Les Mots, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1963, 210 pp.
The Age of Reason, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1945, 300 pp.
The Reprieve, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1945, 377 pp.
Iron in the Soul, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1949, 349 pp.
Existentialism is a Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1946, 141 pp.
Jean-Paul Sartre—Philosophy in the World, by Ronald Aronson
1980, 359 pp.
Letters to Sartre, by Simone de Beauvoir
1990, 531 pp.
Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, by Iris Murdoch
1953, 158 pp.
Some time ago I decided that I had been too shallow about Jean-Paul Sartre. After the predictable enthusiasm of the snobbish teenage intellectual wore off, I had long dismissed Sartre on political grounds. I found him always too dogmatic, too cozy with Moscow, too detached during the Occupation, too much the towering archetype of the Reactionary Leftist. I knew a few sordid details about his and De Beauvoir's relations with young women, and sided with Camus when I learned of their famous break. I judge all twentieth-century intellectuals by their stance on the three great forces of our age: imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Sartre was Right on Imperialism, yes, and even courageously so, but Wrong on Stalinism, and seems to have abstained on fascism in practice, which counts to me as being Wrong on It.
His philosophical work is too putridly written anyway. Perfectly good words exist without having to go around making so many up.
But eventually I'd come round to grudgingly admitting that this was too shallow an approach to one of the last century's most prominent intellectuals. His work was too wide, too deep, and too prolific to be so easily written off tout court, and while I may be able to dismiss Sartre the Man, Sartre the Thinker and Sartre the Phenomenon still remained to be grasped. So I set out to learn some things.
The first thing I learned is that the literature is vast and unruly. I have now read about 2500 pages by or about Sartre, and even that selection was necessarily spotty. I have, for instance, left out most of the shibboleths of Sartre’s thought: Being and Nothingness, the two doorstopper volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, the 4,000 pages on Flaubert. This is partially deliberate and partially out of necessity: in a genuine effort to approach Sartre in good faith, I have selected those books which I think I will be most positively disposed to, and which will therefore leave open a desire to return to Sartre’s more difficult work in the future. I am also facing six MSc exams and a dissertation on Bengali agrarian structure, and simply don’t have time to totalize any historico-political realizations of the practico-inert totalization. I have things to do.
The enormity of Sartre’s output is further complicated by the diabolical productivity of Simone de Beauvoir. In addition to her four volumes of autobiography (largely about her relationship with Sartre) there are several autobiographical novels, many volumes of diaries, Adieu to Sartre (which is mostly transcripts of conversations), and several volumes of letters between the two of them. Add to this the many thousands of critical and academic monographs, and you have a truly horrifying selection of material indeed. I have tried to choose the books I think are both best and most important to the historiography of “Sartre studies.” Thus, under review here are Ronald Aronson’s book (thirty years in the writing, he had first access to the unpublished second volume of the Critique), as well as Iris Murdoch’s brief introduction (the first English-language study of Sartre’s thought). Of the many volumes of letters, I chose the most scandalous. De Beauvoir published many of Sartre’s letters before her death, with the sex bits kept in and the names edited out. After her death, her executor (formerly a teenage lover of both Sartre and De Beauvoir) published Letters to Sartre in a complete and unedited edition, stirring up all manner of controversy and recriminations, to be discussed more fully below.
This selection of books constitutes an approach to Sartre as the politically-engaged writer of fiction. The memoir and the letters are meant to get a sense of him as a person; the scholarly books are meant to get a sense of how his fiction work integrated with the general course of his thought. The philosopher is overlooked here, and the playwright and journalist marginalized. This is unfortunate, but will hopefully allow a deeper and more coherent appreciation for the aspects of Sartre’s work I am addressing.
The Roads to Freedom trilogy (Les Chemins de la liberté) therefore forms the core of this analysis. Written during the Occupation and published in 1945 and 1949, these three novels depict a few months in the life of Mathieu Delarue and his friends and lovers as they and their world of Montparnasse cafés live through the summer and fall of 1938 and then the defeat of France in June 1940. Mathieu is of course Sartre himself in fictional form: born in the same year, also a teacher of philosophy, filled with thoughts about ontological freedom. He is something of a waffling, ineffectual petit-bourgeois intellectual, but deliberately so, all the better to illustrate and embody the realization of meaninglessness and the dilemmas which emerge with an understanding of Sartre’s idea of freedom.
