Reflecting on Sartre's Complex Legacy

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre, shown here in 1968, died at age 74 in Paris. Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Corbis

'No Exit' ('Huis Clos')

Hear opening dialogue from the 1946 BBC production.

The French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre is known for works including Being and Nothingness, the novel Nausea and No Exit, the play that famously concludes, "Hell is other people."

But Sartre's views and legacy were not so bleak and misanthropic as that often-quoted line would suggest. In fact Sartre was energetically engaged with his world, a prolific writer who believed in using literature as an expression of freedom and political action. His existentialist philosophy viewed freedom less as a state than as a conscious exercise, a reliance on individual experience and thought.

Far from possessing the looks of a playboy, Sartre nonetheless had a steady rotation of lovers — chief among them, fellow intellectual Simone de Beauvoir. Biographer Annie Cohen-Solal says women gave Sartre insights into distant worlds, as translators and companions. "Women were essential to open gates for him... Sartre was altogether and at the same time the best feminist and the worst macho."

The affinity for women mirrored his interest in people who have been oppressed or denied power. He expressed disbelief at the treatment of blacks in the United States, and was an outspoken critic of both the American and French governments.

Frank Browning reports on the work and views of Sartre, who was born 100 years ago Tuesday.

Excerpt of Sartre: A Life, by Annie Cohen-Solal

From Afterword: Tracking Down a Willing and Reluctant Hero

At first it was like a challenge. I would never have been tempted by such an enterprise if the idea had not been proposed by an overseas publisher who had come to shatter the French reticence of the time. In 1980 there were more than a few skeptics and I still remember the sly smile of Pontalis — one of the richest sources in Sartre's entourage for a long time to come — as I finished interviewing him in his office: "Good luck," he intimated with a ponderous pessimism.. . .

1. The Challenge

From the beginning Sartre, more than any other, slipped out of the clutches of his biographers. His work — abundant, infinitely variable, incomplete, wide open — seemed to defy any attempt at a holistic approach, and had engendered a considerable quantity of secondary literature, scholarly or anecdotal but most often specialized (confined to a particular discipline). Besides, Sartre's own work continued to develop between 1980 and 1984, becoming perhaps more prolific posthumously than even in his lifetime, leading to new information (Les Carnets de la drôle de guerre, Lettres au Castor, Cahiers pour une morale), but also giving birth to great swatches of mystery (La Cérémonie des adieux) and to differently formulated questions. The field of Sartrian study became once again very dense and very fluid, contrasting with his last few years in which Sartre himself declared that he was considered dead.

From the very beginning, the obstacles appeared insurmountable. Because Sartre was an individual always "out of sync" and because to deal with Sartre is to deal at the same time with the history of cinema, of literature, of aesthetics, of political struggle, of the broad development of ideas, of theater, of the press, of philosophy on an international as well as a French scale; it meant dealing with him en creux, not with Sartre but with his imprint. It was necessary to grasp his intellectual bulimia, his particular appropriation of the history of ideas, his manner of forging concepts and analyses in which Marxism and psychoanalysis were injected with a considerable dose of Sartrianism.

Furthermore, although Sartre was fully part of his century, sharing in the passions as well as the agonies, he considered himself, and wanted to remain, outside and his trajectory was anything but typical. Sartre was a writer whose intellectual experience was absolutely intertwined with the major issues of his century, but who never completely espoused any one of them. He was at once fully in step with his times and always out of sync. An offbeat dance, his very particular method of carving out his place in his epoch. He was Sartrian before being an anarchist, Sartrian before being a resistant or an existentialist, Sartrian before being a fellow traveler, Sartrian before being a Third Worldist or Maoist. The Sartre of the 1930s, for example, was asocial, isolated, and apolitical, rejecting idealism or the proletarian internationalism of the first French communists; through some of his behavior, choices, or provocations, he approached the Surrealists without ever acknowledging them, citing them, or moving in their circles.

At the same time I realized that it had become common to pit "Sartre the Marxist" against "Sartre the Maoist" or against "Sartre of the Occupation years," "Sartre the existentialist" against "Sartre of the Critique," and that some swore only by the author of Réflexions sur la question juive or of Situations: so many shattered images which were not particularly propitious for a synthetic understanding; so many signs of a series of abrupt turns, of about-faces and changed directions, shifts in movement, thinking of which Sartre himself was sometimes the first to be held hostage. As, for example, in 1952 when he had to ban the performance of Les Mains sales in Vienna because the text, written five years earlier when he was a critic of the French Communist Party, could be utilized, in the thick of the cold war, as a pro-American weapon.

To top it off, had not the whole of Sartre's work been, in a certain sense, a long meditation on biography? From childhood he had a passion for the lives of the illustrious, a tendency to converse only with "great men" (Baudelaire in the 1940s, Flaubert in the 1960s) or with the anonymous (Les Temps Modernes in 1945, the questioning of the Other in different forms — prefaces, biographies, funeral orations, literary or aesthetic criticism, screenplays, etc.). In short, Sartre's intellectual trajectory can be broken down into a long series of interrogations and biographical or autobiographical conceptualizations. Had he not planned, during the early 1950s, to recount the French Revolution as a long series of the lives of its principal actors? For his 527 biographer, Sartre was indeed himself the greatest rival. He had produced his life as the life of a writer-hero, and had played in his own manner — with self-derision, self-irony, and romantic provocations — a superb Shelley of modern times. He seemed to offer himself graciously to the biographical undertaking—but on the strict condition that the biographer accept being directed by him.

