Jean-Paul Sartre

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Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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 entire section is 4,383 words.)