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What is Literature? by Jean-Paul Sartre
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What is Literature? (1948)

by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Twentieth century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre maintained one value supreme above all others – freedom. This being the case, is it any surprise Sartre places freedom front and center when addressing literature’s connection with existentialism? Below are quotes from the second of this three part book, a part entitled ‘Why Write?” along with my comments:

“With each of our acts the world reveals a new face.” --------- By this statement Sartre emphasizes a prime reason for artistic creation: the need artists and writers have to feel they are essential in relationship to the world, that is, through their writing or painting the world is revealed in unique and important ways. Literature places a distinctively human stamp on the world and with each new painting or book another valuable, vital stamp is added. I think we can all agree the world would be smaller and poorer without, to name just several, Virginia Woolf and Leo Tolstoy, R. K. Narayan and Raymond Chandler, Anne Tyler, Philip K. Dick and Shusaku Endo.

“It is the conjoint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. There is no art except for and by others. Raskolnikov’s waiting is my waiting which I lend him. Without this impatience of the reader he would remain only a collection of signs.” ---------- I really appreciate Sartre on this point: readers awaken the words and sentences on the page, inventing and completing characters and scenes with their own feelings, emotions, ideas, intuitions and past experiences. Thusly, the work of art is rounded out, made whole and complete by a community of readers. Harry Haller receives a new, more expanded life each time I reread Hesse’s novel “Steppenwolf”.

“Thus, for the reader, all is to do and all is already done; the work exists only at the exact level of his capacities; while he reads and creates, he knows that he can always go further in his reading, can always create more profoundly, and thus the work seems to him as inexhaustible and opaque as things.” ---------- Has anybody ever reached the bottommost level of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”? I suspect a reader could spend an entire lifetime rereading this novel and discover new, deeper dimensions and meaning with each successive study. There are a number of novels I have reread multiple times, “The Stranger” and “Siddhartha” come immediately to mind and this has certainly been my experience – I have never reached the bottom; there is always more to learn and appreciate.

“And since this directed creation is an absolute beginning, it is therefore brought about by the freedom of the reader, and by what is purest in that freedom. Thus, the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work. The book does not serve me freedom, it requires it.” ---------- Sartre underscores how we are required to bring our freedom to our reading. On important aspect of freedom is openness of mind. If we find ourselves disinclined to read a novel by an author with a different sexual orientation or cultural background then ourselves, for example a novel like “Season of Migration to the North” by the Sudanese author Tayeb Salih where he explores cultural confrontation and racism, we might want to reflect on exactly how open-minded and free we really are.

“The characteristic of aesthetic consciousness is to be a belief by means of an engagement, by oath, a belief sustained by fidelity in one’s self and to the author, a perpetually renewed choice to believe. I can awaken at every moment, as I know it: but I do not want to: reading is a free dream.” ---------- Reading is a generosity, a giving oneself completely to a character and story, a gift to the writer. We can have mixed feeling reading an unsettling work, say a story of a child experiencing the horrors of war in a novel like Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” or a Thomas Ligotti tale of terror, but we keep turning the pages, keeping our free dream alive since we value our readerly commitment and engagement.

“The work can be defined as an imaginary presentation of the world insofar as it demands human freedom. The result of which is that there is no “gloomy literature”, since, however dark may be the colors in which one paints the world, he paints it only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it. Above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom. ---------- Is there ever enough freedom in the world? Sartre thinks there is always room for more freedom – thus, more literature, more books.

Final note: I have cited works of fiction since, for the most part, Sartre uses fiction as examples throughout his book (Sartre famously disliked poetry). However, when he speaks of literature, not only is Sartre referring to novels and stories but other types of creative writing such as poetry, plays, essays and, yes, reviews. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
What Is Literature? (Qu’est ce que la littérature?) by Jean-Paul Sartre has also been published as Literature and Existentialism. It is a collection of freestanding essays originally published in the French literary journals Les Temps Modernes, Situations I and Situations II. Jean-Paul Sartre is best known as the French philosopher who played a key part in the schools of existentialism and phenomenology. It is sometimes forgotten that he was also a literary critic and a Marxist who was often vocal about the abuses of human rights by the Soviet Union.

The reason I mention that Jean-Paul Sartre was a Marxist is because this plays a big part of What Is Literature? To understand his political standing is useful because it plays an important role in his literary criticism; Sartre was very vocal political, and though he embraced Marxism he never joined the communist party. While his literary criticism is always focused on Marxism, his schools of thought in philosophy are relevant, as well as his views on sociology and post-colonialism.

There are four essays found within What Is Literature? “What is Writing?”, “Why Write?”, “For Whom Does One Write?” and “Situation of the Writer in 1947”. “What is Writing?” is probably the most fascinating (for me, anyway) of the four essays, exploring the ideas of writing that distinguish it as an art form apart from poetry, painting and music. I found it interesting how Sartre has separated poetry and journalism out of his thoughts of writing to focus on literature as an art form. Whether you believe his idea of not, Jean-Paul Sartre will give you plenty of food for thought and I have to admit that a sufficient amount of it went over my head.

