Author– Jean-Paul Sartre
Category/ Genre– Philosophical Fiction
Jean-Paul Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher and pioneer, dramatist and screenwriter, novelist, and critic. He was a leading figure in 20th-century French philosophy. He is commonly considered the father of Existentialist philosophy, whose writings set the tone for intellectual life in the decade immediately following the Second World War. Born in Paris in 1905, he was brought up by his mother’s family, the Schwitzers ( The Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer was his older cousin). His grandfather was the inventor of the Berlitz method of teaching languages. He spent his early years with his grandfather in his library and is later said to have started writing seriously to ward off boredom.
He eventually studied philosophy at French and German Universities and taught at Le Havre, a port in the Normandy region. ‘Nausea‘ was his first full-scale work in which the commune of Bouville is modeled from Le Havre. The book was published in 1938 and was condemned by the academics, but welcomed by young readers of France.
Sartre entered the army during the second world war, was captured, sent to the prison camp, and released later due to ill health. After returning to Paris, under occupation he wrote several plays and his first major philosophical work, ‘Being and Nothingness‘ (1943). When the war ended, he was widely known as the leader of the entire war-bred generation of Parisian intellectuals.
He has produced novels, plays, short stories, essays, biographies, political and journalistic works, pamphlets, manifestoes etc…. He has been called the most brilliant Frenchman of his time. No one matched him for his wit, argumentative skill, polemical zeal and learning. ‘Nausea‘ is a powerful Existentialist novel and the protagonist Antoine Roquentin, a fictional and real archetype.
Sartre had long been fascinated with the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Among the last of his many uncompleted projects are a multi-volume study of Flaubert’s life and times, The Family Idiot (1971–1972). In this work, Sartre joins his Existentialist vocabulary of the 1940s and early 1950s with his Marxian lexicon of the late 1950s and 1960s to ask what we can know about a man in the present state of our knowledge. This study, which he describes as “a novel that is true,” incarnates that mixture of phenomenological description, psychological insight, and social critique that has become the hallmark of Sartrean philosophy. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, which he famously declined lest his acceptance be read as approval of the bourgeois values that the honor seemed to emblemize. He refused all official honors, stressing that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.“
Sartre was not politically involved in the 1930s though his heart, as he said, “was on the left, like everyone’s.” The War years, occupation and resistance made the difference. He emerged committed to social reform and convinced that the writer had the obligation to address the social issues of the day. He founded the influential journal of opinion, Les Temps Modernes, with his partner Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron, and others. In the “Présentation” to the initial issue (October, 1945), he elaborated his idea of committed literature and insisted that failure to address political issues amounted to supporting the status quo. After a brief unsuccessful attempt to help organize a nonCommunist leftist political organization, he began his long love-hate relationship with the French Communist Party, which he never joined but which for years he considered the legitimate voice of the working class in France. This continued till the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956. Still, Sartre continued to sympathize with the movement, if not the Party, for some time afterwards. He summarized his disillusionment in an essay “The Communists are afraid of Revolution,” following the “events of May,” 1968. By then he had moved toward the radical Left and what the French labeled “les Maos,” whom he likewise never joined but whose mixture of the ethical and the political attracted him.
Politically, Sartre tended toward what the French call “libertarian socialism,” which is a kind of anarchism. Ever distrustful of authority, which he considered “the Other in us,” his ideal was a society of voluntary eye-level relations that he called “the city of ends.” One caught a glimpse of this in his description of the forming group (le groupe en fusion) in the Critique. There each was “the same” as the others in terms of practical concern. Each suspended his or her personal interests for the sake of the common goal. No doubt these practices hardened into institutions and freedom was compromised once more in bureaucratic machinery. But that brief taste of genuine positive reciprocity was revelatory of what an authentic social existence could be.
Sartre came to recognize how the economic conditions the political in the sense that material scarcity, as both Ricardo and Marx insisted, determines our social relations. In Sartre’s reading, scarcity emerges as the source of structural and personal violence in human history as we know it. It follows, he believes, that liberation from such violence will come only through the counter-violence of revolution and the advent of a “socialism of abundance.”
