Peas in a Matchbox

Jonathan Rée

  • Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenology and Ontology by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Sarah Richmond
    Routledge, 848 pp, £45.00, June, ISBN 978 0 415 52911 2

At the turn of the 20th century, Gaston Gallimard was one of many suave young men about Paris with exquisite taste in literature, music and art. Then he became friends not only with Proust, but also with Gide, who in 1908 started the monthly Nouvelle Revue Française in the hope of helping a ‘rising generation’ to escape the suffocating plushness of ‘yesterday’s writers’. The distinctive dust jackets of the NRF – plain white with austere typography in black and red – proclaimed its radical elegance, and it soon had a team of contributors that included Alain-Fournier, Paul Claudel, Jean Giraudoux, Valery Larbaud, Jacques Rivière, Jean Schlumberger and Paul Valéry. Gide then proposed that they branch out into publishing ‘beautiful books’. Neither he nor his colleagues had the means to run a publishing house, but their friend Gallimard had time on his hands and plenty of money so they invited him to take charge.

It turned out to be a good choice: Gallimard was not only stylish and charming, but also industrious, methodical and decisive. He was generous to his authors – he is credited with inaugurating the tradition of the publisher’s lunch – but he also set up an editorial committee, drawn from the NRF, which struck fear even into those who served on it. He got off to a good start with books by Claudel, Gide, Roger Martin du Gard and Stéphane Mallarmé, bound in the same white jackets as the NRF. He blundered in 1913 by passing over the first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, but by 1918 he had persuaded Proust to entrust him with all his future work.

Being published by Gallimard was now the dream of every ambitious young writer in France – Jean-Paul Sartre among them. Sartre started studying psychology and philosophy at the Ecole Normale in Paris in 1924, at the age of 19. He had already been bowled over by Hume’s argument that the self is an illusion, and he was fascinated by Nietzsche, describing him rather enviously as ‘a poet who had the bad luck to be mistaken for a philosopher’. He also took an interest in Karl Jaspers, contributing to a translation of a recent treatise on Allgemeine Psychopathologie (his German was quite good) and taking to heart its main message: that psychology is not so much a medical as a philosophical discipline, in which individual interpretive understanding (Verstehen) takes precedence over general causal explanation (Erklären). In 1926-27 he wrote a Jaspers-inspired thesis which criticised ‘classical’ psychology for treating imagination as a ‘thing’, or a stash of inert images deposited in our minds by past experience, rather than a spontaneous activity through which we project unrealised possibilities onto the world. He got a good mark, but he wanted to be a free spirit rather than a professional philosopher, and spent the next few months writing a novel about Nietzsche and Cosima Wagner which, as he would recall, was ‘judiciously turned down by Gallimard’.

Not long afterwards he failed his final exam, the agrégation, but his self-confidence was unimpaired and the following year he came top out of more than seventy candidates. He was now qualified to teach philosophy to final-year lycée students, but first he had to do 18 months of military service; and while his posting as a meteorologist in central France was unexciting, it left him plenty of time to write. He worked on what his friend Paul Nizan called a ‘destructive philosophy’, designed to show that the norms of bourgeois morality arise from arbitrary conventions rather than eternal verities. The result took the form of a collection of stories and essays which was again submitted to Gallimard, again without success.

After being demobilised in 1931, he was appointed to a lycée in Le Havre, where he discovered to his surprise that he quite enjoyed getting surly teenagers to engage with philosophy. After a couple of years he was granted a 12-month secondment to study in Berlin, which gave him the chance to prepare two brief philosophical works – L’Imagination and La Transcendance de l’égo – in which he maintained that consciousness resides not in some sequestered ‘interiority’ but in dynamic relationships located ‘outside, in the world’.