Jean-Paul Sartre has spent a great deal of time thinking about literature and writing as an art and philosophical idea, more than I could ever imagine. Because of this, it can be difficult and as a reader I had to admit that I wouldn’t understand everything. What Is Literature? did however leave me with plenty to think about and offer me a fresh perspective and that is all I wanted from this book. Let’s face it, this is a pretty pretentious book to read but I still think it is worth exploring the ideas within What Is Literature?

This review originally appeared on my blog: http://literary-exploration.com/2014/12/16/what-is-literature-by-jean-paul-sartr...
  knowledge_lost | Dec 17, 2014 |
Like most other people, I first read Sartre early in my time at college- Nausea, Being & Nothingness, Words. And I was, of course, smitten by this man who understood so well my experience of isolation, freedom and how irritating it is when tools don't work properly. And then, like (I hope) most other people (including, it must be said, Sartre), I got over it, realized that the world existed neither to irritate me nor to coddle me, and that there were more important things than the state of my Existence.

So I didn't exactly have high expectations of this, and was very pleasantly surprised. Sartre's argument is based on a pretty dodgy philosophy, but quite valid feelings: anger at injustice, love of literature. Like most philosophies of literature, he makes absurd and stupid generalizations (the poet 'considers words as things, not signs' and so isn't like a 'writer'), but at least his largest generalization isn't an insult to human beings: the act of writing, he argues, is an act of freedom addressed to other free humans who happen at present to be in terrible situations of unfreedom. The relation between writer and reader can be an ideal image of a world in which people aren't forced to work in jobs they hate, or do anything else they hate for that matter. I'll take that over 'the act of writing is the putting into question of literature' any day. "The work of art, from whichever side you approach it, is an act of confidence in the freedom of men." And, I assume, women.

The writer is addressing both a real public - the people who do actually read her - and a virtual public, the people who could conceivably read her. In different historical periods these two audiences will more or less match up: when the society is one of minimal freedom for most people (Sartre's example is the 17th century), the virtual audience is more or less absent; when the society has the potential for greater freedom, the virtual audience expands (e.g., modernity.) But in any case, the writer must address her 'virtual' public through her real one. Abstract palaver has no place in Sartre's theory.

He follows this up with a great history of 20th century literature in France, which is basically a critique of surrealism and the communist party (it's important to note the latter, since everyone - including myself up till now - seems to think Sartre was a Stalinist), and the last chapter is a rousing call for writers to care about what they do. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
"Writing and reading are two facets of the same historical fact, and the freedom to which the writer invites us is not a pure abstract consciousness of being free. Strictly speaking, it is not; it wins itself in an historical situation; each book proposes a concrete liberation on the basis of a particular alienation. Hence, in each one there is an implicit recourse to institutions, customs, certain forms of implicit recourse to institutions, customs, certain forms of oppression and conflict, to the wisdom and the folly of the day, to lasting passions and passing stubbornness, to superstitions and recent victories of commonsense, to evidence and ignorance, to particular modes of reasoning which the sciences have made fashionable and which are applied in all domains, to hopes to fears, to habits of sensibility, imagination, and even perception, and finally, to customs and values which have been handed down, to a whole world which the author and the reader have in common. It is this familiar world which the writer animates and penetrates with his freedom."
  profsuperplum | May 21, 2009 |
First published in 1947 and dealing mostly with French literature, it's surprising how relevant many of Sartre's ideas here still seem relevant. Basically a phenomenology of reading and writing, the book covers, in Sartre's typically dense prose, the purpose of writing, writing for political ends, why people read and just about any other topic Sartre can possibly link to these concepts. It's tough going at times for philosophical neophytes (such as myself) but there are enough engaging concepts revealed here to keep the attention of anyone with an interest in literary criticism interested.

(This review originally appeared on zombieunderground.net) ( )
  coffeezombie | Sep 24, 2006 |
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Qu'est ce que la littérature? (1947) published in English as What is Literature?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0415254043, Paperback)

Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most important philosophical and political thinkers of the twentieth century. His writings had a potency that was irresistible to the intellectual scene that swept post-war Europe, and have left a vital inheritance to contemporary thought. The central tenet of the Existentialist movement which he helped to found, whereby God is replaced by an ethical self, proved hugely attractive to a generation that had seen the horrors of Nazism, and provoked a revolution in post-war thought and literature. In What is Literature? Sartre the novelist and Sartre the philosopher combine to address the phenomenon of literature, exploring why we read, and why we write.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:00 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In a probing philosophical exploration of the act of literary creation, Sartre asks: "What is writing?," "Why write?," and "For whom does one write?" After discussing existentialism as it pertains to art, human emotions, and psychology, French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre turns the question of existentialism to the subject of literature by stating that he wishes to "examine the art of writing without prejudice." Sartre eschews the idea of artists and writers comparing their works of art to one another; instead, he argues, "they exist by themselves." Tying into his thoughts on literature, Sartre additionally delves into Marxist politics, the intellectual labor of the writer, the individual reader, and the reading public.… (more)

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