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JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)

While Sartrean scholars admit that Poulou himself would not approve of anybody chronologizing his life since he believed that one is always on the verge of becoming, it is nevertheless necessitated by purposes of clear discussion that we sub-divide Poulou's life into early, middle and later years.

Sartre's Early Years


early years | middle years | later years


June 21, 1905 was the day when JEAN-PAUL-CHARLES-AYMARD SARTRE was born on 13, rue Mignard, XVI in Paris, a fruit of the love between Jean-Baptiste Sartre, a young naval officer dying of fevers of Cochin-China, and Anne Marie Schweitzer, daughter of Charles Schweitzer and cousin of the famous medical missionary Albert Schweitzer. He lost his father when he was a year old. In his autobiography, he regretted that he was refused the pleasure of making an acquaintance with a father.

However, Sartre admitted that he was nevertheless happy with the turn of events for two main reasons. The first is the death of his father "sent my mother back to her chains and gave me freedom." The second reason is that he would not have been the Sartre that he became had not events turned the way they were. As a result of the death of his father, Poulou and his mother came to live with his grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, from 1906 to 1911 in Meudon. His was an unhappy childhood, devoid of the happiness of friendship with his peers. A typical bourgeois, Charles was a strict disciplinarian. Each member of the family had a role to play, and Poulou had his. This very artificial condition made him indulge in play-acting.

As a result of this family setup, the young Sartre immersed himself in reading and writing. He made it a habit to devote time for reading, and he read whatever reading material was available, although he took more interest in novels and short stories. However, he admitted in his autobiography that his kind of writing was one of plagiarism. His grandfather later on discovered his misdemeanor and as a result, Charles became biased against the achievements of his grandson. For him, "literature did not fill a man's belly." He instead wanted Poulou to be a teacher. However, he was not able to dissuade Poulou from writing:

In short, he drove me into literature by the care he took to divert me from it, to such an extent that even now I sometimes wonder, when I am in a bad mood, whether I have not consumed so many days and nights, covered so many pages with ink, thrown on the market so many books that nobody wanted, solely in the mad hope of pleasing my grandfather.

Sartre's attachment to writing fulfilled a twofold advantage. First, he claimed he enjoyed his obscurity and thus wanted to prolong it. Second, it presented him an avenue for a kind of existence which he had not experienced before, an existence devoid of the artificiality of grown-ups.

To add to the unhappiness of his childhood was his realization when he was ten years old of his ugliness -- his being small and cross-eyed. He had been sporting long hair, and when his grandfather decided to bring him to a barber, it was then that he faced his true features. As to his smallness in stature, his grandfather used to blame this on his being a Sartre. Furthermore, Sartre's early life was a constant struggle with sickness and death. He even claimed that he was at the brink of the grave many times, including at birth.

In 1911, Anne Marie brought Poulou from Meudon and moved to Paris. They settled at the fifth floor of an apartment located at 1, rue Le-Goff. In 1913, he was enrolled at Lycée Montaigne where he had Monsieur Lieven as his schoolmaster. Although he indulged in reading and writing in his early years, Poulou realized that he was not yet that prepared to tackle schoolwork. Poulou later recalled that he was "a child prodigy who was not a good speller." When his grandfather learned about this incident, he decided that Poulou quit school for the time being and concentrate on learning how to spell. He was enrolled at a public school in Arcachon where he idolized his teacher, M. Barrault, so much so that he was disappointed when he read graffiti in the walls of the school criticizing his way of teaching.

In July 1914, at the start of the First World War, Poulou had to retire from reading for a short time because there were no more books to read; he even stopped writing. At first they did not leave Arcachon, but later they returned to Paris. During the war, he enrolled for one semester at the Poupon Academy where he had Mlle. Marie Louise as his teacher. When Poulou was ten years and three months old, his grandfather decided to register him at the Lycée Henri IV, where he had Monsieur Ollivier as his official teacher. There he met Paul Nizan, who would later be his constant companion and best friend. His experiences of grave happiness with his friends allowed him to drop the family play-acting. This gave him the confidence that shall later on build a strong character in the mature Sartre. It was also there that he "got used to democracy."

