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Jean-Paul Sartre was perhaps the 20th century’s most famous thinker - if you can get beyond the verbiage

The thrill of violence was key to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, says his latest biographer

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

Sartre: A Philosophical Biography Thomas R. Flynn

CUP, pp.436, £30, ISBN: 9780521826402

Thomas R. Flynn has written an avowedly ‘intellectual biography’ of Jean-Paul Sartre, which might seem fitting. Sartre was nothing if not an intellectual — so much so that one struggles to think of him as anything but an intellectual. Albert Camus, Sartre’s great rival for the title of the 20th century’s most famous thinker, was a strong swimmer and a stronger soccer player. A little adolescent boxing aside, Sartre did little but sit at zinc tables necking coffee and Corydrane (the amphetamine-based painkiller he was addicted to). When, in his magnum opus Being and Nothingness, he called a waiter out for inauthenticity — for refusing his existential duty to define himself in the face of history rather than be moulded by it — he knew something of what he spoke. Sartre spent an awful lot of his life being waited on.

And all the while he was filling notebook after notebook with words (not insignificantly, the title of his first memoir). Like a jobbing hack, he prided himself on the volume of his output. To the disinterested observer, though, it is clear that his productivity had a price. Forever busy with the next deadline, he had no time to reread any of his work, much less polish it for publication. Aesthetic satisfactions aside, this didn’t matter so much with his plays and novels and journalism. But when it came to the philosophy on which Professor Flynn believes Sartre’s reputation rests, it mattered a lot. Nobody said philosophy was meant to be easy, but there is no necessary connection between density of expression and depth of thought.

Early on, Sartre’s prose was merely windy. Here he is in The Imaginary, telling us about something

that aims in its corporality at an absent or nonexistent object, through a physical or psychic content that is given not as itself but in the capacity of an ‘analogical representative’ of the object aimed at.

(Just so you know, he’s defining the ‘image’.) But by the time of Being and Nothingness the verbosity was shading into obscurantism:

The future constitutes the meaning of my present for-itself as the project of its possibility, but that in no way predetermines my for-itself which is to-come, since the for-itself is always abandoned to the nihilating obligation of being the foundation of its nothingness.


(I think this means that tomorrow needn’t be like today if you don’t want it to be.)

But the confusions of Sartre’s sentences were as nothing to the contradictions of his ideas. Like Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes. Unlike Whitman, he was unaware of the fact. From first to last he thought of himself as a Cartesian. But he never explained (neither, more signally, does Flynn) how, from his thirties on, he contrived to stay faithful to Descartes while running around with Marx.

How could he? Nobody — not even someone as clever as Sartre — could marry the Marxian view of history to the Cartesian vision of the singular, sovereign soul. The same goes double for Husserl’s phenomenology (with which Sartre first made a name for himself, pretty much by translating it into French wholesale). Phenomenology, after all, does what the name suggests. It concerns itself not with deep structures but with surface appearances. Marxism, on the other hand, is all hidden meanings, subterranean significances.

What lured Sartre the existential individualist into the straitened precincts of determinism? Bluntly, the thrill of violence — ‘necessary violence’, violence as ‘the midwife of history’, violence that ‘like the spear of Achilles, can heal the wounds that it has made’. Not, Sartre was keen to point out, that he was any kind of Stalinist. He was a thinker, not a thug, and though non-philosophers might not be able to spot the difference, the fact remained that he had arrived at his present revolutionary position ‘arguing on the basis of my principles and not theirs’. So that’s all right then.

Given the Freudian bent of his books on Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Genet, Flaubert (of whom he wrote that ‘everything [of significance in his life] took place in childhood’), it is tempting to ascribe Sartre’s midlife turn to insurrection as a belated response to the odium his 12-year-old self had felt when, a decade after her husband’s death, his mother remarried. This Flynn resists — even though he tells us that Sartre once claimed to have been ‘anti-bourgeois ever since he met his future stepfather’. Fair enough, though fair too, surely, to ask whether we are reading a biography or a critical monograph.

Certainly this bookcan be hard going. You will learn a lot about Sartre’s philosophy — and about continental philosophy in general — but little about the man behind the thought. By the end of page two, the 34-year-old Sartre is readying himself for the second world war. It could be said that since the fundamental premise of existentialism was that activity and actant are inseparable — that to do is to be — a Sartre biography has no need of such information.

It could also be said that a man who advocated violence against ordinary people after having done nothing during the Occupation but kowtow to the enemy was not best placed to talk about either doing or being. Could be, but isn’t — at least not by Flynn, an omission that vitiates his otherwise impressively thoughtful book.