What Sartre termed the “progressive/regressive method” for historical investigation is a hybrid of historical materialism and existentialist psychoanalysis. It respects the often decisive role of economic considerations in historical explanation (historical materialism) while insisting that “the men that History makes are not the men that make history”; in other words, he resists complete economic determinism by an implicit appeal to his humanist motto: “You can always make something out of…”
Never one to avoid a battle, Sartre became embroiled in the Algerian War, generating deep hostility from the Right to the point that a bomb was detonated at the entrance to his apartment building on two occasions by supporters of a French Algeria. Sartre’s political critique conveyed in a series of essays, interviews and plays, especially The Condemned of Altona, once more combined a sense of structural exploitation (in this case, the institution of colonialism and its attendant racism) with an expression of moral outrage at the oppression of the Muslim population and the torture of captives by the French military.
Sartre dealt implicitly with the issue of race in many of his works, beginning with Being and Nothingness. Race relations, especially segregation in the South, figured centrally in his reports from the United States during two visits after the War (1945 and 1946) and were a major topic of his many writings on colonialism and neocolonialism thereafter. It formed the theme of his play, “The Respectful Prostitute” (1946). He claimed that even as a boy, whenever he heard of the French “colonies,” he thought of racial exploitation. He wrote in Black Orpheus about the Africa poets using the colonizers’ language against them in their poems of liberation: “Black poetry in French is the only great revolutionary poetry of our time.” He fulminated against the violence of colonialism and its implicit “justification” by appeal to the sub-humanity of the native population. On several occasions in diverse works, Sartre referred to the cry of the oppressed and exploited: “We too are humans!” as the guiding ideal of their fight for liberty. His existential humanism grounded his critique of the capitalist and colonialist “systems.” He wrote that “the meanness is in the system”—a claim that resonated with liberation movements then and now. His appeal for violence to counter the inherent violence of the colonial system in Algeria reached hyperbolic proportions in his prefatory essay to Franz Fanon‘s The Wretched of the Earth (1961).
Some of the images and language of his earlier work were clearly sexist in character. And yet, Sartre always favored the exploited and oppressed in any relationship and he encouraged his life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, to write The Second Sex, commonly recognized as the seminal work for the second-wave of the feminist movement. Sartre, in his short work, Antisemite and Jew(1946) on the other hand, argues “synthetically” (concretely) for the rights of the Jew or the Arab or the woman (his examples) to vote as such in any election. In other words, their “rights” are concrete and not mere abstractions. One should not sacrifice the Jew (or the Arab or the woman) to the “man.” In Michael Walzer’s words: Sartre is promoting “multiculturalism…avant la lettre.”
In his last years, Sartre who had lost the use of one eye during his childhood became almost totally blind. Yet, he continued working with the help of a tape recorder. He was in an open relationship with the prominent feminist and fellow existentialist philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir till his death in 1980. As the headline of one Parisian newspaper lamented his death: “France has lost its conscience.” The relevance of Sartrean existentialism remains as actual today as does the human condition that it describes and analyzes.
The protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, a historian living in Bouville, France, has been researching the Marquis de Rollebon, a French aristocrat who lived during the French Revolution. He starts experiencing strange feelings of nausea that result in loss of interest in his work. He begins to write a diary noting down his strange feelings and experiences. He becomes aware of the existence of objects and connects his nausea to to this awareness of essence masking existence. . He fails to communicate these to his ex-lover or the self-taught man in the cafe and finally decides to move to Paris and write a novel.
Existentialists stress artistic creation as a vital aspect of existence. Sartre’s fiction is not allegorical or mythological, but an outline of straightforward philosophical arguments. The ultimate cure to his nausea rests on artistic creation. The main themes are ‘existence precedes essence’ and the differentiation between ‘being in itself’ and ‘being for itself’. He concludes that the essence of objects like color, smell, shape, weight etc. are all facades that mask the fact that the thing exists in first place.
To understand the deeper meanings of ‘Nausea‘, one needs to go through the basics of Existential philosophy. So adding whatever little I have understood from some essays about the topic. It is not a novel with straightforward indications, guiding lampposts, or thrilling plot twists. But, Nausea is not only a powerful philosophical novel but a crucial event in the evolution of sensibility.
