Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

Jean-Paul Sartre 1905–1980

Illustration of PDF document

Download Jean-Paul Sartre Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2171

JACQUES HARDRÉ

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 could make use only of the poet's works, correspondence and intimate diaries, and of the works written about Baudelaire by other critics. He recognizes, therefore, that the description he draws of the poet is inferior to the real portrait….

With Jean Genet, the method becomes more effective since Sartre could make use not only of the writer's published works but also of a personal acquaintance dating back to 1945. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of a greater sympathy towards his subject, this study is more solid than the one just considered….

There can be no doubt that Sartre intended the title of his study to suggest that Jean Genet has adopted a role which has led him to martyrdom and that in acting thus Genet has assumed the attitude of a saint. This is, indeed, the theme of his essay. (p. 102)

In his study Sartre shows us the young Genet caught by his foster parents in the act of stealing (though he did not as yet realize what "stealing" meant), branded by the adults as a thief and choosing henceforth to be as the adults see him, yearning to be evil, as the saint yearns to be good. His original choice, then, is quite different from Baudelaire's. The latter chose to be considered by society as an outcast more from a desire to be pitied and noticed than from a genuine attraction to evil. Genet, on the contrary, chose to be evil to defy society. There is in Genet, or was until he became a celebrated writer, a sort of austerity in evil which Sartre compares to the austerity of a saint in his search for good. Genet assumed the role of the evildoer and, like an actor ever seeking to perfect his interpretation, constantly sought to widen the range and perfect the quality of his evil deeds. Having finally decided that an evil deed is not so reprehensible in the eyes of society as the boastful narrative of that deed, he became a writer. Thus all his life until recently has been a systematic elaboration, through a series of deliberate acts, of the essence which he chose for his own. It is an essence, Sartre reminds us, from which most individuals recoil. There are but few delinquents who would choose deliberately and freely to be bad, just as there are but few Christians who would choose deliberately and freely to be martyrs. Thus Genet, comedian, assumes the role of the evildoer and in so doing becomes a martyr.

Sartre, as we have noted, sympathizes with Genet, whereas he was unsympathetic towards Baudelaire. Yet he has to conclude that the former was also on the wrong road. For his comedy and his martyrdom are intellectually understandable only if one subscribes to the moral code of our society. If, like Sartre, one considers it to be merely a weapon in the hands of the "respectable people" with which they condemn those who have dared to do the deeds they themselves have been tempted to commit, then Genet's attitude can only be condemned—not because it is wrong, but because it can lead only to failure. For, if there is no good or evil per se then there can be no saints or martyrs in either camp. Only the comedian is left, playing a useless role.

As Sartre points out, Genet's life has been up to now a conscious search for evil, a deliberate assumption of the role of the evil-doer. Now that his books have made him famous, that his plays have been shown on the Paris stage, that the President of the Republic has granted him a pardon so that he need never return to the prison from which he fled, he is a success. He has won against society. But by winning he has lost, for he has now become himself a "respectable person." He is admired for his talent and in spite of his crimes. Yet all his life had been directed by his desire to make the Others see him as a criminal. (pp. 103-04)

[It should] be clear, from what has been stated above, that these studies on Baudelaire and Genet are much more philosophical than literary. We have, in both, an extremely stimulating and lucid psychological explanation of the character of the writer; but we look in vain in both studies for some light on how that writer, that alchemist, scooped up a handful of mud and turned it into a bar of gold. How can one explain, for example, that the thief, the convict Genet, most of whose life was spent behind bars, could write poems that Sartre compares to those written by Verlaine and by Mallarmé? Is there not here an essence which has nothing to do with evil or original choice or authenticity or with any of the terms that Sartre employs to explain man's actions? An essence which has been shared by a few gifted individuals ever since Man first began to sing and paint and write?

When we turn to the shorter essays that Sartre has devoted to other writers, most of them contemporaries …, we find the same qualities and the same defects. The study of Giraudoux serves to demonstrate that this dramatist has recreated in his plays the world of Aristotle. The demonstration is amusing, but hardly convincing, for Sartre does not deal with the essential aspects of Giraudoux' theater. Mauriac is condemned as a novelist on the grounds that he denies any freedom to his characters and that he has assumed the double role of judge and psychologist. According to Sartre, the characters in a novel should be completely free to act and develop as they wish and the author should take care not to consider these characters first as objects that are described and judged, and then as subjects who reveal their inmost thoughts to their creator. The reader should never be so well-informed about the character of a protagonist that he can predict accurately how the latter will act when confronted by a given situation. If the novelist begins by introducing his character as "a monster of ingratitude" the reader will not have to wonder much about how this character will behave towards his benefactor. He will have lost all semblance of human freedom; he will simply be a marionette dancing around at the urging of the novelist's nimble fingers.

Here again, the theory is interesting, but its application is scarcely feasible. No matter how hard the novelist may try to hide his hand, his characters will live because of him, and they will react to situations he has chosen and in the way he has decided. (pp. 104-05)

It should be said, in conclusion, that Jean-Paul Sartre as a critic has much to offer the intellectually curious reader. It is a rewarding experience to follow the line of reasoning of one of the most gifted philosophers of our time, who has demonstrated his talent in the novel, the drama, the essay, as well as in polemics. Whatever else Sartre may be, he is not dull and he is often inspiring. But insofar as literary criticism is concerned, it is to be fervently hoped that Sartre's method will not prevail and that the critics of today and tomorrow will continue to take into account that spiritual quality that marks the difference between an ordinary mortal and a poet. (p. 106)

Jacques Hardré, "Jean-Paul Sartre: Literary Critic," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LV, No. 1, January, 1958, pp. 98-106.

Roger Laufer

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2374

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 who Baudelaire was for himself…. (pp. 429-30)

Sartre is concerned with the human project as the root of a man's actions as well as of his thoughts: his project has meaning only as 'projected' into reality. But Sartre fails to show in a detailed way how Baudelaire's choice made his life, how it was lived out and not merely dreamed about or spoken. Consequently, and contrary to Sartre's intention, his presentation of Baudelaire's choice seems to be little more than a combination of a psychological portrait and an irrational myth, as the critic shifts from an objective to a subjective approach and from a description of Baudelaire's inner feeling of freedom to the ontological statement that he was actually free. On reading Baudelaire, we form the impression that Sartre offers us a broad interpretation of the man's life, a metaphysical portrait, at a very comfortable remove from the psychological facts upon which it is almost exclusively based. Other sorts of fact (facts of social life, for instance) receive so little attention that we are bound to conclude that they could, for all Sartre cared, have been left out of the picture altogether. And this applies, more or less, to all of Sartre's criticism referred to so far, i.e. all his criticism up to 1948. (pp. 430-31)

[Since 1948] Sartre had come to realize that his philosophy (with which, he tells us, he was already somewhat dissatisfied when he completed his Being and Nothingness [L'Etre et le Néant]) had been a philosophy of the isolated mind divorced from its economic, political and social context; but at the same time he saw that this idealistic view had been for the creative artist a useful working view of the world, a view which had at least enabled him to come to grips with the extraordinary complexity of reality and to attempt an aesthetic representation of it. In particular, his gifts for phenomenological description, already brilliantly displayed, first in Le Mur … and La Nausée [Nausea] …, and then more systematically in those memorable analyses of states of consciousness such as viscosity or turgescence which distinguish L'Etre et le Néant …, could now be unreservedly turned to the writing of creative literature.

The essayist, the critic, recognized the bourgeois idealistic nature of his metaphysics, chose to enlarge his outlook, to dirty his hands on newsprint, and became a political commentator. Whereas literary 'commital' had meant little more than speaking out one's mind, this intellectual broadening entailed total involvement and permanent mental insecurity. In 1946, Sartre had too easily condemned what he called the obsolete materialist creed of the communists in the name of the true revolutionary spirit, the affirmation of human freedom (Matérialisme et Révolution). Today, when it is fashionable to dip one's pen to the moral impulse at work in Marx's early writings and to deny his socialism any scientific or methodological value, Sartre states plainly that we cannot get beyond marxism, that a philosophy of freedom will have meaning only in a classless society and that, furthermore, until such a time, the nature of this future freedom cannot even be conceived. (pp. 431-32)

This new existentialist marxism does not invalidate the earlier literary criticism. But it explains its narrowness and abstraction, its lack of concrete detail outside the realm of inner experience. The phenomenological bracketing of the world had seemingly opened up to man's freedom a field coextensive with the world: but in fact it had excluded external reality, thus shutting out the very substance of man's reflection and reducing his freedom to a formal manipulation. The first result of Sartre's marxism has been to reintroduce the whole of reality into the critic's purview. This is the result of a long process, and it could even be argued that Sartre had, from the start, been interested in. Husserl's philosophy only in as far as it opened up new fields to psychological investigation. But as soon as he began to develop the concept of 'commital', he was virtually abandoning the phenomenological 'epoche', defined by Husserl in his Cartesian Meditations as the 'dismissal of all the attitudes we may take in relation to the objective world', and the return to an openly dualistic view became inevitable.

In the field of literary criticism, the new method calls for the integration of all available information on an author, his works and his time. Put in this way, it sounds anything but new, of course—a mere reversion to the too familiar pattern of the 'marxist' critics: historical background (political, economic, social, ideological), the man, his works. And we know how often this technique ended in the purely formal juxtaposition of the social, biographical and literary facts, invoking abstract notions, ready-made elaborations of general economic laws (such as the passage from feudal to bourgeois society) to place each writer conveniently in a broad category. At best, detailed general and particular facts, supposed to reflect and explain each other 'dialectically', might be invoked, but without any serious attempt to account for their interaction. But Sartre is well aware of the inadequacy of this theorizing, and he makes it clear that in this sort of marxist criticism 'only traces of the dialectical movement, not the movement itself, have been found'. The first task indeed, as Sartre sees it, is precisely to accumulate detailed concrete information which will replace such sweeping statements and generalizations. Marxist practitioners of literary criticism have on the whole lacked sound and precise scholarship, and writing as they did from second-hand sources which only incidentally gave them the things they were looking for, they were inevitably forced to be content with the broadest reconsiderations. Sartre specifically rebukes Plekhanov for this tendency, making no allowance for the fact that Plekhanov was pioneering a new field and himself recognized the need for a close study of texts, although his own interest lay rather in the sociological inquiry. However that may be, Sartre is right to stress that he is definitely breaking away from a tradition which was in the last resort sociological, not literary…. Sartre would rather have us seek the reason why a Voltaire went on writing tragedies and what he made, and/or wanted to make, out of the genre. In other words, Sartre is still trying to discover the original 'project' formed by the writer, although admitting that it may have been thwarted. (pp. 432-33)

Clearly, this approach is not just the old marxist approach to literature. Sartre is now concerned with a human 'project' on the level of meaning. A project may bear the marks of alienation, ideological, historical, social; it cannot be reduced to its components because it is significant; or rather, as Sartre puts it in a way that precludes any accusation of idealism, 'together signified-signifying and signifying-signified'. As students of literature we will be interested not in accounting scientifically for the 'project', but in fully assessing its individual nature and its total meaning. Whatever the interrelationships between man and the world, man and the world are irreducible to each other: 'What we call freedom is the irreducibility of the cultural order to the natural order'. The literary study will thus bear on what literature is—either directly on the imaginative representation of human life in a single work, or indirectly, on the unifying overall pattern which can be discerned through the whole corpus of an author's works.

The method Sartre proposes for the second sort of study comprises three steps: 1) The descriptive step (a study of the writer's background in the broadest sense); 2) the prospecting step (a concrete and precise analysis of a personality, his personal 'difference' being assessed by constant reference to the background—in other words a working back and forth from the author to the background); 3) the progressive step: synthetic and creative (the attempt to reveal the total meaning of a life by means of a hypothetical 'project', the validity of which will be tested by its explicatory power, its power to account for all the heterogeneous directions or attitudes analyzed during the second step). Although in his 'Questions de Méthode' Sartre has given us only very short fragments of such a criticism, he has outlined a method which points the way toward the reconciliation of traditional and marxist scholarship—toward an existentialist dialectical humanism, which solves the contradiction between positivistic relativism and idealistic absolutism, and remains faithful to the central preoccupation of any Arts discipline: the study of cultural man. (pp. 433-34)

Roger Laufer, "Sartre as Literary Critic" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Meanjin, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, December, 1959, pp. 427-34.

