The first impact made by Sartre on his French audience came from his play “Mosaic” on what it is to tell a story. It was the tale of a man sitting in a library writing documents. It is cleverly constructed, both acting as a biography and diary simultaneously where Sartre speaks of a systematic failure to grasp what life is and the evidence that we, as humanity, are condemned to misunderstand ourselves. We tell stories with the purpose of trying to make sense of things. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. But since, according to Sartre, there is no such thing as a true story because truth itself does not exist, then there is no sense that can ever be made. We try to imagine an end to a story or a situation to throw light on the present, but it never actually works. How can it?
In his autobiography, “Les Mots”, we read once again of the big question: is there any sense in anything? The same illusion is traced. Traditional philosophy teaches that we have a sense of who we are and from that, we build out towards the world and others. Sartre, however, considered things to be quite the reverse – that we get a sense of ourselves through the world and those around us rather than the contrary.
Jean-Paul Sartre came from a bourgeois family. His mother, an Alsacian, was a cousin of Albert Schweizer and was rather a comical character who profoundly irritated her son. She liked to read trashy, romantic novels and tittered at the racey bits as she shared them with her daughter. Poulu (Sartre’s affectionate family nickname) was fascinated by books and was inducted at an early age into the world of culture via his grandfather, who had an extensive library. His father died when he was only fifteen months old.
When Sartre met Simone de Beauvois at the Ecole Normal Superieur, she had an immediate and crucial affect on him. Not only did she act as competition – she came first in her exam results at the ENS whilst Sartre came a sultry second in 1929, but she also stuck by him through thick and thin. She was a key figure in his life and nursed him to his death.
When Paris was occupied under German rule, Sartre was taken prisoner. During his incarceration in Stalag 12, he spent much of his time writing plays. He wrote, directed and even starred in a nativity play which was veiled as an appeal for resistance. When released, he fell back into Parisian life and seemed to be allowed quite a large amount of freedom. He was not, apart from being a prisoner for a short time, unduly affected by the enemy occupation and for this, he was bitterly criticised by Eugene Ionescu.
His teaching post in Paris had belonged to a deported jew and this was also much held against him despite the fact that he didn’t ask for nor accept the job personally. Though he has also been accused of not fighting against the occupying forces and taking a bigger part in resistance, he did write resistance plays. “Les Mouches” encouraged rejection of the enemy on French territory and he felt he had presented a grey situation in stark black and white. Looking back, he said, “The French were never so free as when under Nazi occupation,” which of course created an uproar. Provocative and paradoxal, what he seemed to mean was that people were never so aware of freedom as when they were not free. He didn’t mean freedom to do what one wanted, the lack of freedom from being imprisoned or persecuted, but the freedom of consciousness. With practical freedom so restricted, one therefore reflected on it far more. There was a choice. You either sided with the occupier or you didn’t.
“Man is condemned to be free”, he said. Not the freedom of will or action, but the freedom of thinking and interpreting, for central to all thought was the very nature of consciousness. Reality was only, to Sartre, a small part of the whole picture. One is aware of what is taking place around oneself, but, he said, one also had to be aware of what wasn’t. Absences are not imposed by the world, but are of individual and personal construction. This leads to the freedom of judgement. Freedom is inescapable and terrifies us for it is a huge and massive responsibility.
It is important to note that Sartre was far from a nihilist. Though his writings are often tinged with despair, Sartre himself was a tireless advocate of social change and, in a sense, a great optimist. A firm believer in human dignity, he remained a high school teacher for years and refused to wear a tie while on the job. He detailed his concept of social responsibility in Existentialism and Humanism, and became deeply involved in leftist politics.
Sartre entered the political world with the creation of a wide-ranging literary magazine, Les Temps Modernes. To Sartre, his form of resistance was through writing. Writing meant thinking and this was a challenging and political act. Sartre wrote against everything – the bourgeoisie, the social situation, the economy, etc… he called his readers to use their skills in a political uprising.
