Place of Birth: Paris, France
Place of Death: Paris, France
Genre(s): Philosophy; Novels; Plays; Screenplays; Biography; Literary criticism and history; Politics/Government; Autobiography/Memoir; Fiction
Table of Contents:
Personal Information: Family: Born June 21, 1905, in Paris, France; died April 15, 1980, of a lung ailment, in Paris, France; son of Jean-Baptiste (a naval officer) and Anne-Marie (Schweitzer) Sartre; children: Arlette el Kaim-Sartre (adopted). Education: Attended Lycee Louis-le-Grand; Ecole Normale Superieure, agrege de philosophie, 1930; further study in Egypt, Italy, Greece, and in Germany under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Politics: Communistic, but not party member. Religion: Atheist. Military/Wartime Service: Meteorological Corps, 1929-31; French Army, 1939-40; prisoner of war in Germany for nine months, 1940-41. Served in Resistance Movement, 1941-44, wrote for its underground newspapers, Combat and Les Lettres Francaises. One of the founders of the French Rally of Revolutionary Democrats. Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Modern Language Association of America (honorary fellow).
Career: Philosopher and author of novels, plays, screenplays, biographies, and literary and political criticism. Professeur of philosophy at Lycee le Havre, 1931-32 and 1934-36, Institut Francais, Berlin, 1933-34, Lycee de Laon, 1936-37, Lycee Pasteur, 1937-39, and Lycee Condorcet, 1941-44. Founded Les Temps modernes, 1944, editor, beginning 1945. Lecturer at various institutions in United States, including Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton universities, and in Europe, the U.S.S.R., and China.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
Also author of screenplay Typhus, 1944, of an unpublished play All the Treasures of the Earth, and of screenplay Les Sorcieres de Salem adapted from Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
LITERARY CRITICISM AND POLITICAL WRITINGS
Contributor to numerous books, anthologies, and periodicals. Editor ofLa Cause du peuple, beginning 1970, Tout!, beginning 1970, and Revolution!, beginning 1971.
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the major intellectual figures of the twentieth century, doubtless the greatest of his immediate generation in France. In the words of Sartrean scholars Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka in The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, he was "uncontestably the most outstanding philosopher and writer of our time." The eminent scholar Henri Peyre, in his preface to The Condemned of Altona, called Sartre "the most powerful intellect at work ... in the literature of Western Europe," the "Picasso of literature." Since his death in 1980, Sartre's reputation has not waned, and with perspective it has become clear that he represented his age much as, in different ways, Voltaire (1694-1778), Victor Hugo (1802- 1885), and Andre Gide (1869-1951) represented theirs. "To understand Jean-Paul Sartre," wrote the novelist Iris Murdoch in Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, "is to understand something important about the present time."
Sartre was the chief proponent of French existentialism, a philosophic school--influenced by Soeren Kierkegaard and German philosophy--that developed around the close of the World War II. Existentialism stressed the primacy of the thinking person and of concrete individual experience as the source of knowledge; this philosophy also emphasized the anguish and solitude inherent in the making of choices.
Sartre's worldwide fame was based substantially on his existentialism, but it would be a mistake to consider him significant only for a philosophy that represented his thinking at a relatively early stage of his career. It would be a still greater mistake to reduce his existentialism to very simplistic elements, such as crude nihilism, as often has been done.
Sartre's literary and philosophic careers were inextricably bound together and are best understood in relation to one another and to their biographic context. An only child, Sartre decided at an early age 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, Charles Schweitzer (who, after the death of Sartre's father, raised the boy with the help of Sartre's grandmother). Schweitzer, a domineering old Protestant who was nevertheless very fond of his grandson and extremely indulgent with him, appeared to young Sartre as insincere, a consummate charlatan. Charles Schweitzer preached the serious values of the bourgeoisie and tried to denigrate a career in letters as precarious, unsuitable for stable middle-class people. As a reaction, Sartre proposed to make writing serious, to adopt it as the center of his life and values. He also chose it as a kind of self-justification in a world where a child was not taken seriously. "By writing I was existing. I was escaping from the grown-ups," he wrote in The Words.
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. All the same, young Sartre followed the path of a professional, finishing his lycee studies in Paris and completing university work at the Ecole Normale Superieure. There he met feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, who was to be a lifelong companion, though by no means his only love interest.
