Celebrating the Centennial Birth of Jean Paul Sartre
An exhibition of manuscripts, books, photographs and correspondence
François Mitterrand Library
Bibilotheque nationale, Paris, France
9 March - 21 August, 2005
Photo: Studio Ethel/Rapho
Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris in 1952, with Simone de Beauvoir, right,
and the writer and musician Boris Vian and his wife, Michelle.
To Honor Sartre, France Buffs a Pedestal the Writer Rejected
By Alan Riding, The New York Times (Pub March 16, 2005)
PARIS, March 10 - A century after his birth, 25 years after his death, Jean-Paul Sartre has not been forgotten, but he is also not remembered altogether fondly. For many American conservatives suspicious of French thinkers, he still typifies the Left Bank intellectual spouting obscure philosophy amid clouds of smoke. Even for many French people, his embrace of Communist causes placed him on the wrong side of history.
That said, anniversaries are hard to resist. So, as the final resting place of great French literature, the French National Library is celebrating the occasion with a major exhibition on Sartre the philosopher, novelist, playwright and "intellectuel engagé." And in doing so, it is nudging him toward a place alongside Voltaire, Hugo and Zola in the pantheon of France's politico-intellectual heroes.
But is Sartre remotely relevant today?
As political visionaries, two of his contemporary critics, the novelist Albert Camus and the sociologist Raymond Aron, stand taller because their view of freedom was untainted by association with Stalinism or Maoism. And outside France, Sartre is certainly read less than his own muse, Simone de Beauvoir, whose book "The Second Sex" is a founding text of feminism.
Yet there is no underestimating Sartre's influence over French intellectual and political life for three decades after World War II. Indeed, many who grew up in his shadow, as supporters or opponents, are now among the politicians, intellectuals and journalists who shape public opinion here. And in that sense, traces of Sartrism still flow through the country's veins.
What Sartrism actually means, though, is hard to pin down because of the many Sartres, not only the fiction writer who won and refused the 1964 Nobel literature prize, but also the existentialist philosopher, the political activist whose positions frequently changed and the intellectual celebrity who won headlines as a Left Bank ambassador to the likes of Mao, Tito and Fidel Castro.
This multifaceted life is on display at the new François Mitterrand National Library through Aug. 21. And while it is notoriously difficult to build an exhibition around a writer, the show does its best through photographs, artworks by friends like Giacometti and Picasso, manuscripts, letters, diaries and first editions as well as sound and film clips, interviews he gave and excerpts from performances of his plays.
Still, first and foremost, Sartre was a philosopher. He taught philosophy in French lycées from 1930 to 1944. And more than his early novels, like "Nausea," and his wartime plays, "The Flies" and "No Exit," it was his monumental treatise, "Being and Nothingness," that thrust him into a position of leadership over the postwar Paris intelligentsia. Through him, existentialism became a synonym for the individual's responsibility to promote freedom.
While French conservatives seemed more disturbed by the long hair and loose morals of the bohemian zazous, as existentialist groupies were known, Sartre tried to explain his thought in simple phrases. "Existentialism defines man through his action." "The only thing that permits a man to live is the act." "A man engages in his life, defines his profile and, outside this profile, he is nothing."
Put simply, human beings determine their destiny through what they do rather than who they are.
It followed logically, then, that Sartre should be politically engaged, though until Paris's liberation in August 1944, he had not been. He played no role in the turbulent politics of France in the 1930's. He visited Berlin in 1933 and did not recognize the Nazi menace. And after a few months as a prisoner of war, he cheerfully put on plays and published books in German-occupied Paris. But after the war, a different Sartre emerged.
Placed in the dock today, Sartre would face two charges: between 1952 and 1956, he was a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party, albeit breaking with it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Between 1970 and 1974, he supported French Maoists, even famously selling their newspaper on the streets of Paris. His counsel might respond that in both cases he was defending their right to exist more than their views. But he nonetheless won new enemies.
On other issues, time favored him. He was among the first to criticize France's use of force to hold on to its Indochinese and Algerian colonies. He went to Cairo to defend Israel's right to exist before the 1967 war. He stood with rebellious students in Paris in May 1968 and repeatedly denounced the Vietnam War. He even broke with Mr. Castro in 1971 over Cuban persecution of the writer Heberto Padilla. And late in life, he called for Vietnamese boat people to be given refuge here.
Meanwhile, he wrote books of all genres, including "The Words," an acclaimed autobiography of his early life, and "The Family Idiot," his Flaubert biography. As editor of the journal Les Temps Modernes, he orchestrated intellectual debate. Only after his eyesight began to fail in 1973 was he reduced to making his views known through interviews.
Yet when he died, on April 15, 1980, many in the huge crowd that followed his funeral cortege seemed to sense that an era was ending. Since then, the causes he supported have been replaced by others. French lycée students can now study philosophy without understanding existentialism. Among his plays, only "No Exit" is still regularly staged. Even Libération, the left-leaning daily he helped former Maoists create in 1973, described him this month as "a man of past letters."
To admirers of Sartre, though, what survives is perhaps more important. Conceding that Sartre's image was still not fixed, Annie Cohen-Solal, whose well-received 1985 biography of Sartre was reissued in English this month by The New Press, said she preferred to view him more as "a role model, a way of doing things, than as a doctrine or a body of work." And as such, she added, he remains "an ethical compass."
Michel Winock, an author of the Dictionary of French Intellectuals, said Sartre's "taste for the subversive" led him to both political misjudgments and positions that to this day appear legitimate. As for what his legacy is, Mr. Winock told the weekly Nouvel Observateur, "I would say above all his moral coherence: his absolute refusal to be resigned in the face of injustice."
Still, in an era when issues of conscience are drowned out by media cacophony, one of Sartre's greatest fears may yet come true. When he rejected the Nobel Prize, he said that "a writer should refuse to be allowed to be transformed into an institution." Yet a quarter-century after his death, the exhibition at the National Library risks turning the eternal rebel into a statue: it comes to praise him, but also to bury him.
Jean-Paul Sartre, undated photograph.