Sartre, 1964 Nobel Laureate
Lillian L. Shapiro
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
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.
L. Shapiro, former supervisor of high school libraries in the
NYC schools, is the author of Fiction for Youth.
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