[Marxism] Being and Nothingness

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 10 06:45:32 MDT 2019


LRB, Vol. 41 No. 8 · 18 April 2019
Peas in a Matchbox
by Jonathan Rée

Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenology and Ontology by 
Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Sarah Richmond
Routledge, 848 pp, £45.00, June, ISBN 978 0 415 52911 2

At the turn of the 20th century, Gaston Gallimard was one of many suave 
young men about Paris with exquisite taste in literature, music and art. 
Then he became friends not only with Proust, but also with Gide, who in 
1908 started the monthly Nouvelle Revue Française in the hope of helping 
a ‘rising generation’ to escape the suffocating plushness of 
‘yesterday’s writers’. The distinctive dust jackets of the NRF – plain 
white with austere typography in black and red – proclaimed its radical 
elegance, and it soon had a team of contributors that included 
Alain-Fournier, Paul Claudel, Jean Giraudoux, Valery Larbaud, Jacques 
Rivière, Jean Schlumberger and Paul Valéry. Gide then proposed that they 
branch out into publishing ‘beautiful books’. Neither he nor his 
colleagues had the means to run a publishing house, but their friend 
Gallimard had time on his hands and plenty of money so they invited him 
to take charge.

It turned out to be a good choice: Gallimard was not only stylish and 
charming, but also industrious, methodical and decisive. He was generous 
to his authors – he is credited with inaugurating the tradition of the 
publisher’s lunch – but he also set up an editorial committee, drawn 
from the NRF, which struck fear even into those who served on it. He got 
off to a good start with books by Claudel, Gide, Roger Martin du Gard 
and Stéphane Mallarmé, bound in the same white jackets as the NRF. He 
blundered in 1913 by passing over the first volume of A la recherche du 
temps perdu, but by 1918 he had persuaded Proust to entrust him with all 
his future work.

Being published by Gallimard was now the dream of every ambitious young 
writer in France – Jean-Paul Sartre among them. Sartre started studying 
psychology and philosophy at the Ecole Normale in Paris in 1924, at the 
age of 19. He had already been bowled over by Hume’s argument that the 
self is an illusion, and he was fascinated by Nietzsche, describing him 
rather enviously as ‘a poet who had the bad luck to be mistaken for a 
philosopher’. He also took an interest in Karl Jaspers, contributing to 
a translation of a recent treatise on Allgemeine Psychopathologie (his 
German was quite good) and taking to heart its main message: that 
psychology is not so much a medical as a philosophical discipline, in 
which individual interpretive understanding (Verstehen) takes precedence 
over general causal explanation (Erklären). In 1926-27 he wrote a 
Jaspers-inspired thesis which criticised ‘classical’ psychology for 
treating imagination as a ‘thing’, or a stash of inert images deposited 
in our minds by past experience, rather than a spontaneous activity 
through which we project unrealised possibilities onto the world. He got 
a good mark, but he wanted to be a free spirit rather than a 
professional philosopher, and spent the next few months writing a novel 
about Nietzsche and Cosima Wagner which, as he would recall, was 
‘judiciously turned down by Gallimard’.

Not long afterwards he failed his final exam, the agrégation, but his 
self-confidence was unimpaired and the following year he came top out of 
more than seventy candidates. He was now qualified to teach philosophy 
to final-year lycée students, but first he had to do 18 months of 
military service; and while his posting as a meteorologist in central 
France was unexciting, it left him plenty of time to write. He worked on 
what his friend Paul Nizan called a ‘destructive philosophy’, designed 
to show that the norms of bourgeois morality arise from arbitrary 
conventions rather than eternal verities. The result took the form of a 
collection of stories and essays which was again submitted to Gallimard, 
again without success.

After being demobilised in 1931, he was appointed to a lycée in Le 
Havre, where he discovered to his surprise that he quite enjoyed getting 
surly teenagers to engage with philosophy. After a couple of years he 
was granted a 12-month secondment to study in Berlin, which gave him the 
chance to prepare two brief philosophical works – L’Imagination and La 
Transcendance de l’égo – in which he maintained that consciousness 
resides not in some sequestered ‘interiority’ but in dynamic 
relationships located ‘outside, in the world’.

