Just over twenty years ago fifty thousand men and women crowded the Champs-Elysees to mourn the death of Jean-Paul Sartre. Many of the ordinary people present in the crowd that day loudly proclaimed the dead philosopher as France's greatest intellectual of the 20th century. Others, perhaps acquaintances from the many Left Bank cafes he frequented, unashamedly extended the scope of his influence to encompass the entire Western world. Still others, perhaps ardent followers of the then popular post-structuralist movement, begrudgingly paid their respect only to follow it up with some derisive salvo or the other. Whatever else was said of Jean-Paul Sartre on that cold Paris day no-one present dared to deny his incredible gift to arouse the passions, of admiration or of anger, of all who encountered him or his monumental body of work. This would have been the way Sartre, ever the egoist, would have wanted it. A reaction of any sort was infinitely more desirable than apathy.
This massive display of interest in the life, death and work of a philosopher would have been quite inconsequential had it been restricted within the borders of France. After all France, perhaps more than any other country, has always been a nation that coverts her intellectuals. This in a world where people like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Aung San Suu Kyi were and still are regularly silenced is, needless to say, a pleasing anomaly. But the death of Jean-Paul Sartre shook intellectuals and revolutionaries from New York to Havana and Algiers.
Important thinkers all over the world, and especially the Third World, have cited the work of Sartre as playing a decisive role in the formation of their own philosophies. It is impossible to conjure up coherent images of revolutionary thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, or Lewis Gordon without casting into the spell the ever-lurking visage of Jean-Paul Sartre. With regard to Biko, Mabogo More, South Africa's foremost existential philosopher, has asserted that Biko quite clearly read the work of Sartre and appears to have been profoundly influenced by it. This claim, if true, calls into question the long-held belief that Biko's Sartrean influences were mostly filtered through his readings of Fanon. More is currently researching old SASO journal articles penned by Biko, under various aliases, for evidence of direct references to Sartre. Strini Moodley, the veteran BC activist and close associate of Biko, has lent weight to More's theory by stating that Sartre was widely distributed and disseminated amongst students involved in the movement. One need only read Biko's celebrated last chapter,
On Death, from I Write What I Like to find startling and profound existential statements like
You are either alive and proud or you are dead.This chapter alone seems to confirm Biko's status as a classic existential hero in the tradition of an Orestes or a Frederick Douglass.
Indeed it seems post-colonial philosophers and critical race & liberation theorists are doomed to find Sartre waiting patiently at the end of whatever road they choose to travel down. This is why many influential Black thinkers celebrate Sartre as the only white Western philosopher who spoke directly to the Third World. Officially and popularly Sartre has gone down in history as the man who brought existentialism to the attention of a wider non-philosophic audience. He has been portrayed as the leader of a loathsome mass of angry, directionless young men and women who smoked too many Turkish cigarettes and drank vast amounts of black coffee. He is also remembered as an excellent dramatist, a novelist, a biographer, an astute literary theorist, a political journalist, a tireless activist and as a philosopher in the Continental tradition. All this is true and needs to be said. But unofficially and indeed subversively he will be marked down as the man who illuminated the consciousnesses of all who have howled freedom in the face of unbearable oppression. Mainstream white philosophers may dismiss Sartre as an unfashionable anachronism but black and radical philosophers increasingly see him as the first white philosopher to take a serious stand against colonialism and racism. But who was Jean-Paul Sartre?
Born on 21 June 1905 in Paris, Jean-Paul was the only child of Jean Baptiste and Anna-Marie Sartre. Jean Baptiste, a decorated French naval officer, was away on assignment when his son first stuck a tentative finger into existence. Less than a year later, while away on another naval voyage, he contracted entercolitis and died at the age of 32. Later Sartre, who developed an intense dislike for the dominant patriarchs in his family, remarked:
The death of Jean-Baptiste was my greatest piece of good fortune. I didn't even have to forget him.Both Sartre's parents came from distinguished middle-class backgrounds. Jean-Baptiste was the son of a respected country doctor who had published several notable medical texts while Anna-Marie was the first cousin of Albert Schweitzer, the world-renowned German missionary. After the death of her husband Anna-Marie and the young
Poulou, as his mother affectionately called him, moved into the home of her father, the intimidating and philandering Karl Schweitzer. A respected scholar, it was decided that he would be responsible for his grandson's tutorship. To escape her father's domineering personality Anna-Marie immersed herself in the upbringing of her son. She dressed him up in fancy clothing and let his hair grow into long flowing locks. The young Sartre much to his manly grandfather's disdain began to resemble a little girl.
