(1905 - 1980)
French novelist, playwright, and exponent of Existentialism--a philosophy
acclaiming the freedom of the individual human being. He was awarded
the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but he declined it.
Early life and writings
Sartre lost his father at an early age and grew up in the home of his
maternal grandfather, Carl Schweitzer, uncle of the medical missionary
Albert Schweitzer and himself professor of German at the Sorbonne. The
boy, who wandered in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris in search of playmates,
was small in stature and cross-eyed. His brilliant autobiography, Les
Mots (1963; Words, 1964), narrates the adventures of the mother and
child in the park as they went from group to group--in the vain hope
of being accepted--then finally retreated to the sixth floor of their
apartment "on the heights where (the) dreams dwell." "The
words" saved the child, and his interminable pages of writing were
the escape from a world that had rejected him but that he would proceed
to rebuild in his own fancy.
Sartre went to the Lycee Henri IV in Paris and, later on, after the
remarriage of his mother, to the lycee in La Rochelle. From there he
went to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, from which he was
graduated in 1929. Sartre resisted what he called "bourgeois marriage,"
but while still a student he formed with Simone de Beauvoir a union
that remained a settled partnership in life. Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs,
Memoires d'une jeune fille rangee (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,
1959) and La Force de l'age (1960; The Prime of Life, 1962), provide
an intimate account of Sartre's life from student years until his middle
50s. It was also at the Ecole Normale Superieure and at the Sorbonne
that he met several persons who were destined to be writers of great
fame; among these were Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil,
Emmanuel Mounier, Jean Hippolyte, and Claude Levi-Strauss. From 1931
until 1945 Sartre taught in the lycees of Le Havre, Laon, and, finally,
Paris. Twice this career was interrupted, once by a year of study in
Berlin and the second time when Sartre was drafted in 1939 to serve
in World War II. He was made prisoner in 1940 and released a year later.
During his years of teaching in Le Havre, Sartre published La Nausee.
(1938; Nausea, 1949), his first claim to fame. This novel, written in
the form of a diary, narrates the feeling of revulsion that a certain
Roquentin undergoes when confronted with the world of matter--not merely
the world of other people but the very awareness of his own body. According
to some critics, La Nausee must be viewed as a pathological case, a
form of neurotic escape. Most probably it must be appreciated also as
a most original, fiercely individualistic, antisocial piece of work,
containing in its pages many of the philosophical themes that Sartre
Sartre took over the phenomenological method, which proposes careful,
unprejudiced description rather than deduction, from the German philosopher
Edmund Husserl and used it with great skill in three successive publications:
L'Imagination (1936; Imagination: A Psychological Critique, 1962), Esquisse
d'une theorie des emotions (1939; Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions,
1962), and L'Imaginaire: Psychologie phenomenologique de l'imagination
(1940; The Psychology of Imagination, 1950). But it was above all in
L'Etre et le neant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956) that Sartre revealed
himself as a master of outstanding talent. Sartre places human consciousness,
or no-thingness (neant), in opposition to being, or thingness (etre).
Consciousness is not-matter and by the same token escapes all determinism.
The message, with all the implications it contains, is a hopeful one;
yet the incessant reminder that human endeavour is and remains useless
makes the book tragic as well.
Post-World War II work
Having written his defense of individual freedom and human dignity,
Sartre turned his attention to the concept of social responsibility.
For many years he had shown great concern for the poor and the disinherited
of all kinds. While a teacher, he had refused to wear a tie, as if he
could shed his social class with his tie and thus come closer to the
worker. Freedom itself, which at times in his previous writings appeared
to be a gratuitous activity that needed no particular aim or purpose
to be of value, became a tool for human struggle in his brochure L'Existentialisme
est un humanisme (1946; Existentialism and Humanism, 1948). Freedom
now implied social responsibility. In his novels and plays Sartre began
to bring his ethical message to the world at large. He started a four-volume
novel in 1945 under the title Les Chemins de la liberte, of which three
were eventually written: L'Age de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947),
Le Sursis (1945; The Reprieve, 1947), and La Mort dans l'ame (1949;
Iron in the Soul, 1950; U.S. title, Troubled Sleep, 1950). After the
publication of the third volume, Sartre changed his mind concerning
the usefulness of the novel as a medium of communication and turned
back to plays.
What a writer must attempt, said Sartre, is to show man as he is. Nowhere
is man more man than when he is in action, and this is exactly what
drama portrays. He had already written in this medium during the war,
and now one play followed another: Les Mouches (produced 1943; The Flies,
1946), Huis-clos (1944; In Camera, 1946; U.S. title, No Exit, 1946),
Les Mains sales (1948; Crime passionel, 1949; U.S. title, Dirty Hands,
1949; acting version, Red Gloves), Le Diable et le bon dieu (1951; Lucifer
and the Lord, 1953), Nekrassov (1955), and Les Sequestres d'Altona (1959;
Loser Wins, 1959; U.S. title, The Condemned of Altona, 1960). All the
plays, in their emphasis upon the raw hostility of man toward man, seem
to be predominantly pessimistic; yet, according to Sartre's own confession,
their content does not exclude the possibility of a morality of salvation.
