When he finally stopped writing he was so severely over-stimulated he was unable to keep his body still. His arms flailed about and he paced so much on de Beauvoir’s carpet that he wore a hole in it. He was a speed freak. Speed renders the tongue hyperactive, even when one is not talking, and at one point he wore all the skin off the top of his. A nightly, near overdose of sleeping tablets was the only possible way for him to come down from all the uppers and grab a few hours of rest.
What a marvellous, fascinatingly hideous spectacle he must have made. A small, ugly bundle of intellectual and physical energy, likely to self-destruct at any moment, maniacally pushing himself beyond all reasonable limits of mental and bodily endurance in order to feel ever more intensely what he called ‘the speed of my soul’ (Words, p. 154). He was a hungry ghost striving to fill the void within himself by internalizing the entire world. For him this meant trying to capture and explain the entire world, the entire human condition, in an all-embracing script.
Yes, that was Jean-Paul Sartre as vividly described in Gary Cox’s new biography of the great and legendary philosopher, author and formidable lover, accurately titled Existentialism and Excess (Bloomsbury Academic). Although neither Sartre nor Simone de Beauvoir, his life and intellectual partner for 50 years, much liked the label Existentialist when it was first attached to him, as it became popular he learned to live with it. And as to excess, well I daresay that Sartre made the old cliché of “packing three lives into one” come true.
One of the very few quibbles I have with Cox’s book is that I would lose track of Sartre’s lovers. For instance, “Michelle was the least stringent when it came to his alcohol consumption – Sylvie, with de Beauvoir’s approval, had been watering down his bottles for some time.” Wait now, was Sylvie the 17 year-old Sylvie Le Bon who Sartre legally adopted as his daughter after first establishing her as his lover? (Yes) And who was Michelle again? (Michelle Vian described as, ahem, “an easy-going blonde”.) I’d say that one needs a scorecard to keep track, but that of course would be a terrible pun.
Sartre’s life is the mirror opposite of Gertrude Stein’s famous putdown of Oakland, in that there is almost too much there, there. In Cox’s bibliography, the list of Sartre’s published books goes on for two full pages. Included there are deep and serious works on philosophy, as well as novels, polemics, short stories, an autobiography, a four volume (four!) of Flaubert, and plays.
Just to clomp around here for a bit, like a burping Philistine with mud on his boots, I’ve never been all that dazzled by Sartre as a playwright. I read No Exit and Three Other Plays some years ago with a view towards presenting one of them, however I found his dramatic writing to be ponderous. Seventy years’ worth of successful productions have proven me wrong, however John Huston at least shared something of my opinion. Huston invited Sartre to write a screenplay for a proposed biopic of Sigmund Freud, both the director and the philosopher being admirers of the psychoanalyst. According to Cox, “Huston grumbled that Sartre had written a screenplay for a five to seven hour movie. Seeking to cut it when he returned to Paris, Sartre managed to make it even longer.” Sartre’s original screenplay is available in book form. Naturally.
One might think that a subject as big as Sartre would make for an easy biography. After all, it’s not like the reader has to be reminded of the significance of such events as the Occupation of Paris during World War Two, Cold War tensions, the Algerian uprising ending in independence, the student uprising in 1968, and all the other causes Sartre was involved in or at least observant witness of between his birth in 1905 and exhausted death in 1980. But I remind you that Sartre’s biography of Flaubert runs to over a million words, and relative to his biographer, Flaubert was a hermit who wrote one word a day. Yes I exaggerate, however I exaggerate in order to set up a compliment. It is a compliment that originated as a complaint. Please read on.
Pablo Picasso twice pops his famous bald head into Existentialism and Excess. In his first cameo, he is drinking ersatz coffee in the same café as Sartre and de Beauvoir during the Occupation. A few pages later, the Spanish painter is mentioned as having written a play that was directed by Albert Camus and had Sartre as one of its actors. Wait. What? After more pages passed, Paris was liberated and we were on to other things, I may have actually said this out loud: “Ere ‘ang on a minnit! We’re jus’ blowin’ past Pablo-bloody-Picasso like ‘e’s jus’ some bloke like?” That play alone surely must be a topic that deserves a chapter if not even a play about the play. But.
At the risk of sounding like a philosopher myself (and oh that would be most shaky ground), within even our own lives, how do we measure which moments were the truly significant? The big stuff – births, marriages, divorces and deaths – are easy enough to identify, but what of the moments that set up, that directly caused or largely influence those big moments? Which of them are the jockeys that rode the horses that crossed the lines that won the race? That is one-third of the art a biographer must master. Gary Cox determined that the Camus/Picasso/Sartre collaboration was an anecdote, no more, no less.
The other third of the art is the tone of the writing. I suggest and I hope that the quotations I have drawn from Existentialism and Excess lead you to conclude that Gary Cox is delightfully literate, almost conversational in how he reveals the life of Jean-Paul Sartre. Cox amuses, informs and draws on his skills as a tenured Professor of Philosophy to make Existentialism and Phenomenology understandable for any reasonably bright reader. God bless him for that and I wish to hell I’d been in his class when I was trying to wrap my lumpy melon-head around Kant and Hegel all those years ago.
And then there’s that third part of the art of the biography: Just what are you trying to say? Sartre himself was quite firm on this: Literature must not be merely an exhibition of pretty phrases. Rather, it must be all about the philosophical or political truth that causes the piece to be written. In that sense – and this is truly admirable – Cox stands firm against firm conclusions. In the concluding chapter, he states:
In so far as a biography is a summary of a life, a conclusion to a biography is in danger of being a summary of a summary, an exercise whereby the biographer directs the reader, like a judge directing a jury at the end of a trial, towards what he or she ought to think about the biography’s subject overall, when all is said and done. I am reluctant to do that, to pretend to do that, because having studied Sartre’s life and philosophy for many years I am still unsure what to make of him overall.
And indeed he is correct for it is all a matter of perspective. Those who Sartre slated over years of political argument may well view him as a bully; Marxists would see him as a savior, except of course those members of the French Communist Party that Sartre damned as conservatives. In an almost quantum sense, our view of the subject is determined as much by how the subject views the observer as how the observer views the subject.
Oddly enough, one conclusion Cox does make is one that I heartily disagree with. With regards to Sartre’s last decade, when his body and mind gave out from decades of abuse, Cox states:
As a writer, he had run many marathons at a sprint, but had he taken better care of his health, he probably could have run more marathons than he actually ran. He certainly lived on for seven long years unable to write anything of significance. It seems crass to charge Sartre, of all writers, with not writing enough, but as a writer who was always most interested in what he was going to do, he certainly leveled this charge against himself.
Is health something to be carefully preserved, or is it a finite supply which should be completely used by the time of death, even if the arrival of the last breath is caught up in traffic and slightly delayed? Gary Cox believes in the former, and I the latter. But dare I say, I have Jean-Paul Sartre in my corner. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications. This is the third in a political series he has been writing for January Magazine. The first can be seen here. The second is here.