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New Left Review 59, September-October 2009


Philosophers have produced many famous autobiographies, but few have left any diaries, in their relative spontaneity and immediacy a riskier form of self-revelation than retrospective composition. The single great exception are the notebooks Jean-Paul Sartre kept for some nine months, after being called up in September 1939, running from the Phony War to the eve of the fall of France. He filled fifteen of these. Of them, only six have survived. Five, found in his papers, were published posthumously by Gallimard in 1983, and were translated into English by Verso in 1984. A sixth—by a fortunate accident chronologically the first—came to light in a cache bought by the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1991, of which we publish excerpts below. The torso that has escaped destruction, some 600 pages in all, is by any measure one of the most remarkable pieces of writing Sartre ever produced—all but unmatched in their intellectual vivacity, variety and pungency. Though not much more than a half century has elapsed since they were written, the loss of the other nine books recalls the gaps in what has come down to us of the literature of Antiquity more than any modern precedent. The notebooks range freely over philosophical, literary, historical, political and personal themes. With the recovery of the first, Sartre’s intentions become clearer. In his diary, he was developing the concepts and concerns that would form Being and Nothingness, published in 1943 after his release as a prisoner-of-war; sketching ideas that take shape in his Portrait of the Anti-Semite; and—not least—beginning to test the instruments of existential analysis that would ultimately produce his portraits of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Genet and Flaubert. But the notebooks were not just a quarry of private reflections for future reference. Sartre, who was reading Gide’s and later Stendhal’s Journals, makes plain that he intended eventually to publish them, as a work of the same kind—though, characteristically, he showed small interest in them after the War, in the careless indifference to his own writing he records in the excerpts below. The sum of the notebooks thus becomes a wonderfully spirited, unsentimental—indeed often caustic—literary self-portrait, against the background of the opening months of the war. In the missing notebooks, we know that Sartre analysed at length his relationship with France—perhaps the most intriguing single theme in all that has been lost. But in the first notebook, we have what could be taken as the pendant to it: a scintillating description, written with a mordant lyricism, of his passionate relationship to the period that had just come to an end, the inter-war years of his prime.

jean-paul sartre


September–October 1939

Marmoutier. Thursday 14 September. [1] Sartre was called up as a reservist on 2 September 1939, aged 34. Poor eyesight had marked him for the auxiliary at the time of his military service in 1929, when he had undergone basic meteorological training. With three fellow soldiers of his ill-equipped meteorological unit—Corporal Paul, Keller and Pieter—he reached the small town of Marmoutier, some 20 miles northwest of Strasbourg, on September 11. He wrote to Simone de Beauvoir that, waking on the train that morning in the grey light of dawn, surrounded by sleeping soldiers, he conceived the project of a diary on ‘the world of the war’. On September 14 he bought a notebook in a local shop and began to write.A curious connection between stoicism and optimism. It’s already there in the Stoic of antiquity, who needed to believe the world is good. More of a psychological device than a theoretical connection. Another ruse to tranquilize oneself, another trap of inauthenticity. I set out for the army stoically, meaning that on the one hand I blocked out everything that made up my former life, and on the other hand accepted a future in which my own possibilities would no longer exist. ‘Readied up’, as they call it here. I was glad to be readied up, but didn’t realize that the essence of this state implies a kind of admiring docility towards the military authorities in charge of me. By placing myself in their hands, I trusted them and ceased to be a ‘man against’. This obviously came from the fact that I had freely tendered my resignation. I lost my critical spirit, and surprised myself in the first few days by being disagreeably affected when officers were criticized in front of me. Certainly the famous attitude of ‘saying no’ already implies doubt and reservation. Acceptance, on the contrary, leads to that admiration on principle which is everything I most detest.

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