The Black Soul of Jean-Paul Sartre

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Thu Sep 6 11:40:03 MDT 2001

06 August 2001

[Although most contemporary philosophers dismiss Sartre as
an irrelevant relic of post-war France, Pravasan Pillay
writes that many Black and radical philosophers are
increasingly celebrating him as the first white philosopher
to bear arms for the wretched of the earth.]

The Black Soul of Jean-Paul Sartre

By Pravasan Pillay <pravasan at>

Just over twenty years ago fifty thousand men and women
crowded the Champs-Elysees to mourn the death of Jean-Paul
Sartre. Many of the ordinary people present in the crowd
that day loudly proclaimed the dead philosopher as France's
greatest intellectual of the 20th century. Others, perhaps
acquaintances from the many Left Bank cafes he frequented,
unashamedly extended the scope of his influence to encompass
the entire Western world. Still others, perhaps ardent
followers of the then popular post-structuralist movement,
begrudgingly paid their respect only to follow it up with
some derisive salvo or the other. Whatever else was said of
Jean-Paul Sartre on that cold Paris day no-one present dared
to deny his incredible gift to arouse the passions, of
admiration or of anger, of all who encountered him or his
monumental body of work. This would have been the way
Sartre, ever the egoist, would have wanted it. A reaction of
any sort was infinitely more desirable than apathy.

This massive display of interest in the life, death and work
of a philosopher would have been quite inconsequential had
it been restricted within the borders of France. After all
France, perhaps more than any other country, has always been
a nation that coverts her intellectuals. This in a world
where people like Ken Saro-Wiwa, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Aung
San Suu Kyi were and still are regularly silenced is,
needless to say, a pleasing anomaly. But the death of
Jean-Paul Sartre shook intellectuals and revolutionaries
from New York to Havana and Algiers.

Important thinkers all over the world, and especially the
Third World, have cited the work of Sartre as playing a
decisive role in the formation of their own philosophies. It
is impossible to conjure up coherent images of revolutionary
thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, or Lewis Gordon
without casting into the spell the ever-lurking visage of
Jean-Paul Sartre. With regard to Biko, Mabogo More, South
Africa's foremost existential philosopher, has asserted that
Biko quite clearly read the work of Sartre and appears to
have been profoundly influenced by it. This claim, if true,
calls into question the long-held belief that Biko's
Sartrean influences were mostly filtered through his
readings of Fanon. More is currently researching old SASO
journal articles penned by Biko, under various aliases, for
evidence of direct references to Sartre. Strini Moodley, the
veteran BC activist and close associate of Biko, has lent
weight to More's theory by stating that Sartre was widely
distributed and disseminated amongst students involved in
the movement. One need only read Biko's celebrated last
chapter, "On Death", from I Write What I Like to find
startling and profound existential statements like "You are
either alive and proud or you are dead." This chapter alone
seems to confirm Biko's status as a classic existential hero
in the tradition of an Orestes or a Frederick Douglass.

Indeed it seems post-colonial philosophers and critical race
& liberation theorists are doomed to find Sartre waiting
patiently at the end of whatever road they choose to travel
down. This is why many influential Black thinkers celebrate
Sartre as the only white Western philosopher who spoke
directly to the Third World. Officially and popularly Sartre
has gone down in history as the man who brought
existentialism to the attention of a wider non-philosophic
audience. He has been portrayed as the leader of a loathsome
mass of angry, directionless young men and women who smoked
too many Turkish cigarettes and drank vast amounts of black
coffee. He is also remembered as an excellent dramatist, a
novelist, a biographer, an astute literary theorist, a
political journalist, a tireless activist and as a
philosopher in the Continental tradition. All this is true
and needs to be said. But unofficially and indeed
subversively he will be marked down as the man who
illuminated the consciousnesses of all who have howled
freedom in the face of unbearable oppression. Mainstream
white philosophers may dismiss Sartre as an unfashionable
anachronism but black and radical philosophers increasingly
see him as the first white philosopher to take a serious
stand against colonialism and racism. But who was Jean-Paul

