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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1,374 words.)