Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3186
Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–
Sartre, a Nobel Prize-winning existentialist philosopher (Being and Nothingness), is also a novelist (Nausea, the three-volume The Roads of Freedom), and a playwright (No Exit). His autobiography, The Words, was published in 1964. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
Sartre has undoubtedly been influenced by science in a general way, but he shows more aloofness from it than love for it. His unfriendly attitude pertains primarily to biology and is particularly noticeable—if we infer his attitude from his figures of speech—in his novels and his discussion of psychoanalysis. This aversion to biology is a logical accompaniment to his commonly known opposition to deterministic psychology. It is a hostility easily understood as a reaction to the continuing tendency to examine and explain man "from the ground up"…. (p. 216)
On the other hand, because of his admiration for a hard, clean substance—as compared to biological flux—Sartre shows a certain friendliness toward physics; though he is apparently adversely affected by physicists' inability to lay hold of a stable substance and their perplexity over the question of continuity in the transmission of energy. The porosity of matter and the emptiness of interphenomenal space, which modern physics has encouraged us to visualize, are suggestive of the fissures in the structure of reality which Sartre regards as fundamental in the analysis of human existence.
Like other existentialists, Sartre takes his stand on the unqualified actuality of his being present in the world. From this Cartesian-like premise he develops his analysis of being in L'Etre et le Néant [Being and Nothingness] a major philosophical dissertation…. Sartre is apparently motivated by the admirable conviction that if individual human consciousness has any validity it must be made to prove it without recourse to arguments about causality and origin. Accordingly, he declared himself free of all prejudices having to do with the genesis of the psyche…. Thus in one bold sweep he disposes of evolutionism, determinism, and all kinds of creationism. It is a courageous beginning, but the complete isolation of human consciousness inevitably involves its champion in contradictions that overshadow his insight and impress his readers more with his opposition to old ideas than with his presentation of a new perspective.
The source of greatest contradiction in Sartre, and probably his greatest weakness, is his aversion to the concept of creation; because it not only deprives him of a principle with which to reconstruct the historical world that he first destroys but leaves him unhappy with a flat-surface world that has no forward movement. By dissociating himself completely from any chain of being prior to his own existence he automatically places on himself full responsibility for self-creation as well as the necessity for creating meaning in the world. But self-creation is not what he wants. If we are to judge by the intensity of his preoccupation with the subject, his deep-lying desire is a stable essence, a tangible substance in effect, which he can move toward and eventually grasp without having to resort to the medium of creation…. (pp. 217-18)
[L'Age de raison, the first volume of the three-volume novel, The Roads of Freedom] may be considered a fictional treatment of the essential content of L'Etre et le Néant, depicting as it does an individual's vain efforts to attain self-completion in a synthesis of the stable en-soi and the fluid pour-soi. The attempt to weld together the detotalized totality has the dualistic appearance of a contest in meaning between essence and existence, which reminds one of a contest between matter and mind. Sartre, of course, does not rationally give credence to a dualism of matter and mind; but his categories of in-itself and for-itself and the hybrid for-another, which stands between the two major categories a constant reminder of their incompatibility, are consistently endowed in their fictional form with attributes popularly associated with matter (inertia, opacity, etc.) and mind (mobility, lucidity, etc.)…. (pp. 222-23)
L'Age de raison,… both psychologically and philosophically, amounts to the demonstration of an unsolved problem: the unity of self with the All, the one enduring Self. The principal character ponders two unsatisfying interpretations of identity: one at the biological level, warm, sticky, and repulsive, and the other at the level of cold impersonal idea, hard and lifeless. Repelled at both of these barriers, he maintains with stubborn resistance the right to make another choice and, by implication, the hope of finding an acceptable liberation from the concept of total freedom, that is, from the thought of a completely unattached existence. The hope seems rather faint, and the hero is numb after his torturous experience, but he does not come to a pitifully tragic end of total paralysis like Gorky's Foma Gordyeeff. Nor is he heroically tragic like Flaubert's Emma Bovary. The story is, after all, not a drama of defeat but one of refusal, and in a sense an unfinished story that could yet end in human triumph. (p. 232)
Sherman H. Eoff, in his The Modern Spanish Novel, New York University Press, 1961.
Sartre's plays lead the spectator from the universe of perception, common sense, and psychological or aesthetic habits to an existentialist conclusion, often difficult in its newness. What Sartre shows essentially is that his vision of the world is inherent in the normal universe. His method consists in bringing it out progressively. And often the progression itself makes up the greater part of the play.
Jacques Guicharnaud, "Man and His Acts," in his Modern French Theatre from Giraudoux to Beckett, Yale University Press, 1961, pp. 131-52.
Since 1947 Sartre's major writings have been political essays directly related to the contemporary scene. Whether writing about [French] Indo-China, Algeria, American politics, or the Negro problem, he has never denied that for him the only possible system of analysis and line of conduct in the field of action is the Marxist. But the points of departure of historical materialism are not the same as those of Sartre's original philosophy. Marxism takes as its prime datum the biological and social condition of man, whose consciousness is but a "superstructure."
