Jean-Paul Sartre


Jean-Paul Sartre : biography

21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980

His work after Stalin’s death, the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason), appeared in 1960 (a second volume appearing posthumously). In the Critique Sartre set out to give Marxism a more vigorous intellectual defense than it had received until then; he ended by concluding that Marx’s notion of "class" as an objective entity was fallacious. Sartre’s emphasis on the humanist values in the early works of Marx led to a dispute with a leading leftist intellectual in France in the 1960s, Louis Althusser, who claimed that the ideas of the young Marx were decisively superseded by the "scientific" system of the later Marx.

Sartre went to Cuba in the 1960s to meet Fidel Castro and spoke with Ernesto "Che" Guevara. After Guevara’s death, Sartre would declare him to be "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age" and the "era’s most perfect man." Sartre would also compliment Guevara by professing that "he lived his words, spoke his own actions and his story and the story of the world ran parallel." However he stood against the persecution of gays by Castro’s régime, which he compared to Nazi persecution of the Jews, and said: "Homosexuals are Cuba’s Jews".Live recording in Conducta Impropria by Nestor Almendros, 1983.

During a collective hunger strike in 1974, Sartre visited Red Army Faction leader Andreas Baader in Stammheim Prison and criticized the harsh conditions of imprisonment. Towards the end of his life, Sartre became an anarchist.“Interview with Jean-Paul Sartre” in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, ed. P.A. Schilpp, p.21.

Late life and death

In 1964 Sartre renounced literature in a witty and sardonic account of the first ten years of his life, Les mots (Words). The book is an ironic counterblast to Marcel Proust, whose reputation had unexpectedly eclipsed that of André Gide (who had provided the model of littérature engagée for Sartre’s generation). Literature, Sartre concluded, functioned ultimately as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In October 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but he declined it. He was the first Nobel Laureate to voluntarily decline the prize,

and he had previously refused the Légion d'honneur, in 1945. The prize was announced on 22 October 1964; on 14 October, Sartre had written a letter to the Nobel Institute, asking to be removed from the list of nominees, and warning that he would not accept the prize if awarded, but the letter went unread;, Elodie Bessé on 23 October, Le Figaro published a statement by Sartre explaining his refusal. He said he did not wish to be "transformed" by such an award, and did not want to take sides in an East vs. West cultural struggle by accepting an award from a prominent Western cultural institution. After being awarded the prize he tried to escape the media by hiding in the house of Simone's sister Hélène de Beauvoir in Goxwiller, Alsace. 

Though his name was then a household word (as was "existentialism" during the tumultuous 1960s), Sartre remained a simple man with few possessions, actively committed to causes until the end of his life, such as the May 1968 strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968 during which he was arrested for civil disobedience. President Charles de Gaulle intervened and pardoned him, commenting that "you don’t arrest Voltaire.", by Tom Bishop in New York Times 7 June 1987 In 1975, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Sartre replied: I would like [people] to remember Nausea, [my plays] No Exit and The Devil and the Good Lord, and then my two philosophical works, more particularly the second one, Critique of Dialectical Reason. Then my essay on Genet, Saint Genet…. If these are remembered, that would be quite an achievement, and I don’t ask for more. As a man, if a certain Jean-Paul Sartre is remembered, I would like people to remember the milieu or historical situation in which I lived,… how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself. Sartre’s physical condition deteriorated, partially because of the merciless pace of work (and using drugs for this reason, i.e., amphetamine) he put himself through during the writing of the Critique and a massive analytical biography of Gustave Flaubert (The Family Idiot), both of which remained unfinished. He became almost completely blind in 1973. Sartre was a notorious chain smoker, which could also have contributed to the deterioration of his health.