Jean Paul Sartre and the intellectual elites in the Paris of the 20th Century

by Alberto M. Piedra  |  January 12, 2018  |  ARTICLES

No one should go to Paris without visiting the Quartier Latin in La Rive Gauge, especially the famous café Les Deux Magots and the café de Flore in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the city. They both have the reputation as the rendezvous of the literary, intellectual and Surrealist elites of the French capital, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. Well known writers as Ernst Hemingway, Albert Camus, and James Joyce were also frequent clients of the popular cafés.

My late wife Edita and I, in our frequent visits to La Ville Lumière, used to go to mass at the Chapelle de la Medaille Miraculeuse in the Rue du Bac and afterwards enjoy a croissant with a delicious café au lait at Les Deux Magots.  The famous café has changed very little since the time it was patronized by Jean Paul Sartre.1  Across the Square, we visited the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church dating back to 542 where René Descartes is buried.2  A short walk took us to the Café de la Mairie at the Place Saint Sulpice where Sartre and Camus met for the last time in 1951, having worked together for years in the radical left wing newspaper Combat. They never met again. We also visited the Church of St. Sulpice where, during the French Revolution, it became a place of worship to the Supreme Being. Of special interest were the grandiose paintings of Delacroix and the sculpture of Mary designed by Jean Baptiste Pigalle.3 Finally, Edita and I ended the morning with a hearty lunch and a café crème at the Café de la Mairie. 

Let us now deviate from the frivolity and attractions of this relativistic contemporary society and concentrate on the famous words of Jean Paul Sartre usque ad nauseam which can be translated as the solitude of man abandoned to the noisy hustle and bustle of an earth that no longer wants him and, thus, has to rely exclusively on his own resources. He is absurdly free under an empty heaven.4

Shortly after the crazy post-World War II years, Sartre's fame and glory began to spread not only in France and Europe, but all over the world. Perhaps his book Les Main Sales is the most realistic and least profane of all his works.  In it, he writes that man always has a tendency not to take himself seriously, and his acts are pure and honest. These pure acts are often connected with the idea of eternity. They fall under the realm of religion, but only in rare occasions, and, even in such cases, it is rare that they go together with good intentions.

Existentialism can be defined as a 20th century philosophy that is centered upon the analysis of existence and how man finds himself living in the solitude of this world. In other words, existentialism is a philosophy concerned with men finding out the meaning of their lonely and nonsensical life through their free will, choices and personal responsibility. Man is always searching to find out the meaning of his existence based on his own experience and beliefs. There is no need for an objective moral truth. The movement flourished in the Europe of the 1940s and 1950s. The 19th century's philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are considered the precursors of the movement which was as much a literary phenomenon as a philosophical one.

According to Sartre, existentialism is a humanism; a human characterized by an existence that precedes his essence. His work was geared towards the development of a full existentialism, which he believed was the only way to be human.  Many of his works, including Huis-clos, are full of obscene language.  In the last pages of his book L' Être et le Néant, the prophet of existentialism affirms that man is "a useless person" lost in the midst of an indifferent world. His magazine Temps Modernes became very popular among his enthusiastic admirers. Simone de Beauvoir considered herself the great follower of Sartre, the great sympathizer of the German philosopher Heidegger, especially of his book Sein und Zeit.  Many theologians and writers of that time paid little attention to the vulgarity of Sartre's literary work, with the exception of François Mauriac and Paul Claudel in France.

Modern man feels also, as the shipwrecked man in the uninhabited island of Jules Verne's famous novel L'Île mystérieuse, the loneliness of a person lacking the solidarity of his fellow men. He looks for solace in the solitary interior of his own being.5  But, as if by magic, he becomes aware of footsteps on the sand, as if the island were inhabited by a mysterious presence.  Maybe this unknown creature, whose footsteps are written on the sand, is responsible for his anguished and embittered life. If so, man does not have to blame himself for his discontented and useless life. It does not pass through his mind that the footprints may be those of a merciful God who is always ready to come to his assistance, especially in times of need.6

