Dear Sartre


/ by Diane Joy Charney

We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.

I write them letters.


Considered one of the leading public intellectuals of the period after World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905-April 15, 1980) received, but declined, the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature. In his theoretical writings, novels, and plays, Sartre expressed his vision of existentialism as a response to an absurd, godless world. For Sartre, freedom, authenticity, and responsibility are key words. Good intentions mean nothing—man defines himself solely by his own actions.





Dear Jean-Paul.


There have been many Jean-Pauls in my life, but you’re the only one in whose bedroom I have slept. You’re probably wondering what I’m talking about, so I will explain.


During 1966-67, my Junior Year in France, I was living at 1 Rue le Goff, near the Pantheon and had read, in your autobiographical book, Les Mots, that this was your former address and the very apartment in which you grew up. You described very clearly the elevator and many features of the building. By that time, you had moved not too far away, and although you were very much on my mind because I was reading your work, our paths did not actually cross. But from what I know about your sloppy personal and libidinous habits, it's probably much better that I shared the bedroom with fellow blond Hamilton Junior Year in France student, Karen Watson of Binghamton, New York. Regardless of who or what wasn’t in our room, the text of your play, “Huis Clos” (“No Exit”) would become part of my curriculum at Yale, and I never tired of teaching it. Apparently you never tired of it, either, since towards the end of our life, you included it on your short list of works for which you wanted to be remembered.


In fact, “No Exit” was the first work that Yale students in our Intermediate-Advanced French used to encounter. Early in our study, I would pass around the scroll from a fortune cookie that said “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That’s not quite the most famous line of your play, “L’enfer, c’est les autres (“Hell is other people”), but to many of those students, living as they were in overcrowded dorm rooms, that line immediately made sense. In the midst of our discussions, which happened to coincide with our study of the conditional tense, I came up with an assignment that worked well.


As a lighthearted “devoir” I asked the students to write me a paragraph that would complete the sentence, “Pour moi, l’enfer serait…” (“For me, hell would be…”) and another for “Pour moi, le paradis serait….” Then after they had corrected their efforts, I divided a sheet of paper in half, and recopied a selection of the best parts of their respective heavens and hells. I numbered each set of comments, but preserved everyone's anonymity. I made copies for all and we read them aloud in class. It was great way to get to know them (and each other) better. And also a way to showcase their work while allowing them to compare it in a friendly way to that of their peers. It offered a chance to say interesting things while learning new vocabulary (“extra credit for using the new vocabulary and target grammar!”), and to put into practice the grammar we were reviewing. I turned it into a guessing game where I encouraged them to guess who might have written what, but I never spilled the beans.


Throughout the semester I used variations of this technique to share excerpts from their best work, and it was a hit with all of us. Further, to have a page of elegant French with lots of good ideas about what we were studying proved to be an ego boost for them, a good study tool for exams, and a nice souvenir.


My “Trois Choses” (“Three Things”) assignment was another efficient approach designed to combat the fact that with such a rich curriculum, we always felt rushed. Whatever other assignment happened to be due on a given day, I asked my students to always come prepared with at least three things to say about the day’s reading--a key word or phrase that had caught their eye, a question about something they weren’t sure they’d understood, anything surprising they had observed. That way if called on, nobody ever needed to feel on the spot about having something to offer. I sometimes used to have them break up into 3 small groups where for five minutes they would compare each other’s “three things.” This allowed us to cover a lot of ground while giving everyone a voice and a stake in the class discussion. I would call on each group in turn to summarize their findings, which I would record on the board. In truth, I would have been happy to spend the entire semester on your “Huis Clos.” But that's why it's a good thing that I was just one member of a teaching team, and not the truly brilliant course chair, Ruth Koizim, who was the decider of the curriculum.


I think it’s important and relevant for students to hear a bit about existentialism, and I’m ashamed to say that for many, our course was the first place they did. They tended to feel unsettled about what was going on in “Huis Clos,” so I liked to stress what I see as the positive aspects of your ideas. Of course they didn’t always agree about the positive part:


In Sartre’s view, there is no God. (Oh, no!—the upset begins!).


But this allows you to be free. (Hmm...but there must be some strings attached).


All that counts is what you do. You alone define yourself by your actions. (Oh, dear! You mean I can’t blame my parents?)


