Almost from the start, Sartre tended to dismiss most existing literature as “inauthentic,” both politically and psychologically. Among the earlier literary critics of Marxist orientation, he distrusted the literary “canon” most of all because it depended upon the capitalist system for its mere existence: Publishing is, after all, a business like any other, and publishers are most likely to print, and profit from, books that encourage the political status quo. At a deeper level, Sartre questioned also the “authoritative” stance of traditional prose fiction, in which characters and their actions are fully “determined” by an omniscient narrator. “The Wall,” a short story written and collected in Le Mur (1939; The Wall, and Other Stories, 1948), serves in many ways to illustrate Sartre’s developing theories of fiction, most fully expressed in the lecture-essay Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1947; What Is Literature?, 1949), which calls for a new kind of narrative prose more closely related to “real life.”
Told in the first person by a most “unprivileged” narrator, a political prisoner awaiting execution at sunrise along with two others, “The Wall” limits exposition to Pablo Ibbieta’s own sensations and immediate reactions. The other characters, Pablo’s captors and fellow prisoners, are seen and portrayed through Pablo’s eyes alone. Militant and “macho,” Pablo tries hard to face death “cleanly” and with dignity, and he is increasingly alone with his thoughts as he observes the other prisoners’ reactions with more than a hint of disapproval. Detained for further questioning after the two others have been shot, Pablo suddenly finds humor in the situation and sends his captors off on a “wild goose chase,” deliberately misleading them as to the whereabouts of his fellow-conspirator Ramon Gris. In a “trick” ending amply prepared by the preceding action, Pablo’s practical joke will “backfire,” leaving him physically alive but psychologically “dead” after Franco’s troops find and kill Gris exactly where Pablo told them to look. Truth, implies Sartre, is frequently stranger than fiction; fiction, in turn, must reflect that strangeness in order to remain honest or “authentic.”
By the time Nausea was published in 1938 Sartre had moved somewhat away from “pure” literary experimentation toward the deliberate use of creative writing as a vehicle for his philosophical speculations. In addition to the later stories eventually collected with his first in The Wall, and Other Stories, he was recording observations for future use in his projected tetralogy of novels, to be known collectively as The Roads to Freedom. Thereafter, Sartre’s prose fiction tended to reflect his philosophy, and vice versa. It was not long, however, before Sartre found in the theater an even more effective outlet for his ideas, given the relative ease and simplicity of expressing character and behavior on the stage. In The Flies, upon which he began work not long after his release as a prisoner of war, Sartre managed to illustrate his concepts of “bad faith,” “freedom,” and “choice” in terms instantly grasped by audiences already familiar with the Orestes legend.
For at least fifteen years prior to the first performances of The Flies, Parisian audiences had grown accustomed to the use of ancient myths, preferably Greek, as vehicles for stimulating commentary on contemporary themes, thanks mainly to the plays of Jean Giraudoux. In planning and executing The Flies, Sartre used Giraudoux’s Electre (pr., pb. 1937; Electra , 1952) both as inspiration and as target, implicitly rebutting many of the older playwright’s conclusions through the metaphysics of existentialism. Whereas Giraudoux portrays Electra as a heroine of sorts, Sartre sees and shows her as a coward who prefers the “comfort”...
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of assumed guilt to the “anguish” of responsibility for her actions. There was also, for the play’s first audiences, a strong political message implicit in Orestes’ existential defiance of the prevailing social order, likened to that of France under Nazi occupation. For his next dramatic effort, best known in English asNo Exit, Sartre touched only briefly on political concerns, preferring instead to present the psychological implications of his thinking. There, even more than in The Flies, his ideas began to take on a life of their own, readily grasped by spectators who knew or cared little about philosophy.
As expressed through his early plays as well as in his essays, Sartre’s mature thought draws sharp distinctions between passive “essence” (a form of being that humanity shares, at birth, with rocks, plants, and animals) and active “existence,” a uniquely human form of purposive being too often denied. Of all beings, Sartre maintains, the human form alone is capable of choosing itself, of creating itself through continuous acts of choice. Those human beings who refuse to choose or take responsibility for choices already made are guilty of bad faith (mauvaise foi), a fundamental dishonesty that is in its own way a form of death, at the very least a denial of “authentic” human life. Only after physical death, argues Sartre, should it be possible to define an individual human life, as the sum total of that individual’s actions; until that time, any effort to identify or fix labels to oneself, to complete the utterance “I am . . . ” with a predicate noun or adjective, amounts to premature living death, a refusal of the change and growth peculiar to authentic human life, or existence. By contrast, those who opt for existence are too busy choosing themselves for labels to be applied either by themselves or by the Other.
