Interview with Playboy Magazine, May 1965
a candid conversation with the charismatic fountainhead of existentialism and rejector of the nobel prize
interview by Madeleine Gobeil
“The main reason I surround myself with women is simply that I prefer their company to that of men. As a rule I find men boring. They have specialized sensibilities and they talk shop.”
“We are possessed by the things we possess. When I like an object, I always give it to someone. It isn’t generosity — it’s only because I want others to be enslaved by objects, not me.”
“My duty as an intellectual is to think, to think without restriction, even at the risk of blundering. I must set no limits within myself, and I must let no limits be set for me.”
French writers have always had a gift for inciting wars of the spirit, but probably no French writer since Voltaire has given the civilized world a case of the jitters comparable to that inflicted upon it by a stocky, walleyed, 59-year-old ex-professor named Jean-Paul Sartre. As a philosopher (Being and Nothingness, What Is Existentalism?), novelist ( Nausea, The Age of Reason), playwright ( The Flies, No Exit, The Respectful Prostitute), essayist (Situations, Saint Genet), autobiographer ( The Words), pamphleteer, editor, author of political petitions and demands, even as a writer of popular songs, he has let loose a torrent of words upon a groaning but responsive public. In his role as a resister, a denier, a ferocious and uncompromising visionary, he began by anatomizing the decay of French democracy between the two wars. The first great dramatic challenge of his life was the conquest and occupation of France by the Germans, which called forth both the most sordid and most heroic qualities of the French character. Sartre took his place, along with Albert Camus and François Mauriac, as one of the writer-heroes of the Resistance, at the risk of his life and the cost of his freedom; he was imprisoned by the Nazis. Later, atheist Sartre parted company violently with the Catholic Mauriac and the pantheist Camus, and proceeded after the Liberation to assume the role of writer as political leader — founder of parties, propagandist, struggler for causes, perpetual schismatic. His ambiguous relationship with the Communists, with sexual anarchists, with the oddballs and the woebegone and the nihilists, has given the Sartrean version of existentialism a kind of public influence that none of the milder, more university-oriented forms have ever enjoyed. Christian existentialism could not compete with the wild intellectual activists of the postwar chaos and reformation of Europe. Sartre’s personal metabolism outraced the competition — at least in the struggle for the minds of the young.
During the immediate postwar period, many Americans came to study, write or discover themselves in the nervy, dangerous, angry Paris of those days. For many of them, Sartre’s famous love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his discovery of Juliette Greco and Jean Genet, his patronage of the Café de Flore and the Deux Magots and such nightclubs as the Tabou and the Rose Rouge, all were part of the living legend he had become. Sartre also founded a monthly magazine, Les Temps Modernes, to expound his unconventional views on everything from China to the orgasm. Meanwhile, the existentialist vocabulary — words like “anguish,” “abandonment,” “despair” and “forlornness” — poured out of his overflowing heart in a manner that paradoxically suggested both a love of life and a mordant sense of pleasure. The pessimism of the philosopher seemed to free the man for joy and action.
The bitter recriminations that followed the rupture of his friendship with Albert Camus caused many to turn their backs on Sartre. He took an intransigent position against France’s efforts to keep its colonies, and probably only his world fame prevented his going to prison over Algeria. He was called a traitor. His apartment was bombed. He moved, but kept on writing. One of Paris’ young intellectual lions said of him then, “Sartre? I remember him. Very funny man. Too serious.”
And then, as if to prove that a writer cannot be considered dead until he is lowered into the grave, the seemingly spent bombshell burst once again. With the publication of the first volume of his autobiography, The Words, Sartre was once more hailed as the high priest of French letters. Ideological opponents and personal enemies, with a rare and un-French generosity, admitted that the sly old boy had done it again — or perhaps had finally fulfilled his promise. He had created a work of heroic power, a work that the future might term one of genius. The autobiographical confession has long been a highly refined genre in French literature — from St. Augustine and Montaigne to Gide and Genet — but with The Words Sartre brings to it a new power and intention. He not only tells his story, but he makes his point — and he does it genially, wittily, movingly. Words and ideas are not real things, he says, and yet they are the closest men can come to grasping the nature of reality.
