Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

Last year, when Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography began to appear in his review Les Temps modernes, it stirred up great expectations among its readers. One had the impression of rediscovering a voice which had spoken with great authority in the past but which had lost some of its power in more recent years. Sartre’s influence reached its peak during the occupation, when it was by necessity confined to France, and in the years immediately following the war, when it spread rapidly over the entire world, giving him an international reputation almost unprecedented in French literature; one would perhaps have to go back as far as Voltaire to find a comparable case of a writer whose influence extended well beyond literature, into the realm of philosophical, historical, and political thought. At that time, Sartre was known primarily for his first novel La nausée, two philosophical works (the book on Imagination and the treatise Being and Nothingness), and the essays of literary criticism now collected in Situations I. Somehow, during the years that followed, Sartre lost much of his influence; when one remembers, for instance, the hopes that accompanied the launching of Les Temps modernes and compares them with the present-day reputation of the review, it becomes obvious that something must have gone wrong along the way. The causes for this relative decline are complex and by no means all in Sartre’s disfavor; the rise and fall of his influence constitutes an important and still unfinished episode in the intellectual history of our century. But with the publication of The Words, one had hopes of finding the original Sartre, enriched by new dimensions of maturity and experience. After so many novels, plays, and essays in which he had put his talent in the service of causes and ideologies, he seemed to have found the way back to his own self, recovered the sense of subjectivity that made La nausée, for all its stylistic awkwardness, one of the significant books of the century. Writing directly about himself, apparently unhampered by any considerations beyond those of enlightened self-insight, with a control of language which allows him to be lucid, elegant, constantly interesting, and frequently entertaining, Les mots seemed destined to take its place among the great autobiographies in which French literature, from Montaigne to Proust, has been particularly rich.

In truth, The Words as a finished product gives a somewhat different impression. In Bernard Frechtman’s competent translation1 it is a remarkable book, bound to have a considerable influence on many readers. But it differs much less from Sartre’s other post-war work than may seem the case at first sight and, like all his work, it raises controversial issues in a way that no truly autobiographical book can ever do. One can dislike the Montaigne of the Essays or the Rousseau of the Confessions, but one is not inclined to argue with their views. The quality of intimacy of these books is integral to them, and has nothing to do with rational argument; the seduction emanates from the immediacy of the language itself. In the case of Sartre’s memoirs, the main part of the book fails to arouse empathy of this sort, but it does propose a thesis. The Words is thus not the kind of book it pretends to be.

Contrary to what the brisk narrative pace would lead one to assume. The Words has had a rather complex history. It is a combination of two not altogether compatible texts, written several years apart: the main part, as Sartre himself confirmed in an interview with Le Monde, was written in 1954, but he modified and completed his first version for publication in 1964. The first text was a stern self-examining essay which radically rejected literature in the name of political action. Numerous traces of this earlier view remain in the present volume, to such an extent that no reader can be blamed for still interpreting The Words along those lines. Since 1954, however, Sartre’s concept of political action became a great deal less one-sided, and especially in “Writing,” the second part of the book, a much more ambivalent position begins to emerge. The result is rather puzzling, reflecting more bewilderment than assurance and proposing an attitude in which the author himself no longer believes. The Words is also a moving document about human inconstancy and the search for self-knowledge—a search carried out, in the best French tradition, in a very public manner. For better or worse, the inner crises of French writers have been the main link with actual experience for many European intellectuals, and Sartre has become Gide’s successor involving a whole generation in the mutations of his inner life.

As far as the earlier part of The Words is concerned, it can be called an autobiography in name only. It constitutes in fact another pamphlet among the many pamphlets and studies—the book on Baudelaire, the essay What is Literature?, Saint Genet, large fragments of the recent essay on method in Critique de la raison dialectique—in which Sartre has launched a systematic attack on what he assumes to be a bygone, romantic conception of literature. Whether, despite Sartre’s repeated but ambiguous assertions to the contrary, this amounts to an attack on literature itself, is a question that cannot be answered quickly. But many passages in The Words will provide ammunition for those who think of Sartre as fundamentally an un-literary man, engaged in destroying something of which he understands little, and all the more dangerous since he seems able, at least in this book, to use literary skill as a weapon against the very act of writing.


