Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905-1980)

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre



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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

French novelist, playwright, existentialist philosopher, and literary critic. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, but he declined the honor in protest of the values of bourgeois society. His longtime companion was Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), whom he met at the École Normale Superieure in 1929.

“The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom.” (from What Is Literature, 1947)

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris. His father, Jean-Babtiste Sartre, was a naval officer, who died when Jean-Paul was fifteen months old. Sartre never wrote much about his biological father. More important person in his life was his mother, the former Anne-Marie Schweitzer, a great nephew of Albert Schweitzer. Sartre lived first with her and his grandfather, Charles Schweitzer in Paris, but when his mother remarried in 1917, the family moved to La Rochelle.

At school, Sartre was brilliant, but his behavior was behavior was often unpredictable and arrogant. When his friend Raymond Aron played tennis, Sartre preferred giant swings on the horizontal bar. He graduated in 1929 from the Ècole Normale Supérieure. From 1931 to 1945 he worked as a teacher. During this period he also traveled in Egypt, Greece, and Italy. In 1933-34 he studied in Berlin the writings of the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

At the Left Bank cafés Sartre gathered around him a group of intellectuals in the 1930s. During WW II Sartre was drafted in 1939, imprisoned a year later in Germany, but released in 1941 (or he escaped). However, he lost his freedom he valued above all for a short time. In Paris he joined resistance movement and wrote for such magazines as Les Lettres Française and Combat. After the war he founded a monthly literary and political review, Les Temps modernes, and devoted himself entirely to writing and political activity. The magazine took its title from Chaplin’s film. Sartre wrote both about and for the cinema. On a visit to the United States in 1945 he saw Citizen Kane and criticized Welles for using flashbacks. “Orson Welles’s oeuvre well illustrated the drama of the American intelligentsia which is rootless and totally cut off from the masses.”

Sartre was never a member of Communist party, although he tried to reconcile existentialism and Marxism and collaborated with the French Communist Party. When Albert Camus, with whom Sartre was closely linked in the 1940, openly criticized Stalinism, Sartre hesitated to follow his example. The publication of Camus’s novel The Rebel in 1951 caused a break between the two friends.

“Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.” (from L’Être et le Néant / Being and Nothingness, 1943)

Sartre’s first novel , LA NAUSÉE (1938), expressed under the influence of German philosopher Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method, that human life has no purpose. The protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, discovers the obscene overabundance of the world around him, and his own solitude induces several experiences of psychological nausea. He is not only impressed by the solidity of the stones on the sea shore, but feels similar kind of horror when he contemplates the world of bourgeois banality. “Nobody is better qualified than the commercial traveller over there to sell Swan toothpaste. Nobody is better qualified than that interesting young man to fumble about under his neighbour’s skirts. And I am among them and if they look at me they must think that nobody is better qualified than I to do what I do. But I know. I don’t look very important but I know that I exists and that they exists. And if I knew the art of convincing people, I should go and sit down next to that handsome white-haired gentleman and I should explain to him what existence is. The thought of the look which would come on to his face if I did makes me burst out laughing.” The rationality and solidity of this world, Roquentin thinks, is a veneer.

LE MUR (1938) was a collection of five stories and a novella, which concentrated on the theme of self-decption (or “bad faith”). In’ The Childhood of a Leader’ the pitiful hero, Lucien, believes that he does not really exists, he only an actor in his own life. He seeks a feeling of strength through a homosexual affair. Encouraged by his friend, Lucien ends up in the ultra-conservative organization of the Action Française, with a desire to purify the French blood and beat the Jews. Lucien’s choices are not authentic, he acts in conformity.


In his non-fiction works L’ÊTRE ET LE NÉANT (1943, Being and Nothingness) Sartre formulated the basics of his philosophical system, in which “existence is prior to essence.” Sartre made the distinction between things that exist in themselves (en-soi) and human beings who exist for themselves (pour-soi). Conscious of the limits of knowledge and of mortality, human beings live with existential dread. “Man is not the sum of what he has but the totality of what he does not yet have, of what he might have.” (from Situations, 1947) Sartre developed his ideas further in L’EXISTENTIALISME EST UN HUMANISME (1946), and CRITIQUE DE LA RAISON DIALECTIQUE (1960). According to Sartre, human being is terrifying free. We are responsible for the choices we make, we are responsible for our emotional lives. In a godless universe life has no meaning or purpose beyond the goals that each man sets for himself. In Being and Nothingness Sartre argued that an individual must detach oneself from things to give them meaning.

