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Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–
Sartre, a Frenchman, has been described as an "iconoclast, idealist, muckraker, playwright, novelist, philosopher, [and] amateur politician." All of Sartre's immense literary output may be seen as implementation of his Existentialist philosophical position. A brilliant thinker and writer, Sartre is one of the most influential literary figures in the world today. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
A schoolteacher, professor of philosophy, [Sartre published] his first literary work as an adult in 1938. And then, nothing less than the novel Nausea (La Nausée). It is followed in 1939 by the novellas in the volume The Wall (Le Mur), and then suddenly a writer emerges who commands all the forms: Horror and grim irony, formal and colloquial dialogue, dream conversations and the most precise philosophical analysis. Aside from this, there are his essays about Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Giraudoux, a philosophical novel about the power of the imagination—about the imaginary—and later a metaphysical work, Being and Nothingness (L'Être et le néant). Finally, the philosopher and novelist publishes his first drama, The Flies (Les Mouches), which is performed in Paris with great success. It, too, is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, as is everything which has appeared up to now under the name of Sartre. One after the other, after such a long silence, the works and actions all strengthen the impression of the extraordinary, the incomparable. They are all internally connected without showing the slightest sign of popularized or trivial thinking. They are true works of literature which have an effect and disturb in those places where their true depth is unsuspected.
However, the abyss is wide open under this work. It is totally open because it is identical with existence itself. Nietzsche's hopeful nihilism appears played out in view of this relentless, disciplined objectivism of Sartre, who does not allow existence to become endowed with any meaning. Existence in and by itself is meaningless: there is neither the Christian nor the humanistic life. Life—existence as such—means contaminated, meaningless physical drives. Whoever seeks to find in these drives meaning and order, mission or foresight, selection or predestination, deceives himself and others…. This lesson is drawn throughout Sartre's novels in a variety of pictures and bright parables.
But, what should become of art and genius, creative life and experience, if our existence removes itself from all categories, the ethical as well as the aesthetic? Suddenly Sartre's work reveals a totally different face. Nihilism served to make a clear division of the spheres. It was far removed from all metaphysical despair. Pessimism was a necessity for thought, not an affectation. Next to the meaningless being came nonexistent meaning. Art. It recognizes necessity and meaningful form, laws and categories, beauty and greatness. But all for a price—that of being non-existent. It is necessary because all that is created intellectually apears as unreal. It escapes time, chance, meaninglessness, which have mercilessly characterized all that which exists….
Life and stories about life are irreconcilable concepts: the one is without spirit, arbitrary, meaningless; the other creates the necessary, a meaning, and laws for the price of its reality. Whoever tells stories, composes melodies, or writes stories offers form, perhaps consolation. However, only because the art works are fictitious.
Sartre's final word, however, is not this aesthetic ideality or imagination. The Atreus drama The Flies reveals a new aspect. Sartre combines his experimentation with a new form, the dramatic, with a new chapter in his interpretation of the world. Next to aesthetics, there is ethics. Here, too, he is concerned with Electra and Orestes, with the gods and the Eumenides—as in Giraudoux's Electra. A drama about the twilight of the gods, about the turning point in time just as in Giraudoux, where the last word is the double meaning of the word "dawn." Orestes frees the city from the gods. Through this deed man deliberately frees himself without remorse from a world ruled by the gods. The law of the gods is turned against the gods: the law gave man the freedom which he used to take his affairs upon himself. Here, too, existence is without a plan: the belief in a divine world scheme is pure illusion. Orestes proves this by his deed. The gods have been banished; fear is removed from man; the "metaphysical age" of Auguste Comte is replaced by the positive. In spite of all this, chaos does not emerge. The Eumenides pursue Orestes. The city is free of fear, but the individual is not free in his actions. The world of appearance and art alone cannot establish meaning. The world of action must also be included. Next to fiction stands action. Both leave behind an impression, a picture of that which they encounter. Everyone is followed by pictures and reproduction of his actions. In the final analysis, he "is" only through their reflection—as through the reflection of the art that he creates. The freedom of the act transforms itself into a necessary fiction of the picture that leaves the act for the outside world. Is this still ethics? Is it still aesthetics? Certainly the work, the act alone, conveys meaning to life, which would still be meaningless by itself…. But isn't there a deeper, richer meaning of meaninglessness conveyed through art? Sartre gave no answer to this….
