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Jean-Paul Sartre wins and declines Nobel Prize in Literature

Jean-Paul Sartre wins and declines Nobel Prize in Literature


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On October 22, 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, which he declines.

In his novels, essays, and plays, Sartre advanced the philosophy of existentialism, arguing that each individual must create meaning for his or her own life, because life itself had no innate meaning.

Sartre studied at the elite École Normale Supérieure between 1924 and 1929. He met Simone de Beauvoir, who became his lifelong companion, during this time. The pair spent countless hours in cafés, talking, writing, and drinking coffee. Sartre became a philosophy professor and taught in Le Havre, Laon, and Paris. In 1938, his first novel, Nausea, was published-the narrative took the form of a diary of a cafÉ-haunting intellectual. In 1939, he was drafted into World War II, taken prisoner, and held for about a year; he later fought with the French Resistance.

In 1943, he published one of his key works, Being and Nothingness, where he argued that man is condemned to freedom and has a social responsibility. Sartre and Beauvoir engaged in social movements, supporting communism and the radical student uprisings in Paris in 1968.

Also in 1943, he wrote one of his best-known plays, The Flies, followed by Huis Clos (No Exit) in 1945. In 1945, he began a four-volume novel called The Roads to Freedom but gave up the novel form after finishing the third volume in 1949. In 1946, he continued to develop his philosophy in Existentialism and Humanism.

In the 1950s and 60s, he devoted himself to studies of literary figures like Baudelaire, Jean Genet, and Flaubert. The Family Idiot, his work on Flaubert, was massive, but only three of four volumes were published. Sartre’s health and vision declined in his later years, and he died in 1980.


Jean-Paul Sartre


Jean-Paul Sartre
(1905 - 1980)

French novelist, playwright, and exponent of Existentialism--a philosophy acclaiming the freedom of the individual human being. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but he declined it.

Early life and writings
Sartre lost his father at an early age and grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, Carl Schweitzer, uncle of the medical missionary Albert Schweitzer and himself professor of German at the Sorbonne. The boy, who wandered in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris in search of playmates, was small in stature and cross-eyed. His brilliant autobiography, Les Mots (1963 Words, 1964), narrates the adventures of the mother and child in the park as they went from group to group--in the vain hope of being accepted--then finally retreated to the sixth floor of their apartment "on the heights where (the) dreams dwell." "The words" saved the child, and his interminable pages of writing were the escape from a world that had rejected him but that he would proceed to rebuild in his own fancy.
Sartre went to the Lycee Henri IV in Paris and, later on, after the remarriage of his mother, to the lycee in La Rochelle. From there he went to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, from which he was graduated in 1929. Sartre resisted what he called "bourgeois marriage," but while still a student he formed with Simone de Beauvoir a union that remained a settled partnership in life. Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, Memoires d'une jeune fille rangee (1958 Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959) and La Force de l'age (1960 The Prime of Life, 1962), provide an intimate account of Sartre's life from student years until his middle 50s. It was also at the Ecole Normale Superieure and at the Sorbonne that he met several persons who were destined to be writers of great fame among these were Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, Emmanuel Mounier, Jean Hippolyte, and Claude Levi-Strauss. From 1931 until 1945 Sartre taught in the lycees of Le Havre, Laon, and, finally, Paris. Twice this career was interrupted, once by a year of study in Berlin and the second time when Sartre was drafted in 1939 to serve in World War II. He was made prisoner in 1940 and released a year later.

During his years of teaching in Le Havre, Sartre published La Nausee. (1938 Nausea, 1949), his first claim to fame. This novel, written in the form of a diary, narrates the feeling of revulsion that a certain Roquentin undergoes when confronted with the world of matter--not merely the world of other people but the very awareness of his own body. According to some critics, La Nausee must be viewed as a pathological case, a form of neurotic escape. Most probably it must be appreciated also as a most original, fiercely individualistic, antisocial piece of work, containing in its pages many of the philosophical themes that Sartre later developed.

Sartre took over the phenomenological method, which proposes careful, unprejudiced description rather than deduction, from the German philosopher Edmund Husserl and used it with great skill in three successive publications: L'Imagination (1936 Imagination: A Psychological Critique, 1962), Esquisse d'une theorie des emotions (1939 Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, 1962), and L'Imaginaire: Psychologie phenomenologique de l'imagination (1940 The Psychology of Imagination, 1950). But it was above all in L'Etre et le neant (1943 Being and Nothingness, 1956) that Sartre revealed himself as a master of outstanding talent. Sartre places human consciousness, or no-thingness (neant), in opposition to being, or thingness (etre). Consciousness is not-matter and by the same token escapes all determinism. The message, with all the implications it contains, is a hopeful one yet the incessant reminder that human endeavour is and remains useless makes the book tragic as well.