Sartre’s first play, LES MOUCHES (1943), examined the themes of commitment and responsibility. In the story, set in the ancient, mythical Greece, Orestes kills the murderers of Agamemnon, thus freeing the people of the city from the burden of guilt. According to Sartre’s existentialist view, only one who chooses to assume responsibility of acting in a particular situation, like Orestes, makes effective use of one’s freedom. In his second play, HUIS CLOS (1944), a man who loves only himself, a lesbian, and a nymphomaniac are forced to live in a small room after their deaths. At the end – although realizing that the “hell is other people” – they remain slaves to their of passions. The play was a sensation and was filmed in 1954. Sartre’s screenplay TYPHUS, which he wrote in 1944, was produced in 1953, starring Michèle Morgan and Gérard Philipe. The director was Yves Allégret.

QU’EST CE QUE LA LITTÉRATURE (1947) is Sartre’s best-known book of literary criticism. He grouped poetry with painting, sculpture, and music – they are not signs but things. One of the chief motifs of artistic creation is the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world. A writer is always a watchdog or a jester, but the primarly function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world: a novelist cannot escape engagement in political and social issues. The reader brings to life the literary object – it is not true that one writes for oneself. On the other hand Sartre saw that literature is dying and alludes to newspapers, to the radio and movies. “The goal of art is to recover this world by giving it to be seen not as it is, but as if it had its source in human freedom.” From 1946 to 1955 Sartre wrote several biographical studies, of which the most important was Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (1952), about his friend Jean Genet (1910-1986), a convicted felon and writer.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Sartre accepted the right to criticize the Soviet system although he defended the Soviet state. He visited the Soviet Union next year and was hospitalized for ten days because of exhaustion. With his interpreter, Lena Zonina, he had a love affair. In 1956 Sartre spoke out on behalf of freedom for Hungarians, condemning the Soviet invasion, but not the Russian people, and in 1968 he condemned the Warsaw Pact assault on Czechoslovakia. In the Soviet Union, Sartre was privately criticized by the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The O.A.S. (Organisation de l’Armee Secrete), engaged in terrorist activities against Algerian independence, exploded a bomb in 1961 in Sartre’s apartment on rue Bonaparte; it happened also next year and Sartre moved on quai Louis-Blériot, opposite the Eiffel tower.

A superb conversationalist, Sartre unexpectedly lost his debate with the philosopher Louis Althusser, perhaps the only time in his public life. Althusser had joined the French Communist Party in 1948, and during the 1960s and 1970s he was considered the most influential voice in Western Marxism.

At the height of the student rebellion, which Sartre supported, his main interest lay on his four-volume study called L’IDIOT DE LA FAMILLE. The wide biography of Gustave Flaubert used Freudian interpretations and Marxist social and historical elements, familiar from his philosophical work. Sartre had been preoccupied with Flaubert since childhood. In this study, finished in 1971, Sartre showed how Flaubert became the person his family and society determined him to be, and how Flaubert’s choices summarized the historical situation of his class. While writing this work, Sartre used Corydrane. The drug, a combination of aspirin and amphetamine, was popular among students and intellectuals. Also race bicyclists used it in the 1960s.

Sartre became also closely involved in movement against Vietnam War. In 1967 Sartre headed the International War Crimes Tribunal, set up by Bertrand Russell to judge American military conduct in Indochina. Among the New Left Sartre was a highly respected figure and his stand on the French colonial policy in Algeria was widely known in the Third World. One of his most powerful texts, written under the influence of Corydrane, was the foreword to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), published toward the end the of the Algerian War. The book was soon translated into seventeen languages.

In 1970 Sartre was arrested because of selling on the streets the forbidden Maoist paper La cause du peuple. Sartre was familair with the though of Mao Tse-tung and he had traveled in China in 1955 with Beauvoir, who decided to write a whole book about the country. However, in the early 1960s the Cuban economic and social revolution fascinated Sartre more. He also met Fidel Castro, but broke with his dictatorship later. In 1974 Sartre visited the terrorist Andreas Baader at the prison of Stammheim in Germany.

L’idiot was Sartre’s last large work; it remained unfinished. According to Sartre, the fact that he will never finish it “does not make me so unhappy, because I think I said the most important things in the first three volumes.” From 1973 the philosopher suffered from failing eyesight and near the end of his life Sartre was blind. Sartre died in Paris of oedema of the lungs on April 15, 1980. Arlette Elkaïm, Sartre’s mistress whom he had adopted in 1965, received the rights to his literary heritage, not Simone de Beauvoir.

