Clues to our existence in Sartre’s thinking
Though now little understood and often misinterpreted, existentialism hangs in the air we breathe. When Brendan Nelson mangled the word in describing the plight of indigenous Australians in his response to Kevin Rudd’s longoverdue apology, he could not have done so if not for Jean-Paul Sartre, whose works were the foundation of the school of thought.
For two decades the impish, brusque and indefatigable French philosopher straddled international letters like a colossus, and in the shadow of the nuclear slanging matches of the Cold War his clear-eyed, hard-edged and abstract works of prose and philosophy — which advise us, unflinchingly, that we are all alone in the universe and must rely on ourselves — cast a long shadow over our new century.
So Gary Cox’s approachable, chatty biography of the Frenchman is timely, presenting an accessible reintroduction to his life and work. A Sartre scholar and a prolific writer of popular philosophy books, Cox is all wit and clarity, even if he tends to merely reflect back the Sartre that Sartre himself wanted us to see.
But as a pit stop tour of the life of this globetrotting intellectual, a man with a knack for keeping his name in the headlines, Cox’s work thrills, moving breezily from the spoiled provincial bourgeois child to the dissatisfied schoolteacher convinced of his own genius, to the ageing and in-demand literary grandee.
Cox’s prose mostly fizzes attractively, but sometimes overreaches. If Sartre were alive today, he’d be keeping a “regular blog on his iPad”. When the word ‘‘ain’t” is put in the mouth of a defiantly anti-American Frenchman, it does not ring true. Also, a keen intent on sprinting through events can leave Cox prone to deplorable summary: Sartre “drank … campaigned … and physically deteriorated a little more” as he batted off invitations, muckraked amid strike-torn Paris and visited Nikita Khrushchev’s new swimming pool.
Such levity is often welcome, though, as Sartre’s overflowing life provides ample material for Cox to rattle along with. A bad encounter with mescaline leads to a lifelong fear of lobsters; on tour he abandons Fidel Castro in a hotel lobby; film director John Huston savagely derides the Frenchman’s toad-like appearance, the source of much of the self-loathing that propelled Sartre to carve out a name for himself on the world stage. Cox also niftily makes legible the philosophical and personal roots of the diverse branches of Sartre’s work — philosophy, novels, biography, plays — in digestible morsels, seamlessly negotiating the heady admixture of the shifting European political context, the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and Sartre’s insecurities that fed his work.
Rendering Sartre’s philosophical masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, an accessible work is an achievement in itself. After all, Sartre’s great contribution there and in novels such as Nausea and The Age of Reason was to present a model of human consciousness and action in the absence of God, tradition and morality, one that put the individual and their choices in building their lives at the centre of the equation. This overwhelming legacy earned him a Nobel prize, an honour the contrarian Marxist acknowledged by refusing to accept it.
When Cox turns to the excesses that characterised Sartre’s life, the prose catches fire. Before his prolonged decline, Sartre wrote furiously, travelled constantly, seduced indiscriminately, took amphetamines and drank lots. He was part of a generation of ambitious and deeply flawed men of power. Cox tells this side of the story with a beguiling mix of prurience and pathos. However, Cox’s selective focus on the events of Sartre’s life is telling. Sartre, after all, drove his mistresses, his friends and his political allies to despair, most of all his long-suffering partner, the pioneering feminist genius Simone de Beauvoir.
Hazel Rowley’s magisterial de Beauvoir biography Tete-a-tete remains the book for those curious, as aside from their courtship, De Beauvoir appears mostly in Cox’s book as a handbag Jean-Paul carries around the globe, and the one who changes his pants in his declining years.
Tellingly, she gets a ticking off for revealing seasickness, a trait the great man deemed insufficiently existentialist. Cox’s final appraisal simply says their bond was the “stuff of legend”. It’s a legend he wants us to see.
To all Sartre’s misdeeds, Cox offers a shrug. When he asks “who are any of us to criticise the man who wrote Nausea?” the context is not the subject’s character but the declining quality of his postwar output. Cox writes of a Sartre with a wish to be “free to be immortal” as if “his real bones were paper, ink and glue … duplicated to virtual indestructibility”, a desire this biographer weirdly tends to grant. Also, in situating Sartre as a towering figure of genius, Cox neglects demonstrating why his epoch made such fertile ground for his vertiginous ideas.
Cox says he leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. But in romanticising Sartre’s life as a series of serendipities, we form a picture of a