These essays didn’t aspire to literary distinction, and Sartre was happy 
to place them with specialist academic publishers; but he promised that 
from now on he would match his ‘purely philosophical’ output with a 
series of ‘works of art’. An early example was an evocative three-page 
essay on ‘Intentionality’ (a ‘fundamental idea’ of recent German 
philosophy, according to Sartre) which appeared in the NRF in 1939. 
Following the interventions of Husserl and Heidegger, he said, all 
traditional theories of consciousness had to be abandoned. Experience 
could no longer be treated as a process of assimilation, in which 
information is gathered by our senses and digested by our minds before 
being incorporated into a personal body of knowledge. If we succumb to 
the tired old metaphor and try to get ‘inside’ the consciousness of 
others, we will only be thrown back out into the places they inhabit and 
the company they keep; and the same will happen if we try to ‘find 
ourselves’ through introspection. There is no world apart from the 
external world, in short, and ‘nous voilà délivrés de Proust’.

Sartre’s first attempt to ‘liberate himself from Proust’ was a short 
work, provisionally entitled ‘Melancholia’, in which he ranted against 
self-styled ‘humanists’ with their simpering love for a blurry entity 
called ‘humanity’. We all have disparate lives, according to Sartre, and 
we live them differently, and the only thing they have in common is that 
we cannot pin them down: we are always pretty much in the dark about 
what they signify and where they may lead. But this truth is hard to 
bear, and we prefer to frame our experience in narratives whose 
beginning and middle seem to point to a reassuring conclusion. We are 
inveterate ‘tellers of tales’, in short, and we like to ‘live our lives 
as if we were narrating them’. But we are bound to fail: we ‘live our 
lives in one direction’ (towards an unknown future) and ‘narrate them 
the other way round’ (as if we knew how they would end). Sartre worked 
on ‘Melancholia’ for several years, transforming it from an abstract 
philosophical essay into a well-wrought novella, whose message is built 
into its form – a diary recording the aimless day-to-day existence of a 
historian who is trying to make sense of the life of an 18th-century 
aristocrat. When Gallimard read the manuscript he decided to take a punt 
on it, provided he could change the title.

Gallimard was vindicated when it appeared as La Nausée in May 1938, and 
he quickly capitalised on its success with a collection of Sartre’s 
short stories called Le Mur. At the time Sartre was also working on a 
400-page manuscript called ‘La Psyché’, and had recently been 
transferred from Le Havre to the prestigious lycée Pasteur in Neuilly. 
He was just 33, and everything was going his way.

When war was declared in September 1939 Sartre was called up to a 
meteorological unit in Alsace. Once again army life gave him time to 
write: on the one hand, a novel he proposed to call L’Age de raison and, 
on the other, an expanded version of ‘La Psyché’, focusing on a new 
theme: that consciousness always involves negation. Imagine for instance 
that you see a woman lying on the grass under a tree. You may think that 
your experience is simply an effect of light bouncing off the woman, the 
grass and the tree, impinging on your retina and triggering a chain of 
events in your optic nerve and your brain. But think again. Your 
awareness involves not only what is taking place in front of you, but 
also what is not: that the figure is neither a man nor a child, and not 
sitting or standing, that the surface is not paved, and that the tree is 
no flimsy sapling. The world, in other words, is constituted by what is 
absent as well as what is present, and these absences depend on the 
expectations you bring to it rather than how it is in itself.

In June 1940 Sartre’s unit surrendered to German troops, and he ended up 
as one of several thousand prisoners of war in Stalag 12D, overlooking 
the Rhineland city of Trier. He spent nine months in captivity, often 
hungry and cold but never depressed or discouraged: he had been well 
prepared, he said, by his five years at the Ecole Normale. He was 
assigned to a compound for ‘artists’ (which meant he was spared manual 
labour), and treated throughout the camp with the respect due to a 
professor of philosophy. Sometimes he was approached for philosophical 
advice, for example by a doleful young peasant who felt abandoned after 
a friend of his managed to escape. Sartre pointed out that he too could 
try to escape – it was up to him to choose – and according to another 
prisoner he immediately perked up.

Sartre spent most of his time at the Stalag with a group of Catholic 
priests who tolerated his atheism and welcomed him as a fellow seeker 
after truth. They knew that he was a famous author, published by 
Gallimard and the NRF, and when he lent them the manuscript of L’Age de 
raison they admired its unsparing depiction of an aimless young 
philosopher in Paris. They persuaded him to give a lecture and he 
fascinated his fellow prisoners by discussing the prospect of death, 
with reference to such German writers as Rilke, Husserl, Jaspers and – 
despite his reputation as a ‘Nazi philosopher’ – Heidegger. He also 
agreed to take part in their Christmas celebrations, writing, directing 
and acting in a play which presented the birth of Jesus as a source of 
hope even for unbelievers.

