Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 7)
Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–
Sartre, a French philosopher, novelist, playwright, and critic, is one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. He has been called "the active conscience of an entire generation," examining every aspect of humanity from his existential point of view. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Sartre's] beginnings as a playwright [in a German prison camp in 1940] marked the emergence of his political commitment as well…. Drama became for Sartre his preferred means of expressing une littérature engagée committed to change both man's social condition and his conception of himself. A novel communicates with its readers as individuals, each in his solitude; a play in performance communicates directly with a group. During the war years, Sartre found in the theatre a way of speaking directly to an audience with whom he shared a common situation, the same anguish and the same hope.
Another aspect of theatre attracts Sartre: the need to make an immediate impression on the audience. In the theatre there is no possibility, as there is in a novel, to go back to certain scenes in order to understand them better. Sartre's plays abound in suspense, sudden reversals, and coups de théâtre. (p. 2)
In the theatre, Sartre studies man as the inventor of acts that decide what he is. His plays present characters performing acts that redefine the meaning of both the actor and the action itself.
Against a static theatre of caractères with its image of man as eternally the same, Sartre's plays present the image of man as a being constantly in the process of becoming, because he is what he does. (p. 4)
In the plays, genuine action—action as a means of changing the world—becomes lost in a maze of reflections. With the exception of Hoederer, the acts performed by Sartre's dramatic heroes are first of all attempts to realize a certain desired image; that is, to become absolute objects for themselves and for others.
Sartre uses the ambiguity inherent in theatre—both real event and imaginary representation—as a dominating theme of his plays. Since for Sartre man is what he does, the crux of the typical Sartrean plot concerns the individual in an extreme situation, forced to make a choice of action which calls his whole existence into question. At the same time, since we are in the theatre, these acts are inevitably gestures, performed by actors for an audience. Sartre often dramatizes this ambiguity by means of protagonists who themselves are playing roles, assigned to them by real or imagined spectators. Iris Murdoch makes the important point that "Sartre is interested in man not so much as a 'rational' being but as a 'reflective' being: self-picturing, self-deceiving, and acutely aware of the regard of others." His characters act in order to appropriate or to reject a particular image of themselves that they find in the eyes of others. As a result, they and their acts are constantly threatened with unreality, against which they chose to act in the first place. (pp. 5-6)
In a critique of bourgeois theatre given as a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1960, Sartre contended:
The theatre being an image, gestures are the image of action, and dramatic action is the action of characters…. Action, in the true sense of the word, is that of the character; there are no images in the theatre but the image of the act, and if one seeks the definition of theatre, one must ask what an act is, because the theatre can represent nothing but the act.
This statement is crucial to an understanding of what Sartre is trying to do in the theatre. The word "gesture" as Sartre uses it means what an actor in the theatre does; an act becomes a gesture when it is committed not in order to accomplish a particular objective, but rather, in order to be seen and consecrated as image. The relation between an act and its image is central in Sartre's thought and finds its most appropriate projection on the stage. In this way, theatre represents for Sartre both a platform for social action and, at the same time, the place to play out his fascination with the sensational lie involved in dramatic performance. (pp. 6-7)
Dorothy McCall, "Introduction," in her The Theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre (copyright © 1967, 1969 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 1-7.
Like all of Sartre's work, [Les Mots, his autobiography,] is a map; more particularly, it is a small segment from a vaster map, isolated in order to place the terrain in high relief with the hope of abetting the total reformation of society. (p. 3)
Les Mots is his personal recital of a common experience. It was not written for reasons of nostalgia, to weep over a better world which has been lost, to seek to recreate past joys from the midst of present tears. It was written to express and to condemn the way in which Sartre was formed. The autobiography thus serves as evidence for a process Sartre has defined in Being and Nothingness: "… the Past is my contingent and gratuitous bond with the world and with myself inasmuch as I consistently live it as a total renunciation"…. The extensions of that statement are clear: the past, and the terms it has established for my existence, could be lived as my contract with the world, a contract to whose terms I must be faithful as a man of honor; but that is not what the past is nor does it represent any meaningful statement about the present. The past is a threat; the past is a siren voice which calls me back from the nearby reefs I must negotiate if I wish to be, not an honorable man, but an honest one. The underlying irony is that, though I may derive pleasure from hearing the siren's song, I cannot answer it. I still must cross those reefs because they are the surfaces of the future.
Bourgeois man—and that label has deep and precise meaning for Sartre—does not believe this. For him, the remote past was a time of troubles subsequently vanquished and annihilated by his forebears in the near past…. The bourgeoisie aims at producing l'homme moyen sensuel, the man of measure who will join the company of the right-thinking and who will limit his disorders to respectable sins. What it succeeds in producing is a monster. (p. 7)
The major thrust of Western philosophy has been part of an attempt to direct man away from his own immediate evidence—for terror before the universe is a common experience—in order to encourage him to live within a system which is at best inadequate and at worst deliberately dishonest. But obviously, too, the fact that the explanation has been accepted with some frequency indicates that, true or false, honest or dishonest, it has one major advantage. Like the tidy world of the bourgeoisie, it solaces man even though it may not completely absorb all of his terror.
Kindness may indeed be the virtue which inspires men to help other men turn away from the sources of terror; but the kindness exacts a steep price—the sacrifice of truth. The terror, rather than the compensatory system, remains the locus of truth. (p. 10)
In his autobiography, Sartre is not making any late-in-life effort to adjust the facts of his childhood to the theories of his maturity. From the point of view of ideas and theories, there is nothing new in Les Mots; what is novel is the specific application of these ideas to the details of Sartre's early life. (p. 18)
Sartre's earliest intention was to make a world in which he would matter and then present that world to others so that they would discover and appreciate the universe in which he mattered. In a way, the intention was parallel to and modeled on that of the class which produced him; it, too, had a language of its own, elaborated in order to show the rectitude of its view of the world. What Sartre intended to offer the world, as his claim to justification, was no more than an altered reflection of what he had perceived in his own class. (p. 21)
The passage of time relentlessly stripped away literary pretensions to show that literature was neither a means of salvation nor the privileged unaffected locus of metaphysical happenings which were to be admired in direct proportion to their inability to change anything. The world, Sartre learned, was not prepared to move to or even to hear truths enunciated by writers….
Against his original notion of imposing himself on the world through literature, he now sees the act of writing as one term in a dialectical process, the other term of which is the act of reading. Intelligent reading is not passive; quite as much as writing, it is an act. Literature has no meaning unless it involves a dialectical give-and-take between the writer and the reader, each of whom has as his referent the world that he can perceive, the real world which literature does not ever convey either purely or totally….