Post-World War II work
Having written his defense of individual freedom and human dignity, Sartre turned his attention to the concept of social responsibility. For many years he had shown great concern for the poor and the disinherited of all kinds. While a teacher, he had refused to wear a tie, as if he could shed his social class with his tie and thus come closer to the worker. Freedom itself, which at times in his previous writings appeared to be a gratuitous activity that needed no particular aim or purpose to be of value, became a tool for human struggle in his brochure L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946 Existentialism and Humanism, 1948). Freedom now implied social responsibility. In his novels and plays Sartre began to bring his ethical message to the world at large. He started a four-volume novel in 1945 under the title Les Chemins de la liberte, of which three were eventually written: L'Age de raison (1945 The Age of Reason, 1947), Le Sursis (1945 The Reprieve, 1947), and La Mort dans l'ame (1949 Iron in the Soul, 1950 U.S. title, Troubled Sleep, 1950). After the publication of the third volume, Sartre changed his mind concerning the usefulness of the novel as a medium of communication and turned back to plays.
What a writer must attempt, said Sartre, is to show man as he is. Nowhere is man more man than when he is in action, and this is exactly what drama portrays. He had already written in this medium during the war, and now one play followed another: Les Mouches (produced 1943 The Flies, 1946), Huis-clos (1944 In Camera, 1946 U.S. title, No Exit, 1946), Les Mains sales (1948 Crime passionel, 1949 U.S. title, Dirty Hands, 1949 acting version, Red Gloves), Le Diable et le bon dieu (1951 Lucifer and the Lord, 1953), Nekrassov (1955), and Les Sequestres d'Altona (1959 Loser Wins, 1959 U.S. title, The Condemned of Altona, 1960). All the plays, in their emphasis upon the raw hostility of man toward man, seem to be predominantly pessimistic yet, according to Sartre's own confession, their content does not exclude the possibility of a morality of salvation. Other publications of the same period include a book, Baudelaire (1947), a vaguely ethical study on the French writer and poet Jean Genet entitled Saint Genet, comedien et martyr (1952 Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr, 1963), and innumerable articles that were published in Les Temps Modernes, the monthly review that Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir founded and edited. These articles were later collected in several volumes under the title Situations.

Political activities. After World War II, Sartre took an active interest in French political movements, and his leanings to the left became more pronounced. He became an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union, although he did not become a member of the Communist Party. In 1954 he visited the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Africa, the United States, and Cuba. Upon the entry of Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956, however, Sartre's hopes for communism were sadly crushed. He wrote in Les Temps Modernes a long article, "Le Fantome de Staline," that condemned both the Soviet intervention and the submission of the French Communist Party to the dictates of Moscow. Over the years this critical attitude opened the way to a form of "Sartrian Socialism" that would find its expression in a new major work, Critique de la raison dialectique (1960 Eng. trans., of the introduction only, under the title The Problem of Method, 1963 U.S. title, Search for a Method). Sartre set out to examine critically the Marxist dialectic and discovered that it was not livable in the Soviet form. Although he still believed that Marxism was the only philosophy for the current times, he conceded that it had become ossified and that, instead of adapting itself to particular situations, it compelled the particular to fit a predetermined universal. Whatever its fundamental, general principles, Marxism must learn to recognize the existential concrete circumstances that differ from one collectivity to another and to respect the individual freedom of man. The Critique, somewhat marred by poor construction, is in fact an impressive and beautiful book, deserving of more attention than it has gained so far. A projected second volume was abandoned. Instead, Sartre prepared for publication Les Mots, for which he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature, an offer that was refused.


Last years.
From 1960 until 1971 most of Sartre's attention went into the writing of a four-volume study called Flaubert. Two volumes with a total of some 2,130 pages appeared in the spring of 1971. This huge enterprise aimed at presenting the reader with a "total biography" of Gustave Flaubert, the famous French novelist, through the use of a double tool: on the one hand, Karl Marx's concept of history and class and, on the other, Sigmund Freud's illuminations of the dark recesses of the human soul through explorations into his childhood and family relations. Although at times Sartre's genius comes through and his fecundity is truly unbelievable, the sheer volume of the work and the minutely detailed analysis of even the slightest Flaubertian dictum hamper full enjoyment. As if he himself were saturated by the prodigal abundance of his writings, Sartre moved away from his desk during 1971 and did very little writing. Under the motto that "commitment is an act, not a word," Sartre often went into the streets to participate in rioting, in the sale of left-wing literature, and in other activities that in his opinion were the way to promote "the revolution." Paradoxically enough, this same radical Socialist published in 1972 the third volume of the work on Flaubert, L'Idiot de la famille, another book of such density that only the bourgeois intellectual can read it.
The enormous productivity of Sartre came herewith to a close. His mind, still alert and active, came through in interviews and in the writing of scripts for motion pictures. He also worked on a book of ethics. However, his was no longer the power of a genius in full productivity. Sartre became blind and his health deteriorated. In April 1980 he died of a lung tumour. His very impressive funeral, attended by some 25,000 people, was reminiscent of the burial of Victor Hugo, but without the official recognition that his illustrious predecessor had received. Those who were there were ordinary people, those whose rights his pen had always defended.


Neven Sesardić

In 1964 Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature but declined it. The New York Review of Books published his explanation of why he refused to accept the award:

Sartre’s argument is riddled with contradiction and nonsense. I will comment on some parts.

A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.

The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionists commit only myself, while if Jean-Paul Sartre the Nobel laureate champions the Venezuelan resistance, he also commits the entire Nobel Prize as an institution.

