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If the members of the Nobel Academy felt slighted when Jean-Paul Sartre rejected their prize 50 years ago, they didn’t show it. The Academy set out the dinner plates and made their speeches anyway — without the philosopher. The 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, announced Anders Österling — longtime member of the Swedish Academy, and a writer himself — was being given to “the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre 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.” S. Friberg, Rector of the Caroline Institute — a prestigious Swedish medical university — made the following remarks at the banquet: “Sartre’s existentialism may be understood in the sense that the degree of happiness which an individual can hope to attain is governed by his willingness to take his stand in accordance with his ethos and to accept the consequences thereof …”

“It will be recalled,” said Anders Österling, “that the laureate has made it known that he did not wish to accept the prize. The fact that he has declined this distinction does not in the least modify the validity of the award.” However, explained Österling, under the circumstances, the presentation of the prize could not take place. The 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature was held in abeyance, a crown without a king.

On October 22, 1964, Sartre explained himself in a public announcement made to the Swedish public. His refusal had nothing to do, he wrote, with the Swedish Academy or even the Nobel Prize itself.

The reason for my refusal is twofold, wrote Sartre: personal and objective. Sartre claimed he had always rejected official honors. He had refused the Legion of Honor in 1945, though he was sympathetic to the government. Likewise, he had never sought to enter the Collège de France, no matter how often his friends urged him. “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own,” wrote Sartre, “that is, the written word.” A writer, wrote Sarte, must refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution. A writer must remain free. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”

As for the objective reasons, Sartre claimed he did not want to take sides in the battle between East and West, a battle that was raging in 1964.Though Sartre himself was a Western bourgeois by birth, his sympathies were with the socialist cause and the so-called Eastern bloc. Although he understood that the Nobel Prize in Literature was not strictly a literary prize of the Western bloc, it was undeniably used, said Sartre, to distinguish writers of the West and writers opposed to the East. Sartre was also concerned that the prize would be used by the French Right to cleanse his radical past; he did not want the Right to claim him. Nonetheless, wrote Sartre, he would refuse the Lenin Prize too, should it be awarded to him.

“That is what has made so painful for me both the awarding of the prize and the refusal of it I am obliged to make.” The writer Jean-Paul Sartre ended his message with a declaration of fellow feeling for the Swedish people.

Ultimately, Sartre refused the Nobel Prize because of the philosophical idea with which he will forever be associated: Existentialism. The core of Existentialism is this: Existence precedes essence. Think of a penknife, said Sartre in his 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. Do you believe an artisan makes a penknife from an idea of a penknife that comes first? If so, you believe that essence precedes existence, and are not an Existentialist. You believe the physical existing penknife is derived from an essential Penknife, from which all penknives are brought into existence. Applying this thinking to persons, putting essence before existence means that all people are created from one universal idea of people — namely, God’s image of people.

But Sartre did not believe that people were created in God’s image. He believed that a person’s existence came first. A person exists, encounters his or her self, breaks out into the world — and defines his or her self only afterward. Only by existing can a person know who she is. “Man,” said Sartre, “is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. … Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be.”

What he purposes to be, by the way, is not what man wishes himself to be. If we try to be “somebody” we imagine we are supposed to be, according to someone’s else’s definition, we are deceiving ourselves. We are being inauthentic. We are objectifying ourselves, making ourselves into commodities rather than people. But if we set out to be authentic, and if it is true that existence precedes essence, then we have — each of us — a great responsibility. We are entirely responsible for what we are.

Existentialism, said Sartre, “puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.” Man’s life is nothing but the sum of his own actions. Man is alone, “abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.”

This means that human beings are free. Radically free. We are endowed with a thrilling, important, and horrible freedom. There is, for Existentialists, no getting around this horrible wonderful freedom. We are, as Sartre declared, condemned to freedom.

Freedom does not mean that man is responsible solely for himself. On the contrary, when a man chooses for himself, he chooses for all men. For when a man acts he creates. As he creates, he makes the world.

The creative tools of the writer are words. Words, for Sartre, are powerful because words are actions. Every word is a revelation and every revelation is a change. With every word a writer writes, she immerses herself a little bit more in the world, withdraws from herself and moves outward. And once this journey has begun, there is nothing she can do to get out of it. Thus, writing that is authentic cannot be a simple delight in words. There is a moral imperative involved in the act of writing. Because words create change, a writer is not only responsible for her own freedom, but the freedom of her readers. Writing is an act of generosity, a gift; “the end to which it offers itself is the reader’s freedom.”

At the same time, a reader creates as she reads. A reader can always go further in her reading, deepening her engagement with the writer’s words. She also has the power to put the book down or ignore it altogether. A book is a beginning, but only a beginning. Writing is not complete without a reader. Written words are a compact between writer and reader. “A writer should never say to himself,” wrote Sartre in What Is Literature?, “‘Bah! I’ll be lucky if I have three thousand readers, but rather, ‘What would happen if everybody read what I wrote?’” A writer can ignore this compact or take responsibility for it. The imperative remains.

It matters, therefore, what institutions a writer allies with, what her political sympathies are, what prizes she accepts. This is to say, Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize was not personal. It was metaphysical. Every act I take as a writer, Sartre was saying, affects the existence of my readers. Accepting the Nobel Prize would have been, for Sartre, to compromise the freedom of his readers. Indeed, it would have compromised the freedom of all mankind.

