On the forging of identity 

Sartre, Camus and the universal struggle for self-­creation

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  • Published 20230502
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-83-2
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

ON 29 OCTOBER 1945, less than a year after France’s liberation from the Germans, a man disembarked from a train in central Paris. Some of the silhouettes he passed in the street probably recognised his face. His name was Jean-­Paul Sartre and he was the leader of a new intellectual movement. He was travelling to give a lecture at the Club Maintenant, hoping to defend and explain his controversial beliefs. Plays, novels, serious works of philosophy, newspaper articles: the contents of Sartre’s head were everywhere, his byline unavoidable. The ideas he printed were avant-­garde in the extreme. He was infamous, divisive, in demand. 

Sartre represented a group of French intellectuals who spoke to the atmosphere of dislocation following the war. Their movement, which Sartre called existentialism, emphasised the struggle of deciding who to be and how to live. This is a struggle many today might call second nature; we are used to thinking of ourselves as independent and self-­authoring. Identity in postwar Europe had similar characteristics, albeit unintentionally. Two world wars had shattered a layered sense of belonging. For centuries, Europeans had referred to themselves via the larger identifiers of religion, nationality, class, culture, lineage and shared belief. The survivors of fascism were left to pick their way through the rubble of these monoliths. Certainty was gone, crushed by mass destruction enabled by mass identities.

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