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book, Leak astutely examines and reveals
various dimensions of Sartre's persona, i.e., an artist, a philosopher, a play
writer, dramatist, novelist, critic, and an activist. Leak, with his poetic
eloquence narrates Sartre's 'becoming of Sartre' through relating the major
events in Sartre's life with his central philosophical ideas coined as 'existentialism'.
With the help of suitable anecdotes, personal correspondence, and archival
photographs, the author discusses what it is that binds the works of a writer
to the life in which those works are inscribed as events. For reference, Leak
has mainly concentrated on Sartre's autobiography, 'Les Mots' and other
works by Sartre, secondary works on Sartre and some reviews. The book divided
into six chapters with 14 illustrations, would reveal so much about Sartre and
amaze those who had known Sartre only through his philosophy.
chapter describes how Sartre made a way for himself, overcoming the 'destined
mediocrity' and made the most of his passion. Apart from giving an account of
his struggle for intellectual growth, it also gives an account of how people
like Paul Nizan, Sartre's friend, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, Gallimard and
others influenced and shaped his life. The author uses metaphors and poetic
phrases admirably. For instance, "Sartre presented eccentricities aplenty",
"a consummate narcissist" who "lived in order to write". He
aptly remarks, "All artists are victims of a fundamental ambiguity: with
one foot in the imaginary and one in the real, they are- to use an image
beloved of Sartre -- like mermaids whose human form finishes in a fish's tail. Les
Mots is marked by this tension between the real and the imaginary".
Till now I had known Sartre only as a person. This book helps us to connect
Sartre, the person with Sartre, the philosopher. It brings out how such
significant themes of Sartre's works, like his anchoring in reality, and his
approach to reality through the imaginary, violence and humiliation which was
the consequence of the two World Wars, internal strife, death and glory,
contingency and freedom, meaning of existence and his preoccupation with definitions of "madness"
in the individual became important for him and why.
second chapter, 'Of arms and a man' captures influence of World War II on
Sartre's life. In his book, Situations, Sartre mentions how he can
divide his life into two parts, one before the war and the other after the war.
He also claims that the war has changed him from an aloof individualist to an
activist. The aim was to resist the Nazis, Vichy and collaboration in all its
form as a group which consisted of his family and friends. He had joined army
as a solider during the war years. Apart from his military duties, he
passionately continued with his reading, writing drafts and redrafts of his
novels, a huge number of letters to Beauvoir during that period. He also
produced a war diary which records his transformation. The end result was Carnets.
The author has aptly remarked, "to read the war diaries is to
understand what it is to be an intellectual -- in a special sense of 'one who
relates to the world primarily through intellection'". He beautifully points
out, "it is a truism to say that everything is grist to the writer's mill.
But we are rarely given a glimpse of how the mill functions." (p.43)
During this span of late 30s and early 40s Sartre also wrote various plays and
sent his message, "freedom or death, hope in the face of the most hopeless
odds'. Through his plays, he brought his ideas directly to the public.
chapter, 'The Price of Fame' discusses how Sartre's thoughts were widely
attacked and critically reviewed from different quarters. Communists and Catholics
criticized him for his existentialism for being anti-humanist. Sartre tried his
best to redefine his position and correct the misapprehensions that had arisen.
It also discusses how Sartre had drawn on various plots of his novels and plays
from his real life situations. Andrew Leak mentions one of Sartre's comments
about writing. He was of the view that art only exists for and by the other.
And every literary work is an appeal from the writer who freely creates his
work, to a reader who freely takes up this work and recreates it. Therefore,
writing is an appeal from one freedom to another, an act of non-coercive mutual
recognition. It is quite possible that the reader may put down the book and
refuse to collaborate with the writer in the remaking of this world. This is
why any literary work is bound to involve lot of risk as the author puts
himself in danger, in the outside world. And since other people are crucial to
the artist's endeavor, they are no longer the abstract others.
The fourth and fifth chapters
highlight the significance of Sartre as a political activist. These chapters
unearth the charisma of the philosopher in the politics. Leak explores how he
struggled against the repressive strictures of bourgeois expectations, how he
lent himself to anti-colonial struggles. As a fellow-traveler, Sartre spent the
rest of his life attempting to reconcile his existentialist ideas about
self-determination with communist principles, which taught that socio-economic
forces beyond our immediate, individual control play a critical role in shaping
our lives. Together, Sartre and Beauvoir challenged the cultural and social
assumptions and expectations of their upbringings, which they considered bourgeois
in both life style and thought. He not only supported the cause of Algerian
independence, but also supported the cause of anti-colonialism and independence
The diversity of these chapters
reflects the depth and breadth of Sartre's wide-ranging engagement with the
political and cultural issues of his time. Yet as these contributions
demonstrate, it is clear that Sartre's work still offers an important framework
through which to address contemporary issues of a similar magnitude. This book will be of interest not only to all Sartre
scholars but also to anyone who has an interest in modern philosophy, politics,
psychology, and literature. The author's extensive use of French phrases and
words sometimes might create some difficulty for those who do not understand
French at all. Another point is that the author has so much intermingled his
own views while quoting Sartre's view that at times it becomes difficult to
understand, whether it's the author speaking or Sartre. The book informs little
about Sartre's philosophical views. It only develops the background which could
pave way to a better way of understanding him as an interesting figure.
© 2006 Richa Yadav
Yadav recently completed her PhD in philosophy of mind from IIT, Kanpur, India. Her dissertation is on individuation of mental states, with especial
reference to the individualist and the non-individualist debate. Her research
interest lies in philosophical issues in cognitive science, philosophy of
language, epistemology, ethics, translation studies and metaphors.