Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 24) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean-Paul Sartre 1905–1980

French critic, philosopher, playwright, novelist, editor, and journalist.

Sartre is regarded as one of the most influential contributors to world literature since World War II. As with all of his work, the core of Sartre's literary criticism is existentialist: the philosophical concept of a godless, meaningless world in which individuals merely exist until they become "engaged," or choose a course of action in order to live as free, responsible beings.

Sartre's numerous literary and political essays appeared in a ten-volume anthology entitled Situations. The literary essays chronicle the development of Sartre's critical mind and are considered by many critics as outlines for his studies of Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert. Sartre's books on these authors examine the writers through the social conditions under which they wrote and the changes they underwent as a result of historical events. This method is described in part in Qu'estce que la litterature? (What Is Literature?). In this work, Sartre denied the necessity of critical analysis of a writer's style and language. For Sartre, style was important only as a means to eloquently state the writer's theme. Sartre commended the "engaged" author, the author who has made the decision to raise social consciousness through writing. In Qu'est-ce que la litterature?, Sartre wrote: "[The] function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it's all about." Sartre's later critical works, particularly L'idiot de la famille (The Family Idiot), his study of Flaubert, combine a Marxist viewpoint with his existentialist beliefs.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 7, 9, 13, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vols. 97-100 [obituary].)

Jacques Hardré

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Sartre's critical method is to begin with a search for the original choice made by the author when confronted with his own situation. To clarify this statement it must be recalled that an important tenet of existentialism is that each of us is in a particular situation. We are rich or poor, black or white, healthy or sick, and so forth. Within this situation we have freedom of action and our acts are all-important since they will determine our essence. Equally important is how we are seen, in that situation which is ours, by those around us (the Others, in the existentialist vocabulary). For it is only through the Others that we may be able to realize what we are. (p. 99)

When the individual becomes aware of his situation, he is faced with a choice. Will he accept his situation, and that means, primarily, will he accept himself as the Others see him, or will he react against it and seek to change the image that the Others have of him? This choice, the original choice, is not one which is made once for all. It is one which has to be made over and over again throughout one's life. For if one chooses to be what the Others have decided he is, one must at all times reject, or modify, actions that might change that image…. If, on the other hand, the individual chooses to react against the Others' image of him, he will constantly have to act in a fashion contrary to the one that is expected of him, at least until he is satisfied with his image. The tragedy is that none of us is ever satisfied with the image the Others have of us.

There is, furthermore, another existentialist doctrine that we must remember here: the individual, since he is free, is able by his acts to change his personality as he ages, for his personality is a fluid thing. It is only at death that it becomes solid, unchangeable. But it is only through the Others that the changes in this personality will be apparent and it is the Others, finally, who at the individual's death will be able to label once and for all the sum total of that individual's personality. The latter will not fully know, therefore, what he is until he has ceased to be—which means that he will never know.

Thus Jean-Paul Sartre, literary critic, seeks first to find the original choice made by the individual whose works he is examining. To do that he notes carefully all the significant details that strike him as he reads, details that reveal the author's personality. The words he uses, the way he uses them, the images he creates, the repetitions, the verb tenses, all these reveal much to a practiced eye. From these observations, Sartre delves deeper and deeper into the mind of the author until he is satisfied that he has uncovered the latter's original choice. Then the process is reversed and from the original choice Sartre now works outward to the novel or the poem (the genre is unimportant to Sartre) in order to show how that novel or poem reflects the original choice. The work of art is therefore considered as an actualization of the author's choice, of his attitude towards existence.

This method, which has been adopted by several contemporary critics, ignores what had previously been considered the main concern of the critic, namely, the specifically literary aspect of literature. It makes the task of the critic much more exacting, since he must no longer be content to look at a work of art from the outside, much as one contemplates a statue in a museum, but rather from the inside. He must, if he is to succeed, disengage himself from his own situation and look at the work of art through the author's own eyes, while at the same time keeping a critical attitude lest he forget that he is both judge and re-creator.

The two works which best illustrate Sartre's critical method are Baudelaire, dedicated to Jean Genet, and an essay on the latter entitled Saint Genet, comédien et martyre. (pp. 99-101)

The choice of these two writers is, in turn, quite revealing (if we may psychoanalyze the psychoanalyst) for both belong to that category shown rather romantically as les poètes maudits. Of these two maudits the first, Baudelaire, has assumed in the eyes of the public the image of an unhappy, tormented and persecuted genius who led a life he did not deserve. The second is known more prosaically as a thief, an ex-convict and a sexual deviate, who fully deserved his misfortunes and who is but grudgingly recognized as an artist…. [Baudelaire's] original choice, which he repeated throughout his life, was to exist exactly as the Others saw him. Through a very close examination of Baudelaire's writings, Sartre rectifies an error made, he says, by most critics, that Baudelaire was a revolutionary. In truth, he was not a revolutionary, simply a rebel. The difference between the two is fundamental. Whereas the revolutionary seeks to change the world and to bring it to a new order of values, the rebel is careful to preserve the wrongs through which he suffers, else he would have nothing against which to rebel…. [Thus], it is absolute nonsense to say that Baudelaire did not have the life he deserved. On the contrary, he chose the life he led deliberately…. (p. 101)

In order to psychoanalyze Baudelaire, Sartre...