The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.

If a writer accepts the Nobel Prize for literature, why exactly would his support for some political cause “also commit the entire Nobel Prize as an institution”? The claim makes no sense whatsoever. And Sartre provided no reason to support it.

Worse still, he flatly contradicted himself:

During the war in Algeria, when we had signed the “declaration of the 121,” I should have gratefully accepted the prize, because it would have honored not only me, but also the freedom for which we were fighting.

So, after at first insisting that “the writer must refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution,” Sartre suddenly says that he would have “gratefully accepted” the award (and thereby allowed himself to be transformed into an institution) when he defended a certain political stance toward the war in Algeria. But why would receiving the Nobel Prize be all right in the case of Algeria but not in connection with Venezuela?

This attitude is of course entirely my own and contains no criticism of those who have already been awarded the prize.

But it does! Apparently, Sartre forgot what he wrote a few paragraphs earlier, namely: “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable.” Obviously, if Sartre thinks that accepting honors is undesirable for a writer, then it follows logically that he is criticizing those writers who do accept honors. Sartre cannot have his criticism and eat it too.

The only battle possible today on the cultural front is the battle for the peaceful coexistence of the two cultures, that of the East and that of the West… My sympathies undeniably go to socialism and to what is called the Eastern bloc… I nonetheless hope, of course, that “the best man wins.” That is, socialism.

This was written in 1964 when the leader of the Eastern bloc was Leonid Brezhnev, “the best man” whom Sartre wanted to win.


Jean-Paul Sartre: more relevant now than ever

I n this age in which all shall have prizes, in which every winning author knows what’s necessary in the post-award trial-by-photoshoot (Book jacket pressed to chest? Check. Wall-to-wall media? Check. Backdrop of sponsor’s logo? Check) and in which scarcely anyone has the couilles, as they say in France, to politely tell judges where they can put their prize, how lovely to recall what happened on 22 October 1964, when Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel prize for literature.

“I have always declined official honours,” he explained at the time. “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution. This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social or literary positions must act only within the means that are his own – that is, the written word.”

Throughout his life, Sartre agonised about the purpose of literature. In 1947’s What is Literature?, he jettisoned a sacred notion of literature as capable of replacing outmoded religious beliefs in favour of the view that it should have a committed social function. However, the last pages of his enduringly brilliant memoir Words, published the same year as the Nobel refusal, despair over that function: “For a long time I looked on my pen as a sword now I know how powerless we are.” Poetry, wrote Auden, makes nothing happen politically committed literature, Sartre was saying, was no better. In rejecting the honour, Sartre worried that the Nobel was reserved for “the writers of the west or the rebels of the east”. He didn’t damn the Nobel in quite the bracing terms that led Hari Kunzru to decline the 2003 John Llewellyn Rhys prize, sponsored by the Mail on Sunday (“As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail’s editorial line”), but gently pointed out its Eurocentric shortcomings. Plus, one might say 50 years on, ça change. Sartre said that he might have accepted the Nobel if it had been offered to him during France’s imperial war in Algeria, which he vehemently opposed, because then the award would have helped in the struggle, rather than making Sartre into a brand, an institution, a depoliticised commodity. Truly, it’s difficult not to respect his compunctions.

But the story is odder than that. Sartre read in Figaro Littéraire that he was in the frame for the award, so he wrote to the Swedish Academy saying he didn’t want the honour. He was offered it anyway. “I was not aware at the time that the Nobel prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient,” he said. “But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision, it cannot subsequently revoke it.”

Regrets? Sartre had a few – at least about the money. His principled stand cost him 250,000 kronor (about £21,000), prize money that, he reflected in his refusal statement, he could have donated to the “apartheid committee in London” who badly needed support at the time. All of which makes one wonder what his compatriot, Patrick Modiano, the 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel for literature earlier this month, did with his 8m kronor (about £700,000).

The Swedish Academy had selected Sartre for having “exerted a far-reaching influence on our age”. Is this still the case? Though he was lionised by student radicals in Paris in May 1968, his reputation as a philosopher was on the wane even then. His brand of existentialism had been eclipsed by structuralists (such as Lévi-Strauss and Althusser) and post-structuralists (such as Derrida and Deleuze). Indeed, Derrida would spend a great deal of effort deriding Sartrean existentialism as a misconstrual of Heidegger. Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, with the notable exception of Iris Murdoch and Arthur Danto, has for the most part been sniffy about Sartre’s philosophical credentials.

Sartre’s later reputation probably hasn’t benefited from being championed by Paris’s philosophical lightweight, Bernard-Henri Lévy, who subtitled his biography of his hero The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (Really? Not Heidegger, Russell, Wittgenstein or Adorno?) still less by his appearance in Monty Python’s least funny philosophy sketch, “Mrs Premise and Mrs Conclusion visit Jean-Paul Sartre at his Paris home”. Sartre has become more risible than lisible: unremittingly depicted as laughable philosopher toad – ugly, randy, incomprehensible, forever excitably over-caffeinated at Les Deux Magots with Simone de Beauvoir, encircled with pipe smoke and mired in philosophical jargon, not so much a man as a stock pantomime figure. He deserves better.

