Each year, UNESCO ---
which apparently doesn't have a lot to take up its time ---
celebrates World Philosophy Day.
This year, the theme was "Thinking the Anthropocene."
As a public service to the Community of Philosophy,
and because we've always seen Jean-Paul Sartre as a
striking example of the Anthropocene,
we present here the story of his life.
§ § §Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris as the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre and Anne-Marie Schweitzer. His mother was an Alsatian (or possibly a Dalmatian), the first cousin of Nobel Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer. Her father, Charles Schweitzer, was the older brother of Albert Schweitzer's father, Louis Théophile. and a second cousin of Heinrich Schnauser, inventor of the French Poodle.
When Sartre was two years old, he and Anne-Marie moved back to her parents' house in Meudon, where she raised the boy with help from her father, a master of German who taught him mathematics and introduced him to classical literature, phrenology, and intellectual angst.
Although brilliant, the young Jean-Paul was frequently bullied at his high school, the Lycée Blanquette de Poulet a l'Estragon. This resulted in his nervous obsession with existence or --- as it is known in English --- existence. Because of this doubt, in later years Sartre was to observe, " I am because I think I don't want to be. Or even to be me (I think)." Accordingly, he took to signing his letters "Very Possibly yours..."
Young Sartre was attracted to philosophy when he read Henri Bergson's Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. His bad eyesight led him to read the title as "The Immediate Dada of Consciousness" and he threw in with the Dadaists, a clutch of aesthetes including Andre Breton, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, and Babar le Roi des Elephants. When they were joined by the writer-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, they took to calling themselves Les Petits Prints.
Sartre also studied the culture of the jazz age, spending time with flappers (Les Claquers Chaudes) like Josephine Baker and others who revolted against the social anemia of the 1920s Paris bourgeois. Unknown to many, Sartre was also a practitioner of the art of dance. One fawning critic said that he moved "avec la delicatesse d'un crapaud." Along with his studies of philosophy, he mastered the Lindy-Hôp, the Charleston, the Foxtrot ("La Petite Course du Renard"), the Black Bottom ("La Derriere Negre"), and the tango. Indeed, his was one of the last tangos in Paris.
After this brief juvenile fling, he sought a degree in philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure (lit., The Normally Superior University). This has long been the premier institution of higher education for the demimonde, and the alma mater for such prominent French thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Georges Pompidou, Arsène Lupin, Pépé le Moko, and Zazie dans le Metro.
At the École Normale, he met Simone de Beauvoir who studied at the Sorbonne and later became a noted writer, feminist, philosophy groupie and common scold to the bourgeoise. The two became inseparable lifelong companions, initiating a romantic though far from monogamous --- though possibly monotonous --- relationship.
After World War II, De Beauvoir made her reputation with her novel The Mandarins which explored life from the point of view of an existential orange. It created a sensation and was awarded the Prix Salade des Fruits.
Sartre was influenced by many aspects of Western philosophy, adopting ideas from Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Jean de Brunhoff, Alexander Pope, Karl Popper and Mary Poppins. Perhaps the most decisive influence on Sartre's philosophical development was his weekly attendance at Alexandre Kojève's luncheon seminars where he learned to smoke Gauloises all the while speaking philosophical theorems.
Little did he know that this talent (smoking Gauloises) would later give his career a boost: the dalliance with De Beauvoir persuaded Sartre that maybe he did exist, but the first time he took the prefecture exam to become a professor --- the equivalent of the American College Boards (L'Ecole d'Ennui) --- he failed. He took it a second time, using a crib-sheet concealed in his Gauloise, and ended up first in his class, with de Beauvoir second, and Monsieur Hulot third (out of a possible three).
Sartre was drafted into the French Army in 1929 and served as a meteorologist, where he predicted that the temps would always be moderne if not dangereux. Drafted once again in 1939, he confined his battles to philosophical ones, then known as "phenomenological ontology." He bravely served in the Resistence, fooling the Germans by retreating to Neuf Rochelle to collect butterflies and drink coffee. Together with his copain, Merleau-Ponty, he also formed a clandestine book club called The Flies, but it had to change its name to No Exit when André Gide dropped out.