The strategy of “indirect communication” has been an instrument of “Existentialists” since Kierkegaard adopted the use of pseudonyms in his philosophical writings in the early nineteenth century. The point is to communicate a feeling and an attitude that the reader/spectator adopts in which certain existentialist themes such as anguish, responsibility or bad faith are suggested but not dictated as in a lecture. Asked why his plays were performed only in the bourgeois sections of the city, Sartre replied that no bourgeois could leave a performance of one of them without “thinking thoughts traitorous to his class.” And this is what existentialism is chiefly about: challenging the individual to examine their life for intimations of bad faith and to heighten their sensitivity to oppression and exploitation in their world.
Sartre’s early work Nausea (1938) is the very model of a philosophical novel. Its protagonist, Roquentin, works through many of the major themes of Being and Nothingness that will appear five years later. It can be read as an extended meditation on the contingency of our existence and on the psychosomatic experience that captures that phenomenon. In his famous meditation on a tree root, Roquentin experiences the brute facticity of its existence and of his own: both are simply there, without justification, in excess (de trop). The physicality of this revelatory “sickly sweet” sensation should not be overlooked. Like the embarrassment felt before the Other’s gaze in the voyeur example , our bodily intentionality (what he calls “the body as for-itself”) is revealing a reality.
In an introductory note, Hayden Carruth the American poet, literary critic and anthologist explain how the existentialist ideas are not new. He mentions its presence in the myths of Abraham and Job, pre-Socratic philosophies of Greece, dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides, Greek and Byzantine culture of mystery and as a fine thread in the central European tradition: the Church Fathers, Augustine, the Gnostics, Abelard, Thomas. In the Orient, concurrently, the entire development of religious and philosophical attitudes, particularly in the Buddhist and Taoist writings, seems to have been frequently closer to the actual existence of mankind than the rationalist discourses of the West.
Existentialism as we know today springs from philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Although they lived a generation apart, were contrary in many respects, they shared the same experiences in the concern for the fate of individuals. They influenced Dostoevsky, who expressed the existentialist sensibilities in his novels, especially ‘The Brothers Karamazov‘ and ‘Notes from the Underground’. Carruth mentions that “In literature many, or even most, of the chief modern authors have been, consciously or not, Existentialists; certainly the tradition is very strong in the line of development represented by Kafka, Unamuno, Lawrence, Malraux, Hesse, Camus, and Faulkner“.
The philosophy cannot be defined distinctly as it is a living experience as opposed to the rationalist tradition from the Renaissance. The Ideal Reason of the mind in the rationalist tradition could not account for human experiences like pain and ecstasy, doubt and intuition, anguish and despair as Kierkegaard was aware. The philosophy of Hegel, Hegelianism, described the reality in a unified rational mind of a crowd, submerging the consciousness and giving prominence to the mass instead of the individual. But for the Existentialist, who insists that reality is only what he himself knows and experiences, self and consciousness are not submerged and also they are cruel and coercive. For the Existentialist, the self is present, suffering existent and “A crowd is an untruth”. Only in the self could the truth occur. Focussing on self and consciousness is one of the ideas of existentialism.
The next idea is ‘nothingness as the reality‘. When a person looks back beyond his birth or forwards after his death, there is a void. Similarly, when he looks inside himself, setting aside the memory, knowledge, and sensations, he sees a chasm of formless ego, a nothingness. This nothingness becomes a reality that leads to man’s despair or existential integrity. Nothingness inside self as the new reality makes the human-centric version of the philosophy of Humanism untenable according to existentialists. Thus mankind is an accident in existentialist philosophy, a late and adventitious newcomer whose life is governed by contingency; and the proof, paradoxically, comes from rationalism itself, from the Darwinian idea of evolution. Man, the thinker is a contingent by-product only, a non- essential component of the reality of a world of stars, stones and trees. Thus, man and his works cling to existence by a tenuous hold.