Sartre thinks that the bastard is the freest of all. (Are you kidding? How could that be? My parents give me a lot of freedom. They even let me make my own decision about whether to come to Yale or Harvard!)


In this absurd world where there is no afterlife, you and only you are responsible for the actions that will define you. (But this is making us nervous. That’s not what they taught us in Sunday School.)


To their virgin ears, it was a lot to swallow. But this is what happens when you come to college. You had some useful things to say about relationships, too: When you’re attracted to another person not for his or her self, but because of how that person makes you feel about your own self, this is not a good thing. You illustrate this clearly in “Huis Clos” when you have Inès, the lesbian who wants Estelle, the coquettish murderer of her own baby, to join forces with her against the third person in their perfectly tailored hell. Knowing that Estelle feels lost without a mirror, Inès says that Estelle can look into her eyes and see the reflection she craves. Of course the third member of this infernal ménage à trois, Garcin, will intervene to make sure that this potential coupling will not occur. But if Estelle hadn’t already been in hell for good reasons, to look to another person to define herself would have landed her there, anyway.


In that Intermediate-Advanced level of French at Yale, we tended to use literature as a pretext for studying the language. But while stressing enough of the grammar to prepare the students in my section of this multi-section class for the group exams, I much preferred to focus on the ideas. And there were plenty of them, since after you, we did Camus' L'étranger and “L'Hôte” from L’exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom), André Gide's La Symphone pastorale, Giraudoux's “La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu” (“Tiger at the Gates”) and L’Apollon de Bellac, Raymond Radiguet's Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh), Joseph Joffo’s Un sac de billes (A Bag of Marbles), the film “Jules et Jim” via Pierre Capretz’s incomparable approach, and even Goscinny and Sempé’s Le petit Nicolas. In recent years, the curriculum has veered into cultural studies and works by contemporary francophone authors, but I liked the original, which I taught for decades without ever tiring of the material.


Enough about my attempts to teach about you. I’m trying to picture you, Jean-Paul as a high school teacher. Or a meteorologist. Or a prankster. Or a man who had simultaneously many attractive young mistresses to whom you made your “rounds,” in addition to some very kinky ménages à trois situations of your own that included a nineteen-year-old Jewish Algerian whom you adopted as your daughter. Or your young self as the victim of bullies. Actually, the last one is easier to imagine than the rest. Maybe that’s why you refused to keep quiet about inequalities and injustices. I see, however, that in 1941 you took a teaching position at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris that became available because the Jewish teacher you replaced had been forbidden by Vichy law to continue teaching. It’s clear that you were a man of many parts.


I've tried in vain to understand the ins and outs of your relationship and ultimate break with Camus. Although you and Camus worked together at “Combat,” he said of you, “Sartre was a writer who resisted; not a resister who wrote.” Ouch!

Whatever I do, I find that my heart is with Camus, and I don't think it's because of his physical allure. (I have to admit, however, that the photo of a young Camus that adorned the program for the recent Camus: A Stranger in the City conference dedicated to him on the 70th anniversary of his “one and only trip to the USA” took my breath away. What a face!) But somehow you did manage to get the prettiest and smartest girl in the class to be your life partner, so go figure! But your relationship with her, as explored in the shocking 2005 Louis Menand New Yorker article, “Stand By Your Man, The Strange Liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir,” exuded more than a whiff of Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons.

Yet even though New York did not organize a glamorous conference about you, you have gotten serious appreciation in recent years. In fact, I’ve been tiptoeing around you throughout my own letters to men of letters. You have felt like the elephant in the room, having extensive connections to so many of my letter recipients—Flaubert about whom you obsessed enough to try to write three volumes on him (your The Family Idiot that remained unfinished at your death); Romain Gary whom you praised; Ionesco, via my story of the fire in your (and my) Paris apartment at 1 Rue le Goff.

I had forgotten but was reminded by my Paris roommate Karen’s journals that during our 1966-67 year abroad, our French “brother,” Bertrand Peguillan, now a novelist, translator and researcher was, like you, a self-proclaimed anarchist. In fact, he probably got the idea from reading you. According to Karen, he and his anarchist buddies had an idea for something he wouldn’t have called a prank, but that sounded like the one you orchestrated to convince the French public that Charles Lindberg would be stopping by the École Normale Supérieure to get an honorary degree. According to several sources, thousands showed up only to find a Lindberg lookalike, and the mess resulted in the resignation of the director of France’s most prestigious school. But when you were arrested in 1968 for civil disobedience, you were pardoned by none other than Charles de Gaulle, who said, “You don’t arrest Voltaire.”