In 1917, his mother was remarried to Joseph Mancy, an engineer who was later assigned as head of the naval yards in La Rochelle that belonged to the Delaunay-Belleville Company. Soon after the marriage, Poulou, who grew up in an urban bourgeois world, found himself in the rural town of La Rochelle. He recalled that he was never happy when he was at the Lycée of La Rochelle. He later said that it was there that he "learned the meaning of solitude, and at the same time that of violence." Moreover, his stepfather decided to influence his education by acquainting him with geometry, but to no avail. His disappointment with his stepfather even came to the point of his calling his stepfather an "intruder." Poulou considered the fact that his grandfather, with his failing health, could no longer support his mother, the very reason why his mother remarried.

What Sartre said in his autobiography captures the loneliness of his growing up days: "I grew older in the darkness, I became a lonely adult, without father and mother, without home or hearth, almost without a name." He succinctly recollects this stage in his life:

Feminized by maternal tendencies, dulled by the absence of the stern Moses who has begotten me, puffed with pride by my grandfather's adoration, I was a pure object, doomed par excellence to masochism if only I could have believed in the family play-acting. But no. It perturbed me only on the surface, and the depths remained cold, unjustified. The system horrified me.

Sartre's Middle Years


early years | middle years | later years


He returned in 1920 to Lycée Henri IV where he renews acquaintance with Paul Nizan, and in the following two years, he took up his Baccalaureat. After his two-year stint from 1922 to 1924 at Lycée Louis-Le-Grand, he took up his higher studies at the prestigious École Normale Superieure. There he had for his classmates Simone Weil, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Hippolyte, and Claude Levi-Strauss. In 1928, he failed the agrégation. The following year, he passed the same test when he resigned himself to more traditional philosophical ideas. It was also during this year that he met Simone de Beauvoir, who became his lifelong companion as well as his intellectual associate.

At the L'École normale, the relationship between Sartre and Beaver blossomed, and their mere intellectual companionship later turned to a relationship between lovers. Axel Madsen observes the commonality between the two:

Poulou and Simone were the gifted children of a class they learned to hate because of the way it deprived others of what young intellectuals would naturally consider everyone's birthright - a voice. What filled the young Sartre and Beaver with that deep, lifelong and absolute loathing of the bourgeoisie was the way it deprived others of the means of expressing themselves.

After obtaining the agrégation in philosophy he taught philosophy at the lycées in Le Havre, Laon and then Paris. It was when he was at Le Havre that he started writing Nausea. In 1933, he obtained a grant to study at the French Institute in Berlin, where, with the help of his friend R. Aron, he got acquainted with Husserl's phenomenology. During this time, he published Transcendance de l'ego. Meanwhile, Sartre commenced to evolve into a more political thinker. Indeed, on July 14, 1935, Sartre joined the Popular Front demonstration from the Bastille to the Porte de Vincennes. After his brief stint at Berlin, he did some research at the University of Freiburg. From 1929 to 1931, he engaged in military service. His book L'Imagination was published in 1936, the year that he and Beaver attempted to incorporate Olga Kosakiewicz into their life to form a ménage a trois.

Unfortunately, he encountered a twofold setback during this year: the attempted relationship with Miss Kosakiewicz failed and Gallimard denied the publication of Melancholia (La Nausée). Nevertheless, Gallimard accepted the novel the following year, and published it in 1938. While his literary notoriety was blooming, he was drafted to the French army to fight the invading German troops and on September 2, 1939, he was conscripted to the 70th Division in Nancy. He was later transferred to Brumath and then to Morsbronn. While at the military camp, he was working on his L'Être et néant. The following year, he was captured by the Germans and was imprisoned in Padoux. He was later transferred to Nancy and then to Stalag XII in Treves. While in prison, Sartre reread Heidegger and he recalled in his autobiography that he discussed Heidegger with his priest-friends in prison. He even wrote and directed a play, Bariona, while inside the prison camp. For reasons of poor health, he was released from prison in 1941.

Upon his release, he taught in Lycée Condorcet while founding, together with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a short-lived intellectual Resistance group called Socialisme et Liberté. His magnum opus, L'Être et néant, was published in 1943 together with the play, Les Mouches. The following year, he gave up teaching to found the political and literary journal Les Temps modernes (Modern Times), of which he became editor-in-chief.