Born on 21 June 1905 in Paris, Jean-Paul was the only child
of Jean Baptiste and Anna-Marie Sartre. Jean Baptiste, a
decorated French naval officer, was away on assignment when
his son first stuck a tentative finger into existence. Less
than a year later, while away on another naval voyage, he
contracted entercolitis and died at the age of 32. Later
Sartre, who developed an intense dislike for the dominant
patriarchs in his family, remarked: "The death of
Jean-Baptiste was my greatest piece of good fortune. I
didn't even have to forget him." Both Sartre's parents came
from distinguished middle-class backgrounds. Jean-Baptiste
was the son of a respected country doctor who had published
several notable medical texts while Anna-Marie was the first
cousin of Albert Schweitzer, the world-renowned German
missionary. After the death of her husband Anna-Marie and
the young "Poulou", as his mother affectionately called him,
moved into the home of her father, the intimidating and
philandering Karl Schweitzer. A respected scholar, it was
decided that he would be responsible for his grandson's
tutorship. To escape her father's domineering personality
Anna-Marie immersed herself in the upbringing of her son.
She dressed him up in fancy clothing and let his hair grow
into long flowing locks. The young Sartre much to his manly
grandfather's disdain began to resemble a little girl.

One day Karl Schweitzer decided he had had enough and took
Sartre to the local barber to have his beautiful hair cut.
When Anna-Marie, upon their return, saw her son she ran up
to her room and began crying uncontrollably. Even to his
doting mother it was evident that "Poulou" was destined to
grow up ugly. As well as being short and awkward - his
grandparents called it the "Sartre" fault - he had also
lost, due to an early illness, the sight in one of his eyes.
This eye, with a strabismus, appeared to look sideways as if
he were disinterested in the person he was talking to. This
incident was to prove a catalyst for his life-long rejection
of his body in favour of cultivating his immense intellect.
He paid no heed to the distress signals his body constantly
sent out. Pain and fatigue were seen as barriers to
overcome. He used amphetamines to increase his productivity
and took sedatives when he needed to rest. His personal
hygiene was legendarily deplorable. Sartre regarded the
hours spent washing, brushing his teeth, shaving, bathing
and excreting as a waste of time. Later when his teeth began
to rot horribly he refused to visit a dentist. His vanity
was confined to his intellect: "I want to be the one who
knows the most things"; "I've got a golden brain".

But as much as other children teased Sartre over his slight
appearance his self-confidence never wavered. Sartre knew
that he was smarter than other children. Karl Schweitzer
knew this as well and although Sartre loathed his
grandfather's womanising ways he nevertheless blossomed
under his tutorship. In The Words, the biography of his
childhood, he describes his love of his grandfather's
impressive library: "I found my religion: nothing seemed to
me more important than a book. I regarded the library as a
temple." Even at this young age Sartre was reading and
writing prolifically. It was only by engaging in these
activities that he felt any power or sense of personal

In 1917 Anna-Marie married Joseph Mancy, a naval engineer,
and moved to La Rochelle to begin a new life. Sartre who had
grown accustomed to having his mother's undivided attention
began to rebel. He got in fights with other students, stole
money from home, told blatant lies and was regularly
detained after school. His parents began to worry that their
son would grow up to become no more than a common thug.
Mancy, realising that he could-not control Sartre, sent him
back to Paris where he was to board at Lycee Henri IV, a
well-regarded school. At the school Sartre was to meet
Paul-Yves Nizan, the future philosopher, who, with Simone de
Beauvoir, was to feature as one of the most important people
in his life. Despite being polar opposites their emotional
closeness was such that the two became known as "Nitre &
Sarzan" to the other students. Sartre would later break with
his life-long friend over personal and political reasons.
Indeed throughout his life Sartre would burn bridges with
good friends like Albert Camus, Raymond Aron and Maurice
Merleau-Ponty in order to remain loyal to his own beliefs.

After the Lycee Henri IV both Sartre and Nizan enrolled at
the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure. The ENS served as
a philosophy and psychology campus and was a companion
school of the Sorbonne. Some of Sartre's illustrious
classmates included Rene Maheu, Jean Hyypolite and Pierre
Guille. Unlike Nizan, Sartre was largely apolitical during
his stay at the ENS and spent most his time reading hundreds
of books and formulating the ideas that would feature in
much of his later work. In 1928 Sartre took his final
agregation, the French equivalent of an exit exam, and
failed terribly, finishing last out of a class of fifty.

