In 1943 Paris, the city, which had surrendered to Hitler in 1940, is still under siege by German troops. Hotbeds of resistance are being organized by the maquis, various partisan groups opposed to the occupiers. Basic necessities are lacking, the war has been going on for years and no glimmer of peace is in sight. Paris has emptied out: it is a city with no subway, no light, no coal or electricity, and it is difficult even to find candles. In this climate, the publisher Gallimard dares to publish L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness), a 724-page work written by a new philosopher named Jean-Paul Sartre.
During the occupation, Sartre participated in the Resistance as part of the Socialism and Freedom group, but first and foremost, he wrote. Together with Simone de Beauvoir, he would take refuge near the stove at the Café de Flore, at 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain. Every morning they would arrive early to get a seat near the source of warmth and spend the whole day scribbling on sheets of paper and commingling with other intellectuals. Rumor has it that the owner, Paul Boubal, took many months to realize that the quirky, cross-eyed gentleman with the fake fur coat and the pipe always in his mouth had brought his café to the center of Paris’s cultural movement.
Now, to commemorate the work’s 80th anniversary, Il Saggiatore offers a new Italian edition of Being and Nothingness, this time with a preface by Massimo Recalcati (744 pages, 28 Euros, translation by Giuseppe Del Bo). Let us try to expound on some essential points of existentialism, which continue to make it a necessary perspective for understanding the present.
During the war, Sartre wrote with great passion and declared that he had a goal – he said, “I want to give a philosophy to the postwar period.” An ambitious thought, but there is no doubt that he had ideas and was convinced of their validity. He wrote even as a prisoner: captured by German troops, he managed to carve out space and time to continue his reflections (found today in the Notebooks of the Phony War). His motto was “never a day without a line,” and he lived his life around two activities: reading and writing.
However, he did not want to be an intellectual who observed human affairs from the window of his ivory tower; instead, he proposed a mode of thought rooted in the world that makes commitment into a reason for existence. Because, if one cannot escape one’s era, it is better to live it intensely. He also says this in the preface of the first issue of his magazine Les Temps Modernes: “We do not want to lose anything of our time; there have perhaps been better ones, but this is ours and this is the life we have to live.” So, the idea is to live one’s time to the fullest – but how? Sartre gives no directions – right after the end of a world war with millions of dead, after the collapse of all certainty, he declares that there is no morality to preach.
There are no recipes: living is a challenge, the human being does not have an essence to realize nor any commandment to follow; they are not done, but always in process, and they will have to invent themselves. They have a void before them, a horizon open to infinite possibilities.
After the liberation of Paris, this perspective spread through Being and Nothingness and the impactful series of Sartre’s other major writings and cultural initiatives. Between 1944 and ’45 Sartre published several plays that went on to be staged, such as Behind Closed Doors and The Flies. The first two volumes of the novel The Roads to Freedom came out, as well as numerous writings on politics, philosophical and literary criticism. He wrote in Combat, the magazine edited by Albert Camus, and his byline was often featured in the newspaper Le Figaro.
Furthermore, in October ‘45 he started the magazine Les Temps Modernes; on the editorial board, along with Sartre and Beauvoir, we find first-rate intellectuals such as Raymond Aron, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Olivier, Jean Paulhan and Francis Jeanson; its cover was designed by Pablo Picasso. Philosophy became the fashion: Juliette Gréco, the bohemian from Saint Germain des Prets, the female voice of postwar France, became the muse of the existentialists. Then came Boris Vian with his trumpet, cementing the presence of intelligence and high commitment among the bacchanalia that marked the spring of Liberation.
The existentialist turn took off in ‘46 with Sartre’s lecture (later published as Existentialism is a Humanism) in which he effectively translated the main notions of Being and Nothingness into popular language. The hall was packed: students, literati, politicians, journalists were there, waiting for that diminutive cross-eyed person everyone was talking about; someone fainted, the police intervened to bring some order.
It was in this atmosphere that Sartre introduced existentialism, confessing that he hadn’t been the one to name it, and went on to expound on a series of ideas that form the foundation of his philosophy. At the center of his thought is the human being; the particular human being is the single subject we find everywhere, trying to survive in a world of constraints, who is in distress, but also an individual who, even under conditions of maximum coercion, remains free.
For existentialism, freedom is constitutive: it is the only constant that distinguishes the human species. Sartre said human beings are “condemned to be free”: condemned because it is not easy to decide and living is a risk. Every action involves the renunciation of other possibilities, as the individual doing the choosing is limited while the opportunities are inexhaustible. We are conditioned by the world, by history, by culture, by our past, but all this does not determine us.
Furthermore, the search for self takes place within a jungle of inert objects of the human world that give us clues from their passivity. For our condition, however, the important thing is liberation – that is, what we choose to do with all the inert and mute baggage we carry. To act is to respond to the challenge, a small shift that makes a person a totally unconditioned being. We are abandoned to our own devices, but free – here is a form of anti-humanism, a humanism without presupposed models, a kaleidoscope of diversity.
Being and Nothingness is a complex and captivating work, philosophy written by a man who would become a Nobel laureate in literature. The work paves the way toward overcoming “Heidegger-like” philosophy, far removed from the human being living in society. The concrete human being is not an abstraction: in the face of so much freedom, they are tormented, they suffer, they depend on the limits set on them by a body that is adverse to them, yet an indispensable instrument that allows them to be present. The individual is never just individual: they are already outside, in the world, where they perceive themselves as other than themselves, mirror themselves, reflect themselves, judge themselves.
Individual freedom is actually a pluralistic freedom, a precious good and at the same time a burden of responsibility, because we are responsible for what we do but also for our silences, our failures to act, our omissions. For existentialism, the choice for oneself is the choice for a world, for commitment to a plural world. Returning to Sartre today means no longer accepting the distracted somnambulism of our societies, because we have only one life and only one planet.