Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 13)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–

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


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre's plays, and especially The Flies, are generally considered to be vulgarizations of his previously elaborated philosophical positions. This assumption is misleading. The Flies is the first work in which Sartre presents what can be taken as an ethics of freedom. Being and Nothingness concerns not ethics but ontology, freedom not as value but as a structure of Being, that essential freedom which makes it possible and meaningful for man existentially to make himself free. In a footnote to the chapter of Being and Nothingness, "Concrete Relations with Others," Sartre indicates that his description of human reality does not exclude "the possibility of an ethics of deliverance and salvation." But, he continues, "this can be achieved only after a radical conversion." Such a radical conversion takes place … in Act II of The Flies; it involves a complete transformation in Orestes' understanding and use of his freedom. In committing murder, Orestes overthrows the moral and religious laws established by Jupiter. He kills Aegistheus and Clytemnestra in the name of his own liberation and that of the people of Argos. He has discovered that there are no a priori values, and that he must therefore bear the anguish of full responsibility for inventing values by his acts. (p. 12)

Clearly, Sartre intends Orestes to convey the idea that "existentialism is a humanism." The ethics of freedom embodied by Orestes involves a humanism that in certain historical situations must express itself in the form of violence. However, there is another aspect to Orestes which confuses his role as heroic liberator and points not to a dramatic richness in the character but to a confusion in Sartre's conception of him. Why does Orestes decide to leave Argos at the end of the play? Part of the reason is that Jupiter wants him to stay and to become ruler of Argos in place of the murdered Aegistheus. Here, as in committing the murder itself, Orestes' choice is defined in exact opposition to Jupiter's will. He says to the people of Argos: "I shall not sit on my victim's throne or take the scepter in my blood-stained hands. A god offered it to me, and I said no." On the other hand, he claims he has killed Aegistheus to liberate the people from their tyrant…. Orestes has freed the people from Aegistheus, but nothing indicates that he has freed them from the slave mentality which made Aegistheus' tyranny possible…. By some mysterious logic, Orestes seems to believe that by liberating himself, he is also liberating "his" people. (pp. 12-13)

In his fascination with the dark destiny he knows will be his, [Orestes] resembles more a romantic force qui va, gloriously doomed, than a liberté en situation. He acts, not with the fear and trembling of an individual who recognizes the risk inherent in every commitment, but with a kind of exalted joy. (p. 13)

The audience of The Flies in 1943 was less interested in the philosophical problems of the play than in its clear political meaning: satire of the Vichy puppets and praise of the Resistance. (p. 15)

The actual killing of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, foreordained by the legend's...

(The entire section is 9,537 words.)