One day Karl Schweitzer decided he had had enough and took Sartre to the local barber to have his beautiful hair cut. When Anna-Marie, upon their return, saw her son she ran up to her room and began crying uncontrollably. Even to his doting mother it was evident that
Poulouwas destined to grow up ugly. As well as being short and awkward—his grandparents called it the
Sartrefault—he had also lost, due to an early illness, the sight in one of his eyes. This eye, with a strabismus, appeared to look sideways as if he were disinterested in the person he was talking to. This incident was to prove a catalyst for his life-long rejection of his body in favour of cultivating his immense intellect. He paid no heed to the distress signals his body constantly sent out. Pain and fatigue were seen as barriers to overcome. He used amphetamines to increase his productivity and took sedatives when he needed to rest. His personal hygiene was legendarily deplorable. Sartre regarded the hours spent washing, brushing his teeth, shaving, bathing and excreting as a waste of time. Later when his teeth began to rot horribly he refused to visit a dentist. His vanity was confined to his intellect:
I want to be the one who knows the most things;
I've got a golden brain.
But as much as other children teased Sartre over his slight appearance his self-confidence never wavered. Sartre knew that he was smarter than other children. Karl Schweitzer knew this as well and although Sartre loathed his grandfather's womanising ways he nevertheless blossomed under his tutorship. In The Words, the biography of his childhood, he describes his love of his grandfather's impressive library:
I found my religion: nothing seemed to me more important than a book. I regarded the library as a temple.Even at this young age Sartre was reading and writing prolifically. It was only by engaging in these activities that he felt any power or sense of personal justification.
In 1917 Anna-Marie married Joseph Mancy, a naval engineer, and moved to La Rochelle to begin a new life. Sartre who had grown accustomed to having his mother's undivided attention began to rebel. He got in fights with other students, stole money from home, told blatant lies and was regularly detained after school. His parents began to worry that their son would grow up to become no more than a common thug. Mancy, realising that he could-not control Sartre, sent him back to Paris where he was to board at Lycee Henri IV, a well-regarded school. At the school Sartre was to meet Paul-Yves Nizan, the future philosopher, who, with Simone de Beauvoir, was to feature as one of the most important people in his life. Despite being polar opposites their emotional closeness was such that the two became known as
Nitre & Sarzanto the other students. Sartre would later break with his life-long friend over personal and political reasons. Indeed throughout his life Sartre would burn bridges with good friends like Albert Camus, Raymond Aron and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in order to remain loyal to his own beliefs.
After the Lycee Henri IV both Sartre and Nizan enrolled at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure. The ENS served as a philosophy and psychology campus and was a companion school of the Sorbonne. Some of Sartre's illustrious classmates included Rene Maheu, Jean Hyypolite and Pierre Guille. Unlike Nizan, Sartre was largely apolitical during his stay at the ENS and spent most his time reading hundreds of books and formulating the ideas that would feature in much of his later work. In 1928 Sartre took his final agregation, the French equivalent of an exit exam, and failed terribly, finishing last out of a class of fifty.
Failing the exam was a tremendous blow for the intellectually secure Sartre but it was to prove one of the most crucial events of his life. While waiting for the next agregation he met and fell in love with Simone de Beauvoir, his life-long companion and intellectual soul mate. The two studied together for the next exam. This time Sartre placed first and de Beauvoir second. They would retain this intellectual and emotional closeness for the rest of the lives to the extent that there is still to this day some controversy as to who had the greater influence over the other. Although their relationship was unconventional—they never married and frequently took other lovers—it was clear to all around them that the two cared deeply for each other.