What happens when that compensatory world is lost and when the imagination is exposed to the shakiness of the structures it has erected is the story of Sartre's career. He has not sought to regain possession of the soul he lost; he has tried to live in a physical world which strikes him as being indifferent to individual men and in a social world which is frequently hostile to some men and, in some situations, to most men. (p. 22)
The most important element in the refinement of the original outlook was the realization that there are times when a man cannot react effectively simply by removing himself from his class and rising above it; he must revolt, not necessarily against his class, but also against whatever other class may keep him or others in bondage. Unlike individualism, revolution is not, Sartre writes, a state of the soul. It is a daily exercise whose working out shows that there are events which have an existence quite their own. They grow and develop and thus appear to shape history. In coming to grips with the revolutionary mood of the postwar period in Europe, Sartre was deflecting his existentialist methods from descriptions of the mechanisms and possibilities of individual existence towards the area of what he calls human collectivities. It would no longer be a question in his thought of human beings who have only to be made aware of the autonomy of their consciousness and of their total possession of freedom of action in order to live authentically; it would henceforth be a question of humans being, in the midst of a social reality where they are buffetted and sometimes beaten by the sweep of events which they have to dominate if they are not to be defeated and, in that bad bargain, deprived of being at all. (pp. 26-7)
Marx's belief that the human world manifested three interacting aspects—a spontaneous element, a reflective one, and an illusory one—corresponds to Sartre's description of consciousness as something which is spontaneous, capable of reflecting on its spontaneity, and also tempted to lose itself, when blocked, in imaginary or magical (emotional) solutions. Since Marx also claimed that the reflective element of consciousness was allowed for and directed by communist theory (or reality), it is not surprising that Sartre has been able to feel at home with Marxism. Others may feel very much less at home with his theories of imagination and emotions. (p. 63)
Western thinkers have not, on the whole, been very much concerned with the problem of the Other as a source of fear. Most frequently, the Other has been considered as part of the category "man," and thus as a being who shares certain essential characteristics and potentialities with other members of his species. As a result, philosophers have preferred to study the question of the class's place in the universe, assuming that all members of the class would profit from such inquiry. (p. 85)
Sartre, and with him other phenomenologists and existentialists, traces out a fundamental disparity between what the individual discovers and what surrounding influences encourage him to accept; the theory, or the ideal, does not always correspond to lived experience…. To believe in the twentieth century that all men love justice and seek the good is to believe, against the massive evidence of history, nonsense. (p. 86)
If the ego is the object that I, as a subject, create in order to defend both what I think it is and what it allows me to be, then the risk I face in confronting the Other is a dual one. He may totally ignore the body of knowledge and value-commitment which is the structure of my ego—and I must repeat that, according to Sartre, the ego is no more than a mental image I have of myself—and he may try to destroy or harm the subject who cultivates that ego. In short, he will transform me into an object of his creation. Clearly, I no longer have the mastery I either thought I had or else had sought to have. In my confrontation with the physical universe, there was dismay; in my confrontation of the Other, there is shame. (pp. 88-9)
A primary reaction to this feeling is the conviction that I must get at the Other before he can get at me…. There are other reactions …, [but here] I am concerned with the primary reaction to what Sartre, in a memorable phrase, has described as the original fall I discover through the Other. He makes me fall, whether he explicitly wishes to or not, because he robs me of that sense of superiority I may have felt over the things; he adds to my insecurity and represents another battle I must fight. The horror in the situation lies in its reciprocity—I can, for strategic reasons, presuppose that his reaction parallels mine…. By my birth, I have been located in space; by my discovery of the Other, I have been located in the social world. My reaction to both will necessarily be free since it will be chosen by me; but my freedom will be exercised in the particular circumstances which delimit my situation.
This is a fundamental element of Sartre's philosophical system; though it has been derived from Heidegger, it has been elaborated in a way that differs from the German philosopher's system mainly because Sartre has dealt with this element always in very precise, one might say local, terms. (pp. 89-90)
If the individual seems to emerge battered and not very lovable from Sartre's early works, this is because the individual has misused his freedom, abdicated to the mechanics of his situation, refused his condition and its possibilities. For all these sins, he cannot escape blame. He is the culprit Sartre would like to see reformed; he has an accomplice Sartre would like to see destroyed because the accomplice is beyond reform. The accomplice is bourgeois society, the glossy garbage bin in which all the fixed ideas of Western civilization have been slowly spoiling, unbeknown to the complacent keepers of the garbage. (p. 91)
The inevitability of conflict as an underlying fact of human existence is one of the main currents in Sartre's work…. Sartre's second novel, Les Chemins de la liberté, presents a panoramic portrayal of the world as a battleground where individuals fight against the demands of social reality. It is a place where conflicts multiply precisely because of the hostilities which develop between man and man, between man and society, and among nations. The book is not a study of how freedom makes its way in the world by steadily clearing and following one path; rather the novel depicts the several ways in which free men become aware of their freedom and the various methods they choose for living with their discovery. (p. 107)
For good or ill, freedom is man's constant companion, not because he has chosen it, but because he can choose nothing else. Condemned to be free, man may very well wonder what he has done to merit such a condemnation; whatever answer he turns up will result only from a freethinking process about freely defined choices. If Sartre, in Les Chemins de la liberté, brings us to the threshold of this discovery, he does not do so with the intention of showing us a stately mansion on the other side of that doorway. Indeed, as the reader looks through the doorway, he may very well decide that the noble façade of the word "freedom" hides a seamy tenement in desperate need of repair, if not replacement. (p. 109)
There is no doubt that Sartre believes that the search for a modus vivendi is worth the light expended; there is also no doubt that … [each] new source of current has been quickly exhausted, and it will not be until the Critique de la raison dialectique that some more reliable supply of energy will be located. (p. 169)
Everywhere in Sartre's work we have searched for or hoped for a solution; everywhere the uncovered evidence has shown us how scant is the basis for any hope. The promised land which he espied in that early essay on Husserl ["Une Idée fondamentale de Phénoménologie de Husserl" (1939)]—and it was indeed a promised land, for Sartre was inviting his readers to join him in a journey towards human betterment—seems further off than ever. Putting oneself in the midst of men is an act which seems only to reinforce pessimism. The paths of freedom, not necessarily glorious, have so far led through disillusion to the grave. (p. 171)
What Sartre must now seek to do is effect a threefold strategy. Retaining faithfully the notion of unavoidable freedom, he must first show that freedom is never exercised outside a situation which conditions it and which it conditions; then, he must isolate areas where the conditioning is by its nature evil because it is interlocked with the oppression of a particular group; finally, he must indicate another kind of condition in which men would yield some part of their individuality in the name of a greater exercise of freedom for everyone—the reward will be a clearer conscience for all. Free and restricted, when not oppressed, man must find a way of creating a situation in which self-imposed restriction will be the small price paid for the disappearance of oppression. (p. 176)
Kean is a play concerned with the limits placed not only on social ambition and the exercise of freedom, but also on all the other possibilities which tempt man and eventually restrict him. It deals with lies—lies that hurt and lies that help; with function—when does an actor cease being an actor and an ambassador an ambassador? with the refusal to play roles and with the kind of role-playing which is a refusal of life. In dealing with limits, it deals with puzzles and thus profits from being concerned on the surface with the conflict between the actor's role as a professional pretender and his existence as an unacceptable pretender to the rights of a class whose tolerance of one kind of pretense does not imply tolerance of other kinds.
