How does a major World War and subsequent Occupation change the way a writer views literature? How significant is a fiction novel after this event? Does literature engage directly or by implication? Why write?

Over the years, I have read many historical texts and biographies about the German occupation of France, particularly Paris, from May 1940 to June 1944. In my experience of reading this history, most of the arguments about what happened, and perspectives of what people recorded were written after the events. Historians argue what the facts are as well as how they should be interpreted. Again, this historical perspective could be fifty, one-hundred, or even thousands of years after the events.

Hitler in Occupied Paris

However, I have recently uncovered a fresh perspective in of the evolving concept of littérature engage in What is Literature” by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), concerning the Occupation of Paris, of which he lived through, and the  aftermath of WWII. Sartre became a voice of the people, changing French literary culture.

Ironically, before the war, Sartre was heavily influenced by German philosophy and created a particular style for his writings which challenged French philosophy and the French language itself (Literary, 167). This, of course, would change over the next decade.

According to Priscilla Parkhurst Clark in Literary France: “The war confronted Sartre with a palpable enemy of a different order than the bourgeoisie…Sartre entered the ‘socialistic’ stage of his life (174). Sartre was no longer attacking the bourgeoisie as an outsider; he now became an ‘insider’ of French literary culture.

There are hundreds of books written about this horrific time in France’s history [see post on “Is Paris Burning?]

However, what better lens and perspective to observe Occupied France and the effects of this occupation than from a writer and statesmen who lived in this societal prison.

Before the War, Sartre asserted: “Literature was about the world, readers were in the world; the question was not whether to be but how to be, and this was best answered by carefully analyzing language’s symbolic enactments of the various existential possibilities available to human beings (Foster, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community” 139,).

What is Literature?

16th Century library in Prague Castle


In the first section of What is Literature?, Sartre asks: “What is Literature? For whom does one write? What is literature? What should and could it be?”

In response to these questions, Sartre asserts these golden gems:

The writer is a speaker; he designates, demonstrates, orders, refuses, interpolates, begs, insults, persuades, insinuates. If he does so without effect, he is talking and saying nothing.

 “Let words organize themselves freely and they will make sentences, and each sentence contains language in its entirety and refers back to the whole universe (38).”

“One is not a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way.”

Sartre dissects language of all cultures going back to their origins. He highlights French writers from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and the impact their language had on French culture and society.

“Language is our shell our antennae; it protects us against others and informs us about them; it is a prolongation of our senses, a third eye which is going to look into a neighbor’s heart. We are within language as within our body. We feel it spontaneously while going beyond it toward other ends, as we feel our hands and our feet; we perceive it when it is someone else who is using it, a we perceive the limb of others (35).”

These writers chose to reveal the world and particularly to reveal man so that other men may assume full responsibility. Sartre asserts that once a writer is aware of what is going on in the world, he has a responsibility to speak. Silence is a refusal to speak and therefore violates the “code and law” of literature.

Every writer should ask: “What aspect of the world do you want to disclose? What change do you want to bring into the world by this disclosure (37)?”

Why Write?

As a Professor of English Composition, this section was of greatest interest to me. I ask my students this question at the beginning of each semester: Why write? Of course, in my context, it is for academic purposes; to aid my students in communicating their ideas, opinions, values, etc. in assessments.

In my English Literature courses, however, the process of writing takes on a different role. One cannot be an effective writer without first being a proficient reader.

In this section, Sartre contrasts the role of the reader with that of the writer. I love Sartre’s observation: “Now the operation of writing involves an implicit quasi-reading which makes real reading impossible. When the words form under his pen, the author doubtless sees them, but he does not see them as the reader does, since he knows them before writing them down (36).”

I consider myself a reader first, a writer second. I had not thought much about the difference between these two disciplines until I read his observation:

“For a writer, the future is a blank page, whereas the future of a reader is two hundred pages filled with words which separate him from the end. Thus, the writer meets everywhere only his knowledge, his will, his plans, in short, himself.  He touches only his own subjectivity; the object he creates is out of reach; he does not create for himself. If he re-reads himself, it is already too late. The sentence will never quite be a thing in his eyes. He goes to the very limits of the subjective but without crossing it. He appreciates the effect of a touch, of an epigram, of a well-placed adjective, but it is the effect they will have on others. He can judge it, not feel it (50, 51).”