Philip Thody

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623

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 the extreme. To put all English writers safely into clubs and state that America has no middle class are quite delightful, but provide only a passing touch of unconscious humour in a very pompous book. His general thesis that writers often produce good work when they take sides on social issues is acceptable enough. Nevertheless, the number of writers he has to dismiss because they do not do so might perhaps have suggested to a less doctrinaire thinker that something was wrong with his initial premisses. If these premisses had been derived from Sartre's own experience as a practising author they would perhaps have been less arbitrary. At least they would have had some basis in fact, and Geoffrey Gorer's remark that 'literature is what Sartre does' would have been justified. As it is, however, What is Literature? reads far more like an account of what Sartre would like to do than a description of what he has in fact achieved…. In none of the prose works which he has published so far does Sartre fulfil either the aesthetic or the political ambitions of What is Literature?… His essay on Baudelaire is certainly an appeal to men to make the best possible use of liberty in their personal life, but one wonders how many elementary school teachers have had their liberty revealed to them by Saint Genet Comédien et Martyr. This dichotomy between theory and practice in Sartre's work is by no means the result of a lack of technical ability on his part. Indeed, one might say that his versatility is itself an indication of his relative failure to live up to his own idea of what constitutes good literature. His constant experimentation reveals not only his skilful craftsmanship and great intellectual energy but also his basic lack of satisfaction with literature itself. Yet few writers have been able to conquer so large and receptive an audience. Although Sartre's incursions into the realm of film-making have not always been as successful as his plays, it is disappointing that he has not given fuller scope to his ability to use the mass media which are so often represented as the greatest challenge to the modern writer. To do this in a satisfactory manner, however, cleverness alone is not enough. One needs to have something which one wishes to say to a large audience, and this is what Sartre has not very frequently had. Most of his political writing in the nineteen-fifties was addressed to a relatively restricted audience of left-wing intellectuals like himself. If his work as a political essayist and as the director of a primarily political review [Les Temps Modernes] has come nearer to fulfilling the demands of What is Literature? than anything else which he has written, this success has been achieved by the sacrifice of purely aesthetic considerations. (pp. 168-70)

Philip Thody, in his Jean-Paul Sartre: A Literary and Political Study (© 1960 by Philip Thody), Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1960 (and reprinted by The Macmillan Company, 1961), 269 p.

Maurice Natanson

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1462

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 able to define itself by a 'being-in-the-world' which is at once the constitution and the negation of the world; the concrete situation of the consciousness in the world must at each moment serve as the singular motivation for the constitution of the unreal."

It is this simultaneous affirmation and negation of being-in-the-world which so much existential literature illustrates and explores. The particulars given in a situation are exploded by consciousness into a kind of shrapnel. Each character not only interprets the fragments of his experience but causes them to be. By irrealizing their ordinary mundane signification, the existential hero brings into being their essential qualities. These qualities arise against the background of the world, but that world is negated in the moment in which it is affirmed and is affirmed in the moment of its negation. The characters of the novel cause their world to be. In positing the unreality of their acts, they secrete the imaginary. It would seem from these remarks that a kind of literary solipsism is being advanced, that novels write themselves and read themselves and then put themselves away. To be misled here would mean that the imaginary has been treated apart from the imagining consciousness of the author and reader. This is not the case. What has been said so far about the imaginary is a shorthand for a full account of the relationship of the reader to the literary work. Without that relationship, in fact, the microcosm of literature would collapse. The being of the characters in the novel has all along been our being; their world is our responsibility. "The literary object," Sartre writes, "has no other substance than the reader's subjectivity; Raskolnikov's waiting is my waiting which I lend him. Without this impatience of the reader he would remain only a collection of signs. His hatred of the police magistrate who questions him is my hatred which has been solicited and wheedled out of me by signs, and the police magistrate himself would not exist without the hatred I have for him via Raskolnikov. That is what animates him, it is his very flesh."

The reader, too, is limited in his creativity. If the microcosm of The Trial depends on his participating consciousness, it is no less the case that participation must be along restricted lines. Everything will not do. Sartre tells us that the degree of realism and truth of Kafka's mythology is never given…. Kafka demands that we become responsible for his world, but that world remains his. The text of The Trial may be understood as a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the constitution of the art work. In order to see how we are at once free yet restricted by the novel, we must attend to its status as an aesthetic object. All of our considerations so far have led to this problem. In approaching Sartre's aesthetic we are at the same time exploring a possible line of connection between philosophy and literature. Or to put the matter in a different way, we shall be interested in the relevance of aesthetics for the theory of literature.

Suppose we get a rough summary statement of Sartre's aesthetic before us. It is something like this. The novel is an aesthetic object in so far as the reader moves from the descriptions given in the book to the imaginary microcosm toward which they point. The story by itself is not enough to reach the fictive world it promises. The characters, events, general action are all analogues, in Sartre's language, which may lead us to the aesthetic object. It is always possible to read fiction as a report of real events, or to read an historical account as fiction. The pronouncements, questions, and wonderings of Joseph K. are merely clues or guides to the microcosm of The Trial. If I take the descriptions of the life of Joseph K. as a report of true happenings or if I simply note what is said in the way in which adults at breakfast may read the messages to children on the backs of cereal boxes, then an imaginative consciousness is not functioning. The movement toward the aesthetic object is short-circuited. I find myself merely with a book in my hands. (pp. 162-65)

The central achievement [of Sartre's aesthetic], it seems to me, is the phenomenological uncovering of the imaginary as the informing structure of the literary microcosm. The imaginary is not found but constituted by consciousness. And the essential character of imagination consists in its negation of mundane existence. My being-in-the-world carries with it all along the possibility of its nihilation. In different terms, the imaginary is the implicit margin surrounding the horizon of the real. Just as the child is destined to discover his gift for dreaming, so the adult lives in a world whose limits will be announced by his imagination. But the condition for the imaginary is the paramount reality of worldly existence. It is because the imaginary is unreal that it can be deciphered. The decoding presupposes the natural language from which it was translated and transposed. Without the real the unreal is unthinkable, indeed unimaginable. Art, the province of the imaginary, returns us to reality and to the theme with which we began, the sense of reality. It is time to close the accordion. (pp. 165-66)

The non-egological theory of consciousness which Sartre advances denies Husserl's doctrine of a transcendental ego supporting or directing the acts of awareness. All knowledge is still knowledge of something, all memory is memory of something, all anticipation is anticipation of something, and all imagining is imagining of something. But the full weight is given over to the act within whose structure the meant object is located. The object of the act of consciousness is regarded neutrally; I neither affirm nor deny its real being, its objective status, its causal relations. In concerning myself phenomenologically with the act of awareness, I make a decision to attend only to what is presented, as it is presented. My ordinary believing in the world, my knowledge of its historical past, its scientific explanation, are all set aside for present purposes. In virtue of this reflexive attention I decide to pay to the stream of my own awareness, I uncover a pure field of essential relations. The objects given in that field comprise my phenomenological data. What Sartre has done with this Husserlian doctrine is to reject its transcendental condition in affirming its sovereign status. The data of consciousness are intrinsic aspects of the directionality of consciousness. My responsibility for the given is absolute. It arises and is sustained through my epistemic fiat. And since, according to Sartre, the "I" or ego is found in and through the acts of consciousness as a product of reflection, in the same way in which a fellow man is located, I am thrown out of the vortex of consciousness into the being of the world. Sartre quotes Rimbaud with approval: "I is an other."

The total result, then, of Sartre's version of a phenomenology of consciousness is to rid mind of a transcendental agent and make the acts of awareness the sole domain of our being-in-the-world. Consciousness is worldly to begin with, and its activity is thrown outward in the midst of the human condition. It is the doctrine of the directionality of consciousness which alone can account for the existentialist's sense of reality. Sartre has removed us from our place in the endless waiting line of the Hegelian Absolute, stamped our ticket, and put us on the train. With him we are en route. Far from phenomenology leading to a philosophical idealism, an avoidance of the brute features of existence, Sartre maintains that the victory of phenomenology is in a completely different direction. "The phenomenologists," he writes, "have plunged man back into the world; they have given full measure to man's agonies and sufferings, and also to his rebellions." (pp. 166-67)

Maurice Natanson, "Existentialism and the Theory of Literature," in The Critical Matrix, edited by Paul R. Sullivan (© Georgetown University, 1961), Georgetown University, 1961, pp. 154-70.∗

Jonas A. Barish

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1562

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 the particulars of literary expression. Like the essay on Baudelaire, that on Genet ends with a prolonged inspection of the published works themselves, in which these are seen as a final splendid relic of the ontological disease, secreted by a creature in desperation. (p. 276)

In its general character Saint Genet falls somewhere between Sartre's philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, and his other essays, plays, and novels. It resembles Being and Nothingness in its daunting bulk and comprehensiveness; it actually adopts much of the apparatus constructed in the earlier book. Sometimes, indeed, it threatens to provoke a guffaw as it wheels up its massive ordinance of abstractions, and trains them on matters of the order of magnitude of the lice, crabs, spit, and excrement of a single human creature. But despite the panoply of exposition, the texture of the book is assertive and aphoristic rather than logical. There is little attempt to preserve the rigor of proof, to derive terms, argue closely, anticipate objections, or the like, and there is much use of anecdote, metaphor, and the enticements of fact. Sartre assumes a certain order, as he says, in the chaotically rich world of Genet's imagination, and proceeds to describe it in a freely discursive rumination on certain themes. (p. 278)

[The validity] of the argument as a whole depends on our response to the quality of Sartre's insight. If we are seeking "proof," if we stipulate rigor, judiciousness, intellectual hedge-hogging and flank-protecting, we had better apply elsewhere. Sartre, with a recklessness akin to Genet's, pushes his theses to their most flamboyant extremes. When they reach their limit and start doubling back on themselves, he coolly follows, beckoning us along the dizzying path. If we stop to ponder, we are likely to lose our footing. But Sartre has spent a lifetime listening to the inner rhythms of humanity. He has a "passion for understanding men." What he offers is a pattern of illumination. What verifies is the imaginative vigor of the construction, the degree to which it welds into an intelligible synthesis the bizarre career of its subject, and makes sense of his mystifying literary productions. Though Saint Genet is not a book for those unacquainted with Genet, the insight it provides extends well beyond Genet himself, into a dozen aspects of the relations between literature and the rest of existence. Sartre's ontological portrait is a vast complicated apparatus, ablink with multiple lights, which now dazzles us and now leaves us in darkness.

Certainly the machine creaks from time to time, and threatens to disintegrate in mid-air. Sartre can be absurdly literal, as when he tries to derive the quality of Genet's sexuality, and his whole life style, from the fact (if it was a fact) that he was caught stealing from behind. Even the strenuous reweavings of this thread into later contexts do not dispel the impression of wilfulness it makes. On the other hand, in his discussion of Our Lady of the Flowers as the "epic of masturbation" in which characters are invented and incidents prolonged solely for the autoerotic pleasure of the author, Sartre is not literal enough; he refuses to distinguish between the fantasies as experienced during masturbation, and as recollected later during writing. But Genet surely cannot write while masturbating. And if he writes later, the character of the fantasy necessarily changes: its power to sustain erection and provoke orgasm can hardly have the same importance. Lapses of memory must occur, requiring fresh details to be invented; new considerations must enter in to dictate the choice of the new details. And this is the kind of difference one would think crucial to understanding the genesis of a book so bizarrely engendered, assuming Sartre's account to be in its main outlines valid.

