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Experiential Influences

The life of Jean-Paul Sartre was one of high drama. Numerous experiences helped form his way of thinking. This writer believes that a thorough and critical investigation into the life of Sartre through the way he talked about his life is the best, the most effective, and the most authoritative source of data regarding influences that made him who he was.

As can be seen from his autobiography, the first event that perhaps made a mark in the young Sartre was the death of his father when he was still young. He explicitly claimed that his life would have taken another course had this event not happened. As a result of his being orphaned, he was embraced by his grandfather. His life with his mother's family perhaps exerted the greatest influence on his disaffection with the bourgeois class, the fact that gave him an impetus to engage in politics. He said in his autobiography:

A bourgeois child lives in the eternity of the instant, that is, in the state of inaction. I wanted an Atlas right away, forever, and since the beginning of time. It did not even occur to me that one could work to become one. I needed a Supreme Court, a decree restoring my rights to me. But where were the magistrates? My natural judges had fallen into discredit through their hamming; I objected to them, but I saw no others.

In fine, he experienced bourgeois life as artificial, devoid of authenticity. Furthermore, he felt that the bourgeois lifestyle was one of perpetual ceremony. His experience with the bourgeois way of life led to another problem that disturbed the young Sartre - identity crisis. Sartre could not make sense of the manner by which he was treated by his family:

Idolized by all, rejected by each, I was left out of things, and my sole recourse, at the age of seven, was within myself, who did not yet exist, a glass palace in which the budding century beheld its boredom.

Moreover, his mother used to treat him as a girl. She made him sport long hair, which his grandfather abhorred. Sartre suspects that his mother silently prayed for a girl. When her prayers fell on deaf ears, she was forced to treat him in a gentle and tender manner characterizing the parenting of a daughter. She even kept the young Sartre from the violent games played by his contemporaries.

His identity crisis took a third dimension the time he realized that unlike what his family had been telling him, he was in fact ugly. He was short, awkward and most of all, cross-eyed. He was not the miracle child his grandfather had been making him believe he was. Nor was he the wonder-child of his mother. The initial abhorrence of his peers with his physical appearance made him realize the truth, and a hurtful truth at that. This made an influence later in his writings, especially when he talked of ugliness and desacralization of the body in Nausea and Being and Nothingness.

Nevertheless, the peers who made him aware of his physical appearance were the ones who finally initiated Sartre to broader social horizons. When he was enrolled at Lycée Henri IV, he met for the first time people of his age, his peers, some of whom became his close friends and associates.

The family of Charles Schweitzer was one characterized by irreligiosity. Indeed, Sartre claimed that their family was affected by the dechristianization that started with the Voltairian upper bourgeoisie that was slowly creeping into the very fabric of the French society. Charles was a Protestant, while his wife was a Roman Catholic. Although Sartre was baptized Catholic, all was only for a show, or more specifically, for practicality. The Schweitzer family engaged in religion for social purposes. Indeed, Sartre admitted that he was led to disbelief not by the conflict of dogmas, but by the religious indifference of his grandparents. As a result, the young Sartre was made to conceive of religion as nothing more than a mere institution devoid of respect for the freedom of man. He saw religion as prison, and nothing else.

The unhappiness Sartre experienced at the house he was forced to call his home led to his being engrossed with books. At so young an age, he was already familiar with famous writers of his time, and this led to his advanced intellectual development. Books, while remaining an escapist avenue, opened for him a wider intellectual vista that was later made explicit through his seemingly libertarian philosophy. Indeed, he admitted that he derived from the magazines and books he read his most deep-seated phantasmagoria -- optimism. Moreover, it realized his first encounter with beauty:

I owe to those magic boxes - and not to the balanced sentences of Chateaubriand - my first encounters with Beauty. When I opened them, I forgot about everything. Was that reading? No, but it was death by ecstasy.

