Jean-Paul Sartre by Russ Cook
'Yeah cherie, I know what ya mean. All that I know about my life, it seems, I have learned in books.'

Quelle volte che penso agli anni del liceo, ho come la sensazione di essermi persa qualcosa; non solo scuola (che marinavo d’abitudine, 3 volte a settimana- almeno), ma forse quel sentimento di partecipazione collettiva, le gite fuori-porta, i bigliettini sotto-banco, i pomeriggi a studiare con le amichette, il tormento delle interrogazioni. Cose così.
Il fatto è che io trovavo noioso andare a scuola, e di gran lunga più divertente trascorrere, da sola, una mattinata al parco, a piedi nudi sull’erba. O al mare, sugli scogli, a leggere dei dolori del giovane Werther, delle bravate di Holden, dei tormenti di madame Bovary, del lupo nella steppa, dei padri e dei figli della rivoluzione russa.
M’è sempre parso una perdita di tempo, andare a scuola.
E poi avevo la pessima abitudine di litigare coi professori. E di starmene in disparte dalla classe. Meglio ancora se fuori, a fumare nei giardinetti del cortiletto vicino la palestra.
Che poi in fondo, ai professori, devo aver fatto pure un favore. Io marinavo scuola, loro non dovevano preoccuparsi di redimermi, o punirmi. Il direttore di sospendermi. E tutti eravamo felici.
C’è un libro, che conservo nella memoria come il ricordo di quegli anni, a cui sono molto affezionata e che se mai mi fosse stato suggerito dalla mia insegnante di italiano (probabilmente) sarebbe valso a farmi amare almeno l’ora di letteratura; l’ho trovato l’altro giorno in libreria e rileggerlo, sebbene in inglese, ha lo stesso potere, come allora anche oggi, di affascinarmi, emozionarmi.
Sapete ci sono scrittori che amano scopare con le parole. Te ne accorgi dalla passione esagerata, quell’orgia sentimentale d’inchiostro nero schizzato sulla carta di getto, al climax del piacere intellettuale.
What is literature è un libro sensuale. E, a mio parere, un capolavoro della critica e della prosa letteraria.La ragione per cui amo leggere Sartre consiste appunto nello stile, elegante, netto, attento, acuto, della scrittura.
In What is Literature, Sartre s’interroga circa il ruolo dello scrittore, impegnato, e della letteratura.
Questo un meraviglioso articolo, estratto dal Corriere della Sera
SARTRE Quel che resta dell’ intellettuale impegnato
Questa, una meravigliosa critica del libro, di Morgan Palmas
1libro1giorno: “Che cos’è la letteratura?” di Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sotto, l’introduzione e una parte del libro, tratta dal capitolo primo
A fine testo, il link tramite cui accedere alla lettura dell’intero volume, e ancora una critica, in inglese, taken from Philosophy Now | a magazine of ideas.

“If you want to engage yourself,” writes a young imbecile, “what are you waiting for? Join the Communist Party.” A great writer who engaged himself often and disengaged himself still more often, but who has forgotten, said to me, “The worst artists are the most engaged. Look at the Soviet painters” An old critic gently complained,”You want to murder literature. Contempt for belles-lettres is spread out insolently all through your review.” A petty mind calls me pigheaded, which for him is evidently the highest insult. An author who barely crawled from one war to the other and whose name sometimes awakens languishing memories in old men accuses me of not being concerned with immortality; he knows, thank God, any number of people whose chief hope it is. In the eyes of an American hack-journalist the trouble with me is that I have not read Bergson or Freud; as for Flaubert, who did not engage himself, it seems that he haunts me like
remorse. Smart-alecks wink at me, “And poetry? And painting? And music? You want to engage them, too?”
And some martial spirits demand, “What’s it all about? Engaged literature? Well, it’s the old socialist realism, unless it’s a revival of populism, only more aggressive.” What nonsense. They read quickly,badly, and pass judgment before they have understood. So let’s begin all over. This doesn’t amuse anyone, neither you nor me. But we have to hit the nail on the head. And since critics condemn me in the name of literature without ever saying what they mean by that, the best answer to give them is to examine the art of writing without prejudice. What is writing? Why does one write? For whom? The fact is, it seems that nobody has ever asked himself these questions.
No, we do not want to “engage” painting, sculpture, and music too, or at least not in the same way. And why would we want to? When a writer of past centuries expressed an opinion about his craft, was his immediately asked to apply it to the other arts? But today it’s the thing to do to “talk painting” in the argot of the musician or the literary man and to “talk literature” in the argot of the painter, as if at bottom there were only one art which expressed itself indifferently in one or the other of these languages, like the Spinozistic substance which is adequately reflected by each of its attributes.