Sartre rarely tries to rescue his own formulations when they start falling, as they sometimes do, into something approximating gobbledygook: "By Evil one therefore means both the Being of Nonbeing and the Nonbeing of Being."… Such statements recall some of the more term-top-heavy utterances in Being and Nothingness itself, at which even sympathetic readers could not always refrain from hilarity. Certainly the humorlessness of Saint Genet is staggering, and matches the humorlessness of its subject. On occasion Sartre simply irritates. The repeated use of American Negroes as parallels to Genet cheapens the discussion; it beclouds the plight of the Negroes instead of clarifying it. Seizing on a few schematic likenesses to illustrate a general law, it ignores the differences that confer vitality; by substituting the abstract for the concrete, Sartre violates the reality of the Negroes' suffering.

On this topic we hear the cold-war Sartre speaking, the doctrinaire, communisant Sartre whose Marxism is capable of leading him into coarse judgments on current issues. On the other hand, far oftener in the book the Marxist Sartre speaks with magnificent authority and discernment. Sartre, generally, is brilliant when he expatiates on the human tendency to convert every aspect of existence into an expression of class. Among the most successful passages in Saint Genet are various quasi-Marxist digressions: on tools and utensils as extensions of human will; on theft as a "sacred destruction" and an impoverishment of the human world; on nature as a "social myth"; on argot as a poetic speech devised by outcasts who would perpetrate a rape on ordinary language; on aestheticism as a social revenge, whereby undesirables translate themselves to a realm of values that transcends society's own, and so escape its judgments. Some of these themes had been announced earlier in Being and Nothingness; Sartre now plays lordly and dazzling variations on them.

One especially rewarding notion is Sartre's view of Genet as not merely a totality, but a self-constituted totality—a being who sees himself as fixed, complete, and hence incapable of growth or change…. The characters in Genet's fiction, like those in his life, reduce themselves to types—the criminal, the sailor—differentiated from each other only by trivial gestures, never by substantial acts. Genet, indeed, is not concerned with acts, whereby men evolve into futurity, but with gestures, whereby they proclaim themselves what they already are (or wish to be), and so retreat into the past. For his characters Genet devises situations that will show them off in their roles. The essential nature of a gesture, according to Sartre, is that "it has already been made. It is not an operation that we invent as we go along: it is a unit that is already constituted, a totality that governs its parts, something like a dance step."… Hence the forbidding lack of spontaneity in Genet's life and works. Since the transfixing moment, nothing in it has been freely or newly experienced; all is re-enactment; all is studied, posed, and rehearsed; all accident has been instantly absorbed into the pattern of completed rite. (pp. 279-81)

[For Sartre, the] necessity of role playing is a tragic limitation, a testimony to the agonizing contradictions inherent in our nature, and a dismaying invitation to bad faith. Even when, as with Genet, the role constitutes a heroic response to an intolerable situation, it stems from profound inner derangement. Much of the force of Sartre's writing lies in its implicit effort to persuade men to give up their illusions, to face the roles they have assumed, so as to free themselves from falsehood and bring themselves into closer accord with the situations in which they find themselves. The age-old counsel of the impassioned moralist, Nosce teipsum, is as much the burden of Sartre's texts as it was of Socrates' talks.

Saint Genet, happily, has a happy ending. Through ten years of writing, Genet frees himself from his nightmares. He transfers them onto paper, and the paper drinks them dry. It turns them into objects, whereupon they hurl themselves back into the troubled minds of pious citizens, who, as they read, are forced to accept in themselves what they most viscerally loathe and fear. In the process Genet liquidates his own obsessions. Criminality and sainthood lose their feverish glamor for him; his theatricality subsides; his behavior contains fewer gestures, more acts. In a word, he authenticates himself. Sartre's finale urges us to read Genet for purposes of self-recognition. To use Genet properly is to utilize his books as therapeutic devices, as mirrors wherein we see a more virulent case of our own malaise. Genet having had the courage to live the ontological dilemma to its limits, in both its incompatible dimensions, we can, if we open ourselves to the ogres that haunted him, liberate ourselves from them as well. (p. 282)

Jonas A. Barish, "The Veritable Saint Genet," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (© 1965, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature), Vol. VI, No. 3, Autumn, 1965, pp. 267-85.

Benjamin Suhl

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1150

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 as "paradigm cases" of the project and praxis, either authentic in a spirit of contestation or in bad faith in the "spirit of seriousness." Literature is also the medium in which description of the act of living discloses knowledge. Sometimes a literary "becoming" has the weight of a comprehensive philosophical or theological demonstration. [In Nausea,] Roquentin feels that life acquires a greater density of being when he hears the voice of commitment. In short, in literature an imaginary prereflective and reflective experience precedes philosophy, just as existence precedes essence. And since Sartre—by his reliance on literature—has been able to produce a systematic existentialist philosophy, this constitutes, in turn, a validation of literature. (p. 267)

Sartre's evolution shows a remarkable degree of consistency; it is the story of an unfolding, not of changes in direction. His career as a literary critic follows by a few years the publication of his phenomenological monographs. In the latter, he expelled interiority from consciousness and established the distinction between perception and imagination. He was one of the early enthusiastic readers of Dos Passos because that author dispensed with inner life, and, in turn, his discovery of Faulkner's "disloyal" temporality foreshadowed the development of his own ontological temporality in Being and Nothingness. In his other early reviews Sartre treats of Giraudoux's latent Aristotelianism, Ponge's psychoanalysis of things, Mauriac's a priori essentialism, Camus's concept of absurdity from the point of view of reason, and the problem of language as that of the recuperation of being. In the style of a work, its structure, its temporality, its semantic field, its tone or its rhythm, Sartre seeks to detect the metaphysics of an author and judges it according to his own. For from the outset Sartre used literary criticism as a mediation between his philosophy and literature.

He expanded his thought in his phenomenological ontology, which permitted him to define man's project as a variant of value and aesthetic beauty as value. Commitment, arising from contingency and facticity, brought him to the need and the promise of a normative ethics. So far, modifying Freud through his existentialist psychoanalysis, Sartre had described the in-authenticity of the spirit of seriousness and asked only that one recognize one's contingency.

With the first issue of Les Temps Modernes Sartre, aroused by the war and the Resistance movement, manifested his involvement with social issues. Its "Présentation" announced as its aim the foundation of a synthetic anthropology. Later issues featured What is Literature? with its definition of aesthetic pleasure and of committed literature, and a series of articles on literary criticism in character with his existentialist ontology and his new concern for history.

With the Baudelaire and the Saint Genet Sartre created what is actually a new genre: existentialist biography. Following the elaboration of an existentialist anthropology in the [Critique of Dialectical Reason (Critique de la raison dialectique)], Sartre could expand and perfect his biographical criticism in the Flaubert articles. It remained the history of an author's consciousness, but it now gave greater weight to his family and social conditioning as a child. Sartre fully developed his regressive-progressive and analytico-synthetic method of research: a man's life is the endeavor to unify his world in a totalizing praxis in which he develops his initial project. (pp. 268-69)

The role of literary criticism as a dynamic correlation between literature and philosophy is in many respects originally and peculiarly Sartrian. Sartre did not, in spite of his tabula rasa point of departure in philosophy, discard any of the criteria of literary criticism to be derived from the humanistic disciplines, but he centered them on his own philosophical system. In this critical reflection on an author's work as the expression of his total existence, Sartre penetrates to the underlying metaphysics. Sartre can be a rewarding reader, ready to recognize and adopt valid discoveries in a literary work or to criticize them from the point of view of his existentialist criteria…. Sartre's literary criticism is a guide, a method of research, but not an a priori system to be imposed on original thought. To him, literary criticism is in a permanent evolution, moving back and forth from philosophy to the lived world of the author, so as to renew, to complement, to enlarge, to deepen and to explicate one by the other.

Sartre's philosophy and literary criticism exist as the antidote to most Anglo-American philosophy, preoccupied, in the words of one critic, "with the analysis of language and with problems in the theory of knowledge," philosophers to whom "philosophy [is] a dialogue between philosophers, unbroken by reference to anything outside philosophy." One might perhaps say that nonexistentialist philosophy as a whole is more dominated by the tradition of its own past than is literature, thanks to its "belletristic" freedom. Taking reflection on experience as its point of departure, Sartrian literary criticism is a free and unending dialogue between the two disciplines in which he seeks a unification of many branches of knowledge, and to which he brings the criteria developed in his philosophy.

Success in one's critical endeavor is reached, by his own standards, when one has the intuition of having attained irreducibility and thus advanced to an understanding of a work and an author that explicates the greatest number of phenomena. This is exactly what Sartre has achieved: he has "reduced" traditional categories in many fields while integrating them into his concept of the original choice of being. (pp. 269-71)

Sartre's first impetus to write came from a passion to understand what he was to others. In the process he often had to think against himself, and, in tried and true phenomenological fashion, he came, as has no one before him, to understand those of whom he himself was conscious: the others. In either case, in the words of a perceptive reader of Sartre, "we can no longer formulate a general truth about ourselves which shall encompass us like a house." The most we can do is to emulate Sartre's lack of illusions, his lucidity, his wager of commitment, and his example of someone who "by inventing his own issue, invents himself." (p. 272)

Benjamin Suhl, in his Jean-Paul Sartre: The Philosopher As a Literary Critic (copyright © 1970 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1970, 311 p.

Robert W. Artinian

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2063

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 means of expression.

The background of Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, then, is this continuing crisis in French literature, one which is still apparent on the contemporary literary scene. For in retrospect it seems clear that Sartre is not, nor is likely to become, a great writer: clever, enormously, furiously energetic, he does not possess the authentic gifts of a really first-rate creative talent. But in the present case this may be no disadvantage—a greater writer, for whom literature itself might never become a question, might be less sensitive to the historic forces that now push the literary man into such an odd and difficult place in the world. And what we can always count on in Sartre is the prodigious intelligence with which he plunges into any problem. In the grand tradition, he divides the problem of literature into three questions: Qu'est-ce qu'écrire? Pourquoi écrire? Pour qui écriton? These questions themselves breathe the air of crisis, for they are not the kind of questions that enter the writer's head during his periods of fertility and overflow; they become urgent and sometimes paralyzing only when he has descended into the pits of silence, anguish, artistic nihilism; when he exists on the margins of literature where language itself seems to become impossible, a position described almost twenty years later in Les Mots.

Coming out of this double crisis in the French situation, Sartre does not present us with any radically new theory of literature: most of his views had their antecedents in the Marxist theorizing of the 'thirties, although he gives them a new philosophical color. The revolutionary import of Sartre's message lies in his complete acceptance of the conditions under which, it appears, the writer may soon have to work, even though to accept these conditions may imply a radical break with the whole tradition of literature in France.

He attempts to give an historical answer to the three questions that divide his book by reviewing the conditions of author, public, and society during the major periods of French literature. The influence of Marxism obviously forms judgments of taste at certain points. Thus he undervalues the literature of the seventeenth century because it was aristocratic, actually preferring the comedies of Beaumarchais, for example, which belong to the more democratic eighteenth century, to those of Molière, and going so far as to describe Molière's Le Misanthrope as a comedy dealing only with the trivial subjects of manners. The trouble is not that Sartre lacks taste—the entire work is evidence of his passionate addiction to literature—but that the brilliance of his insights on the past is often spoiled by extreme and doctrinaire judgments.

This lack of critical balance has its most serious consequences when Sartre is dealing with the "bourgeois" literature of the nineteenth century. Here his judgments are obviously colored by his passionate hatred of the bourgeois class itself, and therefore, though he makes some telling points against bourgeois literature, they are usually directed at its weakest side and hardly do justice to its main bulk of significant work. The error is the familiar one of seeking to convert political and social sympathies too directly into literary judgment, so that he still sees political and cultural realities under drastic Marxist simplifications.