Writing and reading go hand-in-hand. You cannot have one without the other. This is obvious. It is the joint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind (52).”  Cool, cool, cool!!

Just as in a sermon: it is not a complete sermon until it is received into the heart of the listener. It is no good just on a page. It must be orated, heard and received.


As an artist, the next section of Why Write was of great interest to me, as well. Sartre compares the discipline of self-expression in writing to that of painting. When should a writer consider his story is finished? At what point can one look at a manuscript and consider it ready for their audience? Is there ever a point when that happens?

Sartre imagines the artist asking the same question: “When should I consider my painting finished? When you can look at it in amazement and say to yourself, “I’m the one who did that (49).”

Sartre begins with the aesthetic objects in Cézanne’s tableaux, in particular his trees. As Cézanne places a tree in the foreground as the product of a “causal chain”, this causality becomes an illusion. The rest of the painting requires this form and therefore frees the viewer to experience the rest of the painting. (I’m still chewing on this idea!)

In contrast, Vermeer’s realism seems at first to be photographic. This, of course, is impossible as the art of photography has not been invented. (Vermeer does use a modern invention called the camera obscura which is the precursor to this medium). I love how Sartre describes how Vermeer’s realism brings us closer to absolute creation:

“But if one considers the splendor of his texture, the pink and velvety glory of his little brick walls, the blue thickness of a branch of woodbine, the glazed darkness of his vestibules, the orange-coloured flesh of his faces, which are as polished as the stone of holy-water basins, one suddenly feels, in the pleasure he experiences, that the finality is not so much in the forms or colours as in his material imagination (62).”[see post of  Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring“]

girl with pearl
Girl With the Pearl Earring Mauristhuis, The Hague

Sartre concludes this section with a look at my favorite artist: Vincent Van Gogh:

“We follow the red path which is buried among the wheat much farther than Van Gogh has painted it, among other wheat fields, under other clouds, to the river which empties into the sea, and we extend to infinity, to the other end of the world, the deep finality which supports the existence of the field and the earth (63). “ WOW [see post of Van Gogh’s Starry Night]

Art begins with an idea because it is a production or a reproduction of a being; that is, something which never quite allows itself to be thought; then, because this being is totally penetrated by existence, that is, by a freedom which decides on the very fate and value of thought (106). 

“For this is quite the final goal of art: to recover this world by giving it to be seen as it is, but as if it had its source in human freedom.” Thank you, Sartre for helping me see a way that I can be free through my art.

For Whom does one Write?

In this section, Sartre goes to the past of French Literature examining how writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth century “swallowed up, masked and made unavailable” the freedoms and values of their era. In contrast, an author’s aim is to give the “fullest possible representation” of their world:

“People of the same period and community, who have lived through the same events, who have raised or avoided the same questions, have the same taste in their mouth; they have the same complicity and there are the same corpses among them. That is why it is not necessary to write so much; there are key-words.

If I were to tell an American audience about the German occupation, there would be a great deal of analysis and precaution. I would waste 20 pages in dispelling preconceptions, prejudices and legends…I would have to look for images and symbols in American history which would enable them to understand ours (71).”


Eighteenth century writers start became the ‘rising class’. They became the arbiter of two hostile sides. The visible sign of success for the eighteenth-century writer was for Catherine or Frederick to invite him to their table (Voltaire); Diderot in Russia. For the first time since the Reformation, writers intervened in public life, protested against injustices; decided that the spiritual was in the street, market, tribunal. Authors had to meet the demands of a unified public. They were born, raised, and paid for by bourgeois and had to remain there. Corneille and Pascal wrote on cathartic appeals to freedom. Hugo was one of the few, if only, writers that was popular.

Nineteenth Century writers, on the other hand, disengaged themselves from religious ideology and refused to serve bourgeois ideology. Flaubert did not notice that the bourgeoisie was an oppressing class; he did not consider it a class at all, but rather as a natural species and described it in strictly psychological terms.