It was entirely in character that the attempt of the Nobel Prize committee, last November, to bestow on Sartre its prestigious prize of some $53,000 was interpreted by its intended recipient as a kind of bribe from the literary establishment. He asked them not to offer him the prize, but they did anyway. Boris Pasternak had refused it in 1958 under pressure from the Soviet government, but Sartre became the first writer in history to spurn this supreme accolade of his own accord. Perhaps a clue to his refusal can be found in his play The Devil and the Good Lord, at the moment when the demagog Goetz seeks to prove his virtuousness by summoning a leper. As a crowd watches, the leper approaches. Then he sees that Goetz intends to use him by publicly kissing him. The leper raises his hand in disgust and says, “Not on the mouth!”
Always a jealous guardian of his privacy, Sartre has flatly refused to be interviewed by the press since The Words and the Nobel Prize committee catapulted him back into worldwide fame and fashion. Anticipating the award and the ensuing din of publicity by a few months, however, Playboy was able to persuade the reclusive author, through the kind intermediation of Simone de Beauvoir, his closest friend and colleague for 36 years, to consent to our request for a long and exclusive interview — to be conducted in French, since he speaks little English. It was to be one of three granted by him in more than a year, and the only one with an American magazine.
Bespectacled and diminutive (only 5’4″), he greeted us cordially in his modest two-room bachelor apartment on the tenth floor of a nondescript apartment building in Paris. Chain-smoking cigarettes before his open window, overlooking the rooftops of Montparnasse, he seemed at first a bit reluctant to speak freely because of our spinning tape recorder; but it was soon forgotten as he, and we, became absorbed in conversation.
Playboy: At the end of World War II, while you were propounding the austere philosophy of existentialism in essays, novels and plays, you were said to preside in Paris over an exuberant, worldly — and some say hedonistic — movement of bohemian singers, actors, musicians, dancers, political activists, journalists and students of every stripe. How do you explain these paradoxical stories about you?
Jean-Paul Sartre: The fact is that a few kids who played in orchestras also happened to like my books, and everyone promptly started thinking that this had something to do with my personal philosophy. They used to say I was responsible for a whole generation of young people wearing dirty check shirts from American PXs. What nonsense!
Playboy: Wasn’t your philosophy of “anguish” and “despair” thought to be responsible for many of the suicides that took place in France during these years?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Yes, that’s so. And a journal called Samedi Soir was full of the tallest possible tales about me. Here’s one of them: A girl said I’d invited her to my bedroom quite in the manner of the professional seducer; that I opened a cupboard, took out an overripe camembert cheese and held it under her nose, saying, “Smell!” According to her, I then showed her the door and said, “Now you can go.” But do you know why I’m really considered “scandalous”? It’s because, ever since 1945, the press has made a point of describing me as dead and done for. Every paper has said the same thing, and so the rumor has spread. They haven’t stopped announcing my death since I started writing; haven’t stopped saying I was played out, in my grave. What infuriates people is that I’m doubly a “traitor.” I’m a bourgeois and I speak harshly of the bourgeoisie; an oldster, and my contacts are mostly with young people. I get on well with them. They’re my basic public. Men in their forties always disapprove of me, even if they liked me in their youth. So I’m twice a traitor — a traitor in the conflict of the generations, and a traitor in the class war. The 1945 generation thinks I’ve betrayed them because they got to know me through No Exit and Nausea, written at a time when I hadn’t yet worked out the Marxist implications of my ideas. Marxism just didn’t interest me up to that time. I was young, of good family, and had the impression that the world could be mine without having to undergo the compulsions of want and work. And so I struggled on as best I could.
Playboy: Did you know yet what you wanted to do with your life?
Jean-Paul Sartre: I was beginning to. At 16, you see, I wanted to be a novelist. But I had to study philosophy in order to enroll in the ècole Normale Supérieure. My ambition was to become a professor of literature. Then I came across a book by Henri Bergson in which he describes in a concrete way how time is experienced in one’s mind. I recognized the truth of this in myself. A little later, I discovered “phenomenology.” That is, I learned that one could talk in a concrete way about any subject whatsoever; also that one could talk in a philosophical way, ranging further, and more scientifically even, than the language of philosophic textbooks. I had the idea of uniting literature and philosophy in a technique of concrete expression — with philosophy providing the method and the discipline, and literature supplying the words. What interested me was unraveling the curious and concrete relations between things and man, and later, between men and themselves.
