Sartre’s Being Fades Into Nothingness : Philosophy: Once the darling of leftist intellectuals, recent world events have dimmed the stature of the existentialist.


Historians had to go back more than 100 years, to the funeral of Victor Hugo, to find such a public outpouring of grief.

About 200,000 mourners, great and small, flooded into Paris streets, marching in dignified silence behind the casket of Jean-Paul Sartre. Teen-agers wept, Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s lifetime companion, fainted, and the zoom lenses and television cameras recorded it all for posterity.

That was in 1980, and Sartre had long before become legend. Existentialist philosopher, impassioned defender of justice, award-winning playwright and novelist, he was arguably the most widely known intellectual of the 20th Century.


Philosopher, novelist and champion of women’s rights, De Beauvoir had earned respect for “The Second Sex,” one of the pillars of worldwide feminism.

Ten years after Sartre’s death (De Beauvoir died in 1986 at 78), their legend has faded.

A recent survey conducted in France by Lire, a monthly review of books, ranked Andre Malraux, not Sartre, as the most important intellectual of the 20th Century. Malraux was a novelist, historian, archeologist, statesman and minister of culture under President Charles de Gaulle.

Despite some newspaper articles, a late-night television special and a few symposiums for literary critics, France is hardly remembering Sartre at all. As one critic put it, “Sartre shines this year through his absence.”

For many critics, it is just as well. In the context of recent historical events, Sartre’s seemingly blind embrace of communism and other leftist ideologies comes across as misguided.

As for De Beauvoir, French feminists continue to haggle over her legacy. The recent publication of two volumes of her correspondence with Sartre furnish graphic details on the couple’s private life, and critics say she emerges as predatory and opportunistic.

“The myth of the ‘royal couple’ began to unravel when Sartre died,” Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal said in an interview.


“De Beauvoir spent her entire life building and perpetuating that myth, but now that she is gone, it’s completely finished. They were manipulative and cruel and they destroyed many people around them.”

Many critics say Sartre’s philosophical treatises are dated, boring and irrelevant, especially the doctrine of existentialism elaborated in “Being and Nothingness,” which gained a wide audience in postwar France.

Published in 1943, it argued that man himself is nothing, a creature without soul or meaning. For Sartre, man distinguishes himself from animals or inanimate objects through free will, a commitment to a cause and conscious participation in it.

The causes he took up were myriad--his last public appearance was an appeal to the world to aid the boat people fleeing Vietnam. But critics say he looks silly, even pathetic, in the context of earlier, more strident political acts--hawking Maoist newspapers, rallying striking auto workers or manning the barricades in Paris alongside protesting students during the 1968 riots.

They are hard on the Sartre who visited the Red Brigade terrorist leader, Andreas Baader, during a hunger strike in a German prison, and then told reporters Baader’s actions were “necessary to achieve a new organization of the masses.”

There also is little sympathy today for his rejection of the Nobel Prize in 1964. He called the prize a “bourgeois institution which situates me in the West, while my real sympathies are in the East.”


The negative reassessment of Sartre has been prompted, in part, by changing world events.

Sartre’s political theses are passe because his works are a “mirror reflecting an epoch that doesn’t exist anymore, in a language that isn’t spoken anymore. A broken mirror in which nothing can be recognized,” wrote Robert Maggiori in Liberation, the left-leaning daily that Sartre founded in 1970.

Sartre’s literary works, often the vehicle for his political ideas, have also fallen out of fashion, with the notable exception of “The Words,” his autobiography.

But Sartre continues to fascinate intellectuals outside France. According to Sorbonne professor Helene Vedrine, Japanese, African and Latin American students produce the majority of doctoral theses on his work.

In the United States and much of the West, French philosophers and intellectuals dismissed by Sartre as unimportant--such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan--are now considered far more relevant.

Nonetheless, Sartre churns out best-sellers posthumously. His war diaries and three volumes of letters to De Beauvoir were a critical and commercial success.

In late May, Gallimard published Sartre’s “Ecrits de Jeunesse,” beginning in 1922 when Sartre was 17, ending 10 years later, when he was a high school teacher.


Some critics predict that Sartre will be remembered ultimately for the diaries and letters. Many are feared lost or destroyed, but the hunt goes on for what experts consider historical documents that reflect the 20th Century better than any work of fiction or philosophy.

Like Sartre--and at his urging--De Beauvoir kept a wartime diary (1939-40) too. Published earlier this year, it discloses how surprisingly little she worried about or even thought about the war. She was too busy rushing from one Left Bank cafe to another, meeting girlfriends, analyzing their relationships and sexual behavior and writing it all in letters to Soldat Sartre, as she called him.

Both Sartre and De Beauvoir have been attacked for their wartime occupations. After a yearlong stint conducting weather experiments, he briefly was a prisoner of war. He then returned to Paris to resume writing and teaching.

“For France’s silent majority, Sartre incarnated the Left Bank intellectual who preferred to write or sip coffee at Le Cafe Flore, rather than risk his life and join the Resistance,” said historian Daniel Lindenberg, who prepared a television special commemorating Sartre.

He did, however, join the communist-led underground national writers’ committee and wrote a play called “The Flies,” which the Germans allowed him to stage in Paris in 1943, not realizing that it was a bitter satire of their own occupation of France.

In a recent biography, Deirdre Bair reveals that De Beauvoir received a handsome salary as a writer-producer for the German-controlled radio in occupied Paris.


Bair wrote that De Beauvoir never came to terms with that period, “always resented being questioned about it and was furious whenever she learned of a scholar or journalist who wrote about it.”

Sartre and De Beauvoir met while philosophy students at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure. Attractive and aristocratic, she outperformed him academically, while Sartre excelled as a brilliant prankster, defying authority and delighting friends with his antics.

Their relationship was unique, but more complex than De Beauvoir ever wished to let on. They never married or had children, maintained separate apartments and respected their “contract of transparency”--complete honesty at all costs--for nearly half a century. Late in life, each adopted a young woman to manage the separate estates.

Despite the criticism, there is a consensus that Sartre and De Beauvoir are irreplaceable. Said Cohen-Solal: “Intellectual debate doesn’t exist without him.”