Article abstract: A powerhouse of intellectual energy, French existentialist Sartre poured out novels, plays, screenplays, biographies, criticism, political essays, and philosophy. Journalist, teacher, and perennial activist, he served in the first rank of worldwide liberal causes.
Jean-Paul Sartre was the only child of Anne-Marie Schweitzer and Jean-Baptiste Sartre. Jean-Baptiste had been a promising naval officer, active in several engagements in China, where he contracted the enterocolitis that killed him in September, 1906. The young widow and her son, then fifteen months old, returned to her parents’ home. Charles Schweitzer, Anne-Marie’s father, an overbearing intellectual, undertook the education of the precocious boy, who was soon reading voraciously and writing imitations of adventure comic books. Anne-Marie kept her son in long, golden curls. When the curls were finally cut, he recognized himself as ugly, with one eye turned out and blinded by an early illness. This ugliness and his small adult stature (five feet, two inches) fueled his self-consciousness. Formal schooling was intermittent until he was enrolled in the Lycée Henri-Quatre in 1915. After a rocky start, he was academically successful and began making friends.
In 1917, Anne-Marie remarried and moved with her son and new husband to La Rochelle. The move was unhappy for Sartre, who returned to Paris in the fall of 1920 as a boarding student. Thus began a happy period of his life. He renewed and deepened his school friendships and in 1924 entered the rigorous École Normale Supérieure. He shared an interest in philosophy with several classmates and spent hours in reading and discussion, and in the fun of movies, music, jokes, and girl-watching. Sartre loved the regimented life of all-male schools with their camaraderie and emphasis on intellectual achievement. He read widely, preferring Plato or René Descartes to his living professors. He also began to develop his own philosophical attitudes.
Probably his stubborn originality lay behind his failure at the agrégation in 1928. Since this competitive exam was the sole entry into the national system of secondary schools and universities, failure made a would-be academic unemployable. Sartre began a year of concentrated preparation for a retake. Early in that year, he met Simone de Beauvoir, a brilliant philosophy student also preparing for the agrégation. Although Sartre’s romantic life was already crowded, de Beauvoir soon took the central position. They became partners, each the other’s first reader and critic. They openly shared all experiences, and, although each had other lovers, they never broke with each other. They took the agrégation in July, 1929; Sartre took first place, de Beauvoir second.
In November, 1929, Sartre was called up for military service. Trained as a meteorologist, he spent his spare time in reading and writing. Both Sartre and de Beauvoir felt driven to put everything on paper, but neither had published when he was demobilized in February, 1931. Both accepted teaching jobs, and Sartre’s unconventional style made him a favorite with students. He spent 1933-1934 in Berlin, studying the works of Martin Heidegger and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Sartre finally gave up teaching for professional writing in 1945.
In the years before World War II, Sartre settled into a lifelong pattern of regular hours of work, often at café tables and while traveling. Very prolific, he was unconcerned with the fate of his manuscripts, losing some and leaving several works unfinished. In the years 1937-1939, he published philosophical essays on imagination, ego, and emotions. Simultaneously, he published the novel La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949) and a collection of short stories, Le Mur (1939; The Wall and Other Stories , 1948). These writings were...
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well received, in spite or because of their pessimistic view of absurd human life. Albert Camus, later a close friend, was an early, enthusiastic reviewer.
Sartre was called into active service as a meteorologist on September 2, 1939, the day after German troops invaded Poland. His military duties were minimal, and he spent most of his time writing letters, a journal, and the first draft of a novel, L’Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947), first of the planned tetralogy, Les Chemins de la liberté (1945-1949; The Roads to Freedom, 1947-1950). Equally important was his philosophical work L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), begun in the same period. In June, 1940, he was captured and sent to a German prison camp. Paradoxically, Sartre felt liberated as a prisoner. He enjoyed the solidarity of inmates against their jailers. He discussed theology and philosophy with the priests who served the camp and wrote his first play, Bariona: Ou, Le Fils de tonnere (1962; Bariona: Or, The Son of Thunder, 1970), a Christmas story published much later that camouflaged a call to resistance against foreign invasion. When he escaped in March, 1941, he returned to occupied Paris and resumed teaching.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were active in the Resistance as writers and distributors of underground material, but Sartre also continued writing philosophical and literary texts. Being and Nothingness was completed in October, 1942. The second novel of his tetralogy, Le Sursis (1945; The Reprieve, 1947), was finished in November, 1943. In 1943, Les Mouches (The Flies, 1946), a play based on the Greek myth of Orestes’ revenge on his mother Clytemnestra, appeared in Paris, using an ancient story to mask a call to violent resistance, and passed the German censors. During rehearsals, Sartre met Camus. They became friends, and Sartre wrote for Camus’s underground paper, Combat. In May of 1944, he presented a new play, Huis clos (1944; No Exit, 1946). The direct audience contact of the theater was congenial. As in his novels, Sartre used the conventions of plot and character to present his philosophical concepts to a wider public.