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  • FredO

    Doubt that Sartre was the “most famous thinker” of the 20th century, but he is certainly in the running for “most intellectually corrupt” and also the award for “highest ratio of pretension to actual merit”.

    A loathsome apologist for brutal dictatorship, Mr. Sartre’s work deserves the fate of the Soviet regime itself, i.e. oblivion.

  • Skuser

    Did Sartre indeed do nothing during the Occupation but kowtow to the enemy? He may not have been as heroic as he was thought to be right after the war, but I think Ian Buruma recently placed him “on the periphery of the resistance”. Does anyone know more about this?

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Yes he was spotted loitering by the Seine, smoking a Gaulois with a grenade up his arse.

    • Frank

      Well beyond the outer banlieu I think.
      Mind you according to the released French police files, Paris apparently only had something like 68 active resistants in it during the bulk of the war.
      I believe that Sartre claimed to have joined a French combat unit after Paris was liberated and played a part in freeing a prisoner of war camp.

      • Sean L

        I believe he was a weatherman for the French before being captured by the Germans, becoming a prisoner of war.

        • Frank

          It is quite hard to button down as there are several versions of just what happened in 1944/1945.

  • charlesjshields

    Give me Orwell any day over this flâner.

    • Andrew Martino

      I agree.

    • PL

      But the article represents him as typically sedentary. A flâneur is always walking about. As for Orwell, I’d say that’s sort of apples and oranges. What did each of them say about the other, I wonder? They must have said something, but I can’t recall anything.

      • charlesjshields

        flâneur |fläˈnər, -ˈnœr| (also flaneur)
        noun (pl. flâneurs pronunc.same)

        an idler or lounger.

        ORIGIN French, from flâner ‘saunter, lounge.’

        • PL

          Point taken. I guess you can do it sitting on your derrière.

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Old Georgie eh…. can’t we all move on.

      • thomasaikenhead

        Why move on when George Orwell wrote so much simple common sense?

        George Orwell warned of the danger of following political thought over humanity, about the use and misuse of the English language and the delights of a decent pub.

        George Orwell was not an abstract theorist pontificating in a Paris cafe, he actually fought in the Spanish Civil War, went to Wigan, was down and out in London and Paris so knew what he was writing about.

        His thoughts and values are as fresh and valuable today as the time when he wrote them, so, no, do not move on until you can provide something better than ‘The Moon under Water’?

        • La Fold

          Was about to say something but you said it better than I could. cheers.

    • La Fold

      Was thinking exactly the same as I read it.

  • Andrew Martino

    I think history is proving that Camus was the more authentic and committed intellectual. This is not to be entirely dismissive of Sartre, but Camus’ very public stance of silence is actually more powerful than Sartre’s grandstanding with a megaphone. Moreover, Camus was a much better writer.

    • I fully agree with you ,compare to Sartre Camus was most honest have understandability he touch our psyche genuinely.I liked his all his books

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      They were both creators of bullshit. Existentialism was the precursor of the soulless secular deadzones we inhabit today with all of the attendant PC insanity. Two Losers. As for who wrote better, who cares… equally redundant and empty.

      Love is the Law – Love under Will 93 93/93

  • barrycooper

    Sartre was an abusive pig.

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Please. I’m very fond of pigs!

      • barrycooper

        Fair enough. I apologize to the pigs for comparing them with him.

  • lukelea

    Sartre was hoisted by one’s own petard. He was a thing, a “golden brain,” as he described himself, not a free human being, trading his fame for sex with young women groupies. Bad faith personified, condemned by his own philosophy.

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Think you might have revised that too much… ruins good poems.

    • Dogsnob

      How ‘near-adolescent’ are we talking. Savillesque?

  • Helen of Troy

    Leo Strauss.

    • Jody Taylor

      Leo or Levi?

      • Helen of Troy

        Leo, the German-Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for England and then America, where he stayed and gained a student following because of his rediscovery of esoteric writing and his return to ancient as well as modern understandings of human life.

        • Fak_Zakaix

          German or Jewish?

          • Helen of Troy

            Both, as stated.

          • Fak_Zakaix

            Yawn.

  • Jody Taylor

    People just don’t get it that a lot of famous public intellectuals and philosophers like Sartre were just con-men who spoke well. Groupies fawned all over them and they got to do pretty much what they liked. Meanwhile, the rest of the skeptical population steers/steered right away from academe and its hideous group-think and mindless amoral conformity. If ever a professional group was anal retentive it’s this one!!

    • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

      Most people can’t DO. They have lost touch with their true will. They follow, imitate, conform. Fear is endemic these days. Sartre’s soulless cerebral philosophizing was like pouring from the empty into the void. We need myth, we need spirit, we need dream. We need most of all to free ourselves from the cage rather than help the jailers turn the lock.