These essays didn’t aspire to literary distinction, and Sartre was happy to place them with specialist academic publishers; but he promised that from now on he would match his ‘purely philosophical’ output with a series of ‘works of art’. An early example was an evocative three-page essay on ‘Intentionality’ (a ‘fundamental idea’ of recent German philosophy, according to Sartre) which appeared in the NRF in 1939. Following the interventions of Husserl and Heidegger, he said, all traditional theories of consciousness had to be abandoned. Experience could no longer be treated as a process of assimilation, in which information is gathered by our senses and digested by our minds before being incorporated into a personal body of knowledge. If we succumb to the tired old metaphor and try to get ‘inside’ the consciousness of others, we will only be thrown back out into the places they inhabit and the company they keep; and the same will happen if we try to ‘find ourselves’ through introspection. There is no world apart from the external world, in short, and ‘nous voilà délivrés de Proust’.

Sartre’s first attempt to ‘liberate himself from Proust’ was a short work, provisionally entitled ‘Melancholia’, in which he ranted against self-styled ‘humanists’ with their simpering love for a blurry entity called ‘humanity’. We all have disparate lives, according to Sartre, and we live them differently, and the only thing they have in common is that we cannot pin them down: we are always pretty much in the dark about what they signify and where they may lead. But this truth is hard to bear, and we prefer to frame our experience in narratives whose beginning and middle seem to point to a reassuring conclusion. We are inveterate ‘tellers of tales’, in short, and we like to ‘live our lives as if we were narrating them’. But we are bound to fail: we ‘live our lives in one direction’ (towards an unknown future) and ‘narrate them the other way round’ (as if we knew how they would end). Sartre worked on ‘Melancholia’ for several years, transforming it from an abstract philosophical essay into a well-wrought novella, whose message is built into its form – a diary recording the aimless day-to-day existence of a historian who is trying to make sense of the life of an 18th-century aristocrat. When Gallimard read the manuscript he decided to take a punt on it, provided he could change the title.

Gallimard was vindicated when it appeared as La Nausée in May 1938, and he quickly capitalised on its success with a collection of Sartre’s short stories called Le Mur. At the time Sartre was also working on a 400-page manuscript called ‘La Psyché’, and had recently been transferred from Le Havre to the prestigious lycée Pasteur in Neuilly. He was just 33, and everything was going his way.

When war was declared in September 1939 Sartre was called up to a meteorological unit in Alsace. Once again army life gave him time to write: on the one hand, a novel he proposed to call L’Age de raison and, on the other, an expanded version of ‘La Psyché’, focusing on a new theme: that consciousness always involves negation. Imagine for instance that you see a woman lying on the grass under a tree. You may think that your experience is simply an effect of light bouncing off the woman, the grass and the tree, impinging on your retina and triggering a chain of events in your optic nerve and your brain. But think again. Your awareness involves not only what is taking place in front of you, but also what is not: that the figure is neither a man nor a child, and not sitting or standing, that the surface is not paved, and that the tree is no flimsy sapling. The world, in other words, is constituted by what is absent as well as what is present, and these absences depend on the expectations you bring to it rather than how it is in itself.

In June 1940 Sartre’s unit surrendered to German troops, and he ended up as one of several thousand prisoners of war in Stalag 12D, overlooking the Rhineland city of Trier. He spent nine months in captivity, often hungry and cold but never depressed or discouraged: he had been well prepared, he said, by his five years at the Ecole Normale. He was assigned to a compound for ‘artists’ (which meant he was spared manual labour), and treated throughout the camp with the respect due to a professor of philosophy. Sometimes he was approached for philosophical advice, for example by a doleful young peasant who felt abandoned after a friend of his managed to escape. Sartre pointed out that he too could try to escape – it was up to him to choose – and according to another prisoner he immediately perked up.

Sartre spent most of his time at the Stalag with a group of Catholic priests who tolerated his atheism and welcomed him as a fellow seeker after truth. They knew that he was a famous author, published by Gallimard and the NRF, and when he lent them the manuscript of L’Age de raison they admired its unsparing depiction of an aimless young philosopher in Paris. They persuaded him to give a lecture and he fascinated his fellow prisoners by discussing the prospect of death, with reference to such German writers as Rilke, Husserl, Jaspers and – despite his reputation as a ‘Nazi philosopher’ – Heidegger. He also agreed to take part in their Christmas celebrations, writing, directing and acting in a play which presented the birth of Jesus as a source of hope even for unbelievers.

