The Art of Excess

Skye C. Cleary talks to Gary Cox about his new biography, “Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre.”

The Art of Excess

EXISTENTIALISM IS ALWAYS a great conversation starter at parties because almost everyone has at least heard of it, even though very few know what it means exactly. Even those who do think they know what it means usually disagree. That’s because existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes working it out for ourselves and coming to our own conclusions about how to live.

However, one of the best summaries of existentialism that I have ever come across was penned by the British philosopher Gary Cox in his 2009 book How to Be an Existentialist: or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuses:

Existentialism is all about freedom and personal choice. It is all about facing up to reality with honesty and courage and seeing things through to the end, as well as being about putting words like choice in italics. Becoming an existentialist requires a certain amount of effort. The real difficulty is keeping it up, sustaining it, maintaining what existentialists call authenticity while everyone, including yourself, and everything around you, wants you to give up like a big sissy and succumb to what existentialists call bad faith. Bad faith is a lot like what serious artists, musicians and rock stars call “selling out.”

Cox’s ability to distill dense philosophical tomes such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness with this sort of wit and lightness is a skill I very much admire. Thus, I jumped at the opportunity to read his newest book — a biography of the most famous existentialist of all, titled Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre — and to interview him about it via email between New York City and England, where Cox is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.


SKYE C. CLEARY: Why do you think people are still interested in existentialism, and Jean-Paul Sartre specifically?

GARY COX: The name “Sartre,” and particularly the words “existential,” “existentialism,” are thrown about a lot in the media, always hinting at something mysterious, profound, complex, and kind of cool. It makes thoughtful people curious to discover more. Like all great philosophies, existentialism is replete with timeless truths about the human condition. These are often hard truths to swallow, but must be confronted by anyone trying to live honestly — authentically, as Sartre puts it. Sartre’s life itself is integral to his philosophical message. He stood up for what he believed in, even if he was often politically naïve and dogmatic. As he often said, he created himself out of nothing. He was the living embodiment of the existentialist maxim that life has no meaning other than the one we choose to give it. All this makes him a perennially attractive character, icon, and role model to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Sartre was prone to excesses of words, women, Boyards Caporal cigarettes, whiskey, coffee, amphetamines, and sleeping pills — and became as famous for these aspects of his life as for his philosophy. Can you talk a little about the role that excess played in his life and the attitude that, as you say in the book, “What matters is how you live, not how long you live”?

Sartre had huge energy and stamina. He worked hard and played hard. His chief excess was writing, and his other excesses — such as women and drugs — served to inspire and drive forward his excessively ambitious project of trying to explain the human condition. His excesses eventually destroyed his health. He was virtually blind for the last seven years of his life and suffered the psychological pain of no longer being able to write because he could not see to revise his work. Cerebral hypoxia also meant that he found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. In true existentialist style, he did not regret how he had lived. Given his excesses, it is amazing he lasted 74 years.

You’ve written several books on Jean-Paul Sartre already: Sartre and Fiction, The Sartre Dictionary, and Sartre: A Guide for the PerplexedHow to Be an Existentialist also struck me as very much based on Sartrean existentialism. Why did you decide to write a biography of Sartre?

When I wrote my PhD on Sartre, focusing on Being and Nothingness, I didn’t know much about his life, and my first book, Sartre: A Guide for the Perplexed, is a rewrite of my PhD. It was only when I wrote The Sartre Dictionary that I began seriously researching Sartre, the person, so that I could place biographical entries alongside the technical stuff. I did so much research for The Sartre Dictionary that it has served me well as a resource for further Sartre projects. Sartre and Fiction, for example, grew out of the research I did then, and the opinions I formed regarding his short stories, novels, and plays. Each of those fictional works reflects and comments on the personal and psychological context in which it was written — his lovers, his drugs — and increasingly upon the political and historical context as well: World War II and the Cold War. So Sartre and Fiction unavoidably turned out to be semibiographical. Writers are always trying to think of something to write, something they are sufficiently interested in and know enough about to get a whole book out of it. So, after writing several other philosophy books not about Sartre, a biography of Sartre seemed the obvious thing to do when I turned to him once more. For years I was moving toward writing Existentialism and Excess, even though for most of that time I did not know it.