As for the young Bertrand, who is the same age as me and Karen, here’s what he and his idealistic posse were discussing in 1967: "After supper, Diane was reading and I was in Bertrand's room hearing about this big secret project that the anarchists have in mind to spring on Paris. It involves getting ahold of loud speakers in a big department store, telling the people that they could take what they wanted, using tear gas and distributing leaflets. (Rather tame in terms of the terrorism of today, n'est-ce pas?)” I have Karen to thank for that quote from her journal.

Flash forward to more current information about Bertrand. I see he was quoted in “The Chicago Tribune” of November 15, 2015 about the Paris bombings: Several blocks away, outside La Cosa Nostra, a small Italian restaurant attacked minutes after Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge, Bertrand Peguillan, 69, was more blunt [about the reasons for the attack]. "The Bataclan is rock-and-roll," he said. "It's freedom, it's immorality, it's profane.''

Peguillan pulled out of his pocket a map he had clipped out of Le Monde newspaper showing the site of each attack. He said he planned to visit every one-- just as he did last January after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. At the end of your own life, you considered yourself an anarchist. For Bertrand, anarchy seems to have been an earlier phase.

But back to the current appreciations of you. The Guardian published an article on October 22, 2014 by Stuart Jeffries titled, “Jean-Paul Sartre: more relevant now than ever” (“Fifty years ago, Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel prize for literature. His reputation has waned, but his intellectual struggle is still pertinent”). Jeffries asks,

How then should we approach Sartre’s writings in 2014? So much of his lifelong intellectual struggle and his work still seems pertinent. When we read the “Bad Faith” section of “Being and Nothingness,” it is hard not to be struck by the image of the writer who is too ingratiating and mannered in his gestures, and how that image pertains to the dismal drama of inauthentic self-performance that we find in our culture today. When we watch his play “Huis Clos,” we might well think of how disastrous our relations with other people are, since we now require them, more than anything else, to confirm our self-images, while they, no less vexingly, chiefly need us to confirm theirs. When we read his claim that humans can, through imagination and action, change our destiny, we feel something of the burden of responsibility of choice that makes us moral beings….

The existential plight of humanity, our absurd lot, our moral and political responsibilities that Sartre so brilliantly identified have not gone away; rather, we have chosen the easy path of ignoring them.

Jeffries makes a convincing case for your ongoing influence.

Then there’s the Monty Python sketch about you, “Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion Visit Jean-Paul Sartre at his Paris Home.” Whether or not this is funny, to have inspired an elaborate sketch like this implies a certain importance to mass culture.

I’m going to end with one of the best homages to you that I found. In her excellent 2016 book, At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell (author also of How to Live, which is about the life of 16th century philosopher Montaigne) reveals much about you and De Beauvoir that was new to me. Reviewer Lara Feigel (The Guardian March 17, 2016) calls Bakewell’s book “the most engaging work of philosophy I have read.” I knew from many persuasive sources that you were blamed for your commitment to Marxism despite the terrible events taking place under the communist regime. But Feigel points out that Bakewell gives a more nuanced account of your struggle to balance your ideals with the cruel reality of Stalin’s policies:

Though Sartre certainly fetishized violence, he did not enjoy watching the Soviet Union’s casual disregard for human life. But he stubbornly believed in the necessity of overcoming what he viewed as squeamishness about death, placing the greater good above the mere individual life. Increasingly, this put both Sartre and De Beauvoir under a severe strain that their critics may not have seen. Sartre in particular was addicted to drugs…

Sartre comes out of this book well, despite his selfishness, his bloody mindedness and his contradictions. He once said that it was important to ask how every situation looked to “the eyes of the least favored,” and to take their side. This stance led him to change his mind frequently and to make mistakes. But it also resulted in a compelling willingness to assess each situation anew and to think always from first principles.

How you yourself appear in the eyes of others—a preoccupation that would have been anathema to you—has varied over the years. On the other hand, 50,000 people came to your funeral. Is hell always other people?

Whenever I am in Paris, I make a point of stopping in front of our former home, 1 Rue le Goff, Paris Vième. In my mind’s eye, I see a plaque above the entrance that reads, “Sartre slept here, and so did I.”

Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.