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Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905–

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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.)


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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 tradition, is of secondary importance in Sartre's play…. The central question in the plot of The Flies is not whether Orestes will murder Aegistheus but how he will bear his act: will he take full responsibility for it, or will he abdicate his responsibility and disavow what he has done? The real murder of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra is meaningful only because of the symbolic murder of Jupiter that follows it. (pp. 16-17)

Orestes dramatizes in its most extreme form the power of freedom against tyranny. Sartre wrote his first play as a call to revolt; the freedom which inspires that revolt is meant as a passionate imperative. The Flies remains indispensable to any understanding of what Sartre is about. (p. 24)

Sartre has insisted that it was not his purpose in writing The Devil and the Good Lord to demonstrate that God does not exist. He stopped believing in God when he was twelve years old, he has asserted, and "the problem of God interests me very little."… Sartre deals in this play not so much with God as with all absolutes—Good and Evil, God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell—as evasions from the finitude of existence. (p. 32)

For Sartre freedom and solidarity are facts of human existence. They are also the basis for judgments of value. It is in the individual's awareness of his freedom and his solidarity with other men, in his will to assume responsibility for these facts and to work toward their realization as practical realities, that moral judgments are possible. In both The Flies and The Devil and the Good Lord the hero's conversion involves precisely this kind of awareness. (p. 33)

Like Orestes, Goetz is meant to serve as an example. The audience is supposed to identify with him, to learn from his mistakes and from his final heroic decision. (p. 36)

The evil with which Sartre is concerned in this play has no relation to the evil of which he has been able to speak so powerfully during and since the Occupation. It is a theological principle, by definition impossible to realize. Sartre explains his concept of "pure" evil in Saint Genet: "If he does not abhor Evil, if he does it out of passion, then, as Genet himself says, Evil becomes a Good. In actual fact, the person who loves blood and rape, like the butcher of Hamburg, is a criminal lunatic but not a true evildoer." The only "true evildoer," then, is Satan; no merely human creature is capable of pure evil. Even Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil, does not do evil for its own sake: he wants gold, women, power. It is because he is the Devil that Satan, through Faust, can be evil.

In another sense, too, Goetz's evil does not count as real. He pays no price for what he has done; his acts carry no consequences that limit his future possibilities. With Goetz's conversion, his past evil is erased. (p. 38)

[The Flies and The Devil and the Good Lord are Sartre's] spectacular plays; Orestes and Goetz are his two "heroic" heroes. In both cases, their conversions signify an absolute break with the past. Orestes' conversion, however, occurs early in the play…. For Orestes, the past involves no clearly definable self—that is, in Sartre's terms, no irrevocable action. Consequently, the past does not count heavily in that play's dramatic economy. Just before Orestes' conversion, his self is so light as to be almost nonexistent. This is not true in The Devil and the Good Lord. Goetz's conversion occurs in Act III, scene x; at this point his past should carry a good deal of weight. Man is, for Sartre, to the extent that he has done. Goetz has done many things, all of them with disastrous outcome. But the crimes of Goetz-Evil and the catastrophic mistakes of Goetz-Good never have any weight in themselves; they are simply lessons for Goetz and for the audience. With each metamorphosis Goetz is able to start again tabula rasa. (p. 39)

Goetz suddenly realizes that all his buffoonery has been in vain, that he cannot be anything in the eyes of God because there is no God for him to be for. Sartre would have us believe that this discovery makes of Goetz a completely changed man. This is difficult to believe, even on the basis of Sartre's own theories. His analysis of Genet draws extensively from Freud as well as from Marx; the conditions that define the situation within which Genet makes his choices are psychological as well as social. Sartre emphasizes the continuity underlying even the most radical of Genet's transformations. There is no such continuity in Goetz's conversion. (p. 40)

In The Devil and the Good Lord Sartre fails to create a language capable of embodying his hero's stated transformation. (p. 41)

Ideas in [The Devil and the Good Lord] do not arise from the confrontation of two wills in conflict; they exist as packaged goods compartmentalized within each character…. Goetz at the end of the play is like Faust saved instead of damned. Once he has seen the truth, he is able to take back his pact with the Devil and the Good Lord. (p. 42)

Although the theme of The Victors is heroism, the play has no hero. [There are no spectacular, exemplary individuals as in The Flies or The Devil and the Good Lord who] have the power to act, to change the world in which they find themselves. The five Resistance fighters in The Victors have no such power; things happen to them but they cannot make things happen. Evil in this play is not a metaphysical or theological idea as it is in The Devil and the Good Lord. The emphasis is on an extreme situation: torture. (p. 43)

Each of Sartre's Resistance fighters in The Victors is an exploration of one possible answer to the question: If they tortured me, what would I do? The maquisards are trapped in a closed situation in which action is no longer available to them. There is only suffering; all they can choose is the meaning of that suffering. They are defined not as personalities but in relation to their ordeal: to the threat of torture and to torture itself. In this situation, the problem of freedom is posed in a radical form. Each man must choose the attitude with which he will confront his torturers. Even under torture he is free since he must decide the exact moment he can no longer stand the pain, and what he will do at that moment. (p. 44)

One has to agree with Sartre that The Victors is less than successful. It fails for several reasons: the unsuitability of torture on the stage, the sketchy characterization of the torturers, the victims' failure to behave in such a way that the dramatic illusion is maintained. Its legitimate achievement is its presentation of the contest between torturer and tortured and its study of the fanatic pride that is part of heroism. (p. 52)

Although almost all critics of Dirty Hands have referred to [the protagonist] Hugo as a Hamlet-like character, the comparison does not take us very far, in spite of Hugo's long drunken tirade—"To be or not to be, eh? You see what I mean"—the worst speech in the play. Hamlet intellectually dominates every contest; Hugo always comes out a loser. He is bested by all the other characters…. Hugo is supposed to be lucid, but actually his lucidity operates only on his own inadequacies; he has little understanding of the events in which he wants to play a role.

