Of Jean Paul Sartre and Imposture | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 20, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 20, 2018


Of Jean Paul Sartre and Imposture

In October 1964, Jean Paul Charles Aymard Sartre, a French philosopher and novelist, was declared winner of the Nobel Prize for literature for that year. Sartre, however, declined the prize and the staggering sum of 250,000 Kr that came with it. In a letter to the Swedish Nobel Committee, he pointed out that a writer with a definite social and political position, left only with the means of "words", could not accept any such institutionalized honor; he believed that such honors could compromise a writer; honors conferred by institutions, after all, oblige him to take side, often narrowly, with certain people and their beliefs.

Till today, this gesture is often remembered and regarded as the supreme instance of intellectual integrity from a man who had crusaded lifelong against hypocrisy and charlatanism. Sartre, as he once said of himself, always hated to "fake it".

He could not “fake” it too with Simone de Beauvoir. They had been mates at Sorbonne preparing for Agrégation when they first met. He had stood first and she second then. They had an amazing bond that the world still talks about. Both respected as important existentialist philosophers of the 20th century, they were spiritual and intellectual soul mates; they shared ideas and all except one thing–the bed. This honesty from Sartre (some consider it perverse) gave both of them the freedom to choose partners at will; nevertheless, commitment was something they had towards each other and that lasted till their very end. Now their ashes are kept in graves where they lie side by side.

Sartre loved the authentic in men because he knew what it meant to lack it."I am the grandson of defeat", wrote Sartre in The Words, his acclaimed autobiographical book. "Fatherless, homeless, being nobody's son", Sartre knew that he was born for a life "flying from imposture to imposture".

 Sartre was the quintessential intellectual. "I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: amidst books." At the age of seven, he learnt that he would read books not for his own pleasure but for others'. He was quite a "prodigy"; he read Hugo, Voltaire, and Corneille at an age ripe only for nursery rhymes. Charles Schweitzer, his grandfather and a formidable authority in French, carried this prodigy like a trophy to show off in intellectual circles. He was reading books like an omnivore; Charles was "the Moses dictating the new law" and the old man had the final say about his grandchild.

It was then that Sartre sadly realized that he was doomed to live as a "public child" who would entertain the public like an animal did in a circus; people would pay just to enjoy his antics and laugh their heads off. All he had to do was to "put an act".

Sartre felt wretched and miserable then; the world was his, yet it was not his completely; his body was a text inscribed by foreign desires; a deep chasm separated his inmost being from his public self; he felt like a "bourgeois loner"; everything that he had was "loaned" to him so that he could play the role of a “miracle-monger" to a society “choking to death” in material boredom and pre-war anxiety. He was a Saviourex Machina , a “redeemer”; he was many things at a time!

Sartre, however, hated men who condemned him to a life of play-acting; he felt nausea, a deep revulsion against a society that was indifferent to a man's spiritual crisis. He wanted to close the gap within his consciousness and be solid like a mountain. He wanted to be like Mr. Simonnot , a friend of his grandfather, who impressed the young Sartre with his amazing sang-froid. One day someone put a question to this man; he made an expression of thinking; he continued to look serene and relaxed, ready to produce a reply—which  he eventually didn't. The world, young Sartre imagined, owed its existence to the words Mr. Simonnot was going to say. The solidity of Mr. Simonnot personality fascinated Sartre so much that he toyed with the idea of the annihilation of his existence. There is heroism in the act of vanishing after all, rather than carrying on the drag of pretension.

Sartre recalled how raptly he listened to the piano played by his mother and how avidly he read tales of heroism. Music and fiction gave him a semblance of something structured and otherwise not available in a real world ruled by sheer contingencies and the extreme variability of human roles.  Jules Verne's 1976 book, The Imaginary World of Michael Strogoff (a book that he read over and over again) exercised his young mind and made him imagine that he was the prince who always rose to the rescue of damsels in distress.

The world knew only one Sartre–Sartre, the "Gift of Providence". For Sartre of course, this gift only made him a worse case of imposture; he wanted to be himself; the world stood in his way; so the battle to be himself began but he badly needed some help to do so.

Writing was that help. His first experience with writing was a moment of pure joy; it was almost epiphanic; he not only wrote as he willed but also "called (things) by their names".. This power was tremendous and he, in the ecstasy of self-discovery, agreed with Madam Picard that his destiny after all lay in the world of literature where he would work wonders, courtesy of his extraordinary grasp of words, and his ingenuity in embedding them in worthy narratives. He would be the "Redeemer" with a "Mandate" to save mankind with his pen. It was a mission he was destined for.

Clearly, it was a noble mission from a would-be writer. But the mission, from the beginning, was Sartre's alone and not for mankind. Tired of "constantly shedding skins", of putting on 'fake' faces that catered to the bourgeois need of the daily round of parlor-room comedy, he discovered writing as an activity outside time that promised him a private space and, more importantly, a foundation for ontological certainty. He thought that he was finally saved; but he was not.

Sensitive to the core, Sartre took no time to deconstruct the myth of writing–writing is a "double imposture "; it is another bourgeois vision of triumphalism and progress, that feeds a writer with the illusion of his immortality and of his  sense of proprietorship to be the moral guardian of mankind. But the truth, he came to realize, is that a writer's dream of being immortal can be cut short by cosmic "catastrophism", and that the voices of the dead and that of the yet-unborn, speak through him as he writes. In short, a writer is never original; he is a "pretender" from the beginning.

Deeply shocked, Sartre knew that his last bastion of hope was gone; he tasted his ultimate defeat, a taste so bitter that would last till his last. But there was something else too- that defeat also marked the absolute moment of certainty, the only certainty he knew in life which was, otherwise, "fake to the marrow". Enough of being a poseur; now he would no longer dream, Christ-like, to redeem mankind; he would only preach in words that "man is impossible"!

Sartre, the foremost intellectual of the twentieth century, was a "pretender”, and he had the courage to declare it to the world. It will be interesting to discover whether that courage is to be seen in those who took the baton from him and called themselves intellectuals afterwards.


The writer is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Barisal.

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