The first volume, The Age of Reason, is the least interesting of the three. It is something of a conventional melodrama which revolves around two days in Mathieu’s life as he searches frantically for money to pay for his mistress Marcelle to have an abortion. The use of characters who clearly represent philosophical types and the frequent blunt employment of hyper-conscious inner monologues gives the otherwise unremarkable novel a veneer of existentialist thought. This also annoyed Iris Murdoch, who writes that “[t]oo much of the story is predigested for us in the consciousness of the main characters.” The two most important figures who flank Mathieu are Daniel, who embodies negation and destructive egotism, and Brunet, the committed, unquestioning Communist. This sets up a pattern which intensifies in the later volumes: as Iris Murdoch writes, “Mathieu stands between the deliberately fallen and perverted nature of Daniel and the naively but innocently engaged nature of Brunet.” But in the first volume, Brunet is a marginalized figure; instead, Daniel is the source of action. But he (and his activity) is action without content. He cannot manage to forge an identity for himself, to insert himself into conditions which will determine his behavior. He is a self-conscious expression of Sartre’s idea of “bad faith,” in which, despite being aware of our basic freedom, we act as though we have no control. Daniel is a figure of tension and contradiction, and Sartre’s presentation of him as a sort of pathological quasi-Freudian case history is one of the few points which separates The Age of Reason from simply being a standard melodrama. By the third volume, when Daniel plays only a very minor role, Sartre drops all pretence and has him actually tell us that he is trapped in a mentality of "in-itself," rather than "for-itself," hence his anguish and destructive activity. This is unfortunate: Daniel is probably the only character who is more interesting at the start of the trilogy than at the beginning. As a tortured, psychologically damaged, unpredictable figure trying and failing to define himself and his place in reference to the world, he is interesting. As a sock-puppet for one of Sartre’s philosophical concepts, and as a very poorly-dramatised homosexual, he is dull.
The second volume, The Reprieve, is a far more ambitious and intelligent piece of work. Here the overall structure of the trilogy becomes clear: The Age of Reason takes place in the summer of 1938, when private lives and personal concerns still dominated the nature of experience. Sartre’s decision to present them in long, unbroken scenes of third-person subjective narration is therefore logical, but faint murmurs of history are still present, mostly in the form of Communist political engagement and the war in Spain. Minor characters from the first novel get more screen time in the second. Most important is Gomez, the bohemian painter who went to fight in Spain and has been made a General, but a whole host of new characters are also added, many of them well-drawn and placed in sympathetic plights. The Reprieve takes place during the 8 days of September 1938 which culminated in the Munich agreement, and thus created a brief illusion of peace. The formal departure is clear on the first page: Sartre has been reading John Dos Passos, and illustrates his theme by constant cutting between narrators, sometimes within the same sentence. Fictional characters and historical personas mingle, third-person and first-person narration blend into each other, and past tense gives way to present. He is a great proponent of what in cinema is called the match-cut, when, for instance, a person says “No” in one scene and we cut immediately to someone in another scene reacting to someone else saying “No.” A person in one scene orders a cup of coffee, a person in another scene recieves one. The general effect is to give the impression of a wide social fabric in which the decisions of the powerful affect people of all different backgrounds and social situations in similar ways. Much of the novel consists of private lives being interrupted as men find that they have been mobilized and will soon be fighting a war. By cutting constantly between scenes, Sartre is able to dramatize the social solidarity which is too often lost in subjectivity and egoism. This was a direct decision in light of the claustrophobia of La Nausée, which is an abstract, ahistorical demonstration of the human project. Les Chemins de la liberté is a historically specific, socially embedded demonstration of the particular ways different people try to realize the human project under conditions outside of their control.
Sartre’s canvass is broader, and his insight keener than in the first volume. Brunet emerges as a meaningful character in his own right, and the different impact of historical events on apparently powerless individuals is convincingly demonstrated. But if anything, Sartre overcompensates. He is so enamored with his cross-cutting technique that he commits a now-standard cinematic error: he cuts so swiftly that not only is the narrative sometimes difficult to follow, but the audience is also rarely allowed to see dramatic situations or thoughtful conversations develop. That he sustains this technique for almost 400 pages instead of using it judiciously for dramatic and intellectual emphasis is also a bit tiresome, but encourages the reader to proceed slowly and carefully. It’s rather like watching a two-hour montage: interesting in the abstract, but exhausting in practice.