When one of the priests got hold of a copy of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, 
Sartre agreed to work through it with him, sentence by sentence, for an 
hour or two every morning. They were halfway through when Sartre decided 
that he was desperate to get back to France, and the priest took the 
initiative of forging a medical certificate which stated, without much 
exaggeration, that Sartre’s eyesight was going from bad to worse. He was 
amused when Sartre – who struck him as excessively well brought up – 
said he could not collude in such a deception. The priest prevailed, and 
Sartre was able to leave – with the blessing of his clerical friends, 
who looked forward to meeting him again in print if not in person.

By the end of March 1941 Sartre was back in Paris, where he resumed his 
job at the lycée Pasteur, and lived with his mother, who fed him well 
despite the shortages. He found most things eerily normal, but he was 
shocked by the swastikas and strangely amiable German soldiers, and 
disconcerted by the general acquiescence of his compatriots. For a while 
he tried to persuade prominent intellectuals – Gide, for example – to 
join him in a non-violent opposition movement called Socialisme et 
Liberté, but no one was very interested. Communists and 
fellow-travellers were still hamstrung by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and at 
the other end of the political spectrum, conservatives like Claudel 
welcomed the occupation as a ‘restoration of authority’ after ‘sixty 
years under the yoke of the radical and anti-Catholic party (teachers, 
lawyers, Freemasons and Jews)’. Sartre himself forfeited any right to 
criticise others when he transferred to the lycée Condorcet, in the 
fashionable Opéra district of Paris, to fill a vacancy created by the 
dismissal of a Jewish professor.

Meanwhile the entertainment industry in Paris was flourishing: 
performers like Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Django Reinhardt, Tino 
Rossi, Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf, abetted by the jazz-inspired youth 
culture of the zazous, offered the Germans opportunities for rest and 
recreation that scarcely existed back home. On top of that, the 
occupying authorities were keen to present themselves as guardians of 
high culture: in March 1941, for example, they brought over a production 
of Wagner’s Walküre from Mannheim and, a couple of months later, 
Mozart’s Entführung and Wagner’s Tristan from Berlin. They encouraged 
local talent too, provided it wasn’t Jewish. They ‘tried to seduce 
rather than impose their will’, as Pierre Boulez recalled, and on the 
whole they succeeded. They presided over a boom in sales of contemporary 
art and went out of their way to protect leading artists: Georges Braque 
showed 35 works in the Salon d’Automne in 1943, and was offered free 
coal to heat his vast studio on the rue du Douanier, and Picasso 
welcomed Otto Abetz, the German ambassador, to his establishment on the 
rue des Grands-Augustins. It was the same with music: ‘Musical life here 
in Paris is intense,’ Poulenc reported in 1942, with magnificent 
concerts conducted by Charles Munch and exquisite performances of new 
works – his own or those of Olivier Messiaen – in chamber concerts 
sponsored by Gaston Gallimard.

As Gallimard knew, however, official beneficence did not extend to the 
written word. Following the fall of Paris his firm had been denounced 
for ‘thirty years of nihilist propaganda’; dozens of Gallimard titles 
were banned and thousands of books seized. But after spending the summer 
of 1941 in the ‘zone libre’ in the south, he returned to Paris in 
October to negotiate with the authorities. Once he had dismissed his 
Jewish editor, Jacques Schiffrin (France’s loss was America’s gain), and 
transferred control of the NRF to the collaborationist Drieu la Rochelle 
(who promised to rid it of ‘Jews, homosexuals and timid surrealists’), 
he was able to resume his business on the same terms as other French 
publishers: everything was subject to pre-publication censorship by the 
Propagandastaffel, and he wasn’t allowed to publish Jewish authors or 
anything critical of Germany. Apart from that he could do as he liked.

In the event he sustained his firm’s reputation, bringing out new work 
by such established writers as Marcel Aymé, Jean Cocteau, Raymond 
Queneau and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as well as launching the careers 
of Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Blanchot and Albert Camus. (He gave Camus 
a job that made it possible for him to live in Paris, and published 
L’Etranger in May 1942, followed by Le Mythe de Sisyphe, though a 
section on Kafka was removed on the advice of the Propagandastaffel.) He 
also continued to cultivate Sartre, who, following the success of his 
Christmas play in the Stalag, was now reinventing himself as a 
dramatist. In April 1943 he published Les Mouches, a play about a city 
facing an epidemic of plague, which then began a very successful run at 
the Théâtre de la Cité. (The theatre used to be the Sarah Bernhardt, but 
had been renamed in deference to Aryan sensibilities; on the opening 
night twenty seats were reserved for the Propagandastaffel, and there 
were always appreciative German officers in the audience.) Meanwhile 
Sartre was still writing philosophy, and in August Gallimard brought out 
an astonishingly ambitious 700-page treatise called L’Être et le Néant.

