Jean-Paul Sartre is largely responsible for our image of the postwar French intellectual—a man of letters who is not merely that, but an “écrivain engagé” or “committed writer,” putting his thoughts into action in the political vanguard. It was Sartre’s intellectual versatility and his frenetic energy as a writer and activist that allowed him to assume this leading role. His essays are only one dimension of a prodigious written output (Sartre is said to have averaged zo pages a day throughout his life), including philosophical treatises, biographies, plays, novels, political journalism, and scripts for film, radio, and television, in addition to diaries and letters.
While Sartre wrote some of his most important work before and during World War II—including the novel La Nausée (1938; Nausea) and the treatise L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness)—it was in the immediate postwar period that he leapt to fame. In 1945 he delivered his famous lecture “L’Existentialisme est un humanisme” (published 1946; “The Humanism of Existentialism”) and founded Les Temps Modernes (Modern times). The original editorial committee of this journal headed by Sartre included such prominent figures as Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and the surrealist Michel Leiris. It immediately became a focal point for intellectual and political controversies, and while Sartre normally left its day-today editing to others, his association with the journal helped guarantee a lasting audience for his essays. These essays, which range in length from two-page editorial pieces to short books, originally appeared in Les Temps Modernes, in other journals and newspapers, and often as prefaces to books by other writers; many are collected in the ten volumes of Situations (1947–76). They can be divided broadly into essays in social and political commentary, literary and artistic criticism, biography, and philosophy.
The breadth of Sartre’s concerns and his literary inclinations are clearly in evidence in his philosophical texts. His first philosophically significant essay is “La Transcendance de l’égo” (1937; “The Transcendence of the Ego”). While this essay is written for an audience versed in the technical terminology of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, the literary and anecdoteloving side of Sartre makes refreshing appearances, as when he refers to Rimbaud or tells the story of a “young bride [who] was in terror, when her husband left her alone, of sitting at the window and summoning the passersby like a prostitute.” Sartre shows a talent here for memorable phrases, and he uses straightforward and effective philosophical terms, such as “the I and the me.”
Sartre’s talent for vivid explanation (which he does not always employ as much as one would wish) was no doubt enhanced by his experience as a teacher of philosophy in French schools. Sartre also knows how to capture the attention of his audience, as when he begins “La République du silence” (1944; “The Republic of Silence”) with the shocking line, “We were never more free than under the German Occupation.” (What Sartre means is that under the occupation “each gesture had the weight of a commitment.”)
“The Humanism of Existentialism” is Sartre’s best-known essay, although he could hardly have expected that it would gain such fame. The opening of the essay (“I should like on this occasion to defend existentialism against some charges which have been brought against it”) indicates that it was not intended as the primary manifesto of existentialism, but as a response to specific criticisms Sartre’s philosophy had recently received from enemies on the right and the left. However, the essay was composed just as the label “existentialism” was gaining its vogue, and it provides a convenient definition for the term: existentialism is the position in which for human beings, “existence precedes essence.” In other words, “first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.” Phrases such as this succeed in condensing some major themes of the abstruse Being and Nothingness into clear, colloquial terms. This essay exercised a seemingly irresistible power, as it provoked heated responses from both critics and admirers, including Martin Heidegger’s important “Brief iiber den Humanismus” (1947; “Letter on Humanism”). The power of Sartre’s essay is due partly to its accessible language and vivid examples, partly to the confidence with which he enters into debate with his contemporaries, and partly to the overconfidence which leads him into some provocative yet unsubstantiated positions (in particular, his sketch of an existentialist ethics of freedom, which he himself came to see as premature).
“Preséntation des Temps Modernes” (1945; “Introducing Les Temps Modernes”) is an important source for Sartre’s theory of the committed writer. (The theory is developed at greater length in “Qu’est-ce que la litterature?” [1947; “What Is Literature?"].) In “Introducing Les Temps Modernes,” Sartre analyzes literary production in terms of the writer’s involvement in a community, arguing that the myth of the disengaged author who bears no responsibility for his or her surroundings is a bourgeois illusion. Like it or not, “we have only this life to live, amid this war, and perhaps this revolution.” Thus, aesthetes such as Proust are denounced as “accomplice[s] of bourgeois propaganda.”