2016 Mat (60)
Balzac in Musee Rodin

Balzac, Baudelaire, Stendhal, and Poe from the literary salons of bourgeoisie took on a vague collegiate atmosphere. “They had a communion of saints from the past: Cervantes, Rabelais, Dante. These writers were not always rich but had to live well as both extravagant and needy. Outside of art, he found nobility in love, travel (as a perpetual witness who passes from one society to another without ever remaining in any) and as a foreign consumer (116)”.

My Frenchquest began in the pages of Balzac’s “La Comedie humaine”


During the nineteenth-century, novels become more popular. The novelist appears in the first chapter; he announces, he questions his readers, admonishes them, and assures them of the truth of his story. Then, the secondary characters intervene along the way, characters whom the narrator has met and who interrupt the course of the plot to tell the story of their own misfortunes.

As part of my graduate thesis, I examined the intersections of French literature and culture using Priscilla Clark’s Literary France. [see post of Literary France]

Clark states that “Only France has a literary culture that elects the writer a spokesman and invests literature with such powers (Literary 126).” The public writers of the nineteenth century translated the private affairs of literature into the public arena of culture and society.

Situation of the writer in 1947

In the fourth section, Situation of the writer in 1947, Sartre examines the political role of the writer. The American writer has often practiced manual occupations before writing his books; he goes back to them…He does not see in literature a means of proclaiming his solitude, but an opportunity of escaping it.” On the contrary, French writers have now been led by circumstances to bring to light the “relationship between being and doing in the perspective of our historical situation” (141).

Is one what one does? What should one do, what end should one choose today…what are the relationships between ends and means in a society based on violence (150)?” Writers are no longer those who want to possess the world, but those who want to change it! After the war, the perspective on nationality changed. Nations were no longer separated by seas and mountains; now they are separated by differences of economic and military potential.

In 1947, French writers began to take up a position in literature. Unlike the 18th century writers of the Philosophical Dictionary who were secretly undermining the class in power (perhaps a reference to the Oxford dictionary?). Or the 19th century Littré and Larousse who aimed their dictionaries solely at verifying and settling matters. The word “Europe” formerly referred to the geographical, economic and political unity of the Old Continent. Today, it preserves a must smell of Germanism and servitude, according to Sartre ( 227).

The world view changed following the war. From Sartre’s point of view, the American is in a new world. Everything is yet to be said. “He has no solidarity with other writers (141).” Sartre doubts there are bourgeois in the United States. He calls them the middle-class. In England, the intellectuals are less integrated into the collectivity. Italy bourgeoisie have been ruined by fascism and defeat.

The pressure of history suddenly revealed the interdependence of nations. Sartre asserts that the French no longer had the heart to travel. There were cannons everywhere. The French writers were now men who were expecting war or death (177).

Shakespeare and Company, Paris

American writers, Hemmingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, became Expats in France. These writers chose “literary idealism and privileged subjectivity. Kafka painted a picture of bureaucracy, the progress of disease, the condition of Jews in eastern Europe, the quest for inaccessible transcendence, and the world of grace when grace was lacking (187). One does not imitate Kafka!

In the concluding pages, Sartre considers the position of the whole of Europe who is now “preoccupied with reconstruction, depriving themselves of necessities in order to export”.Writing is not living. Neither is running away from life in order to contemplate Platonic essences and the archetype of beauty in a world at rest (190).The war of 1914 (as WWI was once referred to) precipitated the crisis of language; the war of 1940 (WWII) has revalorized it.

If it is true that to have, to make and to be are the prime categories of human reality, it might be said that the literature of consumption has limited itself to the study of relations which unite being and having (192).

Librairie Gibert Joseph
My Happy Place in Paris: Librairie Gibert Joseph!


Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (


Clark, Priscilla P.  Literary France: The Making of a Culture. University of California Press, 1987.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. What is Literature? Harvard Press, 1949.

Further reading:

Honore de Balzac:

19th century writers:

The Legend of Jesus Christ in Flanders: (French)

Victor Hugo:

In Paris:


As an Intellectual: