Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 24)
Jean-Paul Sartre 1905–1980
French critic, philosopher, playwright, novelist, editor, and journalist.
Sartre is regarded as one of the most influential contributors to world literature since World War II. As with all of his work, the core of Sartre's literary criticism is existentialist: the philosophical concept of a godless, meaningless world in which individuals merely exist until they become "engaged," or choose a course of action in order to live as free, responsible beings.
Sartre's numerous literary and political essays appeared in a ten-volume anthology entitled Situations. The literary essays chronicle the development of Sartre's critical mind and are considered by many critics as outlines for his studies of Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert. Sartre's books on these authors examine the writers through the social conditions under which they wrote and the changes they underwent as a result of historical events. This method is described in part in Qu'estce que la litterature? (What Is Literature?). In this work, Sartre denied the necessity of critical analysis of a writer's style and language. For Sartre, style was important only as a means to eloquently state the writer's theme. Sartre commended the "engaged" author, the author who has made the decision to raise social consciousness through writing. In Qu'est-ce que la litterature?, Sartre wrote: "[The] function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it's all about." Sartre's later critical works, particularly L'idiot de la famille (The Family Idiot), his study of Flaubert, combine a Marxist viewpoint with his existentialist beliefs.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 7, 9, 13, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vols. 97-100 [obituary].)
Sartre's critical method is to begin with a search for the original choice made by the author when confronted with his own situation. To clarify this statement it must be recalled that an important tenet of existentialism is that each of us is in a particular situation. We are rich or poor, black or white, healthy or sick, and so forth. Within this situation we have freedom of action and our acts are all-important since they will determine our essence. Equally important is how we are seen, in that situation which is ours, by those around us (the Others, in the existentialist vocabulary). For it is only through the Others that we may be able to realize what we are. (p. 99)When the individual becomes aware of his situation, he is faced with a choice. Will he accept his situation, and that means, primarily, will he accept himself as the Others see him, or will he react against it and seek to change the image that the Others have of him? This choice, the original choice, is not one which is made once for all. It is one which has to be made over and over again throughout one's life. For if one chooses to be what the Others have decided he is, one must at all times reject, or modify, actions that might change that image…. If, on the other hand, the individual chooses to react against the Others' image of him, he will constantly have to act in a fashion contrary to the one that is expected of him, at least until...
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Jean-Paul Sartre's interest in literary criticism is indirect: his concern is chiefly to understand the condition of the writer, the particular way in which he remains dependent on, but manages to be free from his day and place, his public and his language. To communicate effectively with his reader a writer must, in Sartre's view, be representative yet original, influenced by his situation yet able to assert his own self much more than most of us are ever in a position to do. Viewed in this way, the condition of the writer is a privileged instance of the human condition, and the study of it necessarily occupies a considerable place in a philosophy which is above all concerned with the problem of freedom. At the same time, the practice of literary criticism, in this special sense, enables Sartre to express his ideas with a bold provocativeness which lies happily midway in style between his forbiddingly abstract philosophic rhetoric and the controversialist's violent irony. (p. 427)
Although Sartre has written about poets, including Baudelaire, Ponge and French-speaking Negro poets, he has paid little attention to style or language. Indeed, because of his sweeping condemnation of the surrealists (a condemnation he has nevertheless qualified several times), some critics have denied that he knows what poetry is. It is true that half-way through his 200-page Baudelaire he admits having shed no light upon 'the secret charm which...
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Pompous, tendentious, superficial and inaccurate, What is Literature? is very far from being one of Sartre's better works. On the last page he ingenuously remarks: 'I have no wish to tell writers of my generation what they ought to do. What right have I to do so, and who has invited my opinion? And I have no taste for literary manifestoes.' Nevertheless, the cavalier dismissal of anyone whose work does not satisfy his criteria—from Molière to Gide, and from the author of The Song of Roland to the Surrealists—gives the work a distinctly sectarian flavour. His identification of good prose with democracy is quite arbitrary—what about Pascal or Bossuet?—and his use of the word 'liberty' is vague in the extreme. To put all English writers safely into clubs and state that America has no middle class are quite delightful, but provide only a passing touch of unconscious humour in a very pompous book. His general thesis that writers often produce good work when they take sides on social issues is acceptable enough. Nevertheless, the number of writers he has to dismiss because they do not do so might perhaps have suggested to a less doctrinaire thinker that something was wrong with his initial premisses. If these premisses had been derived from Sartre's own experience as a practising author they would perhaps have been less arbitrary. At least they would have had some basis in fact, and Geoffrey Gorer's remark that 'literature is what...
