Jean-Paul Sartre

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Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 9)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4383

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–

Sartre, a French playwright, essayist, philosopher, politician, and novelist, is considered by many to be the most influential thinker and writer of our time. The father of existentialist philosophy, Sartre has examined virtually every aspect of human endeavor from the position of a search for total human freedom. Early in his career Sartre forged a philosophy of fiction revolving around the reader-author relationship which became a pivotal perspective of the New Novel school. Sartre called for the implication of the reader in fiction, the establishment of highly subjective points of view, and he said that chronology could best be handled through a series of constantly unfolding and ongoing present moments. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

A valuable prescription for those who would understand Sartre's notion of freedom should be: Don't confine your reading to Being and Nothingness and Critique of Dialectical Reason. Although Sartre deals with a wide range of subjects in the former, earlier work, he largely emphasizes individual freedom and aloneness. In the latter work, he encourages concerted social action. This seeming paradox requires a survey of the Sartre oeuvre to decipher, for only in this way can one fully appreciate the progression of Sartre's thought on the crucial matter of freedom. (p. 144)

The primary components of Sartre's thought may be said to form a triumvirate: Freedom-Responsibility-Action. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre insists that the major consequence of the fact that God does not exist, a consequence which man must recognize and accept, is that man is completely free. It is he who represents, through his freedom to act, the only destiny of mankind, and, through the acceptance of his freedom-responsibility, the legislator of all values.

Initially, the emphasis on freedom had a strongly personal nature—with Being and Nothingness and Sartre's first play, The Flies, many readers determined that for Sartre the individual must assume his own freedom as ultimately and exclusively important. His second drama, No Exit, was viewed as a vivid revelation that men cannot engage in cooperative endeavors due to inevitable conflict. At this stage of his writing, however, Sartre produced his essay, Existentialism is a Humanism. Many critics prefer to forget this brief work and fervently wish that Sartre had done the same. Still Sartre refuses to reject any of his works; thus, we must accept the fact that he does not now reject nor did he reject in 1946 the premise of this essay—each man, desiring freedom above all, necessarily wants and strives for the freedom of the Other as well…. Sartre had not sufficiently elaborated in his first work the extent of the limitation to project and freedom afforded by the Other. Again, he did not sufficiently elaborate in Existentialism Is a Humanism how the former difficulty could be superseded in favor of a striving toward freedom for both self and the Other. Was it possible, in fact, that the critics were justified, that there was no solution to this dilemma?

Here a study of the drama provides a much needed and indispensable supplement to Sartre's philosophical works. The careful reader of Sartre's oeuvre cannot help but be struck by the fact that Sartre wrote a play subsequent to each progression of thought concerning his system. Yet, with the drama, he seems to be released from a good deal of the abstraction peculiar to his philosophical work. Proceeding as it does from within the inner sphere of his imagination, the drama not only...

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quotes the key ideas of its father philosophical or critical work but expands upon the ideas, and, in fact, often foreshadows ideas to come. Such is the case with regard to the dilemma of freedom in the context of human projects.

Looking at Sartre's first drama, The Flies, written after Sartre's first great philosophical work and during the occupation, the reader finds an emphasis on the recognition of individual freedom on the part of one man, Orestes…. The play demonstrates quite clearly that the Other, in this case, the people of Argos, are necessary in order to give meaning to the act which Orestes performs; clearly, Orestes performs the act to free the people and to show them their freedom; however, the reader cannot escape the point that Orestes initially desires the act and the communion with the Argives as a means of personal commitment and to give his own life meaning. Thus, the individual in search of his own freedom and identity through commitment is primary and the devotion of the effort for the Other, while very important, is secondary to this factor.

