Does Sartre Still Matter?

Benedict O’Donohoe makes a case for the vaildity and relevance of Jean-Paul Sartre’s work, in Philosophy Now.

For both the range and the merit of Sartre’s opus are quite amazing: he is the author of modern classics in several fields – the novel, Nausea 1938; the short story, The Wall 1939; the play, No Exit 1944; philosophy, Being and Nothingness 1943; criticism, What is Literature? 1948; biography, Saint Genet, Comedian and Martyr 1952; the polemical essay and reportage – numerous issues of his periodical Les Temps modernes, founded 1946 – and ten volumes of Situations; and, not least, autobiography, Words 1964, widely regarded as his finest literary achievement. As if this body of work were not enough, he also wrote screenplays, journalism, art criticism, theses on theoretical psychology – notably the emotions and the imagination – and copious correspondence. Moreover, he made (admittedly, ill-fated) forays into radio and television. In short, Sartre was, in the phrase he borrowed from Chateaubriand as an epigraph to the final section of Words, ‘a book-making machine’, and the products of his ‘machinery’ had an impact across the spectrum of the arts, media and social sciences.

However, Sartre does not matter simply because he was a great writer, nor even primarily so, although his exceptional command of styles and genres expertly complements his missionary purpose. No, Sartre matters because so many fundamental points of his analysis of the human reality are right and true, and because their accuracy and veracity entail real consequences for our lives as individuals and in social groups. His distinction is to have obeyed his own injunction of ‘commitment’, and to have persisted in trying to convey his messages to as wide an audience as possible, by exploiting every medium available to the writer.