Three years after the liberation of France, Sartre undertook to answer the question. What is literature? His comprehensive essay reads as though one were climbing a mountain: excursions and digressions and a mixture of sociological, psychological, and aesthetic observations allow us to recognize the author of the philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness and also the Sartre who wrote the Critique of Dialectical Reason. His essay on literature goes around in spirals to its summit….
This balance of the records by Sartre concerning the principles behind his work (this is nominally what it is about) is indeed remarkable. One of the finest works by Jean-Paul Sartre. He is possibly at his best as an essayist. The term is understood here not in the narrow sense of a cultural or literary critic but in the broad traditional sense which he may claim to have developed out of the tradition of Montaigne. The essay sections in Sartre's philosophical treatises are always the high points and represent for some a compensation for "weaker parts."…
All Sartre's literary works are demonstrations of his philosophical theories. All the figures in Sartre's stories, dramas, and novels are exemplifications and hardly have a right to exist "in and by themselves."…
In Sartre's novels and plays, man lives in a world that is unrecognizable to him, one which appears to him to be illogical, incomprehensible, completely meaningless. There is neither a law of history nor a transformation of reality through common efforts. Each action has a significance only for the one who acts. The narrator or the dramatist is in no better position than his characters. Since he does not know more than they do, he cannot think of assuming the attitude of the director or the omniscient narrator….
An artistic contradition arises here. A contradiction that seems to be insoluble, and even Sartre, an extraordinarily gifted man, could not overcome it with all the means of his talents. He demands that the theater once again become a moral institution. This conception belongs to the theme of the Enlightenment that can be constantly observed in Sartre's thought and work. Thus, nothing would be more absurd than to bring Sartre's plays together with the so-called theater of the absurd. Sartre is the opposite of a thinker and writer of absurdity. His opposition to Camus is based on this. He is a moralist and cannot conceive of literature without a function.
However, the moralizing of this author with his conception of mere life situations in an unrecognizable world continually falls into conflicts. A literature with a moralizing function must strive to involve the theater audience as well as the reader with the action of the figures. Either through identification or distance. There is empathy and alienation. In both cases the author determines the nonliterary effect of his work. However, moralization and functionalism are not possible when there is only a world of situations and abrupt actions that are not based on the nature of character or causal events. Either the situational concept of a freedom in the incongruous individual action that is valid for no one else but the one who is acting, since no one else goes through the same situation, or—literary moralizing. Both together are not possible. Thus, it becomes clear why Sartre's dramas, stories, and novels, though always captivating because of their intellectual intensity, can never lead to any kind of non-literary life decision by the reader and spectator the way Sartre seems to wish they could. Sartre's heroes always live in a unique situation especially prepared for them. The way in which they cope with the situation cannot be accomplished by anyone else or repeated by anyone else. No matter what Sartre might introduce, their way must remain without a function….
The writer Sartre seeks a literature of "not only/but also."…
It becomes apparent why writing could initially be nothing less for Sartre than literature of commitment. Moreover, one senses [that] the great essayist Jean-Paul Sartre later had to dismiss the opposition between "pure" and "committed" literature as an artifical antithesis. This was because the choice of a seemingly nonmissionary literature was understood as a special form of commitment—thus Sartre's passionate interest in Baudelaire. As is known, Sartre remained true to this basic position, which called for existential options. The complete works of this philosopher, sociologist, dramatist, politician, and novelist are rooted in a strange amalgamation of Corneille and Pardaillan. ["Translator's note: Pardaillan was a knight who appeared as hero of a serial written by Michael Zévaco for the newspaper Le Matin. As a boy Sartre read this serial with great enthusiam and Pardaillan came to represent for him a champion of the people."]
