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Jean-Paul SartreReview - Jean-Paul Sartre
by Andrew Leak
Reaktion Books, 2006
Review by Richa Yadav, Ph.D.
Dec 26th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 52)

In this 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.

The first 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.

The 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.

The third 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 worldwide.

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

 

Richa 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.


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