During the war, Sartre and de Beauvoir collected a family of former lovers, students, and friends who ate or starved together, with de Beauvoir coordinating the scanty rations. A social network of avant-garde artists and writers met for all-night parties in defiance of wartime curfews. Sartre, an accomplished jazz pianist, played and sang. A heavy drinker and smoker, he always preferred café atmosphere to academic circles. Shortages of food and goods meant little to him. He did not collect property. He idealized the solidarity of students, prisoners, and resistance fighters and, in the decades that followed, would yearn for and never quite recapture the euphoria of the war years. He remained on good terms with his mother and, after the death of his stepfather, shared an apartment with her from 1946 until 1961, when bomb threats made the arrangement dangerous for her. She died in January, 1969.
The end of the war coincided with Sartre’s entry into full-time writing and celebrity. Between 1945 and 1965, he wrote eleven plays and filmscripts, set in times and places as disparate as occupied France and medieval Germany. He promised a study on ethics to follow Being and Nothingness; it never came, but many considerations of good and evil were transposed into his biography of the outlaw genius Jean Genet, Saint Genet: Comédien et martyr (1952; Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, 1963). He published a major biographical essay entitled Baudelaire (English translation, 1950) in 1947, but his massive biography of Gustave Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857 (3 vols., 1971-1972; The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857, partial translation, 1981), was never finished. His own autobiography, Les Mots (1964; The Words, 1964), covers only the early years of his childhood. He published La Mort dans l’âme (1949; Troubled Sleep, 1950), the third volume of his tetralogy, but the projected fourth book never appeared. Even his Critique de la raison dialectique, I: Théorie des ensembles pratiques (1960; Critique of Dialectical Reason I: Theory of Practical Ensembles, 1976) was never finished, although some themes were transposed into other works. The sheer press of demands from all sides, coupled with the ferment of his ideas, made completion of these works unlikely, but their open-ended state gave an illusion of freedom; he still had the option of working on them. A series of essays, gathered in collections entitled Situations (1947-1976), dealt with specific issues, rather than philosophical generalizations. His emphasis was less on systematic consistency than on spontaneity of thought in relation to individual circumstances. His Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1947; What Is Literature?, 1949) examines aesthetics, especially in literature, and makes the case for the “engaged writer,” who aims at action in the world and rejects “art for art’s sake.”
Sartre was the most prominent of a group loosely defined under the label “existentialist,” and his writings of the 1940’s and 1950’s most clearly define the terms of that movement in French literature, criticism, and philosophy. Sartre detested all labels. He argued that each man is responsible for himself, that the external definitions of history or religion conceal the chaos to which actions give shape, and that choice of those actions defines human liberty. To a France bowed down by the shame of defeat, existentialism offered a fresh start with a clean slate.
Immediately after the war, Sartre worked to found a new journal, Les Temps modernes (a bow to Charlie Chaplin), whose diverse editorial board encouraged freewheeling discussion of political and literary subjects. By the time of the French student uprisings of May, 1968, Sartre spoke a frank Maoist line and loaned his name to the editorial boards of radical underground journals, helping to distribute them in defiance of the law.
Sartre died of long-standing vascular illness on April 15, 1980. He had been virtually blind since 1973, able to work only with the help of patient friends such as de Beauvoir, who would talk with him and record his words. He had remained active, going to demonstrations and speaking at rallies, but gradually decaying flesh triumphed over will. He had been idolized and hated by a diverse, worldwide audience.
A listing of Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays, articles, biographies, philosophical studies, causes he espoused, travels, talks, demonstrations, and volatile friendships is dizzying. He declined a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, the first person ever to do so, because he said he preferred not to be made an institution. The example of writers of the Resistance who risked their lives in their work defined his artistic position. In a sense, Sartre always believed himself to be such a Resistance writer. As he worked for liberal causes around the world, he was never deterred by fears of ridicule. His flirtation with the French Communist Party and the governments of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and China was long-standing. A frequent apologist for Marxist movements, he still opposed oppression within the Eastern Bloc, speaking out against the Soviet use of force in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Sartre’s ideas influenced scholars, artists, and ordinary people. The novels and plays that brought his ideas directly before the public continue to be read and studied throughout the world. Situational ethics grew out of the existentialist milieu, as did the contemporary antihero, a figure whose anguish is measured by his individual reactions to life rather than eternal standards of good and evil. Although literary and critical fashion passed him by in the 1970’s, some fifty thousand people followed his funeral procession through the streets of Paris.
Beauvoir, Simone de. Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. A look at Sartre by his lifelong companion, de Beauvoir. If anyone can write a meaningful reflection on Sartre’s life it is de Beauvoir.
Cohen-Solal, Annie. Sartre: A Life. Translated by Anna Cancogni. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. A lucid, flowing account of Sartre’s life, with particular attention given to the development of his interpersonal relationships. Contains illustrations, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Gerassi, John. Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century. Vol 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. In a personal work, encouraged by Sartre, who knew the journalist author well, Gerassi presents the bourgeois writer on his way to revolutionary politics. The first volume covers the years before Sartre’s World War II Resistance work.
Hayman, Ronald. Sartre: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. An invaluable, scholarly work, this biography focuses with particular clarity on the progression of Sartre’s ideas and his changing philosophical stance. Contains illustrations, notes, a bibliography, an index, and a chronological table.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Words. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Braziller, 1964. This autobiographical work covers the childhood years of the author, giving a hypnotic, highly impressionistic picture of his relationship to his family and to the world of words and ideas. Few hard facts, no index or bibliography, but fascinating.