The title – Being and Nothingness in English – is rather misleading: 
Self and Others would have been a better fit. There was speculation that 
it was chosen to encourage the Propagandastaffel to see it as a tribute 
to Being and Time, but while it took up several themes from Heidegger, 
it was really a continuation of the criticisms of traditional psychology 
that Sartre had been developing over the past twenty years. It also drew 
on his recent experiences with theatre: it is structured as a kind of 
drama, following the fortunes of a consciousness – your consciousness, 
my consciousness, anyone’s consciousness – on its journey towards 
self-knowledge. The first act reveals consciousness distinguishing its 
own existence ‘for itself’ from an objective reality which exists ‘in 
itself’, and then tormenting itself by trying to obliterate the 
distinction and become a self-sufficient something, perhaps even God. 
The second and third acts explore the consequences of this folie de 
grandeur: consciousness attempts to dominate the world by ‘totalising’ 
it, but flounders when it tries to make sense of the passage of time, or 
its own bodily existence, or its dependence on others, and in the end it 
realises that its fascination with ‘pure knowledge’ – with intuitions 
‘situated outside the world’ or ‘without any point of view’ – was 
deluded all along. The fourth and final act shows consciousness learning 
to understand itself on the basis of its own absurdity, by means of a 
form of psychoanalysis – ‘existential psychoanalysis’ – which treats our 
opacities and neuroses as arising not from unconscious drives 
originating outside us, but from the contradictory stories we have told 
ourselves about the world and our place in it. The drama concludes by 
invoking a new morality, rooted in a willingness to ‘step back’ and 
accept the fact of our own nothingness.

Sartre did not think of Being and Nothingness as one of his ‘works of 
art’, and while the design was magnificent, the execution was slapdash. 
Much of the prose reads like the unfiltered output of late-night 
delirium, and Gallimard’s editorial staff seem to have done nothing to 
cut out redundancies or to clean up the rest. (They might at least have 
prevented him from harping on the expression ‘réalité humaine’, when the 
whole point of the book was that human existence has nothing in common 
with thing-like ‘realities’, and they should have noticed that he kept 
getting the title of one of his own essays wrong.) There are several 
vivid scenes – an over-attentive waiter who seems to be ‘playing at 
being a waiter’, a girl who pretends not to notice that she is an object 
of sexual attention, and a snooper at a keyhole who feels a surge of 
shame when he realises he is being observed – but they only show up the 
tawdriness of the rest. Worst of all, Sartre failed to observe the 
proprieties of dramatic point of view. His fundamental project was to 
show how the world is bound to appear – riddled with obscurity, 
indistinctness and incoherence – to a consciousness such as ours; but he 
keeps interrupting the action like a hyperactive chorus to tell us what 
is really going on. He could hardly have done more to test the patience 
of his readers.

*

Gallimard published L’Etre et le Néant for prestige rather than profit, 
and it was launched without fuss. It did not go unnoticed however. 
Sartre was already well known as the philosophy professor who had 
written the anti-humanist novel La Nausée and then branched out into 
theatre, and according to his young friend Jean-Toussaint Desanti, the 
establishment philosophique scoffed at his frantic productivity and 
wondered why anyone would ‘bother with such things’. But Desanti himself 
was thrilled. ‘I remember reading the whole thing in one week,’ he said. 
‘I was dumbfounded by its abundance and sheer intellectual generosity.’ 
He had been a specialist in mathematical philosophy, but L’Etre et le 
Néant brought him back, as he put it, to ‘genuine embodiment, embodiment 
in the world, and the need to draw as close as possible to things and to 
other people, so as to give expression to their fluid, inconstant and 
contradictory ambiguity’.

Another copy found its way to the young André Gorz in Switzerland. ‘I 
steeped myself in L’Etre et le Néant,’ as he recalled a few years later, 
and he too was overwhelmed by Sartre’s ‘generosity’:

At first I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I was fascinated by the 
novelty and complexity of Sartre’s ideas, and I persevered until they 
became the boundaries of my universe … Sartre seemed to me more divine 
than human … For the first time in my life I began to understand the 
value of generosity (or generosity as a value) – a way of bringing 
things and people into existence through love … of attending to the 
freedom that underlies the existence of others and letting it come into 
its own.

