Help me orient my brain for the purpose of reading Sartre?
November 4, 2009 8:20 PM   Subscribe

They shouldn't let people like me attend used book sales, but now that the damage is done: how and where to begin reading Sartre?

I've realized lately that I have accumulated a fair amount of Sartre's writings and could probably make up the remainder among the libraries I frequent. But apart from reading The Age of Reason ten years ago, I've never made an attempt to explore his contributions to philosophy (or actually that of any 20th-century philosopher apart from a little Wittgenstein, an anomaly that I haven't approached all that well and am shelving for the moment). This is mostly because I've never felt myself to be in the proper mindset, and while that seems to be changing slowly, I feel unprepared to begin and lost as to how to prepare. Off the internet, I read very little serious contemporary writing, and spend the majority of my reading time in the head of people who died before 1900; 1650 (in Europe, anyway) is less foreign to me than 1950- this applies to art, music, politics, etc. as well, so that my ability to contextualize, which has been extremely important in my reading of other philosophers, is not there. So, I have a bit of work to do before I charge in like a complete idiot. I'm hoping you can tell me:
1) What non-Sartre things ought to be read first, or at the same time, in order to have the right references and to grasp most thoroughly his books in general, or individually?
2) If not chronologically, in what order could he be read for the best understanding? What have you found most personally rewarding?
Any other advice (apart from exhortations to dive in without any preparation) also appreciated. I do plan on looking into the usefully-named How to Read Sartre, but want and need whatever help I can find. Thanks!
posted by notquitemaryann to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I know they seem kind of dumb and gimmicky, but the For Beginners series (link goes to the Sartre one) are actually really good and engaging. I have a philosophy degree, and a couple of my teachers used parts of them to explain various ideas. At the very least, it should give you an idea of the major themes of his books, so you can see what to pursue based on your own interests.
posted by ITheCosmos at 8:42 PM on November 4, 2009

I read some Sartre during my early 20's. I can't for the life of me recall what I read... but I think it may have played a role in developing major chronic depression!

Camus is often cited as a counterpoint to Sartre, and Kafka is good to read in this same vein, comparatively cheery, in fact! Simone de Beauvoir was a contemporary and an acquaintance who Sartre wrote frequently.

While reading in chronological order may be good in order to appreciate the development of his writing style and viewpoint, I think most people are introduced to his writings with "Being and Nothingness" and "The Age of Reason".

During this period, I also read other mid-century classics of bleakness such as "The Winter of Our Discontent" and "The Brothers Karamazov". The novels of Tolstoy are an interesting counterpoint to the French existential writers as well!

I agree, book sales are SCARY good! I finally learned that not every book NEEDS to be rescued! I have made some great finds there, not only old library favorites that have been withdrawn, but valuable books and old books! I have found that the children's books by C.W. Anderson have great aftermarket value, mainly due to the beautiful artwork. I also found an old book at a sale for $0.75, titled "Women of History". It was in nice shape, still had gilt edges, and remarkably little wear. I later found a pencil inscription in it: "Merry Christmas, Mary. 1868". Score!
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 8:42 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oops, didn't mean to imply that Tolstoy is mid-century! But it is interesting to note that his bleak, plain style of writing about such bleak subjects came a hundred years before the existentialists!
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 8:45 PM on November 4, 2009

I would say Heidegger and Camus are good counterpoints. Sartre's philosophy is built on Heidegger's -- I believe 'existentialism' is a term that was lifted from Being and Time -- and though Camus and Sartre did not get along so well they read well alongside each other, with Sartre being the more abstract and rigorous and Camus the more socially engaged. it will help you with historical context. for philosophical context, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard are key precursors. especially Nietzsche.

(I've heard that Derrida and Sartre feuded, as only Parisian intellectuals can, over their interpretations of Heidegger. but even though the idea of this happening excites me to no end, I've never found any actual evidence of it.)

and as for Sartre's writings themselves, I think the essay "Existentialism is a Humanism" is probably the best place to start. it's a nice stepping stone into the books.
posted by spindle at 8:59 PM on November 4, 2009

I've always enjoyed the "For Beginners" series of books. I really like the way they combine illustrations with a chronology of the person's life and what sociopolitical events helped form their philosophies. I don't know how advanced you are in your studies of philosophy, but for a average guy like me who likes a down and dirty guide book before jumping into the heavy stuff, I'd recommend any of the books in this series.