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Sartre, in the tradition of phenomenology, distinguishes three related but quite different structures [of existential literature]: memory, anticipation, and imagination. Something remembered, something anticipated, and something imagined are not three variations on the same perceptual theme; they are radically different modes of awareness. When I remember, I recapture a state of affairs that is real in the mode of the past: what I remember happened, and it is that happening, now past, which I search for in memory. The past event is not an unreality but a reality whose mode of being is its being past…. "In order to imagine," Sartre writes, "consciousness must be free from all specific reality and this freedom must be able to define itself by a 'being-in-the-world' which is at once the constitution and the negation of the world; the concrete situation of the consciousness in the world must at each moment serve as the singular motivation for the constitution of the unreal."
It is this simultaneous affirmation and negation of being-in-the-world which so much existential literature illustrates and explores. The particulars given in a situation are exploded by consciousness into a kind of shrapnel. Each character not only interprets the fragments of his experience but causes them to be. By irrealizing their ordinary mundane signification, the existential hero brings into being their essential qualities. These qualities arise against the...
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Jonas A. Barish
Saint Genet is Sartre's account of the roles enacted, the metamorphoses undergone, by Genet himself. It is easier to indicate Sartre's aims in this huge volume than to describe his procedure. What we have is not a process of analysis, nor even the retracing of such a process, but its results: an exposition of the totality of Genet, arranged partly chronologically and partly according to certain topics. As before with Baudelaire, Sartre commences with origins—Genet's parentage and childhood environment—looking for the decisive choices made in youth, and showing how these shaped the adult, how they formed Genet's conception first of himself, then of art and artistic activity, and so in time came to dictate the particulars of literary expression. Like the essay on Baudelaire, that on Genet ends with a prolonged inspection of the published works themselves, in which these are seen as a final splendid relic of the ontological disease, secreted by a creature in desperation. (p. 276)
In its general character Saint Genet falls somewhere between Sartre's philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, and his other essays, plays, and novels. It resembles Being and Nothingness in its daunting bulk and comprehensiveness; it actually adopts much of the apparatus constructed in the earlier book. Sometimes, indeed, it threatens to provoke a guffaw as it wheels up its massive ordinance of abstractions, and trains them...
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A philosopher described Sartre's philosophy as one "rooted in experience and directed towards the analysis of experience," of experiences which are "paradigm cases" for him. But there are, beyond these, individual phenomena which are irreducible to philosophy as a coherent body of thought. Sartre therefore relies on literature to complement philosophy and on literary criticism to mediate between literature and philosophy.
Sartre found or founded in literature vertigo and anguish as the experience of man's freedom; man's gaze as the revelation of the other, interiorized in shame when dominated, in pride when dominating; the privileged moments of a choice of being or of a profound change in direction as "paradigm cases" of the project and praxis, either authentic in a spirit of contestation or in bad faith in the "spirit of seriousness." Literature is also the medium in which description of the act of living discloses knowledge. Sometimes a literary "becoming" has the weight of a comprehensive philosophical or theological demonstration. [In Nausea,] Roquentin feels that life acquires a greater density of being when he hears the voice of commitment. In short, in literature an imaginary prereflective and reflective experience precedes philosophy, just as existence precedes essence. And since Sartre—by his reliance on literature—has been able to produce a systematic existentialist philosophy, this constitutes, in turn, a...
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Robert W. Artinian
For some time now French critics have been talking about a "crisis" in their literature. "Crisis" is a violent word, and there has possibly been some overdramatization in its use; but there can be no doubt about the seriousness of the situation that has evoked this word: French literature suggests a countryside overrun by generations of industrious cultivators until the point of diminishing returns seems reached, where the soil continues to yield crops only after exacting very much more drastic methods of cultivation and ever more painful labor. By the turn of the century, some traditional genres already appeared exhausted, and recently French critics have been declaring that the language itself demands new means of expression.