Back in Paris, Michel Tournier and his fellow students at the Sorbonne 
had much the same experience:

One day in the autumn of 1943, a new book appeared to us like a meteor: 
Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant. There was momentary astonishment, followed 
by prolonged rumination. The book was massive, hairy, excessive and 
overwhelming, encyclopaedic, magnificently technical, and crammed with 
exquisite subtleties; but it was informed from beginning to end by a 
single diamantine insight. There was outrage from the anti-philosophical 
racaille in the press, but we were not in any doubt: we had been granted 
a system, and we rejoiced … We spent that dreary freezing wartime winter 
wrapped in blankets, our feet bound in rabbit skins and our heads on 
fire, reading every single page of our new bible out loud to each other.

But the spell didn’t last. After the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, 
Gaston Gallimard was accused of collaborationism, and Sartre came to his 
defence, maintaining that his firm had been ‘a haven of Resistance’ 
throughout the Occupation. He also took the opportunity of claiming that 
he himself had been ‘part of the intellectual Resistance’. He does not 
seem to have been challenged at the time, but this was an affront to the 
tens of thousands of ordinary French men and women, most of them poor, 
undereducated and very young, who had taken direct action against the 
occupying forces from 1941 onwards, with a high risk of arrest, torture 
and execution, or deportation to concentration camps from which they 
might never return. Sartre may not have had anything to be ashamed of, 
but he played no part in the Resistance.

On the other hand he was now a literary celebrity, having given up 
teaching in order to concentrate on marketing himself as a public 
intellectual. His earliest admirers were dismayed. Gorz was ‘taken 
aback’ to discover that his ‘demiurge’ was plain and stocky and emmerdé 
by the ignorant devotees with whom he surrounded himself. Desanti noted 
that the book which had changed his life had become an esoteric fetish: 
‘Everyone talked about L’Etre et le Néant,’ he said, ‘even if they never 
read it.’ Gallimard brought out a new edition, and while each of the 
eight thousand copies was defective – one section missing, another 
repeated – he is said to have received only two complaints.

Desanti and Gorz kept faith with Sartre, up to a point, but Tournier did 
not. In October 1945 he and some friends attended a commercial event in 
the centre of Paris which brought together a vast and voluble crowd to 
hear Sartre talking about his philosophy.

This popularity should have put us on our guard. A ridiculous label had 
been pinned to the new philosophy: existentialism… . We did not know 
what it meant, but we were about to be told. Sartre summed it up in four 
words: l’existentialisme est un humanisme, and he explained what he 
meant by telling some story about peas in a matchbox. We were 
distraught. Humanism was a piece of junk that we had chucked into the 
garbage long ago, but our master had now retrieved it, stinking of la 
vie intérieure, and coupled it with the absurd notion of existentialism, 
as if he owned them both. And everyone clapped and cheered.

We went to a café to drown our grief and share our intimations of 
disaster… . ‘He’s going to become a Great Man,’ we said: ‘the Gandhi of 
Gaullist France’ … and we mourned the death of the author of L’Etre et 
le Néant.

Tournier wondered if they might have over-reacted, like a bunch of 
‘retarded adolescents’ trying to liquidate the father to whom they owed 
everything. But on the whole he thought they were right. Sartre had 
indeed set his heart on becoming a saint, and in the space of three 
years he had declined from young firebrand to old fart.

*

French philosophy in the 1950s was dominated, as Pierre Bourdieu would 
recall, by the figure of Sartre as a ‘total intellectual’ and 
‘monopolist of cultural capital’. Bourdieu and his friends – notably 
Derrida and Foucault – coveted Sartre’s charisma while despising his 
vulgarity, and they jeered at his misconstruals of Heidegger’s German, 
even though, according to Bourdieu, they themselves relied on scrappy 
French translations. Meanwhile Alain Robbe-Grillet remembered how 
practitioners of the nouveau roman recoiled from the ‘totality’ to which 
Sartre was supposed to aspire. Many of them cherished ‘considerable 
hatred’ towards him, but Robbe-Grillet admitted that he owed a lot to 
the three-page article on ‘Intentionality’, which had made him see that 
‘consciousness has no inside,’ and he could not dislike L’Etre et le 
Néant since he had never forced himself to read it.