After graduating Sartre was, against his wishes, conscripted and served 18 months in the French army. Thereafter he accepted a teaching position at a lycee in northwest France. It was during this time that he was first introduced to phenomenology. Founded by the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, phenomenology is a school of philosophy whose principle purpose is to study the phenomena, or appearances, of human experience while attempting to suspend all consideration of their objective reality or subjective association. Raymond Aron, a student of Husserl, explained the philosophy to Sartre and de Beauvoir while the three were drinking together at a Paris bar. He used a beer mug to illustrate phenomenology by discussing the mug's properties and essences. Impressed by this new school Sartre read all he could about it and eventually travelled to Berlin in 1932 to attend and study the lectures of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He returned to France imbued with a new vigour. In 1938 Sartre's first novel, Nausea, was published to great critical acclaim. Although he had already published The Outline of a Theory of the Emotions and Transcendence of the Ego, both largely psychologically studies, Nausea cemented Sartre's position as France's leading intellectual and brought him immediate recognition and success. The novel, in the form of a diary, revolved around the anti-hero Roquentin who discovers, to his unfolding horror, the contingency of the world. Sartre included a phenomenological analysis of a glass of beer in the novel as a tribute to his friend Aron.
At the outbreak of World War 2 Sartre was again conscripted into the French army. He served in the meteorological service and spent his time writing and launching weather balloons. However in June 1940 he was captured by enemy troops and sent to a prisoner of war camp. He spent most of his time in the stalag writing what was to become Being and Nothingness, universally regarded as his philosophic masterpiece. In March 1941 Sartre escaped from the camp and returned to Paris to resume teaching and to fight in the French Resistance. His celebrated and explicitly anti-Nazi play The Flies opened in Paris in 1943. Strangely it was not unusual to see uniformed German officers in attendance.
This was also the year that Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology was first published. Considered by most philosophers to be the major text of existentialism, the book is a impressive structuralization of Sartre's concept of being and investigates existence, negation, the self, the nature of fear, the dread of temporality, and the nature of imagination and of the emotions. In the book Sartre distinguishes between two kinds of being: en-soi (in-itself) and pour-soi (for-itself). Being-In-Itself corresponds to the being of an inert object, complete and fixed, expressing no relationship either with itself or with anything outside itself. It is uncreated, without reason for being, and absolutely contingent. Being-For-Itself describes human consciousness as possessing the characteristics of incompleteness and with an indeterminate structure or nature.
By the end of the war Sartre suddenly found himself as France's most celebrated intellectual and existentialism, of which he was the foremost exponent, was seen as the philosophy to study or be associated with. Unsurprisingly very few of the people who called themselves existentialists actually bothered to read, the admittedly daunting, Being and Nothingness. Much of existentialism's popularity can instead be traced to a famous public lecture given by Sartre in Paris at the Club Maintenant in 1945. The published version of the lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, was a defence of existentialism against the criticism that it was overly pessimistic of the human condition. Sartre was, in short, trying to convince people that existentialism had a legitimate ethical framework. Due to its succinct nature the book sold well and was taken as the alpha and omega of existentialism when at most it could be regarded as a good introduction.
In the book Sartre states that the central thesis of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. He argues that whether or not there is a God there is no one to give an essence or purpose to our existence. We have no distinctive nature and are thus free to make of ourselves what we will. We are condemned to freedom. To deny this freedom is to be in bad faith. Bad faith refers to different modes of human existence characterised by self-deception, self-evasion, flight from one's freedom and responsibility and the acceptance of values as pre-given. But this freedom also requires responsibility for in choosing for ourselves we choose for all of humankind. This is because in choosing for ourselves we affirm what we think is valuable for anyone else in our circumstances. So in choosing for ourselves we legislate for all of humankind.
