Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre, by Gary Cox

Claims for genius require more than repeated assertion to make the case, says Martin Cohen

October 13, 2016
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir meeting over coffee
Source: Rex
Setting the stage: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir managed perceptions by creating carefully crafted descriptions of their lives

The paradoxical thing about Jean-Paul Sartre is that the more I read about him, the less I think he is worth writing about. For me, his star has fallen, certainly since Michel Foucault dismissed him as a man of the 19th century trying to think the 20th, let alone after the final clinical dissection performed by Edward and Kate Fullbrook in their 2008 study Sex and Philosophy: Rethinking de Beauvoir and Sartre, which presents a bumbling egomaniac rehashing the core ideas of existentialism as explained to him by his rather more interesting girlfriend.

The Fullbrooks’ version is, shall we say, controversial. Gary Cox refers darkly to other biographers’ “bizarre”, “nonsense” research into Sartre’s writings – yet the version offered here is by no means more persuasive, and is backed up less by evidence or argument than by flowery language and repeated assertion. The very first page sets the tone by saying firmly that Sartre was a genius and (what’s more) his life “was a work of art too”, and Cox never budges from this message.

Certainly, as per Nietzsche and Thoreau, an eccentric life can make an essentially derivative thinker seem rather more interesting, but idiosyncrasies do not substitute for ideas. At times, Sartre appears merely a misfit, tripping out on mescaline and developing that famous fear of giant lobsters – and the less famous one of trees.

Yet for Cox, Sartre was a visionary: “the prophetic leader of a group of thinkers who would take…the whole world, into a new age”. He speaks of Sartre as being destined to greatness, and of his return to his “spiritual home of Paris” to take up “his rightful place among the young intellectual elite of France”. Here is a Sartre who “strained every sinew to inspire people to think about him and his ideas…to recognise his relevance to our times and to all times”. A prophet is what, of course, Karl Marx was to his many followers in academe, and Sartre to a great extent is followed “right or wrong” as a matter of political affiliation.

Although Cox allows that biographers need to go beyond the facts to offer a personal perspective and insight, his own work lacks the critical distance that might have brought insight. It rests too heavily on other people’s accounts – most dangerously, of course, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s own carefully crafted descriptions of their lives. For instance, Cox is content to say that when Sartre looked at the issue of contingency, Sartre was relieved that Edmund Husserl had not “already had the same thoughts as Sartre on the subject”.

Unfortunately, Sartre’s “masterpiece amongst masterpieces” was rejected by Gallimard in 1936. But French philosophy is a cosy world, and two friends, Pierre Bost and Charles Dullin, who “knew Sartre through Simone Jollivet”, as Cox puts it delicately, took the matter straight to Gaston Gallimard, the head of the publishing house, and insisted on a reappraisal. From then on, it was all roses. The rambling and wearisome Being and Nothingness, the work that Sartre sneeringly advised Albert Camus not to read as being “needlessly arduous” for such as him, would “assure Sartre’s place in the long and magnificent history” of philosophy.

Martin Cohen is editor of The Philosopher, and is author, most recently, of Paradigm Shift: How Expert Opinions Keep Changing on Life, the Universe, and Everything (2015).

Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre
By Gary Cox
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781474235334
Published 8 September 2016


Print headline: A mantle of nothingness

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Reader's comments (2)