There are already a few Sartre biographies available such as Sartre: A Life by Annie Cohen-Solal, as well as Ronald Hayman’s Writing Against: A Biography of Sartre — which you draw upon and acknowledge as your “main guiding lights.” Why did we need a new biography and how is yours different from these others?

These are great, epic biographies and I certainly used them, along with many other sources, to discover many facts about Sartre. The key thing about Existentialism and Excess is that it is half the length of the epic biographies. It is thorough, yet concise and accessible, a fast-paced book not for academic philosophers, but rather for the reader coming to Sartre for the first time — the reader who wants to be informed and entertained in equal measure. The story of Sartre’s life is certainly highly engaging. I’m not sure the world needed a new biography of Sartre, but I wrote one anyway because I wanted to. I have certainly infused my account of Sartre’s life and works with all the thoughts, opinions, and expert analysis I have formed about him and his philosophy over the several decades since I first discovered Nausea as a teenager.

Reviews for Existentialism and Excess have been both glowing and negative. Why do you think your book has drawn such polar reactions?

Elvis once said that critics have a job to do and they do it. I dare say that a few of the reviews on Amazon, for example, are just silly, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. There are also many so-called “reviewers” who, at best, skim-read a book, adopt a spitefully dismissive tone for ease of completion, then toss out a rushed review to promote their own name. One reviewer clearly didn’t like my book because he didn’t like Sartre. Don’t shoot the messenger! Anyway, as you say, Existentialism and Excess has also had glowing reviews; these have tended to come later from people who have had time to give the book proper consideration and to actually read it all. Ultimately, it is not for me to say what others should think of it. I point out in the book that this was Camus’s great mistake in his friendship-ending spat with Sartre over The Rebel. Above all, I invite readers to make up their own mind. That is the existentialist thing to do.

You say in the book that your view of Sartre changed while writing his biography. In what ways?

I ended up admiring Sartre more and liking him less. He argued that genius is as genius does and certainly he forged his genius through his admirable, now legendary, capacity for hard work. No philosophical project, however difficult, daunted him — the mere amalgamation of existentialism and Marxism that is his vast Critique of Dialectical Reason for example! His colossal output, across a vast range of philosophical issues, as an academic, essayist, novelist, playwright, and journalist, is remarkable.

However, I also discovered that, like most successful people, he was, at times, selfish, mean, and intolerant toward those who loved him. He also became increasingly dogmatic in his hard-left politics, something which was arguably at odds with the subtlety of his genius when it came to appraising human psychology. The book explores his intricate motivations in detail, explaining and justifying his actions and positions in their proper context, though not always excusing them. He was a complex human being, not a saint, and he had many shades of light and dark.

What were the main challenges you faced in writing this biography on Sartre?

The main challenge was doing justice to his enormous life and work in less than 75,000 words. Understanding his philosophy and its relationship to his life had already taken place over many years, so the more immediate challenge was to work out the structure and to put it together in the most coherent, informative, and entertaining way.

In the chapter “The Philosopher and the Film Director” you talk about the failed collaboration between Sartre and John Huston. Sartre could have been credited in the film Freud: The Secret Passion for his material, but he withdrew his name due to content disagreements probably not helped by their great dislike of one another. Do you think if Sartre had not withdrawn his name that his legacy in the United States would have been significantly different?

Sartre’s conception was so watered down by the time the film was made, that, for the sake of his precious intellectual integrity, he had no choice but to withdraw his name. I’m not sure Sartre’s legacy in the United States would have been much different had his name remained attached to the film, for who now really remembers the film? Sartre’s legacy in the United States would appear to be pretty good, and certainly better than it is in France. I know from my own collaborations and correspondence, not least this interview, that there is an abiding enthusiasm for Sartre and existentialism in the United States. Despite his overblown, dogmatically far-left anti-Americanism, there is much in Sartre’s existentialism that sits well with the can-do-ism and spirit of self-reliance that is at the heart of the “American dream.”

In the final chapter — “A Kind of Conclusion” — you propose that biographies are incomplete because they can probably never truly grasp the essence of another and “totalization is unachievable.” This reminds me of the analogy in Being and Nothingness where Sartre talks about trying to grasp another person who runs away and all we can possess of him is the coat he leaves behind, which is only a shell. Do you think Sartre was right that we can never penetrate another’s shell and never truly understand one another?