How then should we approach Sartre’s writings in 2014? So much of his lifelong intellectual struggle and his work still seems pertinent. When we read the “Bad Faith” section of Being and Nothingness, it is hard not to be struck by the image of the waiter who is too ingratiating and mannered in his gestures, and how that image pertains to the dismal drama of inauthentic self-performance that we find in our culture today. When we watch his play Huis Clos, we might well think of how disastrous our relations with other people are, since we now require them, more than anything else, to confirm our self-images, while they, no less vexingly, chiefly need us to confirm theirs. When we read his claim that humans can, through imagination and action, change our destiny, we feel something of the burden of responsibility of choice that makes us moral beings. True, when we read such sentences as “the being by which Nothingness comes to the world must be its own Nothingness”, we might want to retreat to a dark room for a good cry, but let’s not spoil the story.

His lifelong commitments to socialism, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism still resonate. When we read, in his novel Nausea, of the protagonost Antoine Roquentin in Bouville’s art gallery, looking at pictures of self-satisfied local worthies, we can apply his fury at their subjects’ self-entitlement to today’s images of the powers that be (the suppressed photo, for example, of Cameron and his cronies in Bullingdon pomp), and share his disgust that such men know nothing of what the world is really like in all its absurd contingency.

In his short story Intimacy, we confront a character who, like all of us on occasion, is afraid of the burden of freedom and does everything possible to make others take her decisions for her. When we read his distinctions between being-in-itself (être-en-soi), being-for-itself (être-pour-soi) and being-for-others (être-pour-autrui), we are encouraged to think about the tragicomic nature of what it is to be human – a longing for full control over one’s destiny and for absolute identity, and at the same time, a realisation of the futility of that wish.

The existential plight of humanity, our absurd lot, our moral and political responsibilities that Sartre so brilliantly identified have not gone away rather, we have chosen the easy path of ignoring them. That is not a surprise: for Sartre, such refusal to accept what it is to be human was overwhelmingly, paradoxically, what humans do.

The Swedish Academy, then, was hardly wrong to give the 1964 literature prize to the now-neglected philosopher writer: he was as great a writer and thinker as its members then recognised. It would just have been nice if they’d checked with Sartre first.


October 22 in Literature: Jean-Paul Sartre Turns Down Nobel Prize

1844: Sarah Bernhardt is born. In 1900, she would become the first actor ever to portray the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet on film.

1870: Lord Alfred Douglas is born. Most famous – or infamous – for being Oscar Wilde‘s lover, Douglas, the son of the Marquis of Queensbury, was also a poet. However, most people only know one line of his poetry: ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, from his 1894 poem ‘Two Loves‘.

1919: Doris Lessing is born Doris May Tayler in Iran. She would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. Here are ten of the best Doris Lessing quotations from our archives. Our favourite: ‘That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.’

1964: Jean-Paul Sartre turns down the Nobel Prize for Literature he writes about his refusal of the award on Le Figaro. His reasons were several, but he tended to decline offers of honours (he turned down the Legion of Honour after WWII), and thought the writer must ‘refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution’. But what is most interesting about this is that he had warned the Nobel Prize committee that, if they offered him the prize, he would turn it down. But they went ahead and awarded him it anyway, knowing it would be refused. In many ways, the committee felt that his refusing it was an honourable act, not a snub but a declaration of Sartre’s sincere beliefs and commitment to various causes he held dear.

1995: Kingsley Amis dies. He lived to be 73, having once remarked, ‘No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare.’ He also opined: ‘If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing.’ For four decades he enjoyed a prolific and close correspondence with his university friend Philip Larkin, whose best poems we have selected here.


Jean-Paul Sartre Rejects the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964: “It Was Monstrous!”

In a 2013 blog post, the great Ursula K. Le Guin quotes a London Times Literary Supplement column by a “J.C.,” who satirically proposes the “Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal.” “Writers all over Europe and American are turning down awards in the hope of being nominated for a Sartre,” writes J.C., “The Sartre Prize itself has never been refused.” Sartre earned the honor of his own prize for prize refusal by turning down the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, an act Le Guin calls “characteristic of the gnarly and counter-suggestible Existentialist.” As you can see in the short clip above, Sartre fully believed the committee used the award to whitewash his Communist political views and activism.

But the refusal was not a theatrical or “impulsive gesture,” Sartre wrote in a statement to the Swedish press, which was later published in Le Monde. It was consistent with his longstanding principles. “I have always declined official honors,” he said, and referred to his rejection of the Legion of Honor in 1945 for similar reasons. Elaborating, he cited first the “personal” reason for his refusal

This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner.

The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.

There was another reason as well, an “objective” one, Sartre wrote. In serving the cause of socialism, he hoped to bring about “the peaceful coexistence of the two cultures, that of the East and the West.” (He refers not only to Asia as “the East,” but also to “the Eastern bloc.”)

Therefore, he felt he must remain independent of institutions on either side: “I should thus be quite as unable to accept, for example, the Lenin Prize, if someone wanted to give it to me.”

