The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre

by Jean-Paul Sartre

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The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2647

Jean-Paul Sartre’s death in 1980 ended the career of a prodigiously creative one-man band of modern thought and literature who did important work in philosophy, psychology, fiction, drama, biography, literary criticism, journalism, political pamphleteering, and film writing. It also began the end of a brilliant era in French contributions to philosophy, linguistics, and anthropology, as Sartre’s demise was followed within five years by the deaths of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, and the retirement from publication by Louis Althusser and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Not content with producing four dozen volumes during his lifetime, Sartre left a rich mine of writings from which three books have so far been quarried: the two-volume Lettres au Castor (1983), a collection of his correspondence with Simone de Beauvoir; Cahiers pour une morale (1983), his notebooks for an unfinished treatise on moral philosophy; and the war diaries, originally published in 1983 as Les Carnets de la drôle de querre (notebooks during the phony war), portions of a diary he kept while a soldier during the months from his conscription in September, 1939, to his capture by German forces in late June, 1940.

When Sartre received his call-up notice, he was a thirty-four-year-old philosophy professor at the Lycée Pasteur in Neuilly, near Paris. He had begun to make his mark in both philosophic and literary circles but was far from reaching the worldwide fame which the postwar period would bring him. After graduating first in his class of 1929 from the formidable École Normale Supérieure, he taught during the 1930’s at various provincial lycées and spent the 1933-1934 academic year studying German philosophy at the Institut Français in Berlin. While at the École Normale, Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir, a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, and they soon formed a lifelong union more noted for intellectual than sexual intimacy. Two of her autobiographical texts, La Force de l’âge (1960; The Prime of Life, 1962) and La Force des choses (1963; Force of Circumstances, 1964), furnish a wealth of information about their lives together, particularly during the 1930’s, when they undertook strenuous holidays, tramping through much of Europe and England with packs on their backs.

Sartre’s first philosophical essays were influenced by the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, whose ideas he encountered in Berlin and partly agreed with, partly contested, in L’Imagination (1936; Imagination: A Psychological Critique, 1962) and La Transcendance de l’égo (1936; The Transcendence of the Ego, 1957). Sartre’s literary career began with the 1938 publication of La Nausée (Nausea, 1949), commonly regarded as his best novel. Nausea is his most philosophically compact work of long fiction, dramatizing his views on such topics as freedom, anguish, authenticity, contingency, and absurdity. Since the novel’s rootless protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, resembles Sartre in significant ways, it is worth noting that the work is cast in first-person diary form. One year later, in July, 1939, Sartre published a volume of five short stories under the title of what soon became his best-known tale, Le Mur (1939; The Wall and Other Stories, 1948). Again, each story seeks to illustrate a particular philosophical point, with “The Wall,” for example, attempting to refute the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s contention that man can live meaningfully toward his own death.

By the early fall of 1939, then, Sartre had made a name for himself as a brilliant thinker and writer capable of both abstruse exposition and memorable dramatization of a far-ranging constellation of concepts. He had done his mandatory military service in 1929 in the meteorological corps, and was therefore assigned a decade later to a meteorological section attached to an artillery headquarters just behind the French-German front in Alsace. This station was moved only a few kilometers during the ten months Sartre served, with Strasbourg a close-by metropolis. His less-than-demanding duties are best noted in his sardonic summary: my work here consists of sending up balloons and then watching them through a pair of field glasses: this is called “making a meteorological observation.” Afterwards I phone the battery artillery officers and tell them the wind direction: what they do with this information is their affair. The young ones make some use of the intelligence reports; the old school just shove them straight in the wastepaper basket. Since there isn’t any shooting, either course is equally effective.

When the Germans ended the Phony War by invading Belgium and Northern France in late May, 1940, Sartre had transmitted fourteen of his completed war diaries to Simone de Beauvoir and other Parisian friends. Three or four of them, however, were lost by Jacques Bost, a colleague to whom de Beauvoir lent them. Through other circumstances, impossible to trace, a half dozen other notebooks have also been lost, so that the volume under review, though a substantial 366 pages, consists of only five of the fourteen completed notebooks. The numbers and dates of the surviving diaries are III (November 12December 7, 1939); V (December 17December 23, 1939); XI (January 31February 19, 1940); XII (February 20February 29, 1940); and XIV (March 3March 28, 1940).

Why did Sartre write them? In a December 1, 1939, entry, he calls his journal “the notebook of a witness the testimony of a 1939 bourgeois draftee on the war he’s being made to fight.” He emphasizes the commonplace nature of his situation: Unlike such diarists as André Gide or Jean Giraudoux, he is not a distinguished writer; unlike personnel in the intelligence or censorship divisions, he is “not in a privileged position.” Yet his journal will be representative of millions of other soldiers. “It is a mediocre, and for that very reason general, testimony.” He regards himself as a spokesman for a generation confronted by an apocalyptic historical crisis; therefore, he unabashedly states, “everything I write is interesting in consequence this journal has no humility no intimacy. It is a proud, pagan journal.”