Other publications of the same period include a book, Baudelaire (1947),
a vaguely ethical study on the French writer and poet Jean Genet entitled
Saint Genet, comedien et martyr (1952; Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr,
1963), and innumerable articles that were published in Les Temps Modernes,
the monthly review that Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir founded and edited.
These articles were later collected in several volumes under the title
Political activities. After World War II, Sartre took an active interest
in French political movements, and his leanings to the left became more
pronounced. He became an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union, although
he did not become a member of the Communist Party. In 1954 he visited
the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Africa, the United States, and Cuba.
Upon the entry of Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956, however, Sartre's
hopes for communism were sadly crushed. He wrote in Les Temps Modernes
a long article, "Le Fantome de Staline," that condemned both
the Soviet intervention and the submission of the French Communist Party
to the dictates of Moscow. Over the years this critical attitude opened
the way to a form of "Sartrian Socialism" that would find
its expression in a new major work, Critique de la raison dialectique
(1960; Eng. trans., of the introduction only, under the title The Problem
of Method, 1963; U.S. title, Search for a Method). Sartre set out to
examine critically the Marxist dialectic and discovered that it was
not livable in the Soviet form. Although he still believed that Marxism
was the only philosophy for the current times, he conceded that it had
become ossified and that, instead of adapting itself to particular situations,
it compelled the particular to fit a predetermined universal. Whatever
its fundamental, general principles, Marxism must learn to recognize
the existential concrete circumstances that differ from one collectivity
to another and to respect the individual freedom of man. The Critique,
somewhat marred by poor construction, is in fact an impressive and beautiful
book, deserving of more attention than it has gained so far. A projected
second volume was abandoned. Instead, Sartre prepared for publication
Les Mots, for which he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature,
an offer that was refused.
From 1960 until 1971 most of Sartre's attention went into the writing
of a four-volume study called Flaubert. Two volumes with a total of
some 2,130 pages appeared in the spring of 1971. This huge enterprise
aimed at presenting the reader with a "total biography" of
Gustave Flaubert, the famous French novelist, through the use of a double
tool: on the one hand, Karl Marx's concept of history and class and,
on the other, Sigmund Freud's illuminations of the dark recesses of
the human soul through explorations into his childhood and family relations.
Although at times Sartre's genius comes through and his fecundity is
truly unbelievable, the sheer volume of the work and the minutely detailed
analysis of even the slightest Flaubertian dictum hamper full enjoyment.
As if he himself were saturated by the prodigal abundance of his writings,
Sartre moved away from his desk during 1971 and did very little writing.
Under the motto that "commitment is an act, not a word," Sartre
often went into the streets to participate in rioting, in the sale of
left-wing literature, and in other activities that in his opinion were
the way to promote "the revolution." Paradoxically enough,
this same radical Socialist published in 1972 the third volume of the
work on Flaubert, L'Idiot de la famille, another book of such density
that only the bourgeois intellectual can read it.
The enormous productivity of Sartre came herewith to a close. His mind,
still alert and active, came through in interviews and in the writing
of scripts for motion pictures. He also worked on a book of ethics.
However, his was no longer the power of a genius in full productivity.
Sartre became blind and his health deteriorated. In April 1980 he died
of a lung tumour. His very impressive funeral, attended by some 25,000
people, was reminiscent of the burial of Victor Hugo, but without the
official recognition that his illustrious predecessor had received.
Those who were there were ordinary people, those whose rights his pen
had always defended.
Biographies include Kenneth Thompson and Margaret Thompson, Sartre:
Life and Works (1984); Ronald Hayman, Sartre (1987, reissued 1992);
John Gerassi, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century (1989-
); and Kate Fullbrook and Edward Fullbrook, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul
Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend (1993).
Among numerous critical works on Sartre's writings and thoughts are
Iris Murdoch, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953, reissued 1989); Maurice
William Cranston, Sartre (1962, reissued 1970); Norman N. Greene, Jean-Paul
Sartre: The Existentialist Ethic (1960, reprinted 1980); R.O. Laing
and D.G. Cooper, Reason & Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy,
1950-1960 (1964, reissued 1983); Philip Thody, Jean-Paul Sartre: A Literary
and Political Study (1960), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1992), on his novels;
Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka (compilers), The Writings of Jean-Paul
Sartre, 2 vol. (1974; originally published in French, 1970); Joseph
H. McMahon, Humans Being: The World of Jean-Paul Sartre (1971); Dominick
La Capra, A Preface to Sartre (1978); Thomas C. Anderson, The Foundation
and Structure of Sartrean Ethics (1979), and Sartre's Two Ethics: From
Authenticity to Integral Humanity (1993); Hugh J. Silverman and Frederick
A. Elliston (eds.), Jean-Paul Sartre: Contemporary Approaches to His
Philosophy (1980); Michael Scriven, Sartre's Existential Biographies
(1984); and David Detmer, Freedom as a Value: A Critique of the Ethical
Theory of Jean-Paul Sartre (1988). Christina Howells (ed.), The Cambridge
Companion to Sartre (1992), covers his work chronologically.