People are always a work in progress. Even after they die, their life is always open to further interpretation by others. Not least, we are often unsure of our own motivations for thinking, feeling, and acting in the ways that we do. My biography of Sartre is one more view of him, a contribution to an already rich tapestry, albeit a tapestry woven out of a host of well-established facts. As Sartre well knew, it is impossible to write a biography without presenting one’s own viewpoint, but in the concluding chapter I urge readers to make up their own minds about Sartre. I also strongly suggest that readers are not obliged to make up their minds about Sartre at all, and I strive to avoid directing them toward a conclusion like a judge directing a jury at the end of a trial.

Although a person may be ultimately unknowable, perhaps Sartre’s greatest contribution to philosophy and psychology is a set of conceptual tools for penetrating the shell. His theory of bad faith, for example, is a powerful device for analyzing human actions and discovering their real motivations, often motivations that the person seeks to ignore and deny. We are free and largely responsible for our choices, yet so often we pretend to ourselves and others that we are not free and had no choice, that others are to blame and so on. Sartre is brilliant on these matters. I explore them extensively in How to Be an Existentialist.

The epigraph of Existentialism and Excess is a Friedrich Nietzsche quote: “What? A great man? I always see only the actor of his own ideal.” You mention that Sartre’s ideal was to become a great, dead writer — which he seems to have fulfilled. How does the Nietzsche quote apply to Sartre, then? Do you think he is a great man or the actor of his own ideal? Or is that part of what you are challenging readers to decide (or not to decide) for themselves?

Sartre was highly influenced by Nietzsche, who I dare to describe as an existentialist. The epigraph echoes Sartre’s maxim that genius is as genius does, as well as the more general existentialist maxim that to be is to do. Sartre was a great man because of the work he produced in accordance with his philosophical vision, principles, and ideals. He was the relentless actor of his own ideal. As he writes in his autobiography The Words, “I have never seen myself as the happy owner of a ‘talent’: my one concern was to save myself — nothing in my hands, nothing in my pockets — through work and faith.”

Sartre was highly critical of the United States capitalist system. What do you think he would say about 21st-century politics (particularly in the United States)?

He was rightly critical of the United States political system, particularly racial apartheid and the Vietnam War. He railed against capitalism while enjoying its benefits, such as good food and frequent foreign travel, although he was never interested in accumulating wealth. It is his lack of political evenhandedness that is most exasperating. On the one hand, he relentlessly criticized the United States — a country that had shown him great hospitality — while, on the other hand, for far longer than most of his contemporaries, he bent over backward to excuse the oppressive dictatorships of the Soviet Union and China: the purges, the labor camps, the economic failure, the lack of liberty. I think his take on 21st-century politics, particularly in the United States, would be very predictably that of the far-left, naïvely liberal, privileged bourgeois intellectual. He would be far more enthusiastic in his criticism of Trump, for example — who undoubtedly deserves to be criticized on many fronts — than in his condemnation of ISIS or North Korea. Although a champion of the oppressed and a terrorist target, he was also a terrorist sympathizer and, I guess, would be one still. This is a controversial claim, but I urge people to read the book and to make up their own minds on the basis of the evidence.

What do you think is Sartre’s most enduring legacy?

His comprehensive and penetrating philosophy of the human condition as put forward in Being and Nothingness and related works. This will hold its place in the long history of philosophy when his fearsome reputation as a freethinker and firebrand has been somewhat forgotten. Or perhaps it will be the other way around. Most people recall that Socrates died for what he believed better than they recall what he believed. But then Sartre did not die for what he believed. He left that to certain of his fictional characters.

What’s next for you, Gary?

Bloomsbury and I have been working on the paperback version of my Existentialist’s Guide to Death, the Universe and Nothingness and there is to be a German translation of Existentialism and Excess. I have recently written a book for Bloomsbury on the philosophy of sport, focusing on the ingenious game of cricket. I’m also dabbling with other projects, including my autobiography.


Skye C. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love.

LARB Contributor

Skye C. Cleary, PhD, MBA, is the author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage, 2020). She teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York.


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