Playboy: In exploring these relations, you have written that you were influenced, during World War II, by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Jean-Paul Sartre: True. I was a prisoner of war and some priests in prison with me asked me to talk to them about philosophy. Heidegger was the only author the Germans allowed us. He argues that, in the last analysis, objects are utensils. In my first novel, Nausea, I looked at trees and tried to define just what they are by means of words, so as to get down to essences; in other words, I embarked on a perpetual questioning of things, of trying to ascertain what they are. What are objects? Why are we here and what are we up to? As Heidegger sees it, a tree is something that’s cut down for firewood or for building; a tree is what it’s used for — like a man. But a man is free to realize himself, to choose for himself and others. I can’t examine the structure of a man’s life without glimpsing, beneath it, all the other structures that bring us back to human needs — to work, to tools. Even when I make a cup of coffee I change the world. In Existentialism and Humanism, I explained that a man’s every decision, in the smallest as well as the largest sense, makes him a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind. There must be a complete and profound responsibility.
Playboy: You have written that “man is condemned to be free.” What did you mean by that?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Condemned because he is thrown into the world responsible, without excuse. Abandoned by eternal values, we must create our own values.
Jean-Paul Sartre: “Original choice” is the term I use to describe what happens at the moment — a protracted moment, covering a certain span of time — in which one makes something of oneself, of that self which so far has been made by others. We start by being made by others, and then we remake ourselves, starting out from what others have made of us. But at the moment when we remake ourselves, a dialectic comes into play: We find ourselves very different from what we expected and what others expected of us. This is freedom, but it is not a cheerful thing. That’s why I use the expression “condemned to be free.”
Playboy: You have described Jean Genet in those terms. In what way is he “condemned to be free”?
Jean-Paul Sartre: The child Genet was completely warped by punishment, by public institutions. But the boy had enough energy, will and intelligence to remake himself. Inevitably, however, he remade himself from the materials given: his deformed self. Also, whatever he did, his intentions were bound to have consequences different from those he really wanted. Nevertheless, like all of us, he is entirely responsible for the direction he has given his life. And Genet hasn’t reached the goal he aimed at. As a matter of fact, he had no particular aim, except to remake the thief which society had made of him. The fact of being “Genet the poet” led to a presidential pardon for “Genet the criminal” — but also to the drying up of the source of his poetry, which was his struggle for freedom against prison and humiliation. His great creative moment, the time when there was a deep significance in his writing, came when he was struggling, giving voice to his myths, against prison life and humiliation. When his efforts succeeded in making him a sort of petit bourgeois by a return to society — though he had no illusions about the social order — the act of writing lost for him its profound significance. Though he has ceased having “myths,” and in this sense is perfectly free, the results have thus been rather grim. He is now completely alone.
Playboy: How about his homosexual boyfriends?
Jean-Paul Sartre: They provide little comfort. His second novel, The Miracle of the Rose, documents a conflict between the illusion necessary for his homosexuality and his true understanding of these miserable creatures. This is his dilemma. The men Genet is in love with seem to him both magnificent and pitiable. Just now it’s the pitiable aspect that he sees most clearly. Genet has completely changed the objects of his love. Now he focuses on professional risk takers: acrobats, automobile racers. Formerly he loved the “rough-trade” type who gave an illusion of strength while having none. Genet, you see, is a homosexual by force of habit. It’s no longer a sexual obsession with fantasies involving his whole being. This doesn’t amuse him anymore. I get the impression that he feels obliged to sleep with young men just to justify the kindnesses he will do them.
Playboy: In view of his predilections, why did you canonize him as “Saint Genet”?
Jean-Paul Sartre: It wasn’t I. He canonized himself. When I say Saint Genet, of course, I’m being ironic. There once was a real Saint Genet, by the way, an actor who became a Christian and was put to death by the Romans. But Genet the writer always says in his books, “I’m a saint,” or rather, “I’m a girl saint.” This sums up what he wants, what he aims at. But it’s not what he is, because one never is. We tend to be, but we don’t achieve our intention.
