Philosopher, novelist and short-story writer, man of the theater, left-wing political activist — Jean-Paul Sartre was the very model of the 20th-century public intellectual. By the time of his death in 1980, “the pope of existentialism” had published millions upon millions of words, won (and turned down) a Nobel prize, and become such a famed figure that 50,000 mourners followed his casket to witness his burial in Paris’s Montparnasse cemetery.
Yet what is Sartre’s legacy? Does anyone — should anyone — read him today? In his brisk, accessible biography, Gary Cox tries to make the case that Sartre’s best work provides deep insight into the human condition. One could also make the case — Cox doesn’t — that his worst work exemplifies the fanaticism of the leftist mind at its most extreme.
Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris to a tubercular naval officer, Jean-Baptiste, who would die the next year, and a bored bourgeois mother, Anne-Marie Schweitzer, a relative of the famed Christian missionary Albert Schweitzer. Sartre didn’t remember his father. “Jean-Baptiste had denied me the pleasure of meeting him,” he observed in his 1963 autobiography, Words. “Even today, I am amazed how little I know about him.” Yet he had no interest in finding out more. Indeed, Sartre relished the lack of competition for his mother’s affections. After her husband’s death, Anne-Marie returned to live in her parents’ home in suburban Paris, where Sartre found himself treated like a little prince, an idyll that ended only with his mother’s remarriage to an engineer, Joseph Mancy, in 1917. Sartre abominated his stepfather: “Engineer” would become a vicious insult in the Sartrean lexicon. When Mancy died, Sartre moved his mother into his apartment, and they would live together for much of his adult life.
Anne-Marie’s father, Charles, owned a large library of classic books, and the precocious boy, encouraged by his grandfather, got lost in them, “exploring words as other children explore woodlands, finding ideas more real than objects,” as Cox puts it. Sartre devoured Corneille and Flaubert and other literary giants, but also — on the sly, since Charles disapproved — comic-book adventures that his mother bought for him. Sartre’s juvenile writings abounded with damsels in distress and heroes braving terrors to rescue them.
His brilliance evident to all, Sartre gained admission in 1924 to the École Normale Supérieure, France’s most prestigious school for the humanities. It was there that he met Simone de Beauvoir, who became his lifelong philosophical soulmate, “necessary” (as opposed to “contingent”) lover, and traveling companion, as well as Raymond Aron, who would be first a friend and then a formidable critic of his leftist politics. Sartre failed on his first try to pass the required exams to receive his teaching license — his responses were too original, Cox says — but finished first on the second attempt, in June 1929. He spent the next several years teaching high school in Le Havre, a dreary seaport in northwestern France.
Sartre’s literary career ignited in 1938, as his first novel, Nausea, gave voice to what would soon be known as “existentialism.” Nausea’s hero, Antoine Roquentin, wanders the streets of Bouville — “mudtown” — sickened by the absurdity of life. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance,” he ruminates morosely. He struggles to find a reason to stay alive. Yet if the universe is random, Roquentin eventually concludes, it is also free, as is he. One of Sartre’s — and existentialism’s — main themes is born: Man is responsible for his actions, however much he wants to deny it. No one has an essence; we make ourselves through our various projects. As the novel ends, Roquentin listens to the jazz number “Some of These Days” on a café jukebox, and imagines the songwriter justifying his existence through his creative act. In a revelation, Roquentin realizes that he, too, could give meaning to life by creating, and he decides to write a novel. Art can save us, or so the early Sartre seemed to think. The book caused a sensation, establishing Sartre as a Parisian fixture, and it remains a classic of world literature, rivaled only by Albert Camus’s The Stranger in the existentialist canon.
Sartre would publish a few more novels, as well as short stories and plays, in the decades ahead, including 1944’s grim No Exit, where the immortal existentialist line “Hell — is other people” is uttered by one of the three doomed characters. But he increasingly turned his attention to philosophy, criticism, and politics. His great theoretical work, Being and Nothingness appeared in 1943, drawing on Nietzsche, German phenomenology, and Henri Bergson to explore the complex and fraught dynamics of human interaction with others and with the world — again with man’s radical freedom always in sight. Cox calls it “the bible of existentialism.”