If Sartre’s stock was in decline in France, it was booming in the 
English-speaking world. He visited the US in 1945 and 1946, and 
journalists found him typically French and highly amusing. Vogue allowed 
Sartre to explain how ‘the Resistance taught that literature isn’t a 
fancy activity independent of politics’ and Time tried to interest its 
readers in ‘Existentialism’ and ‘Existentialist Murder’, while the New 
Yorker ran an article, ‘Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialist’, which 
explained that the ‘rumpled little man who wears tortoiseshell glasses’, 
and whose unreadable books had provoked ‘several million words’ of 
commentary, most of them ‘angry’, had been active in the Resistance 
‘during the Occupation’.

Mainstream publishers in Britain and America were now in a race to issue 
translations of Sartre’s plays, novels and short stories, but – apart 
from the lecture on existentialism and humanism, which was shonky but 
short – they were not so keen on his philosophical writings. At this 
point an eccentric entrepreneur called Dagobert Runes spotted an 
opportunity. Runes was a Jew from Romania who studied philosophy in 
Vienna and came to New York in 1926, setting himself up as an importer 
of European high culture. He founded several publishing firms, some of 
which prospered, and after selling one of them to the Reader’s Digest he 
founded ‘The Philosophical Library’ in 1941, with a view to promoting 
eternal wisdom, principally his own. He acquired English-language rights 
to several of Sartre’s philosophical works, and managed to bring out The 
Emotions and The Psychology of Imagination in 1948. But when it came to 
Being and Nothingness he had difficulty finding a translator.

The problem was not so much Sartre’s technical vocabulary (any fool can 
find English equivalents of words like transcendence or totalisation) as 
his linguistic laxity and his tendency to carry on writing when he had 
nothing much to say. Runes drew a blank until 1951, when he got a letter 
from a young teacher of classics at Ohio State University called Hazel 
Barnes. She was a sexually unconventional feminist who, having convinced 
herself that Sartre’s philosophy was ‘exactly what I was groping 
toward’, approached the Philosophical Library to see if they would be 
interested in a modest introduction to his key ideas: that the notion of 
a ‘true self’ is a reactionary myth, and that each of us must ‘create 
our own ethics’ on the basis of the ‘absolute equality of all 
self-making individuals’. Runes came back with a different proposal. 
‘You sound,’ he said, ‘like exactly the sort of person we have been 
looking for to translate Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant.’

Barnes didn’t have a formal background in philosophy, and her French was 
weak, but she was keen to read L’Etre et le Néant and thought that 
translating it would be as good a way as any. She realised that the 
Philosophical Library was ‘not a respectable publishing firm’ but felt, 
as she put it, ‘quite casual about it all’. Runes insisted that she work 
fast, even while coping with illness, and carrying a heavy load of 
teaching until she lost her job because her work-in-progress was ‘only a 
translation’. Runes provided no help with copy-editing or proofreading, 
and Barnes was too ill to check the proofs properly, but Being and 
Nothingness, including a neat introduction by Barnes, duly appeared in 
the summer of 1956. ‘It is a wonder,’ she said, ‘that the published work 
did not have more errors than it did.’

It was a spectacular success, and Runes soon sold it on to mainstream 
publishers. Barnes was paid next to nothing for her work, but she was 
pleased to see that it provided inspiration both to the New Left and to 
Anti-Psychiatry, and later became the foundation of the English-language 
discipline of ‘Continental Philosophy’. In 1987 the British Society for 
Phenomenology issued a lengthy Checklist of Errors in Hazel Barnes’s 
English Translation of Jean-Paul Sartre, pointing out, for example, that 
être lâche means ‘being cowardly’ rather than ‘being courageous’, and 
devant être means ‘having to be’ rather than ‘being beforehand’. Barnes 
accepted the criticism: she would have done a far better job, she 
reckoned, had she spent another five or ten years on the translation, 
but it would then have missed the ‘critical moment’ that allowed it to 
encounter a ‘receptive public’.

Sarah Richmond has now produced a meticulous, elegant translation which 
appears to be error free, though in places she is perhaps 
over-respectful to the original. Barnes’s translation has grown 
venerable with use, but new readers will not bother with it if they can 
get hold of Richmond’s. I am not sure, however, that the new translation 
will find its ‘critical moment’ and reach a new ‘receptive public’. As 
Gaston Gallimard said towards the end of a long and wonderful life, ‘the 
one thing I have learned is that the fate of a book is something you can 
never know in advance.’



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