Like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald after WWI, Sartre was considered after WW II the leading interpreter of the postwar generation’s world view. In his essays Sartre dealt with wide range of subjects, sometimes in provocative manner. ‘The Republic of Silence’ starts, ‘We were never more free than under the German occupation’, explaining this later that in those circumstances each gesture had the weight of a commitment. In ‘The Humanism of Existentialism’ he condensed the major theme of existentialist philosophy simply “first of all, man exist, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself”.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre

For further reading: The Psychology of Sartre by P. Dempsey (1950); Sartre, Romantic Rationalis by I. Murdoch (1953); Sartre: The Origins of a Style by Fredric Jameson (1961); The Theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre by D. McCall (1967); Sartre and the Artist by George H. Bauer (1969); Jean-Paul Sartre by Benjamin Suhl (1970); The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre by M. Contant and M. Rybalka (1974); Existential Marxism in Postwar France by Mark Poster (1975); Critical Fictions by Joseph Halpern (1976); The Existentialist Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre by J. Lawler (1976); A Preface to Sartre by Dominic La Capra (1978); Sartre and Flaubert by H.E. Barnes (1981); Sartre: pelon, inhon ja valinnan filosofia by Esa Saarinen (1983); Writing Against by Ronald Hayman (1986, publ. in 1987 as Sartre: A Life); Jean-Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment by C. Hill (1992); Jean-Paul Sartre by P.M. Thody (1992); Siècle de Sartre by Bernard-Henri Lévy (2000) – Suom.: Sartrelta on suomennettu useita näytelmiä, esseevalikoimia ja lisäksi kokoelma Esseitä 1-2, joka sisältää tutkielman Mitä kirjallisuus on? – Esa Saarinen on julkaissut tutkimuksen Sartre: pelon, inhon ja valinnan filosofia (1983) – Other film adaptations: Les jeux sont faits, dir. by Jean Delannoy, 1947; Les orgueilleux, dir. by Yves Allégret, 1953 – See also: Soren Kierkegaard, Jean Anouilh, André Gide

Sartre & simone

Selected works:

