Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1374
Sartre was an infant when his father died; his mother, Anne-Marie, took her child to live with her parents in Meudon. In spite of her marriage and motherhood, she was treated like an adolescent in the house where she shared a bedroom with her son. As Sartre grew older, he believed that she was less a parental figure than an older sister with whom he could share secrets. His grandmother, Louise, a semi-invalid and ardent reader of spicy novels, seems to have had little influence on the child’s development. His grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, an Alsatian professor of German in France and a pioneer in the development of the direct method of teaching foreign languages, proved an extremely important influence, closely supervising the boy’s education and youthful development.
Sartre cultivated his precociousness at an early age; having learned the value and rewards of good behavior, he quickly saw how he could manipulate people and situations to his own advantage. His grandfather encouraged him to enjoy the kindness and generosity of others by behaving always like a model child. Salting the jam was one of his worst offenses. He went to church on Sundays to hear good music played by a well-known organist; moments of high spirituality delighted him as he pretended to pray. He generally amused himself by playing at being good: never crying, laughing, or making noise. Sartre later said that he was fortunate to have lost his father, who would probably have crushed him, instilling a strong Superego. As it was, Sartre claimed that he had none. His grandfather, patient and solicitous, encouraged the boy to explore the world of thought and to develop his individuality. Their relationship was very close: Charles Schweitzer appeared to the child as a patriarch resembling God the Father, and the elderly gentleman worshiped his grandson. If their relationship involved a certain degree of playacting, neither wished to step out of his role.
Through simple observation the child became aware of the relations which prevail between the self and others. He noted how members of his family responded to one another; he felt the pangs of loneliness when he was rejected by other children during games in the Luxembourg gardens. An inscription scrawled on a school wall stupefied and frightened young Sartre, for in it his favorite teacher was called an obscene term. Sartre’s awareness of the importance of the judgments of others was to lead, many years later, to the development of his philosophical and psychological views on the self and others in L’Etre et le neant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), views which explored conflicts and frustrations in interpersonal relationships.
A further movement toward the development of Sartre’s existential position occurred when he became aware, through the study of literature and the encyclopedia, that a writer’s destiny is determined only after his death. The totality of an artist’s work is viewed as a whole, and the end modifies the observer’s perception of the beginning. From an early age, then, Sartre was aware that man is “becoming” rather than “existing.” Sometimes, when young Sartre was frustrated, he would make faces at himself in a mirror as a means of protection against the humiliation of rejection; the mirror metaphor was also later to be developed as an important symbol in Sartre’s metaphysical system. Psychological implications of it are explored in Being and Nothingness; Estelle, a character in Sartre’s play Huis-clos (1944; No Exit, 1946), feels secure only when she views her own reflection.
As Sartre grew older, his mother began to introduce him to classical music by playing the piano in the evening. He quickly came to love Frederic-Francois Chopin’s ballades and pieces by Robert Schumann, Cesar Franck, and Hector Berlioz. Music merged with film images in his mind when his mother began taking him to the cinema. He was thrilled at seeing the invisible and liked the muteness of the heroes who communicated by means of music. While watching a film, he thought that he touched the absolute. In spite of his grandfather’s disapproval, Sartre continued to go frequently with his mother to films: He later thought of the cinema as the new art of the common man for a century without traditions.
Sartre began writing by composing responses in verse to letters from his grandfather, and the two became united by a new bond through literature. His mother taught him the rules of prosody, and he was given a rhyming dictionary, but he soon tired of poetry (an art form which never later interested him), preferring to realize his imagination in prose. His first stories were inspired by the pulp literature of the time—children’s books and cheap magazines. He invented extravagant adventures, joining together bits and pieces of tales he had read and embellishing them with commentaries copied directly from other books. Stories of the supernatural terrified him, yet he imitated them. He won his grandfather’s disapproval for these frivolous literary activities, but other members of the family found his writings charming. His mother was pleased because he did not make any noise while writing. Sartre later regretted the loss of these early efforts at composition, for they would have revealed to him his entire childhood.
He thus escaped from playacting and the world of the grown-ups by existing in order to write: He knew joy. Proud of his grandson’s ambitions, Schweitzer, with some misgivings, voiced approval of the boy’s aspirations. He urged him to follow a double career as writer and teacher, moving back and forth from one priestly function to the other. Still rejected by the “little squirts” in Luxembourg, Sartre decided to depict real objects with real words that were penned with a real pen and so become real himself. He had to learn to see and observe, sweating and laboring to make words express the conflicts he found in the world. As a result of discovering the world through language, he took language for the world. Writing became an end in itself: He wrote in order to write. He held secret meetings with the Holy Ghost whom he believed had elected him, branded but without talent, to set up cathedrals of words and build for the ages. He dreamed of fame and glory but feared that his first book would create a scandal and that he would become a public enemy.
Sartre developed his writing in order to be forgiven for his existence: He could appear to the Holy Ghost as a precipitate of language, could be other than himself, other than everything. In order to write, he needed a brain, bones, eyes, arms; he imagined that one day his being, like a sort of larva, would burst open, sending thousands of pages flying, like so many butterflies, to the shelves of the national library. He would be thoroughly at ease, sitting in state with 130 pounds of paper. A man becomes his books; death is buried in the shroud of glory; immortality is attained through the act of writing. He would one day be changed from an individuality as a subject into an object whose existence has the appearance of an unfolding. The future, he thought, was therefore more real than the present. A light-haired boy of the thirtieth century sitting at a window would observe him through a book, and the main question would be one of sincerity. If his acts of writing were not merely gestures and poses, then he would attain a sort of redemption through his work and his existence would have been justified.
In 1948, a professor showed Sartre a slide illustrating a horse galloping, a man walking, an eagle flying, and a motorboat shooting forward. The motorboat gave him the greatest feeling of speed: He thought that at the age of ten his own prow was cleaving the present and yanking him out of it. He was sure of himself and had only one law: to climb, to flee forward, to make progress. A broken tooth convinced him that his misfortunes would be only tests, means for writing a book. The worst was a guarantee of something better; he would derive himself from himself. Sartre fled forward to fulfill the dreams of his youth.