Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 4)

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Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5,934 words.)