NPJ Book Review: Situations by Jean-Paul Sartre

Situations by Jean-Paul Sartre (1965) English Translation by Benita Eisler.

My take:  We live in a divided, existential world. The 21st century has witnessed an increase in the narrowness of the existential edge upon which we dangle.

Though I prefer the thoughts of Camus, existentially speaking, Sartre will do quite well. The book has been siting on my shelve for a few decades and I decided to reread.

This autobiography is divided in ten sections beginning with -The Prisoner of Venice and ending with – Of Rats and Men.  But it’s the third and fourth parts devoted to his friend Albert Camus that caught my attention.

In writing to Camus, Sartre senses the divide between his friend Camus and himself…and in fact he sees the absurdity of “our narrow little lives” and disagreements. And in reflection the world of friendships is filled with quarrels and disagreements save the fact we are all human and trying to figure out how to live life and approach our fate…and unfortunately death is not something we may be able to control. In this instance he considers the death of Camus as shameful – outside his control or wish.

Our situations in life affect our actions, thoughts and moods. We may think we are on the same page with our friends and others in which we associate, but indeed we may be on another page and unfortunately in Sartre’s mind, individuality was reserved only for Great Men and those who had the wealth to afford it. (Camus I think would disagree on that point among others).

Can an ordinary person be accepted by friends and professional acquaintances if he or she reveals their inner most social, political and philsophical thoughts? He writes to Camus and says “to you all negation comes within it a flowering of yes.”  (The theologian, Paul Tillich once noted that in our denial and negation, we affirm). Yet Sartre admired Camus in that he was  – a rare man who would choose slowly but remain faithful with that choice.

Sartre indicts Camus in several levels, but he does so from respect. He’s repulsed and drawn otherwise he would not devote so many words to his friend. He himself finds that he is at a juncture in life where he writes as a form of salvation.

On the other hand, Sartre greatly admires another friend, Paul Nizan, who at one point suffers deeply not from pride but humility. Sartre was provocative in his analysis and appreciates the finite and brutal nature of the human condition. Of Rats and men is an excellent example.

Sartre tires of narcissists as empty souls and the vanity of the bourgeois. “We know today that there is nothing to understand, that everything came about imperceptibly by means of unnoticeable yieldings. And then, when we raised our heads, we saw in the glass a strange, a horrible face: our own.”

To live in the 1960’s one could easily embrace the idea of ambiguity and the existential. Today the existential has taken on an increasingly darker meaning within the context of the world in which we precariously live.  

This remains a thought provoking work by a leading 20th century French existential philosopher.