This biography is on our university reading list. All Philosophy students should understand who Sartre was and why his influence on modern thought remains so important and this book does exactly that. This is a prejudiced review of what is, in actual fact, an excellent, concise, well written and knowledgable introduction to the exciting life and hugely influential work of Sartre. Sartre may be in some less enlightened circles out of favour now (and the reviewer Cohen clearly despises Sartre), but Sartre's influence on modern philosophy and modern life, IS an important one and one that should never be forgotten or (as Cohen seems to wish) totally ignored. Maybe because he hates Sartre so much, Cohen appears not to have read this book all the way through and, as a result, the examples he cites to support his views are inaccurate. For example, at the end, Cohen says Cox is referring to Being and Nothingness: he isn't. He refers to Nausea. This is a long overdue biography and is on my university reading list. All students of philosophy should know something about Sartre and have an understanding of his influence on modern thought. Sorry, Mr Cohen Sartre isn't going to go away.
Cohen has written a cynical and self-important review of Gary Cox’s Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul that develops a rushed and ridiculous thesis on the basis of a very superficial skim-reading of the early chapters only. Cohen’s all too conveniently adopted thesis is that Cox does little more in his book than repeatedly assert that Sartre is a genius. In developing his position, which sneers at Sartre, Nietzsche and Marx as much as at Cox, Cohen repeatedly quotes Cox out of context or conveniently misunderstands the context of what Cox says altogether. For example, as Bibliophile correctly point out, the ‘masterpiece among masterpieces’ (p. 78) that Cox refers to, the work that was mistakenly rejected by Gallimard in 1936 only because it went to the wrong department, is Nausea, not Being and Nothingness, although admittedly Cox also argues for the hardly contentious view that Being and Nothingness is itself something of a masterpiece. It may of course be debated as to whether or not Sartre was a genius, and what genius really is, but Cox certainly offers reasons, and not merely ‘repeated assertions’, as to why he thinks Sartre was a genius, why he thinks Nausea and Being and Nothingness are works of genius and why, more broadly, Sartre had a genius for philosophical thinking even if that genius was not reflected in everything that he wrote. Perhaps more importantly, as his book advances into those chapters that Cohen clearly never reached, Cox offers many arguments and illustrations as to why Sartre was a flawed genius, politically naive and dogmatic for example, and why he was - like most people - a rather flawed human being with feet of clay. Cox is undoubtedly a fan of Sartre, particularly as a philosopher and psychologist, but he is far from being a Sartre sycophant. His biography is at all times measured and objective and Cohen is totally wrong to say that the work ‘lacks the critical distance that might have bought insight.’ It is also odd that Cohen accuses Cox of using ‘flowery language’ to make his case when, as ever, Cox’s delivery is relentlessly clear, concise, unadorned and straightforward, mercifully free from the contortions and embellishments that mar so much philosophical writing, let alone writing about philosophers. Cohen clearly despises Sartre and sees no value whatsoever in his work – Nietzsche too is dismissed as a ‘derivative thinker’! He is therefore hostile towards Cox from the outset for even bothering to write a biography of Sartre, and is then entirely unforgiving of the fact that that biography is not as wholly negative about Sartre as he would wish it to be. In my view, Cox, an author of several books on Sartre and existentialism who has an extensive knowledge of Sartre’s philosophy and philosophical writings, has written a very entertaining and informative life of Sartre that manages to be extremely thorough despite being half the length of the 600 page epic biographies of Sartre that are also available. Cox draws expertly on a vast existing literature, including the autobiographical writings of Sartre and de Beauvoir themselves. In doing so he is fully aware that Sartre and de Beauvoir ‘carefully crafted descriptions of their lives’ and even warns that, at times, de Beauvoir ‘allows herself a little too much dramatic licence’ (p. 32) as she succumbs to literature. This is, not least, part of Cox’s broader analysis in the book of the relationship between life and literature and the relationship between literature and biography, a theme that interests him as much as it interested Sartre, who was of course a psychoanalytic biographer of several writers, including Baudelaire, Genet and Flaubert. Interestingly, Cox is at times a psychoanalytic biographer of Sartre, although he is always careful to point out when he is indulging in informed speculation about Sartre’s motives and mindset. It is disappointing that the editor of The Philosopher, no less, should allow himself to write such a sneeringly dismissive and ill-informed review, but then it appears most of his reviews are similarly half-cocked, resorting to scorn as a convenient substitute for proper consideration.

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