Being & Sartre

The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre By Jean-Paul Sartre Pantheon Books; 358 pp.; $17.95

IN SEPTEMBER 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre, then recognized by the French literary community as a promising young author, was called into the service of his country as a meteorologist. On a whim, he decided to keep war journals to document the people he met, the places he saw, and the thoughts he had during the war. He completed 14 volumes, but only five have survived. In this first collected edition they provide a unique window on the philosopher's thought.

The War Diaries of Jean Paul Sartre hold out the tantalizing prospect of showing us the existential thoughts of the young Sartre in their starkest room--as he is literally placed in the jaws of death. In fact, The War Diaries do touch the heart of existentialism, but with a wonderfully human light more mute in his later works. Many existential experts believe they formed the launching pad for his great work Being and Nothingness. But they are more balanced than the later work, possessing a tone so serene and conversations so casual that it is often easy to forget that existentialism is supposed to be an imposing concept. The balance of the light and heavy is enough to prove inviting to any would-be philosopher.

In this work, Sartre betrays himself as a multi-dimensional "Superman" of sorts. He is a very human human-being, an intellectual, a scholar, a lover and a poet. The Diaries reveal Sartre not only as a man able to joke, but as one concerned with his physical being, even with such silly, unimportant things as his physical appearance. He talks of his need to diet, while betraying his concern that he is not strong enough to stick to it. "What am I to do?" he asks himself. "Drink up, thinking: I'll start my diet tomorrow, today it's impossible, nobody's obliged to do what's impossible'?"

Moreover, Sartre is shown to be susceptible to hubris as he leads his army acquaintances through a conversational existential odyssey. They discuss such abstract notions as equality of all before death, the extraction of thought from words, the over-categorization of individuals to the point where they lose their humanity in the human context.

HOWEVER, THROUGHOUT THEIR conversations, Sartre maintains a distance. Not only is he the "I" the constant focus of the conversation, but he removes himself as superior. At one point, he portrays himself as superior. At one point, he portrays himself as a teacher figure for his companions: "I amuse myself by teaching them freedom. So that my speeches, at first purely negative and referring to a shared morality, become positive indoctrinations." He is at once with his comrades and above them, companion and teacher.

Throughout The Diaries, we witness the duality of the man Jean-Paul Sartre as he approaches existence in the physical sense of an individual's existence and in the abstract sense of collective man's experience. He juxtaposes the crude material with the sophisticated abstract. He jumps from talking of a "posting inspection," during which "they made us piss into beer-mugs" and "strip to the buff," to nothing that "the method of Heidegger and such as may come after him is basically the same as that of Descartes." But for all his occasional snobisme, he returns to a realization of the common bond of humanity:" ...humanity must perforce be the historical totality of the men who have lived, are living and will live."

Often Sartre gets down to the brass tacks of pondering existence: "This evening I miss Argentine, the Sahara, all the parts of the world I don't know, the whole earth--and that's much milder, more resigned and hopeless. It's a 'tender suffering' that resembles happiness. It's like missing a life I might have had when I was 'a thousand Socrates'. But now I'm only one. Or maybe two or three."

Somewhere, sometime during the war he begins to formulate his idea that nothing is something: "...if nothing prevents us from doing the incriminating act, nothing obliges us to do it either.... It is the positive Nothing in freedom, from which responsibility derives."

INTERMINGLED WITH HIS whimsical mutterings on existence is a discussion of his intellectual roots. Finally Sartre has his chance to credit his mentors. He attributes his weaning to Husserl: "Husserl ... gripped me. I saw everything through the perspectives of his philosophy." After four years, Sartre made the break: "His philosophy evolved ultimately towards idealism, which I could not accept." He turned to Heidegger. From 'What is Metaphysics?' to Being and Time, Sartre was later to launch into his own discussion of existentialism. He even used the title Being and Nothingness, modeling it after Heidegger's book.

Often Sartre comes out as a romantic. He describes several of his exploits during his leaves. One leave spent with a particular Beaver is recounted in beautiful prose reminiscent of the great 'Lost Generation's writers:

On one of my last evenings, the Beaver had gone into a cafe on the champs. Elysees--the Rond-Point--and I was waiting outside for her seduced by that new, added discretion which after dark gives the cafes the clandestine look of brothels; seduced by a sky that was taking an age to fade away and a few precious stones attached to the gas lamps which shone without illuminating-by a whole night blue and filled with whisperings, which brought summer to mind. And suddenly I was overcome by a kind of toy at the thought that I alive was there in that proud dead city.

He discusses his long-dormant sexuality admitting his lecherouseness as a certain older woman. That young woman Mme Lebrun. I desired her as much as a child of ten can desire a woman ... I turned on the charm with her ... Shortly, afterwards. Mnie Lebrun declared with a serious air. I'd like to know the boy when he's twenty."

Sartre even unveils some poetry, offering it with the preface. "I give it here, for that it's worth--out of mortification." Despite his "mortification," it's actually not bad. And here it is, "For what it's worth":

Melted the rustlings of light under the dead trees.

In water the thousand lights of water that hid their name.

Melted the pure salt of winter, my hands wither.

I twist between my hands the greasy wadding of the sky.

Melted the needles of white joy in my heart.

SARTRE'S CASUAL THOUGHTS about existence and his flirtations with prose and poetry are charming, revealing a whimsical Sartre to complement the serious Sartre portrayed in his other works. It is ironic that a work that Sartre did not intend for public eyes and one that makes its public debut long after his most widely acclaimed works reached their audience (his latest famous work, Words, was published in 1964) should be the one to reveal the entire man. Reading Sartre's own everyday observations on life, one is hard pressed not to think that maybe his accounts of the war and his childhood and manhood exploits say more about man's existence than his dry words in later life could ever say