Iron in the Soul seems at first to be a happy medium. It takes place during the collapse of the Third Republic in June 1940, and in the first third gives us several characters in longish scenes, to develop specific ideas. So we see Gomez, who had in The Reprieve left his wife and child to return to fight in Spain, but who is now living in New York, being offered pointless work as an art critic. Boris, the young idealist, and his narcissist sister Ivich reappear. There is a wrenching scene of Gomez’s wife and child, trying to make their way on foot with an endless refugee caravan to unoccupied France. All of these scenes are well executed, but none resolve their respective stories, so in each case the reader is left thinking that the stories will be resolved at the end of the book.
The second third follows Mathieu, now in the army, as he and his squad wait around to be captured by Germans. Their officers have run away and they have no ammunition, so they wait and bicker about who lost the war. Another squad comes along, still disciplined and still willing to fight. In the pivotal moment of the trilogy, Mathieu takes up a rifle to join them. The result is about what you expect.
Then you approach the final third of the book, which you expect to resolve all of the existing stories, and perhaps return to many of the characters from the second book whose stories also did not get resolve. But none of this happens. Instead, Sartre offers the story of Brunet the Communist, having been caught up in the retreat and captured, as he tries in vain to organize a cell in the German prison camp. This is presented in two fifty-page paragraphs. The first works: the unbroken prose feels rather like a director with a Steadicam, winding through the confusion and chaos of an army in disarray, returning constantly to the solid, confident figure of Brunet. Sartre has a point here. As Murdoch puts it, “Brunet unreflectively identifies himself with a single concrete project…The universe solidly and reassuringly is as the Marxist analysis says it is. He himself is an instrument of the Party whose function has been determined by History. Brunet reflects no more about these things; he acts.” No confusion of the in-itself here, no despair at the terrible realization of human freedom. Thus a clear contrast is drawn between Brunet and Mathieu, and the characters from the beginning, and Sartre’s argument is well depicted. But the second long paragraph adds little to the experience of the first, and ends the book, so we never learn the fates of a dozen or so interesting characters. This is especially disappointing since the first half of Iron in the Soul is quite good, and the book seems to be shaping up in such a way as to cast the whole trilogy in a coherent, satisfying, well-crafted light. To end it with what feels like (rather boring) redundancy on the one hand, and dissatisfying lack of resolution on the other is quite annoying. Whether this was a deliberate decision by Sartre, taken to illustrate the meaninglessness of existence, I don’t know. If so, then all it signals is the writer’s greater interest in himself than in his characters or his readers.
The ending aside, the trilogy is good, if not marvelous. The second volume in particular is an excellent formal and philosophical exercise, and makes it impossible to come away without respect for Sartre as a novelist. I was bothered by the end, and some decisions along the way, but Les Chemins de la liberté did indeed leave me wanting to read La Nausée.
Sartre's memoir Les Mots is a strange entry in the genre of literary autobiography—strange and suspicious enough that it may be better considered as a novel than a memoir. It depicts the young Jean-Paul, raised by a domineering old bourgeois and two women, and who withdraws into a world of books, then discovers the pleasure of writing them. As a story, this is delicately, even sometimes beautifully told, but as the memoir of Jean-Paul Sartre, it perhaps protests too much. We are not given the actual subjective experience of Sartre’s young life, nor shown clearly how his experiences shaped his intellectual development. Instead the mind at work is that of the mature Sartre, with all of his analytical habits on full display, telling us what to think about what he is ostensibly showing us. What he presents as actual experience, is an organized, analyzed composite of events presented as symbolic. He is also rather unfair and dismissive to the adults who seem to have provided him with a rather comfortable and indulgent life: his grandfather gets to be the subject of the mature Sartre’s assault on the bourgeois experience of art, and the women are reduced to irrelevance.
Granted, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect anyone to write a memoir which consists solely of honest, enlightened self-insight, depicted with a control of lucid, lively prose. In some respects, Sartre suffers in my judgment by being Sartre: I credit him with a sharp eye and a subtle mind, and therefore expected something a bit more probing. It also presents itself as a search for self-knowledge, but to this reader, having also read a vast swathe of Sartreism, it came across as an act of self-mythologizing. It reads like the work of an intelligent man who has read Freud and gone back through his life to find those events which can be presented in a Freudian context to produce at the end the proper impression of the adult man. It is a perfect demonstration of the fallacy of confirmation bias.