After the war, Sartre moved to an apartment for boulevardiers on the Rue Bonaparte where he was to produce most of his subsequent works and do drugs. It was there that he helped establish a review of literature, politics, and the weather, Les Temps Modernes. It was supposed to be a quarterly but came out twice a week because of Sartre's full time use of speed.
For the rest of his life, he devoted every minute to writing, butterflies, and phenomenological ontology. A profusion of works flowed ceaselessly from his study, occasionally flooding the apartment and even stopping up the famous sewers of Paris. His writings included plays, novels, reviews, manifestoes, essays, apothegms, epigrams, epigraphs, epitaphs, epithets, and a mean salade d'endives, pommes et fromage bleu.
Few people know that Sartre, like Picasso, had a sequence of colorful episodes in this life. His Red Period came from his dalliance with Communism, and his Blue Era from his close association with frommage bleu, especially in salades. His Green Period came about from throwing up after a night drinking Pernod at the existential hang-out Les Folies Françaises. Finally, there was the Black Period (most of his life).
Together, Sartre and de Beauvoir challenged the cultural and social norms of the day, exemplifying the lifestyle of Critique de la Raison Dialectique (the Dialectical Raisins) which won them another Prix Salade des Fruits.
After several years of this dilly-dallying, De Beauvoir began to experience a certain nausëe and moved to Chicago to take up residence with Nelson Algren. But she ultimately returned to Paris to be with "mon petit pois chiche" (my little chickpea) as she liked to call Sartre. "If you live long enough," she told him when she returned, "you'll see that every victory turns into a defeat." Sartre responded by observing "One is still what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become." De Beauvoir looked at him closely, her eyes filled with wonder, and replied "Whatever."
The conflict between oppressive, spiritually destructive conformity ("mauvaise foi" --- lit. "bad faith") and an "authentic way of being" appears as the dominant theme of Sartre's early work ... a theme embodied in his principal philosophical work, L'Être et le Néant: (Being and Nothingness). Sartre's mature outlook was part of the emerging existential philosophy of the times, beginning with the coffee-shop he and De Beauvoir founded on the Left Bank, named "Bean and Nothingness."
The café-restaurant was a sucess d'estime, and its first customer, Albert Camus, extolled the coffee as "the perfection of meaninglessness." Unfortunately, because of the lousy service, he declared himself thereafter a stranger. Juliette Greco, another regular, said "Sacre vache!" (literally, "holy cow") and ordered a Croque-monsieur and a long black to go with her sweater.
Camus and Sartre eventually fell out over what phenomenological ontologists call the "drip-brew problem," which ultimately turned into a major neoclassical paradox: can coffee brewed in a Wigomat ever be truly coffee? As a result of this fundamental dispute, the two philosophers broke off contact and they never spoke to each other again until the younger writer's premature death in an espresso machine explosion. When told of the tragedy, Sartre said simply: "Three o'clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do."
In his greatest coup de main, Sartre hatched a plan to palm off the ongoing colonial war in French Indo-China on the Americans. He announced his intention to spread Existentialism to Indo-China by driving from Paris to Hanoi in a Deux-Chevaux filled with translations of his major philosophical works. The FBI, which had kept Sartre under surveillance since his dancing days in the 1920s, feared that the dominoes were about to fall. At the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, the president of the United States called for the immediate dispatch of American advisors to Vietnam. The rest is history.
In 1964, the Nobel committee announced the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Sartre. He refused Sweden's highest honor, declaring that the hors d'oeuvres in Stockholm were not "vaut le voyage." Sartre's action started a veritable fad for turning things down: subsequently, Marlon Brando turned down an Oscar, Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay) turned down his draft notice, and the Federal Reserve turned down the interest rates.
Sartre summed up his own life work as "Only the guy who isn't rowing has time to rock the boat." Thus he ended his days smoking Gauloises, publishing ultimatums, all the while driving the same Deux-Cheveaux that had carried him to Indo-China. In De Beauvoir's honor, he named it "My Little Chickpea," and asked that it serve as his bier after his death.
And so it did. At Sartre's funeral ceremony in 1980, which was of course termed "Bier and Nothingness," the faithful little car was buried with its master at Marne-la-Vallée.
Marne-la-Vallée is a town east of Paris which had been the hotbed of existentialism. Because of its renown, it became the natural choice of the Disney Corporation for the site of Euro Disneyland.--- Docteur Phage &
C. A. Amântea