Jean-Paul Sartre , (1905-1980) born
in Paris in 1905, studied at the École Normale Supérieure from 1924
to 1929 and became Professor of Philosophy at Le Havre in 1931.
With the help of a stipend from the Institut Français he
studied in Berlin (1932) the philosophies of Edmund Husserl and
Martin Heidegger. After further teaching at Le Havre, and then in
Laon, he taught at the Lycée Pasteur in Paris from 1937 to
1939. Since the end of the Second World War, Sartre has been
living as an independent writer.
Sartre is one of those writers for whom a determined philosophical position is the centre of their artistic being. Although drawn from many sources, for example, Husserl's idea of a free, fully intentional consciousness and Heidegger's existentialism, the existentialism Sartre formulated and popularized is profoundly original. Its popularity and that of its author reached a climax in the forties, and Sartre's theoretical writings as well as his novels and plays constitute one of the main inspirational sources of modern literature. In his philosophical view atheism is taken for granted; the "loss of God" is not mourned. Man is condemned to freedom, a freedom from all authority, which he may seek to evade, distort, and deny but which he will have to face if he is to become a moral being. The meaning of man's life is not established before his existence. Once the terrible freedom is acknowledged, man has to make this meaning himself, has to commit himself to a role in this world, has to commit his freedom. And this attempt to make oneself is futile without the "solidarity" of others.
The conclusions a writer must draw from this position were set forth in "Qu'est-ce que la littérature?" (What Is Literature?), 1948: literature is no longer an activity for itself, nor primarily descriptive of characters and situations, but is concerned with human freedom and its (and the author's) commitment. Literature is committed; artistic creation is a moral activity.
While the publication of his early, largely psychological studies, L'Imagination (1936), Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions (Outline of a Theory of the Emotions), 1939, and L'Imaginaire: psychologie phénoménologique de l'imagination (The Psychology of Imagination), 1940, remained relatively unnoticed, Sartre's first novel, La Nausée (Nausea), 1938, and the collection of stories Le Mur (The Wall and other Stories), 1938, brought him immediate recognition and success. They dramatically express Sartre's early existentialist themes of alienation and commitment, and of salvation through art.
His central philosophical work, L'Etre et le néant (Being and Nothingness), 1943, is a massive structuralization of his concept of being, from which much of modern existentialism derives. The existentialist humanism which Sartre propagates in his popular essay L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (Existentialism is a Humanism), 1946, can be glimpsed in the series of novels, Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom), 1945-49.
Sartre is perhaps best known as a playwright. In Les Mouches (The Flies), 1943, the young killer's committed freedom is pitted against the powerless Jupiter, while in Huis Clos (No Exit), 1947, hell emerges as the togetherness of people.
Sartre has engaged extensively in literary critisicm and has written studies on Baudelaire (1947) and Jean Genet (1952). A biography of his childhood, Les Mots (The Words), appeared in 1964.
For, no matter how otherwise heteroclite, they share one fundamental emblem: a common and latent pessimism . All the major departures or developments of substance within this tradition are distinguished from the classical heritage of historical materialism by the darkness of their implications or conclusions. In this respect, between 1920 and 1960, Marxism slowly changed colours in the West. The confidence and optimism of the founders of historical materialism, and of their successors, progressively disappeared. Virtually every one of the significant new themes in the intellectual muster of this epoch reveals the same diminution of hope and loss of certainty. Gramsci’s theoretical legacy was the prospect of a long war of attrition against an immensely stronger structure of capitalist power, more proof against economic collapse than had been envisaged by his predecessors — a struggle with no final clarity of outcome visible. His own life indefectibly bound to the political fate of the working class of his time and nation, Gramsci’s revolutionary temper was tersely expressed in the maxim "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will": once again, it was he who alone consciously perceived and controlled what was to be the timbre of a new and unheralded Marxism. The pervasive melancholy of the work of the Frankfurt School lacked any comparable note of active fortitude. Adorno and Horkheimer called in question the very idea of man’s ultimate mastery of nature, as a realm of deliverance beyond capitalism. Marcuse evoked the utopian potentiality of the liberation of nature in man, only to deny it the more emphatically as an objective tendency in reality, and to conclude that the industrial working class was itself perhaps absorbed past recall within capitalism. The pessimism of Althusser and Sartre had another but no less grave horizon, the very structure of socialism itself. Althusser declared that even communism would remain opaque as a social order to the individuals living under it, deceiving them with the perpetual illusion of their liberty as subjects. Sartre rejected the very idea of a true dictatorship of the proletariat as an impossibility, and interpreted the bureaucratization of socialist revolutions as the ineluctable product of a scarcity whose end remained inconceivable in this century.