You Are What You Are Because You Are In “Existentialism”
Jean-Paul Sartre, a small tweedy Frenchman who visited Montreal this week, is the exponent and most vocal prophet of a new philosophy the French are calling “Existentialism.” Few people, even the most avid and curious, are quite sure just what it means. During his brief stay here, Sartre did his best to make it clear.
Most of what he believes, he says, is summed up in Huis Clos, a play which was produced in Montreal about three weeks ago by Pierre Dagenais’ L’Equipe. In the course of the rather strange action, one of the characters says “You are your life and nothing else.” The result of this rather basic idea has been Sartre’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, millions of heated words both for and against his philosophy, and his lecture tour in the U.S. and Eastern Canada.
Short, friendly and voluble, Sartre wears enormous horn-rimmed glasses. His greying hair is still red enough to identify him as the hero of “La Nausée,” the one who sits on the park bench and decides that he is what he is because he is. Although he speaks nothing but rapid French, he apparently had no trouble in such English strongholds as Toronto. The audience, he said, just stared.
At his press conference here, Sartre had a difficult half-hour grappling with questions which would label him a leftist, rightist, or what have you. Existentialists say they can’t be typed.
Explaining the philosophy, he chose a phrase he felt would be understood at once, that of personal liberty. No man, he pointed out, can be free as long as men around him are oppressed. To the French, emerging from five years’ occupation existentialism makes a good deal of sense; at least they are still alive, and that is the most important thing. His Canadian hearers wanted something more concrete.
“Do you mean that the whites in the South are oppressed because they oppress the Negroes?” he was asked.
He said, well yes.
In the next fifteen minutes he denied in rapid succession that he was either a marxist (“because Marxism is an end in itself”) a Protestant (“though you are close”), or a Catholic.
Somebody asked if he didn’ t think the Vatican was all out for personal liberty. Sartre, who was recently excommunicated, didn’t say.
“Don’t you think,” ran the final question from the French press, “that the English-Canadians who oppress us are themselves oppressed?”
Mr. Sartre said he didn’t know.
– Montreal Standard, March 16 1946.