Jean-Paul Sartre: Overview

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Author: A. James Arnold
Editor: Lesley Henderson
Date: 1995
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,354 words

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Jean-Paul Sartre can be said to have made a profession of being the gadfly of France and of a sizeable portion of the western world for some three decades following World War II. His moral authority extended far beyond the actual readership of his literary, philosophical, and political writings, although these were quite numerous and varied. Among intellectuals in the English-speaking world, only Bertrand Russell was his equal as a force in marshalling opinion on the left, and together they created the International War Crimes Tribunal in 1966 to condemn the American war in Vietnam. Sartre's career as a writer and thinker traces a long, rather tortuous route from the radical individualism of his beginnings to spokesman for all wars of national liberation, and for proletarian causes of every sort, from the 1950s onward.

On the eve of World War II, Sartre began to emerge as a redoubtable if impetuous critic of the previous generation of French writers, in articles (on Giraudoux and Mauriac, most notably) that he contributed to the Nouvelle Revue française. At the same time he published a first novel, La Nausée (Nausea), that presents an atheist intellectual hero, seriously at odds with society, who undergoes a psychological crisis that threatens his very identity. He concludes ultimately that salvation is to be found only in the making of art. Antoine Roquentin, the hero of this pre-existentialist Künstlerroman, thus bears a marked resemblance to Proust's Marcel, and the novel has frequently been taken to represent a critical phase of development within European modernism. An early collection of short stories evidencing numerous naturalistic and ironic features Le Mur (The Wall) dates from this same period, which antedates the Sartrean notion of the writer's commitment to his time and to changing the world.

His experiences in a German prisoner of war camp from June 1940 to March 1941 had a determining effect on Sartre's notion of ethical choice. For Christmas 1940 he wrote a play on the massacre of the Innocents entitled Bariona; ou, Le Fils...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007095