As a psychological study …, Hugo is complex and interesting—one of the most fully realized characters in Sartre's plays. As spokesman for the moral position, however, he carries no weight at all. We are given psychological problems parading as legitimate moral dilemmas. (p. 59)

The real interest of Dirty Hands lies in the delineation of its three main characters: Hugo, Jessica, and Hoederer. None of them is reducible to an idea; in spite of the social issues involved, they communicate an immediacy and concreteness which makes us experience them also as private persons, a rare phenomenon in Sartre's plays. Sartre's portrait of Hugo, especially, involves an intimacy of understanding which Sartre does not usually give to his dramatic creations. He reveals Hugo from within, Hugo as he is for himself, with all the hesitations and blurs that such a portrait involves…. Hugo's wife Jessica, usually ignored or dismissed by critics, shows [a] kind of believable unpredictability of intelligence and emotion…. Hoederer, although an entirely admirable character, is neither stiff nor unconvincing. It is the three-way relationship between Hugo, Hoederer, and Jessica which finally makes the play interesting. (pp. 64-5)

In Hugo, Sartre explores many of the themes he deals with less successfully in Orestes and Goetz; Hugo stands as Sartre's modern humanized version of his two mythical heroes. Like them Hugo finds himself isolated, belonging to no collectivity he can experience as "we" instead of "they" and, as a result, suffers from a constant feeling of unreality…. In common with his larger, more heroic counterparts, Hugo is primarily concerned not with practical consequences, but with a justification for his existence: the salvation of his soul. All three characters need to be seen in order to be sure they exist: Orestes by the people of Argos, Hugo by his comrades in the Party, Goetz by God. They act not for ends, but for spectators. For this reason, the most extreme and irrevocable form of action—murder—becomes their chosen means of acceding to reality, of forcing "them," Sartre's Autrui, to take their presence into account. (p. 66)

Hoederer is the one authentic hero of Sartre's plays, the one fully admirable character. His behavior has nothing in common with the flamboyant heroism of Orestes and Goetz, slaying their respective Gods; his concerns are practical objectives in a world of men. Orestes and Goetz must go through the "baptism of blood" before they can feel themselves free. Their ends, we are told, are noble; but we see only the means. Hoederer is more modest. Orestes and Goetz fight dragons; Hoederer simply gets work done. He represents Sartre's more sober ideal of political action…. (p. 73)

Although Sartre reveals Hugo from several points of view, giving the spectator the impression of complete familiarity, Hoederer remains elusive, constantly suggesting a complexity which never shows itself fully. It is significant that Hoederer is able to see Hugo, to understand what is going on inside Hugo's head, but for Hugo Hoederer always remains opaque, impenetrable. (p. 74)

It is Jessica who finally acts as catalyst of what we have known will be Hoederer's inevitable fate. Hugo kills Hoederer after Hoederer's one moment of weakness, the brief lapse in his will to stay away from Jessica and to ignore her insistent offer of herself. Hoederer's words to Slick and George after Hugo has shot him are characteristic: "Don't hurt him. He was jealous…. I've been sleeping with his wife"…. Hoederer's final act of generosity is a lie.

Why does Hugo kill Hoederer? Hugo is his act; all that he has been, all his failures are synthesized in that one explosion. Whatever Hugo initially thought his intentions were, his real intentions are revealed by the fact of the murder itself. In Being and Nothingness Sartre makes a distinction between the motif and the mobile of an action. He defines motif as the objective grasp of a situation, the understanding of how it can serve as a means for attaining a particular end. Mobile, on the other hand, refers to the psychological factors that motivate an act.

Hugo's initial motif was to assassinate Hoederer in order to eliminate a political enemy. This long-deliberated motif, however, has nothing to do with the crime as it actually happens. Hugo does not kill for political reasons or because his Party has ordered him to kill. In killing Hoederer, it is himself as a failure Hugo wants to kill. He hopes by a single act, a pistol shot, to inaugurate a future that signifies the destruction of his past. In fact he does just the opposite. Had he taken Hoederer's advice and accepted his help, Hugo's past would have become just a painful adolescent stage, the prelude to his manhood; with the act of murder, that past becomes a radical truth of his present and future. Each shot is the despairing confession of his complete alienation, his inability to escape from the prison of his childhood, his solitude, and his weakness. It is an admission that he cannot in any other way win the confidence of his comrades or respect from his wife. Only a dead body can make him feel that he has marked the world. (pp. 74-5)

Finally, after all the meanings of Hugo's crime have been explained into absurdity, all that remains is the act itself and its result—the dead body of Hoederer. Notwithstanding Hugo's long-planned intention, the crime as it takes place is unpremeditated. Hugo kills for no real reason; what happens is almost an accident, like Meursault's killing of the Arab because the sun was in his eyes…. He experiences what he has done as an act without an agent; for himself he is still only Hugo the actor, who happened to have real bullets in his play gun. (pp. 76-7)