As a flattering New York Times article noted at time, this was not the first time a writer had refused the Nobel. In 1926, George Bernard Shaw turned down the prize money, offended by the extravagant cash award, which he felt was unnecessary since he already had “sufficient money for my needs.” Shaw later relented, donating the money for English translations of Swedish literature. Boris Pasternak also refused the award, in 1958, but this was under extreme duress. “If he’d tried to go accept it,” Le Guin writes, “the Soviet Government would have promptly, enthusiastically arrested him and sent him to eternal silence in a gulag in Siberia.”

These qualifications make Sartre the only author to ever outright and voluntarily reject both the Nobel Prize in Literature and its sizable cash award. While his statement to the Swedish press is filled with polite explanations and gracious demurrals, his filmed statement above, excerpted from the 1976 documentary Sartre by Himself, minces no words.

Because I was politically involved the bourgeois establishment wanted to cover up my “past errors.” Now there’s an admission! And so they gave me the Nobel Prize. They “pardoned” me and said I deserved it. It was monstrous!

Sartre was in fact pardoned by De Gaulle four years after his Nobel rejection for his participation in the 1968 uprisings. “You don’t arrest Voltaire,” the French President supposedly said. The writer and philosopher, Le Guin points out, “was, of course, already an ‘institution’” at the time of the Nobel award. Nonetheless, she says, the gesture had real meaning. Literary awards, writes Le Guin—who herself refused a Nebula Award in 1976 (she’s won several more since)—can “honor a writer,” in which case they have “genuine value.” Yet prizes are also awarded “as a marketing ploy by corporate capitalism, and sometimes as a political gimmick by the awarders [….] And the more prestigious and valued the prize the more compromised it is.” Sartre, of course, felt the same—the greater the honor, the more likely his work would be coopted and sanitized.

Perhaps proving his point, a short, nasty 1965 Harvard Crimson letter had many, less flattering things than Le Guin to say about Sartre’s motivations, calling him “an ugly toad” and a “poor loser” envious of his former friend Camus, who won in 1957. The letter writer calls Sartre’s rejection of the prize “an act of pretension” and a “rather ineffectual and stupid gesture.” And yet it did have an effect. It seems clear at least to me that the Harvard Crimson writer could not stand the fact that, offered the “most coveted award” the West can bestow, and a heaping sum of money besides, “Sartre’s big line was, ‘Je refuse.’”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


JEAN-PAUL SARTRE: The First Person To Decline The Nobel Prize

“A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own — that is, the written word.” Despite its surprisingly dark origin, the Nobel Prize is regarded as the highest honor bestowed upon a human being. Among its diverse laureates are a number of meta-outliers — people exceptional not only for the work that merited the prize but also for their atypical position within the Nobel ecosystem itself: Marie Curie became not only the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize but also the first and, for decades, the only person to win a Nobel in two different sciences Aung San Suu Kyi is the only laureate who received the prize while under house arrest Ernest Hemingway accepted his with a short and piercing speech that is itself prize-worthy. But the greatest outlier of all is French philosopher, writer, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and became the first person to decline it. (The only other one to date is Lê Ðúc Tho, awarded the 1973 Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Peace Accords seeking to establish peace in Vietnam he turned it down on the grounds that there was no actual peace in Vietnam — an admirable stance that calls to mind Marie Curie’s famous assertion that “one never notices what has been done one can only see what remains to be done.”) In a statement to the Swedish press published on October 22, 1964, Sartre offered a defiant explanation second only to Adrienne Rich terrific letter of conviction, in which she became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts. Sartre wrote:

“I was not aware at the time that the Nobel Prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient, and I believed there was time to prevent this from happening. But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision it cannot subsequently revoke it. My reasons for refusing the prize concern neither the Swedish Academy nor the Nobel Prize in itself, as I explained in my letter to the Academy. In it, I alluded to two kinds of reasons: personal and objective. The personal reasons are these: my refusal is not an impulsive gesture, I have always declined official honors. In 1945, after the war, when I was offered the Legion of Honor, I refused it, although I was sympathetic to the government. Similarly, I have never sought to enter the Collège de France, as several of my friends suggested. This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own — that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner”.

But in the short excerpt from BBC’s philosophy documentary Human, All Too Human (watch below on Youtube ), Sartre offers a far less politically correct explanation:

Because I was politically involved, the bourgeois establishment wanted to cover up my “past errors.” Now, there’s an admission! And so they gave me the Nobel Prize. They “pardoned” me and said I deserved it. It was monstrous!

And yet one can’t help but wonder whether the publicity stunt was necessary. After all, physicist Richard Feynman — who won the Nobel Prize himself a year after Sartre — put it best in his eloquent denouncement of awards:

I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.

Making a fuss out of declining an award seems not much different from making a fuss over accepting it — both make the award more real than it need be if one were truly interested in breaking free from the system. Why can’t the private pleasure of finding things out be enough, award or no award? Then again, Sartre had a peculiar relationship with the real and the irreal — and that might be what makes his declination all the more interesting. Perhaps what he wrote in his passionate love letters to Simone de Beauvoir applies here as well: “Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things.” ( By Maria Popova from Brainpickings.org )


Sartre's 'Non' to Nobel prize came too late, say reports

Stockholm (AFP) - A letter sent by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964 declining the Nobel Prize for Literature came too late to avert one of the biggest debacles in its history, Swedish media reported Saturday.