What strikes one, especially in the first part of the book, is the extraordinary tightness and rigor of composition, qualities that seem oddly incompatible with the autobiographical genre. For whether the successful autobiography is aimed at self-discovery only, (as in Montaigne’s Essays), or whether it is a confession and an apologia in the Augustinian tradition (as in Rousseau’s Confessions), the narrative always remains open and seemingly erratic. The people, events, and details that occur in an autobiography may well be reported inaccurately, distorted by lapses of memory or by the passions involved whenever a man speaks about himself, but they occur without plan or interpretation, the way things happen in actual experience. Interpretation follows the event, whereas in fiction the opposite is true.

When Rousseau, in the Confessions, describes one of his earliest memories of unspoiled happiness, he feels compelled to mention a series of altogether irrelevant details: a swallow entering the window, a fly on his hand, minute details that have no meaning beyond themselves. They serve no symbolical, psychological, or narrative function whatsoever but force themselves upon the author’s consciousness and demand to be named because they possess the quality of authenticity: it seems to Rousseau that, at the moment at which they were perceived, he was not separated from them. Their evocation is poignant because this immediacy is lost for the Rousseau who later writes about them; what writing brings back to him is not the thing itself, in all its original authenticity, but an inner echo.

In the opening pages of The Words, the description of Charles Schweitzer, Sartre’s grandfather, plays a comparable part and offers a revealing contrast to Rousseau’s genuinely autobiographical manner. The character is introduced by two anecdotes which, like all family-lore, are so neat and stylized as to be totally stilted: in the first, grandfather Schweitzer is mistaken for God himself, and in the second, he dramatically announces the victory of the Marne in an Arcachon movie-house. None of these events is narrated as it might have appeared to the child who witnessed them; we are instead plunged directly into a highly developed social and ideological world. In the paragraphs that follow, Sartre’s bearded patriarch incarnates a certain picture of virtue, patriotism, religion, and literature that we recognize all too quickly: Sartre, conscientious teacher that he is, hastens to point out that Schweitzer represents the very image of nineteenth-century bourgeois idealism. The portrait is well composed and subtle; it is conveyed with great economy of means, every detail significant—entirely different from Rousseau’s random and subjective impressions. We are shown how, beneath the surface of Schweitzer’s virtues, lies in fact the nihilistic terror of a man who has deliberately removed himself from reality. His intellectual achievements and acts of love are in fact a sinister comedy, corrupted at the core by the falseness of his convictions. Sartre’s purpose, in composing this picture, is clear enough: he is attacking a form of bourgeois idealism. In order to do so, he creates a type, exactly in the sense in which the Marxist critic Lukacs describes Balzac as having created types, composite characters who summarize a sociological and ideological reality. The description of the type seems valid enough, the indictment quite convincing. What is misleading, however (and misleading in a very bourgeois, idealistic way) is to present such a type as if it were an actual experience, to present a composite, organized, symbolical entity as if it were part of one’s own childhood. Balzac would never do such a thing; indeed, when he adopts a more intimate form of narration, in Louis Lambert for example, he does so precisely because he wants to stress that his hero is not typical. Even if the point of Sartre’s description—and this is by no means clear—were to show how the alienation of the bourgeois tends to turn him into a type, it would still be unfair to the person of Charles Schweitzer to rob him to such an extent of his individuality. Nor is Sartre being philosophically sound in thus short-circuiting, by a formal literary trick, the whole complex dialectic that leads from the particular to the typical.


Grouped around the central figure of the grandfather, the other members of the family are shadowy, subdued figures. The death of Sartre’s father, which occurred before he had a chance to know him, is treated as the symbolic act which severs the child forever from normal life. The death of one’s mother at one’s birth (as in Rousseau’s case) still leaves, in a sense, the normal cycle of nature intact, but the death of one’s father represents the irrevocable break with all established order, a radical alienation from society, from the self, and from reality.