His early education was also a forced one. His grandfather deprived him of the pristine happiness of childhood and forced him into becoming an adult without intentionally doing so. Sartre's life was one of a constant struggle of pleasing his grandfather; since his grandfather was pleased every time he saw his Poulou reading and writing, the young Sartre felt obligated to do so at every opportunity. He felt that because of this he had lost, without meaning to, the opportunity to become real.

Through all these childhood experiences, another factor was perpetually haunting the young Sartre - bad health. As if the sufferings he endured as a child were not enough, Sartre was made to suffer continually from illnesses, including enteritis. Sartre lamented his state of health in his autobiography:

Things would have been fine if my body and I had got on well together. But the fact is that we were an odd couple. When the child is unhappy, he doesn't asks himself questions. If he suffers bodily as a result of needs and sickness, his unjustifiable state justifies his existence. His right to live is based on hunger, on the constant danger of death. As for me, I was neither rich enough to think I was predestined nor poor enough to feel my desires as demands… Breathing, digesting, defecating unconcernedly, I lived because I had begun to live. I was unaware of the violence and savage demands of that gorged companion, my body, which made itself known by a series of mild disturbances, much in demand among grown-ups…I had almost died at birth.

Anne Marie's remarriage was likewise of considerable influence on the young Sartre. This resulted in a family environment which made him feel an outsider. Moreover, he was forced to leave Paris for the rural town of La Rochelle which was new to him. At first, Poulou found a different set of peers with whom he had to relate. The adventures of his newfound peers were altogether different from his; they were concerned more with the number of girlfriends they had than they were with books. In order to be able to feel accepted, Poulou invented stories of his own adventures. These lies, however, did not last long; his peers later learned about them.

Finally, Sartre recalled that it was also at La Rochelle that he first encountered the meaning of freedom. He believed that his notion of freedom stemmed from the conflict that arose from his childhood idealism and his experiences of contingency, rejection and loneliness. This ill-defined notion of freedom resolving from an experience of loneliness at a young age preceded his experience of violence. Sartre remembered that it was later on at L'École normale that he first "experimented" with, and practiced, violence.

Sartre's experiences at L'École normale and during his military service served as a transition period in his life. It was during those moments that Sartre experienced the depth of human collectivity. According to him:

I think it was that passage, from the collective life of youth to the adult world, that I found so difficult and disagreeable… [I]t's one thing to be one among many others, as I had been both at L'École normale and in the service. It's quite another to be an individual, such as bourgeois society spawns, burdened with social responsibilities you never asked for, with non-intimate relationships on a social level, isolated completely yet expected to perform certain duties or functions. At that point such a person becomes alienated.

The rise of Nazism while he was studying Husserl at Berlin opened Sartre's mind to the reality of politics. However, Sartre later regretted not being politically involved at that time. His initial exposure to politics through this experience was enriched with his experiences as a prisoner-of-war during the Second World War. Indeed, when Sartre returned from captivity, Beaver was struck by the "rigidity of his moral righteousness." The war and the Resistance Movement influenced Sartre in a twofold manner. First, he got his notion of a committed literature. Second, Sartre admitted that his war experiences were the beginning of his ideological commitment.

Sartre's ideological commitment was further radicalized by at least four post-war experiences: the Henri Martin affair ; the political demonstrations against the appointment of General Matthew Ridgeway as head of NATO; the arrest of Jacques Duclos, the leader of the French Communist Party and the one who succeeded Maurice Thorez as Secretary General of the Party upon the latter's death; and the book Le Coup d'État du 2 decembre by Henri Guillemin. As Sartre admitted in an interview for his biographical movie:

The anti-Ridgeway demonstrations in France and their repercussions had a profound effect on me, reawakening my interest in Marxism, instilling in me a sense of class struggle which I still retain to this day. All of this tended to align me with the Communist, turn me into a fellow traveler…And then in 1953, I came to the realization that that was a completely bourgeois viewpoint, that there is a great deal more to life than writing.

[Go to Intellectual Influences]

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