It was forty years ago this week that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre died. As a first year undergraduate student at the time, there was a bleakness in the obituaries for the man who was the best-known, if not the greatest, philosopher of the Twentieth Century. Sartre’s life had ended and his legacy was a philosophy that seemed rooted in an irredeemable sense of hopelessness.
Convinced that there must be more to human life, that there must be more than just a struggle with an unyielding reality, one vacation, when money was short, and when days were passed reading books from the local library, I tried to read Sartre’s La mort dans l’âme (Troubled Sleep) in English. Set against the Fall of France in 1940, it was filled with a mood of grey bleakness; those who truly “exist” are those who are prepared to engage in resistance against the Nazi occupiers and against the grim fate that has overcome their country.
Sartre was aware of how futile the struggle against the invasion had been. Conscripted into the French army in 1939, he was captured by the Nazi invaders in 1940 and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. Leaving the camp in 1941, he was given civilian status and was granted a teaching post in Paris.
Sartre’s desire to truly “exist” led to him becoming instrumental in the formation of an underground group Socialisme et Liberté. It was suggested that instead of attacking Germans, an action that frequently led to reprisals against French civilians, the group should assassinate French collaborators with the Nazi forces of occupation. It was an idea that was not embraced by the group, Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir commented that “none of us felt qualified to make bombs or hurl grenades.” Perhaps even Sartre himself did not “exist” as fully as he might.
Had Sartre been alive now, his existentialism might have equipped ordinary people with an interpretation to deal with the daily news.
To exist, for Sartre, meant to stand out against fate. Stand out is the literal meaning of the Greek word ex-statis, the origin of the word exist. Standing out meant to refuse to simply go along with things; to reject the temptation to drift with the crowd.
Were Sartre to have been present to watch the current news briefings, it is difficult to imagine that he would not have encouraged greater resilience; that he would not have emphasised that reality would not be changed without the determination to stand out; that he would not have asserted that complaining at situations that cannot be altered is to fail to exist.