The play works because the problem is very much that of the Kean who is created sympathetically in the play; but it works, too, because Kean's problem is presented as a metaphor for the problem of all men who run into obstacles and limits which make them recognize that, all the world being a stage, some men are inevitably invited to play parts not necessarily of their own choosing. This is a truth Sartre will never get around to denying outright; here he simply wants to air it and make it visible to others as a poetic insight which differs from a philosophic one by protesting against this truth instead of explaining it. In the Critique de la raison dialectique, Sartre will return to this insight again, not to deny it, but to redefine and redistribute the roles and to encourage the endless analysis and, where necessary, the rewriting, of the script. (p. 181)
If we look upon the slogan of the French Revolution—Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité—as an equation rather than as a proclamation of three simultaneous possibilities, we begin to perceive the difficulty Sartre has been trying to deal with. If, in order to assure equality, men must link their liberty to a sense of fraternity, the inferential consequence is this: fraternity demands some sacrifice and that sacrifice reduces an individual's quantity of liberty. If men do not make that sacrifice, fraternity becomes impossible. Once there is no fraternity, there is no real equality either. Individual men may be free; their collective existence cannot be free if it is not fraternal. Though slogans may allude to truths, they stumble constantly against facts and lose their appeal when they are measured against real situations. The faded revolutionary legends on the façades of French public buildings indicate more than indifferent maintenance.
The difficulties inherently contained in the French slogan are those we encounter in Sartre's works. So far we have seen only a handful of people living with an open consciousness of being free; very little in the way of equality has resulted from that consciousness since it has only rarely been accompanied by any desire to create a fraternal society. (p. 197)
Behind [Being and Nothingness] was a hope that a new ethical climate could be created once men had seen the dismal realities and dreary prospects born of their fear of freedom. What the fictional works have shown is that men prefer to continue supplying further data for future forlorn philosophical works to reading the chronicle of their failures and learning something from it. Sartre, as a result, is living with the failure of Being and Nothingness to supply an adequate program; for, while it may appear promising to encourage men to live freely, what happens when they do choose freedom may turn out to be not at all promising. Men are a good deal more conditioned by external circumstances than that massive work was willing to concede; where those circumstances exert vast influence, individual declarations of freedom may change nothing at all and conceivably may produce more harm than good. There is a certain unreal purity and intellectual rigor in Sartre's early insistence that man is free under all circumstances to select his response to those circumstances; the sad fact is that any one of the responses available may inevitably produce a worse situation, not because the individual wants to worsen the situation but because he cannot foresee all the consequences of the response he carefully chooses. The world of action is vaster than the paltry attempts of any one man to influence it; it is composed of mysterious interactions upon whose elements historians, even hundreds of years after the fact, cannot agree. Yet there is no doubt that acts and the interactions they produce are the result of men living together and responding to surrounding conditions. (p. 198)
It would be silly to join the chorus of critics who accused Sartre, in the aftermath of World War II, of disillusioning a generation of young people and driving them to despair. That certainly was not his intention. It is nonetheless a fact that Sartre's postwar works have been a steady, brave, and sometimes wilful effort to fight against despair from amidst circumstances which seem to allow for no other reaction. (p. 199)
The line of demarcation between good and evil during the Resistance had been clear; the victory of the Allies had verified the belief that good did win in the end if free men risked all in order to safeguard their liberty.
Such assurances did not last long into the postwar period and with their death came disillusion; the temptation to model one's life on the search for absolutes or on the imitation of fixed quantities produced less distressing individuals than did the open exercise of freedom. The result was that exhortations designed to lead men to an acceptance of their freedom were exhortations which encouraged the creation of unpredictable situations and worse dangers. (p. 200)
The shifting emphasis in Sartre's work reflects a deeper understanding of the world's major influential forces. The insistence on individual attitudes and patterns of behavior which had underpinned Being and Nothingness, and which had been the ethical stuff of the early creative works, was justified; it was perhaps even necessary…. Sartre also had reason to believe that his wisdom would have powerful sway in the world since, immediately after the Liberation, he found himself a celebrity….
[But individuals] who had cooperated during the Resistance and who had jointly looked forward to the initiation of major reforms after the war could not, even though they were all on the Left, agree on ideology or strategy.
Increasingly they spent their time scrapping with each other—a hallowed and forlorn French tradition which Sartre has followed more in the observance than the breach. (p. 201)
What Sartre's subsequent work begins to show slowly and with increasing emphasis is his realization that all these opposing forces are acting out of a commitment to their idea of freedom or to their program for the redemption of man. The basis for commitment to one or another of the opposing groups became almost arithmetical: the man who hoped for change should put himself on the side which promised the most to the greatest number of the suffering. That group, in Sartre's mind, was the Communist party, not necessarily as it existed in France, but as it existed on the international level….
Because of these circumstances, Sartre was obliged to reconsider his fundamental categories. (p. 202)
Though Sartre's approach has changed in a major way, his earlier observations, rather than being nullified, are projected instead against a broader background. Freedom still resides in individuals; but the most important tension is no longer that between accepting freedom and hiding from it, though that dilemma still persists in the lives of individuals; the most consequential tension is that which springs up when men have radically different notions of what they are pursuing when they speak and, worse, when they act in the name of freedom. Les Mouches, Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, and Les Séquestrés d'Altona, considered as three different examinations of what it means to be free, show that the problems which one meets on the highways of freedom are not so much the fault of the driver's motives as of his vehicle's capacities and the road's condition. (p. 203)
In the aftermath of the war, Sartre learned the impotence of formulas. That lesson stirred his realization that neither workers nor "right" ideas were going to triumph simply because they existed in large numbers and were "right." He saw himself as a man who had always lived in relative comfort and therefore as a man who had raised fundamental questions about the meaning of existence without ever having experienced fundamental difficulties in possessing its means….
This realization led Sartre to conclude that the ideas he had formulated in his philosophy and experimented with in his literature were irrelevant to the immediate situation of the great majority of men…. Whatever truths or accurate descriptions were contained in Being and Nothingness could only be appreciated by those who had the funds to buy it, the leisure to read it, and the moral force to do something in answer to its charges. (p. 226)
Until now [that is, prior to Le Diable et le Bon Dieu], the Other in Sartre's work has been perceived as a cause of fear and thus did not achieve much definition as a person…. In Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, the Other, as the source of fear, is still present; the justification of the fear is gravely questioned, however, by the presentation of a multitude of Others. These Others, as they rub up against each other, learn who, from among the category Other, share their fears and who create them. Though the world remains the locus of radically polarized conflict, what this play shows is that at either extreme of the conflict men are cooperating with each other in opposing the organized force of the Other who is the enemy. This play then, while remaining faithful to Sartre's principal ideas about the Other, represents a diversification of the idea and thus begins to suggest a valuable function for Otherness. (p. 242)
It is not malicious to say that Sartre's general theory of human relationships is based on the presupposition that his experience of human relationships can rightly be the source of a universally applicable theory…. Where other men, with different experience, might predicate a system based on the belief that men can get along together without, at crucial moments, engaging in ruinous, divisive, and even hateful polemics, Sartre must, in the Critique de la raison dialectique, create an intellectual structure whose purpose is to convince men that they had better get along together or else live in perpetual hostility. He answers the threat of the Other with a threat of his own. The solution of the problem, like its statement, is worked out on his terms, possibly because that is the proper way to effect a solution, but more probably because Sartre cannot think outside such terms. Dialectical thinking, as we shall see, has its advantages; it has the major disadvantage of forcing an essentially gray or compromised world to be seen in sharper hues, and in terms of fundamental oppositions. This implies that polarizations must be maintained, not because they reduce tensions in life, but because they perpetuate the essential ones.