As a student, Sartre became interested in philosophy, pursuing it through the agregation (the highest French degree preparing for a teaching career). Sartre was steeped in the Cartesian rationalist tradition (whereby the subject's existence is proven by his thought), although eventually he largely departed from this philosophy. The topic of his thesis, the imagination, shows how his philosophic concerns supported his early interest in creative writing. Other of his treatises of the 1930s concern the emotions and what Sartre called the transcendence of the ego--or the nature of the self--which, he argued, is created by the individual instead of being a given. At the same time that he was pursuing these investigations on the imagination, Sartre became acquainted with phenomenology, a branch of philosophy associated with such German scholars as Edmund Husserl, with whom Sartre studied for a year in Berlin.
Throughout the 1930s, Sartre's philosophic and literary pursuits supported each other and developed along parallel lines. At the beginning of the decade Sartre began work on a fictional piece first called "A Pamphlet on Contingency" (contingency being lack of foundation), which developed into his first novel, Nausea. It illustrates what de Beauvoir called his "opposition aesthetics"--his desire to use literature as a critical tool. The novel's 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; 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 his 1938 Esprit review, for instance, Armand Robin wrote that Nausea "is undoubtedly one of the distinctive works of our time." Later, in Sartre: A Philosophic Study, Anthony Richards Manser called it "that rare thing: a genuinely philosophic novel."
Sartre revealed himself to be a master psychologist in his next fictional work, the short story collection The Wall. These works are superb examples of the storyteller's craft. Particularly impressive is the title story, which recounts an episode from the Spanish Civil War, and the final one, "The Childhood of a Leader," which, while autobiographical to a considerable degree, has as its main plot thread the making of a Fascist. All the stories reveal the author's command of dialogue and metaphor and illustrate exceptionally interesting ideas about human relationships, sexuality, insanity, childhood development, and the meaning of action.
By the end of the 1930s, Sartre was known as a promising writer but he was not yet considered an important philosopher. This assessment changed in 1943 when Sartre produced Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, the major philosophical work of the first half of his career. While closely related to his treatises on imagination and to the views of experience he had expressed in his fiction, Being and Nothingness is not confined to these subjects. Rather, in defining being, or what is, as what appears, it explores all phenomena. The essay examines man, the being who questions being, and concludes that he is both his body occupying a place in the world--that is, an object among objects--and a subject or a consciousness reflecting on objects. Sartre contends that all consciousness is consciousness ofsomething. Since it is basically a negating--or distinguishing--function (saying that this chair, for instance, is not this table), consciousness produces the concept of nothingness; man is the being by whom negation is introduced into an otherwise complete world. Though its influence penetrated slowly, Being and Nothingness helped assure its author's fame after 1945.
Sartre attempted to expand upon Being and Nothingness withTruth and Existence, which, although completed in 1948, did not see print until 1989. In the essay the philosopher explores the connections between ethics, truth and ignorance, and the panorama of history, and portrays bad faith among men and women as the intentional choice to remain ignorant by abrogating hard work in favor of a reliance upon fate and destiny.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote that one of the most important characteristics of consciousness is its freedom. He soon drew explicitly the corollary that ontological freedom, in which man is "condemned to be free," as he wrote in Being and Nothingness, must entail political freedom also. That is, freedom is a goal as well as a given and must be embodied in praxis (practical action). The very popularThe Flies, which retells the Greek story of the murder of Clytemnestra by her children Orestes and Electra, emphasizes man's fundamental freedom, against which even the gods are powerless. No Exit, often anthologized and perhaps the best known of all of Sartre's works, deals with the absence of freedom when one allows oneself to exist through and for others, rather than living authentically. Sartre stated inL'Express that its famous conclusion, "Hell is other people," did not describe what had to be true concerning human relationships, but what was true when relationships with others became corrupt or twisted.
The theme of freedom may be even more elaborately treated in less famous Sartre plays of the 1940s. Morts sans sepulture (usually translated as The Victors), which shocked the sensibilities of many theatergoers because it dealt with torture during the Occupation, indicates how extreme the Sartrean view of freedom could be. The play offers the view that even under torture and threat of death, one is free to choose; that this choice cannot be evaded, nor can it be made other than in utter loneliness; and that one is responsible for all its consequences. Les Mains sales (sometimes translated as Dirty Hands), treats the difficulty of political choice, the necessity of political compromise, and the refusal to let one's freedom be alienated or appropriated by others.