Paul Claudel, a French poet and dramatist, believes that many crude and/or indifferent individuals will also ignore the steps that periodically appear in the sands of life. Under the spell of custom, these individuals do not bother to find out the origin of their lack of happiness and loneliness.7 They try to overcome their solitude with uncontrolled sex, drugs, and/or alcohol. They often become addicted to fictional genetic drugs such as the one called suma which is supposed to keep society peaceful and happy. This drug was mentioned in Aldous Huxley's novels Brave New World and Island. The lonely man gives no thought to the possibility of a merciful God who loves and wants to help mankind and who Sartre in his writings wants to ignore. To satisfy their frustration, they turn to an unknown creature which they consider responsible for their anguished life. Thus, modern man does not have to find the reason for his existence nor for his discontented and embittered life. According to him, it can only be traced to this mysterious and unknown being whose steps, as in the case of Verne's novel, appear in the vicissitudes of life.

In summary, it can be said that Sartre identifies existentialism with atheism, an assumption which is not totally correct. Unfortunately, this confusion has spread among the general public, because they are unaware that there does exist a spiritual existentialism. Since the early days of the 20th century, literary figures began to appear who deviated from the basic approach to life as described by Sartre. Because of the brevity of this article, I will avoid mentioning the names of André Gide and Andres Malreax and limit myself to that of Albert Camus.

Albert Camus has often been considered an existentialist and a close friend of Sartre. This is not totally correct. After their meeting at the Café La Mairie, they parted ways, following different approaches in their understanding of the philosophical foundations of existentialism. The author of L'Étranger may be included among those men who are searching for God. They rejoice at finding vestigia Dei and, as the shipwrecked men on the mysterious island, they do not cease to work ardently in their efforts to make of the island a perfect human colony.

Camus was an ardent lover of nature.  He loved Algiers intensely, in particular the white sands of its beaches and the blue waters of the Mediterranean. This sensibility of his to natural beauty may help him in his search for a Supreme Being. The prolific writer was caught in the middle of his passionate belief in justice for all and his support for the Arab aspiration for political rights. Above all, he felt outraged at the blood being shed in his native Algeria during the revolt of 1955.8

In this confused world of the 21st century, man is once again at the crossroads of history: to accept the reality of the steps in the sand as coming from a merciful God or to continue using drugs and other vulgar entertainments as palliatives to the sadness of his solitude. Let me conclude this short essay with a quote from Thomas Merton, the American writer and theologian, who provides contemporary man with an answer to Sartre's famous words "usque ad nauseam."  Merton reminds us that man no longer has to fear being lost, with only solitude as his companion, as Sartre describes in his novel La Nausée.

"We must all believe in love and peace. We must believe in the power of love.  We must recognize that our being itself is grounded in love; that is to say, that we come into being because we are loved and we are meant to love others. The failure to believe this and to live accordingly creates instead a deep mistrust, a suspicion of others, a hatred of others, a failure to love. When a man attempts to live by and for himself alone, he becomes a little ‘island' of hate, greed, suspicion, fear...The whole outlook on life is falsified. All his judgments are affected by that untruth. In order to recover the true perspective which is that of love and compassion, he must once again learn in simplicity, truth, and peace, that ‘No man is an island.'"

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island9

1. The Café de Flore on the Boulevard St, Germain was opened in the 1880's.  In the late 19th century the nationalist philosopher Charles Maurras wrote his book Au Signe de Flore.  Like the Café's  main rival Les Deux Magots, it hosted many of the intellectual elites of the post World War II era.

2. One of my favorite quotes of Descartes is: "Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that offense cannot reach it".

3. Ingres, David and Delacroix did their works of art under the patronage o f Napoleon I.   

4. See;  jean Paul Sartre, La Nausee,  Penguin Books, London (UK); New Edition (November 30, 2000.)

5. L'Île mystérieuse is a sequence of Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

6. See the English edition of Jules Verne's L'Île mystérieuse where the survivors of a fallen balloon face a mystery in the form of an unseen deus ex maquina responsible for inexplicable occurrences.  See: Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island, New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1876.

7. See prologue of Paul Claudel in J. Rivière's book À la trace de Dieu.

8. See: Alistaire Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962.  New York: The New York Review of Books  (classics), 2006. 

9. Thomas Merton. No Man is an Island, New York, Barnes and Noble, Paperback, 2002.