Dirty Hands, like The Victors, is in a particular realistic tradition; it deals in a serious, nonmythical way with a contemporary crisis…. Dirty Hands avoids both the cerebralism and the sheer physical horror that weaken The Victors. Its intimate realism is entirely suited to the action of the play. Hugo's initial mission of assassinating an ideological adversary becomes the very different task of killing Hoederer; what begins for Hugo as an abstraction—the problem of "red gloves"—changes into the terrible demand that he kill the one man who is willing to have confidence in him, who can help him, and whom he has grown to love in spite of himself…. Dirty Hands is less original than No Exit before it, less powerful than The Condemned of Altona after it. But it is the first play we have considered that escapes Sartre's great fault of sterilizing his drama with rhetoric; it inhabits a world to which we can give imaginative assent. (p. 78)

The defect of [The Respectful Prostitute] is that it vacillates uncertainly between realism and caricature. The Respectful Prostitute is meant to be an aggressive work, using ridicule as denunciation. Sartre, however, is unsure of his weapons…. We cannot recognize the characters as credible persons; nor is their distortion such that we can assent to it as functional caricature. (p. 85)

Both Sartre's satires, The Respectful Prostitute and Nekrassov, are weakened by the scene in which the play's action takes its crucial turn. In all Sartre's dramatic work the turning point occurs as a climactic confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. Only in Kean, whose plot Sartre has taken from Dumas père, is there no such scene. Sartre's serious plays are constructed in such a way that this scene is a life-and-death contest between opposing wills…. In his two satires, Sartre keeps the climactic confrontation scene but, in both cases, uses it for edification rather than for comic effect. In The Respectful Prostitute, the awkward semirealism of Lizzie's contest with the Senator makes of her abdication a sentimental melodrama. In Nekrassov, too, Sartre cannot find the right tone for his scene of confrontation, primarily because he has used an irrelevant character to bring the turning point about; the contest to which Nekrassov's structure has been leading us finally takes place not between Valéra and Palotin, but between Valéra and Veronique. (pp. 93-4)

When Sartre stays with his original intention of writing a satiric farce, he creates scenes of frequently brilliant comic technique…. Sartre does not want us puzzled by his comic types; he wants us to recognize them immediately so we can focus our interest on what happens to them. Except for Valéra and Veronique, who exist on a different level of reality, the characters in Nekrassov are deliberately simplified [and consistently successful]…. (p. 95)

The pathétique of Kean's situation as victim of society is of less interest to Sartre than the analysis of that situation [in Kean]. Kean, like Nekrassov, is a mystifier of society. Both protagonists, the actor and the adventurer, make their livelihood by pretending that they are what they are not. Each discovers that it is he who has been mystified, forced by society into a role which does not permit him to exist as a man. Kean has been created out of society's need for illusion; his function, simply, is to please. In carrying out that function, Kean has become an appearance of a reality. For himself he is only make-believe. Since the subjective sense of his reality eludes him, he must depend on the image he finds in the eyes of others. Both for himself and for others, he emerges as a reflection. Sartre describes Kean in the same terms as he earlier described Genet: "It was you who took an infant and turned him into a monster". (p. 102)

Kean, the drama of the actor, is a comic encapsulation of a theme present throughout Sartre's plays: the difference between gesture and act. Orestes, Goetz, Hugo, and Valéra, like Kean, all act for an audience, performing the role of an imaginary character. Their first concern is not to do, but to be seen, and they use a real or imagined audience as a means of acceding to the identity of hero. (p. 107)

Sartre allows himself the luxury of being comic in Kean because the play is not intended to be engagé in the same sense that The Respectful Prostitute and Nekrassov clearly are. In his two "serious" comedies Sartre is ultimately less concerned about comic coherence than about the clarity of his social message. But the world of the actor Kean—so like that of the actor-child of The Words—is one where politics "is not our line." (p. 109)

The most common accusation leveled against Sartre's novels and plays has been that they are too "philosophical," more concerned with ideas than with individuals. In this light, it is perhaps paradoxical that those two literary works generally considered Sartre's masterpieces [Nausea and No Exit] happen also to be those that proceed most directly from one of his major philosophical works, Being and Nothingness…. Sartre devotes large segments of Being and Nothingness to a close analysis of what is revealed dramatically in No Exit. The section "Concrete Relations With Others' and, even more centrally, the chapter "The Look" serve as an ontological explanation of the play.

Yet No Exit is not a thesis play in the conventional sense, any more than Nausea is a conventional thesis novel. What makes No Exit a masterpiece is that Sartre is able to translate philosophy into dramatic form. No Exit—in contrast to Sartre's other plays—does not contain a lot of ideas; it is, in itself, a powerful literary idea…. Garcin, Estelle, and Inez are not independently interesting characters endowed, as the expression goes, with "a life of their own." What gives them interest is that they are incarcerated together. And it is their existence together, for eternity, that creates Sartre's idea and maintains it in dramatic action. (pp. 110-11)

Nausea is an individual confrontation with the world lived to such intensity as to be an obsession. Sartre's other fundamental obsession—his other philosophical myth—is expressed in its purest form in No Exit: the self petrified into an object by the Medusa-like look of other people.