His life with Simone de Beauvois was an odd one. They never married, for Sartre did not believe in such a bourgeois institution. She was a powerful intellectual with strong feminist beliefs who was highly interactive in the works of Sartre, for they read each others oeuvres and gave constructive criticism. Her book on ethics was published while he never managed to even finish his. Their lives were closely intertwined not only thorugh their love for one another but through their thought processes. There was also a contingent love, however, for they agreed to have a ‘free’ relationship, allowing for secondary affairs. That would have been fine, except that they then seedily told each other about them in letters with a high degree of physical detail that could make a nun’s hair curl under her wimple. This was painful for Simone de Beauvois. Her book, “The Second Sex” is a Sartrian book and one can see why. It explains that women are born into a set of expectations. Her aim was to force home the fact that women could make up their own stories and thus their own paths in life. Her famous quote ‘you are not born a woman, you become one’ sums it up in a nutshell.
The situation in Paris after the liberation was ambiguous to say the least. There was less food in France two years after the war than there had been during it, and although Sartre knew about the injustices and terrible suffering in Russia at the time, he sided with the USSR against the USA.
Sartre met Albert Camus, a pied noir from Algeria of working class origins at one of his rehearsals of Les Mouches. They were friends, though not close, and eventually fell out over a political dispute. Sartre considered Camus to be of the soft line when it came to politics. While Camus was pro-America, sartre definitely was not. They also fought over Algeria.
When Camus published “The Rebel”, Sartre wrote a damning review of it in “Les Temps Modernes”. He accused Camus of not reading the philosphers he had quoted (this was true) and talking drivel. It was a brutal attack.
They were complete opposites in every way, but they also greatly admired each other. Camus had played a very active role in the resistance and even had a false ID. Sartre never had, taking his political positions in his writing, and had regretted it. He had wanted to be more politically active and there was Camus like a muskateer, a genuine political animal. Sartre envied him. As for the USSR, Camus considered it a force for great evil. Sartre did not. He also would have been an Islamophobic in today’s measures, believing that the world was in danger of Islamic political forces and indoctrinations. Of course, Camus disagreed. He campaigned in 1954 for the French to install a secular democracy in Algeria. When Sartre decided he had been wrong about the USSR and communism on the day Russian tanks entered Budapest, he jumped ship to advocate anti-colonial liberation. In "Le Fantome de Staline", an article he wrote for Les Temps Modernes, Sartre condemned the intervention, as well as the French Communist Party's submission to the Soviets. “Critique of Dialectical Reason”, published in 1960, proposed what is now known as Sartrian Socialism, a model by which Sartre demanded that Marxism recognise differences between one society and another and respect human freedom. With that and the rapping over “The Rebel”, he and Camus, who was so disgusted with this decision of Sartre’s, never spoke again. Camus died soon after.
Sartre wanted to take over the conditioning and background of Marxism to marry it to the idea of freedom of existentialism. He wasn’t interested in the Marxist buzzword ‘economy’. His Marxism was in fact, very ‘loose’. He could only see human freedom working through human curcumstances and saw it as his task to teach marxists what they should be thinking. He wanted to redefine it, to purify it, and lead it away from the inexorable economic laws. He didn’t even like Marx and had never read a single one of his writings. He liked, however, the idea of collective experience: we are who we are by the stories we tell ourselves… His Marxism was not Marx’s Marxism but Sartre’s Marxism. A whole different kettle of fish.
The Vietnam War provided another arena for Sartre's political convictions. He actively opposed the war, just as he had opposed France's war in Algeria, and in 1967 he headed the International War Crimes Tribunal, which had been established by Bertrand Russell to judge American military conduct in Indochina.
The theatre world was changing with the arrival of the likes of Beckett and ‘Waiting for Godot’. It was late post-modernism and was beyond Sartre. He realised his plays could no longer have the effect he wanted on his audiences for the trend had changed and the collage had taken over. He bowed out and wrote his books instead. He would, apparently, have loved to have written for cinema and indeed did write a screen play for John Houston on Freud.
“We are what we make of what others make of us”… Sartre, a creative philosopher, took fundamental thoughts of freedom and consciousness and proved they had a bearing…
Sartre died in 1980 of pulmonary oedema, leaving his last work, L'idiot, incomplete.
(Essay written for BA Eng.Lit., Feb 2011)