In it, Sartre contends that, unlike the other arts -- in which he includes poetry – literature should be polemical. The intent of literature, Sartre says, is to persuade readers to accept particular ideas – political, social, philosophical. Literature that does not at least make the attempt to convince its readers of something is poor literature, failed literature, pseudo literature. For example, literature written under the aegis of the aesthetics movement – art for art’s sake – is, for Sartre, pure crap.
Sartre is wrong. Literature that moves the reader emotionally, without effecting his outlook on the world, even literature that does nothing more than simply delight its readers, brings smiles to their faces, is as valid, as art, as a successful painting, poem or piece of music.
Let me prove it.
Here is a passage from Literature and Existentialism. It is a diatribe against literary critics. It is a magnificent witty and sardonic tirade. It surpasses many of the great examples of satire, burlesque, sarcasm and mockery for which France is famous, from Rabelais to Le Canard Enchaîné. (The translator, Bernard Frechtman, deserves some credit.)
This marvelous pasquinade brings out an aspect of Sartre one seldom encounters. It skewers literary criticism with deftness and intelligence and bubbles over with vicious wit. It’s wonderful. You will enjoy it, I promise you. Will it convince you intellectually? No. It will only delight you. Sartre may have thought of this masterpiece of persiflage as art for the sake of an idea, the idea of writing as an act of engagement. For me – and probably for you – it is art for art’s sake.
(I was unable easily to convert these PDF pages to document form, so what follows are images. If I ever have the leisure and am in a fiddly mood, I may go to the trouble of converting these via OCR into text.)