June 21, 2014
The life of existentialist grand-master JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905–80) embraces all aspects of the troubled human condition that was his lifework: love, war, ethical dilemmas, and death. Philosopher, playwright, novelist, critic, Resistant, Nobel refusenik, and engagé intellectual — also military meteorologist, anarchist, and dedicated prankster — Sartre defined the life of the mind in the war-ravaged mid-twentieth century. A relentless messenger of conscience, both personal and political, he was also a serial adulterer, blithe betrayer of friends and causes, poseur, and philosophical double-talker. But certain works remain relevant long past the point where existential philosophy was dismissed by the narrow-minded academic philosophers of our own day: the novel La nausée (1938); the play Huis clos (1944, still an undergraduate standby); the autobiography Les mots (1964); and, for some of us, the brilliant technical early works of philosophy, especially La transcendence de l’égo (1936) and Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (1939). These are more satisfactory than the magnum opus, L’être et le néant (1943), which, though it contains unforgettable passages — the plight of the waiter seeking authenticity! — is overly bulky for its message. We are “condemned to be free,” Sartre tells us in existentialism’s most famous phrase. We have no choice but to act, and be held responsible by ourselves — and others. That is why, in the equally celebrated line from Huis clos, “hell is other people.” Good luck with that, humans!
READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).