This day. Jean-Paul Sartre rejects the Nobel Prize

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Jean-Paul Sartre (centre) dining in Paris with filmmaker Claude Lanzmann (left) and Simone de Beauvoir in 1964 | Bettmann/Corbis

On October 10, 1964, the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for literature.

His letter informing the Swedish Academy that he would decline the Nobel prize, were it to be offered to him, arrived after the jury had already decided upon the French author as their winner.

Sartre was named as the Nobel laureate for literature in 1964, praised by the academy “for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age”. But the author of Huis Clos and La Nausée declined the award, that he had as a rule to decline all recognition or distinction and that the bonds between man and culture should be developed directly, without going through institutions. He explained his belief that “a writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own – that is, the written word”, and that “all the honours he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable.”

Sartre expressed his solidarity with the most important events of his time, such as the Algerian struggle for Independence – it could be said that he was the most notable sympathizer of the liberation war in Algeria; the French youth and student revolt in May 1968; the Cultural Revolution in China; and the Cuban Revolution. He opposed the Vietnam War, and along with Bertrand Russell and other luminaries organized a tribunal for the purpose of exposing the war crimes of the United States.

On the other hand, Sartre defended Zionist Israel during the Six Day War. He controversially tried to redefine Marxism, leading to a famous debate with the leading communist intellectual in France in the 1960s, Louis Althusser , in which he tried to redefine Marx’s work in a pre-Marxist period, with essentialist generalizations about humanity. Some say that this is the only public debate that Sartre lost in his life, but to this day it remains a controversial event in some philosophical circles in France.

In 1948, the Roman Catholic Church listed all of Sartre’s books in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Sartre lived a simple and modest life. The writer and philosopher died on April 15, 1980 at 74 years of age. He was buried on April 20, surrounded by an immense crowd. More than 20,000 people accompanied the coffin to the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, where his remains rest.

An excerpt from his letter to the Swedish Academy:

My objective reasons are as follows: 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. I do not mean that they must embrace each other—I know that the confrontation of these two cultures must necessarily take the form of a conflict—but this confrontation must occur between men and between cultures, without the intervention of institutions.

I myself am deeply affected by the contradiction between the two cultures: I am made up of such contradictions. My sympathies undeniably go to socialism and to what is called the Eastern bloc, but I was born and brought up in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois culture. This permits me to collaborate with all those who seek to bring the two cultures closer together. I nonetheless hope, of course, that “the best man wins.” That is, socialism.

This is why I cannot accept an honour awarded by cultural authorities, those of the West any more than those of the East, even if I am sympathetic to their existence. Although all my sympathies are on the socialist side. I should thus be quite as unable to accept, for example, the Lenin Prize, if someone wanted to give it to me, which is not the case.

I know that the Nobel Prize in itself is not a literary prize of the Western bloc, but it is what is made of it, and events may occur which are outside the province of the members of the Swedish Academy. This is why, in the present situation, the Nobel Prize stands objectively as a distinction reserved for the writers of the West or the rebels of the East. It has not been awarded, for example, to Neruda, who is one of the greatest South American poets. There has never been serious question of giving it to Louis Aragon, though he certainly deserves it. It is regrettable that the prize was given to Pasternak and not to Sholokhov, and that the only Soviet work thus honoured should be one published abroad and banned in its own country. A balance might have been established by a similar gesture in the other direction. 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 honoured not only me, but also the freedom for which we were fighting. But matters did not turn out that way, and it is only after the battle is over that the prize has been awarded me. [1]


Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Richard Howard, New York Review of Books

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