Yet for all those complaints, many key aspects of Sartre’s life are present in Les Mots. The committed engagement with literature, obviously. But also the unworldliness. Sartre’s family never seemed to have to earn money, and it was never expected that Sartre himself would have to earn money. Instead he passed his entire life secure in the notion that he could and would do nothing but read and write on things which interested him, and had no awkward contact with grubby material necessities. This perhaps reached its apotheosis (or, from the point of view of Sartre’s readers, its nadir) when Gallimard gave him a monthly stipend for life, so that even sales and royalties ceased to matter. As Aronson ruefully puts it, “he could work when he wished on whatever he wished, without colleagues, without supervision, without criticism.” This was the life of the young Jean-Paul as well, and it is clearly a situation he never quite left. Les Mots is also a tightly, rigorously written document of the experience of alienation, and contains a small polemic on Sartre’s idea of what art is and how it should be experienced. It is not a bad book; I am simply suggesting that to take it at face value is to be misled by the wiles of the mature Sartre.
It is an unfortunate truth that Ronald Aronson’s book on Sartre is the best book under review. It will hold strong appeal not only to any reader interested in Sartre, post-war philosophy, or leftist thought, but to any reader with any appreciable interest in literature. It is intensely readable, and though judicious in its praise and criticism, it is suffused with a great sympathy and affection for its subject. Sartre is presented in quite an understanding light, which is perhaps necessary considering the despicable portrait painted by Letters to Sartre; all I can say is that after reading this book, I would rather have been Ronald Aronson than Jean-Paul Sartre.
There must be some high pantheon in the Olympus of literature for those select few academics who have managed, through Herculean effort of intellect, to distill mountains of turgid philosophy into slender, lively, intelligent, fascinating books. What Walter Kaufmann has done for Nietzsche and Shlomo Avineri for Hegel, Aronson does here for Sartre. Aronson covers all of the major phases of Sartre’s thought, and all of his most important works, often in quite close detail, but free from scholarly throat-clearing and annoying digressions. There is not a whiff of nonsense about the book, to the extent that Aronson refuses even to draw general conclusions and ends his study two pages after ending his discussion of Sartre’s huge book on Flaubert. This is an intelligent, critical intellectual biography, nothing more and nothing less.
It will be profitable at this juncture to follow Aronson in a brief discussion of the development of Sartre’s thought. Throughout the book, Aronson anchors his analysis on two poles: Sartre’s fixation with the nature and extent of human freedom on the one hand, and his abiding pessimism on the other.
According to Aronson, Sartre began his philosophical career by posing critical questions about the ontology of freedom. His first two books, The Imaginary and Imagination, roughly translated, both pose a similar argument: that man is always free because in any situation, man can retreat into the imagination. This idea of mental escape was later enlarged to include emotions: “Emotion and imagination alike are spontaneous, self-determined free acts in which we escape from a world ‘ruled by deterministic processes.’” But immediately Sartre’s pessimism turns up: escapist imagination hardly constitutes real freedom in the real world, and even according to Sartre himself, too much reliance on this sort of freedom leads only to pathology. But already a familiar tension emerges: the world is unpleasant, and there must be some way of mitigating it, so Sartre proceeds from what he wants to be true (that humans are basically free) and constructs a clever answer, but one which even he ultimately does not find persuasive. His tendency to chase solutions he has already decided on, and his willingness to mangle the theorists whose shoulders he stands upon (Husserl and Heidegger, mostly) are quite frankly reminiscent of another mad genius, one who used to haunt the British Museum Reading Room.
Well, if imagination and emotions are one means of escape, but not anchored enough in the world, perhaps art, since it is imaginary, is the site of human freedom. This led to several essays on aesthetics in which Sartre argues that since art is imaginary, it cannot have anything to do with morality, since morality requires being-in-the-world, but at the same time that reality cannot be beautiful, since beauty is a virtue which can only be applied to the imaginary. This interest in art as a means of escape animates Sartre’s first and most famous novel, La Nausée. In that book, Sartre’s narrator Roquentin realizes that all things are contingent and meaningless, that there is no order to the world, whether human, divine, or causal. The horror of this (the nausea, obviously) suggests that our only way to continue living in such a world is to hide the meaninglessness through organization, wishful thinking, self-deception, escape, “bad faith,” and so on.
