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French philosopher and man of letters, the versatile writer Jean-Paul Sartre ranks as the dominant influence in three decades of French intellectual life. As scholar Lynn-Dianne Beene noted, ”Sartre challenged not only contemporary ideas about freedom and human liberation, but also the oppression he found in Western capitalism. His relentless search for freedom gave rise to a process of existential inquiry and reflection.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Sartre’s literary and philosophical careers are inextricably bound together and are best understood in relation to one another and to their biographical and historical context.
Defiant, Precocious Beginnings
Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905. His father Jean-Baptiste, a naval officer, died while on a tour of duty in Indochina (then part of the French colonial empire) before Sartre was two years old. His mother took her young son to live at her parents’ house, where she and her son were treated as ”the children.” Later Sartre would describe his unnatural childhood as a spoiled and precocious boy. Lacking companions his own age, he found ”friends” exclusively in books. Reading became his first passion, and he soon decided to be a writer. According to The Words, the autobiography of his youth, this decision was made in conscious opposition to the wishes of his grandfather.
School and Simone de Beauvoir
When his mother remarried, Sartre moved from Paris to La Rochelle with her and his stepfather, a solemn professional man with whom he felt little in common. There Sartre followed the path of a professional, finishing his studies at Lycee Henri IV in Paris, and entering the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1924. While there he became a student of and was influenced by (Emile Auguste Chartier, a humanist and materialist philosopher and essayist. It was also at Normale Superieure where he met feminist intellectual novelist Simone de Beauvoir, who would become Sartre’s lifelong companion, though by no means his only love interest. Sartre earned his doctorate, taking first place in the agrégation of philosophy in 1929. De Beauvoir finished second, affirming the pair’s intellectual bond and sealing their emotional one.
Introduction to Phenomenology
After completing compulsory military service as a conscript in the French army from 1929 to 1931, Sartre took a teaching job at a school in Le Havre, and from 1933 to 1935 he was a research student on a grant at the Institut Français in Berlin and in Freiburg. Having read over the years philosopher Henri Bergson’s works as well as those of Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Immanuel Kant, he began to form his first philosophical writings with respect to phenomenology, the philosophical examination of the nature of individual consciousness. A series of works on consciousness resulted. He also wrote his first novel, Nausea (1938), which some critics have called the century’s most influential French novel, and produced The Wall (1939), a first-rate volume of short stories.
World War II and the Resistance
World War II intervened, and Sartre was called up by the army. He served briefly on the Eastern front as a meteorologist. Captured by Germans in 1940 at Padoux, he was taken prisoner to Nancy and then Stalag 12D, Trier. There he wrote his first play and read more Heidegger, which would inform his first major work on phenomenological thought, Being and Nothingness (1943). After nine months, in April 1941, he secured his release by noting his bad eyes interfered with his balance. He returned to teaching at LyceePasteur near Paris, moving into the Hotel Mistral near Montparnasse. While he was given a new position at Lycee Condorcet, Sartre joined with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir, and others to form the underground intellectual resistance group, Socialisme et Liberte. The coalition, begun in May of 1941, was finished by August due to lack of support by the undecided Andre Gide and Andre Malraux and others.
Sartre returned to writing, penning the now classic dramas The Flies (1942) and No Exit (1944), contributing to literary magazines, and evading German censorship for both plays and legitimate and underground writings. No Exit was clearly molded by Sartre’s experiences in occupied France. It is a serious, disturbing play about personal accountability in an irrational world, a theme that resonated with Parisian audiences forced to live under Nazi rule. In fact, the play’s one-act structure is a direct response to that rule: Sartre had to make the play short so Parisian audiences could watch it and still get home before the German-imposed curfew.
The Role of the Intellectual
After the war, Sartre abandoned teaching altogether, determined to support himself by writing. Intellectuals, he thought, must take a public stand on every great question of their day. He thus became fundamentally a moralist, both in his philosophical and literary works, and subsequently would be considered by critics and scholars alike as the greatest philosopher of his time. He wrote full time, creating the influential trilogy The Roads to Freedom (1945-1949), a number of comedies, and more plays. He founded and edited Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), a literary and political monthly. And he became an active contributor to Combat, the newspaper created covertly by the eminent philosopher and author Albert Camus.
Though never a member of the Communist Party, Sartre usually sympathized with the political views of the far left. Whatever the political issue, he was quick to publish his opinions, often combining them with public acts of protest. He, de Beauvoir, and Camus shared sympathies, and thus maintained a close camaraderie— until 1951 when Camus had clearly turned away from communism. Criticized by Camus for being a writer who resisted and not a resistor who wrote, and by other philosophers for his lack of political commitment, Sartre returned to philosophy in 1960.
In Being and Nothingness he declared man to be ”a useless passion,” condemned to strive for meaningless freedom. But now his new interest in social and political questions and his reestablishment with Marxist thought led him to more optimistic and activist views. He published his first volume of Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), a modified version of his existentialism by way of Marxist ideas.