When one of the priests got hold of a copy of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, Sartre agreed to work through it with him, sentence by sentence, for an hour or two every morning. They were halfway through when Sartre decided that he was desperate to get back to France, and the priest took the initiative of forging a medical certificate which stated, without much exaggeration, that Sartre’s eyesight was going from bad to worse. He was amused when Sartre – who struck him as excessively well brought up – said he could not collude in such a deception. The priest prevailed, and Sartre was able to leave – with the blessing of his clerical friends, who looked forward to meeting him again in print if not in person.

By the end of March 1941 Sartre was back in Paris, where he resumed his job at the lycée Pasteur, and lived with his mother, who fed him well despite the shortages. He found most things eerily normal, but he was shocked by the swastikas and strangely amiable German soldiers, and disconcerted by the general acquiescence of his compatriots. For a while he tried to persuade prominent intellectuals – Gide, for example – to join him in a non-violent opposition movement called Socialisme et Liberté, but no one was very interested. Communists and fellow-travellers were still hamstrung by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and at the other end of the political spectrum, conservatives like Claudel welcomed the occupation as a ‘restoration of authority’ after ‘sixty years under the yoke of the radical and anti-Catholic party (teachers, lawyers, Freemasons and Jews)’. Sartre himself forfeited any right to criticise others when he transferred to the lycée Condorcet, in the fashionable Opéra district of Paris, to fill a vacancy created by the dismissal of a Jewish professor.

Meanwhile the entertainment industry in Paris was flourishing: performers like Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Django Reinhardt, Tino Rossi, Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf, abetted by the jazz-inspired youth culture of the zazous, offered the Germans opportunities for rest and recreation that scarcely existed back home. On top of that, the occupying authorities were keen to present themselves as guardians of high culture: in March 1941, for example, they brought over a production of Wagner’s Walküre from Mannheim and, a couple of months later, Mozart’s Entführung and Wagner’s Tristan from Berlin. They encouraged local talent too, provided it wasn’t Jewish. They ‘tried to seduce rather than impose their will’, as Pierre Boulez recalled, and on the whole they succeeded. They presided over a boom in sales of contemporary art and went out of their way to protect leading artists: Georges Braque showed 35 works in the Salon d’Automne in 1943, and was offered free coal to heat his vast studio on the rue du Douanier, and Picasso welcomed Otto Abetz, the German ambassador, to his establishment on the rue des Grands-Augustins. It was the same with music: ‘Musical life here in Paris is intense,’ Poulenc reported in 1942, with magnificent concerts conducted by Charles Munch and exquisite performances of new works – his own or those of Olivier Messiaen – in chamber concerts sponsored by Gaston Gallimard.

As Gallimard knew, however, official beneficence did not extend to the written word. Following the fall of Paris his firm had been denounced for ‘thirty years of nihilist propaganda’; dozens of Gallimard titles were banned and thousands of books seized. But after spending the summer of 1941 in the ‘zone libre’ in the south, he returned to Paris in October to negotiate with the authorities. Once he had dismissed his Jewish editor, Jacques Schiffrin (France’s loss was America’s gain), and transferred control of the NRF to the collaborationist Drieu la Rochelle (who promised to rid it of ‘Jews, homosexuals and timid surrealists’), he was able to resume his business on the same terms as other French publishers: everything was subject to pre-publication censorship by the Propagandastaffel, and he wasn’t allowed to publish Jewish authors or anything critical of Germany. Apart from that he could do as he liked.

In the event he sustained his firm’s reputation, bringing out new work by such established writers as Marcel Aymé, Jean Cocteau, Raymond Queneau and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as well as launching the careers of Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Blanchot and Albert Camus. (He gave Camus a job that made it possible for him to live in Paris, and published L’Etranger in May 1942, followed by Le Mythe de Sisyphe, though a section on Kafka was removed on the advice of the Propagandastaffel.) He also continued to cultivate Sartre, who, following the success of his Christmas play in the Stalag, was now reinventing himself as a dramatist. In April 1943 he published Les Mouches, a play about a city facing an epidemic of plague, which then began a very successful run at the Théâtre de la Cité. (The theatre used to be the Sarah Bernhardt, but had been renamed in deference to Aryan sensibilities; on the opening night twenty seats were reserved for the Propagandastaffel, and there were always appreciative German officers in the audience.) Meanwhile Sartre was still writing philosophy, and in August Gallimard brought out an astonishingly ambitious 700-page treatise called L’Être et le Néant.