Roquentin’s dilemma is of course expanded upon and developed at length in Sartre’s first great philosophical masterpiece Being and Nothingness. This is rather a difficult book to summarize, though Aronson is masterful at making it intelligible. I will be briefer than he is, at the risk of doing some violence to a key work. Here Sartre’s concept of freedom has broadened yet further: there is no difference between the being of man, and his being free. With his consciousness, man creates himself, gives meaning to things in the world, and can detach himself from any situation. But again, the pessimism returns: we build illusions to hide this freedom from ourselves, and our consciousness exists “only as it sees the world as lacking,” because we cannot be the thing that created itself. Sartre sees man as being engaged in a constant, doomed project to become what he calls “the for-itself-in-itself,” the thing which is not contingent on something else, “consciousness become substance, substance become the cause of itself, the Man-God.” Understandably, this is rather difficult. In fact, Sartre says that we cannot realize that goal because simply existing and having that goal are one and the same, so we are chasing something which is itself created by our running. Thus, his famous conclusion: “man is a useless passion.” From this doomed project emerges the self-deception of “bad faith,” attempts to make things dependent on us and thereby to dominate them, creations of various illusions. These can be analyzed (as Sartre later did at horrific length in his books on Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert) using the machinery of “existential psychoanalysis.”
Now, Sartre wrote those things during the late 1930s, and few books could be less politically engaged. With the declaration of the war, though, he was called up and sent to the front, and later taken prisoner. Suddenly Sartre found that he was in the grip of forces completely outside his control, and worse, that these forces did not consider him exceptional at all. Suddenly he was but one powerless man among many thousands of powerless men. His letters to Simone de Beauvoir show the trauma of this realization, though De Beauvoir seems utterly oblivious to it. But the damage was done: Sartre discovered the world. The three novels discussed above signal his first attempts at engagement with reality, but the decisive turning point was his seminal essay What is Literature?
Aronson rightly places What is Literature? at the center of the book and of Sartre’s intellectual development. In it, Sartre takes up the model of Being and Nothingness, but resolves its dilemma: art, he argues, especially reading, allows me to unify the subject (myself) and the object (the work of art) through the imaginative, creative process of experiencing it. The novel I create in my imagination when I read is the “for-itself-in-itself,” and I accomplish my ontological goal and cease to be a useless passion. He doesn’t quite come out and say that reading makes me the Man-God, but the implication is there. He goes on at some length about the role of the artist and the relation of the artist to the audience and the place of art in class (and classless) society, all of which is fascinating, and possibly his best work. The point, though, is that he effectively concludes that the only moral, philosophically tenable position is to be a politically-engaged writer. Aronson therefore treats us to a chapter-long analysis of Sartre’s plays, and another chapter on Sartre’s political essays, both of which are splendid for their brevity and analytical rigor.
Aronson then discusses Sartre’s relations with the Communists: his early, rebuffed attempts at cooperation during the war, then his whole-hearted adoption of the Party line, followed by distance and internal criticism after the invasion of Hungary, and finally his turn towards the Third World after the Cuban Revolution. Sartre comes out of this discussion in a far better light than I’d ever given him credit for. The engagement with Communism led of course to the Critique of Dialectical Reason, in which Sartre sets himself up as an independent Marxist philosopher. Aronson had access to the unpublished drafts of the Critique and does the best he can under the circumstances, but not even his enthusiasm can get past the misery of actually reading the thing. “It is an undisciplined, almost incoherent style of writing in which everything must be said, more or less at once, and never otherwise than by a kind of fiat,” he writes, after giving us a 70-line paragraph as a excerpt. He does engage in meaningful analysis of Sartre’s argument, but ultimately finds it unconvincing, and finally dubs the Critique “undisciplined, self-indulgent, confused, and confusing.” Aronson elsewhere devoted an entire book to the Critique, and was obviously suffering some fatigue from that decision. Far better for Aronson are Sartre’s political essays, especially those in his book about Cuba and his analysis of Stalinism.