Sartre's second play, No Exit, focuses on the conflict basic to human relations. Unfortunately, with one line of this play, Sartre has allowed himself to be "hung on his own catchphrase." "Hell is other people" is a line so vivid and memorable that it permits critics to handily make of the play itself an object which teaches, "Hell is [always] other people." There is, however, much more to this play than meets the eye of the person who prefers to be captivated by this catchphrase. (pp. 145-46)

[It] is the misinterpretation of Sartre's view of human interaction emanating from this play which tends to color the view of this phenomenon in the whole of his drama and perhaps the whole of his thought. Critics tend to view Sartre's play as a reflection of life as it is; they assume the fact that the characters are dead and in "hell" is only symbolic. This is partially true, but the fact of death is too important to Sartre to attribute only incidental meaning to that state in his three characters. The result of death is that man ceases to be a subject and becomes an immutable object over which the living are the guardians…. This condition is also comparable to the state of persons in bad faith—a condition of lying to oneself in order to escape responsible freedom. Thus, "dead" characters offer Sartre twofold advantages. First, he can show the immutable total antithesis of authentic existence. He can hold the condition of bad faith suspended in time. The characters can be shown as condemned, since they are dead, to repeat all of the errors which become an object lesson for the audience. Secondly, the fact that the characters are dead permits Sartre to represent the failings of those individuals who are their counterpart in life, those who are dead on earth before they are buried because they fail to choose and act. At the same time, this fact confirms that another course is possible, that life is for the living if they exist authentically. If they do not, then they are as surely dead, objectified, and meaningless as the inhabitants of that hellish Second Empire drawing room.

From this interpretation, it is easy to see the actual significance of the line, "Hell is other people." Each character has died in bad faith and can no longer change. In one way or another, he is totally dependent upon the others for even his meagre and meaningless existence. (p. 146)

The play is never meant to indicate that conflict per se is an evil. Obviously, when two conscious beings, two freedoms, come together, there is the potential of conflicting freedoms…. [Sartre] has not indicated that this basic conflict with the Other is a negative thing, but rather that for those who would live authentically, those who reject bad faith and embrace freedom, it is through such encounters with the Other that freedom is expressed and values are created. Indeed, outside of its relation to the Other and the world, freedom does not exist. Franz Gerlach of Sartre's play, The Condemned of Altona, vividly affirms this concept. He refuses to confront the Other and the world and to strive to give meaning to the world around himself. Even without his locked room, he would be imprisoned, for without placing himself in choice situations with the Other, his freedom is nothing. In the same sense, Garcin, Estelle, and Inez were "dead" long before they reached their "hell" [in No Exit]; they had created a hell on earth through their bad faith, through their failure to act in a manner which gave meaning to freedom. Thus, it is through action in relation to the Other and the world that each man gives meaning to his freedom and to his life. This is, of course, the way which requires bearing the burden of freedom-responsibility; it is not the way of a Garcin or an Estelle.

While conflict is shown in No Exit as a primary factor of existence, unresolved conflict of projects is demonstrated as inherent only in relationships fostered of bad faith. It must never be overlooked that only the characters of No Exit of all the plays written by Sartre, are unable to change; only they are irremediably as others see them…. [Even so,] the small suggestion is there that a course is possible which feasibly resolves the conflict of projects, a course which requires working together with mutual respect for the Other's freedom and his project.

It would appear that little hope in this direction would be forthcoming from the oppressive atmosphere of The Dead without Burial…. [Still], Canoris, one of the prisoners, has several speeches which mark his character as the transition between the early Sartre absorbed in the notion of personal freedom as exemplified by Orestes and the later Sartre concerned with unified human effort…. Canoris insists that the prisoners must determine to subordinate their own desires and their attempts to justify their own existence in favor of lives useful to others.

This viewpoint, of course, is the driving force behind the character of Hoederer [in Dirty Hands], whose numerous speeches concerning his dedication to mankind mark him as engaged in a truly authentic existence. Hoederer [is] surely Sartre's most authentic man…. Goetz [in The Devil and the Good Lord] comes to realize that the only authentic existence lies in giving up his own vain attempts at perfection and self-justification and his former beliefs in God, Good, and Evil in an all-out effort to achieve the liberation of man. He will become the man Hoederer and the prisoners of The Dead without Burial were prevented by death from becoming. He will be the man that Orestes had never considered becoming. (pp. 147-49)

Sartre began to focus more diligently on limitations to freedom of which he was becoming increasingly aware….