For Sartre, "My original fall is the existence of the Other." The existence of the other is directly revealed to me by his look. The look that sees me endows me with an identity, a nature…. Sartre connects the fall … not with any particular sin but with my discovery in shame of a symbolic state of nakedness, of my defenseless state as an object in the eyes of the other. I experience his gaze as a form of possession and even of theft; he has me as I can never have myself. This fundamental alienation explains the lure of the mirror, which gives me the illusion of seeing myself as the other sees me, of becoming the other looking at me while still remaining myself. But in spite of my efforts, "The Other holds a secret—the secret of what I am." The self that I am for the other is in no way commensurate with my own experience of myself. My behavior has a particular meaning for me; seen by another it is defined, captured as by a photograph, given another meaning over which I have no control. (pp. 111-12)

The look becomes Hell when the other refuses the image of myself I want him to see. In No Exit this happens to each character in turn as he finds himself the one who looks and the one who is looked at, the torturer and the victim. As the play circles downward and inward to its conclusion, the three realize in horror their complete interdependence. (pp. 113-14)

Iris Murdoch reminds us that "Sartre, like Freud, finds in the abnormal the exaggerated forms of normality." Sartre's characters in No Exit express attitudes that are common enough in their basic form; Sartre takes those attitudes to their extreme possible consequences.

[We] see why Garcin, Inez, and Estelle have been damned in Hell. Even before their deaths, they were never completely alive. All three treated others as their possessions, objects to be used. Their punishment is appropriate to their sin. They existed through domination and sadism, taking pleasure in the suffering of their victims. Each one finds now that he himself is a victim, tortured unmercifully by his dependence on the others….

It is because they are dead that Inez's retort to Garcin's last attempt to defend himself is a statement of horror: "You are—your life, and nothing else." For someone on the threshold of life, those same words could be exhilarating. For Garcin, Estelle, and Inez, they are a final damnation…. If existence precedes essence, they have become their essence…. For all three of them, that essence is a form of failure. (pp. 121-22)

"Hell is—other people" is the central truth of No Exit. Within the play, it serves as a summing up of what has been dramatically revealed to us by the interaction of its three characters. It is important to remember, however, that within Sartre's philosophy that formula has a limited and specific meaning. Sartre has emphasized this point: "The only valid relationship is with other people. That can go even to hell. In order for it not to be hell, praxis must exist. The characters of No Exit are in a passive, changeless situation in which each of them is inevitably fixed in his essence by the others." Hell, then, is other people when they brand us with an image we cannot bear to accept as our own, and when we have no possibility to act so as to change that image. (p. 124)

In his "Forgers of Myth" speech, given in the United States in 1946, Sartre described as follows the new French plays born during the Occupation:

Our plays are violent and brief, centered around one single event; there are few players and the story is compressed within a short space of time, sometimes only a few hours. As a result they obey a kind of "rule of the three unities," which has been only a little rejuvenated and modified. A single set, a few entrances, a few exits, intense arguments among the characters who defend their individual rights with passion.

No Exit entirely fits that characterization; it is the only one of Sartre's plays to do so. It is also the only Sartrean play to contend successfully with the problem of dramatic language, which Sartre has recognized as the fundamental problem of theatre…. In No Exit Sartre creates a language bare of extraneous rhetoric: the words act. Language can even be considered one of the themes of No Exit. (p. 125)

The terrible interdependence of man and his human prey, fixed by eternity in No Exit, dramatized in individual nonmythical terms in Dirty Hands, becomes in The Condemned of Altona the tragedy of history.

Most of Sartre's plays are concerned with man and history. The Condemned, however, is the first play in which man's struggle with history takes place in the claustrophobic world of Sartre's best early works. In Franz's room, enclosed behind the bolted door, history assumes a life and a tragic reality that is singularly absent from the open spaces of The Flies and The Devil and the Good Lord. (p. 150)

In contrast to so many of Sartre's heroes who are reduced to schematic formulas, Franz, in the best moments of the play, puts us in touch with that "infracassable noyau de nuit" [indestructible kernel of darkness] at the point where our individual and collective history meet. (p. 151)

It is worth noting that the much talked about "existentialist hero," considered a "positive" figure, does not appear at all in Sartre's novels or stories; he appears only in The Flies and The Devil and the Good Lord. Orestes and Goetz belong to no collectivity. Their past has left them only with a sense of what they are not. Engagement expressed in violence thus becomes their means of acceding to reality. In Sartre's heroic mythology, violence for a liberating cause is both a ritual of initiation into the human community and the exact price of his hero's salvation. (p. 152)

[It] is Sartre's No Exit, one of the two plays he might call a purely critical spectacle, that is also his most perfect: the only play in which Sartre fully realizes what he sets out to do. (pp. 152-53)

In his What Is Literature?, written in 1947, Sartre contrasts the prose writer with the poet or painter. He defines prose as essentially utilitarian, using words as signs that point to a particular meaning. The poet, on the other hand, like the artist with his paint, creates an object with words; as such it is opaque and self-contained. The context of Sartre's definitions implies a faith that prose literature can act in the real world.

This utilitarian conception of prose bears directly on Sartre's sense of literature as salvation. The connection lies in his position that "the 'engaged' writer knows that words are action. He knows that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change." In this definition Sartre does not distinguish between action and the image of action, or, as he so frequently puts it, between act and gesture. A magical leap has been made from the word to the world. (p. 157)

His central problem in the plays is one of language: his demand that words become action conflicts with their power as words.

No Exit is the only Sartrean play that triumphs completely over this problem. Its structure has [a] kind of mathematical purity…. The entire action is in the interaction of the three characters as they create their hell. Once the infernal machine is set in motion, it functions with its own automatic necessity. Nothing external intervenes to alter the initial situation; we simply watch the inevitable take place in a single dramatic movement that repeats itself again and again, each time with greater intensity until the final prise de conscience which is the play's climax.