Le Diable et le Bon Dieu gives a good example of this thinking by showing that love and cooperation in Sartre's world are strangely intertwined with hatred, as progress is interwoven with violence and terror. Though hatred of one man was described in Being and Nothingness as ultimately involving the hatred of all men, in Le Diable et le Bon Dieu and in Saint Genet, it is considered as a necessary impulse on the way to love. What is not yet made clear is how one will rid the world of hatred if one needs it to keep the world moving. (pp. 253-54)
Sartre's heroes—Oreste, Hoederer, Goetz, and even Genet—are fundamentally gentle men who have marshalled with difficulty the strength necessary for the ungentle tasks they embrace. They have been willing to go to the limits and even beyond. Some of them have learned an essential and new lesson: that freedom must be used for something, and that the only sensible thing for which it can be used is the human cause. All of them, including Sartre, have been willing to take risks, to leave innocence behind, to see purity as a present impossibility and then to throw themselves totally into the struggle. But gentle men are fragile men. When, if ever, the struggle is done and the dust has settled over the hoped-for new world, they may begin to wonder whether the conflict, with its reciprocal violence and terror, leaves enough of man for them to want to preserve. That possibility is what Les Séquestrés d'Altona is about. (p. 262)
Les Séquestrés d'Altona—it is, I think, Sartre's finest creation and a major work of this century—does not do away with either circle or external force. It multiplies both prodigiously until what results is something like an Op art painting. The straight lines and circles seem now quite distinct and arranged in a pattern, now chaotically superimposed one upon the other. One does not live in one circle; one lives somewhere in the midst of innumerable concentric and interlocking circles; one does not feel the force of one external influence, one feels the force of many and risks being impaled by their demands. Added to this multiplication of options and responses is the apparent disappearance of poles from the world. Where, in former works, a process of polarization not only outlined options but also suggested which one had to be elected, here there are only reciprocities which solve nothing because they bring everything into question. (pp. 268-69)
In the Critique de la raison dialectique, Sartre is committed to the idea that history is indeed here and now; he is also committed to the task of sorting out which elements in the here and now will bind man to servitude and which will release him into freedom…. In the most reduced terms, the problem is this: what has been thought free may be no more than servitude and what has been thought servitude turns out to be—probably unwilled and unwanted—freedom.
The works written subsequent to Saint Genet provide terms which imply that Genet, precisely because he was excluded from decent society, had escaped from history, considered as the myth of that society, in order to become involved in the real historical process. His life, then, is not just an object lesson or a stern warning; his life is a paradigm of how history must be lived. (p. 302)
Sartre is convinced that in any given period there is only one philosophy which expresses meaningfully the reality of that period. He is equally convinced that Marxism is that philosophy today because its terms describe the movement towards totalization which is the basic experience of each individual, group, community, and nation. But the truth of Marxism has become compromised in too many countries by the politics of communism. Existentialism, which Sartre no longer considers a philosophy and which therefore is not in the running to be honored as the philosophy of the modern world, serves a crucial function; for existentialism, as an approach which raises fundamental questions about individual man, can be used to question, not the fundamental truth of Marxism, but the treatment of that truth by those who supposedly work in its behalf. (p. 309)
Existentialism's role (that should be translated to read: the purpose of the Critique) is to reintroduce man into Marxism by insisting that man makes history by whatever projects he accepts as his own. The sum of individual projects is what human reality is about at any particular moment. This has been the firmest point in all Sartre's work. Existentialism must be introduced into Marxist thinking so that Marxists will recognize that every man's project is essentially dialectical because it is the mode of his response to the challenge of the world. To the extent that Marxism does not persuade him that its project and his have the same end, or to the extent that it appears to ask him to sacrifice his project to an abstract idea, both man and Marxism are lost.
Existentialism, Sartre believes, is peculiarly apt to fill this function because, in its insistence on man's perpetual flight towards the future, it has always respected fundamental and inevitable human dynamism. By showing the conditions under which this flight takes place, by identifying the various causes which produce its particular modes, existentialism has shown that man's most persistent project is to move into the future propelled by the hope that he will find there a solution to his present inadequacies. Sartre's concern is thus contiguous with that of Marxism, but it will not be expressed in support of the latter unless he can be convinced that his project will be aided and not annihilated by adherence to the Marxist cause. Marxism can never be allowed to forget the individual, for once it does, its project is rendered senseless. (pp. 311-12)
Sartre's method is always descriptive. Even when the philosophical vocabulary is at its weightiest and the argument at its most convoluted point, the elements of anecdote and the will to shock are not far off. Though the sum total of his work amounts to a vast theory, particular moments are most often and most powerfully expressed in terms of real people facing real situations in the commonplace contexts of life: a child looks at a tree and shudders at the difference between it and him; an adolescent breaks a vase because its serenity frustrates him; a man stops climbing a steep mountain, claiming he is too tired, but knowing that he is lying to himself; a woman pretends she is not cooperating in a petting session; a priest hates humanity because, afraid of himself, he is afraid of other men; a woman cheats because that is the only method she possesses for managing her life. At no point is the reader far from exposure to some ordinary experience; at no point is he allowed to believe that the experience is quite as ordinary as he had thought. A sophisticated goal uses a technique of apparent unsophistication to show the reader that there are motives in his everyday behavior which reveal more about him than he has ever wanted to have disclosed. (p. 340)
We can say, without simplifying too much, that Sartre's lifetime project has evolved through two interconnected hopes. The first has been to show the inevitability of human freedom despite the anguish caused by its discovery; the second has been to show that universal justice can only come about through the cooperation of all men working together in the interests of everyone. That latter project has been inspired by a personal ambition. Sartre had always hoped that the statements and the system used to describe the project, would be all-inclusive, le Tout. All of human reality would fall within the system's terms and all of human reality would therein be explained and its inner tensions resolved in the realization of the project.
I am convinced that two difficulties haunt Sartre as he pursues his effort. One is objective: all human reality has not yet provided much evidence that it wants to be or is capable of being One, united in its goals and methods. The other is subjective: all human reality, in order to become One, would have to heed Jean-Paul Sartre. Against the challenge raised by the first difficulty, the way proposed by the second loses any tint of crassness or egotism with which critics might seek to color it; if the solution is right, the circumstances surrounding its proposal are unimportant. Sartre's project can only be carried out if it is driven by the force of passion, and only the cynical can be unimpressed by a project so deeply committed to justice. Against the cynical, Sartre has sought support designed to remove his project from the realm of the visionary and to place it squarely in psychological and historical reality.