Playboy: In your play The Flies you wrote: “Once freedom has lit its beacon in a man’s heart, the gods are powerless against him.” But in asserting that “the gods are powerless,” aren’t you — who profess to be an atheist — acknowledging that God exists?
Jean-Paul Sartre: If I have this theory of freedom, it’s precisely because I do not believe in God. On several occasions I have drawn attention to a very interesting aspect of Christianity. According to the fathers of the Church, Augustine in particular, God had a respect for human freedom. God created man free, so as to respect this freedom. So God isn’t there to call the Christian to account for his decisions. He is alone. It’s too easy to fall back on God’s commandments. Actually, then, the Christian is alone — like me, like Genet, like anyone else. There is, of course, the theory of grace. But in practice there are several such theories, and even when grace is operative, there still comes a moment when you are alone, facing up to God. God had nothing to say, for example, about the Algerian War. There were priests who behaved like decent folk and others who behaved like swine — either with an eye to true morality or with an eye to the interests of the established Church.
Playboy: Carrying your personal theology a step further, would you explain the statement in No Exit that “Hell is other people!”?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Other people are hell insofar as you are plunged from birth into a situation to which you are obliged to submit. You are born the son of a rich man, or an Algerian, or a doctor, or an American. Then you have a cut-and-dried future mapped out, a future made for you by others. They haven’t created it directly, but they are part of a social order that makes you what you are. If you’re a peasant’s son, the social order obliges you to move to the city where machines await you, machines that need fellows like you to keep them going. So it’s your fate to be a certain type of worker, a country kid who has been driven away from the country by a certain type of capitalist pressure. Now the factory is a function of your being. What exactly is your “being”? It is the job you’re doing, a job that masters you completely because it wears you down — along with your pay, which classifies you exactly by your standard of living. All this has been thrust on you by other people. Hell is the proper description for that kind of existence. Or take a child who was born in Algeria in 1930 or 1935. He was doomed to an explosion into death and the tortures that were his destiny. That, too, is hell.
Playboy: Is there no hope, “no exit” from this destiny?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Certainly there is. You can take action against what people have made of you and transform yourself. That Algerian child, though predestined to torture or to death, is living out his revolt today; it’s he who makes that revolution. Genet, too.
Playboy: You speak of artists and revolutionaries. Do you think there are many others in the world who are capable of changing their fate?
Jean-Paul Sartre: It takes a lot to change a destiny. That destiny has got to be intolerable. And when it’s tolerable, it’s really worse. This is what I call “alienation.” In our social order a man is always dominated by material things, and these things are themselves produced, created and exploited by others. These others do not confront him face to face. No. They impinge on him through the agency of objects. You, for example, have separated yourself from me — alienated me — with this tape recorder. We put all of modern civilization between us. Thus we ourselves become things. A crowd of other things intervene, from the maker of this gadget of yours to the magazine that you represent.
Playboy: Your critics have taken you to task for dwelling fatalistically on such themes: on the “alienation,” “anguish” and “despair” of modern life, while at the same time preaching freedom as an attainable goal — yet without proposing a concrete or affirmative means of achieving it.
Jean-Paul Sartre: People think that one fine morning, when he’s pulling on his socks, a man can decide: “Hmmm, today I shall invent a moral code.” But a moral code can’t be “invented.” It must be something that already exists in some way. We must not confuse the moralist with the founder of a religion. Mohammed utilized existing religions; as you know, all that’s basic to the Koran was the work of Jews. The Koran is a transformation of Judaism, carried out by some Semitic tribes. Mohammed, however, claimed to be directly inspired by Allah: “Here is what Allah says we must do.” But a true moralist — that’s something very different. A system of morality that dictates its own laws, without taking into account existing moral laws — though amending them, of course — would not really be a system of morals. It would merely reflect the ideas of the social group to which the man preaching it belonged.