The Condemned of Altona does not achieve the integration of form and content that gives No Exit its peculiarly classical beauty. The achievement of The Condemned is Franz. Earlier, in Dirty Hands, Sartre created in Hugo a character perhaps equally complex; as with Franz, we are given an intimate awareness of his public and private truths. Hugo, however, lacks the stature to embody those issues that the play requires him to embody. Dirty Hands nevertheless succeeds as effective drama because of the vitality of its central relationships. In The Condemned, a more ambitious and original effort than Dirty Hands, Sartre creates with Franz a character both fascinating in himself and large enough to support the themes with which the play contends. The scenes of Franz's madness, his attempts to find the words that will proclaim him innocent to the tribunal of crabs, are equal to the best in Sartre's writing.

Like No Exit and The Condemned Sartre's satiric comedies dramatize a negative image. The Respectful Prostitute and Nekrassov miss their mark, however, to the extent that Sartre distrusts the critical function of comedy. At crucial moments, he abandons his chosen weapon…. Rather than allowing his characters to speak as themselves, Sartre the political moralist, fearful of not being clear, periodically intrudes to explain what he really means.

Sartre often speaks of literature as an act of "disclosure," but the majority of his plays reach impatiently for a more concrete kind of action. In so doing, they rarely by indirections find directions out; instead, they rely on straightforward, didactic prose…. Sartre has always been fascinated by the absolute of literature and, at the same time, distrustful of its attraction. As a choice of the imaginary over the real, literature becomes suspect, since it is the real world that Sartre wants to change. (pp. 157-60)

Sartre sees the impasse of literature in general in its inability, at this point in history, to speak to all. His sense that literature must be concretely universal is particularly frustrated by the theatre as it exists institutionally. (p. 160)

[While] Sartre has complained of theatre as a bourgeois institution, his own plays do not attempt to change the old forms. The subject of all Sartrean plays is subversive; their end is to undermine the established system of values. Sartre sees the writer as a mediator who gives society a "bad conscience" by creating an awareness that contests its basic assumptions. But he presents this subversive content within a conventional form. Sartre has expressed great admiration for the dramas of Brecht, Genet, and Beckett; in his own plays, however, he has chosen to use traditional dramatic techniques rather than experiment with new ones. This traditionalism has often proved inadequate to sustain what he wants to say. (pp. 160-61)

For Sartre the idea of literature as an absolute is intimately connected with a faith in salvation. His most recent position, expressed in The Words, indicates that his loss of faith in one has meant loss of faith in both:

For a long time, I took my pen for a sword; I now know we're powerless. No matter. I write and will keep writing books; they're needed; all the same, they do serve some purpose. Culture doesn't save anything or anyone, it doesn't justify. But it's a product of man: he projects himself into it, he recognizes himself in it; that critical mirror alone offers him his image.

                                        (pp. 161-62)

Sartre has constantly vacillated between the conviction that literature is everything and that literature is nothing, between the desire to capture in words a total reality and the frustration that that reality can be captured only in the imaginary. His autobiography relates his present disillusionment with literature; the words embody a power denied by their contents. (pp. 162-63)

Dorothy McCall, in her The Theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre (copyright © 1967, 1969 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1969.

Catharine Savage Brosman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3298

Although a number of scholars have noted the presence in Jean-Paul Sartre's fiction of images of insects and crabs, the role of numerous other animal images in La Nausée and their psychological and philosophical suggestiveness have not been fully explored. In the present essay I shall be concerned to study these in relation to its thematics and to draw some conclusions concerning Sartre's early view of nature. (p. 107)

In La Nausée, I count some 77 similes and metaphors in which an object or the human body—usually the latter—is compared in part or in whole to an animal or a part of an animal…. In addition, they are supported by at least 43 instances (excluding those in fixed locations) where names of animals or their characteristics occur in a non-comparative use…. There is thus a notable awareness of, and appeal to, the animal kingdom in this novel, set entirely within an urban setting, in which the main character expresses neither personal nor professional interest in animals. Considering that much of the language of the book is non-metaphoric, we can conclude that the use of animal imagery is noteworthy. The variety of animal forms and behavior offers the novelist a wide choice of metaphoric suggestions.

Since this is a first-person novel in the form of a journal, all the images can be taken to express the hero's own evaluation or reaction; they are supposed to derive immediately from his impressions. They reveal, moreover, a great deal about him—more than about the creatures themselves and often more than about their tenor (if it is not himself). To say that these images signify pure bestiality in the human world would be inadequate. What I should like to suggest, rather, is that the zoological realm contains in La Nausée a concentration of the negative characteristics of all "existants," as Roquentin terms them, especially of human existence, and therefore is particularly loathesome to him. Metaphors and similes derived from zoology are therefore consistently pejorative. At one end of the spectrum of material phenomena according to Roquentin's view is the mineral—that non-human area where hardness prevails and self-coincidence is most strikingly complete…. At the same end of the spectrum is that group of "existants" composed of the purely ideal—the circle, the jazz song, with their necessity, purity, and noncontingency…. Human existence … is on the contrary soft, empty, and lacking in self-coincidence or essence; it can reach neither mineral hardness nor the purity of a geometric figure. In Sartre's view, of course, consciousness is empty, free, and "néant," and the body of man or his facticity, although material and objective (part of the En-soi), is a constant reminder of consciousness's stickiness, softness, and emptiness, first by its distinction from consciousness—man's ineradicable distance from himself—and next by its relative flabbiness (or viscousness) compared with harder forms of existence. All that is physiological, then, is of negative valence to Roquentin. The zoological world represents existence at its most physiological: pure viscous flesh, without even the possibility of revolt against protoplasmic identity. Man's carnal existence is mirrored in animals; for this reason, Roquentin uses them repeatedly as illustrations of certain perceptions, and especially as a correlative for facticity.