Finally Aronson turns to the 4,000-page monolith of the book on Flaubert. It represents about one quarter of Sartre’s collected writings, and is in fact longer than the collected writings of Flaubert himself. Sartre worked on it for about twenty years, dedicated to a single methodological question: “What can we know about a man?” Indeed, the Flaubert book is only incidentally about Flaubert: it is designed to demonstrate the method of existential psychoanalysis, to prove that everything can be communicated and that with the necessary information, we can arrive at a perfect understanding of another person. As Aronson sees it, “the Flaubert was, after all, a product of defeat. L’Idiot de la famille was erected over the ruin of the Critique, the collapse of his political hope, his role as political intellectual and the project of a committed theatre. It was a work of withdrawal, in which Sartre’s thought left the world and became absorbed in the life and work of another intellectual recluse.” After slogging through Sartre’s approach and outlining the content of the book, Aronson eventually dispenses with pleasantries altogether. The book “violates the elementary rules of human communication,” he complains. It “lacks all respect for its readers,” and, like any monologuing crank, it makes no distinction between “the activity of research and its socially communicable results.” Aronson washes his hands of the matter, despite his obvious enthusiasm for Sartre’s early and middle periods, and his great respect for Sartre’s intellect. Aronson refuses to draw any general conclusions or engage in any evaluation. He ends his book two pages after concluding his discussion of the Flaubert.
Compared to Aronson’s formidable performance, Iris Murdoch’s Sartre: Romantic Rationalist is rather underwhelming. Murdoch was a good novelist who won the Booker and was made CBE for her services to English literature. I find her quite skilled at time, place, mood, and atmosphere, though I think her use of male narrators in the first person is more brave than it is successful. She was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge, and married John Bayly, the splendid literary critic. Her very sad death from Alzheimer’s is the subject of the film Iris with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet. Her book on Sartre was the first serious monograph on the subject to appear in English. It is very short, and made even more so since her introduction fills pp. 9-39, and pp. 148-159 are various bibliographical lists. Furthermore, since it appeared in 1953, it covers only Sartre’s earliest writings, whereas Aronson’s study came out in the year of Sartre’s death.
Murdoch’s thesis is quite literally embodied in her title: she considers Sartre to be a rationalist intellectual by disposition, but to have come to intellectual maturity under the romanticist shadow of Surrealism (to which she devotes a surprising amount of time and space) and was unable to escape what she calls a “romantic Trotskyist longing for permanent revolution.” Her discussion of Sartre’s trilogy is quite good, and her insights into Being and Nothingness are fascinating in the sense that they are original and organic and have not yet been shaped by any scholarly consensus or sterile debate, such as currently exists. She deals with Sartre’s solipsism without making excuses, and discusses it in such a way that throws light on many of the works discussed above: “He isolates the self so that it treats others, not as objects of knowledge certainly, but as objects to be feared, manipulated and imagined about.” This is confirmed by much of the action of the wartime trilogy, and of Sartre’s approach to his family in Les Mots and the literary figures he devoted books to. She also sums up Sartre’s enduring appeal with great efficiency: Sartre suggests that your personal despair is in fact a universal characteristic of humanity, and has nothing to do with social situations, historical specificity, your own defects. We see ourselves in his portraits of the lonely individual, (not to mention himself as a lonely individual), which produces enduring sympathy. Her take on Sartre’s Marxism (still quite protean at the time of her writing) is quite interesting. She must have been surprised by later events, since she writes that “The Marxist can be a confident utilitarian because he has both a clear idea of human good and an understanding of the mechanism of social cause and effect. Sartre lacks both.” Yet it is hard to disagree with her assessment. Sartre did lack both. He just didn’t let that stop him.
Yet Murdoch is often rather digressive, which is surprising for such a short work. The reader gets the impression that she knew a lot about the history of modern philosophy and about novels, but did not perhaps have much to say about the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Certainly it is important to situate the object of study in a specific milieu, but it is unwise to devote equal time, attention, and enthusiasm to the surroundings as to the man himself.
Curiously, one important strand of thought which both Aronson and Murdoch leave out is an actual concrete analysis of what exactly Sartre meant by “existentialism” in the real world. The discussions of Being and Nothingness are important to this, of course, but that work is also notorious for its lack of application to the real world. Aronson discusses Sartre’s engagement through literature, which I agree is of central importance, but we do Sartre a disservice if we assume that he somehow thought that literature was the only meaningful way to act in the world. He gave a more general presentation of his views in his lecture (and later the short book) titled Existentialism is a Humanism.
It is a fascinating work. It is short and accessible, which enables the reader to consider it as a totality, and it rewards careful thought as such. In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre presents his now-famous argument that with human beings, existence precedes essence. We are not created based on some pre-existing template of what constitutes human nature. We simply exist, and our essence (what human nature is) is determined by each of us in our actions. And further, layering on a bit of Kantian thinking, our actions should be such that we would want them to be common to general human nature. Sartre argues that Dostoevsky’s Trap is but the starting point for an existentialist: if everything is permitted, then there is no excuse, no recourse for our actions but ourselves. If we are free, then we are responsible for what we do, and the world is what we make of it. “There is no love,” he says, “apart from the deeds of love.” This unyielding primacy of actual human action and ultimate personal responsibility leads Sartre to conclude that existentialists are not reproached for their pessimism, but for “the sterness of our optimism.”