Doubtless, one could find at the origin of every artistic calling a certain undifferentiated choice which circumstances, education, and contact with the world particularized only later. Besides, there is no doubt that the arts of a period mutually influence each other and are conditioned by the same social factors. But those who want to expose the absurdity of a literary theory by showing that it is inapplicable to music must first prove that the arts are parallel.
Now, there is no such parallelism. Here, as everywhere, it is not only the form which differentiates, but the matter as well. And it is one thing to work with color and sound, and another to express oneself by means of words. Notes, colors, and forms are not signs. They refer to nothing exterior to themselves. To be sure, it is quite impossible to reduce them strictly to themselves, and the idea of a pure sound, for example, is an abstraction. As Merleau- Ponty has pointed out in The Phenomenology of Perception, there is no quality of sensation so bare that it is not penetrated with signification. But the dim little meaning which dwells within it, a light joy, a timid sadness, remains immanent or trembles about it like a heat mist; it is color or sound. Who can distinguish the green apple from its tart gaiety? And aren’t we already saying too much in naming “the tart gaiety of the green apple?” There is green, there is red, and that is all. They are things, they exist by themselves.
It is true that one might, by convention, confer the value of signs upon them. Thus, we talk of the language of flowers. But if, after the agreement, white roses signify “fidelity” to me, the fact is that I have stopped seeing them as roses. My attention cuts through them to aim beyond them at this abstract virtue. I forget them. I no longer pay attention to their mossy abundance, to their sweet stagnant odor. I have not even perceived them. That means that I have not behaved like an artist. For the artist, the color, the bouquet, the tinkling of the spoon on the saucer, are things, in the highest degree. He stops
at the quality of the sound or the form. He returns to it constantly and is enchanted with it. It is this color-object that he is going to transfer to his canvas, and the only modification he will make it undergo is that he will transform it into an imaginary object. He is therefore as far as he can be from considering colors and signs as a language.
What is valid for the elements of artistic creation is also valid for their combinations. The painter does not want to create a thing. And if he puts together red, yellow, and green, there is no reason for the ensemble to have a definable signification, that is, to refer particularly to another object. Doubtless this ensemble is also inhabited by a soul, and since there must have been motives, even hidden ones, for the painter to have chosen yellow rather than violet, it may be asserted that the objects thus created reflect his deepest tendencies. However, they never express his anger, his anguish, or his joy as do words or the expression of the face; they are impregnated with these emotions; and in order for them to have crept into these colors, which by themselves already had something like a meaning, his emotions get mixed up and grow obscure. Nobody can quite recognize them there.
Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provoke it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time. Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish become thing, an anguish which has turned into yellow rift of sky, and which thereby is submerged and impasted by the proper qualities of things, by their impermeability, their extension, their blindpermanence, their externality, and that infinity of relations which they maintain with other things.
That is, it is no longer readable. It is like an immense and vain effort, forever arrested half-way between sky and earth, to express what their nature keeps them from expressing.
Similarly, the signification of a melody if one can still speak of signification is nothing outside of the melody itself, unlike ideas, which can be adequately rendered in several ways. Call it joyous or somber.
It will always be over and above anything you can say about it. Not because its passions, which are perhaps at the origin of the invented theme, have, by being incorporated into notes, undergone a transubstantiation and a transmutation. A cry of grief is a sign of the grief which provokes it, but a song of grief is both grief itself and something other than grief. Or, if one wishes to adopt the existentialist vocabulary, it is a grief which does not exist any more, which is. But, you will say, suppose the painter does houses? That’s just it. He makes them, that is, he creates an imaginary house on the canvas and not a sign of a house. And the house which thus appears preserves all the ambiguity of real houses.
The writer can guide you and, if he describes a hovel, make it seem the symbol of social injustice and provoke your indignation. The painter is mute. He presents you with a hovel, that’s all. You are free to see in it what you like. That attic window will never be the symbol of misery; for that, it would have to be a sign, whereas it is a thing. The bad painter looks for the type. He paints the Arab, the Child, the Woman; the good one knows that neither the Arab nor the proletarian exists either in reality or on his canvas. He offers a workman, a certain workman. And what are we to think about a workman? An infinity of contradictory things. All thoughts and all feelings are there, adhering to the canvas in a state of
profound undifferentiation. It is up to you to choose. Sometimes, high-minded artists try to move us. They paint long lines of workmen waiting in the snow to be hired, the emaciated faces of the unemployed, battle fields. They affect us no more than does Greuze with his “Prodigal Son. 53 And that masterpiece, “The Massacre of Guernica, ‘does any one think that it won over a single heart to the Spanish cause?’ And yet something is said that can never quite be heard and that would take an infinity of words to express. And Picasso’s long harlequins, ambiguous and eternal, haunted with inexplicable meaning, inseparable from their stooping leanness and their pale diamond-shaped tights, are emotion become flesh, emotion which the flesh has absorbed as the blotter absorbs ink, and emotion which is unrecognizable, lost, strange to itself, scattered to the four corners of space and yet present to itself.