The Other constitutes for Sartre the greatest threat to individual freedom and responsibility. Each individual, as the Other, tends to limit “my” freedom by applying labels, by attempting to fix “my” essence; blind to “my” intentions, the Other sees and judges only “my” actions, intent upon completing the sentence “He/she is . . . ” with a predicate that is tantamount to murder. Too often, contends Sartre, the individual responds—consciously or unconsciously—to such pressure by accepting, or in rare cases even seeking, the Other’s definition, often masquerading as approval.
Combining psychology with sociology and politics, Sartre’s mature expression, both creative and expository, continued to reach readers and spectators long after he had stopped writing either plays or fiction. A decade or so after Sartre’s death, the rapid decline of European communism, an event he never foresaw and would no doubt have deemed impossible, cast serious doubt upon his powers as a political “prophet.” Notwithstanding, the power of his best creative work remains intact, fit to challenge generations yet unborn when it was written.
First published: La Nausée, 1938 (English translation, 1949)
Type of work: Novel
An intellectual records the growing awareness of his own futility.
Among the earliest of Sartre’s extant writings, begun and tentatively completed as early as 1936, Nausea first took shape in Sartre’s mind under the working title “Melancholia,” inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I, which depicts a disrupted and disturbed “thinker.” Art, either as product or as process, looms large throughout the work, casting into the foreground Antoine Roquentin’s growing sense of superfluity in a hostile, or at least indifferent, universe.
Invited on an archaeological expedition to Cambodia, the trained historian Roquentin, a former archaeology teacher, undergoes a kind of reverse “conversion” upon viewing a Khmer statuette displayed to him as enticement to make the trip. Suddenly confronted with the immortality or “solidity” of art, Roquentin instantly feels himself “fluid” and “viscous” by contrast. Refusing his colleague’s offer, Roquentin decides to seek immortality of his own through completion of a scholarly project begun some years earlier. His subject is the life and career of the Marquis de Rollebon, a minor figure in the French Revolution, whose papers his descendants have willed to the public library at Bouville, a port city closely modeled upon Le Havre. Spending much of his time in the public library of Bouville, the remainder in cafés and restaurants, Roquentin becomes increasingly, disgustingly aware of his own weight upon the earth’s surface, of his “existence” as object in a world threateningly filled with other “existing” objects both living and inanimate. (Significantly, the term “existence” had not yet assumed for Sartre the exact meaning to be applied in his later works.) In one early scene, Roquentin feels that a public park is “smiling” at him, and not in a friendly manner; similarly, a glass half-filled with beer appears to be “watching” him, and his own hand will loom before him as a sudden, monstrous presence, a beached crustacean with hair.
Roquentin’s disorientation, deriving at first from his awareness of nature (including his own) and art, soon extends to include his fellow mortals, living and dead, whose “existence” seems quite as unjustifiable as his own: If he, Roquentin, is superfluous, “in the way,” so, too, are those who have accepted without question their right to “exist.” Particularly odious to Roquentin’s developing consciousness are the capitalist founding fathers of Bouville, immortalized by commissioned portraits hanging in the town museum, and an acquaintance from the library known only as the Autodidact or Self-Taught Man. A minor bureaucrat, the Self-Taught Man claims to have been converted to “humanism” (in Roquentin’s view, a kind of fuzzy-minded socialism) while serving in World War I; spending most of his free time in the library, he attempts to fill the gaps in his formal education by reading all the books in alphabetical order, as listed by author’s name. Near the end of Roquentin’s journal, the Self-Taught Man will stand cruelly revealed as a barely repressed pederast, banished from the library for life by the Corsican security guard, who has never really liked him anyway.