As an explanation and a defense of a position, Existentialism is a Humanism is first-rate. It is a fine piece of rhetoric, and a brilliant popularization of very complex ideas. It is also fascinating because it shows that Sartre can be intelligible and persuasive when he chooses to be, and that his philosophy really was a coherent system which he really did illustrate in the works discussed above.
Of the books here reviewed, Letters to Sartre is the only one I wish I hadn’t read. It is a big, beastly book: over 500 pages of De Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre, mostly (and by mostly, I mean pp. 35-375) dated September 1939-March 1941. As part of the research for this review, I read a number of other reviews of De Beauvoir’s copious writings, searching for the best volume to consult. Time and again I came across a similar phrase: “if De Beauvoir had deep thoughts on X event or Y book, she must have left them for her letters to Sartre.” Since this phrase cropped up in reviews of her personal diaries, I considered myself safe in seeking out those very letters. Here, I thought, I shall get a sense of Sartre from the outside, through the eyes of a highly intelligent woman who knew him best.
I was wrong.
If these letters are any indication, Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most catty, petty, self-absorbed, pseudo-intellectual solipsists ever to rise to unfortunate public prominence. Her letters mainly convey her daily routine: she drinks a lot of coffee in cafés, reads books, writes in her diary, and sleeps with lots of young girls, mainly ex-students. Since the bulk of the letters start on the date which initiated that minor historical quibble known as World War Two, I naively thought that De Beauvoir would have some thoughts or reflections on this. She does not. In late November of 1939, she writes to Sartre and asks him to explain the origins of the war—not because she wants to know, but for the novel she’s working on. By mid-December, when Poland had been partitioned and occupied and Warsaw’s 400,000 Jews forced into a ghetto, De Beauvoir gets her several girlfriends to find out if their respective boyfriends think she’s pretty. Hitler invades France; Beauvoir writes that she has a terrible pimple on her cheek and is losing sleep over it. Does she have thoughts about the defeat and collapse of the Third Republic, the establishment of the Vichy collaborationist regime, the evacuation of the British from Dunkirk? No, but she does go to see The Gorilla, starring The Ritz Brothers and Bela Lugosi. She doesn’t even have thoughts about the books she’s reading: her first thought occurs on p. 238, while on a ski trip during Christmas 1939, when she has something to say about Heinrich Heine. She first mentions the war on p. 317, several letters after Sartre was in fact taken prisoner by the Third Reich. She never demonstrates the slightest concern for the conduct or progress of the war, or the loss of life there entailed. Instead, she is very interested in the color of her turbans, and the emotional state of her various girlfriends.
This is the point that’s caused a degree of controversy. As a review in The New Yorker put it, following the publication of this unedited volume:
“The revelation was not the promiscuity; it was the hypocrisy. In interviews, Beauvoir had flatly denied having had sexual relations with women; in the letters, she regularly described, for Sartre, her nights in bed with women. The most appalling discovery, for many readers, was what ‘telling each other everything’ really meant. The correspondence was filled with catty and disparaging remarks about the people Beauvoir and Sartre were either sleeping with or trying to sleep with, even though, when they were with those people, they radiated interest and affection. Sartre, in particular, was always speaking to women of his love and devotion, his inability to live without them—every banality of popular romance. Words constituted his principal means of seduction: his physical approaches were on the order of groping in restaurants and grabbing kisses in taxis. With the publication of Letters to Sartre, it was clear that, privately, he and Beauvoir held most of the people in their lives in varying degrees of contempt. They enjoyed, especially, recounting to each other the lies they were telling.”
It gets a bit worse:
“Sartre and Beauvoir liked to refer to their entourage as ‘the Family,’ and the recurring feature of their affairs is a kind of play incest. Their customary method was to adopt a very young woman as a protégée—to take her to movies and cafés, travel with her, help her with her education and career, support her financially. (Sartre wrote most of his plays in part to give women he was sleeping with something to do: they could be actresses.) For Sartre and Beauvoir, the feeling that they were, in effect, sleeping with their own children must, as with most taboos, have juiced up the erotic fun.”