Failing the exam was a tremendous blow for the
intellectually secure Sartre but it was to prove one of the
most crucial events of his life. While waiting for the next
agregation he met and fell in love with Simone de Beauvoir,
his life-long companion and intellectual soul mate. The two
studied together for the next exam. This time Sartre placed
first and de Beauvoir second. They would retain this
intellectual and emotional closeness for the rest of the
lives to the extent that there is still to this day some
controversy as to who had the greater influence over the
other. Although their relationship was unconventional - they
never married and frequently took other lovers - it was
clear to all around them that the two cared deeply for each

After graduating Sartre was, against his wishes, conscripted
and served 18 months in the French army. Thereafter he
accepted a teaching position at a lycee in northwest France.
It was during this time that he was first introduced to
phenomenology. Founded by the German philosopher, Edmund
Husserl, phenomenology is a school of philosophy whose
principle purpose is to study the phenomena, or appearances,
of human experience while attempting to suspend all
consideration of their objective reality or subjective
association. Raymond Aron, a student of Husserl, explained
the philosophy to Sartre and de Beauvoir while the three
were drinking together at a Paris bar. He used a beer mug to
illustrate phenomenology by discussing the mug's properties
and essences. Impressed by this new school Sartre read all
he could about it and eventually travelled to Berlin in 1932
to attend and study the lectures of Edmund Husserl and
Martin Heidegger. He returned to France imbued with a new
vigour. In 1938 Sartre's first novel, Nausea, was published
to great critical acclaim. Although he had already published
The Outline of a Theory of the Emotions and Transcendence of
the Ego, both largely psychologically studies, Nausea
cemented Sartre's position as France's leading intellectual
and brought him immediate recognition and success. The
novel, in the form of a diary, revolved around the anti-hero
Roquentin who discovers, to his unfolding horror, the
contingency of the world. Sartre included a phenomenological
analysis of a glass of beer in the novel as a tribute to his
friend Aron.

At the outbreak of World War 2 Sartre was again conscripted
into the French army. He served in the meteorological
service and spent his time writing and launching weather
balloons. However in June 1940 he was captured by enemy
troops and sent to a prisoner of war camp. He spent most of
his time in the stalag writing what was to become Being and
Nothingness, universally regarded as his philosophic
masterpiece. In March 1941 Sartre escaped from the camp and
returned to Paris to resume teaching and to fight in the
French Resistance. His celebrated and explicitly anti-Nazi
play The Flies opened in Paris in 1943. Strangely it was not
unusual to see uniformed German officers in attendance.

This was also the year that Being and Nothingness: An Essay
on Phenomenological Ontology was first published. Considered
by most philosophers to be the major text of existentialism,
the book is a impressive structuralization of Sartre's
concept of being and investigates existence, negation, the
self, the nature of fear, the dread of temporality, and the
nature of imagination and of the emotions. In the book
Sartre distinguishes between two kinds of being: en-soi
(in-itself) and pour-soi (for-itself). Being-In-Itself
corresponds to the being of an inert object, complete and
fixed, expressing no relationship either with itself or with
anything outside itself. It is uncreated, without reason for
being, and absolutely contingent. Being-For-Itself describes
human consciousness as possessing the characteristics of
incompleteness and with an indeterminate structure or

By the end of the war Sartre suddenly found himself as
France's most celebrated intellectual and existentialism, of
which he was the foremost exponent, was seen as the
philosophy to study or be associated with. Unsurprisingly
very few of the people who called themselves existentialists
actually bothered to read, the admittedly daunting, Being
and Nothingness. Much of existentialism's popularity can
instead be traced to a famous public lecture given by Sartre
in Paris at the Club Maintenant in 1945. The published
version of the lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, was a
defence of existentialism against the criticism that it was
overly pessimistic of the human condition. Sartre was, in
short, trying to convince people that existentialism had a
legitimate ethical framework. Due to its succinct nature the
book sold well and was taken as the alpha and omega of
existentialism when at most it could be regarded as a good

In the book Sartre states that the central thesis of
existentialism is that existence precedes essence. He argues
that whether or not there is a God there is no one to give
an essence or purpose to our existence. We have no
distinctive nature and are thus free to make of ourselves
what we will. We are condemned to freedom. To deny this
freedom is to be in bad faith. Bad faith refers to different
modes of human existence characterised by self-deception,
self-evasion, flight from one's freedom and responsibility
and the acceptance of values as pre-given. But this freedom
also requires responsibility for in choosing for ourselves
we choose for all of humankind. This is because in choosing
for ourselves we affirm what we think is valuable for anyone
else in our circumstances. So in choosing for ourselves we
legislate for all of humankind.

Together with the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty and de
Beauvoir Sartre founded the popular leftist journal Les
Temps Modernes in 1944. It was named after the Charlie
Chaplin film Modern Times which many considered to be a
masterpiece of cinematography. Merleau-Ponty would later
leave the journal and publish an attack on Sartre accusing
him of ultra-bolshevism over his continued support of the
Soviet Union. By this time Sartre was considered in many
quarters to be the leading voice of the left and met
regularly with world revolutionaries like Che Guevara,
Frantz Fanon and Fidel Castro. His rapid politicisation saw
him align himself with progressive causes like the
anti-Vietnam War lobby and the 1968 French student revolts.
After the revolts Sartre, in the spirit of solidarity with
the students, vowed never to wear a tie again. He would also
later turn down the Nobel Prize for Literature citing Alfred
Nobel's legacy of human suffering as his chief reason.