Nothingness and absurdity of existence and the confrontation with anguish and despair are basic ideas of existentialism from which each existentialist philosopher found his own specific ideas of individual existence, Sartre one among them. The idea of confronting existence with anguish and despair has had a huge impact on the minds of the common people as well as intellectuals in a chaotic world as in the post-world war society of Europe. Thus the philosophy flourished in Europe in the twentieth century. Those who lived through torture, uprootedness, or chaos were impacted much by this philosophy. Thus the reason for the pessimistic, nightmarish imagery in Existentialist literature. Though the chaotic world impacted the flourishing of the philosophy, it is also seen in the works of Dickens, Pushkin, and Balzac. Also, neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche lived in a turbulent, chaotic external world, too. So, it could be surmised that their inner searchings were deeply rooted than the external chaos in the origins of existentialism.
“Suffering is the origin of consciousness,” Dostoevski.
“Life begins on the other side of despair.” Sartre
Sartre himself is an example and has been at great pains to define and enforce his exemplitude: in journalism, in fiction, in drama, in political activity, and in teaching.
Nietzsche’s remark: “I honor a philosopher only if he is able to be an example.“
Sartre posits the idea that “what all existentialists have in common is the fundamental doctrine that existence precedes essence“, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life. This view is in contradistinction to what Aristotle and Aquinas held; they taught that essence precedes individual existence. In his essay, ‘Being and Nothingness‘, he explains the kinds of beings as in-itself (en-soi), for-itself (pour-soi), and for-others (pour-autrui). En-soi refers to the existence of inanimate objects, not conscious, neither active nor passive, and harboring no potential for transcendence. For humans, Sartre defines the for-itself being as one who is conscious, free, transcendent, with multiple roles. Sartre famously states that “humans are condemned to be free”.
One of the problems of human existence is the desire to be en-soi or to attain an absolute identity, full control over one’s destiny or the desire to be God. Sartre gives the example of a cafe waiter to explain these terms. Take the inanimate object, an inkwell for example. It plays the exact role of an inkwell only and so is a being-in-itself. The waiter in the cafe acts the waiter’s part, but his actual identity is that of a man and many other things who happen to be functioning as a waiter. So he is a being-for-itself. In playing the part of the waiter, he reduces himself to a being- in -itself and thus acts in “bad faith”.
The notion of absurd encompasses the meaninglessness or unfairness of the world. Thus it opposes the Abrahamic religious perspective that the purpose of life is to follow and fulfill God’s commandments. Albert Camus states that the world or the human in itself is not absurd, but the absurdity of existence happens when both juxtaposition against each other. The view by Kierkegaard states that absurdism happens by actions and choices of human beings. Any tragic event could plummet someone, good or bad, irrespective to confront the absurd. The notion of the Absurd has been prominent in the literary works of Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Miguel de Unamuno, Luigi Pirandello, Sartre, Joseph Heller, and Camus that contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world.
Facticity signifies all of the concrete details against the background of which human freedom exists and is limited. For example, these may include the time and place of birth, a language, an environment, an individual’s previous choices, as well as the inevitable prospect of their death. For example: currently, the situation of a person who is born without legs precludes their freedom to walk on the beach; if future medicine were to develop a method of growing new legs for that person, their facticity might no longer exclude this activity.
In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which an individual’s actions are congruent with his beliefs and desires, despite external pressures; the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures, and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. A lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be bad faith.
“Existential angst“, sometimes called existential dread, anxiety, or anguish is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. The archetypal example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that “nothing is holding me back”, one senses the lack of anything that predetermines one to either throw oneself off or to stand still, and one experiences one’s own freedom.
Despair is generally defined as a loss of hope. In existentialism, it is more specifically a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one’s self or identity. If a person is invested in being a particular thing, such as a bus driver or an upstanding citizen, and then finds their being-thing compromised, they would normally be found in a state of despair—a hopeless state. For example, a singer who loses the ability to sing may despair if they have nothing else to fall back on—nothing to rely on for their identity. They find themselves unable to be what defined their being. What sets the existentialist notion of despair apart from the conventional definition is that existentialist despair is a state one is in even when they are not overtly in despair. So long as a person’s identity depends on qualities that can crumble, they are in perpetual despair
Atheistic existentialism is a kind of existentialism which strongly diverged from the Christian existential works of Søren Kierkegaard and developed within the context of an atheistic world view. It was formally recognized after the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre and Sartre later explicitly alluded to it in Existentialism is a Humanism in 1946. His novel Nausea is in some ways a manifesto of atheistic existentialism. It deals with a dejected researcher (Antoine Roquentin) in an anonymous French town, where Roquentin becomes conscious of the fact that nature as well as every inanimate object is indifferent towards him and his tormented existence. The existential angst experienced by the protagonist allows him to eventually understand that meaning exists only when he creates it for himself. Sartre once said, “existence precedes essence”. What he meant was “that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterward, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first, he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence” Sartre wrote other works in the spirit of atheistic existentialism (e.g. the short stories in his 1939 collection The Wall).