The plays begin to show that poverty and social class structure particularly are responsible for much that is oppressive and limiting in the world. (p. 150)

The new emphasis in Sartre's work is reflected in his focus on the concept of "need."… Sartre says of this new emphasis since his early writing, "Over against a dying child Nausee cannot act as a counterweight." Sartre, then, has come to believe that man is more limited in his freedom than Sartre himself originally anticipated. While each man is free within his own situation, some circumstances, such as poverty or war, make the situation so oppressive that genuine liberation is impossible without constant revolution to maintain freedom. This revolution must proceed from unified effort within which individual talent is utilized and the individual freely "relinquishes" a degree of his freedom in the sense that he is willing to engage in concerted effort with other men. (pp. 150-51)

This more recent recognition by Sartre of those factors in life which tend to limit freedom must not be construed, however, as a significant deviation from Sartre's original premise that man is free within his own situation…. For Goetz and the peasants, poverty and the division among classes which limits their freedom does not eliminate their freedom nor does it offer an excuse for inaction. It is merely the playing court in which they will engage in a contest whose rules they now know. (p. 151)

This progressive awareness, which the reader of Sartre's drama may witness groping for and gradually reaching the light, seems more abrupt when the perusal of the works is limited to Sartre's statements of philosophy. Still, what appears to the reader of Being and Nothingness as an inconsistency in Existentialism Is a Humanism and a complete break in Critique should appear to the reader of the entire works of Sartre as rather a constant movement and development of thought. The conflict between peoples and the necessity for individual resistance is developed in Being and exemplified in the action of The Flies and No Exit. The need for a shift from concerns with individual freedom to a striving for universal freedom is suggested in Existentialism Is a Humanism but not explained. Gradually, the explanation is accomplished in The Dead Without Burial, Dirty Hands, and reaches its culmination in The Devil and the Good Lord, the logical predecessor to Critique. With the play, The Condemned of Altona, which expresses the notion of "need," the entire effort is toward an awareness of twentieth-century problems which must be corrected at all costs in order to facilitate the true liberation of man.

There is, then, nothing violently new, no break with previous thought, in this present notion of unified striving for mankind's liberation. As Sartre describes his shifts of emphasis, it is change "within a permanency." In the present order of things, Sartre endeavors to encourage an examination of situation in order that man may recognize which elements are of his own choosing and which are simply conditions of his existence. Once he has done this, he can choose the method of procedure and make his own history. There is no fate, no bad luck, no excuse; simply man, his choices, and the situation in which he finds himself…. Goetz passes through stages of awareness which Hoederer has evidently already achieved; each realizes the limitations of the possibilities of action open to him, accepts those limitations, and determines to act to the utmost within the context of these limitations. It is this recognition and this determination plus movement to action which affords these two men the opportunity to become real, existing human beings; which gives them and the world around them a true identity, a reality.

The individual freedom so crucial to Sartre's early thought is still important (all acts are necessarily initiated from the individual's awareness and abilities), but another aspect becomes equally crucial, respect for the freedom of all. Another principle likewise comes into play—no man is indispensable. (pp. 152-53)

That which Sartre requires of today's authentic man is … more heroic than the requirement for any Orestes. The unified action will not serve to defend each man against the anguish of life …; quite the contrary. Each authentic man of today, each man who would lead in the revolution, must be willing to take a heavier burden than that of Orestes. He remains alone in his choices as the characters Hoederer and Goetz demonstrate….

[Success] is possible, if highly difficult of accomplishment, when each man recognizes that difficulty is inherent in human relationships but that this difficulty must be overcome. It must be overcome because the principle of freedom should receive greater emphasis than each man's self-concern. It can be overcome because man makes himself through his free choices, thus he can create his relationship with the Other in whichever method he chooses, just as he creates his own individuality. Goetz and Hoederer forsee a chance, remote though it may be, and they determine to try it as the only authentic course. They are responsible for the weighty decisions and for the acts which they perform and their aloneness presses down upon them—the Sartrean free man is still responsible and very much alone. Now, however, his efforts are to obtain and cultivate his freedom and the freedom of the Other. (p. 154)

Judith Zivanovic, "Sartre's Drama: Key to Understanding His Concept of Freedom," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1971, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), September, 1971, pp. 144-54.