Here’s an example: André Gide says: “Don’t search for God elsewhere than everywhere.” And he goes on to preach “fervor,” “thirst,” “surrender to sensual joys,” and so on. Do you think Gide’s code makes sense for a factoryworker, or even for an engineer, or for a doctor who has a waiting room crowded with patients? All it means is this: “I, Gide, belong to the upper-middle class and have the special sensitivity cultivated in that class. That’s why I have been able to devote myself to literary work. This literary work shows that I have a sensibility adaptable to every variety of experience.” Here we have the moral code of an upper-middle-class writer. It is acceptable to other writers belonging to the same class. I can understand it, though I’m not a member of that class by birth. I can wonder if it wouldn’t be rewarding to act like Gide’s character. But advice of that sort is lost on a worker who does eight hours on an assembly line. He’s tired out. How can one tell him to go out and ransack the universe for sensations when he has been stupefied by a day of brain-deadening, brutalizing labor?
Playboy: But do you have a meaningful moral code, some tangible means of attaining freedom, to offer this worker?
Jean-Paul Sartre: His problem is not to keep his freedom but to win it. And we must help him do this. No true moral system exists today, because the conditions of a moral code worthy of the name are not present. Men are not visible to one another. Too many machines and social structures, as I was saying, block the view. It’s impossible to speak of any true moral system today; only of moral codes applying to certain classes and reflecting specific habits and interests. The basic conditions enabling men to be available for a new social order are lacking. In a society such as ours, it’s inevitable that the mass of social structures — not to mention the personal compulsions, private destinies — form barriers to mutual understanding. Thus you trot along with your personal destiny and you meet a Negro, an Arab, a Cuban, each with his own destiny, and any real relationship proves extremely difficult. Or else you must belong to a “movement” in which you make a total break with everything outside it and associate yourself with, say, the Cuban struggle or the Algerian struggle. Yet even then — with the best intentions — you will not achieve complete solidarity. The man whom you contact won’t be completely a man for you; he’ll be a “thing.” For the American, for example, the Cuban is “sugar” — a reminder that there is trouble over sugar.
Playboy: Or communism.
Jean-Paul Sartre: Yes — or some kind of propaganda. Today, to establish fellowship among men, we must struggle against the order of things. That’s the worthwhile moral imperative. As to what people will make of their freedom, if and when they win it, it’s not for us who are completely isolated — alienated — to predict. But to treat a man as a man, as a human being, is a matter of principle, a principle we must never abandon.
Playboy: Though you are a Marxist, you have never joined the Communist Party and, despite your many trips to the USSR, the French Communist Party doesn’t approve of you. You are not on the side of the bourgeoisie, yet you aren’t wholeheartedly with the Communists, either. Just where do you stand ideologically?
Jean-Paul Sartre: I’m an intellectual, not a politician. But as a citizen, I can join pressure groups. That explains why I was wholeheartedly with the Algerians. These are the duties of a citizen. Since my skills are intellectual, I can serve as a citizen by writing. My duty as an intellectual is to think, to think without restriction, even at the risk of blundering. I must set no limits within myself, and I must let no limits be set for me. As for my relations with the Communist Party, Marxism can work out its full possibilities only if it has “fellow travelers” — that is, friends of the Communists who do not fetter themselves politically and try to study Marxism objectively from within.
Playboy: Do the Communists permit objective study of Marxism from within?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Right now it’s a problem that’s being faced openly almost everywhere in eastern Europe. It’s the problem of the relation between political discipline and the demands of intellectual life — not intellectual life practiced in isolation, but revolutionary intellectual life. The liberation demanded by the intellectuals of the East is not to reinstate a sort of bourgeois eclecticism, but the freedom to continue the revolution through intellectual means.
Playboy: You speak of agitating for revolution — presumably by the proletariat against the capitalists. But isn’t it true that the working class in western Europe, certainly including France, is enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, that the conditions of economic oppression which breed revolution, therefore, just don’t exist any longer? Your critics ask that you stop visiting the revolutionary countries: Cuba, Algeria, China, the USSR, and see France as it really is.
