Christopher Bray

Jean-Paul Sartre was perhaps the 20th century’s most famous thinker – if you can get beyond the verbiage

The thrill of violence was key to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, says his latest biographer

Thomas R. Flynn has written an avowedly ‘intellectual biography’ of Jean-Paul Sartre, which might seem fitting. Sartre was nothing if not an intellectual — so much so that one struggles to think of him as anything but an intellectual. Albert Camus, Sartre’s great rival for the title of the 20th century’s most famous thinker, was a strong swimmer and a stronger soccer player. A little adolescent boxing aside, Sartre did little but sit at zinc tables necking coffee and Corydrane (the amphetamine-based painkiller he was addicted to). When, in his magnum opus Being and Nothingness, he called a waiter out for inauthenticity — for refusing his existential duty to define himself in the face of history rather than be moulded by it — he knew something of what he spoke. Sartre spent an awful lot of his life being waited on.

And all the while he was filling notebook after notebook with words (not insignificantly, the title of his first memoir). Like a jobbing hack, he prided himself on the volume of his output. To the disinterested observer, though, it is clear that his productivity had a price. Forever busy with the next deadline, he had no time to reread any of his work, much less polish it for publication. Aesthetic satisfactions aside, this didn’t matter so much with his plays and novels and journalism. But when it came to the philosophy on which Professor Flynn believes Sartre’s reputation rests, it mattered a lot. Nobody said philosophy was meant to be easy, but there is no necessary connection between density of expression and depth of thought.

Early on, Sartre’s prose was merely windy. Here he is in The Imaginary, telling us about something

that aims in its corporality at an absent or nonexistent object, through a physical or psychic content that is given not as itself but in the capacity of an ‘analogical representative’ of the object aimed at.

(Just so you know, he’s defining the ‘image’.)

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