The facts, however, are always more complex. Flaubert, for example, has always been a target for Sartre…. Sartre attempts to justify his severity by citing long passages from Flaubert, particularly his letters and early works, that express an aristocratic hatred of the mob. This is all very well; but the accusation is rendered meaningless when we recall that Flaubert, despite his correspondence, has produced in the few pages of Un Coeur simple a more profound and sympathetic picture of the poor than in all the thousand pages of Sartre's trilogy Les Chemins de la liberté…. Both Flaubert and Sartre could be described as execrating the bourgeois. In the former this became a revolt, an obsession with la bétise, and in the latter, an obsession with le salaud. Even the personal lives of these men, with their brilliant intellects, their voluntary isolation in order to write more effectively, even the presence of an ageing mother and une amie, all suggest the close physical and metaphysical rapport which exists between them. That Flaubert should therefore be so consistently misinterpreted by Sartre, at least thus far, suggests interesting and complex conclusions.

There are, to be sure, reasons for the Sartrian approach. His interest in literary criticism, admittedly, 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 such a way, the situation 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 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 rhetoric and the controversialist's violent irony…. [In] Qu'est-ce que la littérature? one simple point made was that all literature of the past is dead and should be left where it belongs—in those cemeteries we call libraries! It is precisely the fact that Sartrian criticism examines literature not on a strictly literary basis but from a philosophical point of view that makes reading this criticism such an interesting but, on occasion, a frustrating experience. (pp. 39-42)

Sartre started out with an overriding interest in phenomenology as a philosophy of what Husserl called the Lebenswelt (le monde vécu), which was to overcome the dichotomy between idealism and materialism as much as that between philosophy and experience. He developed a rigorous analysis of the structures of consciousness while feeling compelled at the same time to elucidate certain experiences in his own mind and to communicate them in creative literature. A close examination of his literary criticism shows it to be a mediation between his phenomenology and the "monde vécu" of the author under review. Sartre's contribution consists precisely in locating the author's way of apprehending "le monde vécu," his metaphysics.

But the point is that these differences scarcely justify the fusillades littéraires in which Sartre indulges himself…. [Balzac] embarrasses Sartre; he does not know where or how to place him. As a bourgeois? But he goes far beyond the limits of the bourgeoisie. As a revolutionary? But he has reactionary opinions. Better, therefore, not to treat him at all. Balzac is not mentioned. And better omit Stendhal also, to be more prudent. Taine is dismissed as a cheap pedant! It is the peremptory quality of these statements which makes them so galling. (p. 43)

All this brings us now to the core of Sartre's message, which is his now well-known concept of littérature engagée. His doctrine is an insistence upon the reintegration of literature into life, against the idea of the priesthood of letters that germinated during the whole of the nineteenth century to come to full and final bloom in the symbolists…. [Looking] back on more than half a century of writers who will eventually give their names to the twentieth century, we seem to see them in retrospect as belonging almost to a vanished culture, so different were the conditions of their existence from those of the period into which we have now entered. If they inherited the nineteenth century view of the writer as a separate and anointed being, a kind of priest, they were able to hold on to this role only with the tensions of an irony that provided it with a new human content. Proust, Joyce, Mann, and the others, all exist in the full plenitude of a tradition of which they sought to lose no part, so that their work in its richness already carries the seeds of disorder and dissolution. Probably a moment like this in literary history could not be prolonged any further. Sartre's work is perhaps the first conscious announcement that the conditions of literature must return to a lower and less ambitious level; but even if the program did not become conscious, the attitude has already begun to prevail. We are now able to understand our surprise at the evolution of Sartre's career. The discrepancy between the very abstract and involved philosophy of the Critique de la raison dialectique and the rudimentary and plodding fiction is no longer a puzzle. It was something of a shock, after the intellectual sophistication and complexity of L'Etre et le néant to descend upon the three volumes of Sartre's trilogy Les Chemins de la liberté, not because his creative gifts were lacking but because he was willing to aim so low in the novel. But all this now appears to have been intentional: The committed writer disdains the creation of masterpieces, and even the very concept of the masterpiece, with whatever silence, exile, or cunning it may exact, no longer seems to have any connection with that act of writing that aims essentially at making an impact, just as one might strike a blow or fire a pistol.

Sartre is therefore entirely consistent with himself when he proposes that the writer neglect none of the mass media available, such as television, radio, and cinema. He notes with satisfaction that the modern writer is able to reach a much vaster audience than his predecessor of the nineteenth century…. It is true that Sartre is aware of the other side of the coin—that when Gide, for example, becomes known through the cinema to thousands who have not read him, the writer also becomes inseparable from the face of Michèle Morgan, or Marcello Mastroianni in the case of Camus' L'Etranger—but he fails to consider what will happen if this process continues unchecked. The cultural process in modern society is precisely this watering-down of content as the writer reaches larger masses of people, and usually not through his own written word but through the mechanical image that an advanced technology substitutes for the printed page, as Marshall McLuhan has suggested. Sartre accepts the process, in fact seeks to assist it; for in his view the writer should aim essentially at addressing the concrete collectivity, which is the total mass of mankind, and eventually this mass is a classless society. This is as utopian as most of Sartre's politics; but programs—and a program for literature is no exception—should deal with present possibilities, and the contemporary writer who seeks to reach this mass audience will inevitably find himself rejecting his own essential difficulties, his complications and subtleties, and indeed the very limitations of personality that have in the past defined his most authentic themes. (pp. 44-5)

Sartre's criticism is undoubtedly characteristic of that of many creative writers—it tells us much less about the work criticized than it does about the critic. As such, his criticism is stimulating and provocative, as is much of his production. But we genuinely hope that future critics will endeavor to judge literature on its own merits, and not by standards imposed from foreign disciplines. (p. 45)

Robert W. Artinian, "Sartre's Nineteenth Century: A Critique of His Criticism," in South Atlantic Bulletin (copyright © 1972 by South Atlantic Modern Language Association), Vol. 37, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 39-45.

Fredric Jameson

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4645

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 lens of a strange new style, of seeing what the world looks like through it.

But this objectivity brings in turn another form of objectivity with it; if style is a model of time, a certain kind of optical illusion of temporality, then the number of possible styles must be in some sense limited by the number of ways time itself can be deformed or projected. And in this light Sartre's early essays on style in modern writers turn out to be, not principally reviews or occasional articles, but rather chapters of a phenomenology of different attitudes toward, different models of narrative time.

The basic problem of narrative time is that of the event and the way the novelist disposes his raw material into events, preparation for events, consequences leading from them. At this point the nature of the raw material, of the content of the novel, is of less importance, although ultimately that content—the legendary gestures of Faulkner, the social ambitions in Dos Passos, the sexual guilt of Mauriac—comes to seem symbolic of the way the story is told, emblematic of the kind of time registered in its style.

But initially style is felt as being a structure imposed on a relatively formless raw material; it is somehow an addition to it, a rearranging or reordering of it. If, in the existential formula, existence precedes essence, style, or a certain temporal structure, functions precisely as an essence with respect to the directionless unformed lived existence of the story material. For real time is, according to Sartre, a synthesis of all three temporal dimensions at once; and memories, remembered moments, carry their dead future with them, just as anticipated moments in the future are projected, not in a void, but as the future of somebody with a clearly defined past. But when we try to narrate our experiences, to put time into words, inevitably we do violence to this temporal synthesis, and we lay stress on one dimension of time to the exclusion of the others. Stylistic innovation implies precisely this new way of telling events, or rather the invention of a new illusion of the passage of time, a new projection of the temporal synthesis. (pp. 194-95)

[In L'Etre et le néant,] Sartre is reluctant to describe L'Etranger as a novel; he would rather see it in the tradition of the conte philosophique that goes back to Voltaire. Indeed, the principal tendency of everything that has preceded may be described as a defense of the novel against that rival form which the French call the récit ("narrative" or "tale" are not altogether satisfactory English equivalents). The genuine novel is for Sartre that form of narration which emphasizes, in its temporal stylization, neither the past nor the present, but rather the future. The novel exists as a form when we are thrown into the minds and experiences of characters for whom the future, for whom destiny, has not yet taken shape, who grope and invent their own destinies, living blindly within the entanglement of one another's unforeseeable actions and under the menace of history's unforeseeable development. In this perspective, the future is that which is sought passionately through the present, that which will ultimately return upon the events narrated to give them their meaning. Such a form requires an absolute nonintervention on the part of the novelist; but its open perspective, the blankness stretching before reader and character, can paradoxically be conveyed either through a completely objective or a completely subjective mode, as long as either is applied systematically throughout the work. The novelist can show us the entire stream of events through his characters' eyes, making us share their limits of vision, the imperfection of their points of view, as is the case in Joyce or Henry James; or he can withhold this subjective, psychological reality entirely and give us nothing but the external actions, the words and gestures, of his characters, in the manner of the American "behavioristic" novel of the thirties, the novel of Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett.

It is evidently difficult to draw a clear line between this genuine novel and the mixed practice of the récit. But it seems clear that if for Sartre the modern American novel stands as a kind of privileged model for what the open form ought to be, it is the French realistic tradition of the nineteenth century which furnishes the classic illustration of the motivation behind the récit. (p. 200)

In the early 1950s a new motif makes its appearance in Sartre's work: the distinction between an act and a gesture, between the real and an attitude toward it which seems to drain it of its reality, transform it into mere appearance, irrealize it, to use Sartre's term.

The groundwork for this theme had already been laid in one of Sartre's most technical and impersonal writings, L'Imaginaire …, which demonstrated the basic incompatibility between the act of perceiving and the act of imagining. Both are ways of relating to external objects, but in the second mode the object is apprehended as being absent, and my relationship to it is precisely a kind of absence. The implication of this thesis is that, contrary to popular belief, I am never in any danger of mistaking imaginary phenomena (hallucinations, obsessions, dream-images) for real ones. There is a radical difference in quality between the two experiences, the imaginary one is always known to be unreal. I therefore dispose of two possible ways of living the real world: in the first I stand in an active, practical relationship to its objects; in the second I put their reality between parentheses and live with their absence, with their idea or image. These two modes of existence point to two fundamentally opposed passions; for there can be a passion for the unreal, for the imaginary, which leads its subject to prefer imaginary feelings to real ones, psychological satisfactions to genuine ones, gestures to acts. It is in this sense that Sartre can say of a writer like Mallarmé that his literary creation is the equivalent of a destruction of the world; such a passion for the imaginary has as its motivation a kind of resentment against the real, and finds its satisfaction in a symbolic revenge upon it.

The starting point of this theory of the imaginary is, however, a theory of the real, which can be briefly summed up as follows: consciousness is basically activity; our primary relationship to the world is not a contemplative or static one, not one of knowledge but one of action and work; the "world" in the phenomenological sense is not motionless space spread out before me, but rather time, "hodological" space, a network of paths and roads, a complex organization of means and ends and projects, unveiled through the movement of my own adventures and desires. This notion, with its emphasis on the primacy of work over mere abstract knowledge, may seem Marxist in origin, indeed provides the connecting link between existentialism and Marxism in Sartre's later works; but in fact it originates directly in Heidegger. For the latter we apprehend objects first as tools and only later on as things-in-themselves, as static substances. For human reality, involved in its projects, each object is primarily a frozen project, an immobile imperative, a thing-to-be-used-in-a-certain-way—zuhanden, available, lying to hand in case of need. And just as scientific objectivity is a later, more sophisticated development among human attitudes toward the world, so also is the apprehension of the thing or object as vorhanden, as simply being there, as an entity with no evident relationship to myself. (pp. 203-04)

For Sartre the principal distinction between poetry and prose is that the reader takes a utilitarian attitude toward the latter. In it language functions as a system of signs, and the reader's mind is primarily involved, not with the signs themselves, but beyond them, with the things signified. The relationship of the reader to prose language is therefore an active, practical, transcendent one; he uses it, and like all tools it dictates by its own structure the operations necessary to use it properly. For the prose writer also language is the instrument of an act, a secondary or indirect mode of action which Sartre calls action by revelation (dévoilement). By naming things, by constructing verbal models for experiences which until then had remained formless and inchoate, the writer acts on his readers, makes it impossible for them to live as they had before (if they wish to continue to be unaware of a given feeling, for example, they must now, after it has been named, deliberately avoid thinking about it; they can no longer enjoy the uncompromised innocence of the ignorant).

