Jean-Paul Sartre and the demands of freedom

SartreGary Cox at the TLS:

In Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre wrote, “There is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art”. True to a central maxim of his existentialist philosophy – “to be is to do” – Sartre built his colossal reputation as a philosopher, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, biographer, diarist, literary theorist, essayist and journalist out of sustained hard work. He was gifted but preferred to attribute his achievements to perspiration rather than inspiration. As he wrote in his autobiography, Words: “Where would be the anguish, the ordeal, the temptation resisted, even the merit, if I had gifts?” From childhood his ambition was to be the great, dead French writer he became. He wrote for at least six hours a day for most of his life. “If I go a day without writing, the scar burns me.”

Sartre’s prolific and often drug-fuelled output is now a part of the legend, along with his numerous love affairs (despite his self-proclaimed ugliness), his wartime adventures and the post-war, hard-left political activism that led him and his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir, to fraternize with many dictators.

By the standards of most philosophers, Sartre led an exciting life. His adventures, his singular appearance, his relentless radicalism, his eccentricity, make him an easy figure to caricature, and he was canny when it came to crafting his image, but for all that there is a serious, systematic and inspiring philosophy behind the melodrama, a grand theory rooted in the best traditions of Western thought.

more here.