So where does this leave us, at the end of 7000 words? I must first and foremost admit that I was wrong about Sartre in many ways, most egregiously in the realm of politics.
I had always thought Sartre a rather good playwright, and had no trouble accepting him as the model of the politically-engaged man of theatre. Having read his short stories, several of which I can still recall clearly despite the ten years and thousand books which have passed since then, I thought of him as a decent fiction writer. His three novels have led me to revise this judgment upwards. They are an impressive project, and though the realization is a bit hit-and-miss, it was certainly inevitable that any attempt to illustrate the concepts of Being and Nothingness in real world events would be a difficult task. Les Chemins de la liberté are an important piece of post-war writing, and central works of existentialist literature; The Reprieve is without doubt an excellent novel, and Iron in the Soul is half of an excellent novel. Sartre as a novelist has amply proven himself. What of the rest of his work?
It is possible to construct a sort of timeline of Sartre’s life and work, and my approach thereof. As illustrated in Les Mots, Sartre’s pre-war life was an intensely cloistered, self-referential, unworldly one. He seems never to have grasped the existence of a world outside of the rather fascinating and misshapen skull of Jean-Paul Sartre. This gave rise to some interesting theories often presented in miserable prose, and an existentialist outlook that coloured the rest of his intellectual development, but which rested on an uneasy tension between solipsism and action. Upon discovering the world (in the unfortunate guise of World War Two), Sartre’s life and work fell into four phases: political neutrality but engagement with general reality; then the shift to ardent Communism; the High Communist phase in which Sartre became a Marxist thinker in his own right; and finally the phase of Sartre-as-champion of the Third World. Or, following Edmund Wilson’s phraseology: Sartre Discovers the World Exists; Sartre Discovers Communism Exists; Sartre Discovers He Is a Communist; Sartre Discovers the Third World Exists. Taking into consideration the work produced in each period, it is difficult not to conclude that Later Sartre became a character in a book by Early Sartre: intelligent, but self-indulgent, once again unworldly.
One generality is clear: Sartre, for all his intellectual pyrotechnics and the increasingly absurd length of his ruminations, seems to have been a rather lazy thinker. I first had an inkling of this while reading his famously terrible preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. There Sartre not only fails to supply any critical or intellectual appraisal, or even to situate the book in a historical, social, or biographical context, but indeed commits a very basic high school-student error: he summarizes. Worse, he summarizes incorrectly. He spends almost fifty pages telling you what he thinks Fanon is about to tell you, but as you begin to actually read Fanon himself, it becomes painfully obvious that Sartre only read the first chapter, and that he read shallowly. I began to wonder what could explain this, and then began to notice a pattern in Sartre’s work. We can draw a straight line from the simplistic preface to the unwritten fourth volume of Les Chemins de la liberté, to the uncompleted second volume of the Critique, to the unfinished fourth volume of the Flaubert, to the abandoned notebooks on ethics, to the manuscript on Mallarmé which was apparently misplaced somewhere. This straight line is labeled “Lazy Thinker.” Why else dispense so consistently with scholarly rigor and the conventions of research and presentation? How else do we explain the increasingly self-indulgent rambling of the later works? Sartre’s enormous output may suggest a man of enormous energy and passions, but his apparent refusal to revise, to clarify, to think before he writes suggests a man allergic to the heavy lifting required by critical thinking. I should not want to have to write a book as long and complex as the Critique of Dialectical Reason, but I should greatly prefer having to write that book to having to write the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
But when Sartre is brief, controlled, and rigorous, he is very good indeed. Hence his lively political essays, and the superb Existentialism is a Humanism. This probably also explains his memorable short stories, and his quite effective plays. His writing when it was for an actual audience (indeed, his engaged writing) is brilliant, and always worth reading. It is the writing he apparently did for himself, by himself, with himself in mind, with himself as audience that is turgid, confused, and largely unreadable.
Sartre was certainly a genius of some kind. Few intellectuals have written so many critical works in so many fields of endeavor, or have grappled so seriously both with eternal problems of human experience and with the specific political and social problems of the twentieth century. He cannot reasonably be overlooked by any serious student of twentieth-century thought, and a brief sampling of his work is too confined to dismiss a thinker who contained worlds. I look forward to returning to perhaps a half-dozen of his books, though I finish this project pleased that I never met him, and certain that his longer and larger projects will always remain unread by me.