René Marill-Albérès, "Neo-Marxism and Criticism of Dialectical Reasoning," in his Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosopher Without Faith, Philosophical Library, 1961.
The two books [Situations and The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre] suggest why Sartre has become the leading intellectual figure of our time. One reason is that his work presents in a virtually total way the two crises that have haunted intellectuals in the twentieth century and converted their search for significant thought and action into traumas of uncertainty. On the one hand is Sartre's confrontation with the dizzying vortex of self-consciousness to which the contemporary mind has been led by the progressive emphasis on the inner life of the individual and, accordingly, on the accidents and peculiarities and distortions of his nature. Though we are still convinced that our endless preoccupations with the purely personal slant of our perceptions and feelings yield the only significant truths about existence, these truths typically bear a burden of hysteria or malaise, of what earlier writers took for granted as the fretfulness of the soul and went on from there. Sartre's own fiction, particularly Nausea and The Age of Reason, can be viewed as a brilliant systematic transformation of a neurosis into the condition of man and the state of nature.
On the other hand, Sartre's writings reflect, in only a somewhat less extreme way, the effort of the intellectuals to put an end to their alienation, undo their last ties to the hateful bourgeoisie, and immerse themselves in radical politics—that is to say, in the affairs of the proletariat, in the abstract, and, often enough, in those of the Soviet Union, in the concrete….
At the center of his philosophy is an extreme subjectivism: he tells us that the only thing we can be sure of is our individual existence, which is merely a ceaseless flux of consciousness…. From this typically vehement prise de position (Sartre does not take positions as much as seize them) the young philosopher works his way back to a world of things, which the howling void of consciousness requires to exist, and develops a complex dialetic of perpetual conflict between intentional subjects and objects—the "pour soi" and the "en soi"—each man being a subject only by virtue of being an object to other men. Thus, around the rim of this nothingness a self comes into being, though it remains a sort of doughnut, constantly crumbling into its own void through the permanent revolution that is consciousness and the struggle with otherness that is existence.
Much of Sartre's mature philosophy, from Being and Nothingness forward, can be viewed as an attempt to make his way back along the edge of this void of philosophical nihilism, with its nauseated sense of the endless pullulation and decay of material being, its lucid but arbitrary vision of the disorder, contingency, uncertainty, emptiness, exploitiveness, and despair of consciousness as the context of human experience.
Theodore Solotaroff, "Sartre: The View from the Void" (1965), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 192-97.
La Nausée is not so much a novel as a story with philosophical intentions. Its meaning is not immediately apparent and the author's intentions remain very largely obscure. But the reader cannot fail to respond to the very special world the author has created. It is a philosopher's world. It is also a novelist's world, hermetically sealed, in which various sorts of prisoners perform their dogged acts like blind men sunk in some sticky, viscous matter. The atmosphere is of the provincial petite bourgeoisie: conventional and stifling. Nothing ever happens: each act is smothered at birth by this sticky, enveloping mass. The hero of the story is a shy, indecisive, insignificant wretch, overwhelmed by his own life and by the lives of others, forever on the verge of disgust at the false appearances among which the mediocre ostentation of his miserable existence takes place. If he thinks of taking his own life, he discovers that even suicide would be meaningless. He feels out of place in a world that is already too full….
The short stories that form Le Mur [The Wall] … provide new illustrations of the philosophical positions Sartre had outlined in La Nausée. They are also better disguised, more successfully incarnated as literature. They beat more truly with the throb of the times….
Sartre's plan in Les Chemins de la Liberté [The Roads of Freedom] is so visible as to prevent the appearance of those shadowy regions in which beings evolve, of which perhaps they are made and by which they are a constant source of surprise and evade the most subtle methods of investigation. In his criticism of François Mauriac, Sartre had suggested the ways the novel should take so as not to substitute intellectual abstraction for life and the personality of the novelist for living people. Then, in his own work, he fell into mistakes which were not exactly the ones he had condemned, but perhaps worse. Turning the full lights on to his characters, he produces flat images compensating for their superficiality by a mechanical complexity that leaves the cogs showing. Our minds may be interested but our hearts remain unmoved. In the end, Sartre realized his own failure and abandoned the project before its completion. The structure that he had built in three stages—L'Age de Raison, Le Sursis, La Mort dans l'Ame—remains with out a roof. Since then, it has suffered a great deal at the hands of the elements….
The fictional world that Sartre carries within him has found its expression in his plays, not in Les Chemins de la Liberté. For in the theatre the writer must express himself by simpler means. The doors of meaning must be opened, even if they have to be forced open: the movement of drama can contain and disguise that of logical demonstration. It is unlikely that Sartre will take up the novel again. It is certain, however, that he benefited as a writer from his ambitious and honourable failure.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 75-82 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
Sartre stands out, 'above the rest proudly eminent,' as the most extraordinary intelligence of his generation, as a novelist and storyteller of the first order, as a successful playwright, as a brilliant essayist and critic of literature, art, life, even as a political thinker, and, of course, as a psychologist and as a philosopher. Like Voltaire and Diderot, he unites an amazing variety of gifts in one person; and he has occasional flashes of insight into poetry and into religion, of which his eighteenth-century predecessors had not proved capable….