He had himself suggested some leads: in Les Mots, Poulou, the pure product of Grandfather Schweitzer's will, develops his own conception both of his "moi-propre" and of the literature coming directly from the nineteenth century. Sartre's thesis is clearly laid out: it exaggerates the role of the Schweitzer family in the conditioning of the child. The more I studied the text of Les Mots, the more I perceived the obliteration of certain pieces of information such as the historical or sociological context, or the type of relationship that existed between the Schweitzer and Sartre families. Certainly, Sartre proposed some leads, but he had wiped out others, confusing the landscape. The excess of information, the self-derision, the skill with which his theses were presented, all functioned like so many defenses against the intrepid souls who would venture into his "no-man's land."

I rediscovered this specifically Sartrian ambivalence especially in his numerous comments on his notoriety. One sentence in particular, from Les Mots, haunted me: "What I love in my madness," he wrote, "is that it has protected me, from the beginning, from the seduction of the elite." I found manifested here several of the specific characteristics of Sartre's way of playing the role of Sartre, which I would necessarily have to take into account. There was the irony, the provocation, the narcissism—in short, all the elements with which Sartre "staged" Sartre and carried out his strategies to seduce the public. Little by little, the research progressed; one day Arlette (his adopted daughter) read to me a series of dream reports:

I was attending a banquet organized by a foreign university where I had spoken the previous evening. Beside me sat the dean or the president, who told me: "We've set aside funds to erect a statue of you in the garden." "I know," I answered, "but in a few years I'll either be too well-known, or else too forgotten to have my statue in the garden."

When Sartre dictated this dream to Arlette on the morning of December 21, 1960, he was finishing a packed year: a trip to Cuba, one to Yugoslavia, three months in Brazil, meetings with Castro, Tito, Khrushchev, Kubitschek, more and more urgent appeals for the cause of the Algerian National Liberation Front, jabs at the de Gaulle government, both abroad through his active propaganda and at home (the "Manifeste des 121," the expectation that he would be arrested), which had made him into a major symbolic figure at the vortex of French political tensions. General de Gaulle had just put an end to the hesitations of his government concerning the attitude to adopt toward this troublesome superstar. "On n'emprisonne pas Voltaire," he declared in essence upon leaving a Council of Ministers meeting in December 1960. Sartre was working at that time on Les Mots, begun eight years earlier, and, to improve his own ability to "decode himself " after requesting in vain that Pontalis "psychoanalyze him," he was encouraged to jot down his dreams. Yet already during the "phony war" in 1940, Sartre had recorded in his Carnets the broad lines along which he projected himself into the future: "I am not at ease except in freedom.. . . It is the world that I wish to possess. But this possession is of a special sort: I want to possess it as knowledge. . . . And for me knowledge has a magical sense of appropriation." 3 In December 1960 he finally put this desire into action. To imagine that in several years, as he suggests in his dream, he would be either completely forgotten or too well-known for a statue to be erected to him, was—in addition to the underlying extreme megalomania—to express his refusal to be "represented," in Sartrian terms, to be made prisoner of the vision of the Other in the frozen image of a statue, or all the more so in a biography.

Throughout all of Sartre's life project, there appears a permanent tension between the launching of a merciless machinery of intellectual conviction—note the cruelty of his polemics with Lefort, Camus, Aron—and the refusal of a certain kind of recognition, which would have made him a "maître à penser" with disciples. A permanent ambivalence which sheds light on the anguish of his secretary Claude Faux, when, after the "Manifeste des 121," letters piled up on the writer's desk asking "Now what?" With an exasperated gesture of his hand, Sartre would leave the room. Refusing a statue in the garden of a foreign university also foreshadowed his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize in October 1964, due to "objective reasons" ("A bourgeois prize awarded by bourgeois") and above all "personal reasons": "The writer must refuse to allow himself to be turned into an institution." Had not those "personal reasons," which I prefer to call "Sartrian reasons," already been inscribed long before in certain pages of "L'Etre et le Néant"?

To use a banal expression, but one which well expresses our thinking, with the gaze of the Other I am no longer master of the situation. The appearance of the Other provokes an aspect of the situation that I did not want and of which I am therefore not the master and which, on principle, evades me since it is for the Other.

Sartre has indeed decided to break the rules of biography: he refused to allow the gaze of others to enclose him in a destiny, and had organized everything so as to remain the posthumous master of the situation in his very particular management of his own fame.

All in all, undertaking a biography of Sartre could be considered a deeply anti-Sartrian act. Despite my hesitation and my reluctance to step onto this minefield, I felt propelled to attempt the adventure, partly for the challenge but above all because of the historical circumstances in which I began my work.

When the American publisher André Schiffrin suggested that I start the project in the fall of 1980, Sartre had only been dead for a few months and his presence-absence weighed on French intellectuals like a strange malaise. It seemed impossible to avoid him, and his name would reappear in the newspapers regularly, but in an obscure and obsessive way, along three basic themes: some searched for his successor, some transformed him into a scapegoat for all previous political "errors"; some, finally, admitted that the proximity of his death reduced us to a passive silence. Intellectuals in general, publishers in particular, all hesitated about the attitude to adopt in relation to this "cultural product" which had just disappeared: was he to be given an early burial, abruptly dropped from sight, or else replaced? Abroad, on the other hand, the name of Sartre had lost none of its vigor and the initiatives surged ahead: international congresses, the Italian project, the London project, the Norwegian project.. . . The French, intrigued, were almost surprised by all the hullabaloo over one of their own whom they had in large measure packed off to be sold at a discount store. In addition, the inter-French settling of old scores happened to coincide with a nostalgia campaign which had come to be called "the Great Silence of the French Intellectuals." These were the conditions in which I undertook a task which seemed to me at the same time absolutely impossible and deeply necessary.

Copyright Annie Cohen-Solal, excerpted with permission from the New Press.

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