However, what happens to an author who gradually catches himself at his own tricks and must recognize that the beloved Pardaillan and the somewhat less beloved Michael Strogoff, famous courier of the Czars, are slightly degenerate epic heroes in keeping with their literary genres while they play the role of substitute redeemers in an existential sphere? After such a realization a second secularization is due. In the process the belief in a religion of art is dropped as well as the belief in the possibility and necessity of literary commitment. In anticipation of later events, Sartre accomplishes this double expulsion in the last pages of The Words: he banishes substitute religion and commitment. Nonetheless he continues to write. He continues to commit himself….
Sartre takes his philosophy absolutely seriously. Therefore, it becomes apparent once again why, in spite of all his efforts to create a synthesis out of Marxism and existentialism, he could never really come close to Marxism. His ontology and eschatology reject the basic Marxist principle of a dialectic subject-object relationship as well as the materialistic thesis of the "primacy of the external world." Aside from this, it becomes evident the The Words that Sartre also had to disavow Marxist dialectics in the relationship between theory and practice. Theory as ideology, as false consciousness, is understood under the negative aspect of total atheism. A theory of history can never accept this thesis of consciousness as impersonal spontaneity. Philosophy of history and creatio ex nihilo cancel each other out. In other words, practice without theory. Practice in and of itself. But also, practice as a substitute religion.
The freedom, which the last pages of The Words appear to proclaim, proves to be a new metaphysical bond. It is merely a condition, a "situation," and therefore, it can be resolved—abrupt in action, absurd in substance—by a new decision. This is because it became clear that the situation of being totally without illusions also represented a form of commitment and, along with this, institutionalization. Sartre is well aware of this.
Hans Mayer, "Observations on the Situation of Sartre" (originally published in Ansichten zur Literatur der Zeit; © 1962 by Rowohlt Verlag GMBH), in his Steppenwolf and Everyman, translated by Jack D. Zipes (copyright © 1971 by Hans Mayer; reprinted with permission of Thomas Y. Crowell Co., Inc.), Crowell, 1971, pp. 213-39.
Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and by ghastly repetitiveness…. Sartre breaks every rule of decorum established for the critic; this is criticism by immersion, without guidelines. The book simply plunges into Genet; there is little discernible organization to Sartre's argument; nothing is made easy or clear. One should perhaps be grateful that Sartre stops after six hundred and twenty-five pages. The indefatigable act of literary and philosophical disembowelment which he practices on Genet could just as well have gone on for a thousand pages. Yet, Sartre's exasperating book is worth all one's effort of attention. Saint Genet is not one of the truly great, mad books; it is too long and too academic in vocabulary for that. But it is crammed with stunning and profound ideas.
What made the book grow and grow is that Sartre, the philosopher, could not help (however reverentially) upstaging Genet, the poet. What began as an act of critical homage and recipe for the bourgeois literary public's "good use of Genet" turned into something more ambitious. Sartre's enterprise is really to exhibit his own philosophical style—compounded of the phenomenological tradition from Descartes through Husserl and Heidegger, plus a liberal admixture of Freud and revisionist Marxism—while writing about a specific figure. In this instance, the person whose acts are made to yield the value of Sartre's philosophical vocabulary is Genet….
Sartre wants to be concrete. He wants to reveal Genet, not simply to exercise his own tireless intellectual facility. But he cannot. His enterprise is fundamentally impossible. He cannot catch the real Genet; he is always slipping back into the categories of Foundling, Thief, Homosexual, Free Lucid Individual, Writer. Somewhere Sartre knows this, and it torments him. The length, and the inexorable tone, of Saint Genet are really the product of intellectual agony.