In the process, the first goal—individual human liberty—and the first difficulty—impediments to that liberty—are subjected to the Cartesian cogito and the consequent theory of consciousness; the second goal—universal human freedom—and the second difficulty—finding a unifying orientation for all human reality—is tied to the Marxist dialectic and the consequent assertion that human history is intelligible and the threats to its progress discernible. (pp. 343-44)
Ultimately, Sartre seems to look upon himself as an artisan whose purpose is to create a coherent image of man. In the end what he presents, though he abhors Platonism, is something like Plato's probable story: a whole truth, constructed as much as possible out of the whole cloth of reality, whose purpose is to provoke. (p. 370)
In the Critique de la raison dialectique Sartre has defined man as the sum of all the impossibilities that define him negatively, which means that man is the creature whose unattained goals tell us more about what he is and why he must be impatient than do the sum of all humanity's accomplishments. The same definition can be applied to Sartre's work. As a whole it is defined by what has not been achieved. If such a judgment contains any suggestion of failure, the reasons for the failure cannot be found in Sartre. They are in the world—in its steady temptation to let go, in its persistent refusal to live reasonably, in its ugly habit of justifying misery. There is little letting go and less deliberate unreason in Sartre. (p. 371)
Joseph H. McMahon, in his Humans Being: The World of Jean-Paul Sartre (© 1971 by Joseph H. McMahon), University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Contemporary psychologists consider the first years of childhood the key to an understanding of the adult psyche; Sartre is no exception. But Sartre is probably unique in tracing the psychological importance of childhood to the child's concern with the great philosophical questions. The child is said to experience anguish and his anguish is metaphysical; he asks fundamental questions which imply religious answers, so to interpret the mind of the child Sartre writes in religious terms. (p. 1)
When the attitudes of childhood endure in the mind of the adult, Freud speaks of the person having an Oedipus complex that has not been resolved. Sartre objects to the Oedipus complex and proposes in its place the theological complex. (p. 11)
Sartre is well known for his radical position on the totality of human freedom; it can, then, be somewhat surprising to read in his autobiography, "I had not chosen my vocation; it had been imposed on me by others."… He tells that when he is in bad humor it occurs to him that he has written night and day, covered pages with ink, and cast a stack of unwanted books on the market in the foolish hope of pleasing a grandfather who has been dead many years. (p. 19)
In coming to self-consciousness the child is not cast from a paradise of pleasure, he is cast from his place in the Absolute. He longs to return to his "true essence" but he cannot—he is free. A subjectivity has no truth and no assigned place. This is the problem that makes the growing child forlorn: it is a metaphysical problem, for it concerns the reason for his existence; it is a theological problem, for only an all-knowing mind could justify the child's physical presence. The child may accept the judgment of another as the truth of his life and thus be delivered from his anguish, but he must pay for this decision by living with a divided mind.
The theological complex is the result of a choice whereby another's consciousness is preferred to one's own. It is this choice that establishes the sacred world. Every object that is associated with the judgment of the foreign consciousness appears hallowed with a religious value. If the other is preferred absolutely, the person becomes a "saint" and perhaps will begin to speak of himself in the third person. (pp. 19-20)
The saint, the self-righteous man, and the materialist all have something in common: they seek to hand over their freedom to an external law—the saint to the laws of God, the self-righteous man to the laws of society, and the materialist to the laws of matter. Each of them tries to divest himself of his freedom and assume the solidity of objective being. A totally different choice is possible, however, a negative choice that denies the whole of being and chooses only the freedom. A man can feel glutted with goodness and his own blind submission to the law; he can rebel against it all, perversely affirm his freedom, and go forth into nothingness and the pure transparency of spirit. Spirit always surpasses the "given." With Stoic determination and metaphysical pride, spirit can assert itself to be radically independent of society, God, and the universe.
When consciousness had tried to subordinate itself to objective being, Sartre had called it religion. Now when consciousness renounces objective being and asserts its freedom, Sartre calls it spirituality. Religion and spirituality are, then, opposite movements: one is the attempt to be pure being, or in-itself, and fuse pantheistically with all that is; the other is an effort to be pure existence, or for-itself, and purify oneself of all that is. The spiritual life is the rejection of positive being; since positive being is also the Good, the spiritual life is interpreted as a quest for Evil. This might seem like a wholly arbitrary way of defining the spiritual life, but it is not. Sartre's presentation of this life is based on his study of such French literary figures as the Marquis de Sade, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Genet, and Jouhandeau. All of these authors wrote of spirituality and practiced some form of it; at the same time, each made a more or less explicit commitment to evil. (pp. 123-24)
Since Sartre judges that the nature of man's perdition is essentially social, the salvation that he anticipates requires a transformation of all human relationships from strife into brotherhood. In order that this brotherhood, or the new humanity, be achieved, men must rise up from their slavery in a common experience. Brotherhood is possible only if men share together in a common past. Sartre argues that the brotherhood of man can never be based on the common nature shared by all man; canned peas have a common nature but this gives them no basis for brotherhood! Brotherhood can come only when men share in a common historical experience. Only by sharing a common past will men acquire a common being and thus be united. Brothers are those who have been liberated together. (p. 187)
Currently the term "free spirits" is used by many hippies to describe themselves; it refers primarily to the fact that their spirit is not bound to a single sexual partner. Many hippies could also identify with the spirituality that was presented above …: they too disdain the material world and its values, their interest is in the theater, the occult, and psychedelic art; they prefer not to work and their political sympathies lean towards anarchy or nihilism—"only revolt is pure." Sartre's analysis of spirituality would seem to be a perceptive study of the "free spirit." In the first centuries of Christianity there was a similar spirituality espoused by various gnostic sects…. Sartre has shown himself sympathetic with individuals of this type, and the analysis that he makes of their mentality shows how deeply it is part of his own; but ultimately he does not agree with them…. Spirit takes on flesh only by making an irrevocable commitment, the one thing that the "free spirit" is not free to do. Afterwards, spirit is rooted in reality and cannot turn back beyond a specific date; it has become incarnate.
When Sartre urges an entrance into history and one from which there is no return, he touches again on a basic theme in Christian spirituality…. Christianity could be defined as the religion of definitive incarnation. Both the God of Christianity and Christian men become incarnate (enter history) only once; incarnation is so definitive that it will not be repeated, and therefore Christian history is not an ever-recurring cycle. A cyclic understanding of history is found in many forms of non-Christian thought; it has had a particular appeal to "spiritual men" in both the East and the West (Plato, Melville, Nietzsche, and others). But the noncyclic character of history was strongly affirmed by the early Church in opposition to the gnostic spiritualities of the times: Christ's incarnation would not repeat itself and neither would individual men be reincarnated; history is definitive and there is no turning back; men lead only one life and everything counts; even man's present body would always be his. This affirmation of the reality of history has dominated the Western mind ever since; it is the belief repeatedly appealed to in Sartre's recent study of Flaubert and that serves as the starting point for the Critique de la raison dialectique. (pp. 188-89)
Thomas M. King, in his Sartre and the Sacred (© 1974 by the University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Most literary critics of contemporary French fiction agree that 1950 marked the beginning of a genuine upheaval in the novel as a genre in France. At that time it was generally held that the only common denominator shared by New Novelists was their negative attitude toward conventional fictional props, such as plot or character. Numerous predecessors were hailed as foreshadowing the loss of plot or the disappearance of character. Sartre perfectly characterized the new novel by dubbing it anti-roman, which remained for many years its popular designation. It was not until quite recently that critics finally began to point toward a more positive esthetic heritage shared by New Novelists.
Although this common esthetic heritage derives in great part from Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of perception, not its least important element is a certain existential bias in fictional perspective, generally overlooked by the majority of critics. This bias stems directly from Sartre. It is my purpose to demonstrate Sartre's pivotal position in developing the esthetic of perspective in the New Novel.