Those who try to write for the ages rather than the moment, says Sartre in a direct and elegant line, “have allowed their lives to be stolen from them by immortality.” The ambition of Les Temps Modernes, as described here, is nothing less than to produce a new, emancipatory vision of human existence. To this end, the journal was to publish criticism, fiction, poetry, journalism, history, and even psychiatric studies.
The theory of “committed writing” views aesthetic and political analyses as complementary parts of a unified attempt to understand and influence one’s world; nevertheless, we can place Sartre’s postwar essays on a spectrum which ranges from the primarily aesthetic to the primarily political. The aesthetic end of the spectrum can be illustrated by “Le Séquestré de Venise” (1957; “The Venetian Pariah”), an essay which also displays Sartre’s biographical techniques and hints at his political views. Here Sartre writes on Tintoretto in a carefully crafted style that arouses the reader’s curiosity from the beginning of the essay: “Nothing. His life is an enigma: a few dates, a few facts, and then the cackling of ancient writers. But courage: Venice speaks to us” Pouring his imagination into the biographical details that have come down to us, Sartre produces a vivid series of sketches of the painter’s life and personality—often speculating well beyond the documented evidence (“Never during his entire life did he allow himself an indulgence, a dislike, a preference, or even the comfort of a dream”). At the same time, Sartre investigates numerous aspects of Tintoretto’s relation to his society, its material conditions and its authorities, driving home his point that human beings are situated—or to put it in existentialist terms, “the painter knows full well that he will not leave the world, that even if he could, he would bear with him everywhere the Nothingness that transpierces him.” This essay is notable for some of Sartre’s most flamboyant and enigmatic descriptions of art: for example, “every artifice should be employed to replace the representation by a hollow participation of the spectator in the spectacle, so that horror and tenderness would thrust men against their images and, if possible, into their midst, so that desire, burning all the fires of perspective, would discover the ersatz of divine ubiquity—the immediate presence of flesh; the logic of the heart.”
At the political end of the spectrum one finds Sartre’s most polemical pieces of writing. These plunge energetically into controversial questions of their day—the war in Algeria, the Vietnam War, the student movement of 1968—and analyze these events from a decidedly left-wing perspective, while usually avoiding any brand of Marxist orthodoxy (“Introducing Les Temps Modernes” had promised that the journal would not serve the interests of any particular party, and Sartre was never comfortable aligning himself with a dogma). Many of these political essays remain thought-provoking today, but they are susceptible to two apparently contradictory flaws: unnecessarily technical verbiage and overly simplistic analysis. A case in point is the late essay “Élections, piége à cons” (1973; “Elections: A Trap for Fools”). Here Sartre uses a substantial dose of jargon that stems from his Critique de la raison dialectique (1960; Critique of Dialectical Reason): for example, “One finds serialization in the practico-inert field.” (Fortunately, he promptly explains this particular bit of jargon with a straightforward example of a man who by driving a car “becomes no more than one driver among others.”) As the title of this essay indicates, it is an unabashedly propagandistic piece, in the sense that it exhorts its readers to choose a clear good over a clear evil. While Sartre cites many facts in the process of criticizing liberal democratic institutions, his positive vision of an alternative to electoral politics is strikingly vague—in fact, he himself describes the utopian concept of “legitimate power” as “embryonic, diffuse, unclear even to itself.” Sartre concludes with a call to “organize the vast antihierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.” A subtle mind such as Sartre’s could not fail to note the ironic incongruity of a call to organize an anti-organizational force—but the propagandistic tenor of the essay seems to rule out any acknowledgment of this irony.
It was Sartre’s goal to combine careful crafting of words with political activism:
“Introducing Les Temps Modernes” cautions that “in ‘committed literature,’ commitment must in no way lead to a forgetting of literature” But it can be argued that there is a tension between Sartre the writer and Sartre the political activist, and that his growing emphasis on political effectiveness tended to come at the expense of careful editing of his prose. Not all of Sartre’s essays will stand the test of time. However, they were not written for the future; they are the products of a writer consciously situated in a time and place.
Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre. Born 21 June 1905 in Paris. Studied at the Lycée Montaigne, 1913–15, and Lycee Henri IV, Paris, 1915–22, baccalauréat, 1922; Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, 1922–24; ficole Normale Superieure, Paris, 1924–29, aggregation in phiiosophy, 1929; studied phenomenology at the Institut Français, Berlin, 1933–34.