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Roger Laufer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean-Paul Sartre's interest in literary criticism is indirect: his concern is chiefly to understand the condition of the writer, the particular way in which he remains dependent on, but manages to be free from his day and place, his public and his language. To communicate effectively with his reader a writer must, in Sartre's view, be representative yet original, influenced by his situation yet able to assert his own self much more than most of us are ever in a position to do. Viewed in this way, the condition of the writer is a privileged instance of the human condition, and the study of it necessarily occupies a considerable place in a philosophy which is above all concerned with the problem of freedom. At the same time, the practice of literary criticism, in this special sense, enables Sartre to express his ideas with a bold provocativeness which lies happily midway in style between his forbiddingly abstract philosophic rhetoric and the controversialist's violent irony. (p. 427)

Although Sartre has written about poets, including Baudelaire, Ponge and French-speaking Negro poets, he has paid little attention to style or language. Indeed, because of his sweeping condemnation of the surrealists (a condemnation he has nevertheless qualified several times), some critics have denied that he knows what poetry is. It is true that half-way through his 200-page Baudelaire he admits having shed no light upon 'the secret charm which makes his poems inimitable', and then forges ahead without further reference to this intrinsic quality. But there is evidence for the other view. When he is analysing the essential task confronting Negro poets in present or former French colonies—the vindication of their coloured self, the affirmation of their blackness—Sartre effectively exposes the white values hidden in the French language which the Negro poet must transform if he is to express himself…. (pp. 427-28)

Surely, then, Sartre is sensitive to poetry. But though he seems to possess the mental equipment for structural analysis, he refuses to consider poems as objects. He examines at some length the case of the poet Ponge …, not because Ponge calls for 'close reading' but because the failure of Ponge's attempt to describe things in themselves is an extreme proof that human creations cannot be treated as non-human objects. Sartre is interested in the humanness of poetry, that is in its significance for man. Thus single poems interest him as pointing to a total attitude; for him they are, like Valéry's shell, objects whose full significance lies beyond themselves in each reader's mind. Hence the importance for real communication of grasping the basic total impulse of the writer, including not only his ideas but his mode of life, his 'choice' or 'project'. This interest in a writer's 'choice' can lead Sartre to make significant intrinsic criticisms of a work, for example when a moralist's own 'choice' explains his twisting of a character. Thus before the war, Sartre criticized Mauriac for interfering with his characters, behaving like a God towards his creatures, sometimes bestowing his grace upon them, even preparing them unawares for it—until they become puppets, not free men, and cease to interest us. He expressed the view that often Mauriac the Christian apologist defeats the purpose of Mauriac the novelist. (p. 428)

Such criticism—perhaps characteristic in this of the creative writer's criticism—tells us less about the work criticized than about the critic. What Sartre is in fact saying here is that the novelist must give his characters not merely freedom of thought and action but creative freedom, the power to create themselves, in the sense in which God is said to have created the world; and he says this because man, even more than the Cartesian God who exhausted his creative freedom in the act of creation and retained thereafter only the freedom to 'continue', i.e. to uphold his creation, keeps his freedom to create himself throughout life. Hence the unique opportunity that literature affords us of deciphering a freedom which has been preserved for us in writing. Needless to say, such criticism has nothing in common with the profound sympathy (maintained at the price of eclecticism) which we appreciate in a Sainte-Beuve. Sartre never tries to work out a comprehensive and balanced judgment of a writer, even in a full-length book. He selects somebody to suit his own purpose. Here lies his limitation as a critic, penetrating though he often is; but also his value, for he always has something worth while to say, and he can then say it in a concrete manner.

In his Baudelaire …, Sartre faced up squarely to the main critical task as he saw it, i.e. the task of discovering the basic choice a man makes, 'which is one with what we call his destiny'. This free choice or 'project' need not be fully conscious; indeed it cannot be fully conscious because a man is his choice: the rational, logically worked-out debate which is supposed to produce his choice is normally no more than an a posteriori conscious justification of what he has already chosen. However, although in studying Baudelaire Sartre uses familiar psychoanalytical notions, particularly the Oedipus complex so obviously relevant to the case, he explicitly rejects the concept of the unconscious. Baudelaire's complex gave him a bad conscience, but this does not explain why Baudelaire chose to have a bad conscience, as Sartre contends that he did. Sartre is concerned with finding out what Baudelaire made out of his complex; and in doing it he takes stock of psychoanalytical facts, though he rejects Freud's theories as irrelevant to his purpose. Sartre does not want to account for, nor explain away, Baudelaire's intellectual make-up, but to establish...