Three important aspects of Sartre's esthetic have had a long-range influence on fictional perspective. All three come from Sartre's existentially informed notion of the relationship between author, reader, and work of art. First as a kind of counterbalance to the traditional self-effacement of the novelist in his work, Sartre strongly urged young novelists to implicate the reader, to "empoigner le lecteur." Secondly, Sartre originally coined the phrase "subjectivités-points-de-vue" as his way of expressing the idea that fictional characters no longer remained objectively observed entities but had become subjectively observing points of view. And last, Sartre held that these "subjectivités-points-de-vue" should express their prise de conscience, or contingency, through a series of events which would seem to occur in an ever-unfolding present moment. Such a series of present moments, however handled, should maintain the temporal "ribbon" intact so that the chronology of events could be clearly discerned. (pp. 11-12)
The New Novelists proved particularly adept at cultivating these Sartrean tendencies. Paradoxically, all or nearly all their innovations in perspective came by way of Sartre. In this respect, New Novelists of the fifties and sixties literally followed in the theoretical footsteps of Sartre, but in such a way as to create an entirely opposite kind of novel which maintained from the outset a wholly different rationale. Ideologically, these novelists considered themselves to be revolting against the existential ethic of "committed" literature which followed World War II, but technically, they were quite logically extending certain precepts of the Sartrean esthetic. (p. 12)
L'Enfance d'un chef is a nearly perfect example of Sartre's existential bias in fictional perspective. Although it is a traditional narrative related in the third person and the past preterite, Sartre has managed to limit perspective almost exclusively to that of his protagonist Lucien Fleurier. Lucien is an open character: everything he perceives, thinks, or feels is transcribed and is, theoretically, nothing but what he perceives, thinks, or feels. Neither do perceptions and thoughts of any other fictional character intervene in Lucien's story, nor does the author betray his presence in his fictional universe by interposing his own judgments, explanations, or comments. (p. 37)
The chronology of Lucien's story is based on a series of figures or leitmotifs which constitute the various stages of the boy's prise de conscience. As Lucien passes from one stage of consciousness to another, and as his consciousness broadens, new figures are introduced in such a way as continually to indicate the present stage at which Lucien finds himself. In this way Sartre conveys the cumulative effect of experience in the boy's consciousness as well as his evolution from one present stage of consciousness to the next. Sartre's juxtaposition of these leitmotifs is responsible in part for the trompe-l'oeil effect in which Lucien's expanding awareness seems to take place in a moment always "present" to the protagonist and thus to the reader. (p. 38)
With respect to internal aspects of the narrative, Lucien's thoughts and emotions are transcribed in such a way as to create an ambiguous point of view, which has been described quite felicitously as "narrated monologue."… It is in the vacillations between third and first person that Sartre's handling of perspective becomes most subtle and most telling. The use of the third person facilitates Sartre's establishment of a second perspective in a way which can be contrasted to Camus's use of the first person in L'Étranger. Whereas Camus objectifies the normally personal and confessional "I," Sartre personalizes the usually objective narrative "he." By "personalize," I mean that Sartre allows his protagonist's first-person commentary to express itself sporadically throughout his narrative…. It is undoubtedly through this subjective orientation that Sartre tries to establish Lucien as the central point-of-view-subjectivity of his story as well as to "respect in the past the present that it was," in L'Enfance d'un chef. The story begins and ends with direct statements by Lucien which further enhance this subjective orientation of his point of view. (p. 41)
Finally, what is the result of these various techniques used by Sartre in his attempt to remain closely confined to Lucien's point of view? Sartre, as has been suggested throughout this inquiry into the perspective of L'Enfance d'un chef, makes himself both an accomplice and a traitor with respect to Lucien. He establishes a definite duplicity on his part; without intervening in a flagrant manner, he succeeds in satirizing his protagonist and in inciting the reader to do likewise. This is a subtle tactic in the sense that certain readers are tempted to identify with Lucien. Sartre encourages this temptation by apparently adopting Lucien's point of view, but in the end he sabotages his protagonist. The tactic of an author sabotaging his protagonist whose point of view he pretends to adopt is traditional, well established since Voltaire's time, at least. In L'Enfance d'un chef Sartre develops it, perhaps, to perfection.
In order to expose Lucien's bad faith, Sartre's attitude toward him becomes necessarily one of bad faith. This conclusion tends to corroborate Sartre's theoretical supposition that to determine how perspective is handled in any given work of fiction is to gain insight into that author's philosophical orientation.
Yet, it is not the other fictional subjectivities who condemn Lucien's bad faith in L'Enfance d'un chef; rather, it is the author and the reader who do so. The reader participates in the fictional world by snapping up all the bait of the author, by retaining all of Sartre's subtle interventions which ultimately condemn Lucien. Sartre promotes a complicity between the reader and the author in L'Enfance d'un chef, who eventually turn out to be antipathetic to the fictional protagonist. (pp. 54-5)
Betty T. Rahv, in her From Sartre to the New Novel (copyright © 1974 by Betty T. Rahv), Kennikat Press, 1974.
In a lecture some time ago I referred to Sartre as "the last of the Augustinians." A number of the audience were puzzled by the analogy and some thought it mistaken. What I meant was that the two writers are broadly akin in the themes they deal with and not dissimilar in style and intent. While I did not have anything like a tight case, I pointed out three thematic parallels which seemed to me to be basic in both. In the first place, the two are haunted by an ideal of perfection. Two, a radical dualism permeates their work. And, thirdly, there is a common sense of the self in its alienation and dramatic quest for identity. (p. 154)
Compare, for example, the theme of perfection in the two writers. Augustine's multiple descriptions of the God reality are summed up in his famous "our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Sartre, for his part, defines man as the desire to be God. "Everything within me," he writes in Being and Nothingness, "demands God and that I cannot forget. To be man means to reach toward being God. Man is fundamentally the desire to be God." Sartre states this ideal variously as the coincidence of objectivity and subjectivity, of consciousness and substance or, in his most technical terms, of being-in-itself and being-for-itself. If there were a God he would be for Sartre perfect in the sense that he would combine in his being a boundless freedom together with the structure of a determined substance and man would be made in his image. (pp. 154-55)
Sartre's dualism is what marks out the parameters of his anthropology—the endless frustrations of the self in its attempts to find definition and rest, always doomed efforts of a free consciousness to find coincidence with the objects of its desire. Even Sartre cannot outdo Augustine in cataloguing the miseries of this frustration…. Nothing is more instructive than reading the Confessions side by side with, say, Nausée. Sartre, of course, does not speak of grace. But the transforming power of grace plays an analogous role in his scheme. This is the key to his social activism and evidence that for him there is always some slim hope of an exit. Critics sometimes point out that the later Sartre has tempered the rigidity of his original categories to the requirements of realpolitik. This does not seem to me to be true. He has no doubt modified his position in a number of ways and of late has been far more concerned with politics than ontology. Still, it is the same Sartre—striving mightily to effect the realm of freedom from the realm of necessity. As early as Being and Nothingness he could say that freedom is identical with acting. Man is saved (and after 1950 Sartre uses the term salvation) through his creative efforts in history. By exercizing our freedom we define ourselves and make history, thus contributing to the eventual kingdom of Freedom.
