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
Published 8 September 2016