Unlike many writers who oozed existential philosophy from every drop of ink that bled on their manuscripts, Jean-Paul Sartre does not shy from submitting a definition of existentialism: "By existentialism we mean a doctrine which makes human life possible and in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity."
To understand Sartre’s thesis, we must begin with this definition, for nine related principles follow in short order:
1. Existence, or subjectivity, precedes essence.
2. We are what we conceive ourselves to be and what we will ourselves to be.
3. We are aware of who we are and fully responsible for our existence.
4. We are anguish; if we claim that we are not anxious, then we are merely hiding our anxiety.
5. Everything we experience happens as if all humanity were fixing its eyes on us and guiding itself by what we do.
6. We are condemned to be free: condemned because we did not create ourselves, yet free because once thrown into the world, we are responsible for everything we do.
7. We exist only to the extent that we fulfill ourselves.
8. We are not ends unto ourselves because we are always in the making.
9. Universal solutions are impossible since what we do may not be what someone else would do in the same situation. In fact, because we are who we are, there can be no same situation to another person.
Thus, Sartre, in speaking with remarkable lucidity about the action that existentialism demands of us, successfully defends his system against those who charge it with inviting people to drift into inertia or amorality. More importantly, he lays a foundation — creates a virtual manual — for someone inclined toward existential thought and action and wants to build a structure by which he can be in anguish, in existence. Sartre’s precepts numbered above are even more thought-provoking when discussed in the contexts of particular situations and the external world. He moves to a specific application of existentialism in Literature & Existentialism, his collection of three essays on writing. These are not the stuff of Writers at Work, The Paris Review‘s legendary interviews of literary titans, who offered anecdotes and observations about the writer’s craft. Rather, it is a treatise on connections between writing and being. (If you’re looking for something more practical, subscribe to Writer’s Digest.)
The first essay, titled "What Is writing?", urges writers "voluntarily to limit their writing to the involuntary expression of their souls," that is, to engage themselves completely in their work by placing their will and choice before their weaknesses and misfortunes, for the very reason that these quandaries are the writers.
In the second, "Why Write?", Sartre maintains "the writer meets everywhere only his knowledge, his will, his plans, in short, himself." Yet, despite the vast differences between the processes in which the writer and reader are engaged, the struggle is always to communicate: "The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy…literature throws you into battle. writing is a certain way of wanting freedom; once you have begun, you are engaged, willy-nilly."
In the final essay, "For Whom Does One Write?", Sartre meditates on the divergence between the real public and the ideal public that writers address. "I say that a literature is abstract when it has not yet acquired the full view of its essence, when it considers the subject of the work as indifferent." He posits that the writer’s subject and his public are irreconcilable, that we have no means of realizing the two as one. Only in a classless society, he notes, "could the writer be aware that there is no difference of any kind between his subject and his public. For the subject of literature has always been man in the world."
In fact, Sartre suggests that literature is man when he writes, "we have seen that this division (of things temporal and spiritual) necessarily corresponds to an alienation of man and, therefore, literature." Here, he returns to his basic premises of existentialism: that we are no more and no less than our plan, that we exist only to the extent that we fulfill ourselves. To exist in this world, (how nonexistential the word this becomes in this context!) this world as you may think I’m defining it, cannot really exist. The individual must first extract himself from the concrete world. In this way, he becomes aware that he exists, which is to be anguish.
Herein lies Sartre’s significant departure from his existential forebear Kierkegaard, who observed that God creates us and our awful plight in existence was being detached from God. As an atheist, Sartre obliterates God’s existence from the existential theory. As he noted in Existentialism and Human Emotions:
Nowhere is it written that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is that we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoyevsky said, "If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible." Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He cannot start making excuses for himself.
Whereas Kierkegaard’s vision could well take the title Being and God, Sartre polemic takes the name L’ être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). A century had passed between the times that these two men wrote arguably their most famous treatise (Kierkegaard wrote Fear and Trembling in 1843 and Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness in 1943.) During that century between, so much happened in the world to inform Sartre’s rejection of God. Indeed, in the truest sense of existentialism, enough happened to reject God as to reject existentialism. And Sartre’s rejection of God remains one of the most convincing rejections of existentialism itself. What would Sartre have to say about that? Likely nothing, because in the words of novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, "To oppose something is to maintain it."