Sartre For Beginners.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 8:59 PM on November 4, 2009

Ha!! Sorry, looks like ITheCosmos got to it before me!
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 9:00 PM on November 4, 2009

I'm sure that others will have a beter answer than mine, but

Why not start with No Exit moving on to Nausea? And then go in for the really heavy stuff? The fictional works are a lot easier to read than a philosophical discourse, especially for someone like me, illiterate when 20th c. philosophy vocabulary often makes me go "huh?"

Also, I prefer reading fiction. As Jinx said, Albert Camus and Sartre are often mentioned in tandem. I often lump Georges Bataille into that comparison as well.

The interesting thing to note is that these writings are contemporary to the World Wars and often deal with the ethical dilemma of loss being forced upon oneself... Or loss being forced upon others. In my mind, these writers are experimenting with ways of dealing with grief, regret, and pain.

In that vein, Antonin Artaud might also be a good author to read.
posted by at the crossroads at 9:10 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Serious philosophers will cringe to hear me say this, but one of the most mind-blowing intellectual experiences I had as an undergrad was a class where we carefully read Being and Nothingness. What a book.
posted by jayder at 9:44 PM on November 4, 2009

Often, retaliation and vengeance are absent.

(I just wanted to say 'often' one more time.)
posted by at the crossroads at 10:20 PM on November 4, 2009

I would recommend sitting in on a local class that deals with Sartre. He makes almost no sense and his writing style is god-awful, so it really helps to have somebody explain it to you, somebody of whom you can ask questions.
posted by Electrius at 10:27 PM on November 4, 2009

I was going to make the same suggestion as at the crossroads: start with No Exit and Nausea. That was my starting point when I began reading Sartre and became interested in existentialism and modern philosophy. Those were the works that hooked me in and pushed me to read some of his .. well, drier (but no less brilliant) works, like Being And Nothingness. I also started out with books like Sartre For Beginners. There's no shame because those sorts of books not only break down the philosophies into manageable bites, but they also put them within context, which is arguably just as important as the philosophies themselves. It's helpful to know about the influence of contemporaries and to place his work withing the context of historical and literary climates. Also, you'd probably get an overview of how his philosophy mutated over time. I used to get this book from the library when I was in junior high/high school that was sort of a primer.
posted by Mael Oui at 10:33 PM on November 4, 2009

Walter Kaufmann's "Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre."
posted by space_cookie at 10:54 PM on November 4, 2009

Yep, Camus is terrific. Start with The Stranger.

For Sartre, seconding the suggestion to start with either No Exit or Nausea.

Also, don't forget good ol' Sam Beckett. Waiting for Godot is the obvious first step ("Nothing happens. Twice."), though my absolute personal favorite is Endgame... the humor is even darker and more chilling, I find. (Also love Krapp's Last Tape.)
posted by scody at 11:09 PM on November 4, 2009

Oh, and you might find Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to be an entertaining diversion after you've have a chance to read some of the existential canon, as it were (broadly speaking, it's basically a cross between Hamlet and Waiting for Godot). Warning: watch the movie of R&G Are Dead with extreme caution and then only after you've read the play. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth are adorable in leather trousers and ennui, but good god is it atrociously directed.
posted by scody at 11:21 PM on November 4, 2009

Scody's right. Samuel Beckett wrote the best plays.
posted by at the crossroads at 11:50 PM on November 4, 2009

Play by Sam Beckett.
posted by at the crossroads at 12:19 AM on November 5, 2009

The Wall is also a fairly easy way to break into Sartre. I believe it usually comes package with other short stories as well.
posted by nangua at 2:21 AM on November 5, 2009

I always liked "existentialism and human emotion" by Sartre; easy reading and short. The fiction was alright, but I felt that it was gimmicky at times -- dead people talking kind of thing, e.g. Les Jeux Sont Fait. But the "beginner series" is actually good for an introdution.
posted by jadepearl at 5:52 AM on November 5, 2009

Yes, Existentialism and Human Emotion is very accessible. I would start there.
posted by paulg at 7:27 AM on November 5, 2009

I agree that the plays make a good starting point. But then I don't care for philosophy in general and his philosophy in particular, so take with salt.

> Oops, didn't mean to imply that Tolstoy is mid-century! But it is interesting to note that his bleak, plain style of writing about such bleak subjects came a hundred years before the existentialists!

Uh, did you mean Dostoevsky? I guess you might be thinking of "The Death of Ivan Ilich," but that's not usually the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about Tolstoy.
posted by languagehat at 10:33 AM on November 5, 2009

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