Sartre’s brisk narrative which artfully mixes reminiscence with reflection, contains in fact a full-fledged clinical essay on the experience of alienation. His relationship with his family is based on entirely false premises: cast from his earliest years in the role of a child-prodigy, he is never allowed to behave naturally, except at the rare moments when his relatives drop their masks; at such times, grimacing before the mirror, young Sartre cruelly experiences the gap between what he actually is and what he is supposed to be. The apparent solicitude of his family (except perhaps for the mother, who remains a scarcely real figure throughout the book) is never directed at himself, but at an idea that suits its fancy. The same is true of his relationships in society; his teachers, friends of his family, and especially other children exist in this book only as opaque, negative forces whose only function is to reject him the moment he stops playing his assigned part. Even the streets of Paris and the gardens of the Luxembourg join in this hostility, and Sartre feels safe only when he hides out on the sixth floor of the apartment building where he lives, high above a world that rejects him. Nor does he find compensation in self-love: he is not so blinded that he does not realize his own ugliness. The image he sees reflected in the look of others is the one he has always been trying to avoid.

The remedy for his predicament can come only from the world of fantasy: from books and, later, from the act of writing. The imagination, then is here a compensatory faculty that helps to make his alienation bearable. At first, after he has taught himself to read, he merely pretends to enjoy books far beyond his years in order to strengthen the myth of his precocious genius. But he is soon caught at his own game; from the day his mother gives him children’s books to read, literature becomes for him an interminable day dream from which it will take him more than forty years to awake. And when his grandfather urges him to write, for reasons that are not more imperative than those which attracted him to reading, he discovers the added satisfaction of inventing his own heroes instead of identifying with those invented by others. Some of the best passages in The Words retell the heroic romances in which Jean-Paul is allowed to master all the situations with which he is unable to cope in reality. Later on he discovers that, in the very act of writing, he rises above all human predicaments and becomes the perfect aesthetic entity towards which all literature presumably strives: “Chance has made me a man, generosity would make me a book. I could cast my missive, my mind, in letters of bronze; I could replace the rumblings of my life by irreplaceable inscriptions, my flesh by style, the faint spirals of time by eternity….” But as soon as he enters the Lycée and at long last makes friends with his contemporaries, the long process of recovery begins; his gradual weaning away from his youthful aberrations will be the subject of the announced sequel to The Words.

The case history is so neat that the conclusion forces itself upon the reader: Sartre chose the autobiographical form for a book that is, to a large extent, an ideological essay. He did so in part, no doubt, to put the weight of personal experience behind his assertions. But a deeper issue is involved: beyond the ideological attack on late nineteenth-century misconceptions about literature, Sartre obliquely gives expression to his own uncertainties about a more far-reaching problem: the assumption that literature is one of the means by which the lost feeling of authenticity can be recaptured.

On this point, The Words is unquestionably ambivalent. A man never feels as negatively about his first love as when he is about to betray it, and when, in 1954, Sartre was discovering real political action (the resistance having been a privileged way of reconciling ideology and action), he was very hard on literature. As it turned out, his marriage to political action soon ended in a separation, if not a divorce, but the first version of The Words was clearly written during the brief honeymoon. Literature is called an imposture, a neurosis. He thinks of it as an activity by means of which a man hardens and perpetuates his alienation from society, yet the only possible authenticity left seems to lie in social action; hence the stress on the isolation of the young Sartre at the time when he was entirely taken up by his literary daydreams. But in the later additions to The Words, a considerable shift in tone occurs and Sartre speaks about writing in the voice of a sobered middle-aged man who realizes that he owes everything, including whatever sense of himself he has acquired, to literature. “I write and will keep writing books” he tells us at the end of The Words “…culture doesn’t justify, but it’s a product of man: he projects himself into it, he recognizes himself in it; that critical mirror alone offers him his image.”