The title – Being and Nothingness in English – is rather misleading: Self and Others would have been a better fit. There was speculation that it was chosen to encourage the Propagandastaffel to see it as a tribute to Being and Time, but while it took up several themes from Heidegger, it was really a continuation of the criticisms of traditional psychology that Sartre had been developing over the past twenty years. It also drew on his recent experiences with theatre: it is structured as a kind of drama, following the fortunes of a consciousness – your consciousness, my consciousness, anyone’s consciousness – on its journey towards self-knowledge. The first act reveals consciousness distinguishing its own existence ‘for itself’ from an objective reality which exists ‘in itself’, and then tormenting itself by trying to obliterate the distinction and become a self-sufficient something, perhaps even God. The second and third acts explore the consequences of this folie de grandeur: consciousness attempts to dominate the world by ‘totalising’ it, but flounders when it tries to make sense of the passage of time, or its own bodily existence, or its dependence on others, and in the end it realises that its fascination with ‘pure knowledge’ – with intuitions ‘situated outside the world’ or ‘without any point of view’ – was deluded all along. The fourth and final act shows consciousness learning to understand itself on the basis of its own absurdity, by means of a form of psychoanalysis – ‘existential psychoanalysis’ – which treats our opacities and neuroses as arising not from unconscious drives originating outside us, but from the contradictory stories we have told ourselves about the world and our place in it. The drama concludes by invoking a new morality, rooted in a willingness to ‘step back’ and accept the fact of our own nothingness.

Sartre did not think of Being and Nothingness as one of his ‘works of art’, and while the design was magnificent, the execution was slapdash. Much of the prose reads like the unfiltered output of late-night delirium, and Gallimard’s editorial staff seem to have done nothing to cut out redundancies or to clean up the rest. (They might at least have prevented him from harping on the expression ‘réalité humaine’, when the whole point of the book was that human existence has nothing in common with thing-like ‘realities’, and they should have noticed that he kept getting the title of one of his own essays wrong.) There are several vivid scenes – an over-attentive waiter who seems to be ‘playing at being a waiter’, a girl who pretends not to notice that she is an object of sexual attention, and a snooper at a keyhole who feels a surge of shame when he realises he is being observed – but they only show up the tawdriness of the rest. Worst of all, Sartre failed to observe the proprieties of dramatic point of view. His fundamental project was to show how the world is bound to appear – riddled with obscurity, indistinctness and incoherence – to a consciousness such as ours; but he keeps interrupting the action like a hyperactive chorus to tell us what is really going on. He could hardly have done more to test the patience of his readers.


Gallimard published L’Etre et le Néant for prestige rather than profit, and it was launched without fuss. It did not go unnoticed however. Sartre was already well known as the philosophy professor who had written the anti-humanist novel La Nausée and then branched out into theatre, and according to his young friend Jean-Toussaint Desanti, the establishment philosophique scoffed at his frantic productivity and wondered why anyone would ‘bother with such things’. But Desanti himself was thrilled. ‘I remember reading the whole thing in one week,’ he said. ‘I was dumbfounded by its abundance and sheer intellectual generosity.’ He had been a specialist in mathematical philosophy, but L’Etre et le Néant brought him back, as he put it, to ‘genuine embodiment, embodiment in the world, and the need to draw as close as possible to things and to other people, so as to give expression to their fluid, inconstant and contradictory ambiguity’.

Another copy found its way to the young André Gorz in Switzerland. ‘I steeped myself in L’Etre et le Néant,’ as he recalled a few years later, and he too was overwhelmed by Sartre’s ‘generosity’:

At first I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I was fascinated by the novelty and complexity of Sartre’s ideas, and I persevered until they became the boundaries of my universe … Sartre seemed to me more divine than human … For the first time in my life I began to understand the value of generosity (or generosity as a value) – a way of bringing things and people into existence through love … of attending to the freedom that underlies the existence of others and letting it come into its own.