The agony comes from the philosopher's commitment to impose meaning upon action. Freedom, the key notion of existentialism, reveals itself in Saint Genet, even more clearly than in Being and Nothingness, as a compulsion to assign meaning, a refusal to let the world alone. According to Sartre's phenomenology of action, to act is to change the world. Man, haunted by the world, acts. He acts in order to modify the world in view of an end, an ideal. An act is therefore intentional, not accidental, and an accident is not to be counted as an act. Neither the gestures of personality nor the works of the artist are simply to be experienced. They must be understood, they must be interpreted as modifications of the world. Thus, throughout Saint Genet, Sartre continually moralizes. He moralizes upon the acts of Genet…. Although Sartre occasionally refers to things which he knows through his own friendship with Genet, it is almost entirely the man revealed by his books of whom Sartre speaks. It is a monstrous figure, real and surreal at the same time, all of whose acts are seen by Sartre as meaningful, intentional. This is what gives Saint Genet a quality that is clotted and ghostly. The name "Genet" repeated thousands of times throughout the book never seems to be the name of a real person. It is the name given to an infinitely complex process of philosophical transfiguration.
Given all these ulterior intellectual motives, it is surprising how well Sartre's enterprise serves Genet. This is because Genet himself, in his writings, is notably and explicitly involved in the enterprise of self-transfiguration. Crime, sexual and social degradation, above all murder, are understood by Genet as occasions for glory. It did not require much ingenuity on Sartre's part to propose that Genet's writings are an extended treatise on abjection—conceived as a spiritual method. The "sanctity" of Genet, created by an onanistic meditation upon his own degradation and the imaginative annihilation of the world, is the explicit subject of his prose works. What remained for Sartre was to draw out the implications of what is explicit in Genet. Genet may never have read Descartes, Hegel, or Husserl. But Sartre is right, entirely right, in finding a relation in Genet to the ideas of Descartes, Hegel, and Husserl….
Saint Genet is a book about the dialectic of freedom, and is, formally at least, set in the Hegelian mold. What Sartre wants to show is how Genet, by means of action and reflection, has spent his whole life attaining the lucid free act. Cast from his birth in the role of the Other, the outcast, Genet chose himself. This original choice is asserted through three different metamorphoses—the criminal, the aesthete, the writer. Each one is necessary to fulfill freedom's demand for a push beyond the self. Each new level of freedom carries with it a new knowledge of the self. Thus the whole discussion of Genet may be read as a dark travesty on Hegel's analysis of the relations between self and other. Sartre speaks of the works of Genet as being, each one of them, small editions of The Phenomenology of Mind. Absurd as it sounds, Sartre is correct. But it is also true that all of Sartre's writings as well are versions, editions, commentaries, satires on Hegel's great book. This is the bizarre point of connection between Sartre and Genet; two more different human beings it would be hard to imagine.
In Genet, Sartre has found his ideal subject. To be sure, he has drowned in him. Nevertheless, Saint Genet is a marvellous book, full of truths about moral language and moral choice.
Susan Sontag, "Sartre's 'Saint Genet'" (1963), in her Against Interpretation and Other Essays (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 by Susan Sontag), Farrar, Straus, 1966, pp. 93-9.
In his time, Sartre has gone into the ring with nearly every literary form, except poetry: novels, plays, stories, philosophy, aesthetics, politics and criticism. With immense industry, spouting ideas like some huge, hard-working Moby Dick of the intellectual life, he has effortlessly dominated the Paris scene since the war. Yet he is a curious phenomenon: a great influence, a great figure in the landscape, yet never quite a great writer. His philosophy, apparently, is not startling original and is, certainly, expressed far too obscurely to have had anything but a most sidelong influence. How many of the professed Existentialists have really read L'Être et le Néant? And how many of them have really understood it? It strikes me as being written as though deliberately to defy analysis. Even more certainly, he is not a great creative writer, for all the compulsive readability of his novels—like a highbrow Ian Fleming—or the tensely dramatic situations of his plays. All that brilliance gets in the way of the human thing which is, after all, what literature is about. The books are too full of good ideas to be true. Tease them out as problems and they seem all very profound and subtle; but they feel shallow.
Yet this combination of talents—both exceptional, neither quite overwhelming—blends into something wholly pervasive. Sartre is influential because he is a philosopher who gave his ideas flesh and set them intriguingly in action. He is also a novelist and playwright whose work gains dignity by echoing an elaborately structured world of ideas. As such, he belongs to a special sub-division of literature, the School of Brilliance: its alumni include Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw, Anatole France and Aldous Huxley. It is a school that relies, to use old-fashioned terms, more on invention than imagination. That is, the writers' fecundity with plots, situations, aphorisms and striking, unexpected ornaments is endless, but their people are two-dimensional props for ideas, voices in a crackling but bleak world of abstractions.