Sartre's letter arrived nearly a month after he had been picked as the top choice by the Nobel Committee, the daily Svenska Dagbladet reported, based on archival material made available at the end of a customary 50-year period of secrecy.

The report throws light on the sequence of events leading to Sartre's decision to become the only person to willingly turn down the world's most prestigious literary prize.

Sartre later explained that he had "always declined official honours", including the French Legion of Honour in 1945, as it would limit his independence and institutionalise him.

It had been widely speculated that Sartre's letter asking not to be considered for the award had been too late, but only now is this backed up with actual historical evidence.

Sartre, who had been mentioned as a likely candidate for several years, sent his letter to the Nobel Foundation on October 14, 1964, saying he would not be able to accept the prize "either in 1964 or in the future", according to the paper.

However, the Nobel Committee for Literature had agreed on Sartre as the top candidate on September 17, the paper said.

In principle the decision on the year's winner had already been taken, Sartre was told in a reply from the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize.

Consequently, when the Swedish Academy met on October 22, 1964, its 18 members decided to follow the committee's recommendations and award the prize to Sartre -- who, good as his word, refused it.

Had Sartre's letter arrived before the committee met in mid-September, it is likely that the award would have gone to someone else, Svenska Dagbladet reported.

Some of the committee's members were ambivalent about Sartre's literary merits, and a letter from the famous Frenchman would have given them an additional argument against him, the paper said.

There is only one known case of a Nobel being refused in advance: Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt succeeded in persuading the members of the jury not to award it to him in 1919, but he had the unfair advantage of being a member of the jury himself.

He later won the prize posthumously in 1931 at a time when death was not a barrier to becoming a laureate.

In 1958, Soviet writer Boris Pasternak was awarded the literature prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago and other works, but the Kremlin forced him to decline the honour.

The only other laureate to willingly refuse the Nobel was Vietnamese prime minister Le Duc Tho, who did not want to share the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for negotiating the end of the Vietnam War.


Bob Dylan: America’s Greatest Songwriter

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C.

Rowland Scherman/National Archive/Newsmakers/Shutterstock

Written By: Kostya Kennedy

The unorthodox selection of Bob Dylan as the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize in
Literature was bound to cause controversy. He became the first American to win
the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993 and, more significantly, he became the first songwriter, from any country, to win it ever.

Although there had been a quiet groundswell for Dylan-as-Nobelist over the years—supported in part by university academics who teach his lyrics in their classrooms—many within the literary community squirmed. What about Philip Roth? What about Don DeLillo? What about . . . ? The novelist Irvine Welsh derided the Dylan selection as an “ill-conceived nostalgia award.” The poet Natalie Diaz wondered why the late Bob Marley never was considered. Some writers groused about ancillary things: Dylan is rich and famous enough already! He doesn’t need it! Or, Song lyrics aren’t really literature! More than one writer suggested that Dylan follow the path of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who in 1964 was awarded the Nobel but refused to accept it.

Yet many others, indeed the heavy bulk of the public commenters, were thrilled at the choice—both in admiration of Dylan’s writing and also because the committee had shown a willingness to buck tradition and test institutional bias. At the vaunted Swedish Academy the times were a-changing. “The frontiers of literature keep widening,” Salman Rushdie told Britain’s Guardian in 2016, while lauding Dylan as a personal inspiration. “It’s exciting that the Nobel Prize recognizes that.” Billy Collins, America’s former poet laureate, gave his blessing to Dylan’s Nobel. Songwriters cheered for one of the own. (“Holy mother of god,” wrote Rosanne Cash.) Barack Obama tweeted his congratulations.

Dylan stood by impassively, letting all the fuss blow in the wind. He didn’t bother to respond to the Academy’s call informing him of their choice. (“Impolite and arrogant,” a committee member griped.) He played concerts in Tulsa, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and El Paso—even now, at nearly 80, Dylan is frequently on tour—without mentioning the Nobel to the crowd. A note acknowledging he’d won the award went up as a short aside on his website but then was taken down. Weeks went by before Dylan said anything publicly at all. When he finally did, he told a reporter that he would attend the award ceremony, “If at all possible.” Later he said he didn’t think he’d make it there after all. Dylan being Dylan.

According to the official release, Dylan was named literature’s 113th Nobel laureate for, “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary at the time, Sara Danius, compared Dylan to Homer and Sappho and said that reaching the decision had not been difficult. “We’re
really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet—that’s the reason we awarded him the prize,” said Danius, who died in late 2019. “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onward. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition but also the oral one not just high literature but also low literature.”

High or low, literature—or rather what we might mean by it—is not easy to define. Merriam-Webster has it simply as: “written works . . . that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance,” a measure by which the writing not only of Bob Dylan, William Faulkner, Alice Munro, and every other laureate clearly qualifies but also such works as, say, the Guinness Book of World Records, Mad magazine, and the 2020 Chevy Impala owner’s manual. Perhaps then, we mean something else by literature, something about texts that communicate implicitly as well as explicitly, that find a way to say things that might otherwise not be said, that have, at their center, a conscience. The will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish philanthropist who set up the whole Nobel enterprise, decrees that the literature prize go to someone who produced “the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” The type of works considered, the Nobel Foundation says, should be “not only belles lettres but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value.”