Back in Paris, Michel Tournier and his fellow students at the Sorbonne had much the same experience:

One day in the autumn of 1943, a new book appeared to us like a meteor: Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant. There was momentary astonishment, followed by prolonged rumination. The book was massive, hairy, excessive and overwhelming, encyclopaedic, magnificently technical, and crammed with exquisite subtleties; but it was informed from beginning to end by a single diamantine insight. There was outrage from the anti-philosophical racaille in the press, but we were not in any doubt: we had been granted a system, and we rejoiced … We spent that dreary freezing wartime winter wrapped in blankets, our feet bound in rabbit skins and our heads on fire, reading every single page of our new bible out loud to each other.

But the spell didn’t last. After the Liberation of Paris in August 1944, Gaston Gallimard was accused of collaborationism, and Sartre came to his defence, maintaining that his firm had been ‘a haven of Resistance’ throughout the Occupation. He also took the opportunity of claiming that he himself had been ‘part of the intellectual Resistance’. He does not seem to have been challenged at the time, but this was an affront to the tens of thousands of ordinary French men and women, most of them poor, undereducated and very young, who had taken direct action against the occupying forces from 1941 onwards, with a high risk of arrest, torture and execution, or deportation to concentration camps from which they might never return. Sartre may not have had anything to be ashamed of, but he played no part in the Resistance.

On the other hand he was now a literary celebrity, having given up teaching in order to concentrate on marketing himself as a public intellectual. His earliest admirers were dismayed. Gorz was ‘taken aback’ to discover that his ‘demiurge’ was plain and stocky and emmerdé by the ignorant devotees with whom he surrounded himself. Desanti noted that the book which had changed his life had become an esoteric fetish: ‘Everyone talked about L’Etre et le Néant,’ he said, ‘even if they never read it.’ Gallimard brought out a new edition, and while each of the eight thousand copies was defective – one section missing, another repeated – he is said to have received only two complaints.

Desanti and Gorz kept faith with Sartre, up to a point, but Tournier did not. In October 1945 he and some friends attended a commercial event in the centre of Paris which brought together a vast and voluble crowd to hear Sartre talking about his philosophy.

This popularity should have put us on our guard. A ridiculous label had been pinned to the new philosophy: existentialism… . We did not know what it meant, but we were about to be told. Sartre summed it up in four words: l’existentialisme est un humanisme, and he explained what he meant by telling some story about peas in a matchbox. We were distraught. Humanism was a piece of junk that we had chucked into the garbage long ago, but our master had now retrieved it, stinking of la vie intérieure, and coupled it with the absurd notion of existentialism, as if he owned them both. And everyone clapped and cheered.

We went to a café to drown our grief and share our intimations of disaster… . ‘He’s going to become a Great Man,’ we said: ‘the Gandhi of Gaullist France’ … and we mourned the death of the author of L’Etre et le Néant.

Tournier wondered if they might have over-reacted, like a bunch of ‘retarded adolescents’ trying to liquidate the father to whom they owed everything. But on the whole he thought they were right. Sartre had indeed set his heart on becoming a saint, and in the space of three years he had declined from young firebrand to old fart.


French philosophy in the 1950s was dominated, as Pierre Bourdieu would recall, by the figure of Sartre as a ‘total intellectual’ and ‘monopolist of cultural capital’. Bourdieu and his friends – notably Derrida and Foucault – coveted Sartre’s charisma while despising his vulgarity, and they jeered at his misconstruals of Heidegger’s German, even though, according to Bourdieu, they themselves relied on scrappy French translations. Meanwhile Alain Robbe-Grillet remembered how practitioners of the nouveau roman recoiled from the ‘totality’ to which Sartre was supposed to aspire. Many of them cherished ‘considerable hatred’ towards him, but Robbe-Grillet admitted that he owed a lot to the three-page article on ‘Intentionality’, which had made him see that ‘consciousness has no inside,’ and he could not dislike L’Etre et le Néant since he had never forced himself to read it.

