We Have Only This Life to Live is a collection of Jean-Paul Sartre's essays spanning 40 years, covering everything from New York City to The Sound and the Fury to jazz. Co-editor Ronald Aronson, a distinguished professor of the history of ideas at Wayne State University, walks us through the fateful night of October 29, 1945, when Sartre the philosopher became Sartre the celebrity.
On the evening of October 29, 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre walked up to the Centraux meeting hall, near the Marbeuf metro station, to deliver a lecture that had been advertised for 8:30 in Combat, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération, and via leaflets posted at several bookstores. The title of the talk was: “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal delights in telling the story of Paris’s “cultural event of the year”: “An unprecedented cultural success. Scrimmages, blows, broken chairs, fainting spells. Box office destroyed: no tickets could be sold. [The organizers] were, by turns, satisfied, worried, terrified, embarrassed, devastated, and helpless before this tidal wave.” The hall was filled, and the crowd outside blocked the entrance. “Sartre had come alone, by subway, all the way from Saint-Germain-des-Prés. When he turned onto the street and saw a dense, threatening crowd congregated in front of the Centraux building, where he was supposed to speak, he said to himself, curious, ‘Probably some Communists demonstrating against me,’ and considered turning on his heels. But then, on second thought, he walked on, more out of professional integrity than from any desire to confront that human tide, which he believed hostile, and, without conviction, made it to the entrance. How many of those two or three hundred listeners had ever seen his face? Sartre was certainly not the kind of person who would say, ‘I am Sartre, please, let me pass.’ Sartre did not say anything; he merely let himself be dragged back and forth, from right to left, in the rhythm of nudges, kicks, and blows; he let himself be carried, now slowly, now more brutally, all the way toward the front of the room: the journey from the door to the platform on which he was supposed to stand lasted over a quarter of an hour. Finally, one hour behind schedule, in an overheated, overcrowded, overexcited room, the lecturer began to speak.’
The lecture was described in a front-page article in Combat, edited by Sartre’s good friend Albert Camus, under the following headlines: “Too many attend Sartre lecture. Heat, fainting spells, police. Lawrence of Arabia an Existentialist.” The lecture that caused this frenzy was published in the United States under the misleading title, "Existentialism and Human Emotions," and has long served as the most common introduction to Sartre’s philosophy. It argues persuasively against essentialist and determinist thought, and it clearly and simply - too simply, Sartre later thought - describes freedom as intrinsic to human existence. Humanly constructed objects, and in religious thought, humans themselves, are made according to a plan of the designer, that is, according to an essence. And so in most philosophy “the essence of man precedes that historic existence which we confront in experience.” But according to existententialism “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” That process of self-determination is what we call freedom. This gives man complete and total responsibility for what he makes of himself. “Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower.”
Sartre’s lecture was the high point of what Sartre’s life companion Simone Beauvoir called the “existentialist offensive” of fall, 1945. Within a few weeks Sartre’s The Age of Reason and The Reprieve had been published, as was Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others; her play, Les Bouches inutiles opened, she gave a public lecture on the novel and metaphysics, Sartre gave his lecture, and the journal Les Temps Modernes was launched with a call for political engagement.
This lecture’s vast international readership in the years since indicates what was most novel about Sartre’s success after the Liberation from the German Occupation, as well as that of Camus and Beauvoir. They reached not only literary and philosophical and theater-going audiences, but a mass public - including those who read their journalism and their interviews, as well as all those who read about them and saw their photographs in scandalized and celebratory newspaper and magazine articles.
But the lecture’s staying power also indicates that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom was no mere passing fancy. We can glimpse it in his first literary essays, see it take shape in his early psychological writings, encounter it in full in the profound and massive Being and Nothingness, and see it applied in novels, plays, essays, and biographies. Having become notorious after the Liberation as the thinker who wrote that “the slave in chains is free to break them,” Sartre will seek to correct the impression that his philosophy ignores the weight of social and historical realities. His essays will explore how individuals hide from their freedom or do battle with the forces oppressing them. In them Sartre keeps searching, always, for the ways that even the most oppressed people, within the most difficult circumstances, accept their situation or develop projects of resistance—or, more often, do both.