Between 1945 and 1950 Sartre also published three more novels--The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep--collectively called Roads to Freedom. These works deal with an ineffectual hero in a morally and politically indifferent France before World War II. The series illustrates what Sartre described in "What Is Literature?" as a literature of praxis: "action in history and on history ... a synthesis of historical relativity and moral and metaphysical absolute." In The Reprieve, the second volume of this trilogy, Sartre carries further than any other French writer of his period the techniques of jumping from one plot thread to another, without transition, and of pursuing simultaneous plots. While making for very difficult reading, these techniques suggest collective action and thus support his portrait of what it was like to be in Europe at the time of the Munich Crisis (1938).
After the war Sartre also published many articles on literature and politics, notably the important essay "What Is Literature?" inSituations II. Here he stated that all prose literature is necessarily committed to making a political and social statement and is directed to one's own contemporaries; the practice of literature, he insisted, is built on freedom (the writer's, the reader's). As he put it inSituations II, literature is "the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution."
After the war, though considerably lionized and taken by many youthful readers to be the preeminent spokesman for their generation, Sartre continued to develop intellectually and undergo changes that were to have far-reaching effects on his work. In the prewar years, he had been generally uninterested in politics. While despising Fascist parties and the bourgeoisie from which they--and he--came, Sartre had not participated in political action, nor even bothered to vote. He considered then that his fiction and philosophic texts were sufficient expressions of his unfavorable views of society. But he eventually became thoroughly politicized, speaking out on such issues as the French presence in Indochina, which he opposed, and even participating in a leftist, but non-Communist, postwar political movement.
By the close of the decade, with the advent of the Cold War, Sartre accepted that a non-Communist leftist party was a contradiction. He returned to Karl Marx's writings, with which he had previously been only roughly familiar, and began steeping himself in Marxism to rework his positions and think against what he had previously held. Throughout the rest of his career Sartre denounced many of his previous attitudes and practiced systematic self-debate. Although he became a resolute neo-Marxist, he was never a member of the French Communist Party but was instead often its critic and that of the former Soviet Union (as when it invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968). However, he was always staunchly opposed to Western capitalism, NATO, and the United States.
The radicalization of his thinking seemed essential to Sartre because the fame that had overtaken him during the 1940s had the effect, or so he thought, of making him a public being; he felt that he was being appropriated by others. This threat increased his sense of alienation. He also resented what he felt would be his inevitable acceptance by the bourgeoisie; he was becoming respectable, read by the middle classes. This attitude explains why, in 1964, he refused the Nobel Prize for Literature; to him, it was a middle-class recognition that would have the effect of making him appear inoffensive.
In a 1964 Le Monde interview with Jacqueline Piatier, Sartre summarized his political changes: "I discovered abruptly that alienation, exploitation of man by man, undernourishment, relegated to the background metaphysical evil, which is a luxury." This discovery led to profound transformations in Sartre as a writer. Although he continued to regard his earlier works as well written, he also now viewed them as inauthentic because they had resulted from a bourgeois decision to write, a decision based on personal rebellion and on the idolatry of words. Moreover, he came to believe that fiction could no longer serve his purpose. He even abandoned drama, although he had argued earlier that theatre is an ideal means of showing characters in situations where they must commit themselves wholly to their actions and thereby create values.
In short, Sartre's career as a semipopular writer came to a close in 1950. Yet several works published after that date are among his greatest. The Critique of Dialectical Reason, his second major philosophic work, is essential to the understanding of all he wrote after his radicalization and is so closely connected to certain of his other texts that whole sections were transferred from one to another. It is far from a popular work; even more than in Being and Nothingness, the vocabulary and concepts of its 750-plus pages are difficult, and the analysis is so abstruse and sometimes meandering that even professional philosophers have found some of it incomprehensible.
Intended as a synthesis of existentialist philosophy and Marxism, theCritique calls on and belongs to disciplines as various as anthropology, history, psychology, economics, and philosophy. Its aim is to give a philosophical basis to Marxism and, on that basis, to investigate further the dialectic of history and its intelligibility. Dialectical reasoning, which is opposed to the analytic method, involves the Hegelian synthesis of contraries. Sartre's thesis is that, whereas analytical reason has been the tool of the oppressive classes, dialectical reason, which offers a different understanding of history and its possibilities, is the "practical awareness of an oppressed class fighting against its oppressor," "the objective spirit of the working class," as he put it in theCritique. While still insisting on the possibility of human freedom, the treatise shows how this freedom is conditioned, alienated, made powerless by historical and social developments.