The background of Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, then, is this continuing crisis in French literature, one which is still apparent on the contemporary literary scene. For in retrospect it seems clear that Sartre is not, nor is likely to become, a great writer: clever, enormously, furiously energetic, he does not possess the authentic gifts of a really first-rate creative talent. But in the present case this may be no disadvantage—a greater writer, for whom literature itself might never become a question, might be less sensitive to the historic forces that now push the literary man into such an odd and difficult place in the world. And what we can always count on in Sartre is the prodigious...
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Sartre's originality, among contemporary critics of style, lies in his treatment of literary style as an objective rather than a subjective phenomenon. As against those for whom the work of art is the privileged occasion of contact with some deeper force, with the unconscious, with the personality, with Being, or with language, Sartre takes his place among the rhetoricians.
The work of art is a construct designed to produce a certain effect; the style of the work of art is the instrument with which a certain illusion of time is conveyed. The objectivity of style in the work of art shows up most clearly in its accessibility to pastiche and imitation, for pastiche remains the best way of trying on the lens of a strange new style, of seeing what the world looks like through it.
But this objectivity brings in turn another form of objectivity with it; if style is a model of time, a certain kind of optical illusion of temporality, then the number of possible styles must be in some sense limited by the number of ways time itself can be deformed or projected. And in this light Sartre's early essays on style in modern writers turn out to be, not principally reviews or occasional articles, but rather chapters of a phenomenology of different attitudes toward, different models of narrative time.
The basic problem of narrative time is that of the event and the way the novelist disposes his raw material into...
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Throughout the essays of Situations 1 one finds a recurrent preoccupation with the problems of language and silence, with the artist's perception of the insufficiencies of language, the perception that language disintegrates the wholeness of the artist's silent intuition. It is precisely those writers who vainly attempt to use language to express silence and a world that precedes words who fascinate Sartre—Parain, Bataille, Blanchot, Camus, Ponge, Faulkner. (p. 19)
Sartre's preoccupation in these early essays appears in an understanding of the novel as a form of action and not as language, and in an antipathy for wordiness (shades of Carlyle!); in other essays, it centers on attempts, particularly by the surrealists, to destroy language and on the twentieth-century "obsession with silence" and the "crisis of language" following World War I. The problem of language and action weaves gradually into the paradoxes of language and silence.
"Aller et retour" concerns itself with the writings of Brice Parain…. Sartre approaches Parain's writing in terms of biography; presenting Parain as a peasant come to the city: "Behind his moral philosophy, his critique of language, one spots the pick and the spade."… Parain also represents what Sartre calls peasant "muteness." "The peasant works alone, among natural forces that don't need to be named in order to act. He keeps still."… Sartre has now created a new element...
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Jean-Paul Sartre, whose first novel, "Nausea," had a biographer as its hero, spent the last 10 years of his working life on a massive psychobiography of a writer he had always detested for his estheticism and his reactionary opinions—Gustave Flaubert. He customarily explained this curious project as an attempt to synthesize what can be understood today about an individual life, given what we have learned from a century of work in psychoanalysis, social psychology, linguistics, anthropology and the symbolic analysis of culture and individual behavior. But for Sartre, understanding always involved the discovery of that point at which all constraints—external accidents, the miseries of psychic determinism and social conditioning—are suddenly transformed into the active gestures and free choices of an individual—what he called "praxis." It is never easy to reach that magical point. "The Family Idiot" takes some 3,000 pages to get there….
Sartre called "The Family Idiot" a "true novel," and it does tell a story and eventually reach a shattering climax. The work can be described most simply as a dialectic, which shifts between two seemingly alternative interpretations of Flaubert's destiny: a psychoanalytic one, centered on his family and on his childhood, and a Marxist one, whose guiding themes are the status of the artist in Flaubert's period and the historical and ideological contradictions faced by his social class, the...
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