A Change of Mind About the Futility of Life
In his early work, Sartre pointed to the futility of life. His actions in the 1960s show a change of mind. Sartre was a vocal supporter of the Algerian efforts to be free of French colonial rule. Likewise, he was a vocal critic of U.S. actions in Vietnam, which many saw as imperialist rather than anti-Communist. Sartre headed the Organization to Defend Iranian Political Prisoners, beginning in 1964. He also sought out audiences with Cuban president Fidel Castro and Marxist revolutionary leader Ernesto ”Che” Guevara. It is evident Sartre began to believe human actions mattered. In another about-face, Sartre seemed to ease the strict atheism of his early career as he neared the end of his life. In a 1974 interview with de Beauvoir, Sartre mused that he did not feel like ”a speck of dust in the universe” and said that perhaps a ”Creator” had a role in mind for him.
As Sartre worked on his final major efforts, including The Family Idiot (1971), his failing eyesight progressed to blindness and his health deteriorated. In Paris on April 15, 1980, Sartre died.
Works in Literary Context
Sartre was primarily influenced by the works of philosophers S0ren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. His work and thought was also profoundly influenced by his contemporaries, such as Merleau Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir, and was informed and driven further by revolutions and several wars, which pushed his political philosophies and antagonized his themes of freedom and choice. In turn, Sartre was one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century, doubtless the greatest of his immediate generation in France.
Existentialism is the term used to describe a philosophy that holds that there is no meaning in life other than what individuals create for themselves. This somewhat bleak perspective is associated with fiction that portrays characters coming to grips with reality and experiencing feelings of malaise, boredom, and alienation. Perhaps no writer is as strongly associated with existentialism as Sartre, but he was by no means the first writer to posit the idea of humankind’s essential meaningless. Critics point out that existentialist tendencies can be seen in the work of nineteenth-century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky as well. Dostoevsky’s early fiction, particularly his ”Petersburg” tales, exhibit strong existentialist traits in keeping with the antireligious radical philosophy he espoused. His characters feel alienated from both society and themselves. Existentialism, as Sartre proposed it, stresses the primacy of the thinking person and of concrete individual experience as the source of knowledge. It also emphasizes the anguish and solitude inherent in the individual’s freedom and responsibility in making choices.
Works in Critical Context
Of Sartre’s body of work in general, the scholars and critics agree: Sartrean scholars Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka called him, ”uncontestably the most outstanding philosopher and writer of our time.” Scholar Henri Peyre described him as ”the most powerful intellect at work. . . in the literature of Western Europe,” the ”Picasso of literature.” And author Iris Murdoch explained that ”to understand Jean-Paul Sartre is to understand something important about the present time.”
Sartre’s comedies, critics like Henry Peyre claimed, ”reveal… him as the best comic talent of our times.” His letters, compiled in several different volumes, illuminate the private life and pre-novel thoughts of the philosopher, relate to the early years of such interpersonal dynamics as the unconventional Sartre-de Beauvoir love relationship, and reveal what America’s Peter T. Conner identified as ”an intimate portrait of the precocious philosopher emerging into a kind of intellectual and spiritual maturity.” Sartre’s most telling writing, however, affirming all the critical commentary, is in such works as Nausea.
Sartre’s first fiction work, Nausea, is what many critics have called the century’s most influential French novel. The title indicates the hero’s reaction toward existence: when he discovers that life is absurd, he feels repulsed. Nothing, it would seem, can save him, except the discovery that he might be able to write a novel that would have internal necessity and be a rival to life. Thus, he proposes to save himself through an act of aesthetic creation. Sartre said in The Words: ”At the age of thirty, I executed the masterstroke of writing in Nausea— quite sincerely, believe me—about the bitter unjustified existence of my fellow men and of exonerating my own.” Nausea was received with praise and had considerable success. In Esprit, reviewer Armand Robin called Nausea ”undoubtedly one of the distinctive works of our time.” While it illustrates what de Beauvoir dubbed Sartre’s ”opposition aesthetics”—his desire to use literature as a critical tool—the work also later prompted critics like Anthony Richards Manser to call it ”that rare thing: a genuinely philosophic novel.”
- Cranston, Maurice. The Quintessence of Sartrism. New York: Harper, 1971.
- Cumming, Robert D. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Random House, 1965.
- de Beauvoir, Simone. Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Hayman, Ronald. Sartre: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
- Lapointe, François, and Claire Lapointe. Jean-Paul Sartre and His Critics. Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, Bowling Green State University, 1980.
- Leak, Andrew. Jean-Paul Sartre. Chicago: Reaktion Books, 2006.
- McBride, William. Sartre’s French Contemporaries and Enduring Influences. New York: Garland, 1997.
- Rowley, Hazel. Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
- Choice (July-August 1993): 1786.
- Chronicle of Higher Education (November 21, 2003):10-13.
- Books and Writers. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/sartre.htm
- Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize in Literature, 1964:Jean-Paul Sartre. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from http://nobelprize.org
- Sartre Online. Retrieved February 14, from http://www.geocities.com/sartresite
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