Botanical phenomena raise a special problem in this connection. Differing radically, except at the lowest levels, from zoological forms, they seem at first less corrupt…. However, as soon as any plant is subjected to Roquentin's continued attention, it is assimilated to animal forms and processes. (pp. 107-09)

It is noteworthy, however, that Roquentin criticizes the anthropomorphism, or at least the animism, that all these comparisons presuppose…. What he accepts on an imaginative level he rejects on a philosophical level…. So the parallel between botanical and zoological existence is not really denied, and the effect of the various comparisons is to create a disquietingly animate nature, sometimes monstrous…. Moreover, this assimilation of plants to animals brings them close to human beings also by the metaphoric common denominator; we conclude that in Roquentin's imagination virtually all life approaches the animal, apparently the most loathesome manifestation of existence.

In short, animal imagery is used to convey a feeling of nausea inspired in part by the very existence of the organic, and the resulting philosophical pessimism that commentators have noted. Like many other objects in La Nausée, animals are not generally seen as having utilitarian value. Nor do they function in an ecological system. They are quite without the support of any economic framework or general embracing biological view. Any such view would be, for Sartre, artificial—imposed from without. This is consistent with Roquentin's final conclusion that nothing has necessity or justification and that all existence is an absurd excretion. It is also characteristic of his non-scientific view that the underlying question in his reflections on phenomena is not "how" but "why." This separates his view radically from that of the biologist and puts him closer to the theologian and the poet.

La Nausée contains a number of metaphoric references simply to animals, without indication of species. Some of these stress general features of animal life and reveal Roquentin's typical attitudes…. Imaginative transformation of inert objects into live animals foreshadows the gradual inclusion throughout the novel of many material phenomena in the category of animate existence, which the hero will find both upsetting and useless. It also identifies animation, or movement, as one of the things most threatening to his psyche. Another element of animal life is utilized in the metaphor "cette bête lymphatique" [that lymphatic beast],… representing humanism. This metaphor has the effect of reducing a major view on mankind to a rudimentary and unpleasant form, and also introduces in connection with animals as well as with a current in thought the category of the "visqueux" [viscous] and the implied reaction of nausea. Elsewhere, the heaviness of an unspecified animal is used to convey the awareness of existence, not quick and mobile in this case but crushing…. (pp. 109-10)

Another associated item is the frequent mention of blood, although blood is not used strictly as a metaphor. While he thinks in one instance of his own "beau sang rouge" [fine red blood] as opposed to "cette bête lymphatique" …, blood is generally repulsive in La Nausée….

The choice of species most frequently mentioned by Roquentin is revealing. The small number of references to many of the higher mammals is noteworthy. Those that are named serve chiefly for characterization and seem not to interest Roquentin in themselves. There is no mention of wild herbivores such as deer, frequently representative in poetry of such qualities as freedom, purity, and the ideal. Farm animals appear rarely…. In these cases, as in a number of others, the animal comparison is essentially an ingredient of the caricature. During the museum scene [for example], sheep appear in a sarcastic reference to the parable of the lost sheep. (p. 111)

In two cases the import of a metaphor naming a higher mammal is more directly ontological rather than characterizing. In a metaphor underlining the difficulty of saving (the word is Sartre's) human existence even by a work of art, Roquentin calls the composer of "Some of These Days" "un gros veau plein de sale bière et d'alcohol" [a fat lout full of squalid beer and alcohol]…. The calf image as well as the dirty beer—not only a liquid, but a repugnant one—pulls the composer back to the level of facticity, in spite of his being "lave du péché d'exister" [washed of the sin of existence]…. The donkey appears in a very important comparison during Roquentin's ride on the streetcar…. In fact the donkey, like the bench it is supposed to resemble, seems less an ordinary creature than a nameless, gross, disquieting transformation. It is significant that when Roquentin is face to face with brute, raw existence,… he should use this animal metaphor, among other types…. But though he cannot name them, they seem like grotesque, obscene creatures. This suggests that the animal is a common denominator of existence; it is crucial in Roquentin's imagination.

Among the animals used in some of the most striking passages are the crustaceans, insects, arachnids, larvae, centipedes, and other lower forms, commonly considered repellent, which are without powers of reflection or memory. Roquentin's predilection for these is striking. Indeed, he is quite fascinated by what is repulsive to him. First, I shall consider the long, slimy, or fuzzy forms—worms, larvae, and centipedes. The initial animal image of the novel is that of a "gros ver blanc" [huge white worm] which the Autodidact's hand resembles…. This comparison, which may suggest his sexual ambiguity (that is, lack of hardness and clear definition), also says something about the human hand. Ultimately, all existence is seen as "cette larve coulante" [this flowing larva] disgusting and without justification…. In his surrealistic vision, he imagines a tongue becoming a centipede which the person must try to tear out with his hands…. Such a vision denies all belief in the orderly processes of nature, since apparent pattern is merely the indolence of organic forms … or possibly of our induction. Moreover, as metamorphosis rather than simile, this vision plants right in the human body the unpleasant animal to which elsewhere the body is merely compared; it is in a sensitive organ—the mouth—where two senses operate and which also functions in speech, associated with what is distinctly human, as well as in feeding.