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Philip Thody

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pompous, tendentious, superficial and inaccurate, What is Literature? is very far from being one of Sartre's better works. On the last page he ingenuously remarks: 'I have no wish to tell writers of my generation what they ought to do. What right have I to do so, and who has invited my opinion? And I have no taste for literary manifestoes.' Nevertheless, the cavalier dismissal of anyone whose work does not satisfy his criteria—from Molière to Gide, and from the author of The Song of Roland to the Surrealists—gives the work a distinctly sectarian flavour. His identification of good prose with democracy is quite arbitrary—what about Pascal or Bossuet?—and his use of the word 'liberty' is vague in...

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Maurice Natanson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre, in the tradition of phenomenology, distinguishes three related but quite different structures [of existential literature]: memory, anticipation, and imagination. Something remembered, something anticipated, and something imagined are not three variations on the same perceptual theme; they are radically different modes of awareness. When I remember, I recapture a state of affairs that is real in the mode of the past: what I remember happened, and it is that happening, now past, which I search for in memory. The past event is not an unreality but a reality whose mode of being is its being past…. "In order to imagine," Sartre writes, "consciousness must be free from all specific reality and this freedom must be...

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Jonas A. Barish

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Saint Genet is Sartre's account of the roles enacted, the metamorphoses undergone, by Genet himself. It is easier to indicate Sartre's aims in this huge volume than to describe his procedure. What we have is not a process of analysis, nor even the retracing of such a process, but its results: an exposition of the totality of Genet, arranged partly chronologically and partly according to certain topics. As before with Baudelaire, Sartre commences with origins—Genet's parentage and childhood environment—looking for the decisive choices made in youth, and showing how these shaped the adult, how they formed Genet's conception first of himself, then of art and artistic activity, and so in time came to dictate...

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Benjamin Suhl

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A philosopher described Sartre's philosophy as one "rooted in experience and directed towards the analysis of experience," of experiences which are "paradigm cases" for him. But there are, beyond these, individual phenomena which are irreducible to philosophy as a coherent body of thought. Sartre therefore relies on literature to complement philosophy and on literary criticism to mediate between literature and philosophy.

Sartre found or founded in literature vertigo and anguish as the experience of man's freedom; man's gaze as the revelation of the other, interiorized in shame when dominated, in pride when dominating; the privileged moments of a choice of being or of a profound change in direction...

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Robert W. Artinian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For some time now French critics have been talking about a "crisis" in their literature. "Crisis" is a violent word, and there has possibly been some overdramatization in its use; but there can be no doubt about the seriousness of the situation that has evoked this word: French literature suggests a countryside overrun by generations of industrious cultivators until the point of diminishing returns seems reached, where the soil continues to yield crops only after exacting very much more drastic methods of cultivation and ever more painful labor. By the turn of the century, some traditional genres already appeared exhausted, and recently French critics have been declaring that the language itself demands new...

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Fredric Jameson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sartre's originality, among contemporary critics of style, lies in his treatment of literary style as an objective rather than a subjective phenomenon. As against those for whom the work of art is the privileged occasion of contact with some deeper force, with the unconscious, with the personality, with Being, or with language, Sartre takes his place among the rhetoricians.

The work of art is a construct designed to produce a certain effect; the style of the work of art is the instrument with which a certain illusion of time is conveyed. The objectivity of style in the work of art shows up most clearly in its accessibility to pastiche and imitation, for pastiche remains the best way of trying on the...

(The entire section is 4645 words.)

Joseph Halpern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Throughout the essays of Situations 1 one finds a recurrent preoccupation with the problems of language and silence, with the artist's perception of the insufficiencies of language, the perception that language disintegrates the wholeness of the artist's silent intuition. It is precisely those writers who vainly attempt to use language to express silence and a world that precedes words who fascinate Sartre—Parain, Bataille, Blanchot, Camus, Ponge, Faulkner. (p. 19)

Sartre's preoccupation in these early essays appears in an understanding of the novel as a form of action and not as language, and in an antipathy for wordiness (shades of Carlyle!); in other essays, it centers on attempts,...

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Fredric Jameson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean-Paul Sartre, whose first novel, "Nausea," had a biographer as its hero, spent the last 10 years of his working life on a massive psychobiography of a writer he had always detested for his estheticism and his reactionary opinions—Gustave Flaubert. He customarily explained this curious project as an attempt to synthesize what can be understood today about an individual life, given what we have learned from a century of work in psychoanalysis, social psychology, linguistics, anthropology and the symbolic analysis of culture and individual behavior. But for Sartre, understanding always involved the discovery of that point at which all constraints—external accidents, the miseries of psychic determinism and social...

(The entire section is 1360 words.)