It might be objected here that Sartre parodies and reverses the spiritual tradition rather than instance it because for him God is impossible whereas in the tradition God was a veritable answer to the dilemmas of existence; for him there is no coincidence of opposites as there was for the majority of the mystics; for him the drama of the self's quest is finally futile—"man is a useless passion"—whereas the tradition postulated a positive outcome of the battle between good and evil; and so forth. (pp. 155-56)
I would be more inclined to say that Sartre is most traditional in his emphasis upon the dark pole, the "atheistic" moment in the dynamic of faith when God does not exist. He thus speaks more directly to the contemporary experience than do many more official spokesmen of the tradition. The loss of faith is a valid as well as a common dimension of religious experience…. Sartre is important in the final analysis because he is mythically rich. His philosophy rests upon an enduring dialectic of experience and is expressed with great dramatic force. Sartre is surely the most imagistic of philosophers since Nietzsche! He is easy to refute from this or that point of view (and has been so refuted dozens of times) but at the risk of missing his aesthetic thrust. This would be to do him the greatest injustice that can befall an imaginative writer: viz., to miss the point of his metaphors. Images are often more important than arguments and this seems to me especially true in Sartre's case.
It would not do to press the religious implications of Sartre's thought too far but they are illuminating. (p. 156)
Bernard Murchland, "The Last Augustinian," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 23, 1975, pp. 154-56.
If we look at the successive volumes of Sartre's current affairs writing, which he calls Situations, we can say that they constitute an act of total attention to what is going on in the world that it would be very difficult to match, either in regard to concrete detail or to philosophic implication. But this method also has its drawbacks. The vehement engagement of Sartre's powers tends to put everything—every object of inquiry, artistic, literary, political—on the same level of magnitude and abstraction. A painting by Tintoretto, a statue by Giacometti, the Soviet entry into Prague, the Rosenberg Affair, the dilemma of Zionism—whatever it is receives this enormously powerful analytical treatment, with very little distinction between different orders of experience.
Moreover, the constancy of Sartre's attention, his fierce will to impose a scheme which is both comprehensive and totally comprehending, these are often defeated by the messiness of the facts, by the sheer irrationality of political-social realities. Human beings behave in chaotic, disorderly, unreasonable ways; and, dealing with this, Sartre often turns to anger. This anger, often self-lacerating, then translates into ungoverned prolixity. His texts are enormously long…. [That] point … is almost crucial when we think of his whole achievement. (p. 851)
He is an intellectual's intellectual, a mandarin, a writer the difficulty and the size of whose books not only cuts him off, even on purely economic grounds, from a mass audience, but also makes of him an immensely honoured ornament of the very Establishment which he loathes. Sartre has scornfully refused the Nobel Prize—but his books have eminently earned it.
The resulting ambivalence, the rage against self, has lain heavily on his entire career. It has restricted almost all of the major works to a fragmentary status. This is a striking, and central, phenomenon. The Critique de la Raison Dialectique, a major book which was going to spell out for us the whole of Sartre's understanding of the inner meaning of Marxism and of the Russian Revolution, remains incomplete. The autobiography which he had been planning for many, many years has not advanced beyond its luminous inception, that first, very short book, Les Mots—the account of his childhood and of his relationship to culture and to language, which is perhaps the most beautiful and most flawless book he has produced.
Now, over the past decade, he has been labouring at a mountainous, absurdly inflated and, quite frankly, often impenetrable study of Flaubert—Flaubert the arch-foe, the artist most 'irresponsibly' committed to the sufficiency of his art…. [As] it stands, this elephantine torso is a sort of crowning act of self-derision. In it, a man who despises the whole bourgeois academic genre, the entire business of 'objective' or university literature and literary discourse, erects a monument, perhaps a giant mausoleum, to both. Now, what connection, except that of parody, of travesty, can there be between the composition of Sartre's Flaubert—unread, unreadable by the masses of the militant young—and this simultaneous call to populist radicalism?
Sartre is fully aware of the paradoxicality—or, as he calls it, the 'inauthenticity'—of his personal and private situation. His reading of Flaubert is, at several points, grim self-caricature…. He does … dangerous things in order, in part, to resolve the contradictions of his own state. He has taken an inquisitorial view of his own personal safety and prosperity in what he feels to be a stage of revolutionary asceticism. The outcome of such a view can be rhetorical and tortuous. There is, I think, a necessary duplicity in a good deal of Sartre's analyses and self-analyses. But this attitude has also made of this enormously gifted, harried individual a representative presence in our time. If Sartre is not, at all points, our 'conscience', he is very often, and urgently, our 'bad conscience'.
To wish him a happy 70th birthday would hardly be adequate. The formula is banal, and happiness has never been M. Sartre's forte. So, perhaps, one can put it this way on what is—whether he will or not—an auspicious occasion: so long as Jean-Paul Sartre is active among us, it is just that little bit more embarrassing to say anything stupid. (p. 852)
George Steiner, "Sartre at 70," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of George Steiner), June 26, 1975, pp. 851-52.
Jean-Paul Sartre has just turned 70, a man almost blind now and who lately in a series of interviews looked with serenity back over his past achievement and at his present situation as an inveterate writer who has had to forgo writing. But his mind, it is clear, has not stopped working nor has he given up on his project to make himself as he says, absolutely translucid to the gaze of others—the root of evil in his eyes being concealment—and to ponder further incipient queries concerning human beings searching for answers that never satisfy….
In the English-speaking world there has been no dearth of interest in Sartre but a deep reticence in regard to his work as a philosopher, a reflection of the antagonism of the strong analytical movement in American and more especially British philosophy to the so-called Existentialist thinkers. Criticism, though less politically charged than in Europe, has been sharper. Sartre, famous as he knows he is, still looks upon himself as a man unduly hated because of his philosophical stance….
[In his essay Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur C. Danto has written]: "Parisian to the core, committed in love and friendship to the values of freedom and fidelity—even as a character, just as a man, Sartre merits memorialization and admiration. But the singularities of his wider literary contribution, his person and his life, are overshadowed, to my mind, by his extraordinary philosophical craft. The Sartrian system, for its scope and ingenuity, its architectural daring and logical responsibility, its dialectical strengths and human relevance, and for the totality of its vision, is located in the same exalted category, the highest of its kind, as those of Plato and Descartes, Spinoza and Kant, Hegel and Russell to cite most of his exiguous peers"…. In one sentence he has swept aside most of the objections that philosophers have raised in regard to Sartre. (pp. 24-5)
Germaine Brée, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 30, 1975.
There is something comic in the scourge the French intellectual creates to flagellate himself with, and it was an acute understanding of and sympathy with this often grotesque penchant that led Jean-Paul Sartre to write [Nausea], the novel which in political terms marks the end of the thirties in France. Its author's neo-Heideggerian philosophy, obscure (and even inconsistent) though much of it undoubtedly is, does render possible a radically new approach to literature and to man. That is why Nausea was such an original and important book, when it appeared at the end of the 1930s. It sounded a completely new note, which had been foreshadowed only by Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (1932). It's not without significance that Sartre quotes Céline in the epigraph to his novel: Céline, like Sartre, wrote fiction from a painfully systematic subjective point of view, very different from both the detached elegance of Gide and the impassioned but aloof humanity of Malraux.
