Reader's Encyclopedia

Sartre, Jean-Paul(1905 - 1980)

French philosopher, dramatist, novelist, and critic. Born and educated in Paris, Sartre began his career by teaching. He also traveled widely, and while in Germany (1933-34) he studied under the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Before World War II he wrote several original psychological studies and a series of articles on contemporary literature which did much to popularize in France the works of American novelists such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck. In 1938 Sartre published his first novel, the autobiographical Nausea, and the next year, the short stories in Intimacy, both books dramatizing the discovery of the meaninglessness of human life, the precondition for the philosophy of existentialism as Sartre later developed it.

He joined the French army in 1939 and was taken prisoner in 1940. After nine months he escaped to Paris and to an active part in the underground Resistance movement, writing for such clandestine publications as Combat. During the German occupation of France, he began writing plays. The production of The Flies in 1943, despite Nazi censorship, emphasized that the apparent pessimism of Nausea did not lead to nihilism for Sartre, but to the active assumption of moral responsibility -- the position Sartre described as being engage, or actively engaged in the business of shaping one's life. The same year, he published Being and Nothingness, the major exposition of his analysis of man's condition and potentialities.

The following year No Exit was produced and, after the liberation of France, Sartre organized (1945) the politico - literary review Les Temps modernes. He became internationally famous as the leader of a group of intellectuals described in many of the works of his intimate friend and associate of fifty years, Simone de Beauvoir. The Cafe Flore, where they gathered for conversation and argument, attracted tourists as well as disciples, and for the rest of the decade existentialism became a popular fashion as well as a serious and important influence on contemporary writers.

Albert Camus, whom Sartre had met along with de Beauvoir at the elite ecole Normale Superieure in the 1920s, was one of the friends in Sartre's circle. Although Camus's philosophical thinking started from similar assumptions, he was not an existentialist and disagreed publicly with Sartre on a number of issues, particularly that of ends and means. Sartre dramatized this issue in the controversial play Dirty Hands, which reflects his troubled sympathy with Communism. He defended this sympathy on occasion on the grounds that one must be engage, supporting the least undesirable of the inevitably flawed contemporary political movements. After the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, however, Sartre publicly announced his final disillusionment with Soviet communism.

Other important plays by Sartre include The Respectful Prostitute, an indictment of racism in the U.S.; Le Diable et le bon Dieu (1951; translated as The Devil and the Good Lord, 1960), which deals with action versus complacency under tyranny; and Les Sequestres d'Altona (1959; translated as The Condemned of Altona, 1961), about a former Nazi plagued by the view history will take of his acts. Les Jeux sont faits (1947; later revised as a novel; translated as The Chips Are Down, 1948); and L'Engrenage (1948; translated as In the Mesh, 1954) are film scenarios. Sartre 's writings about the theatre were collected in Un Theatre de situation (1973; translated as Sartre on Theatre, 1976).

Sartre's other works include the novel trilogy The Roads to Freedom and the essays L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946; translated as Existentialism and Humanism, 1949); biographies, Baudelaire (1947) and Saint Genet (1952), exploring the life of Jean Genet, whom Sartre considered the prototypical anti - hero; and the culmination of his political philosophy, Critique de la dialectique (1960). His essays were collected in the ten volumes of Situations (1947 - 72), which have been translated in such volumes as Situations (1965) and Life/Situations (1977).

Sartre remained until the end of his life a committed supporter of leftist causes. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor he declined to accept on the grounds that commitment can be undermined by homage. His final major work was a three - volume biography of Gustave Flaubert, L'Idiot de la famille (1971 - 72).