It was World War II that jolted Sartre into political engagement. After serving in a French meteorological division — his mostly blind left eye kept him from active fighting — he was taken prisoner by German troops and packed off to a POW camp, where for the first time he discovered humanity in all of its wild, and often rough, variety. His captors soon released him, however, deeming him harmless. Returning to Nazi-occupied Paris, he furtively supported resistance efforts, staged theatrical performances under the eye of German censors, taught philosophy, and kept writing. Cox rightly dismisses charges that Sartre was a collaborator. “He was not the bravest,” Cox observes, “but neither was he a coward.” Politicized, Sartre henceforth committed himself to fighting a fascist resurgence and determined that radical socialism was the only way to do that.
Thus began Sartre’s long years as a celebrity apologist for totalitarianism. He made his first trip to the Soviet Union during the early 1950s; Stalinoid commissars showed him the approved version of their socialist utopia and got him very drunk on vodka. Back in France from his visit — a Gallic Walter Duranty — he proclaimed that the citizen of the USSR enjoyed greater “freedom to criticize” than his bourgeois Western counterparts. He knew this was ridiculous, as he later admitted. But to speak honestly would have given the hated capitalists a propaganda victory, and that couldn’t be countenanced. Later, he’d pen a fawning series of pieces on Fidel Castro, and later still, in a Maoist phase, hawk revolutionary bulletins on Parisian street corners. He moved farther left as he aged.
Sartre became infatuated with violence. Trying to wed existentialism and Marxism, he published in 1960 a massive defense of political terror, The Critique of Dialectical Reason, and an introduction to black psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial polemic The Wretched of the Earth that justifies race murder even more enthusiastically than did Fanon himself. Meanwhile, he regularly denounced the “rabid” United States as the embodiment of evil and refused to give bourgeois society the least credit.
Sartre’s words, pouring forth in a kind of logorrhea, got sloppier and more jargon-ridden. At its best — Nausea, Being and Nothingness, No Exit and some of the other plays, the autobiography — Sartre’s writing dazzled; one can understand why the Nobel committee honored him in 1964 (he declined to accept the prize because he feared it would make him a living monument). The later Sartre is often unreadable, and remains largely unread today, though his unfinished, multivolume psychobiography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, has its defenders.
Cox sketches his subject’s character, warts and all. Sartre was a lifelong “speed freak,” he notes, popping Corydrane pills like M&Ms to fuel 20-hour writing binges. At times, he’d so overstimulate himself that he’d find himself pacing manically in Beauvoir’s apartment, his arms flailing about crazily, his talk torrential, his tongue moving so rapidly that its skin started to tear. The only way he could sleep on such occasions was to take a “near overdose” of sleeping pills, pummeling him into a dreamless black. He smoked and drank enough for three men. His physical decline in the 1970s was swift: By the time of his death in 1980, he was mostly blind and debilitated by strokes.
Sartre wasn’t always kind to Beauvoir, his necessary love. A bevy of attractive young women surrounded him, drawn by his ferocious intellect and fame, and he seemingly had sex with them all. In 1965, in a Woody Allen–in–reverse exercise in perversity, he adopted his latest lover, a Jewish Algerian named Arlette Elkaïm, then 30, and made her sole heir and executor of his estate — a final slight of Beauvoir. He tended to get along with men only if they were his inferiors, breaking nastily and publicly with such onetime friends and allies as Aron, Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty when they dared to question the Sartrean line. Yet he was also generous, supporting a large entourage with the considerable sums he made from his book sales and theatrical productions.
What does existentialism have to say to us in the 21st century? The Sartrean emphasis on human freedom is bracing at a time when many influential currents of contemporary thought, such as sociobiology and behavioral economics, tend to be reductively deterministic. But Sartre’s freedom is also anomic, severed from any natural or theological horizon that might give it meaning; it is liberty as pure negation; it borders on nihilism, and so one wonders how much it has to offer us in the end. As for Sartre’s politics, today’s radical Left, in its defense of urban rioting and its hate-America-first ethos, seems its direct inheritor, however unwittingly. Cox’s biography offers readers unfamiliar with Sartre a useful brief introduction to his life, but it only scratches the surface of these deeper themes.
– Mr. Anderson is the editor of City Journal and the author of Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents, Against the Obamanet, and other books.