Sartre: A Philosophical Biography, by Thomas R. Flynn

Jane O’Grady on a survey of Sartre’s works and politics, and the contradictions they contained

February 5, 2015

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that a great philosophy constitutes “a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir”, and surely Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the philosophers of whom this is truest. German-occupied France, the Resistance in which he played only too little a part and post-war bohemian Paris form the foreground and background of his novels and plays, but they also permeate his philosophy. Mosaicked into his dense, abstract speculations are precise, graphic depictions of his view of the human condition. Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with Sartre’s metaphors and images – the human as a nothingness that has to create itself, freedom of choice as the anguishing life sentence we each have to serve, the gaze of other people as hellishly threatening, emotions as devious coping stratagems when the world seems recalcitrant to our purposes and slime as “a possible meaning of being”.

Thomas Flynn’s “philosophical biography”, however, will disappoint anyone hoping for illumination on how Sartre’s personality engendered his thought. There is not much new here about Sartre’s life; in fact very little about it at all. But Flynn, who has written widely on Sartre and existentialism, offers a thorough survey of Sartre’s works, including less well-known ones such as the biographies of Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and Jean Genet, on whom Sartre practises what he called “existential psychoanalysis”. Flynn never quite explains what is meant by this, but he suggests that Sartrean notions of “prereflective comprehension” and of “bad faith” are closely related to the Freudian unconscious that Sartre so vociferously rejects.

An extreme commitment to freedom leads Sartre to insist that not only do (in fact must) we choose what to do, but we also choose how to perceive and feel – without acknowledging it. Grief, for instance, veils the world in tears and absolves us from engaging in it. Like a servant who gets the burglars he has colluded with to bind him so that he seems an innocent victim, so, says Sartre, the physiological phenomena of an emotion serve as alibis to its genuineness, and to “a magical play-acting of impotence” that vindicates our consequent passivity. Not that Flynn cites this burglar’s accomplice metaphor (he is keener on the cerebral than on the literary, visual Sartre), but he adeptly presents Sartre as ambivalent about whether our “transformation of the world and our own bodies” is inadvertent or deliberate. Like Freud, Sartre needs it to be both.

Flynn also charts the contradictory strands in Sartre’s politics and ethics. When young, Sartre was almost Nietzschean in his elitism – he and his friend Paul Nizan dubbed themselves “supermen” – but he claimed to have learned communality while imprisoned in a German Stalag in 1939. Flynn argues that, although a “dawning sense of ‘we’ as a force and not merely a passive object” attracted Sartre to collective action and the Left, his sense of the Romantic “homme seul” and contempt for humanism persist in his works and life. We are surely entitled, however, to demand from a philosophical biography a subtler examination of how far Sartre himself was in bad faith.

Sartre: A Philosophical Biography

By Thomas R. Flynn
Cambridge University Press, 480pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780521826402 and 9781316190432 (e-book)
Published 12 February 2015

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