Poetry on the other hand is distinguished from prose in that in it language intervenes between the reader and the abstract meanings; in poetry it is the words which are primarily apprehended, the meanings in turn become mere pretexts for an awareness of language in its materiality. Thus in poetry a practical, utilitarian attitude toward language is replaced by a contemplative one, for a doing is substituted a being. This is why for Sartre the history of modern poetry is, in terms of the lives of the poets and of their relationship to society, not one of accomplishment but one of failure: When I succeed, I pass from one practical goal to another, the means go unnoticed in the effortless progress from end to end. But when I fail, when my racket misses the ball suddenly, then the means stand out in all their materiality; I become conscious of my own body in its awkwardness, of the racket, of the disposition of space around me. So with the poet: he is able to apprehend the materiality, the being, of language with intensity only against the background of the collapse of his own real projects and of the failure of language as an instrumental means toward an end.

This distinction between an object taken as a means and one taken as an end in itself can be prolonged into the very structure of the poetic image. In the beginning Sartre tends to consider the poetic image in a relatively static fashion, as the symbol and reflection of the consciousness which conceives it. Following Bachelard, he sees the sensation, or the poetic image, as an "objective symbol of being and of the relationship of human reality to that being." Thus the images of Baudelaire are characterized by a certain spiritualized quality: objects "which can be apprehended by the senses and yet resemble consciousness. The entire effort of Baudelaire was to recuperate his consciousness, to possess it and hold it like a thing in the palm of his hands, and this is why he seizes on anything that has the look of consciousness objectified: perfumes, muffled lights, distant music, so many little closed mute consciousnesses, so many images of his unattainable existence at once taken into himself, consumed like hosts."

But here the relationship between consciousness and its product (the image, the poem, the sensation) remains one of mere reflection; later on, Sartre will conceive of it as a more dynamic interaction, particularly in those suggestive pages of Saint Genet … in which he distinguishes two basic types of modern images, the expansive and the retractile. In the first a single object ("l'aube") is felt to be an expanding multiplicity ("comme un peuple de colombes"). In such an image, basically inanimate space or externality has been apprehended as an arrested glimpse of an explosion in progress; what is lifeless and measurable has been suddenly endowed with energy and movement, felt to be a moment of a universal and dynamic progress.

The other type of image is one in which existing multiplicities are reduced to unity, in which a movement which was outward-exploding becomes circular, cyclical, in which the chaos of external objects are subordinated to the hierarchical order of the closed image. (pp. 205-07)

[These two poles of spatial configuration] reintroduce into the heart of the poetic image the distinction already described above between the practical/transcendent, the vision of the thing as a frozen use or potential project, and the irrealizing/contemplative, the category of the self-sufficient thing-in-itself. In the first kind of image the reader feels reflected back to him his own energy and generosity, his own transcendent power, "the unity which human work imposes by force on the disparate"; in the second the "whole world is represented according to the model of a hierarchical society." It is characteristic of Sartre that he sees in these two kinds of imagination a fundamental opposition between left-wing and right-wing thinking, between an open revolutionary type of thought and a closed one which wishes to contemplate permanence or eternity in the flux of things themselves. But it is no less characteristic that he furnishes a psychological explanation as well. The first, exploding type of imagery is a figure of freedom itself, of the projection of consciousness out into the world of things, of the transcending of anxiety through choice and activity; the second attempts to conjure anxiety away by suggesting perfect order, by situating consciousness, not in a dangerous indeterminacy, but in the midst of a world in which everything has its appointed place, in which values are inscribed in things themselves. (pp. 207-08)

The dynamic element in Sartre's existentialism is a Hegelian graft, the idea of the Other and of Otherness. It is this concept which completes the idea of freedom with a description of the way freedom objectifies and alienates itself in its objects…. It is this notion which permits the free consciousness of L'Etre et le néant to escape from its isolation in the monad, to discover its dimension of Being-for-other-people and its inextricable involvement in an intersubjective world. Later on, the notion of Otherness serves as a means of accounting for the relationship between the self and the institutions around it with which it must come to terms; in particular, it accounts for the paradoxical phenomenon of the divided self, the Hegelian unhappy consciousness, in which people are obliged to choose themselves as Other for Other people, to feel their center of gravity outside the self. Finally, Otherness is the source of the optical illusion of Good and Evil, of the ethical manichaeanism which results in justification for the Self and condemnation of the Other (anti-Semitism, anti-communism, racism, social stereotypes of the insane and the criminal, and so forth).

But dialectical thinking involves the setting into relationship with each other of two incommensurable realities, two phenomena which cannot be thought in the same conceptual framework. The scandal of Otherness is precisely this revelation of an underside of existence, a dimension which is out of reach, which cannot be dissolved by ordinary analytical thought, and which always turns it, reckons it into the account beforehand. (Imagine someone with a horror of other people's judgments; to escape them he always does the opposite of what people expect; at length a superior judgment falls, imprisoning him this time in a larger perspective: he is simply capricious.) The scandal of literary Otherness for literary critics is this obligation to go outside the neat world of the single conceptual framework, to make a dialectical leap from the comfortable, imminent system of forms and purely formal analysis to an unpleasantly external reality. For Marxism this external reality is the economic and social situation, the historical form which material conditions take; and the Marxist literary dialectic involves the disagreeable reminder that the major part of writers' and readers' lives is spent in the preoccupation with material questions, that the work of art, in appearance self-sufficient and above history, is conditioned (even more radically than by the purely literary history of its form and content) by such external and absolutely nonliterary phenomena as the state of book publishing in the period, the increasing enrichment and leisure of certain classes of the society, and so forth.

Merleau-Ponty has pointed out that the originality of Sartre's view of literature with respect to this materialistic dialectic is that for him the work of art is not felt to be retrospective, a product of a certain social background, but rather prospective, itself a way of choosing the social group to which it speaks and of which it will eventually become emblematic. The Otherness of the work of art for Sartre is constituted not so much by the milieu in which it originates as by the public which it calls forth for itself. (pp. 214-15)

Beside the formalist or the social and biographical methods, there is … a place for a new type of examination which would describe the work of art in terms of the public which it implies; and it is this new type of literary history which Sartre writes in Qu'est-ce que la littérature?… The logic of his position distinguishes two kinds of public, the real (that group implied by the background required to read the work), and the virtual (those groups deliberately or implicitly shut off from access to it). The various possible relationships of literature to its public will therefore tend to be governed by two kinds of possible opposition: one between real and virtual publics, the other between two different possible real publics, both of which may happen to be available to the writer at that moment of history. Sartre's history of literature amounts to a working out of the various possible combinations and permutations of these terms.

His central distinction corresponds to the more fundamental Hegelian one between abstract and concrete; for Sartre the work of art becomes concrete only to the degree that it approaches an ever widening public, one which tends toward universal readership as an outside limit. For the writer who must limit his readership severely must also limit the range of experiences treated; must translate them into the terms understood by the group, must therefore practice symbolism and abstraction as a habit of mind developed and imposed by his confining situation as a writer in a certain society. The archetype of this abstract literature is that of the Middle Ages, in which the reading of literature was limited primarily to the writers themselves, to the clerical caste which possessed the specialized technique of the written word. In such a situation, where the virtual public extends for all practical purposes to the whole of society at large, the subject matter of literature shrinks to an almost modern purity; the only available content is the literary activity itself in the form of pure spirituality, at its most abstract, in other words, religion, a symbolic apparatus in which the entirety of the concrete world is present in inverted reflection, transformed into abstraction or pure idea. (pp. 216-17)

It is characteristic that with the possibility of disengaging himself from his own class … ruled out, Sartre should turn to the kind of "internal emigration" represented by the example of Genet. The appeal to the reader was built into the very linguistic structure of Genet's work; Sartre shows in concrete detail how his poetry (pure materiality of language) is infected and undermined by an instinctive prose (a system of signs, organization by paraphrasable significations). For the appeal to the Other was at the very source of Genet's creative impulse; victim of an initially verbal trauma (accusation, being named a thief), he first experiences words as impenetrable objects, as Otherness, and his attempt as a writer is to recapture this dimension of language for himself, either to see himself from the outside as others see him, or to make them go through the same strange contradictory experience themselves, that of being looked at from the outside, of being unable to seize from the inside the language of their writer-accuser. The favorable judgment on Genet is therefore similar to that passed on Dos Passos; such literature has a value of contestation, reflects back to the middle classes their own truth in all its ugliness as seen, not from the vantage point of another class, but from a point on the very margin of their own, in Genet's case through the eyes of a criminal and outcast.

It should be added that besides this "prospective" criticism, there is also in Sartre, particularly in the existential biographies, a "retrospective" criticism as well, one which evaluates the effect of his background, his situation, on the writer. Thus both Genet and Giraudoux present medieval characteristics, have basically medieval imaginations, but this is not to be attributed to their sharing in one of those Platonic abstractions such as the medieval world view which German idealistic literary criticism used to favor. Rather, the medieval world view was itself the expression of an agricultural society, and it is to the degree that Genet's background, his life situation, was by accident agricultural in a predominantly industrial society, that certain objective similarities appear between his way of thinking and those of medieval times.

It is in the light of this reduction to the lived situation of the writer that the much discussed notion of engagement (commitment) is to be understood. The emotional logic of this idea is characteristic of Sartre: if in fact we are our situation, it seems to run, then we ought to choose to be it, with all its limitations, we should prefer a lucid awareness of it to imaginary evasions and the mystification with abstract or unreal issues. Indeed, the whole bias of Sartre's philosophy is against placelessness and against the kind of introspection in which I lose my own limits, in which I forget my observer's position in the universe and come to identify myself with privilege, absolute spirit, or whatever justification subjectivity invents in order to persuade itself of its isolation from other people, its implied superiority over other people. In literary history the form that this passion for privilege has taken is the religion of art, the attempt to escape one's own historical moment by associating one's self mentally with eternity in the form of the confraternity of art, the great tradition, or posterity. Engagement is therefore not a political notion, or a call to propaganda, but serves a primarily negative function: that of cutting away all the imaginary dimensions we give ourselves in an effort to avoid awareness of our concrete historical condition.

From a positive point of view, the idea of engagement can be seen as a theory of living literature…. [Implicit] in the idea of engagement is a limitation to the given national society itself, inasmuch as the various nations of the world have developed at unequal rates, have different social structures and face dissimilar problems, in short present different kinds of content to the writers who must work in them. Engagement thus involves a reduction to the present, both in space and time, and the advantage it holds forth is that of an immediate contact with the problems and lives of its readers in the present. The ideal is political only insofar as any really complete picture of the present in all its contradictions would ultimately have to emerge into a political dimension of things; and the criticism of engaged literature as occasional literature and mere propaganda is only a caricature of a more accurate criticism that might be made of it, namely, that it imprisons the writer perhaps too dramatically in the present, neglects the passage of time required between conception and execution as well as the lag between generations, and ultimately that it tends to reduce art to a relationship between two people of common background and situation, that is, to return the work of art to that direct interpersonal relationship which was its origin.