We now know from Simone de Beauvoir's description of Sartre's attitude to literature and from Sartre's own analysis of his childhood that the esthetic solution, far from being a mechanical device to finish off the story, is the very substance of La Nausée. (p. 152)

Being, which holds forth the promise of salvation, can be attained only when pseudo-Being—inauthentic Being—is unmasked and its falsehoods repudiated. Since Roquentin is obliged to explore not only the uncleanliness of Existence, but also the shifting forms of Being, it is proper to consider La Nausée as, among other things, a study in the avatars of Being.

Inauthentic Being takes two forms: deliberate inauthentic Being, and accidental inauthentic Being. In relation to the former, Roquentin is a lucid and caustic observer; to the latter, an honest, if bewildered and erring seeker.

Roquentin identifies deliberate inauthentic Being with the Salauds, the bourgeoisie, a class Sartre has all his life hated with fierce consistency. The Salauds are the chief and unforgivable offenders since they have manufactured inauthentic Being through their bad faith. As Sartre showed in "L'Enfance d'un chef," the bourgeois is he who refuses to accept responsibility for the creation of his identity through acts freely chosen, but prefers rather to believe that what he does corresponds to a preestablished framework in which he need only insert himself and to a preestablished code of values he can unthinkingly follow…. (pp. 153-54)

To believe we have fixed, immutable Rights that establish our essence once and for all and that need never be called into question is to deny that terrifying reality whose name is Existence…. Inauthentic Being, as brought into the world by the Salauds, is therefore intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice, willful choosing of false perceptions and conscious distortion, through fear and laziness, of the revealed truth. (p. 154)

Humanism is not only the property of the Salauds; it is also the point of view advocated by that pathetic figure, the Autodidact. Roquentin's attitude toward the Autodidact is ambivalent. He is disgusted by his philosophical position, but he cannot help pitying him as an eventual victim of the Salauds. Unlike the bourgeoisie who uses Humanism both to avoid facing reality and to justify its position as a ruling class, the Autodidact uses Humanism to escape from his loneliness…. Thus, the presence of the Autodidact allows a more subtle delineation of inauthentic Being. Inauthentic Being is not always the result of vicious error; it can also be caused by good-natured weakness and basic emotional needs. (pp. 154-55)

The triumph of Existence seems complete. Roquentin, incapable of accepting the inauthentic Being of the Salauds or the Autodidact, is equally incapable of living by the inauthentic Being of adventure or of historical reconstruction.

There is, however, in La Nausée, one realm in which Existence has no power. It is the esthetic, the realm of the work of art, the only authentic incarnation of Being. Intimations of the esthetic appear throughout the novel, in the very formulation of pseudo-Being itself. Indeed, the inauthenticity of certain forms of Being lies precisely in the fact that esthetic criteria are wrongly applied to lived reality, and lived reality, judged by such criteria, is found wanting. (p. 156)

La Nausée, as do all of Sartre's significant literary and philosophical texts, bears witness to the presence of two antithetically different modes of reality: the reality of Existence and the reality of Being. Yet La Nausée occupies a particular position in what will one day be the Sartrean canon. Although Sartre deals with the work of art in other contexts, nowhere but in La Nausée does he allow it such a privileged role. Nowhere else is it permitted to monopolize the world of Being in quite the same way.

It is La Nausée's deification of the work of art that makes Sartre, at least in the early part of his literary career, the reluctant disciple of a writer for whom he has expressed considerable dislike—Marcel Proust. The esthetic solution is the raison d'être of La Nausée just as it was the raison d'être of A la recherche du temps perdu. In both cases, salvation comes from the work of art. Marcel was offered the possibility of escape from Time through the recapturing of lost Time, and Roquentin, the possibility of substituting for the Time of Existence the Time of Being.

Yet neither in A la recherche du temps perdu nor in La Nausée did the protagonist come to his knowledge of salvation lightly. Marcel had to painfully learn to renounce the illusion of the social world before the definitive esthetic revelation was given him. Roquentin was prepared, by a series of overwhelming experiences, for a new and dearly-bought awareness of the double nature of reality: Existence, concommitant with nausea, and Being, limited to and concommitant with the work of art. (p. 157)

Eugenia N. Zimmerman, in MOSAIC V/3 (copyright © 1972 by the University of Manitoba Press), Spring, 1972.