Jean-Paul Sartre: The France I see today is not so beautiful that I should spend that much time in consecration of her. It’s a France riddled with lies. When I hear talk of an “affluent society,” I think we’re being hoodwinked. The fact is that about half the French population lives at the bare subsistence level. The government camouflages the facts. Just now a kind of spurious optimism prevails in France. They want to transform us into a society of consumers. By harping on this idea of affluence, they try to make us think that the demand for wage increases is no longer due to exploitation of the workers — a monstrous travesty of the facts! Next, starting out from that notion of affluence, they are trying to condition us by conditioning our purchases. They want to create the organization man — in other words, to build up a sort of twofold technocratic slavery, and at the same time create the consumer-minded man; that is, a man whose desires are molded by the desires of others. All these things are taking place today and link up with capitalism’s attempts to hold its ground.
We, the French, are trying everywhere we can — in the French Congo, for example — to transform capitalism into neo-capitalism. We keep in power, as our accomplices, a black bourgeoisie, thanks to which investments can still be made. Thus we retain an economic hold on a country we have ceased to rule by repression. In Algeria, on the other hand, French financial aid is being given to a socialist government capable of sharing this aid with the workers.
Playboy: Then you approve of De Gaulle’s economic policy in Algeria?
Jean-Paul Sartre: It was simply in De Gaulle’s interest that it couldn’t be said that Algeria, ceasing to be a colony, became a land where people died of hunger. This, of course, was in the interests of “the system.” But it’s above all in our own interest, the interest of the French people in general, to carry on our aid to, and retain our link with, Algeria. What’s good about this aid is that we are assisting not a class but a government. That’s the big difference.
Playboy: How do you feel in general about De Gaulle’s foreign policy?
Jean-Paul Sartre: De Gaulle’s foreign policy seems to me entirely bound up with nothing more than the need to have a foreign policy of some sort. It has no real substance. But in a way it’s good, since it tends to loosen the ties within alliances.
Playboy: Such as NATO?
Jean-Paul Sartre: I was thinking of the consequences of his decision to recognize Communist China. When Algeria was freed, De Gaulle decided to support an underdeveloped country — Red China — against the U.S.A. and the USSR, thus claiming that he, as the leader of a developed capitalist country, was championing the cause of the underdeveloped peoples. This, of course, was preposterous. France simply hasn’t the means to give effective help to the underdeveloped countries. Moreover, when we compare what the Americans could do, but do not do, with what the Russians are doing — at Aswan, for instance — we can see that the underdeveloped countries have no special interest in linking themselves to France, given the structure of present-day France. Thus this policy has no real foundation. But it’s very important for the Chinese, because it gives them one more ally at the UN. As regards France, it represents only the fanciful efforts of a man who, in point of fact, is just attempting to dream up a foreign policy.
Playboy: One of the keystones of De Gaulle’s foreign policy is his atomic force de frappe, with which he hopes to enforce France’s claim as “a third power” between East and West. How do you feel about it?
Jean-Paul Sartre: It’s a terrible risk, not because of our poor little bomb, with which we’ll never do anything, but simply because Germany and every other country will now have a right to make its own bomb. Two notions are suggested by this force de frappe: on the one hand, the ideas of “grandeur” and “splendid isolation” for which De Gaulle stands; and, on the other, the impossibility for France to have a Leftist foreign policy — that of a world in which individual nations are not crushed into a conglomerate mass. While De Gaulle tries to work out a foreign policy in solitary grandeur, we find, alas, that we are being invaded by American culture and American social mores. I fight against this because I think that all forms of independence should be preserved, but in another fashion than De Gaulle’s. Only the Left can bring about this freedom. But the Americans are wrong to worry about De Gaulle’s occasional gestures of independence. At the least hint of real outside anger, things would resume their usual course, and France would retreat under America’s nuclear umbrella.
Playboy: Don’t you share the concern of most Americans about the dangers of nuclear power in the hands of several nations?
Jean-Paul Sartre: No, because I’m French and we French seem to have a complete lightheadedness about the bomb. I remember a cartoon showing a café in which Americans, British and Frenchmen are sitting. The Anglo-Americans are reading papers headlined “The Bomb,” but the French are reading papers headlined “The Price of Milk Has Gone Up.” We French display an amazing lack of interest in the bomb and even regard our indifference as a slight superiority. The last 12 years of colonial warfare have swamped all our powers of attention on this issue. We were too much taken up with the Algerian War to worry about the production of atomic armament. Fascism is what the Frenchman is afraid of. But he’s blind to what is really threatening us: as I said earlier, a form of technocratic organization which is weakening men’s political awareness and slowly but surely reducing them to the servile state.
