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New York City
April 2001

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1964 Nobel Laureate

by Lillian L. Shapiro

Those who have received the Nobel Prize in literature have always been pleased and honored to accept this recognition. Yet Jean-Paul Sartre, the 1964 laureate, declined this highly sought award. One other award winner, Boris Pasternak, had also declined it six years earlier.

A book in the series Wadsworth Philosophers, by Haden Carruth, offers a wealth of information on Sartre, covering his life and works with brief explanations of his ideas. Carruth writes about Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize: “When he learned that he was likely to be the recipient, he warned the Swedish Academy that he did not want the prize. When they chose him anyway, he refused to accept it and the 26 million francs that went with it. He refused the prize because he did not want to be bought off, or even appear to be bought off, by the middle-class establishment. He also noted that the Swedish Academy had never before offered this prize to a Marxist writer and the only Soviet writer to receive the prize was the dissident Boris Pasternak.”

While there are sections in Carruth’s book on such themes as ethics, ontology and historical materialism, it is humanistic existentialism that is most often associated with Sartre and Simone de Beauvior.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905, the son of a French naval officer who died when Sartre was 15 months old. In a biographical memoir, Les Mots, Sartre writes of his life with his widowed mother, Anne Marie Schweitzer, in her parents’ home. The book relates his early years in two sections. Reading covers his life to age six, and Writing his next four years. He was allowed free reign in his grandfather’s library where he pretended to be reading—and where he actually learned to read. He explains that he learned to write by following what other writers did at the start of their careers and that was to plagiarize.

Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir when they were graduate students at the University of Paris; she became his loyal friend, lover and the editor of his work. Beauvoir, a talented writer in her own right, wrote The Second Sex, considered to be a seminal work in feminist scholarship.

After military service in World War II, Sartre began to devote himself to writing. Becoming interested in philosophy, Sartre was drawn to the writings of Kierkegaard, Husserl and especially Heidegger, which brought him to his own thinking about existentialism.

Such expositions as Being and Nothingness and subsequent works did not earn him the wide readership of La Nausee. One of Sartre’s plays, Huis Clos, is memorable for its message. In this play, two women and one man are escorted, one-by-one, into a room with no windows or mirrors. They can never close their eyes, and the light is never extinguished. They understand that they are in purgatory and await their punishment for the sins of deceit, envy and disloyalty that appear in their interactions. As they struggle for some relief, they understand that “Hell is other people.”

In the political arena, Sartre played the role of an independent critic. He actively opposed the French government’s role in the Algerian uprising; he demonstrated with the French students in their rebellions in 1968 and was associated with two radical publications, La Cause du Peuple and Tout. For a while in the 1950’s he supported the French Communist Party, although he never joined. He criticized both the Soviet Union for its invasion of Hungary, and the United States for the war in Vietnam. He was an independent Marxist and an anti-imperialist, associating himself with third-world socialism.

After a stroke in 1973, Sartre’s health deteriorated, although he continued to write. He died in 1980, attended by Beauvoir and other friends until his death.

Lillian L. Shapiro, former supervisor of high school libraries in the NYC schools, is the author of Fiction for Youth.


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