I have no doubt that charity or anger can produce other objects, but they will likewise be swallowed up; they will lose their name; there will remain only things haunted by a mysterious soul. One does not paint significations; one does not put them to music. Under these conditions, who would dare require that the painter or musician engage himself?
On the other hand, the writer deals with significations. Still, a distinction must be made. The empire of signs is prose; poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture, and music. I am accused of detesting it; the proof, so they say, is that Les Temps Modernes publishes very few poems.
On the contrary, this is proof that we like it. To be convinced, all one need do is take a look at contemporary production. “At least,critics say triumphantly, “you can’t even dream of engaging it.” Indeed. But why should I want to? Because it uses words as does prose? But it does not use them in the same way, and it does not even use them at all, I should rather say that it serves them. Poets are men who refuse to utilize language. Now, since the quest for truth takes place in and by language conceived as a certain kind of instrument, it is unnecessary to imagine that they aim to discern or expound the true. Nor do they dream of naming the world, and, this being the case, they name nothing at all, for naming implies a perpetual sacrifice of the name to the object named, or, as Hegel would say, the name is revealed as the inessential in the face of the thing which is essential. They do
not speak, neither do they keep still; it is something different. It has been said that they wanted to destroy the “word” by monstrous couplings, but this is false. For then they would have to be thrown into the midst of utilitarian language and would have had to try to retrieve words from it in odd little groups, as for example “horse” and “butter” by writing “horses of butter.”
Besides the fact that such an enterprise would require infinite time, it is not conceivable that one can keep one- self on the plane of the utilitarian project, consider words as instruments, and at the same contemplate taking their instrumentality away from them. In fact, the poet has withdrawn from language-instrument in a single movement. Once and for all he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs. For the ambiguity of the sign implies that one can penetrate it at will like a pane of glass and pursue the thing signified, or turn his gaze toward its reality and consider it as an object. The man who talks is beyond words and near the object, whereas the poet is on this side of them. For the former, they are domesticated; for the latter they are in the wild state. For the former, they are useful conventions, tools which gradually wear out and which one throws away when they are no longer serviceable; for the latter, they are natural things which sprout naturally upon the earth like grass and trees.
But if he dwells upon words, as does the painter with colors and the musician with sounds, that does not mean that they have lost all signification in his eyes. Indeed, it is signification alone which can give words their verbal unity. Without it they are frittered away into sounds and strokes of the pen. Only, it too becomes natural. It is no longer the goal which is always out of reach and which human transcendence is always aiming at, but a property of each term, analogous to the expression of a face, to the little sad or gay meaning of sounds and colors. Having flowed into the word, having been absorbed by its sonority
or visual aspect, having been thickened and defaced, it too is a thing, increate and eternal.
For the poet, language is a structure of the external world. The speaker is in a situation in language; he is invested with words. They are prolongations of his meanings, his pincers, his antennae, his eyeglasses. He maneuvers them from within; he feels them as if they were his body; he is surrounded by a verbal body which he is hardly aware of and which extends his action upon the world. The poet is outside of language. He sees words inside out as if he did not share the human condition, and as if he were first meeting the word as a barrier as he comes toward men. Instead of first knowing things by their name, it seems that first he has a silent contact with them, since, turning toward that other species of thing which for him is the word, touching them, testing them, palping them, he discovers in them a slight luminosity of their own and particular affinities with the earth, the sky, the water, and all created things.
Not knowing how to use them as a sign of an aspect of the world, he sees in the word the image of one of these aspects. And the verbal image he chooses for its resemblance to the willow tree or the ash tree is not necessarily the word which we use to designate these objects. As he is already on the outside, he considers words as a trap to catch a fleeing reality rather than as indicators which throw him out of himself into the midst of things. In short, all language is for him the mirror of the world. As a result, important changes take place in the internal economy of the word. Its sonority, its length, its masculine
or feminine endings, its visual aspect, compose for him a face of flesh which represents rather than expresses signification. Inversely, as the signification is realized, the physical aspect of the word is reflected within it, and it, in its turn, functions as an image of the verbal body. Like its sign, too, for it has lost its pre-eminence; since words, like things, are increate, the poet does not decide whether the former exist for the latter or vice-versa.
Taken from ‘What is Literature’, by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1949.
Translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman
via What Is Literature.
Sartre on Literature | Philosophy Now.