In the years preceding the publication of [La Nausée] in 1938, Sartre had been impressed by Céline and chiefly by the American novelists: Dos Passos was then rated by him above any writer and exercised a lasting influence on him. The novel in Sartre's final version (even if disillusioned he speaks slightingly of it in Les Mots), is a milestone in twentieth-century fiction. Its impact on the creators of 'the new novel' was powerful. Critics and students have heaped up commentaries on its meaning and on its style. It has the fresh impetuousness of a youthful work, the joy of an adolescent revolt against the sham values of one's environment; it audaciously mingles philosophy and fantasy, poetry and comedy.
The novel is the dairy of Antoine Roquentin in Bouville, a scholar with a meditative temperament, who has not yet at thirty achieved much…. Little happens outwardly and little need happen…. But the drama lies in Roquentin's sudden experience of nausea. A sickening feeling takes hold of him when a new aspect of objects is suddenly unveiled for him: their opaque, absurd existence. He realizes that we cannot receive any consciousness of the outside world except as a projection of our own minds. He is oppressed by the slimy viscosity of things, of people, of his own flesh reflected in a mirror, of his eyes, like fish scales, of all that is like a repellent polyp in him. The veil that seemed to prettify things has been torn open. Everything now seems meaningless, in the way, gratuitous, de trop. He, too, is de trop. He, and all that is, appears contingent, superfluous. His own irreversible past stretches as a mere disconnected succession of events. He is seized, not with fear of objects, but with the anguish with which his immense responsibility overwhelms him. Blessed with such an inverted 'mystical' ecstasy, he returns to the world of man as if he were alienated from him, like a crab or some crawling beast. He knows the meaning of existence….
Sartre's next volume, though of more limited range and closer to phenomenological description than to any metaphysical revelation, is also a masterpiece of storytelling and of humor. For, contrary to what blind or prejudiced critics of Sartre have contended, he is no exception to the saying that no great intelligence is devoid of the comic spirit. The five stories that make up the volume Le Mur (The Wall) have become classics, collected (with a few expurgations) in college anthologies. There are few, if any, short stories in French since those of Blazac to match them….
While [the three novels comprising Les Chemins de la liberté] met with considerable success, especially in Europe, it is our conviction that the superb skill of the author and their immense significance as sheer literary works have been underrated by many hasty or hostile reviewers. Two easy escapes were offered to critics, who could not remain unaware of Sartre's immense importance in world letters: one was to brand him as immoral and pessimistic, whereas no great writer has perhaps been more concerned with the formulation of moral values…. Sartre has been accused of lacking warmth and sensibility. But sensibility need not be declamatory and does not necessarily lie at the opposite pole to the superb intelligence, one of the broadest since Goethe and Renan, which marks the existentialist leader….
Sartre's fiction is original on many counts. First of all, his mastery of the language is extraordinary…. Metaphors are scarce, but they are precise, convincing, and sharply delineated. Sheer adornments are spurned by him, as well as the music of prose. But the great moments when the characters, suddenly aware of their existence or of their nascent freedom, seem to be favored with a gift of second sight are impregnated with a severe and precise beauty, not unlike that of Stendhal, without his fondness for revery. Above all, Sartre's mastery is conspicuous in some of his dialogues, in an interior monologue purified of much of the irrelevancy and insignificance of the genre, and in his unorthodox use of the spoken language…. Sartre has successfully broken with the romantic illusion that interposes a pretty screen of words between the reader and the scene represented. His language welcomes slang, profanity, and obscenity. It catches up with the least conventional spoken language, as written words had not done for a whole century…. Not only does it thus translate an individual, specific, and concrete reality without betraying it and without imprisoning it in abstract categories, it revivifies French through integrating into the written style all the fluid and picturesque, or malodorous, wealth of the language of the common people.
Henri Peyre, "Existentialism and French Literature: Jean-Paul Sartre's Novels" (© 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc., reprinted by permission), in his French Novelists of Today, Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967, pp. 244-74.
The crux of Sartre's existential philosophy insofar as it affects his creative writing, lies in his interpretation of human reality as an inner experience rather than as an objective fact. This has a number of advantages, in particular its revelation of the liberty of mind. Deterministic views of man always imply the distorted perspective of the outside observer. Sartre's inside perspective also distorts the picture, but in different ways. In the first place, it must necessarily lose in breadth what it has gained in depth….
There is nothing to be gained, however, in reproaching Sartre, the novelist, for the subjective impurities or logical fallacies of Sartre, the philosopher…. Since the turn of the century, novelists have been seeking new techniques for suggesting a concept that neither the philosopher nor the psychologist is able to convey: the living reality of the individual human mind. Whatever we may think of Sartre's conception of this reality, there is no denying his ability to make it live. It is this disturbing intellectual realism, this way he has of taking ideas out of the textbook and putting them back in the mind, that accounts for much of his originality both in the novel and the theater. His appeal goes beyond the quality of the ideas expressed.
Germaine Breé and Margaret Otis Guiton, "Jean-Paul Sartre: The Search for Identity," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1968.