This may sound very different from the pompous statements about eternal truth and beauty with which old Schweitzer poisoned little Jean-Paul’s vivid imagination. But it remains very close to the assertion made by many great writers in the past when called upon to justify their function. Rousseau, Baudelaire, Proust, even Flaubert and Mallarmé—all these “bourgeois” writers could claim this sentence for themselves with much more justification than Sartre can. Something of the same naive pose that inspired the dreams of Sartre’s childhood still lingers on in the bold gesture with which he tries to sweep away, once and forever, the problems inherited from our post-romantic situation. He uses the very medium preferred by the romantics—the autobiography—in order to explode their myths. The traditional romantic treatment of childhood presents it as an age of harmony and happiness; hence Sartre’s insistence on the contrary aspects of his own experience. The traditional romantic autobiography devotes much attention to nature and setting; both are almost entirely absent from Sartre’s memoirs, although he grew up in one of the most beautiful sections of Paris. Isolation and solitude, for the romantics, are often signs of superiority or, at least, have the virtue of increasing the writer’s awareness of himself; Sartre emphasizes how his own solitude increased his sense of unreality and distorted his view of life. The romantic attitude towards poetry and literature is, on the whole, a positive one: in Proust, the possibility of literary creation justifies the futility of existence. Sartre is almost fanatically opposed to any form of aestheticism. Even the imagination, the faculty held most sacred by the romantics, is ridiculed in Sartre’s descriptions of his juvenile identifications with the heroes of Jules Verne and comic-strips. Music, Germany, the confusion between art and religion, sexuality (curiously subdued in The Words)—all of the major romantic themes are present here, in order to be debunked.

Is it fair to object to this book merely because the author is tendentious about his own recollections? Yet, by treating so intimate a subject in so abstract a way, Sartre’s result is very different from what he intended. Rousseau’s Confessions support Montaigne’s claim that “all men carry within themselves the entire human condition,” yet the final impression left by The Words is strangely narrow. In the last analysis, we remain with an awareness of a psychological case: a man who now has recourse to ideology (as he formerly did to literature) to cure his own neurosis—and not too successfully at that. True, The Words is an ideological essay, but it is also an act of self-therapy which, as such, does not belong to literature. Every reader can make his own diagnosis of what Sartre’s psychological difficulties may be; what matters, however, is that every reader will feel compelled, after reading The Words, to ask that kind of question. After reading Rousseau, or Proust, or even Flaubert’s letters, one may well feel that one knows more about oneself, but has, to some extent, forgotten about the author. This is because these writers have been concerned with interpreting, and not with curing, their own predicament. They have never left the proper domain of literature. Long before Sartre, the romantics discovered that writing was primarily a way to self-knowledge, the “critical mirror” that reflects the writer’s true image—although they would probably not have used the analogy of the mirror since the entity to be reflected was as immaterial as the human consciousness. They realized that literature, in spite of its inherent distortions, remains a privileged way of access to reality, not because it reflects this reality, but because it reveals degrees of authenticity that no other activity is able to reach. For them, too, political action and social reform were part of this process of self-knowledge, and they found it far less difficult than we do now to reconcile the demands of history with those of the self. This ability seems to have been lost in the course of the nineteenth century. The romantic historical consciousness declined on the one hand, into the kind of parody of idealism which Sartre’s grandfather represents and, on the other hand, into the materialism (dialectical or otherwise) that made many historically oriented minds forget their own idealist origins. Sartre’s waverings can be traced back to this misconceived anti-romanticism.

The result is an inconclusive book, partly ideological, partly psychological in a narrow sense, anti-literary at times but inconsistently so. Many autobiographies have been written in which the author narrates a conversion, a change of mind that makes him change his ways. But The Words, for all its semi-religious overtones, does not quite fit this pattern. No effort is made to recapture the quality of an inner crisis. If the Sartre who considers literature to be a “critical mirror” of the self were to write his autobiography, it would be a very different kind of book. The Words is not yet the work that gives us back the man who, for a moment, came close to speaking for an entire generation.

This Issue

November 5, 1964