As an extremely complex person, Sartre surely kept his diary for a number of additional purposes: to explore his own mentality and character; to free himself from childhood trauma by describing them; to establish a solitary sanctuary amid the enforced claustrophobia of military life; to conduct freewheeling forays into intellectual and literary analysis; to prepare himself for future writing projects. The book’s graceful translator, Quintin Hoare, states in his introduction that these notebooks “prefigure and map out the virtual entirety of the writer’s subsequent oeuvre,” as well as justifying themselves in their own right as a memorable exercise in a great thinker’s self-examination. They “represent the essential transition from apprenticeship to the full flowering of Sartre’s talents.”

In a November 19 entry, Sartre notes:I went more than fifteen years without looking at myself living. I didn’t interest myself at all. I was curious about ideas and the world and other people’s hearts. Introspective psychology seemed to me to have yielded its optimum with Proust; I’d tried my hand at it rapturously between the ages of 17 and 20, but it had seemed to me that one could very quickly become a dab hand at that exercise, and in any case the results were pretty tedious. Furthermore, pride deflected me from it: it seemed to me that by prying into trifling acts of meanness, one inflated and reinforced them. It has taken the war, and also the assistance of several new disciplines (phenomenology, psychoanalysis, sociology) to prompt me to draw up a full-length portrait of myself.

liant writing, ranking with Les Mots (1964, The Words, 1964) as a painfully honest self-portrait, often self-mocking and mordant, sometimes witty, other times pompous and portentous, occasionally elegantly aphoristic (“One is totally responsible for one’s life”; “all happiness has to be paid for, and there’s no affair that doesn’t end badly”; “a book read is a corpse”). In The Words, Sartre persistently denounces himself as a play-actor guilty of a series of impostures vis-à-vis other people, of hypocrisy, insincerity, self-deception; the book reeks with self-recrimination.

The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre is an equally unsparing self-critique. Sartre accuses himself of moral buffoonery and pedantry, of lecturing his unlearned comrades and thereby discharging his bile. Again and again, he lashes himself for lacking what was soon to become his most significant existentialist touchstone: authenticity. He accuses himself of being remote and detached from other people’s emotions. Like Roquentin in Nausea and Orestes in his later play Les Mouches (1943; The Flies, 1946), he feels himself incapable of sharing others’ feelings: “I look like a sensitive person but I’m barren . I haven’t felt Nausea, I’m not authentic.” Still, like Orestes in the closing speech of The Flies, “I point the way and others can go there. I’m a guide, that’s my role.”

In a probing essay on the nature of love, Sartre discovers its roots in sadism: The desire to be loved amounts to a “hit at the Other in the Other’s absolute freedom.” Therefore the commonest and strongest type of love, “the love that craves slave-freedom; the love that wants freedom in others only so that it can violate it—that form of love is utterly inauthentic.” The wish to be loved, Sartre summarizes in a byzantinely tortuous definition, amounts to “effecting the unification of the for-itself and the world in accordance with the type of unity of the for-itself and the for-the-Other, while existing in safety in the midst of a freedom which subjugates itself in order to desire you as world.” In his next sentence, he grants that “it will be said that I’m expressing quite simple things in a complicated way.” Yes.

Sartre recalls himself as a contriving little monster when he was a child, winning other children’s affection by giving puppet performances. Later in his life, he tried to become “a scholarly Don Juan, slaying women through the power of his golden tongue.” Since the age of seventeen, he says, he has “always lived as part of a couple”—not a loving pair, but qualities warring with one another. Like Paul Valéry’s self-absorbed character Monsieur Teste, “I was living dissociated from myself.” As he does later in The Words, Sartre charges himself with the sins of overabstraction and emotional aridity: “I’m not cut out for friendship. I’ve disappointed all my friends—not by betrayal, neglect or lack of consideration, but by a profound lack of warmth.” He takes this declaration to its logical conclusion: “I have no need of friends because, basically, I don’t need anybody: I prefer to derive everything from myself.”

Surely such a self-indictment is too severe. Sartre is an emotional puritan, who distills and then denounces those threads of imposture and insincerity with which virtually all lives are stitched. Surely the uninterrupted devotion between him and the extraordinary Simone de Beauvoir bears a more affirmative witness than these harsh self-harrowings. At the École Normale he is known to have become the firm friend of such talented people as Raymond Aron and Paul Nizan. A number of his mistresses remained on friendly postlibidinal terms with him.