[Situations, X, the] tenth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre's collected essays and interviews, published in his seventy-first year, is quite fascinating, both for the light it throws on his present political attitudes after all the twists and turns of the past quarter of a century, and for the revelation of his personality in its ultimate or penultimate phase….

[Someone] who is not prejudiced in Sartre's favour, as I have always been, might conclude that his constant exercising of his Existentialist freedom to change his mind at any point is not so much a sign of intellectual scrupulousness as proof of an inability to understand that morality in action supposes some anxiety about consistency through time, and therefore means that each radical change in policy should be experienced as a genuine anguish. But I have never, for my part, attached any importance to Sartre's role as a political activist….

I have always admired him as a prodigious juggler of ideas, as the archetype of the impractical intellectual whose one and only function is to be a superb moulin à paroles. He is an Apostle of the Word, just as much as Mallarmé and Valéry, although his talent is copious and rather coarse, whereas theirs was hesitant and refined.

The four political pieces which constitute Part 1 of this volume show, with great clarity, how Sartre, after trying for years to fuse Existentialism with Marxism, has eventually arrived at a position almost identical with that of the nineteenth-century anarchists, such as Proud'hon and Bakunin, who quarrelled with Marx precisely on the issue of authority and party discipline, which Sartre has tried to accept and then always rejected in the end because it conflicted with Existentialist freedom. He himself states, incomprehensibly, that the modern anarchism or "socialisme libertaire" that he believes in at present is quite different from the anarchism of the late nineteenth century, but I cannot see in what way. To move back from this book to the old anarchist writings is to find oneself in essentially the same emotional and intellectual atmosphere….

[In the first essay] Sartre argues brilliantly in favour of wholesale devolution, without however considering in any detail the enormous practical problem of reconstituting viable linguistic and cultural communities in the modern world. The idea of devolution has an instant appeal for the lover of freedom and authenticity, but would Sartre be happy, for instance, if the Basques and the Bretons, obeying a spontaneous impulse after being granted their freedom, reverted to monarchical systems based on religion?…

He himself is thinking confidently in French universalist terms and postulating singularity as a good thing in abstracto for other people, while leaping over the concrete difficulties in the usual anarchist way….

[In the other three essays,] Sartre writes about the tyranny of the French parliamentary system in terms not unlike those used by Solzhenitsyn to castigate the Soviet bureaucracy. He describes, with an irony that may be more double-edged than he himself realizes, the comedy of his attempts to get himself arrested and the cat-and-mouse game played by the wily political animals of the Fifth Republic, who persistently refuse to grant him exemplary martyrdom.

Here again he makes many penetrating remarks, but he cannot escape from his role as the respected enfant terrible of the bourgeoisie, enjoying freedom of speech and movement because he can exploit the Western market economy, as embodied in La Maison Gallimard, and invulnerable because even authoritarian Frenchmen usually have the wit to realize that they need a few concrete, external incarnations of the anarchism which lurks within themselves. Sartre has never been realistic; he has attached himself at various times to different political entities that he considered to be more or less on the side of social good….

He now places such hope as he has in that mystic entity, mass spontaneity, which the romantic, good-hearted bourgeois tends to believe in as a last possible resort….

But when we turn to Part 2, the personal interviews, we may ask whether, in fact, Sartre believes in any general principles at all, in the normal sense of belief…. Sartre has never bridged the moral gap between his Absurdist analysis of the human situation and his itch to be socially effective. Perhaps what has kept him going is a sort of stoical determination to carry on regardless, and to accept the futility of all human behaviour, including his own, with ruthless serenity….

If I have a reservation about him, after reading this latest volume, it is that he is always so imperturbably sure that he is now in the right, even after changing his mind so many times…. [What others] say, or have said, has no relevance to Sartre's intimate conviction that the only relative truth is represented by his own ideas, as they can be formulated at the moment…. [He] is a changeable dogmatist, and an ideological authoritarian who does not really accept le dialogue. In spite of his anti-elitist remarks and his repeated assertion that we are all equal, he is very much a French elitist in his bland assumption of intellectual supremacy, which is so deep-rooted that it is not even accompanied by vanity, but by a brand of self-deceiving modesty.

John Weightman, "Sartre at Seventy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 25, 1976, p. 761.


Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 7)