Jean-Paul Sartre


A Sartre and de Beauvoir screener from the 1950s.

On this date in 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he refused.

Frye in notebook 12 offers a qualified estimation of Sartre as the last of the “great thinkers” (elsewhere he calls him “an intellectual juvenile delinquent”):

I had the usual childish fantasies, when very young, of wanting to be a “great man” — fantasies that in our day only Churchill had realized.  But Churchill’s greatness was archaic: his funeral really buried that whole conception of greatness as a goal of ambition.  Then I had fantasies of wanting to be a great composer & a great novelist–both obsolete conceptions today.  The novel is breaking up into other forms & is no longer central as it was in the 19th c: the great composers ended with Bartok, and Boulez & Varese & Cage are not “great composers,” they’re something else.  When I settled into my real line I naturally wanted to be “great” there too: but maybe greatness is obsolete.  In the 19th century one wants to read Hegel & Marx & Kierkegaard & Nietzsche; are there really any 20th c. equivalents of that kind of “great thinker”?  Maybe Sartre.  But something about greatness ended around 1940.  We’re doing different things now.  Marshall McLuhan is a typical example: a reputation as a great thinker that doesn’t think at all.  (CW 9, 146)

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One thought on “Jean-Paul Sartre

  1. MacKenzie

    In what I’ve read (_What is Literature?_), Sartre seems to offer a great over-arching theory of literature that is admirable in its ambition but does not account for multiplicities of experience or alternate histories of literature outside of the canon.

    Perhaps the end of what Frye calls “greatness” is more like an end to exclusive, authoritative histories and the beginning of a wider interest in other voices and experiences that fall outside of the canon? In the latter world, “greatness” is less of a site of knowledge and more of a site of… oppressive authority (because of class or race or gender or whatever)? Just a thought.


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