      • Jody Taylor

        I changed some of my comments about those who CAN do, because after some reflection I realized that critics and teachers can also be greatly ingenious and inspiring. I’m thinking of Pauline Kael, just as one example.

  • Oliver Conant

    Writing The Flies, No Exit and other plays during the occupation was not kowtowing to the enemy.

  • Frank

    France has an obsession with having one or more intellectuals (to spout intelligent sounding BS). As in currently JB Levy, who managed to appear on various British news programmes to tell us what intellectual French thought about the Charlie Hebdo killers. Why would any British publisher think that we were all waiting on a new biography on Sartre? Jobs for the boys?

  • Bob Hutton

    John Paul Sartre was an atheist; he didn’t believe in God, or Heaven and Hell. Since April 15th, , 1980 he has believed in both. On that day (if he died without knowing Christ as his personal Saviour) he stood before God to be judged and was cast into Hell.

    • Des Demona

      Accept I’m your saviour or I chuck you into the fires of hell?
      That doesn’t sound like a very Christian attitude.
      Oh wait a minute…..

      • Bob Hutton

        I don’t care if it sounds like a Christian attitude or not – it IS the truth. People who repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour have eternal life, those who don’t will experience eternal damnation.

        • Des Demona

          That’s the truth? Why would I accept anyone as being a ”saviour” if the alternative if I don’t happen to agree is that ”saviour” confines me to hell and damnation?
          Doesn’t sound like a particularly benevolent saviour to me? More like a monstrous physcotic egomaniac.
          By the way, do you have any proof for this assertion? Saying IS in capitals doesn’t really constitute evidence of the truth.

          • Helen of Troy

            Presumably Satan runs H=ll and is looking forward to receiving us — but the tyrant of Heaven will suffer us to be whisked off there instead if we do as he wants. I’m not sure there would be very much to choose between, when it’s put like that!

          • cmflynn

            Saint Padre Pio once warned an atheist that he was on a path which led to hell. ‘I don’t believe in hell.’ said the atheist. ‘You’ll believe it when you get there,’ Was the reply. The truth is that we all choose our own paths through life. No one is ‘condemned’ to hell, they choose the path that leads that way of their own free will. That is the true horror.

          • Des Demona

            Ahh right. So now I’m not condemned to hell for not being a believer. I’m condemning myself!
            You guys need to get your story straight. At least I knew where I was when my Dad said if I don’t behave I wont get presents from Santa Claus.

          • Solage 1386

            An all-knowing God would have known from the beginning of time who was destined for Heaven and who was destined for Hell. In which case, the future is pre-ordained, and there is no free will. Nasty!

        • Tremulous

          You’re just asserting it. If you’ve got any evidence it’s the truth, please present it. I’m sure you’d win a Nobel Prize.

        • T_H_E_R_I_O_N

          If you’re going to heaven Bob, I’ll definitely pass. Say hi to Jesus.

        • Solage 1386

          But are you a Catholic?

          • Bob Hutton

            No, I was saved from the errors of Catholicism in my teens.

        • Solage 1386

          In the great scheme of things, God doesn’t matter. Being all-wise, He will know this. Knowing this, He will plunge into an infinite abyss of nothingness and meaninglessness……His very own Hell! And that is where true peace is to be found.

    • Solage 1386

      If no God exists then you have utterly wasted your life. You must also be considered “mad”. Too late to change now. There is no going back.

      • Bob Hutton

        If God exists you are heading for Hell, it is not too late to change your mind.

        • Solage 1386

          You believe in a God because you fear death, and wish to live forever. There is no other reason. Alas for you, your ego is destined for oblivion!
          If you had a choice of a God but no afterlife, or an afterlife but no God, which would you choose?

  • Tremulous

    I’m going to be honest here. I’ve read Being and Nothingness and all I can say is that it’s a gigantic pile of horse manure.

    I’m going to blame Hegel for starting the trend of writing utter bilge to make yourself look clever. Sartre was a master at that. Ultimately his words are void of any content.

  • Greg

    I doubt that you ever read Sartre in French. In fact he is one of the best French stylists. In terms of clarity, elegance and precision very few thinkers surpass him.

  • oresme2

    I really underestimated him all my life then. I always thought him to be a big zero compared to Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel, John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener and many others.

    I always hated his books. I once read Le mur in french. For me it is funny, that they gave the Nobel prize to him after the Pasternak affair. The old Stalinist had to refuse then.

  • VUNCOOL .

    I just want to know if Simone de Beauvoir is saying: “Shall I be mother?”

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