Began a lifelong relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, 1929. Military service, 1929–31.
Taught at lycées in Le Havre, Laon, and Paris, 1931–44. Worked in the army
meteorological section during World War II: captured, 1940, repatriated and returned to France, 1941. Founding editor, with Beauvoir, Les Temps Modernes, from 1945.
Member, Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (Democratic revolutionary assembly), 1948–49. Editor, La Cause du Peuple (The cause of the people), from 1970, Tout (Everything), 1970–74, Révolution, 1971–74, and Libération, 1973–74.
New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1947; Grand Novel Prize, 1950; Omegna Prize
(Italy), 1961; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1964 (refused); honorary degree from the University of Jerusalem, 1976; Foreign Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Died (of oedema of the lungs) in Paris, 15 April 1980.
Essays and Related Prose
Situations 1–10, 10 vols., 1947–76; selections published under various titles, translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1949, Annette Michelson, 1955, S.W.Allen, 1963, Benita Eisler, 1965, Martha H.Fletcher and John R.Kleinschmidt, 1968, Irene Clephane, 1969, John Mathews, 1974, and Paul Auster and Lydia Davis, 1977
Essays in Aesthetics, edited and translated by Wade Baskin, 1963
Essays in Existentialism, edited and translated by Wade Baskin, 1967
The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, vol. 2: Selected Prose, edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, translated by Richard C. McCleary, 1974
“What Is Literature?” and Other Essays, 1988
Other writings: four novels (La Nausée [Nausea], 1938; L’Ậge de raison [The Age of Reason], 1945; Le Sursis [The Reprieve], 1945; La Mort dans I’ame [Iron in the Soul],
1949), a collection of stories (Le Mur [The Walt], 1939), ten plays (including Les Mouches [The Flies], 1943; Huis clos [No Exit], 1944; Les Séquestrés d’Altona [The Condemned of Altona], 1959), screenplays, biographies of Flaubert and Genet, and books on existentialism (including L’Être et le néant [Being and Nothingness], 1943) and literature.
Contat, Michel, and Michel Rybalka, The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, vol. 1: A Bibliographical Life, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1974
Gabel, Gernot U., Sartre, a Comprehensive Bibliography of International Theses and Dissertations, 1950–1985, HiirthEfferen: Gemini, 1991
Lapointe, François H., and Claire Lapointe, Jean-Paul Sartre and His Critics: An International Bibliography 1938–1980, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University, revised edition, 1981
Nordquist, Joan, Jean-Paul Sartre: A Bibliography, Santa Cruz, California: Reference and Research Services, 1993
Rybalka, Michel, and Michel Contat, Sartre: Bibliography, 1980–1992, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University, 1993
Wilcocks, Robert, Jean-Paul Sartre: A Bibliography of International Criticism, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1975
Adereth, Maxwell, Commitment in Modern French Literature: A Brief Study of “Utterature engagée” in the Works of Péguy, Aragon, and Sartre, London: Gollancz, 1967; as Commitment in Modern French Literature: Politics and Society in Péguy, Aragon, and Sartre, New York: Schocken, 1968
Bauer, George H., Sartre and the Artist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969
Champigny, Robert, Stages on Sartre’s Way, 1938–1952, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959
Halpern, Joseph, Critical Pictions: The Literary Criticism of JeanPaul Sartre, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1976
Hayman, Ronald, Writing Against: A Biography of Sartre, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986; as Sartre: A Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987: especially Chapter 15 on the immediate postwar period
Jameson, Fredric, Sartre: The Origins of a Style, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1961
La Capra, Dominick, A Preface to Sartre, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978
McCleary, Richard C., “Translator’s Preface” to The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, vol. 2: Selected Prose, edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1974
Poster, Mark, Existential Marxistn in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975
Suhl, Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre: The Philosopher as a Literary Critic, New York: Columbia University Press, 1970
Thody, Philip, Jean-Paul Sartre: A Literary and Political Study, London: Hamilton, 1960
Ungar, Steven, Introduction to “What Is Literature?” and Other Essays by Sartre, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988
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