There is no doubt that Sartre's attitude toward literature is an ambiguous one, full of suspicion of its duplicities and illusions, its necessary indirection. Yet at the same time literature is a crucial form of self-consciousness, one which we do without only at the risk of sinking back into the animal kingdom…. (pp. 219-21)

The source of this ambiguity can be found in Sartre's idea of consciousness in general. Consciousness is a not-being, a nothingness, a withdrawal from the solid world of things and Being and a distance from it; here the value of consciousness is negative, and all our acts of consciousness in their various ways (desire, work, knowledge, imagination) constitute a negation of the given object and a heroic activity with respect to the latter's mindless passivity. But at the same time, as we have already seen in connection with the idea of engagement, Sartre is passionately unwilling to preach withdrawal from the world or refuge in the purely subjective, the mystical, the imaginary. Thus slowly the value judgment shifts around to the other side and comes to adhere to that consciousness which chooses, not negation of the world in general, but negation of that particular given object; in other words, which chooses not so much withdrawal as attachment to the immediate world around it and to its immediate objective situation.

This double movement is visible in his literary criticism as well. He visibly prefers an art which challenges society, which shows it a hostile portrait of itself, to an art at one with its public, sharing its values implicitly, serving as apologia for them. Yet in a larger sense all art is contestation in its very structure; the basest flattery forces its subject to see himself, to take the first step on the road to reflection and self-consciousness, so that the first internal judgment on various works of art as compared with one another seems to fall before this second, more global one as to the structure of art in general. In the same way, he clearly prefers an art which insists on human activity and on the practical structure of things, rather than one in which a contemplative, poetic, irrealizing relationship to them is encouraged; yet it is obvious in a larger perspective that all art is imaginary, and that even the literature of praxis represents a momentary withdrawal from the real world of means and ends. Finally, a model of the world in which the future is alive is to be preferred to one in which an exaggerated attachment to the present or past seems to shut off human possibilities. On the other hand, if all language is essentially a deformation of experience, an essence imposed on existence, then even the future-oriented style is an optical illusion, does not genuinely reflect the world but merely conveys a striking and persuasive caricature of it, in its way defends a kind of thesis. Perhaps the most fundamental example of this antinomy is to be found in the idea of freedom itself, in the apparent opposition between the structural fact that all consciousnesses are free and the moral imperative to them to become free, the implication that only some of them have done so. (pp. 221-23)

Fredric Jameson, "Three Methods in Sartre's Literary Criticism," in Modern French Criticism: From Proust and Valéry to Structuralism, edited by John K. Simon (reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press; © 1972 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 193-227.

Joseph Halpern

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5854

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, particularly by the surrealists, to destroy language and on the twentieth-century "obsession with silence" and the "crisis of language" following World War I. The problem of language and action weaves gradually into the paradoxes of language and silence.

"Aller et retour" concerns itself with the writings of Brice Parain…. Sartre approaches Parain's writing in terms of biography; presenting Parain as a peasant come to the city: "Behind his moral philosophy, his critique of language, one spots the pick and the spade."… Parain also represents what Sartre calls peasant "muteness." "The peasant works alone, among natural forces that don't need to be named in order to act. He keeps still."… Sartre has now created a new element in his mythology: the silent peasant, man alone heroically facing nature, the man of action walking his mother earth, his awaiting, feminine land. Parain, the peasant, is a man of action …, springing forth from "enormous earthy silences," and a man alone. Action, silence, solitude—a pattern begins to take shape. Parain, silent peasant, leaves his land, and is faced, at the Ecole Normale, with the glib, easy talkers of the city, with Sartre himself. He comes to the city, meets the talkers, and learns "intellectual gymnastics," the weightless brilliance of polemics, the games of intellection, rhetoric, and language. To join society he must make this language his; like Jean Cayrol's peasant Gaspard in Les Corps Etrangers, he must use the language of others, wear the language of the bourgeoisie like a foreign body. To join society he must cease to act and begin to talk; he must sacrifice authentic nature to theatrics. To the peasant, separated from his land, no longer alone, language is from the first a betrayal.

Parain sees this betrayal as a betrayal of intuition…. According to Sartre, Parain is haunted by the idea of intuitive, immediate knowledge, which was also the impulse behind surrealism. He remains always in search of silence, or really of what Sartre refers to as "infrasilence," that silence prior to language which one might postulate as coincident with some state of nature. He reaches for a lost paradise of man's unity with nature, where the word did not interpose itself between intuition and the object, between man and his desire, between man and his need. (pp. 20-2)

It would be a sad mistake to equate Sartre's complex musings about the nature of the universe with Parain's up-dated romanticism (as Sartre depicts it), or to attribute Parain's interests directly to Sartre. In fact, elsewhere in his writings Sartre destroys at length both the myth of primitive man alone with nature and the "myth" of the metaphysical problem of language; in "Aller et retour" he finds Parain in Parain's writings, and not Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir quotes a letter from Sartre, who says that while Parain is an intelligent man, he spends his time on problems that do not have any real interest, among them language and the inexhaustible depth of words. She also tells us that Sartre's interest is not in language, but in "communication." At the end of the essay on Parain, Sartre outlines a critique of Parain's ideas, to the effect that the metaphysical problem of language does not exist. "Language is nothing other than existence in the presence of the other … it is that mute and desperate dialogue. Language is being-for-others … if it is true that to speak means to act under the gaze of the other, the celebrated problems of language run the grave risk of being nothing but a regional specification of the great problem of the existence of the other."… The problem is the relationship between men, and language becomes problematic only as a mode of that relationship.

Furthermore, Sartre will come to believe that man is never alone and has never been alone. (pp. 22-3)

We must recognize, then, that our tentative construct of Sartre's imagination will often be contradicted by developments in Sartre's discursive thought. What we are aiming at here are hypothesized, unexamined, and autonomous reservoirs of imagination that might precede prosaic, logical delineation but that are nonetheless present in the text. Parain's mythic vision of the peasant matches a cluster of corresponding images in Sartre's imagination at a time when Sartre had apparently not yet discovered the fallacies of social atomism; despite his nascent reservations he can still say that he generally accepts most of Parain's analyses. He contests only the conclusions to which they lead. (p. 24)

The discontinuous perceptions we see at the back of Sartre's mind in these early writings develop into a first form of cohesion in the essay of Jules Renard…. In "L'homme ligoté," which directly evolves from the preoccupations of the essays on Parain and Ponge, certain strands of Sartre's approach to literature come together for the first time, and Sartre's intuitions translate themselves into literary theory. Sartre seems almost to have chosen Renard to bring together the ends of the question: first because, according to Sartre, Renard "created the literature of silence" …; secondly, because, in contrast to his fascination with Parain and Ponge, Sartre dislikes Renard.

Creator of the "literature of silence," Renard is precisely the man who has betrayed his peasant heritage. He has left behind him generations of muteness, the "virile" silence of short peasant sentences bred deeply into him by the forces of nature, to come to the salons of the city to talk and to write…. Renard has left behind him silence, solitude, action, and manliness; and like Parain, like Genet, like Jean-Paul in Les Mots, he does it to be liked, to seduce, to have friends, and to join society—to communicate, superficially, though not to "commune." (pp. 25-6)

What Sartre sees in Renard is both a recognition and a rejection of self: the self-rejection and self-accusation of being a bavard de salon, a glib normalien as seen by the peasant Parain, and a traitor. He sees himself as having betrayed the paternal heritage of silence, tricked by a false Moses who replaced the true father, "child of silence." (pp. 26-7)

Sartre as phenomenologist, as novelist, as essayist, is he who describes, who writes, who talks, who seduces. The need for self-justification and the justification itself are immediate; one has only to understand that language as a tool must approach action, that talking must never be useless, and that "intellectual gymnastics" can never be only a game, but must aim instead at being an act. Seduction must change from an end in itself to a means to justified ends. The writer must recover his betrayed masculinity by changing mincing bavardage into heroism, futile words into acts, language into action, language into silence, and social atomism into unity. Renard "spent his childhood in the midst of peasants, who, each in his own way, proclaimed the uselessness of speech" …, and Sartre has got their message. He must find a way to use words. A first definition of the problematic nature of literature, a style, and an eventual yet remarkably clear link to Marxism are born here. "The quest for truth," Sartre will say in Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, "takes place in and by language conceived as a certain kind of instrument."

What must be shown is the centrality of this choice in Sartre's criticism and the directions he moves in from this basis. He makes the first connecting steps in "L'homme ligoté." In the considerations of the opposition of peasant silence and Parisian bavardage there first emerges what must be considered an essential Sartrian literary principle and criterion of judgment: "On peut bavarder en cinq mots comme en cinq lignes. Il suffit de préférer la phrase aux idées" (One can chatter in five words as well as in five lines. All that is needed is to prefer the expression to the ideas)…. (pp. 28-9)

In his early criticism Sartre very definitely contrasts thought and language. Somehow, thought appears to be more meaty and substantial than its ordinary expression, and, as a consequence, the proper use of language is to aim at a philosophical precision and density, an effectiveness and directness, that embody the weightiness of its message. Renard's mistake is to confuse the gravid silence of comprehension and thought with briefness in speech. (p. 29)

At this stage in Sartre's thought, for a brief moment, the true prose artist appears to be an icy yet impassioned (hence, non-mechanistic) analyst, whose tools are precision, humor (used as a weapon), and a "scientist's eye," and in whose writing exist elements of sudden violence, of brusque and dry hardness. His function is to cut critically into the world of men—not to observe it passively as a "realist" would, but to slice it to pieces and to lay it out uncovered.

Contained within the comparison of romantic-verbal and classical-practical styles there lies an unresolved argument about artistic abandon and artistic distance, about the artist as a trickster-manipulator and as participant, as témoin ("witness") and as complice ("accomplice"). Central to this discussion is, of course, the famous essay "M. François Mauriac et la liberté." Sartre denounces in it the "treachery" inherent in Mauriac's novels and the treachery Mauriac demands of the reader by writing of his characters at once from an interior viewpoint, as their complice, and from an external, distant, omnisciently Godlike viewpoint, as their judge, their témoin. "The novelist may be [the characters'] witness or their accomplice, but never both at once. In or out."… [Mauriac] has defined the limits of Sartre's admiration for classicism in the novel. In playing God-as-critical-artist, Mauriac is led to emblematic scene staging, to a theatrical form of concision that is only dramatic eloquence and illusory ceremony. He has gone beyond the bounds of Sartre's taste, beyond what Sartre will allow the novelist at this point…. Mauriac has perverted the practical ideal of classicism and destroyed the novel, which Sartre understands as majestic breadth and density, movement and action.

Mauriac is guilty in Sartre's eyes of the grossest and most evident artifice. What might weaken Sartre's attack on Mauriac is that in Sartre's eyes all art is artifice: it cheats, it "lives by appearances." The act of writing itself puts the artist in a false position. Whether analytic or poetic, judging or sympathetic, concise or bombastic in style, the artist's work is imbued a priori with illusionism; it begins as betrayal. All the same, this argument in no way helps Mauriac, for even in this framework there do exist for Sartre preferred choices that can be made within certain limits. He distinguishes here, for example—and he will develop and to some extent negate this idea in Qu'estce que la littérature?—between tricking the reader by a technique in which intention and process are clear (as in Dos Passos, where artificial techniques appear semilegitimate to Sartre because they are reversible and are evident to the reader who can judge them in their artificiality and beauty) and tricking the reader by the continuous, insidious onslaught of style…. Style as the essence of conventional literary procedure Sartre understands as indirect, hidden, and manipulatory, to a degree that robs the reader of his freedom and his creativity. Style, properly understood, should only be a technique subservient to a message, and separable from that message; after all, Sartre would claim, it is not an act, but only a geste ("gesture," "posture").

Within the ordinary limits of literary artifice the most concise expression is the best. The wrapping on the package should be kept to a minimum. But Renard goes beyond the point to which Sartre is willing to apply this idea. While the economy of Ponge's style pleases Sartre and makes his poems seem like "bevelled constructions, with each facet a paragraph" …, in which each sentence has density, definition, internal cohesion, and constitutes in itself a "minutely articulated world, in which the place of each word has been calculated" …, the excessive economy of Renard's sentences causes them to resemble those "solid, rudimentary animals, for whom a single hole serves as mouth and meatus."… Still, in reference to Proust and Descartes, Sartre stipulates that the length of a sentence is only consequent to the weightiness of the thought. Certain writers are to be permitted lengthy expression and extraordinary complexity of development. How are we to know them?