In view of this, it is a matter for some surprise that Sartre casts his novel in one of the most hackneyed of forms, that of a diary which the 'publisher' claims to have found by accident and which he prints without alteration, a device much used, of course, in the eighteenth century. (pp. 11-12)
The central nub of the plot—how a man suffered a kind of metaphysical concussion and, slowly coming round, then saw life in a new light, is a profoundly original theme which (like Beckett's somewhat similar story, Molloy), has its roots more in the unconscious mind than in any consciously elaborated system of ethics. As such it makes Nausea the least didactic and most satisfying of Sartre's novels; the unfinished tetralogy Roads to Freedom, which started to appear after the war, is a pale achievement when set beside the anarchic, youthful vigour of this novel.
I do not myself find it very helpful or instructive, in fact, to read Nausea as an existentialist work. It naturally bears a relation to Sartre's thinking as adumbrated in other books—just as Camus's The Outsider is not unconnected with The Myth of Sisyphus—but its roots run deep into his psyche. Simone de Beauvoir tells us, for instance, that he suffered for a time from a particularly unpleasant hallucination; he felt, she says, that he was being followed along the street by lobsters or crabs. This helps account for the fact that crustacea occur at least half a dozen times in Nausea and express—like the beetle image which is so disturbing and effective in Kafka's story Metamorphosis—feelings of revulsion and dread. (p. 13)
The 'existentialist' reading of Nausea doesn't take us very far,… in spite of some incidental remarks (such as 'there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing',… which might almost have been planted in the novel to mislead us into interpreting it exclusively on that level. There are, indeed, alternative ways of reading the book: as a unique moment in the development of the novel, for example; not only, as I have suggested, as a throw-back to the eighteenth century novel, but as a foreshadowing of contemporary formal experimentalism (the extensive use of what has come to be called 'intertextuality' is a case in point …), and as a classic of late modernism in its featuring of jazz, its 'portrait of the artist as alienated soul' motif, and its exaltation of salvation through art. It is remarkable, in fact, for so many currents in the history of fiction to meet in one work, particularly a first novel, a book which betrays all the strengths and weaknesses of the type: the naivety of manner, conventional approach to characterisation and form (as if Joyce, Proust and Virginia Woolf had not already altered all that), together with an intensity of vision, a success in fixing a mood which rightly makes it a 'modern classic', and a considerable if curiously uneven achievement; a work, moreover, totally representative of its period, as is now, nearly forty years after, clearly apparent in retrospect. (pp. 14-15)
Nausea is … a curiously neo-symbolist novel, harking back to the fin-de-siècle belief that language aspires to the condition of music. It is, at the same time, a surrealist work, in which the surrealism is not fully integrated…. Kafka's Metamorphosis … is a dream that is not a dream, a nightmare conducted with remorseless logic. Nausea is a more transcendental work, almost neo-platonic…. Kafka—for whom man was a 'suicidal notion forming in God's mind'—is an altogether more astringent author than Sartre. In his absurd universe man is blindly punished, the rigour of that necessity contrasting cruelly with the grotesque contingency of the world…. Sartre's terrors are limited by the fact that the real world is preserved: a chestnut-tree root writhes in a park in a provincial town in northern France. For all Nausea's aesthetic gothicism, therefore, it does not take us beyond the realm of the familiar; and Sartre's exploration of Roquentin's dilemma seems disturbingly tainted with 'bad faith', a self-indulgent fantasy, especially when compared with the bleakness of Kafka's demonstration of the collapse into comic horror of Gregor Samsa's universe of cosy flats and easy jobs. (p. 20)
John Fletcher, "Sartre's 'Nausea': A Modern Classic Revisited," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 11-20.
Adventitiousness, or as Sartre puts it, "contingency," represents the ultimate reality ("The essential thing is contingency," says Sartre's hero. "It is the absolute."). And Sartre's great early work, Nausea, not only embodies that ultimate reality in its descriptions and narrative procedures, but that reality is also what Nausea is about: more precisely, Nausea is about one man's, Roquentin's, attempt to dramatize, define, and understand the nature of the adventitious as represented in the narrative action by people, landscape, and things—especially things.
Sartre, unlike Joyce, seeks to describe things, not apart from, but within process, as evolving aspects of a universal temporal continuum…. For Sartre, permanence and solidity are illusions, false attributions to the object of a necessary being, a self-containment and sufficiency apart from all other objects which it does not actually have. The objects in Nausea are characteristically described without reference to form or outline, but almost solely in terms of color, taste, and smell, the most ephemeral, impermanent, and subjective of the senses, for these are the best qualities to represent dramatically the state of suspense, the shifting ambiguities of an object as a thing that is about-to-be. The effect of these color-taste-and-smell descriptions is to provide the sensuous surface of all Sartre's objects with a viscous, yet nervous texture, like plasma, heavy and trembling, as if he were trying to represent objects through the activation of their molecular composition.
If the visual effects in Nausea remind us of camera effects—and I think in large measure that they do—they are camera effects of a very special sort. Throughout all of Nausea we can find countless examples of cinematographic perspective (angles of partial vision far more dramatic and extreme than the relatively straightforward encounter in the passage above). Yet due to the idiosyncratic nature of Sartre's plasmic descriptions, which represents Roquentin's attempts to be "objective" about what he sees, these effects remind us of camera practices of the most atypical and subjective kind; the sensuous and visual forms in this novel are most like those moments in film where the director blurs the lens of the camera to indicate drunkenness, dizziness, mental aberrations, and other subjective distortions of reality. And Sartre's visual forms are actually "distortions" of this kind, always making us less aware of what is seen than of who is seeing and how he sees. Sartre, of course, knows this, and Roquentin ultimately comes to know it too…. (pp. 260-61)
But if Roquentin's attempts to describe are doomed to futility and feverish subjectivity, why, then, are they ever made at all? Because even though the narrator himself knows that they are illusory, he does not wish, as Robbe-Grillet has argued, to avoid "yielding" himself to them…. Sartre's descriptions, then, actually present the growth of Roquentin's awareness of his own becoming, of his own existence. The delineation of objects, as provisional, approximate, and ineffectual as they must be, reveal again and again (as in the last paragraph) Roquentin's fundamental awareness that these objects have a life apart from him, are living that life: exist. And because he knows this, he comes to the conviction that he also has a life apart from them, is living that life, also exists, and that whatever adventitious process defines their existence also defines his own: "Existence everywhere, infinitely, in excess forever and everywhere; existence—which is limited only by existence."
Nausea is perhaps Sartre's most fateful and influential novel—if not his most characteristic, for he never wrote another one quite like it—and one of the seminal works of French modernism. Nausea not only brings the adventitious to a center of philosophical concern, but out of this concern establishes the subsoil from which grows a whole range of novelists—Simon, Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Le Clezio—whose primary concern is to examine the life of the phenomenal world, a world of things, as it exists apart from a mind charged with thought, that is, apart from all human influence and manipulation. (p. 262)
Alan Spiegel, "The Mud on Napoleon's Boots: The Adventitious Detail in Film and Fiction," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976), pp. 249-64.