Thanks to the “alienation effect” of Roquentin’s increasing maladjustment, Nausea quickly moves beyond psychological “case history” to scathing—and enduring—social satire, extending outward to embrace politics and art. Also singled out for satire, besides the Self-Taught Man and the bourgeois founding fathers, is Roquentin’s former mistress Anny, a second-rate performing artist whose “real-life poses” he has until now found rather entertaining. In his current lucid state, however, Roquentin quickly sees through Anny’s life of artifice, finding himself quite unable to participate, as before, in her perpetual game playing. Continually haunted by the contingency of human life as opposed to the permanence and “immortality” of certain works of art—including a ragtime tune that he first heard whistled by American soldiers in France in 1917—Roquentin allows his journal to dwindle, lamenting his inability to write a novel that, unlike his unfinished biography of Rollebon, might have enabled him to “make sense” of his experiences.
First produced: Huis clos, 1944 (first published, 1945; English translation, 1947)
Type of work: Play
United in Hell, a mismatched trio of characters reconsider their botched lives.
Perhaps the clearest articulation of Sartre’s developing existentialist philosophy, No Exit is notable also as a rousing piece of theater, stocked with good “parts” and memorable lines, a perennial favorite with amateur and semiprofessional drama groups. Into a high-rise Hell drawn more from science fiction than from Scripture and presided over by a nearly silent functionary are cast three recently deceased characters, two women and a man, whose paths never crossed in life and likely never would have. Joseph Garcin, first to arrive, is a journalist whose pacifist convictions are somewhat at odds with his carefully cultivated “macho” image and his exploitative attitude toward women. Next to arrive in the carefully furnished room is Inès Serrano, a postal clerk who makes no secret of her lesbianism or of her parallel disregard for men. The third and last arrival, a vain, stereotypical “brainless blonde” with aspirations toward snobbery, soon polarizes the action by attracting both Garcin and Inès with her charms.
In its themes and language, No Exit often moves too close to popular culture, “soap opera” in particular, to be taken seriously as literature. Freely trading accusations, insults, and flirtations as each character seeks to get his or her own way, the trio quickly attracts and holds the spectator’s attention for approximately one hour’s uninterrupted playing time, taking turns as torturer and victim as they act out Sartre’s conviction, restated as a line in the play, that Hell is other people.
With the exception of Estelle Rigault, whose perceived beauty allowed her aunt and guardian to “marry her off” at an early age to a much older man with money, and whose subsequent life was led among the idle rich, the new inhabitants of the room with no exit are hardly surprised to find themselves in Hell; they are surprised only by the details of the place. Garcin and Inès have both died violently, in ways that both feel they richly deserved: Garcin has mistreated his wife, and Inès considers herself responsible for the death of a cousin whose wife became first her lover and subsequently her killer in a murder-suicide. Only Estelle has died a “natural” death, yet she, too, is soon revealed as a murderess, having drowned her newborn “love child,” whose father was too poor to be considered as a future husband.
Throughout the action to follow, it becomes clear that Estelle, although technically guilty of murder, is in Hell mainly because of her passive, unexamined life, lived in “bad faith” and in hopes of pleasing the Other, whomever he/she may be. Garcin, shot by firing squad at the start of World War II, ostensibly for his pacifist convictions, still fears that he might have been considered a deserter and a coward, having been arrested in flight between Brazil and Mexico City. Inès Serrano, more lucid than the other two about their collective situation, may seem at first glance to be ill-placed in Sartre’s selective Hell, serving so often as the playwright’s “voice” and spokesperson. On reflection, however, it becomes clear that Inès has chosen her own Hell, never having questioned society’s judgment of her homosexual lifestyle; at the time, “damned women” was a common euphemism to denote lesbians, and Inès has accepted the label at face value, without ever trying to reach beyond it in search of genuine self-discovery. Still, it is Inès who will conduct most of the “hearing behind closed doors,” capturing the sense of the original French title. Garcin will remain torn between the two women, Estelle, who, trying hard as ever to please, appeals to his body, and Inès, whose superior intellect dares him to prove that he was not a coward when he fled Rio. Estelle could care less about Garcin’s cowardice, “so long as he kisses well”; Inès, meanwhile, covets Estelle’s affections and keeps Garcin’s advances eternally in check as she renders her “verdict” upon his motivations for leaving Brazil. The characters are indeed dead, the “bottom line” has been drawn beneath their lives, and nothing can be changed. Imprisoned in a fake-looking room that replicates the “bad faith” and falsehood of their lives, they are “doomed” to torture one another for all eternity. “Okay, let’s get on with it,” says Garcin as the curtain falls.