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The ‘Singular Universal': Jean-Paul Sartre's ‘Existential Biographies'

Lecturer: Robert Boncardo

Originally Taught: Summer School 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre is not only one of the most formidable philosophers of the 20th Century, he is also among its most important novelists, playwrights and political polemicists. He is less well-known, however, as a biographer, despite the fact that he spills more ink on his ‘existential biographies’ of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Genet and Flaubert than on any other part of his work.

As he writes in Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, “I have tried to do the following: To indicate the limit of psychoanalytical interpretation and Marxist explanation and to demonstrate that freedom alone can account for a person in his totality.” His ‘existential biographies’ are thus testament to his commitment, across four decades of intense intellectual life, to the creation of a philosophical anthropology that would accord a central place to the subject – or, as he prefers to call it, the singular universal. They are also a decisive battleground for his encounter, as originally an Existentialist, with two of the dominant doctrines of 20th Century French intellectual life – Marxism and Psychoanalysis. Accordingly, his ‘existential biographies’ attempt to account for the weight of the individual’s objective determinations, whilst also bearing witness to their decisive margin of freedom. However, as his thought moves from Existentialism to Marxism, this margin of freedom gradually dwindles.

This course proposes to give an introduction to Sartre’s ‘existential biographies’. We will have as our focus Sartre’s methodology. While we will use as exemplars his four ‘existential biographies’ (on Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Genet and Flaubert), our main aim will be to abstract from their particular content a relatively coherent and compelling philosophical anthropology. Thus, we will follow him from his first phenomenological writings to his more Marxist works and finally to his monumental and monstrous three-volume, three-thousand-page study of Flaubert. The course will thus also be a broad introduction to Sartre’s thought in its entirety.

Throughout the course, we will seek to strike a balance between, on the one hand, an appreciation for the force and coherence of Sartre’s project in his ‘existential biographies’ – namely, to preserve and explain human freedom – and, on the other hand, a critical vigilance concerning its flaws. Does his commitment to showing how Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Genet or Flaubert achieve a margin of freedom from the constraints of their epoch turn into a constraint of Sartre’s own?

Course Schedule
  • Lecture One, 'The Early Works, part 1: The Transcendence of the Ego, The Imagination,The Imaginary, Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, Nausea': This first lecture will address Sartre’s first conception of the subject and his aesthetics, his two concerns that are most important to his ‘existential biographies’. We will aim to appreciate his key concepts of the pre-reflexive and reflexive consciousness; his conception of the ego; his theory of the imaginary and its concepts such as the irrealizing function of consciousness, ‘sens’ (meaning) and signification, and his ontology of the artwork. We will look at his first criticisms of Psychoanalysis and some early, cryptic references to Marxism.
  • Lecture Two, ‘The Early Works, part 2: Being and Nothingness, Baudelaire’: In this second lecture, we will dive into Being and Nothingness and deepen our understanding of the Sartrean subject. Our aim will be to understand the strange beast Sartre calls ‘existential psychoanalysis’. We will also explore his first notorious and brilliantly polemical ‘existential biography’ of Baudelaire.
  • Lecture Three, 'The Transitional Works: Mallarmé, or the Poet of Nothingness, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, Questions of Method’: On the third day, we will turn to Sartre’s early encounter with Marxism and his attempts to integrate it into his Existentialism in Questions of Method. We will also look at his little-read biography of Mallarmé and his thrillingly bizarre biography of Jean Genet, which both also takes steps towards this integration.
  • Lecture Four, 'The Late Works, part 1: Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vols. 1 and 2, The Family Idiot, Vols. 1, 2 and 3': In the first of our last two lectures, we will look at Sartre’s mature integration of Existentialism and Marxism in the Critique alongside his monumental study of Flaubert. The latter draws on the theoretical apparatus of the Critique, but also represents Sartre’s most mature engagement with Psychoanalysis. In another point of interest, it is also the sequel to his early work The Imaginary, where the insights of the early work are blown up to socio-historical proportions.
  • Lecture Five, 'The Late Works, part 2: Critique of Dialectical Reason, Vols. 1 and 2, The Family Idiot, Vols. 1, 2 and 3': This final day will continue with the our work from day four. We will also attempt to come to a conclusion about Sartre’s achievements in his ‘existential biographies’, particularly in relation to his better-known body of work.

Despite the fact the course will follow Sartre from the beginning to the end of his career, it will certainly not be expected of students to do the same in their reading. Of course, I would not discourage anyone from diving into any book by Sartre. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to have at least read his Questions of Method. It seems to me to be the work that best encapsulates the content of the course. The following (very limited) list is of secondary sources that are of significant value:

  • Existential Marxism in postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser by Mark Poster
  • Sartre and Flaubert by Hazel Barnes
  • Sartre, Foucault and Historical Reason: Towards an Existentialist Theory of History by Thomas Flynn
  • Reading Sartre by Joseph Catalano