* L’IMAGINATION, 1936 – Imagination: A Psychological Critique (tr. by Forrest Williams)
* LA TRANSCENDANCE DE L’ÉGO, 1937 – The Transcendence of the Ego (trans. by F. Williams and R. Kirkpatrick)
* LA NAUSÉE, 1938 – Nausea (trans. by Lloyd Alexander) – Inho (suom. Juha Mannerkorpi)
* LE MUR, 1938 – The Wall (trans. by Andrew Brown) ä- Muuri (suom. Maijaliisa Auterinen, Jorma Kapari) – film 1966, dir. by Serge Roullet
* ESQUISSE D’UNE THÉORIE DES ÉMOTIONS, 1939 – The Emotions, Outline of a Theory (tr. by Bernard Frechtman) / Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions
* L’IMAGINAIRE: PSYCHOLOGIE PHÉNOMÉNOLOGIQUE DE L’IMAGINATION, 1940 – Psychology of Imagination / The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (tr. by Jonathan Webber)
* L’ÉTRE ET LE NÉANT, 1943 – Being and Nothingness (trans. by Hazel Barnes)
* L’ÊTRE ET LE NÉANT, 1943 – Existential Psychoanalysis (tr. by Hazel E. Barnes)
* LES MOUCHES, 1943 – The Flies (tr. by Stuart Gilbert) – Kärpäset (suom. Pirkko Peltonen)
* HUIS CLOS, 1944 (prod.) – No Exit (tr. by Paul Bowles) – Suljetut ovet (suom. Marja Rankkala) – film 1954, dir. by Jacqueline Audry, starring Frank Villard, Gaby Sylvia, Yves Denlaud, Arletty, music by Joseph Kosma
* L’ÁGE DE RAISON, 1945 – Age of Reason (tr. by Eric Sutton)
* LE SURSIS, 1945 – The Reprieve (tr. by Eric Sutton)
* RÉFLEXIONS SUR LA QUESTION JUIVE, 1946 – Anti-Semite and Jew (tr. by George J. Becker) / Portrait of the Anti-Semite (tr. by Erik de Mauny)
* MORTS SANS SÉPULTURE, 1946 – The Victors
* L’EXISTENTIALISME EST UN HUMANISME, 1946 – Existentialism and Humanism (tr. by by Philip Mairet) / Existentialism (tr. by Bernard Frechtman) – Eksistentialismikin on humanismia (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen)
* LA PUTAIN RESPECTUEUSE, 1946 – The Respectful Prostitute – Kunniallinen portto – film 1952, dir. by Charles Brabant & Marcello Pagliero
* BAUDELAIRE, 1947 – Baudelaire (trans. by Martin Turnell)
* LES JEUX SONT FAITS, 1947 – The Chips Are Down (tr. by Louise Varèse) – film 1947, dir. by Jean Delannoy, screenplay by Sartre, Delannoy, Jacques-Laurent Bost, starring Micheline Presle, Michel Pagliero, Marguerite Moreno, Fernand Fabre
* SITUATIONS I, 1947 – Situations (tr. by Benita Eisler)
* THÉÂTRE, 1947
* QU’EST-CE QUE LA LITTÉRATURE?, 1947 – What Is Literature? (trans. by Bernard Frechtman) / Literature & Existentialism (tr. by Bernard Frechtman) – Mitä kirjallisuus on? (suom. Pirkko Peltonen, Helvi Nurminen)
* LES MAINS SALES, 1948 – Dirty Hands – Likaiset kädet (suom. Toini Kaukonen)
* L’ENGRENAGE, 1948 – In the Mesh (tr. by Mervyn Savill)
* LA MORT DANS L’ÂME, 1949 – Iron in the Soul / Troubled Sleep (tr. by Gerard Hopkins)
* KEAN, 1951 – Kean (tr. by Frank Hauser) / Kean; or. Disorder and Genius (tr. by Kitty Black) – Kean – näyttelijä (suom. Jorma Nortimo)
* LE DIABLE ET LE BON DIEU, 1951 (prod.) – Lucifer and the Lord / The Devil and the Good Lord – Paholainen ja hyvä Jumala (suom. Ritva Arvelo)
* SAINT GENET, COMÉDIEN ET MARTYR, 1952 – Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (trans. by B. Frechtman)
* Literary and Philosophical Essays, 1955 (tr. by Annette Michelson)
* NEKRASSOV, 1955 (prod.) – transl. – (suom. Helvi Nurminen)
* QUESTIONS DE MÉTHODE, 1957 – Search for a Method (tr. by Hazel E. Barnes)
* LES SÉQUESTRÉS D’ALTONA, 1959 (prod.) – Loser Wins (tr. by Sylvia and George Leeson) / The Condemned of Altona – Altonan vangit (suom. Helvi Nurminen) – film 1962, dir. by Vittorio De Sica, starring Sophia Loren, Maximilian Schell, Fredric March, Robert Wagner, screenplay by Abby Mann, Cesare Zavattini, prod. by Carlo Ponti
* CRITIQUE DE LA RAISON DIALECTIQUE, 1960 (tome 1) – Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1 (trans. by A. Sheridan-Smith)
* OURAGAN SUR LE SUCRE, 1960 – Sartre on Cuba
* BARIONA, 1962 – Bariona; or, The Son of Thunder
* Essays in Aesthetics, 1963 (tr. by Wade Baskin)
* LES MOTS, 1964 – The Words (trans. by B. Frechtman) – Sanat (suom. Raili Moberg)
* SITUATIONS IV: PORTRAITS, 1964 – Situations
* SITUATIONS V: COLONIALISME ET NÉO-COLONIALISME, 1964 – Colonialism and Neocolonialism (translated by Azzedine Haddour, Steve Brewer, and Terry McWilliams)
* SITUATIONS VI: PROBLÈMES DU MARXISME 1, 1964 – The Communists and Peace
* LES TROYENNES, 1965 – The Trojan Women (tr. by Ronald Duncan)
* ŒUVRES ROMANESQUES, 1965 (5 vols.)
* The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, 1965
* SITUATIONS VII: PROBLÈMES DU MARXISME 2, 1965 – The Spectre of Stalin (tr. by Irene Clephane) / The Ghost of Stalin (tr. by Martha H. Fletcher)
* Essays in Existentialism, 1967
* Of Human Freedom, 1967 (ed. by Wade Baskin)
* L’IDIOT DE LA FAMILLE, 1971-72 ( 3 vol.) – The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert (trans. by Carol Cosman)
* SITUATIONS IX: MÉLANGES, 1972 – Between Existentialism and Marxism, 1974 (tr. by John Mathews)
* Politics and Literature, 1973 (tr. by J. A. Underwood, John Calder)
* UN THÉÂTRE DE SITUATIONS, 1973 – Sartre on Théatrer (tr. by Frank Jellinek)
* The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, vol. 2: Selected Prose, 1974
* SITUATIONS X, 1976 – Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken (tr. by Paul Auster and Lydia Davis)
* LETTRES AU CASTOR ET Á QUELQUES AUTRES I-II, 1983 – Witness to My Life: The letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926-1939 (tr. by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee); Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940-1963 (tr. by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee)
* LES CARNETS DE LA DRÓLE DE GUERRE, 1983 – War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre: November 1939-March 1940 (tr. by Quintin Hoare); War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War, November 1939-March 1940 (tr. by Quintin Hoare)
* CAHIERS POUR UNE MORALE, 1983 – Notebooks for an Ethics (trans. by D. Pellauer)
* LE SCÉNARIO FREUD, 1984 – The Freud Scenario (ed. by J.-B. Pontalis, tr. by Quintin Hoare
* CRITIQUE DE LA RAISON DIALECTIQUE, 1985 (tome 2) – Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 2 (trans. by Quentin Hoare)
* MALLARMÉ: LA LUCIDITÉ ER SA FACE D’OMBRE, 1986 – Mallarmé, or, The Poet of Nothingness (tr. by Ernest Sturm)
* “What is Literature?” and Other Essays, 1988
* VERITÉ ET EXISTENCE – Truth and Existence (trans. by A. van de Hoven)

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre

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