Playboy: Do you feel that this is true of French letters as well as French society?
Jean-Paul Sartre: I’m afraid so. There are no great writers in France today. The practitioners of the “New Novel” are talented, and viewed as experiments in form, their books are interesting. But they bring us absolutely nothing except a justification of our technocratic, politically sterile French social order. Literature should be the work of clear-eyed men who take into account the totality of mankind. Literature has got to realize that it exists in a world where children die of hunger. Literature has got to realize that it lies within our power, as writers and as human beings, to do something for others. And others can do something for us.
Playboy: Yet you wrote in your last book, The Words, that “I am disillusioned…I no longer know what to make of my life.”
Jean-Paul Sartre: When I said that, I meant that I had cured myself of my youthful illusions.
Playboy: What illusions?
Jean-Paul Sartre: The illusion that a bourgeois writer is bound to be pessimistic, that he is condemned to solitude by the fact of his taking arms against society. In The Words, I describe how I have come to realize that I am a member of society — a society in motion. And because I have now broken free from the illusions of youth, I believe I’ve become an optimist.
Playboy: If that’s so, why did you write that you no longer know what to make of your life?
Jean-Paul Sartre: When I said that, I meant that with one’s liberation from illusion comes a curious feeling of detachment, of being at loose ends — in my case, not because I can think of nothing worth doing, but because there remain so many tasks for me to embark on: keeping in touch with the world, with the social order, perhaps even indulging in Camus’ “sensual raptures.” But let me illustrate further what I mean when I say that I no longer know what to make of my life. Any man feels that way when he’s suddenly cured of a grand passion — for a woman, say. When it’s over, one asks oneself, “Why did I love that woman?” — and can’t even remember just who she was. Once you had a compulsion to see this woman, to hear her voice, think about her, spy on her. All that is ended. You are cured of a monomaniacal obsession and you feel a relief, because this kind of passion for a woman is not an ideal state — and yet you also feel at loose ends, detached.
Playboy: You speak, obviously from experience, about emotional involvement with women; yet you seldom write about it in your books. Why?
Jean-Paul Sartre: I simply have other things to write about. That doesn’t mean I don’t have, and haven’t had, my share of emotional involvements; as a matter of fact, women play a rather large role in my life — but a small one in my books. Those raptures — I know them well, but I feel a distaste for writing about them, because underlying them is the idea that one can actually be a man today, when in fact it’s impossible. Camus can say, “We must uphold man’s right to be happy.” That’s quite right, but he thinks it can and must be upheld immediately; in other words, that the conditions of happiness can be achieved today. It would be very agreeable, of course, if one could share one’s sensual raptures with everybody by writing about them — but enjoying them alone means shutting oneself off from certain relations with our fellow human beings. When I was in Algeria, it was hard to indulge in joys of that kind when just beside me was a child whose eye was eaten out by flies. I’m not saying it was impossible; only that it would have made me feel embarrassed. Then, too, as a writer, I feel I should deal with what I’m best fitted for — what others cannot say better than I can. I often think that someday I’ll write about my joys, but then I remind myself that this side of my life isn’t really worth holding up as an example.
Playboy: Aren’t you being modest? We’re told that in public you’re almost constantly surrounded by admiring and attractive women.
Jean-Paul Sartre: It’s true that I have always tried to surround myself with women who are at least agreeable to look at. Feminine ugliness is offensive to me. I admit this and I’m ashamed of it. But the reason is simple. Even at its most formal level, even when there’s complete indifference, the association of a man with a woman always has sexual implications. An ugly woman evokes, like all women, that special pleasure we get from being in a woman’s company, but she spoils it by her ugliness. Alas. When you have the man-woman relation interfered with by ugliness — provoked and denied, well, it’s a very awkward business.