A. Alvarez, "Jean-Paul Sartre" (originally published in The Spectator, 1964), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 128-32.
One of the most maddening things about Jean-Paul Sartre is how he continually promises, and continually fails, to be a poet of the stage. Buried somewhere deep inside of him there is an inventive theatre artist capable of fertile theatrical concepts, but while he thoroughly explores the philosophical implications of these concepts, he leaves their imaginative possibilities virtually untapped. What Sartre ultimately lacks is the artist's commitment to form: of all his dramatic works, only the short play No Exit seems to enjoy a structure congenial to its theme. As for the others, they all look like uneasy collaborations between a deft original thinker and a clumsy derivative playwright, for despite their intellectual vitality and suggestive scenic strategies, they invariably bog down into talky scenes, old-fashioned dramaturgy, and unconvincing character motivations that lessen the impact of their ideas….
His virtues stem from an adventurous mind, his faults from an inability to be equally adventurous in his use of the stage. As a thinker, Sartre has no peers among contemporary playwrights, but he has not yet learned to forge his ideas into powerful myths. He is certainly a dramatist, but one who presently looks backward, even as he is pushing forward intellectually to the limits of human thought.
Robert Brustein, "Sartre, the Janus" (1966), in his The Third Theater (copyright © 1958, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 165-68.
In Romantic literature, of which Existentialism can be seen as a logical continuation, it is other people who are wrong in their failure to recognize the solitary man of genius when he appears. For the Sartre of Les Mots, the writer whom Iris Murdoch described so accurately in 1953 as a "Romantic Rationalist," it becomes the others, the handsome, agile children in the Luxembourg gardens, the "fils du peuple" who totally ignore the young Sartre when he joins their class at school, who are right to judge the solitary individual according to their lights. Moreover, this tendency to set the group above the individual is not peculiar to Sartre's autobiography. It occurs in Le Diable et le Bon Dieu (1951), where Goetz is presented as acting correctly when he gives up his attempt to secure individual salvation and devotes himself instead to serving the collective interests of the peasants, and the idea of preferring collective to individualistic values is already suggested by the preference given to Hoederer over Hugo in Les Mains sales. In Les Séquestrés d'Altona, Franz von Gerlach is criticized for attempting to escape the judgment of his contemporaries and seek refuge in the verdict of History, and even Jean Genet, so often considered as a kind of existentialist hero, is violently attacked in Saint Genet, comédien et martyr for seeking to attain through sainthood a position where he would be immune to merely mortal judgments. It is almost as if, in these individual texts as well as in his more general readiness to adopt a Marxist point of view on so many social and ethical problems, Sartre were trying to compensate for his failure to be accepted by his contemporaries when he was a child. The idea that there might, in some respects, be real though long-term advantages in having had a lonely and unhappy childhood is almost totally lacking in Les Mots, and it is again instructive to compare Sartre, in this respect, with those lonely children who became philosophers—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell. Whereas Sartre regrets the isolation forced upon him, they all come, on reflection, to look upon this early solitude as containing the ultimate source for their present strength. "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" was the text held up as an ethical ideal to the young Russell by the grandmother who brought him up, and the whole of Russell's life can be seen as a laudable if sometimes misguided effort to carry out this injunction. Sartre does not, of course, suggest that we should follow a multitude to do wrong just because it is a multitude. His refusal of the Nobel Prize for Literature, like his courageous stand on a number of controversial political issues, reveals something of the Protestant ethic so dear to the Schweitzers, and there is little doubt that he would, like Russell, have
Dared to be a Daniel
Dared to stand alone
Dared to have a purpose clear
Dared to make it known.
