When people speak of great creative pairings, among the Lennons and McCartneys and Powells and Pressburgers the names John Huston and Jean-Paul Sartre are never mentioned. There is a good reason for that.
A landmark in 20th-century culture beckoned when, in 1958, the American director of The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen invited the world’s foremost public intellectual and father of existentialism to write a screenplay based on the life of Sigmund Freud.
It should have worked. The men were the same age, of similar political persuasions and already admired each other. Cinema would be a new medium for Sartre, but he had written a string of successful works for the theatre, so he possessed both the transplantable skills and necessary philosophical insight. Huston’s offer of $25,000 sealed the deal, and Sartre threw himself into the commission.
The first sign of trouble was when the first draft whumped on to Huston’s doormat. Never less than thorough, Sartre had produced an intricately researched and detailed screenplay running to 300 pages which, Huston quickly calculated, would result in a film roughly five and a half hours long.
The director invited Sartre to his mansion in the west of Ireland to pare down the script, where the giant of Hollywood and giant of European thought struggled to find common ground, each unimpressed by the other.
“Sartre was a little barrel of a man, and as ugly as a human being can be,” wrote Huston of their 1960 encounter. “His face was both bloated and pitted, his teeth were yellow and he was wall-eyed.”
“Huston isn’t even sad, he is empty,” Sartre wrote in a letter home to his partner, the writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. “His emptiness is purer than death. He refuses to think because it saddens him.”
Over the course of a week that would have made a terrific screenplay in itself – Sartre proving impervious to Huston’s attempts at hypnotising him, Huston driving Sartre around Galway city searching for a dentist so Sartre could have a tooth extracted – the director suggested a series of cuts and Sartre returned home to rework his screenplay.
A few weeks later a package arrived at Huston’s door. Sartre’s revised script now ran to 700 pages; the film would be nearly 12 hours long. Freud: The Secret Passion was eventually made, but by then Sartre had long withdrawn from the project.
If the failure of the film collaboration was a loss to modern culture, Sartre remained emphatically in credit elsewhere. The possessor of one of the busiest and most analytically gifted minds of the modern age, he wrote plays, novels, articles for newspapers and magazines on subjects from jazz to architecture. He was also responsible for a string of philosophical texts, all seeking an answer to the ultimate question to which he dedicated his life: do we determine ourselves or are we made by external factors beyond our control?
To wrestle with that conundrum he chose not to cosset himself away in the protective cocoon of academia. Indeed, Sartre never completed a doctorate, and spent a large part of his adult life as a schoolteacher while disseminating his ideas and questions in more accessible realms.
He wrote and held court in cafes, notably holing up with de Beauvoir in the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots on the Left Bank in Paris, and published his work not through stuffy, niche academic presses but the prestigious literary imprint Gallimard.
From his first novel La Nausée in 1938 Sartre frequently presented his philosophical ideas and arguments in forms designed to draw in the man in the street. Arguably his finest play, Huis Clos, was a philosophical conundrum requested by three actors who asked for a play in which all the characters shared equal status, had the same number of lines and all remained on stage throughout the performance.
While his popularity waned in his later years, and his work has swayed in and out of fashion since his death, in a Europe seeking answers to bewildering questions in the aftermath of the second world war, Sartre became a celebrity on a level hard to comprehend today.
Iris Murdoch met him in Brussels in 1945 and later recalled, “his presence in the city was like that of a pop star”.
In its obituary, the French newspaper Le Matin wrote, “You really needed to be 20 in 1954 to know what it could mean to a whole generation to have this man who dared all on his own to insist that the only important action was justice for the oppressed, that the violence of the colonised against the coloniser was justified, that a man could be right even against his country in the name of a superior ideal, which is man himself.”
The roots of his quest to discover the path to absolute human freedom lay in his childhood. His father died when Sartre was a baby, of which he later wrote, “Had my father lived he would have lain on me at full length and crushed me. As luck had it, he died young.”
With his mother, he moved to the house of his grandfather, a professor of German at the Sorbonne, and later developed a deep resentment of his mother’s new husband, “always the person I wrote against, all my life”.
When war broke out, Sartre was assigned to a meteorological station in Alsace where he raised daily weather balloons – “my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also an abode beyond my reach”, before being captured as a prisoner of war in 1940. He passed his year in the camp giving inspiring lectures on philosophy and, unusually for a committed atheist, writing a nativity play performed by inmates whose call for social equality was so profound that one fellow prisoner was inspired to spend his life living and working among the poor.
After his release from the camp, the 1943 publication of his existentialist classic L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness), was the catalyst for his extraordinary postwar fame. He seemed to be everywhere, “a rebel with a thousand causes” the New York Times called him, supporting a host of radical campaigns and turning down the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature on the grounds that he never accepted accolades, “be it a sack of potatoes or the Nobel Prize”.
He became a reduced figure in his later years, his ideas out of fashion and a lifelong dedication to intense thought taking its toll. Edward Said recalled attending a seminar a few months before Sartre’s death where “he sat across from me, looking disconsolate and remaining totally uncommunicative, egg and mayonnaise streaming haplessly down his face”.
His exhaustion was understandable. For Murdoch, Sartre “described very exactly the situation of a being who, deprived of general truths, is tormented by an absolute aspiration”.
Perhaps the most telling analysis came in a passing comment from Sartre himself in a letter home to de Beauvoir from Huston’s Galway mansion in 1958. “I am not bored,” he wrote, “but I cannot work out why.”