Whether heard in song or read on the page, Dylan’s lyrics clearly contain many of the distinguishing qualities of great poems and novels. They’re hewn to engaging narratives. They’re often allegorical and richly emotional. They reveal themselves more fully over sustained analysis (hence the college courses). Dylan’s work is often political, of course, though rarely strident. It’s hard to imagine any writer of English listening attentively to Dylan’s lyrics without being affected by the language, the structure, and the content. They are words that stand the test of time.

The list of Nobel laureates is hardly definitive. (Tolstoy never won it. Pearl S. Buck did.) But many of the giants are there. And the imprimatur of the prize is on a scale of its own. In declining the award, Sartre spoke of the impact that it would have had upon how he was perceived. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner.” He added, “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.” In the case of Dylan—who gained his audience partly by pricking the establishment and now, perhaps in spite of himself, has become a part of it—Sartre’s is not an irrelevant concern.

The Nobel Prize, for all its momentous heft, will never outweigh Dylan’s true accomplishment. His powerful, beautiful, transformative and unforgettable songs helped to spur righteousness through the heart of the civil rights movement. Dylan’s words were sung by marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery. They were sung as preamble to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. That remains Bob Dylan’s noblest mark. The 2016 Nobel Prize was simply a crowning honor in an extraordinary life.

Bob Dylan In Christopher Park, New York CIty, January 22, 1965.

Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Shutterstock

Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to “The Times They Are a-Changing,” which he composed in 1963.

Chris Hondros/Shutterstock

Bob Dylan played piano during the recording of his album Highway 61 Revisited, 1965.

Michael Ochs Archives/Shutterstock

Dylan played an electric guitar on stage for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival, July 25, 1965.

Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archives/Shutterstock

Dylan with Richard Manuel (left), who was part of his backing band and later gained renown as a member of The Band, 1966.

Jan Persson/Redferns/Premium/Shutterstock

Bob Dylan in London around the time of his noted Royal Albert Hall concerts in 1966.

Photo by Daily Herald/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Shutterstock

French Culture Minister Jack Lang presented Bob Dylan with the Croix de Commandeur des Arts et Lettres (Arts and Literature Commander Cross) in Paris. January 30, 1990

Yves Forestier/Sygma/Shutterstock

Bob Dylan performed during the AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Michael Douglas at Sony Pictures Studios on June 11, 2009 in Culver City, California.

Kevin Winter/Shutterstock for AFI


The Vietnamese who turned down the Nobel Peace Prize

Only one man in history has ever turned down the Nobel Peace Prize: Vietnamese revolutionary, diplomat and politician, Le Duc Tho. For his role as Vietnam’s chief negotiator in the Paris Peace Accords, in 1973 he was jointly awarded the prize alongside his American counterpart, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger accepted the prize Le Duc Tho rejected it.

“The Nobel Committee made a big mistake,” he said in an interview with UPI a decade later. “This is a prize for peace. The thing here is, who is the one that has created peace? The ones who fought against the U.S. and established peace for the country are us, not the U.S. However, the Nobel Committee has put the invader and the invaded as equal – that is something I cannot accept, and that is the reason why I declined the prize.” When asked if he’d accept the prize now that the country is free, he replied, “Yes, but only if the prize is awarded to me only.”

Le Duc Tho’s (1911-90) fervently nationalist worldview was forged under the French occupation of Vietnam, and he spent most of his early adulthood in French colonial prisons where he underwent torture, hunger and humiliation, though soon gathered a reputation for toughness, even earning the nickname ‘the hammer.’

A fierce negotiator, he and Kissinger continually frustrated each other during the five-year-long peace talks with both sides accusing the other of acting in bad faith, either through being dishonest, reneging on ceasefires or on occasion by Tho simply hurling insult at Kissinger. In his book “Our Vietnam: The War 1954–1975,” U.S. journalist A.J. Langguth says that despite Kissinger’s protestations for Tho to be quiet, during one session of the talks he shouted at Kissinger for over an hour, finishing up: “For more than ten years, America has used violence to beat down the Vietnamese people-napalm, B-52s. But you don’t draw any lessons from your failures. You continue the same policy. Ngu xuan! Ngu xuan! Ngu xuan!” The translator reportedly refused to tell Kissinger what Ngu xuan meant (massively stupid) for fear of causing offence.

“I don’t look back on our meetings with any great joy, yet he was a person of substance and discipline who defended the position he represented with dedication, “

Henry kissinger

As it often does, the awarding of the prize caused considerable controversy. The biggest argument against the two laureates was that the Paris Peace Accords had not directly ended the Vietnam War (they hadn’t), but only agreed on a ceasefire and for the United States to withdraw all of its troops and military bases from Vietnam. Others went further, saying that Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger were as responsible for starting the war as ending it, and so a title of peace wasn’t fitting for them. To heighten the situation further, two members of the Nobel Prize Committee resigned in protest at the prize winners.

