A portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre by Artur Lopes
You've completed a weeks-long project and you're justifiably proud of it. It took some creative thinking and long nights, but the result is exemplary. What you have created surpasses its requirements. And your boss has just told you that a shift in departmental direction makes your beloved project obsolete before launch. It's appreciated, though. Take the rest of the day off.
Or it may spontaneously occur to you that there's no evolutionary justification for a duck's quack, and that toxic idea is making you question the scientific process. Either way, you eventually find yourself standing in the driveway wondering what it all means, and you may expand on that mental inquiry, asking no one in particular, why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there a reason for all of all this?
That odd discontent that accompanies the need to fulfill a decipherable purpose, and the recognition of the unknowability of life, is an existential crisis. They can be alarming in severity, but most often they are passing acknowledgements of our confusion in a universe scaled beyond comprehension.
At least we know what to call these occasional interludes, which is somewhat comforting, and for that we can most thank a man whose contributions to philosophy and literature brought him worldwide admiration: Jean-Paul Sartre.
Through his writing, teaching and lectures, he made existentialism part of popular culture. "Existence precedes essence," he wrote in his book, Existentialism and Humanism (1946). Sartre's argument reversed traditional philosophical thinking whose default position most often inferred that essence, the nature of an individual or thing, is more fundamental and unalterable than that thing's existence. Sartre posed that humans, through consciousness, determine our own meaning, from which our existence may be defined. We humans are "condemned to be free."
"Man simply is," said Sartre in "Existentialism is a Humanism." "Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but that he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing — as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself. That is the first principle of existentialism."
It's a branch of philosophy that he did much to forward in his many critical and philosophical essays, lectures, novels, plays, books, and short stories. No Exit is perhaps his most famous play, and it contains one of his most often-quoted lines: "L'enfer, c'est les autres," generally translated as, "Hell is other people."
In Being and Nothingness, (1943) Sartre places human consciousness, or no-thingness (néant), in opposition to being, or thingness (être); it is "not-matter" and therefore is not subject to determinism, which attributes behavior to causal origins. It's actually quite a hopeful message, despite the book's theme that human endeavors are inconsequential.
A prolific writer and acclaimed thinker, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 even though he had posted a letter declining nomination. He explained himself in a subsequent letter to the Nobel committee:
Sartre's Early Life
Sartre was born in France in 1905 and received his education from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he earned a reputation as a prankster; the University of Fribourg, Switzerland; and the French Institute in Berlin. While teaching, he published his first novel, Nausea (1938). Written in the form of a diary, it relates the revulsion of the narrator upon discovering the world of matter and the physicality of his own body. Appreciated for its originality and anti-social themes, the book contains many philosophical ideas that Sartre would later develop more fully.
He taught philosophy in France until being drafted as a meteorologist in the French Army with the beginning of the Second World War in 1939.
In 1940, he was captured by German troops and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. There are two stories about his release. One says that his vision was poor to the point of affecting his balance, and because of that medical issue he was released by the Germans in 1941. A second story says that he escaped during an appointment to see an ophthalmologist.
Back in Paris, which was occupied by the Germans, Sartre and several other writers formed an underground organization called Socialism and Liberty. He had a particular dislike for collaborators and suggested at a meeting that a known collaborator be executed, but the proposal was met with little approval. The group soon disbanded and Sartre decided to pursue passive resistance through his writing.
During the occupation of Paris, the Germans plundered everything of value and shortages of food were common. Worse for Sartre, though, was the difficulty in obtaining pipe tobacco. He often searched the streets and gutters for cast-off cigarettes, removing their tobacco and smoking it in his pipe.
Sartre was known for his open relationship with existential philosopher, writer, and feminist Simon de Beauvoir, whom he met in 1929. They were nearly inseparable lifelong companions, and though they were romantically involved, their relationship was not monogamous. Their philosophical views didn't see the point in artificial constructs such as monogamy and they defined their own relationship, continuously challenging social and cultural norms. It was a scandalous relationship to most, and simply rational to those who better understood their thinking.
