Jean-Paul Sartre (Critical Lives)
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This biographical study integrates Sartre’s works into his personal life, revealing the intimate contexts in which his philosophy developed. From Sartre’s beginnings as a bright and precocious student, Leak explores how he struggled against the repressive strictures of bourgeois expectations, endured cruelty at the hands of schoolmates, and forged his conflicted personality within a fragmented family life. The book probes his particularly influential relationships with a range of people—from Simone de Beauvoir to Gaston Gallimard—and how Sartre was transformed by historical events, in particular his service in World War II.
Telling anecdotes, personal correspondence, and archival photographs expose how Sartre’s own challenges emerged as predominant themes in his works—such as the often blurred delineation between the real and imaginary, and his preoccupation with definitions of “madness” in the individual. Leak’s astute and provocative examination of Sartre himself challenges the philosopher’s assertion about the limits of knowledge of the other.
Carnets, Sartre had bemoaned his inability to ground himself in the world in a resonant phrase: ‘I would have to be made of clay, instead I am made of wind.’28 Oreste effects the transformation from ‘wind’ to ‘clay’. In terms of its political interpretation, the play probably raises more questions than it provides answers. Rather than remain and govern Argos as a free democracy, Oreste leaves its citizens to the tender mercies of his now remorseful sister Electre (who had assisted him in the
freedom, but to what end? Freedom is not an object that one can simply keep in a safe place until one is ready to use it. As he sits alone contemplating the ruins of his life, he is forced to admit that his precious freedom is no more than a worthless abstraction: ‘For nothing: this life was given to him for nothing, he was nothing and yet he would never change: he was finished.’4 It was the negativity of this conclusion that inspired Sartre to publish the first two volumes together, for, in the
recently as 1942–44 when French Jews who did not even know that they were Jews were deported to Auschwitz after being denounced by anti-Semitic neighbours. And yet, Sartre sees assimilation as the long-term answer to the ‘Jewish question’: to attempt assimilation while anti-Semitism still persists is inauthentic, but when anti-Semitism itself disappears, then so too, logically, will the Jew. While few doubted Sartre’s good will, many criticised the assumptions he made, as a gentile, about
friends would come and go to the flat in Montparnasse, but effectively did little more than pass each other in the street outside. Second, the acrimony surrounding the last years of Sartre’s life produced accounts of the period that bare the traces of that bitterness. Beauvoir’s memoirs are still the most abundant source of biographical material on Sartre, but nobody would claim that they are objective; and La Cérémonie des adieux – covering the last ten years of Sartre’s life – was the most
And there was much worse to follow. The daily entretiens between Sartre and Lévy continued, and drifted more and more towards Lévy’s preoccupation with Judaism. The intention was to collaborate on a joint publication of a radically new kind. Sartre spoke enthusiastically about the project – provisionally entitled Pouvoir et liberté – and claimed to see it as the culmination of a long reflection on politics and ethics. In the same spirit, he proposed to Jean Daniel that the Nouvel Observateur