In the field of biography, Sartre published in 1947 a short volume on the poet Charles Baudelaire. Using what in Being and Nothingness he called existential psychoanalysis, Sartre explains Baudelaire's character and career as an original conscious choice--the choice to remain infantile, narcissistic, dependent on his mother, a failure. In opposition to Freud, Sartre shows that the poet's choice reveals psychological freedom, not psychological determinism. The next biography, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, is a masterly analysis of the writer Jean Genet, a convicted thief and multiple offender known as the author of shocking plays and novels concerned with homosexuality, anarchy, and rebellion against authority. The biography ascribes Genet's career as a thief to a conscious decision made in childhood to be what others accused him of being. To Sartre, Genet is a splendid example of a man who made himself as he wanted to be by inverting other people's values.
Some twelve years later, Sartre published his autobiography, a self- accusatory work. The title, The Words, refers to the idolatry of literature he had practiced up to about 1950. The autobiography was judged by Francis Jeanson in Sartre dans sa vie as "the most accessible, and doubtless the most successful, of all the non- philosophical works of Sartre." It demolishes "the myth of a Messiah-writer of a dechristianized bourgeoisie," according to Revue des Sciences Humaines contributor Marc Bensimon. As a study in characters (his mother, his grandfather, the Alsatian bourgeoisie from which they sprang, his father's family), it is superb. As self-analysis, it is even more outstanding. Few writers have portrayed so searchingly their early childhood and their choice of a vocation or have judged so severely the adult who grew from the child. The book was, Sartre says within its pages, the fruit of an awakening from "a long, bitter, and sweet delusion." The Words reads almost like fiction; it is brief and its style is witty, aphoristic, penetrating--classical, in a word, although its method is dialectical.
At the opposite extreme is Sartre's final biographic work, The Family Idiot, a 2,800-page analysis of Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert had long interested Sartre, both attracting him and repulsing him. Sartre wanted to explore chiefly the particular circumstances and the dialectical relationships that made Flaubert into a bourgeois who hated the bourgeoisie, a passive man incapable of pursuing an ordinary career, and, generally, a misfit and a neurotic, as well as a great writer. The investigation ranges far afield, from Flaubert's antecedents and family, to his infancy (reconstructed with the help of Sartre's dialectical method, here called progressive-regressive) and youth, to all aspects of the social and economic situation in which he matured. Sartre wished to show, he said in an interview given to Le Monde, that "everything can be communicated ... that every human being is perfectly capable of being understood if the appropriate methods are used."
After 1950 Sartre published and saw into production two theatrical adaptations and three original plays, two of which are surely among his greatest. The Devil and the Good Lord, his personal favorite, is, like the volume on Genet, concerned with values, absolutely and pragmatically. An uncompromising statement of atheism, the play explores in a historical context (sixteenth-century Reformation Germany) the interdependency of good and evil and illustrates the necessity of adopting means that suit the ends. A second major play of the 1950s is the lengthyThe Condemned of Altona, which concerns a German World War II veteran who has barricaded himself in his room for years. Tended only by his sister, the veteran has persuaded himself that Germany won the war. Although concerned explicitly with that conflict and its aftermath, the play was intended to refer also to the Algerian War, then in progress. The play impugns Nazi Germany and the type of men it produced--not just SS soldiers but also members of the upper bourgeoisie who found Nazism useful because it served their economic interests. More generally, it condemns capitalist Europe, whose conflicts over markets and expansion had caused two world wars.
Declaring to John Gerassi--in a 1971 New York Times Magazine interview--that "commitment is an act, not a word," Sartre expressed his political beliefs by participating in demonstrations, marches, and campaigns, although he was not well (he suffered from failing eyesight and circulatory troubles, among other ailments). Sartre took stands on literally dozens of political and social issues around the world. Such topics as decent housing in France, conscientious objection in Israel, the Vietnamese War, repression in the Congo, Basque separatism, the troubles in Northern Ireland, torture in Argentina, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan show the range of his concerns. Denouncing as ossified the French Communist Party and all other parties intellectually dependent upon the Soviet Union, Sartre supported Maoist attempts at a new radicalization of Marxist theory and action. This political activity both increased interest in his writings and made him notorious throughout Europe.
From the beginning of his career, Sartre wanted to make people think, feel, see, and ultimately act differently. Like his earlier views, summarized in Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre's later morality is both a difficult and a hopeful one. People can change, he proclaimed, but they would prefer to remain in their errors (to practice injustice, for instance) or to cling to what he had called bad faith. Because of the acceleration of violence and international competition, theymust change, he insisted. Since the oppressive and privileged classes will not willingly give up their privileges, these must be wrested from them by violence and revolution; then new relationships between human beings, based on reciprocity and openness instead of rivalry and secrecy, will be possible, Sartre declared.