Yet for all the encouragement to unorthodoxy that may be derived both from his early work and from his later public attitudes, Sartre's actual description of his own early life offers at the moment little support for the basic existentialist position that it is the unhappy outsider whose experience is potentially of the most value….
It is an established convention that the novels and biographies inspired by our most famous politicians and business leaders, from the real Winston Churchill to the partly fictional Citizen Kane, should begin by tracing the hero's drive and ambition to the physical or emotional deprivations of his childhood, and Sartre is only being more honest than many other highly successful men when he writes that he detests his childhood and everything that it has done to form his character ("je déteste mon enfance et tout ce qui en survit"). What is original and paradoxical about Les Mots is the lie which the book gives by its very form to the ideas which it expresses. For some two hundred brilliantly written pages Sartre derides the literary calling which alone has enabled him to impose this vision of his childhood so effectively on his readers. For all the apparent rejection of his ideas on freedom and determinism of his optimism about man and society, of the important political role which he once saw the writer as capable of fulfilling, and for all the scorn he shows towards the child whose unhappiness continues to inspire everything he does, Sartre has not abandoned the fruits to which this unhappiness has given birth. He is still, in Les Mots itself, one of the best stylists in modern French literature, one of the keenest and wittiest observers of other human beings, one of the most perceptive of social thinkers. Even though Sartre himself may not, in retrospect, think that the game has been worth the candle, his readers undoubtedly do. Whatever else he may have rejected of the Existentialist and Romantic position, he has certainly kept, in practice at any rate, the idea of the pearl produced by an irritation in the oyster.
Philip Thody, "Sartre's Autobiography: Existential Psychoanalysis or Self-Denial?" in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 4, Autumn, 1969, pp. 1030-44.
La Nausée is a concentrated, knotted kind of book. There is nothing much in the way of a plot—no development of situations and no ripening of human relationships. But this is deliberate, for Sartre wishes to show, among other things, the banal routine of everyday life in which people conceal from themselves the basic absurdity of their existence. Nothing meaningful will ever happen to the citizens of Bouville: they will forever continue to go to work, to sit in cafés, to discuss trivialities, and to believe in the permanence of human structures. The development of the novel is in the deepening of Roquentin's nausea and his analysis of the absurdity, the sheer contingency of existence, which is its cause. The climax is reached when he decides to return to Paris to write his 'hard as steel' book. Yet we suspect that this is really an anti-climax, for it is hard to see how a book written by a superfluous individual can declare its own inherent necessity and thereby make people 'ashamed of their existence.' The solution to Roquentin's problem does not, we feel, lie here.
On the other hand, we may feel that La Nausée is too concentrated, that too much of life is omitted and that what Sartre has presented is a distortion. Probably all of us from time to time share the feeling of Roquentin that our own existence is dissolving into Nothingness, but most of us are too busy to attend for long to these private fancies. We have our work to do and our families to support and there are even moments when the banal rountines of our day-to-day lives seem to clarify and reveal a glimpse of meaning…. Certainly there is nothing in Sartre's novel to counter-balance or alleviate the sense of nausea: all meanings crash down in ruin. Learning, culture, human friendship, even the 'perfect moments' of love—all are destroyed by the rot of absurdity.
Yet as an artist Sartre is surely entitled to concentrate as he does in La Nausée, for art may legitimately seek to isolate and define a bit of human experience whose significance is usually lost amid the welter of life. The question we have to ask is whether Sartre succeeds in forcing us to recognize the presence of nausea in ourselves and whether he convinces us that we have paid too little heed to it. Perhaps, like the people of Bouville, we are also guilty of living an unjustified, superfluous existence whose true nature we conceal from ourselves by routine actions and habits of thought. It may be of vital importance that we recognize the implications of nausea and stop thinking of it as a temporary malaise. Salvation may depend upon knowing the worst and shedding delusion….
There is a world of difference between a nihilism so terrible and inescapable that it leads to madness or suicide, and a nihilism which is merely a fashionable pose, though it may be doubted whether the latter would exist if the former did not. It is, I think, undeniable that genuine nihilism is more common in the literature of our time than in that of other periods. As Sartre says, we have reached the stage of having to decide to live. In an age in which cosmic suicide has become possible, such a decision is of literally vital importance.