Together with the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty and de Beauvoir Sartre founded the popular leftist journal Les Temps Modernes in 1944. It was named after the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times which many considered to be a masterpiece of cinematography. Merleau-Ponty would later leave the journal and publish an attack on Sartre accusing him of ultra-bolshevism over his continued support of the Soviet Union. By this time Sartre was considered in many quarters to be the leading voice of the left and met regularly with world revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and Fidel Castro. His rapid politicisation saw him align himself with progressive causes like the anti-Vietnam War lobby and the 1968 French student revolts. After the revolts Sartre, in the spirit of solidarity with the students, vowed never to wear a tie again. He would also later turn down the Nobel Prize for Literature citing Alfred Nobel's legacy of human suffering as his chief reason.
In 1946 Sartre published The Portrait of the Anti-Semite which Hazel Barnes, the respected Sartrean scholar and translator, proclaimed as his fullest discussion on the nature of prejudice. Although many Western philosophers had unwittingly provided conceptual pools of knowledge for the oppressed to draw and graft from, The Anti-Semite was unique in that it was the first work to directly confront the problem of racism itself. Frantz Fanon, whose own works are littered with references to the book, writes in his seminal study of anti-black racism Black Skin, White Masks:
Certain pages of Anti-Semite and Jew are the finest that I have ever read. The finest, because the problem discussed in them grips us in our guts.Sartre had done the man and women of colour a great favour. He had constructed for them a handbook on the nature of prejudice. In the book Sartre makes the claim that the explanation for anti-Semitism must be sought not in the Jews but in the minds of the prejudiced and argues, quite originally, that if the Jew did-not exist the anti-Semite would invent him. He argues that anti-Semitism is not merely an opinion but is rather a global attitude, a passion and a way of living one's life. It is an emotion and involves a choice of oneself as that of a particular passion. Thus the anti-Semite cannot incorporate his prejudice into his other attitudes as if it were a separate entity among other separate entities. His prejudice dictates his worldview and is consequently brought to bear on all men in general. The Jew, in this sense, is only a pretext and at another time a Black or Chinese might serve just as well. The book still provides an urgent and insightful account into the psychology of prejudice.
In his now classic essay Black Orpheus (1948) Sartre offers a defence of Negritude and opens with passionate address to white people:
When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you—like me—will feel the shock of been seen.
His contributions to the anti-racist struggle were not restricted solely to philosophy. During a tour of the United States he wrote a shocking expose of the material conditions facing African-Americans. He pointed out the farcical nature of civil rights advancements in a land where white people still held primitive Manichean attitudes towards blacks—in one surreal instance a well-educated white doctor expressed fears about white patients receiving blood from black donors. And in his play The Respectful Prostitute (1947), set in the American South, he drew a parallel between the plight of the black man and the white woman, bonded in misery, in a racist patriarchal world.
At the height of his popularity Sartre gradually moved away from the existential throne that had made him famous. He called himself a Marxist and wrote The Critique of Dialectic Reason (1960) in which he tried to demonstrate the fundamental harmony between Marxism and existentialism. It was a move away from the absolute freedom he defended in his earlier works in favour of a more situated freedom. In true anti-essentialist fashion he later denied that he was a Marxist. On 15 April 1980 Jean-Paul Sartre died. Doctors blamed his death on his unhealthy lifestyle which included a two pack a day cigarette habit, bouts of heavy drinking and his use of amphetamines to aid the writing process. To the end he had lived his life the way he chose to.
Today Sartre's body lies in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. In academia fashionable post-modernists ignore his immense contribution to the world and causally dismiss his existential themes as just another totalising oppressive meta-narrative. The fact that his central theme of freedom can be regarded as fundamentally human and therefore fundamentally pluralistic is, more often than not, lost to them. But there are growing enclaves of resistance. Lewis Gordon, one of the world's leading philosophers, has written several books on racism using predominantly Sartrean conceptual tools and his book Bad Faith and Anti-Black Racism is considered vital reading at all good universities. In Durban, there is a new interest in the restless adventure of existence. Fanon is a popular hero whose spirit is invoked from Lamontville to Chatsworth and earlier this year the poet Johan van Wyk published his first novel, Man-Bitch, which carried rich existential undertones. It seems that for as long as people are oppressed Sartre will provide the knives with which they can slay their demons.