Crawling and flying insects and arachnids similarly convey both repulsiveness and a frightening vision of the possibilities of being, especially of absorption of consciousness by the En-soi…. The comparison with hands is particularly to be noted, since it figured in the first animal comparison and Roquentin subsequently studies his own hand as "une bête à la renverse" [an animal on its back]…. This image is modified in the crucial public garden passage into a view of all existence…. Here the insect suggests primarily not ugliness or repulsiveness or hostility, as with the spider web, but the awkwardness and futility of existence. Pathos does not attach to it, partly because few readers find pathetic the vicissitudes of an insect's existence, partly because of the adjective "maladroits" [awkward]. The image is thus a metaphoric support for the central plot line of the discovery of contingency.

While these are not strictly images in the technical sense, it is essential to recall in this connection the post-coital dream of a garden, foreshadowing the surrealistic revery and the episode in the public park. In addition to the hairy leaves …, Roquentin sees ants, centipedes, and moths running everywhere; then unnamed creatures…. He then imagines the Velleda of the public garden pointing to its sex; this brings together food, insects, and sexuality, themselves all associated elsewhere with existence at its most monstrous and repellent. (pp. 111-13)

In the category of insects, it is worthwhile noting a few additional items. In the public garden, the wind is compared to a large fly landing on the tree…. Here a gaseous (i.e., mineral) phenomenon is animated and thus included in the needless organic activity the hero is deploring. In comparison to traditional literary renderings of wind, which often suggest awesome natural force, or the movement of a natural or supernatural spirit, the image is pointedly unfavorable….

Precisely because insects do inspire repugnance, they are used by Roquentin to convey protest against the reigning bourgeois values of Bouville. (p. 114)

While the crab metaphor has been examined by others, a short summary and further remarks can be useful…. In La Force de l'âge, Simone de Beauvoir relates Sartre's mescaline-induced hallucinations in the 1930's of octopuses and crabs and his subsequent visions of eyes and jaws, owls, and a lobster. The crab appears in a variety of Sartrean works, where Fields takes it to be chiefly a Freudian symbol signifying return to water and the pre-natal life, and also to stand for "l'idée de malfaisance" [the idea of evildoing]…. Boros, who takes issue with her, considers it "une transcription mythique du malaise profond qu'il était en train de vivre intensément" [a mythic transcription of the profound uneasiness that was living intensely]. She notes several instances, including two in La Nausée, of the crab seeming to symbolize enclosure and imprisonment, objectification by the look and also alienation from reality. More important for our purposes is that it suggests "une sorte de hantise de la chose figée, de l'homme devenu chose" [a sort of obsession with the fixed thing, with the man who had become a thing]…. Prince likewise takes the image to symbolize "la suppression de la liberté humaine, l'immobilisation de toute transcendance par autrui" [the suppression of human liberty, the immobilization of all transcendence through others]…. Crab-like qualities are connected [also] with solitude—a social aberration—but also with the processes of thought. Subsequently, Roquentin associates the crab with himself…. Doubtless Boros … is right to see it as symbolizing Sartrean fear of being engulfed by the En-soi…. Thus the crab has … been associated with both consciousness and body or facticity. (pp. 114-15)

One last crab image, not discussed by previous commentators on the question, is associated not with humankind but with nature in one of its most mysterious and awesome manifestations, the ocean…. Roquentin imagines the sea as inhabited by a monster of a vaguely crustacean nature…. The crustacean images lead us easily to those of other marine life: fish, polyps, mammals. Fish are not seen as food or in a marine system but are used rather as visual illustrations for human characteristics. (pp. 115-16)

Several other sea creatures furnish metaphorical vehicles in La Nausée. The chestnut root, for instance, has the hard and compact skin of a seal. (p. 116)

Although they do not receive the considerable imaginative value that some lower forms have, dogs and cats—which I have chosen to treat separately from the other quadrupeds such as the donkey—are mentioned frequently by Roquentin. Their use is frequently humorous or sarcastic. As with many other animal comparisons, the effect is reductionist….

The canine species is particularly associated with humanism, Roquentin's bête noire and, in most of its forms, his creator's. (p. 117)

Birds appear in several significant images. Swans and a white owl are mentioned, the latter as the dictation topic written on the muddy paper Roquentin cannot pick up …, the former as a simile for papers on the ground…. Here the whiteness and shine of the paper—which to some degree may represent consciousness (at least as it would wish itself to be), especially since paper can be connected with writing, thus with language and thought—are already subject to attack from the sticky earth; Roquentin's swans are not inviolate…. (p. 118)

Domestic fowl, used to convey physical features, as in "ce cou de poulet" for the Autodidact … and the young woman in the restaurant (object of the man's admiration) whose open mouth is like a "cul de poule" [backside of a fowl] … make the human beings unattractive, somewhat ludicrous…. The museum episode indicates that, for Roquentin, bourgeois leaders are really exploiters of the people whom they claim to protect; the eagle eye contributes to this impression by its suggestion of keen sight for the purpose of identifying and devouring victims…. Concerning humanism, Sartre makes what is perhaps an allusion to Baudelaire's L'Albatros when he says that the humanist's love for man expresses itself awkwardly…. In another passage, an obscene vision of the male genital organs, Roquentin sees birds flying around these and attacking them with their beaks to the bleeding point…. Such aggression turned against the organs of human reproduction … suggests on the thematic level hostility to physical life as well as a most unusual psychic makeup in Roquentin. Elsewhere, birds convey the quality of consciousness…. A reflection on seagulls similarly conveys an ontological meaning. Watching them fly over the seawall, he thinks of them not as birds but as existing phenomena…. The bird partakes here of the individual, non-categorized existence that Roquentin finds in nature. When he adds that the water of the garden fountain flows into his ears and makes a nest there …, the metaphor stresses the receptivity of consciousness, its obligation to be conscious of something exterior to itself.