In 1946 Sartre published The Portrait of the Anti-Semite
which Hazel Barnes, the respected Sartrean scholar and
translator, proclaimed as his fullest discussion on the
nature of prejudice. Although many Western philosophers had
unwittingly provided conceptual pools of knowledge for the
oppressed to draw and graft from, The Anti-Semite was unique
in that it was the first work to directly confront the
problem of racism itself. Frantz Fanon, whose own works are
littered with references to the book, writes in his seminal
study of anti-black racism Black Skin, White Masks: "Certain
pages of Anti-Semite and Jew are the finest that I have ever
read. The finest, because the problem discussed in them
grips us in our guts." Sartre had done the man and women of
colour a great favour. He had constructed for them a
handbook on the nature of prejudice. In the book Sartre
makes the claim that the explanation for anti-Semitism must
be sought not in the Jews but in the minds of the prejudiced
and argues, quite originally, that if the Jew did-not exist
the anti-Semite would invent him. He argues that
anti-Semitism is not merely an opinion but is rather a
global attitude, a passion and a way of living one's life.
It is an emotion and involves a choice of oneself as that of
a particular passion. Thus the anti-Semite cannot
incorporate his prejudice into his other attitudes as if it
were a separate entity among other separate entities. His
prejudice dictates his worldview and is consequently brought
to bear on all men in general. The Jew, in this sense, is
only a pretext and at another time a Black or Chinese might
serve just as well. The book still provides an urgent and
insightful account into the psychology of prejudice.

In his now classic essay Black Orpheus (1948) Sartre offers
a defence of Negritude and opens with passionate address to
white people: "When you removed the gag that was keeping
these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they
would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised
themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of
these heads that our fathers had forced to bend to the very
ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I
hope that you - like me - will feel the shock of been seen."

His contributions to the anti-racist struggle were not
restricted solely to philosophy. During a tour of the United
States he wrote a shocking expose of the material conditions
facing African-Americans. He pointed out the farcical nature
of civil rights advancements in a land where white people
still held primitive Manichean attitudes towards blacks - in
one surreal instance a well-educated white doctor expressed
fears about white patients receiving blood from black
donors. And in his play The Respectful Prostitute (1947),
set in the American South, he drew a parallel between the
plight of the black man and the white woman, bonded in
misery, in a racist patriarchal world.

At the height of his popularity Sartre gradually moved away
from the existential throne that had made him famous. He
called himself a Marxist and wrote The Critique of Dialectic
Reason (1960) in which he tried to demonstrate the
fundamental harmony between Marxism and existentialism. It
was a move away from the absolute freedom he defended in his
earlier works in favour of a more situated freedom. In true
anti-essentialist fashion he later denied that he was a
Marxist. On 15 April 1980 Jean-Paul Sartre died. Doctors
blamed his death on his unhealthy lifestyle which included a
two pack a day cigarette habit, bouts of heavy drinking and
his use of amphetamines to aid the writing process. To the
end he had lived his life the way he chose to.

Today Sartre's body lies in the Montparnasse Cemetery in
Paris. In academia fashionable post-modernists ignore his
immense contribution to the world and causally dismiss his
existential themes as just another totalising oppressive
meta-narrative. The fact that his central theme of freedom
can be regarded as fundamentally human and therefore
fundamentally pluralistic is, more often than not, lost to
them. But there are growing enclaves of resistance. Lewis
Gordon, one of the world's leading philosophers, has written
several books on racism using predominantly Sartrean
conceptual tools and his book Bad Faith and Anti-Black
Racism is considered vital reading at all good universities.
In Durban, there is a new interest in the restless adventure
of existence. Fanon is a popular hero whose spirit is
invoked from Lamontville to Chatsworth and earlier this year
the poet Johan van Wyk published his first novel, Man-Bitch,
which carried rich existential undertones. It seems that for
as long as people are oppressed Sartre will provide the
knives with which they can slay their demons.


Pravasan Pillay is a freelance journalist and lectures
Philosophy at the University of Durban-Westville.

Copyright (c) 2001 Pravasan Pillay. All Rights Reserved.

More information about the Marxism mailing list