During the occupation, food shortages were common and Sartre was able to fortify his rations with rabbits sent to him by a friend of de Beauvoir. They weren't live rabbits and were often in a state of decomposition; he once regretfully threw one away because its maggot content outweighed its meat. Tobacco was harder to come by, however. He did manage through influential friends at one point to have 100 grams of pipe tobacco sent to him via diplomatic pouch. It was a very rare treat.
Sartre's Pipe Smoking
We know little about Sartre's pipes. It was a time when they were thought of as relatively disposable, nearly invisible accessories, so little note was taken. Most of the photos of Sartre show him with a pipe, however.
In fact, Sartre may have been an instrumental element in the cultural impression of pipe smokers as intellectual professor types. Cigarettes were gaining enormous popularity in the 1920s and '30s; they were easy and convenient, while pipes were bulky and old fashioned. But intellectuals such as Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Bertrand Russell, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Jean-Paul Sartre all smoked pipes and were all college professors admired world-wide. This was the generation of thinkers who impressed the public with their intellectual accomplishments as well as their pipes, and it was perhaps inevitable that the two would overlap in the public consciousness.
Sartre's personal philosophy eschewed possessions; he did not acquire things (his wardrobe was atrocious), and chose not to own objects, though he made an exception of his pipes. He admitted that he owned his pens as well, and both pipes and pens are repetitively mentioned in his writings, but he often used pipes as examples of being:
This relationship of objects defined by their relationship with other objects or beings continues with a discussion of the limitations of creation:
He further explores his pipe as taking on real meaning only in its relationship to himself, something we pipe smokers easily recognize:
A pipe is defined by its use, not by its inherent being. It isn't really the object we recognize until it is fulfilling its purpose and enters into a working relationship with the smoker. As we pipe smokers recognize, a well-loved and well-smoked pipe is defined by its relationship with the smoker, not by its state of pipe-ness.
Our relationships with our pipes are cherished and unexplainable to those who do not also experience the remarkable interconnectedness that is achieved with a smoking instrument as it combusts tobacco. One wonders how much Sartre's pipe smoking influenced his philosophical thought. As pipe smokers ourselves, we recognize the ideas that evolved into Sartre's philosophical musings, and certainly understand the importance of these objects.
Sartre smoked quite a bit, when he could get tobacco. While he did not claim to possess much in the way of objects, he was a consumer of impressive quantities. According to Annie Cohen-Solal's biography, Sartre: A Life (1987), any 24-hour period in Sartre's daily life included "two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol — wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on — two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals." It seemed that Sartre's elevated intellect required abundant and diverse fuel, though that lifestyle would occasionally cause him to step back and slow down or quit, as he details in Being and Nothingness:
Despite his efforts to philosophically accept not smoking, he always returned, and his pipe remained integral to his character to the end of his life.
In the same year he refused the Nobel Prize, 1964, Sartre published The Words, a book repudiating literature. It is a satiric counterpoint to Marcel Proust's popular Remembrance of Things Past. In it, Sartre observes that literature is merely a substitute for legitimate commitment in the world. Leave it to Sartre to undermine that which he was best known for.
For the rest of his life he would maintain a simple existence with few possessions, being more interested in the world of ideas than in anything else and actively committed to political and social issues. In the Paris worker strikes of 1968, Sartre was arrested for civil disobedience. French President Charles de Gaulle intervened with a pardon, saying, "You don't arrest Voltaire."
He continued his use of amphetamines to pursue work on a massive, unfinished, three-volume analytical biography of Gustave Flaubert. Almost completely blind by 1973, his hypertension exacted a heavy toll, and he passed away in 1980 due to edema of the lungs. He was buried in a temporary grave until four days later when he was disinterred for cremation and his ashes were buried at Montparnasse Cemetery, where six years later the remains of his companion Simone de Beauvoir joined him.
Sartre believed that humans are "condemned to be free." There is no Creator, he espoused, and therefore one's purpose is self-determined. Humans are fully responsible for their own behavior and actions; they are not the result of a divine plan or purpose. For Sartre, freedom is the overriding framework upon which is placed the lives and actions of all humanity. He lived his own life according to his philosophy, and while we may or may not agree with his conclusions, we can certainly admire the importance and influence of the ideas so eloquently presented by Jean-Paul Sartre.