Snakes appear in several comparisons in La Nausée, where their traditional symbolic value is less important than the graphic suggestiveness of their form and their threatening nature…. In the most clearly Cartesian passage of the novel—though perhaps a parody—the snake image has an entirely different value when the hero thinks of his awareness of his own existence as "le long serpentin, ce sentiment d'exister" [the long snake, this feeling of existence]…. The comparison between the length of the snake and human thought depends chiefly on its physical form; it may involve as a mediating factor the form of the intestines, since Sartrean awareness is in considerable part awareness of facticity. We may be reminded also of the Biblical serpent of knowledge, especially self-knowledge. Subsequently, the serpentine form is associated with the En-soi instead of the Pour-soi when Roquentin calls the chestnut tree root "ce long serpent mort à mes pieds, ce serpent de bois" [this long snake dead at my feet, this snake of wood]…. By this image which both animates ("serpent") and deanimates ("mort"), Sartre again draws botanical phenomena toward zoological ones, although ambiguously. Moreover, by virtue of the shared image, both Roquentin's thought and material existence are brought into the same category of phenomena—a crucial point in La Nausée, if Roquentin is to convince us that all existence is subject to the same contingency and lack of value, and thus strike down the Christian and humanistic views of mind as superior to matter. (pp. 119-20)

Animate nature viewed by Roquentin, with its general unpleasantness is far from that of the romantics…. Moreover, what we might call pattern, as well as fraternal meaning, is missing. The many heterogeneous forms and types of behavior seem to be without relationship to each other. But in these Roquentin sees an image of human features, thought, and action. And since this means complicity, he, and Sartre—to the degree that his hero spoke for him in the 1930s—reveal what is in some ways a romantic view of the world, which, like much Romanticism, is somber, pessimistic, tending toward the fantastic. By contextual implications, adjectives, and analogies, he projects onto animal forms the meanings he wishes to give them, and at the same time lets them retroact on him—a stance that Robbe-Grillet would call "tragic." This extends beyond the species themselves, for the animal world comes to taint other phenomena, in some degree—plants, human beings, wind, ocean.

Animals thus interest the Sartre of La Nausée not for themselves—a position that tends toward the scientific, and which Gide, for instance, had—but as reflections and symbols of men. General attitudes toward them are, however, discernable. By their near absence, such qualities as bravery, fidelity, and independence, which a certain humane view has tended to identify in some animals, are denied them. Indeed, most behavioral qualities and roles (though not aggression) are simply ignored. It would seem to be their forms, their physiology, and often their supposed closeness to the viscous (as well as men's attitudes in the case of canines) that lead Roquentin to mention them. Part of "cette ignoble marmelade" [this ignoble jelly] …, they represent existence—both human and inert—especially well to his imagination, since with that other race, homo sapiens whom they resemble, they are guilty, as he says at his most theological, of the unforgivable "péché d'exister" [sin of existence]…. (pp. 120-21)

Catharine Savage Brosman, "Sartre's Nature: Animal Images in 'La Nausée'," in Symposium (copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press), Summer, 1977, pp. 107-25.

Walker Percy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

[Nausea is] an onslaught on the "normal" or what is ordinarily taken for the normal. Unlike Sartre's later political novels, it is interesting because the attack is phenomenological, not political, an examination, that is, of the way things are.

What interests us about Roquentin, the protagonist of Nausea, in the present context is his conscious and deliberate alienation from those very aspects of French culture which by ordinary standards one would judge as eminently normal, for example, the apparently contented lives of the provincial bourgeoisie and the successful lives of the savants of the academy of science. (p. 368)

It is important to notice that Nausea is no ordinary free-thinking rationalistic-skeptical assault on the Catholic bourgeoisie. For Roquentin (and Sartre) have as little use for the opposition, the other triumphant sector of French society, the anti-clerical members of the academy, famous doctors, generals and politicians. (p. 369)

[What] are we to make of Sartre's and Roquentin's alienation?…

[Is] Sartre saying something of value about the condition of Western man in the twentieth century or perhaps about the human condition itself?

Or is Sartre's existentialism to be understood as only a way station in his transit from a bourgeois intellectual to a Marxist ideologue?

If Sartre is correct, then things have indeed been turned upsidedown. For in his novel the apparently well are sick and the apparently sick are onto the truth. But is the truth an unpleasant business we would do well to avoid? Roquentin thinks he knows something other people don't know, that he has made an unpleasant discovery which scarcely makes for happiness but allows him to live with an authenticity not attained by the happy bourgeoisie and the triumphant scientists. Anxiety, a sense of unreality, solitariness, loss of meaning, the very traits which we ordinarily think of as symptoms and signs of such and such a disorder are [in Nausea] set forth as appropriate responses to a revelation of the way things are and the way people really are. (p. 370)

Walker Percy, in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1977), Fall, 1977.

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