Renard's main default is that he is guilty of bavardage, of literary chatter (Heidegger's "Gerede," which Sartre translates as "parlerie"). In Situations 1, Nabokov sins in the same way: he is too literary, he has read too much; like his heroes, he is too self-aware, too critical; he is a bavard, masochistic and gratuitous. In other words, he is a stylist, he prefers words to thoughts. To transcend this ordinary condition of the writer, it is only necessary to reverse the terms of the equation, to prefer the thought to the expression, the matter to the form. (pp. 30-4)

In contrast to Renard, the true Sartrian artist has something to say, he has a new way of seeing, and his only struggle is to put that silent intuition into words. He must express his understanding of the human condition in a way that will create a bond of communion with other men; he must change the world. "In effect, it is a matter of penetrating the real."… Unlike Renard, he cannot be passive, he cannot timidly observe and contemplate, he cannot docilely accept the given, but he must contest it, he must act, and his thought must become action, directed toward a specific goal through language. His writing must act in a real fashion upon reality, within a specific situation—he must refuse a dissatisfaction with everything because that accomplishes nothing concrete. He must, like Dos Passos, create a desire for revolution in his readers; he must make the reader ashamed and guilty and change his world.

Renard is not capable of this action and has nothing to say because, Sartre implies, he is a coward, or, to be more exact, an effeminate coward and a formalist. He escapes out of reality into a verbal world of cocasserie ("drollery") and gentillesse ("gracefulness") …, into an elitist, autistic, comfortable, protected world of positivism and art. At one moment he has sensed an intuitive world of silence and action, but backed timorously away from it…. Afraid of solitude, Renard hides in the crowds of literary Paris, in the ranks of the realists; afraid of true communion in society, he is only his own complice. Afraid of silence, he is a bavard; afraid of language as a total human enterprise, he mutilates language and says nothing. Afraid of action, he takes flight from reality into onanistic dreams and into a formal conception of beauty as decoration and voluptuousness. (pp. 34-5)

Sartre's Renard, girdled, "ligoté" in his style, traitor, bavard de salon, is an emblem of bad and inauthentic writing. What he should be, and is not, is "prophète," "maudit," or "combattant." He should commit himself to presenting a total picture of mankind that would change and deepen the human condition. In Situations 1, there seem to be two such writers, beyond Husserl, Dos Passos, and Camus. The first is Francis Ponge, contemporary poet and author of Le Parti pris des choses. Of all the essays of Situations 1, it is the essay on Ponge, "L'homme et les choses," along with the article on Husserl, that bear the greatest interest for contemporary theoreticians. (p. 36)

What Sartre discerns in Ponge's use of language is the creation of an independent, self-sufficient, and self-referential system of signifiers that do not docilely transpose the phenomena to which they ostensibly refer into linguistic experience but instead become self-revealing objects in themselves. According to Sartre, Ponge, having assimilated a world of objects, discovers that world living an autonomous life within him as language, and nature outside him begins to exist as petrified language. At first, like Parain, like the surrealists, he attempts to negate those worlds, to destroy words with other words, only to find himself still speaking a human language. What he then discovers are the turgid lumps and swellings of words, their secret, personal, adventitious and useless meanings, born of their history and the clumsiness of their users…. The discovery leads him to try to strip words of their socialized significations, to seize them at the moment they are about to become independent objects. For Roquentin [in Nausea] in the tramway or before the chestnut tree in the public garden, things lose their labels and human names. So does Ponge separate the signifying object from its a priori anthropocentric context. Through doubt, Husserlian naiveté, and love, he takes on the role of the phenomenological hero in search of things themselves. He seeks to purify words, to go beyond the negative surrealist moment to a constructive "revolution of language."… (p. 37)

Ponge never quite becomes the Sartrian hero he might have been. Unlike Genet, he never goes far enough, because he does not doubt everything. He never gets around to a methodical doubting of science, and his vision, which might have been pure, falls back at important instances on his scientific knowledge and on an underlying mechanistic preconception of the universe. He cheats, in other words; he does not keep faith. In this light, Sartre sees Ponge's revolutionary enterprise as an example of bad faith…. Ponge's attempt to change the world reveals itself to Sartre as ultimately petulant, like that of Flaubert in some ways, and as futile, merely personal and self-inflating, contemptuous of man. It does not have to be taken seriously because in the end Sartre can reduce it to metaphor.

But where Ponge fails as a model for the writer, Paul Nizan does not. Nizan was a Marxist novelist who had been Sartre's schoolboy friend, and Sartre offers Nizan to us, not just as a model of literary intention and procedure, but also as a model of style. (pp. 37-8)

Nizan wrote prose that Sartre describes as youthful and tough. His violence is particularly telling because it is in itself a denunciation of the complacent bourgeois and of Sartre himself, and because it is a political violence. The relation between Sartre's political views and his literary judgments has always been clear—in his attacks on bourgeois society and on Baudelaire and Flaubert as bourgeois, in his embrace of the revolutionary artist—but nowhere is the coincident element of guilt and self-judgment more explicit. (p. 39)

In the end, however, Nizan comes back to the same problem that Sartre has always faced: words. Although Sartre claims that Nizan was the better writer, that words came to him more easily, and were therefore less important to him, he was nonetheless primarily a writer, and limited by that condition. His response to the problem of writing, as Sartre explains it, is not hard to understand; as a Communist, he saw that language belonged to the bourgeois masters and had to be taken aggressively from them: "A book can be an act if the revolutionary writer sets about deconditioning language." For Sartre, then, Nizan's writing was aimed at the proper ideal for literature and centered on the proper problem: literature must be an act; literature is language.

All literature, Sartre says at the end in Qu'est-ce que la littérature?…, consists essentially in taking a position. Literature is a choice of perspective, a prise de position toward the world and toward the self, which is expressed and discovered through words. In the face of the impossibility of the human condition, it is a way out (issue) of the "mousetrap" of situation; it is an invention of the self, through the full, free usage of all the creative faculties.

In the search for truth, the writer's only tools are words. If, as Sartre's contemporaries claim, language suffers from a cancerous disease, then for him the writer's task is to cure it…. Echoing elements of the essay on Ponge, Sartre asks of the writer that he reestablish language in its purest dignity; specifically, he must open the doors to new ideas through the control of new words and he must analytically cleanse words of their adventitious, merely formal and material senses and resonances to restore their clear and useful meanings. That is, he must strip the poetic element away from prose…. The issue that the writer invents is total; it includes, in addition to his subjects, his style and his technique. He cannot, therefore, permit himself a childlike enjoyment of language for its own sake, because that would transform literature into a form of mystification or illusionism. Literature must be demystified, and the writer must strive to communicate clearly, without pretending to hint at the incommunicable. (pp. 40-2)

According to Sartre, the task of literature and of criticism in the twentieth century has also become total; it demands an entire commitment. Literature must become an act, and the literature of the future will be a literature of praxis. The questions that man poses for himself are moral ones. Literature must be an aggressive answering of those questions, an ethical choosing that is both difficult and disquieting. Therefore, writing can no longer be description or explication or narration, because "description … is pure contemplative enjoyment; explanation is acceptance, it excuses everything. Both of them assume that the die is cast."… Literature is dying; it no longer has anything to do in contemporary society. The traditional uses of prose are no longer possible because they are forms of passivity; a new literature is to be invented in which perception itself will be a form of action, a revealing (dévoilement) of the world in the perspective of possible change.

Qu'est-ce que la littérature? itself. Sartre's best known programmatic critical text, is obviously enough a prise de position within a traditional framework: to save literature, Sartre states, it is necessary to take a position within literature…. [The major arguments of Qu'est-ce que la littérature?] concern themselves, for the most part, with the principles of "committed" literature and the social responsibility of the writer; they lead to the conclusions above and to an almost journalistic conception of literature as ideologically concerned with present-day problems, as a dialectical exercise in creative "generosity" on the part of both reader and writer, as negativity and construction, as an appeal for practical change and freedom, as a revelation of injustices, and finally as representing an integrating and militant function within society. This essay, with the other articles assembled in Situations 2 ("Présentation des Temps modernes" and "La Nationalisation de la littérature"), establishes for Sartre a rounded critical position, setting for the next twenty-five years the major lines of his views of the relations of literature to language, society, and the individual. (pp. 42-3)

First, there is in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? an attack on "pure" literature, an indictment of the "grave error of pure stylists" …, based on the investigations in Situations 1 into language. The error of the stylists (which Sartre speaks of elsewhere as the incredible stupidity of "des forts en thème"), the mistake of those who prefer expression to thought, is to believe that words are winds blowing over the surface of things, touching them without changing them. Sartre proclaims, with many of his contemporaries, that to speak is to act, and that to name something is to change it. Words, speech, are "a certain particular moment of action" that has no meaning except as a prolongation of the senses and physical action. To write is to speak; the writer, by which Sartre really means prosateur, "is a speaker; he designates, demonstrates, orders, refuses, challenges, begs, insults, persuades, insinuates."… That is to say, the writer is a certain kind of man of action, and writing is an act, an uncertain, solitary enterprise that involves risk and danger and demands courage.

At question here, of course, is Sartre's notoriously arbitrary distinction between the poet and the writer, between the poetic attitude and the attitude of the prose writer. Sartre's poet is a man who refuses to use words, who takes them as objects rather than signs. So, he is not a "speaker," he does not name and change the world…. Poetry assumes man's defeat; it is a commitment to failure, based particularly on a vision of the inadequacies of language to express everything, which makes of failure a final value, a contestation and appropriation of the universe. It is the mythic humanism of "loser wins," which ignores the practical uses of things, and so, unlike prose, it does not have to be an act. The essence of prose, on the other hand, the impulse behind communication, Sartre sees as the aspiration to success…. (pp. 43-4)

Implicit here, too, are problems arising from the notion of style. The stylists' error is based on the idea of a "value" carried in each text, separable from its content, and to be found intuitively in the involuntary resonances of beauty and style. For Sartre, at this point, a text is not to be handled only intuitively, since "intuition is silence, and the end of language is to communicate."… A written work is based on the decision to communicate to others certain ideas, results obtained of intuition, perhaps, and that decision is not part of a sensual intuition nor of language. Sartre demands from the writer that he have something to say, which can only be measured in terms of a system of transcendent values. The writer, he says, must write as a man, responsible for what he writes and aiming at certain targets, not as a child, firing his weapon "at random, by shutting his eyes, and merely for the pleasure of hearing the shot go off."… Writing is an appeal to the liberty of another and cannot attempt to overwhelm the reader or to arouse in him fear, desire, or any state of passion. Literature cannot proceed by constraint or fascination, and consequently the only ultimately admissible style and technique in prose is directness. Writing must be divided into form and matter; for "good authors" form never precedes.

There remains unresolved in this discussion the question of a literary value of a text, which Sartre has not rejected. In the "Présentation des Temps modernes,"… he proposes to publish texts on a basis that still considers their literary value, and that value is something extrinsic to their social intention. An "engaged" writer can yet be a mediocre one, he admits in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? "One is not a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way. And, to be sure, the style makes the value of the prose. But it should pass unnoticed…. Beauty is in this case only a gentle and imperceptible force … in a book it hides itself, it acts by persuasion like the charm of a voice or a face…. In prose the aesthetic pleasure is pure only if it is thrown into the bargain."… To us, these ambiguous considerations are very little satisfactory. Making style subsidiary to content hardly demystifies literature, since it remains a form of illusion and persuasion. "In committed literature, commitment should at no time make us forget literature."… This is Sartre's answer: the real value of a book lies in its total impact, not just in its political meaning. But still, what is the exact role of style within that impact? How can unnoticed style and beauty be allowed to persuade when literature must eschew fascination?