A gift is a tricky thing. It is nice to receive a gift. And also, we are challenged by it. A gift rarely comes to us on our own terms. Often we think: Does this gift have anything to do with me? Does the giver really understand me? Can they know me as I want to be known? A gift is an act as much as a thing. It is a mirror held before us. In a gift, we see ourselves as we are seen by the giver.

A gift is a mirror, but a double-sided mirror, because embedded within giving is receiving. A gift, then, impacts our freedom. Whether we choose to accept or reject a gift, the gift must be confronted. Just a reader’s freedom completes a writer’s intention, so the reception of a gift completes the act of giving. A gift can be scorned but it cannot be ignored. For this reason, receiving might be even more profound than giving. Giving is an assertion of one’s freedom. But receiving is a momentary surrendering of freedom. It is a declaration of dependence.

Writing is an act of generosity, claimed Sartre. But what, really, is the more generous act? To reject a gift you scorn, or to accept a gift you don’t actually want?

You can see why Sartre — the moment he learned his name was on the Nobel list — tried to prevent the possibility that he would be awarded the prize. He went so far as to write a letter to the Academy saying, “Don’t even consider me.” (The letter, it seems, was lost.) Once he was given the Nobel, Sartre was determined by it. He could reject the gift. But he could not escape it. He would always be ‘Sartre, Nobel Prize winner’, even if he were, at the same time, ‘Sartre, Nobel Prize winner-rejector’. A gift, wrote Sartre in Notebooks for an Ethics, is a possession of a soul.

In a 1972 interview Sartre commented again on his refusal: “…there always has to be a last book that’s supposed to be the last sign of life of the author and then after that they kill him with the Nobel and it’s all over. … I think myself that I’m still alive because I turned it down.”

Albert Camus was an Existentialist too. In Camus’ acceptance speech for the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, he used the words ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ repeatedly. Like Sartre, Camus believed in man’s essential terrible liberty. Like Sartre, he believed the task of the writer was to stand with, and for, his fellow human beings — especially the silenced, the oppressed, the unfree. Like Sartre, winning the Nobel was shocking and painful for Camus. And still, he accepted it.

The difference lay, perhaps, in Camus’ understanding of freedom. The human condition, for Camus, was fundamentally absurd. Man desires reason, meaning, happiness. And yet he lives in a world that is irrational, cold, and silent. Such a confrontation of life’s absurdity could drive a man to despair, possibly to suicide. But despair is only a negation of the Absurd. When one truly embraces the Absurd — i.e., embraces life with all its unreason and messy contradictions — there is an imperative to live. Only in the full acceptance of the absurdity of life can man become free. True freedom is found not just in action — in existing — but in coming to terms with existence. In acceptance.

At the award ceremony, Camus said:

For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them… It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. …

That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge.

“Who can expect from the writer,” said Camus, “complete solutions and high morals? Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered.” And yet, writers must march toward truth and freedom with their comrades, painfully but resolutely.

While Sartre denied his award to protect his own freedom and that of his fellow man, Camus used his Nobel Prize to honor his readers, his fellow writers, his fellow man.

Mine is a generation that has had to fight against nihilism and despair, Camus told the Nobel Academy. We are a generation born during World War I, twenty when Hitler came to power, educated with the Spanish Civil War and concentration camps, and who now live in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation. We are, said Camus, in an insane race against the clock to restore in the world a peace that is not servitude, a renewal of culture and labor. We are fighting the grand inquisitors who wish to establish forever the kingdom of death.

“It is to this generation that I should like to pass on the honour that you have just given me,” said Camus. I receive it “as an homage rendered to all those who, sharing in the same fight, have not received any privilege, but have on the contrary known misery and persecution.” My generation needs approval, and encouragement for its sacrifices, said Camus, wherever it can be found.

Thus reduced to what I really am, to my limits and debts, concluded Camus in his speech to the Nobel Academy, “I feel freer to accept the generosity of the honour you have just bestowed upon me … It remains for me to thank you from the bottom of my heart and to make before you publicly, as a personal sign of my gratitude, the same and ancient promise of faithfulness which every true artist repeats to himself in silence every day.”

Albert Camus compared the absurdity of man’s life to the myth of Sisyphus. Poor Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to his infinite task. Up to the top of the mountain he would roll his boulder, just to see it roll down again. This is a very good punishment, thought the gods. What does a man hate more than futile work?

Sisyphus could not escape his fate by trying harder. He had to accept what he was given. After that, what mattered only was how Sisyphus rolled his boulder. This is all we are given as people. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” wrote Camus. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

With Sartre and Camus we are left with two different pictures of a writer’s duties, both inspired by the same Existentialist philosophy. But nothing about Existentialism, as a philosophy, suggests that a writer has a duty either to accept or reject a prize. With Sartre, the writer gives a gift by refusing a gift; with Camus, the writer gives a gift by accepting it. Both are Existentialist decisions. What matters most about Existentialism is not the validity of a decision, but following out the responsibilities and implications of that decision. Both Sartre and Camus did that. They lived out the responsibilities of being the rejector and the acceptor, respectively. In making opposite decisions, both writers affirmed the underlying creed, which is that the choice itself is far less important than the life lived according to that choice. • 14 October 2014


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at