If we are Christians, we shall not despise the feelings of a Roquentin, nor shall we persuade ourselves that he is merely a poseur. We may think, rather, that nausea is not so far removed from what St. Paul called 'the exceeding sinfulness of sin'—the experience of finding that the props of culture, work, social enjoyment, and even religion itself, are shoring up a building whose foundations are unsupported. We may, from our point of view, say that nausea is the discovery that our existence is unjustified because we have lost God and cannot create ourselves; that all our substitutes for God are false and useless. We may readily agree with Sartre that man cannot be understood merely in terms of a social or cultural context and that there always comes a point at which we recognize how spurious is the confidence we place in our defensive structures, how easily they crumble away and leave us 'unaccommodated'. But we may also wish to claim that God in Christ is present with us even in the depths of our self-despair.
Behind the novels of Sartre stands his Existentialist philosophy, and one wonders whether the characters he invents are more like exemplars of a theory than possible individuals. But Existentialism is not supposed to be a theory about human existence—only one of many rival interpretations—formulated ideologically; it is meant to be descriptive of what it is actually like to be a human being, and that is why it is most appropriately expressed in dramatic form. Even Sartre's major theoretical work, Being and Nothingness, is full of homely examples drawn from life. The difficulty is that Sartre, like all morally serious writers, is concerned not only with what men do but also with what they ought to do, not only with how they actually understand themselves but with how they ought to understand themselves. He wants to break down all the bogus structures, to strip off the layers of falsehood and self-deception, and to reveal the authentic being of man. But this implies a theory about the nature of 'authentic' being which itself stands in need of some authentication. For the most part, Sartre's writings attempt to provide this negatively, by presenting to us a pageant of individuals who are manifestly living inauthentically and by leaving us to infer from their failure the lines along which we are to look for success. This makes his novels and plays on the whole rather depressing and even inhuman….
Nietzsche and Sartre bid us rejoice and enter exultantly into our freedom, welcoming the dawn which has at last broken after the long night of human bondage. The twentieth-century sickness turns out to be convalescence after the illness of faith, and soon we shall rise from our beds and inaugurate the reign of Man, for whom all is now permitted.
In view of the heroism and adventure implied by this gospel, we may be puzzled to know why it is that the writings of Sartre are so depressing. In them, we see people being brought, with tremendous reluctance and struggle, to the starting-line of freedom, but we seldom seem to see them actually running in the promised race. The reason for this is perhaps that it is not really possible for Sartre to make predictions or offer models without denying his own existentialist doctrine. Sartre has repudiated all absolutes and all objective values; man finds himself cast upon a meaningless universe in which there are no sign-posts, no maps, no marked-out routes to follow, not even a concept of human nature from which some sort of guidance may come. Each man must create his own essence and no one else can do it for him. To offer models is to play the part of God and to bring man back into servitude. Sartre will place you at absolute zero, the starting-line of freedom, but after that you are on your own. Absolute zero is a rather depressing spot, which is why Sartre's novels are rather depressing novels.
But Sartre's intense moral seriousness requires him to insist that it is better to be depressed than deluded. To live without God and without ultimate meanings is a difficult calling, and we prefer our delusions, the lies we tell ourselves, because they persuade us that we have a grip on existence. But to be a man in the twentieth century is to see these delusions for what they really are and to be challenged to live without them. We are being summoned by a serious call to a life of responsibility and freedom, to a work of demolition on the spurious orders of belief and convention within which men have been imprisoned throughout the centuries of faith….
There is, therefore, a sense in which Sartre and other contemporary writers are recalling us to the kind of life which Jesus himself placed before us—a life, that is, which is creative and open to the future because it is free from stultifying moral prescriptions. The difference is that Sartre believes that such a life can be self-generated, whereas Jesus believed it could come only if a man opened himself up to the will of God.
David Anderson, in his The Tragic Protest (© SCM Press Ltd., 1969; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox, 1969, pp. 27-48.
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