
bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence
and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which
the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he
wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more
freedom." (from What Is Literature, 1947)
|At the Left Bank
cafes Sartre gathered around him a group of intellectuals in the 1930s.
During WW II Sartre was drafted in 1939, imprisoned a year later in Germany,
but released in 1941 (or he escaped). However, he lost his freedom he valued
above all for a short time. In Paris he joined resistance movement and wrote
for such magazines as Les Lettres Francaise and Combat. After the war he
founded a monthly literary and political review, Les Temps modernes, and
devoted himself entirely to writing and political activity. Sartre was never
a member of Communist party, although he tried to reconcile existentialism
and Marxism and collaborated with the French Communist Party. When Albert
Camus, with whom Sartre was closely linked in the 1940, openly criticized
Stalinism, Sartre hesitated to follow his example. The publication of Camus's
novel The Rebel in 1951 caused a break between the two friends.
Sartre's first novel , LA NAUSEE
(1938), expressed under the influence of German philosopher Edmund Husserl's
phenomenological method, that human life has no purpose. The protagonist,
Antoine Roquentin, discovers the obscene overabundance of the world around
him, and his own solitude induces several experiences of psychological nausea.
He is not only impressed by the solidity of the stones on the sea shore,
but feels similar kind of horror when he contemplates the world of bourgeois
banality. "Nobody is better qualified than the commercial traveller
over there to sell Swan toothpaste. Nobody is better qualified than that
interesting young man to fumble about under his neighbour's skirts. And
I am among them and if they look at me they must think that nobody is better
qualified than I to do what I do. But I know. I don't look very important
but I know that I exists and that they exists. And if I knew the art of
convincing people, I should go and sit down next to that handsome white-haired
gentleman and I should explain to him what existence is. The thought of
the look which would come on to his face if I did makes me burst out laughing."
The rationality and solidity of this world, Roquentin thinks, is a veneer.
LE MUR (1938) was a collection of five stories and a novella. In' The Childhood of a Leader' the pitiful hero, Lucien, believes he do not exists. He seeks a feeling of strength through a homosexual affair. Encouraged by his friend, Lucien ends up in the ultra-conservative organization of the Action Francaise, with a desire to purify the French blood and beat the Jews. "Bergere spoke often of Rimbaud and the "systematic disordering of all the senses." "When you will be able, in crossing the Place de la Concorde, to see distinctly and at will a kneeling negress sucking the obelisk, you will be able to tell yourself that you have torn down the scenery and you are saved."
In his non-fiction works L'ETRE ET LE NEANT (1943, Being and Nothingness) Sartre formulated the basics of his philosophical system, in which "existence is prior to essence." Sartre made the distinction between things that exist in themselves (en-soi) and human beings who exist for themselves (pour-soi). Conscious of the limits of knowledge and of mortality, human beings live with existential dread. "Man is not the sum of what he has but the totality of what he does not yet have, of what he might have." (from Situations, 1947) Sartre developed his ideas further in L'EXISTENTIALISME EST UN HUMANISME (1946), and CRITIQUE DE LA RAISON DIALECTIQUE (1960). According to Sartre, human being is terrifying free. We are responsible for the choices we make, we are responsible for our emotional lives. In a godless universe life has no meaning or purpose beyond the goals that each man sets for himself. In Being and Nothingness Sartre argued that an individual must detach oneself from things to give them meaning.
Sartre's first play, LES MOUCHES (1943), examined the themes of commitment and responsibility. In the story, set in the ancient, mythical Greece, Orestes kills the murderers of Agamemnon, thus freeing the people of the city from the burden of guilt. According to Sartre's existentialist view, only one who chooses to assume responsibility of acting in a particular situation, like Orestes, makes effective use of one's freedom. In his second play, HUIS CLOS (1944), a man loves only himself, a lesbian, and a nymphomaniac are forced to live in a small room after their deaths. At the end of the play, although realizing that the "hell is other people", they remain slaves to their of passions. The play was a sensation and was filmed in 1954. Sartre's screenplay TYPHUS, which he wrote in 1944, was produced in 1953, starring Michele Morgan and Gerard Philipe. The director was Yves Allegret.