Speaking of women: Despite his self-proclaimed ugliness, Sartre had many affairs besides and during his companionship with Simone de Beauvoir. Hoare says that during the period covered by the war diaries, Sartre was also writing, on virtually a daily basis, not only to de Beauvoir (nicknamed “the Beaver,” hence Castor) and his mother also, but to his then-current mistress, Wanda Kosakiewicz, with whom he had an intense relationship after having previously loved her sister Olga, and to whom he was to dedicate L’Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason, 1947), having dedicated “The Wall” to Olga. In the diaries Sartre expresses his distinct preference for female over male association: “ it’s very rare for the company of women not to entertain me . I get on with women. I like their way of talking, and of saying or seeing things; I like their way of thinking; I like the subjects they think about.”

Nevertheless, Sartre’s intellectualism clearly overshadows his interest in both people and current events. He worries, for example, about having added several kilos of extra weight and not having had a letter for several days from Wanda. His main interest, however, centers on Arthur Koestler’s book Spanish Testament (1937; abridged in the Danube edition as Dialogue with Death in 1942), which recounts Koestler’s imprisonment by Falangist forces in Spain. Sartre admires Koestler’s authentic confrontation of the fear of dying and quotes his testimony that overcoming the fear of death constitutes “the most complete experience of freedom that can be granted a man.” As for letters, they prompt Sartre to a meditation on time, being “scraps of present surrounded by future; but it’s a past-present surrounded by a dead future.”

Philosophically, the main interest of the war diaries lies in their rehearsal of many ideas that would soon suffuse his masterwork, L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956). The stagnant situation of the Phony War enables Sartre to devote as many as thirteen hours a day to concentrated reading and writing, as he elevates himself from his mundane, boring military surroundings into stratospheres of rarefied metaphysical speculation to which untrained readers will have difficulty following him. One makes the acquaintance here of such significant concepts as the state of pour-soi, being-for-itself, as opposed to en-soi, being-in-itself, and pour-autrui, being-for-others. Man, Sartre insists, brings with him into the world the essential but elusive concept of néant, Nothingness, which causes him to feel the anguish, angoisse, which is the normal condition of his liberty in a world lacking universal values.

Repeatedly, Sartre seeks the almost unattainable goal of authenticity, whereby man fully understands his condition in the world. “To be authentic,” he states in one notebook, “is to realize fully one’s being-in-situation, whatever this situation may happen to be: with a profound awareness that, through the authentic realization of the being-in-situation, one brings to plenary existence the situation on the one hand and human reality on the other.” Since Sartre regards man as an absurd creature, existing without justification or purpose, he feels unwanted and frustrated except for art: “Only the work of art could give man that justification, for the work of art is a metaphysical absolute. So, lo and behold!, the absolute is restored—but outside man. Man is worth nothing.”

As for morality, Sartre has no difficulty positing it in his atheistic universe: “Dostoevsky used to write: ’If God does not exist, all is permitted.’ That’s the great error of transcendence. Whether God exists or does not exist, morality is an affair ’between men’ and God has no right to poke his nose in.”

Sartre is fascinated by the concept of Nothingness, to which he returns repeatedly, seeking to illuminate it. Since “freedom is the apparition of Nothingness in the world [then] anguish at Nothingness is simply anguish at freedom, or, if you prefer, freedom’s anguish at itself.” The argument soon turns highly technical, as in these statements: “ in the urgency of the possible, there’s a certain nothingness-ness [néantité]. It can also be seen that the possible couldn’t be anterior to being. Quite the contrary, the original possibles are my own possibles and flow from my ’facticity-as-being-which-is-its-own-nothingness.’”

As just shown, Sartre often yields to the temptation to envelop his subject in a thick cloud of abstraction, demonstrating his nature as an extreme example of the Continental intellectual who takes to language and speculation at an early age and remains inside these domains as his breathing element. One gets the strong impression that he prefers the organized flow of words and charged current of methodized thought to the variable dynamics of human relationships. A metaphysical axiom is far more welcome than the unpredictable tug-of-war exerted by feelings. An addiction to the Word—millions and millions of words—is the one constant obsession in Sartre’s life. The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre furnishes, for both better and worse, a representative opportunity for his exercise of this commitment.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Booklist. LXXXI, March 15, 1985, p. 1024.

Foreign Affairs. LXIII, Summer, 1985, p. 1123.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, January 15, 1985, p. 87.

Library Journal. CX, April 15, 1985, p. 69.

The London Review of Books. VII, February 7, 1985, p. 19.

The Nation. CCXL, April 20, 1985, p. 470.

The New Republic. CXCII, April 15, 1985, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 31, 1985, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, February 8, 1985, p. 65.

Times Literary Supplement. January 4, 1985, p. 16.

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