U.S. and Vietnamese responses to the award were, as you might imagine, markedly different. Time magazine wrote that: “Only at the White House was the announcement greeted with unguarded praise. Kissinger was unabashedly delighted President Nixon, who might have hoped to win it himself, said that the award gave ‘deserved recognition to the art of negotiation itself in the process of ending a war and laying the groundwork for peace.’ Hanoi, however, was resoundingly silent, lending substance to rumors that Tho would not accept the prize.”

“Peace has not yet really been established in South Vietnam. In these circumstances it is impossible for me to accept the 1973 Nobel Prize for Peace which the committee has bestowed on me.”

Luu Van Loi, who was with Tho at the conference as a member of the negotiating team, wasn’t happy with Kissinger either. “Kissinger was dodgy he always brought up irrelevant matters at the start of meetings, and only mentioned the important stuff out for discussion at night. He must have thought that the old Le Duc Tho was sleepy and tired. But he knew nothing about Tho! The longer the negotiation went, the more alert Tho got.”

Kissinger seemed to agree with Luu Van Loi when he expressed his astonishment: “Sometimes he talked for hours straight. I said, ‘I’ve heard this countless times,’ but Tho responded ‘You’ve heard it countless times but you haven’t remembered it, let me repeat…’”

Despite Tho often being reported—even in the American press—as ”the man who outsmarted Henry Kissinger at the Paris peace talks, ” as we well as talking down to the American statesman, treating him with “the airs of a Vietnamese mandarin lecturing a dim-witted student,” Kissinger was later to pay a sort of grudging respect to Tho and his refusal to give in: “I don’t look back on our meetings with any great joy, yet he was a person of substance and discipline who defended the position he represented with dedication,” he said.

PARIS, FRANCE – JANUARY 23, 1973: US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger (R) shakes hand with Le Duc Tho, leader of North Vietnam delegation, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on 23 January 1973 in Paris, France. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

In his statement declining the prize, Tho said: “Peace has not yet really been established in South Vietnam. In these circumstances it is impossible for me to accept the 1973 Nobel Prize for Peace which the committee has bestowed on me.” With the war not officially ending until the fall of Saigon in 1975, Tho’s reasoning seemed sound.

Of the six Nobel Laureates to have rejected any of the Nobel prizes, the Committee only cites two as being voluntary, Jean Paul-Sartre and Le Duc Tho. And though there is no doubt that Tho had little time for any award shared by the American side, it is highly unlikely the decision would have been unilaterally his own, least of all in wartime. The rejection was something that was almost certainly, likely briefly, mulled over by the highest echelons of the Communist Party of Vietnam and a collective decision made.

On Jan. 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed. Though they did not end the war immediately, they did serve as a first glimpse of hope of ending a war that stirred up tension throughout the world. Nobel Peace Prize or not, Le Duc Tho’s blunt, steadfast negotiating is unlikely to ever be forgotten by the Vietnamese people.


Sartre's 'Non to Nobel prize came too late'

A letter sent by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964 declining the Nobel Prize for Literature came too late to avert one of the biggest debacles in its history, Swedish media reported Saturday.

Sartre's letter arrived nearly a month after he had been picked as the top choice by the Nobel Committee, the daily Svenska Dagbladet reported, based on archival material made available at the end of a customary 50-year period of secrecy.

The report throws light on the sequence of events leading to Sartre's decision to become the only person to willingly turn down the world's most prestigious literary prize.

Sartre later explained that he had "always declined official honours", including the French Legion of Honour in 1945, as it would limit his independence and institutionalise him.

It had been widely speculated that Sartre's letter asking not to be considered for the award had been too late, but only now is this backed up with actual historical evidence.

Sartre, who had been mentioned as a likely candidate for several years, sent his letter to the Nobel Foundation on October 14, 1964, saying he would not be able to accept the prize "either in 1964 or in the future", according to the paper.

However, the Nobel Committee for Literature had agreed on Sartre as the top candidate on September 17, the paper said.

In principle the decision on the year's winner had already been taken, Sartre was told in a reply from the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize.

Consequently, when the Swedish Academy met on October 22, 1964, its 18 members decided to follow the committee's recommendations and award the prize to Sartre -- who, good as his word, refused it.

Had Sartre's letter arrived before the committee met in mid-September, it is likely that the award would have gone to someone else, Svenska Dagbladet reported.

Some of the committee's members were ambivalent about Sartre's literary merits, and a letter from the famous Frenchman would have given them an additional argument against him, the paper said.

There is only one known case of a Nobel being refused in advance: Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt succeeded in persuading the members of the jury not to award it to him in 1919, but he had the unfair advantage of being a member of the jury himself.

He later won the prize posthumously in 1931 at a time when death was not a barrier to becoming a laureate.

In 1958, Soviet writer Boris Pasternak was awarded the literature prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago and other works, but the Kremlin forced him to decline the honour.

The only other laureate to willingly refuse the Nobel was Vietnamese prime minister Le Duc Tho, who did not want to share the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for negotiating the end of the Vietnam War.


Watch the video: Jean-Paul Sartre and the Politics of Collective Freedom (July 2022).


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