QU'EST CE QUE LA LITTERATURE (1947) is Sartre's best-known book of literary criticism. He grouped poetry with painting, sculpture, and music - they are not signs but things. One of the chief motifs of artistic creation is the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world. A writer is always a watchdog or a jester, but the primarly function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world: a novelist cannot escape engagement in political and social issues. The reader brings to life the literary object - it is not true that one writes for oneself. On the other hand Sartre saw that literature is dying and alludes to newspapers, to the radio and movies. "The goal of art is to recover this world by giving it to be seen not as it is, but as if it had its source in human freedom." From 1946 to 1955 Sartre wrote several biographical studies, of which the most important was Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (1952), about his friend Jean Genet (1910-1986), a convicted felon and writer.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Sartre accepted the right to criticize the Soviet system although he defended the Soviet state. He visited the Soviet Union next year and was hospitalized for ten days because of exhaustion. With his interpreter, Lena Zonina, he had a love affair. In 1956 Sartre spoke out on behalf of freedom for Hungarians, condemning the Soviet invasion, but not the Russian people, and in 1968 he condemned the Warsaw Pact assault on Czechoslovakia. In the Soviet Union, Sartre was privately criticized by the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The O.A.S. (Organisation de l'Armee Secrete), engaged in terrorist activities against Algerian independence, exploded a bomb in 1961 in Sartre's apartment on rue Bonaparte; it happened also next year and Sartre moved on quai Louis-Bleriot, opposite the Eiffel tower.
A superb conversationalist, Sartre unexpectedly lost his debate with the philosopher Louis Althusser, perhaps the only time in his public life. Althusser had joined the French Communist Party in 1948, and during the 1960s and 1970s he was considered the most influential voice in Western Marxism.
At the height of the student rebellion, which Sartre supported, his main interest lay on his four-volume study called L'IDIOT DE LA FAMILLE. The wide biography of Gustave Flaubert used Freudian interpretations and Marxist social and historical elements, familiar from his philosophical work. Sartre had been preoccupied with Flaubert since childhood. In this study, finished in 1971, Sartre showed how Flaubert became the person his family and society determined him to be, and how Flaubert's choices summarized the historical situation of his class. While writing this work, Sartre used Corydrane. The drug, a combination of aspirin and amphetamine, was popular among students and intellectuals. Also race bicyclists used in the 1960s.
Sartre became also closely involved in movement against Vietnam War. In 1967 Sartre headed the International War Crimes Tribunal set up by Bertrand Russell to judge American military conduct in Indochina. Among the New Left Sartre was a highly respected figure and his stand on the French colonial policy in Algeria was widely known in the Third World. One of his most powerful texts, written under the influence of Corydrane, was the foreword to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961), published toward the end the of the Algerian War. The book was soon translated into seventeen languages. In 1970 Sartre was arrested because of selling on the streets the forbidden Maoist paper La cause du peuple. Sartre was familair with the though of Mao Tse-tung and he had traveled in China in 1955 with Beauvoir, who decided to write a whole book about the country. However, in the early 1960s the Cuban economic and social revolution fascinated Sartre more. He also met Fidel Castro, but broke with his dictatorship later. In 1974 Sartre visited the terrorist Andreas Baader at the prison of Stammheim in Germany.
L'idiot was Sartre's last large work; it remained unfinished. According to Sartre, the fact that he will never finish it "does not make me so unhappy, because I think I said the most important things in the first three volumes." From 1973 the philosopher suffered from failing eyesight and near the end of his life Sartre was blind. Sartre died in Paris of oedema of the lungs on April 15, 1980. Arlette Elkaim, Sartre's mistress whom he had adopted in 1965, received the rights to his literary heritage, not Simone de Beauvoir.
Jean-Paul Sartre was largely responsible for our image of the postwar French intellectual - like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald after WWI, he was considered after WW II the leading interpreter of the postwar generation's world view. In his essays Sartre dealt with wide range of subjects, sometimes in provocative manner. 'The Republic of Silence' starts, 'We were never more free than under the German occupation', explaining this later that then each gesture had the weight of a commitment. In 'The Humanism of Existentialism' he condensed the major theme of existentialist philosophy simply 'first of all, man exist, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself'.
"Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth." (from L'Etre et le Neant / Being and Nothingness, 1943)