If Sartre’s stock was in decline in France, it was booming in the English-speaking world. He visited the US in 1945 and 1946, and journalists found him typically French and highly amusing. Vogue allowed Sartre to explain how ‘the Resistance taught that literature isn’t a fancy activity independent of politics’ and Time tried to interest its readers in ‘Existentialism’ and ‘Existentialist Murder’, while the New Yorker ran an article, ‘Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialist’, which explained that the ‘rumpled little man who wears tortoiseshell glasses’, and whose unreadable books had provoked ‘several million words’ of commentary, most of them ‘angry’, had been active in the Resistance ‘during the Occupation’.

Mainstream publishers in Britain and America were now in a race to issue translations of Sartre’s plays, novels and short stories, but – apart from the lecture on existentialism and humanism, which was shonky but short – they were not so keen on his philosophical writings. At this point an eccentric entrepreneur called Dagobert Runes spotted an opportunity. Runes was a Jew from Romania who studied philosophy in Vienna and came to New York in 1926, setting himself up as an importer of European high culture. He founded several publishing firms, some of which prospered, and after selling one of them to the Reader’s Digest he founded ‘The Philosophical Library’ in 1941, with a view to promoting eternal wisdom, principally his own. He acquired English-language rights to several of Sartre’s philosophical works, and managed to bring out The Emotions and The Psychology of Imagination in 1948. But when it came to Being and Nothingness he had difficulty finding a translator.

The problem was not so much Sartre’s technical vocabulary (any fool can find English equivalents of words like transcendence or totalisation) as his linguistic laxity and his tendency to carry on writing when he had nothing much to say. Runes drew a blank until 1951, when he got a letter from a young teacher of classics at Ohio State University called Hazel Barnes. She was a sexually unconventional feminist who, having convinced herself that Sartre’s philosophy was ‘exactly what I was groping toward’, approached the Philosophical Library to see if they would be interested in a modest introduction to his key ideas: that the notion of a ‘true self’ is a reactionary myth, and that each of us must ‘create our own ethics’ on the basis of the ‘absolute equality of all self-making individuals’. Runes came back with a different proposal. ‘You sound,’ he said, ‘like exactly the sort of person we have been looking for to translate Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant.’

Barnes didn’t have a formal background in philosophy, and her French was weak, but she was keen to read L’Etre et le Néant and thought that translating it would be as good a way as any. She realised that the Philosophical Library was ‘not a respectable publishing firm’ but felt, as she put it, ‘quite casual about it all’. Runes insisted that she work fast, even while coping with illness, and carrying a heavy load of teaching until she lost her job because her work-in-progress was ‘only a translation’. Runes provided no help with copy-editing or proofreading, and Barnes was too ill to check the proofs properly, but Being and Nothingness, including a neat introduction by Barnes, duly appeared in the summer of 1956. ‘It is a wonder,’ she said, ‘that the published work did not have more errors than it did.’

It was a spectacular success, and Runes soon sold it on to mainstream publishers. Barnes was paid next to nothing for her work, but she was pleased to see that it provided inspiration both to the New Left and to Anti-Psychiatry, and later became the foundation of the English-language discipline of ‘Continental Philosophy’. In 1987 the British Society for Phenomenology issued a lengthy Checklist of Errors in Hazel Barnes’s English Translation of Jean-Paul Sartre, pointing out, for example, that être lâche means ‘being cowardly’ rather than ‘being courageous’, and devant être means ‘having to be’ rather than ‘being beforehand’. Barnes accepted the criticism: she would have done a far better job, she reckoned, had she spent another five or ten years on the translation, but it would then have missed the ‘critical moment’ that allowed it to encounter a ‘receptive public’.

Sarah Richmond has now produced a meticulous, elegant translation which appears to be error free, though in places she is perhaps over-respectful to the original. Barnes’s translation has grown venerable with use, but new readers will not bother with it if they can get hold of Richmond’s. I am not sure, however, that the new translation will find its ‘critical moment’ and reach a new ‘receptive public’. As Gaston Gallimard said towards the end of a long and wonderful life, ‘the one thing I have learned is that the fate of a book is something you can never know in advance.’