Sartre reproaches "pure" literature with its overemphasis on style, its predilection for words instead of thoughts, and its insistence on the merely personal. At base, he considers it a perversion of literature. "This is 'true,' 'pure' literature, a subjectivity which yields itself under the aspect of the objective, a discourse so curiously contrived that it is equivalent to silence, a thought which debates with itself, a reason which is only the mask of madness."… "Pure" literature expresses the cult of subjectivity; it transforms literature into a marketplace for "little straying souls" and the literary art into "the ensemble of treatments which render them inoffensive."… Tanned, refined, chemically treated, the souls of authors are made into objects that are to be contemplated from a respectful distance and whose use is guaranteed without risk.

This terrorist, antirhetorical attack on "pure" literature takes its place in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? within a more general attack on the tradition of French literature and on the bourgeois writer. Although the writer in France has been a perpetual antagonist of conservative forces, he has nonetheless, according to Sartre, always been a "parasite" of the ruling elite in society. He is an unproductive and dangerous luxury that the ruling classes have permitted themselves. As such, his work has been totally useless; he consumes and does not produce. Although the position of the writer is essentially a critical one, historically he has allowed his destructive power to be controlled by the elite, and he has written only for an elite public. Since the rise of bourgeois power, the writer—too "timid" to oppose his financial masters, who had closed around him like a prison—has allowed himself to be put into a position of particular inauthenticity…. Once prophet, pariah, maudit, the writer now grotesquely ranks among the specialists, with the stamp collectors and the weight lifters.

Sartre equates the parasitism of the bourgeois writer with cowardice and passivity. The subjectivism of contemporary literature means for Sartre a fear of the real world outside the writer and a passive turning in to the self. For the most, it reflects only self-pity and an insistence on the writer's vices, weaknesses, and unhappiness. There have been those, Sartre admits, who have refused this role and this conception of literature and who have courageously insisted on literature as negation. They have created the best in modern literature, but they, too, have slipped into error; in the end, the literature of destruction seems to Sartre a literature of adolescence. (pp. 44-8)

But there have been great writers. For Sartre they are the ones who wanted to destroy and to demonstrate, to contest and to construct, all at once. Sartre leaves aside the question of literary value to judge works great in terms of their efficacy and their ability to create change within their own societies; he measures the force of a writer by the direct action of his work on the public. Does a novel produce outrage, enthusiasm, or meditation in its readers? These are for Sartre the criteria of judgment. The correct function of the writer is not to let himself flow onto the page in "abject passivity," but to attack the world around him, to seize upon writing as an act. In an ideal classless society, the "concrete public would be an immense feminine questioning, the waiting of a whole society which the writer would have to seduce and satisfy."#x2026; In this active, masculine stance, writing becomes an act of sexual generosity, and the writer redeems himself by giving of himself.

For Sartre, the force of a work of art is measured first of all in terms of its social impact, the degree to which it creates a collective bad conscience; and it should not, therefore, be judged outside its concrete situation. No work of art can be reduced to bare ideas, since each creation is "totally penetrated by an existence," that is to say, characterized by freedom. The artist works on an unassimilable and irreducible material—language—that he can never completely ingest or integrate into a system, to create a work that reproduces both being and existence.

Style, then, becomes sensitivity to the material aspects of language, directed with the intention of forcefully, gracefully, and efficiently producing a certain social result. Language is allusion and ellipsis within a given framework, and its use as style only has meaning within that framework. The work of art, which lifts society out of the "bog" of the immediate, reflects the material aspect of its medium; it includes elements of hardness, resistance, and moral austerity…. Literature should be more than seduction; it should go beyond any appeal to the emotions (since the emotions are "degraded" forms of consciousness for Sartre) to argue and demonstrate, as an objective appeal to the "free" generosity of the reader. (pp. 48-9)

Sartre completes his attack on "pure" literature and the bourgeois writer with an attack on the cowardice of the contemporary critic. Critics, he says, were once people who liked to read; in the twentieth century, they have become merely the professional "chroniqueurs" of literature. In 1947, they have no humanistic interest in following the general line of an author's evolution; instead, they cut the work off from the author and busy themselves with classifications, labels, and predictions in their haste to make each author a recognized national resource. "Through fear and a taste for social consecration, critics read today the way one re-reads."…

Sartre's point is that, as writing is an uncertain enterprise, so reading, for an author's contemporary, should share the risks of that enterprise; it should require the minimal naiveté that allows the reader to react honestly and immediately, to risk making his own evaluation of a book. But contemporary critics, he feels, are unsettled by new thoughts and new forms of expression, and they hasten to neutralize their effect on a passive public. With ill-concealed impatience they await the writer's death…. (p. 50)

From Situations 1 to Situations 2, through the creation of Les Temps modernes, the urge towards schematic formulation and decree grows much stronger in Sartre. In the articles on Parain and Renard he seemed to be testing and clarifying his intuitions and preoccupations; by Qu'est-ce que la littérature? he has integrated them into a fully developed approach. Along the way, he does much violence to detail: from his arbitrary distinction between poetry and prose and his circular argument that there is no good anti-Semitic novel (based on his definition of "good" as an appeal to freedom), to his roughshod trampling of a thousand years of French literature (from the medieval clerks to his eighteenth-century heroes to 1947), Sartre keeps his train of thought fluid by repeated, obsessive jumps in the argument. The key to the development of Qu'est-ce que la littérature? is a series of unproven assumptions…. Here the sensitivity to sexual dichotomies is expressed through the dialectics of form and matter, life and death, the active and the passive. (p. 51)

Joseph Halpern, in his Critical Fictions: The Literary Criticism of Jean-Paul Sartre (copyright © 1976 by Yale University), Yale University Press, 1976, 176 p.

Fredric Jameson

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1360

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 conditioning—are suddenly transformed into the active gestures and free choices of an individual—what he called "praxis." It is never easy to reach that magical point. "The Family Idiot" takes some 3,000 pages to get there….

Sartre called "The Family Idiot" a "true novel," and it does tell a story and eventually reach a shattering climax. The work can be described most simply as a dialectic, which shifts between two seemingly alternative interpretations of Flaubert's destiny: a psychoanalytic one, centered on his family and on his childhood, and a Marxist one, whose guiding themes are the status of the artist in Flaubert's period and the historical and ideological contradictions faced by his social class, the bourgeoisie. But there is no determinism in his approach, for Sartre insisted on seeing contradictions—whether psychic-familial or socio-economic—as so many situations for which we cannot but invent responses: "Neurosis," as he says in an earlier work, "is an original solution the child invents on the point of stifling to death."

In his Marxist interpretation of Flaubert's situation as a young bourgeois artist in the middle of the 19th century, Sartre articulates two levels of dilemma: the crisis of the serious middle-class artist in a market system, faced with a disappearing audience; and the ideological crisis of the French bourgeoisie, which during the French Revolution had invented the notion of a universal human nature as a weapon against the aristocracy, only to find itself confronted in the days of the 1848 revolution with a new proletarian underclass it was reluctant to recognize as part of that universal humanity. The bourgeoisie will "solve" this new problem by becoming Victorian, by repressing the animal and physical "nature" it seemed to share with the proletarians and by transforming its earlier humanism into a misanthropic positivism. (p. 5)

Sartre here develops a theory of generational "misprision" (or misreading), drawing on the concept of the "practico-inert," which he had developed in his "Critique of Dialectical Reason." Sartre had always seen literary works as responses to concrete situations, responses that become intelligible only when grasped within those situations. He now draws the unexpected consequences: Like tools, literary works outlive the situations for which they were intended, and they are passed down with a new material inertia…. The artists of Flaubert's generation had no way of understanding the practical purposes for which the older generation had invented their now inert themes: critical negativity, misanthropy, the ideal of classlessness, the defense of the autonomy of the intellectual (which will now be "mistranslated" as art for art's sake), and a quasi-religious conviction of the nothingness of the world and the emptiness of life. Crippled by the themes of their predecessors, the following generation became artists without inspiration. This was not a subjective matter, a lack of talent or vocation. Rather, Sartre's idea of the practico-inert—the weight of so many dead artistic ideologies from an incomprehensible past—suggests a situation in which it was objectively impossible for them to have something to say.

Flaubert's solution opened a door that had not existed before; "Madame Bovary" was not just another novel, but an original and creative act, which in one stroke resolved all the objective contradictions that paralyzed Flaubert's contemporaries. This solution was the discovery of what Sartre calls "the imaginary" and its "derealizing" operation on the world: "I would like to write a book about nothing, a book without external links, which would be held together by the internal force of its style … just as the earth without being suspended moves in the air, a book which would have almost no subject matter or at least whose subject would be almost invisible if that is possible," Flaubert declared.

Now the riddle that Sartre set out to solve in "The Family Idiot" becomes clear. In Flaubert, the moment met the man, as the old historians liked to put it. But who was Flaubert? What gave this Norman doctor's son his chance with history? To reach the answer to this question Sartre had to return to the subjective moment of his dialectic and patiently work through the formation of Gustave's psyche in childhood. Unavoidably, this emphasis on the subjective moment makes its relationship to the objective social situation of the writer in Flaubert's time problematical. Sartre's solution seems to posit what the philosophers used to call some "pre-established harmony" between Gustave's private neurosis and the public dilemmas of 19th-century intellectuals and bourgeoisie (which Sartre, parodying Hegel, terms the "objective neurosis" of the age). Today, however, "pre-established harmony" has another name: overdetermination. The Flaubert family, within which Gustave elaborated his private solution, his personal neurosis, was itself the result of objective social and historical forces. (pp. 5, 16)

For Sartre, the meaning and dynamic of the "imaginary" is most clear in Flaubert's style, which he sees as the correlative of Gustave's lifelong suicide: It is a way of killing off the outside world without changing a thing, of transforming human instruments and activities into the suspended objects of esthetic contemplation. The point of the "imaginary"—for Sartre a veritable passion, demonic and inhuman—is not to turn away from the world in religious or otherworldly fashion, but to keep your eyes filled with the richness of things and relationships while secretly emptying them of their density in an "internal hemorrhage of being." Flaubert's style "derealizes" things, transforms them into images, in order to draw the whole immense being of the world into nothingness without changing a leaf or a blade of grass in the process. Yet that style is an operation born of resentment; it is meant to demoralize bourgeois readers without their becoming aware that their world has been pulled out from under them. (p. 16)

When one thinks of the 10 years during which Sartre shackled himself to this immense project … "The Family Idiot" sometimes looks like a form of self-imposed penance, a private duty jealously guarded against the reproaches of his Maoist friends (they wanted him to write a proletarian novel). If, however, one sees the theme of the imaginary in inseparable dialectical tension with that other lifelong theme of Sartre's work, which is praxis, then Sartre's stubborn devotion to his Flaubert project becomes more comprehensible; the study of the "imaginary" can then be taken as a self-diagnosis of bourgeois "objective neurosis," while praxis—deliberate action in the real world—stands as the projection of a radically different mode of activity, identified with the proletariat.

For it should not be thought that the nihilism of the imaginary, as it is elaborately anatomized in "The Family Idiot," is a mere 19th-century curiosity or a local feature of some specifically French middle-class culture; nor is it a private obsession of Jean-Paul Sartre himself. Turning things into images, abolishing the real world, grasping the world as little more than a text or sign-system—this is notoriously the very logic of our own consumer society, the society of the image or the media event (the Vietnam War as a television series). Flaubert's private solution, his invention of a new "derealizing" esthetic strategy, may seem strange and distant, not because it is archaic, but because it has gradually become the logic of our media society, thereby becoming invisible to us. This is the sense in which "The Family Idiot"—at first glance so cumbersome and forbidding a project—may well speak with terrifying immediacy to Americans in the 1980's. (pp. 16, 18)

Fredric Jameson, "Sartre in Search of Flaubert," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 27, 1981, pp. 5, 16, 18.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 18)

Next

Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 4)

Explore Study Guides