But the main reason I surround myself with women is simply that I prefer their company to that of men. As a rule I find men boring. They have specialized sensibilities and they talk shop. But there are qualities in woman that derive from the female predicament, from the fact that she is both a slave and an accomplice. That’s why her sensibility ranges so much wider than a man’s. She is available. For instance, one cannot sit in a café and talk with a man about the people passing by. He gets bored with this and goes back to his professional worries, or else to intellectual gymnastics. But intellectual gymnastics are something I can quite adequately indulge in all by myself. In fact, it’s more rewarding to wrestle with one’s words and problems alone. Discussions with men never much entertain me; the conversation always sinks. But from a woman you get the sensibility of a different being, an intelligence perhaps superior to a man’s, and not hampered by the same preoccupations.
Similarly, what I particularly appreciate in my Jewish friends is a gentleness and subtlety that is certainly an outcome of anti-Semitism. That’s why we are always race-conscious, even if we disapprove of racialism. I like the Jews as they have been made by persecution. In my opinion, they stand for one of the values of the present-day world, just because of the way they have been shaped by persecution. A Jew, of course, might retort: “That’s racial prejudice. It’s up to you to like us as men, or as a religious community, but you shouldn’t indulge in satisfactions of your sensibility or intellect just because we have managed to win through after starting with an intolerable handicap imposed on us by others.” To come back to women, I think I must have a feminine side to my mind which pleases them. And like Simone de Beauvoir, I’m in favor of total feminine emancipation. But when the day comes, of course, the special qualities of sensibility for which I prefer the company of women will be due purely to chance; sometimes a woman will have them, sometimes a man. They’ll cease being a feminine prerogative.
Playboy: Let’s turn to the subject of your preferences in literature, if we may. Some years ago you said that you regarded John Dos Passos as “the great writer of our time.” Why did you think so? And do you still feel that way?
Jean-Paul Sartre: I found his books, and those of Faulkner, most interesting. He invented certain journalistic techniques, certain cinematic techniques, and simultaneity. This was new at the time. I especially liked his Manhattan Transfer and The 42nd Parallel. But he didn’t continue.
Playboy: Have you read any other American books you’ve liked in recent years?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Very few.
Playboy: For instance?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Well, I’ve liked most The Organization Man by Whyte, The Exurbanites by Spectorsky, and all the books of C. Wright Mills, my late and dear friend.
Playboy: Let’s talk about your own work. Several of your plays have been adapted for the screen; have you liked any of them?
Jean-Paul Sartre: The movie versions of my plays have all been very bad — except for The Respectful Prostitute.
Playboy: Still, haven’t you earned a good deal in royalties from these films? Besides, you are a continual best seller.
Jean-Paul Sartre: True; I have quite large sums of money to spend, as a matter of fact. But I also have many obligations. And the fact is that I hate to possess. It seems to me that we are possessed by the things we possess — whether it be money or the things it buys. When I like an object, I always want to give it to someone. It isn’t generosity — it’s only because I want others to be enslaved by objects, not me. And I get pleasure from the thought that someone will like an object I give him.
Playboy: You eschew wealth — but how about fame? Are you pleased with the worldwide eminence you’ve attained, or rather regained, in recent years?
Jean-Paul Sartre: In some ways, perhaps — but I don’t want to become the prisoner of my status, whatever it may be at the moment. Always the here and now is a condition I regard as temporary and wish to leave behind. I persist in a childish illusion: the illusion that a man can always better himself. I warn myself that I’ve written some books, but if I feel it my duty to defend the ideas expressed in these books, even if things change, then I am no longer myself. I would become the victim of my own books. I don’t think that one should make a point, as Gide did, of systematically breaking with one’s past; but I want always to be accessible to change. I don’t feel bound by anything I’ve written. Nevertheless, I don’t disown a word of it, either.
Playboy: [The following exchange took place several months later, immediately after Sartre’s refusal of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature.]
One final question: Why did you reject the Nobel Prize?
Jean-Paul Sartre: I’d rather not talk about it.
Playboy: Why not?
Jean-Paul Sartre: Because I don’t think that an academy or a prize has anything to do with me. I consider that the greatest honor I can have is to be read.
Playboy, XII, no. 5, May 1965, pp. 69-76