Albert Camus writes of dualisms—between happiness and sadness—as well as life and death. In The Myth of Sisyphus, such dualism becomes paradoxical because humans greatly value their existence while at the same time being aware of their mortality. Camus believes it is human nature to have difficulty reconciling these paradoxes; and indeed, he believed humankind must accept what he called “the Absurd”. On the other hand, Camus is not strictly an existential atheist because the acceptance of “the Absurd” implies neither the existence of God nor the nonexistence of God (compare agnosticism).
Sartre believed in individual freedom of consciousness, a consciousness that results from each person’s subjective and individual experience of the world. He questioned the larger social structures like capitalist exploitation, colonialism, racism, and sexism that systematically objectified people and failed to affirm their individual consciousness and innate freedom. His focus on individual freedom shaped his views on Marxism. Though allied to the French Communist Party, he never joined and opposed authoritarianism especially after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Sartre always harbored a healthy libertarian or anarchist streak. He wanted the working class to collectively overthrow the capitalist system and believed that any political struggle should affirm and allow for the individual freedom of all human beings. Sartre affirmed that people are always essentially free. No matter how objectified they may be, the gifts of freedom and consciousness mean that they always have the possibility of making something out of their circumstance of objectification. In Sartre’s view, individual freedom of consciousness is humanity’s gift—as well as its curse, since with it comes the responsibility to shape our own lives.
The Burden of responsibility– Sartre believed in the essential freedom of individuals, and he also believed that as free beings, people are responsible for all elements of themselves, their consciousness, and their actions. That is, with total freedom comes total responsibility. He believed that even those people who wish not to be responsible, who declare themselves not responsible for themselves or their actions, are still making a conscious choice and are thus responsible for anything that happens as a consequence of their inaction. Sartre’s moral philosophy maintains that ethics are essentially a matter of individual conscience.
The difficulty of knowing the self– For Sartre, for any individual to claim “that’s just the way I am” would be a statement of self-deception. Likewise, whenever people internalize the objectified identity granted to them by other people or by society, such as a servile woman or dutiful worker, they are guilty of self-deception. Whenever people tell themselves that their nature or views are unchangeable, or that their social position entirely determines their sense of self, they are deceiving themselves. Sartre believed it is always possible to make something out of what one has been made into. This task of self-actualization, however, involves a complex process of recognizing the factual realities outside of one’s self that is acting on the self (what Sartre calls facticity) and exactly how those realities are working, as well as knowing fully that one possesses a consciousness independent of those factors.
Following Hegel, Sartre writes that an individual person, or being-for-itself, can become cognizant of his own existence only when he sees himself being perceived by another being-for-itself. That is, we can formulate a conscious state of being and identity only when we are confronted by others who are also possessed of that consciousness and we apprehend ourselves in relation to them. As Sartre explains, however, the encounter with the Other is tricky, at least initially, because we may first believe that in being perceived by another conscious being we are being objectified or essentialized by that being, who may appear to be regarding us only as type, appearance, or imagined essence. In turn, we may seek to regard others as definable, simple objects not possessed of individual consciousness. The notion of the Other plays a central role in Sartre’s thinking and writing about large-scale systems of social objectification, such as colonialism, racism, and sexism. Such systems enable the Other to be falsely seen as an object, a definable being-in-itself, and not as a free individual, a being-for-itself, possessed of his or her own undefinable, conscious state of being.
(Ref: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/, http://users.telenet.be/sterf/texts/phil/Sartre-Nausea.pdf,https://, http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/sartre/themes/, )