After the war, Sartre gained prominence especially with the publication of more books, Huis Clos, L'Age de raison, and Le Sursis. He refused the Legion of Honor awarded him by the government. He later went to the United States to give a series of lectures. When he presented his lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre's notoriety continued to rise. With his passion for writing at its peak, volumes were added to the collection of books written by Sartre. In 1948, all of his works were put on the Index by the Catholic Church. He likewise participated in the founding of the Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire (RDR), but he later on became disaffected with the group and left it the following year. Sartre visited Guatemala, Panama, Curacao, Haiti and Cuba and later on the Sahara.

During the early fifties, Beaver observed that Sartre had undergone a change in lifestyle. Moreover, the next decade saw the active political involvement of Sartre. In 1950 to 1951, Sartre started to reread Marx. He later condemned, together with Merleau-Ponty, the Soviet concentration camps.

The following year, he wrote The Communists and Peace, signed a manifesto against the Cold War, and protested against the Rosenberg executions. In 1954, he participated in a meeting of the World Council for Peace in Berlin after gaining a name for advocating the peace movement. His first journey to the Soviet Union, and his only visit to China, occurred in 1955. He visited the USSR in two more occasions, in one of which Khrushchev received him. He was also named the vice-president of the France-USSR Association. When Soviet troops invaded Hungary to crush an anti-Communist demonstration there, Sartre condemned the act and left the France-USSR Association. The following year, he protested against the Algerian war and the tortures committed by the French government there. He subsequently came to the open in criticizing De Gaulle and the Gaullist Party in France, and later gave a press conference on the violation of human rights committed in Algeria. Cutting short his lecture about the theater at Sorborne, he returned to Cuba together with Beaver where he met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He later visited Yugoslavia, where he met Tito.

During these times, he did not waiver in his commitment to the Algerian people, and he continued to speak for them. After the publication of his Critique de la Raison Dialectique, he visited Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1964, he gave lectures at the UNESCO Kierkegaard Conference and at the Conference on Ethics at the Gramsci Institute in Rome. The Nobel Prize Committee later awarded him the Nobel Prize, but he declined to receive it for the reason that he did not want to be turned into an institution. In 1966, he joined and later presided at the War Crimes Commission organized by Bertrand Russell at Stockholm. Afterwards, he gave a series of lectures in Japan and then in Egypt, where he met Nasser and visited refugee camps. His affiliation with the Jewish people was affirmed when he visited Israel during the following year. He also expressed his support for Israel over the opening of the Gulf of Aqaba. Later in the same year, he went to Brussels to give a lecture on Vietnam.

Sartre's Later Years


early years | middle years | later years


His political involvement became more intense in 1968, when he supported the student movement in France during the May uprising. He even came to the point of accusing the Communist Party of betraying the May revolution. He condemned the Soviet Union when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. He did the same thing in 1975 in protest over what he called Soviet repression. The following year, Anne Marie Sartre-Mancy died. He continued his political involvement by editing and supervising the publication of various Leftist publications.

However, Sartre's health had never been good during these times. He suffered two heart attacks, one in 1971, and another one two years later. Thereupon, he transferred from boulevard Raspail to boulevard Edgar-Quinet. He also became semi-blind after suffering from two hemorrhages in his good eye. To help him continue with his intellectual endeavors, Pierre Victor, whom he met in 1970 and with whom he had engaged in ethical discussions, read to him books and articles which he wanted to read. He then started autobiographical dialogues on tape with Beaver.

His deteriorating health failed to stop him from being active in politics. In 1973, he took side with Israel during the war of Yom Kippur. In view of his continued support to the Jewish cause, the University of Jerusalem later presented him with an honorary doctorate. In 1977, he called on Israel to respond to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace initiative and he even went in 1978 to Israel to further the peace process. The following year, he participated in an Israel-Palestinian conference.

Sartre's health was never the same after his second bout with heart attack. On March 20, 1980, he was hospitalized for edema of the lungs. After more than a month at the hospital, he went into a coma on April 13 and died two days later. His ashes were buried at the cemetery of Montparnasse on April 19.

The drama of Sartre's life is as paradoxical as his thoughts. For all the fame he gained in his life, he remained a man of simple tastes, a man committed to a principle worth dying for, a man capable of empathizing with the oppressed of the world. When interviewed five years before his death on how he would like people to remember him, Sartre replied:

I would like them to remember Nausea, one or two 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, which I wrote quite a long time ago. 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 the historical situation in which I lived, the general characteristics of this milieu, how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself. This is how I would like to be remembered.

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