As his health deteriorated, Sartre wrote less but gave lengthy interviews that are a sort of intellectual autobiography. He remained fascinated with himself and his career, perhaps more so than other great writers, but more surprisingly so, since he had wished to move away from the cult of the individual to the idea of the general man, "anyone at all," as he put it in The Words. He was, as Josette Pacaly declared in Sartre au miroir, "a Narcissus who does not like himself."
Twelve years after Sartre's death in 1980, his daughter authorized the publication of several collections of letters that illuminate the private life and thoughts of the philosopher. Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926- 1939 relates to the early years of the unconventional Sartre-de Beauvoir love relationship, the period during which he wrote his first fictional and philosophical works and during which Sartre served as a professor of philosophy at several universities. Many ideas that the novelist-philosopher included in such novels as The Age of Reason and Being and Nothingness "were first formulated in letters written at the beginning of [World War II], when, exiled from the distractions of Paris, he profited from the enforced leisure of camp life," according to Ronald Hayman in the New York Times Book Review. "Though the publication of these letters brings rather too many private parts into public view, and though they illuminate only the comparatively brief periods when Sartre and Beauvoir were separated, they enable us to see the whole partnership in a new perspective," the critic added.
The philosopher's experiences of serving as an officer attached to a French meteorological unit and, later, as a prisoner of war, are recounted through letters collected as Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940-1963. "In these letters, we have in effect an intimate portrait of the precocious philosopher emerging into a kind of intellectual and spiritual maturity," explained Peter T. Connor in America. Many of the letters written to his lover from his uneventful wartime post show Sartre engaged in "deep and searching ruminations," added Connor, "staking out his philosophical position vis-a-vis Husserl and Heidegger, overcoming his `inferiority complex vis-a-vis the far Left' and reflecting on the inner meaning that his philosophy holds for him." Enthralled by the collection, Penelope Mesic added in Chicago's Tribune Books: "It is irresistible, when reading the life of a philosopher, to compare the writer's conduct with his theories. But the foremost philosopher of freedom, in prison, comes across rather well.... In these letters we almost casually discover an exemplary life."
Seen as a whole, Sartre's career reveals numerous contradictions. A bourgeois, he hated the middle classes and wanted to chastise them; "I became a traitor and remained one," he wrote in The Words. Yet he was not a true proletarian writer. An individualist in many ways and completely opposed to regimentation, he nevertheless attacked the individualistic tradition and insisted on the importance of the collectivity; he moved from the extremely solitary position of an existentialist to concern for society above all. A writer possessed of an outstanding ear for language and other literary skills, he came to suspect literature as inauthentic and wrote a superb autobiography to denounce writing. An atheist, he often spoke with the fervor of an evangelist and repeated that man was responsible for his own errors and must mend his ways. A reformer and moralist, he led an existence that would seem to many decidedly immoral. Of such contradictions, he was of course, aware.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Born January 21, 1905, in Paris, France; died of a lung ailment, April 15, 1980, in Paris. Philosopher and author of novels, plays, screenplays, biography, autobiography, literary and political criticism, and books on philosophy. Drawing on the works of Soren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, Sartre developed an existentialist philosophy based on an individual's freedom and responsibility to choose to act and thus to define his being. "Existence precedes essence" was Sartre's famous formula for his theory. Sartre's life was a testament to his beliefs. He once said: "The task of the intellectual is not to decide where there are battles but to join them wherever and whenever the people wage them. Commitment is an act, not a word." He was identified with various leftist causes, particularly with Communism, although he never became a party member and was vocally critical of Soviet and French Communism. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but he refused to accept it, claiming that a writer "should refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution." Sartre first explicated his philosophy in the novel Nausea, which critics believe to be autobiographical. In nonfiction form, Sartre expanded on this theme in Being and Nothingness, written during the Nazi occupation of France, and in Existentialiam and Humanism. Some critics have expressed the belief that Sartre will be best remembered for his plays. Among the bestknown are "No Exit, " "The Respectful Prostitute, " "The Flies, " and "The Condemned of Altona." Sartre founded the monthly reviewLes Temps Moderne in 1945. He also wrote biographies on Charles Baudelaire and Jean Genet, and completed three of four volumes on the life of Gustave Flaubert. The writer Simone de Beauvoir was Sartre's close companion for most of his life. Obituaries and other sources: Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1980;
Obituary and Other Sources:
Source: Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 1999.
Source Database: Contemporary Authors
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