Jean-Paul Sartre Rejects the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964: “It Was Monstrous!”

In a 2013 blog post, the great Ursu­la K. Le Guin quotes a Lon­don Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment col­umn by a “J.C.,” who satir­i­cal­ly pro­pos­es the “Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal.” “Writ­ers all over Europe and Amer­i­can are turn­ing down awards in the hope of being nom­i­nat­ed for a Sartre,” writes J.C., “The Sartre Prize itself has nev­er been refused.” Sartre earned the hon­or of his own prize for prize refusal by turn­ing down the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1964, an act Le Guin calls “char­ac­ter­is­tic of the gnarly and counter-sug­gestible Exis­ten­tial­ist.” As you can see in the short clip above, Sartre ful­ly believed the com­mit­tee used the award to white­wash his Com­mu­nist polit­i­cal views and activism.

But the refusal was not a the­atri­cal or “impul­sive ges­ture,” Sartre wrote in a state­ment to the Swedish press, which was lat­er pub­lished in Le Monde. It was con­sis­tent with his long­stand­ing prin­ci­ples. “I have always declined offi­cial hon­ors,” he said, and referred to his rejec­tion of the Legion of Hon­or in 1945 for sim­i­lar rea­sons. Elab­o­rat­ing, he cit­ed first the “per­son­al” rea­son for his refusal

This atti­tude is based on my con­cep­tion of the writer’s enter­prise. A writer who adopts polit­i­cal, social, or lit­er­ary posi­tions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the writ­ten word. All the hon­ors he may receive expose his read­ers to a pres­sure I do not con­sid­er desir­able. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize win­ner.

The writer must there­fore refuse to let him­self be trans­formed into an insti­tu­tion, even if this occurs under the most hon­or­able cir­cum­stances, as in the present case.

There was anoth­er rea­son as well, an “objec­tive” one, Sartre wrote. In serv­ing the cause of social­ism, he hoped to bring about “the peace­ful coex­is­tence of the two cul­tures, that of the East and the West.” (He refers not only to Asia as “the East,” but also to “the East­ern bloc.”)

There­fore, he felt he must remain inde­pen­dent of insti­tu­tions on either side: “I should thus be quite as unable to accept, for exam­ple, the Lenin Prize, if some­one want­ed to give it to me.”


As a flat­ter­ing New York Times arti­cle not­ed at time, this was not the first time a writer had refused the Nobel. In 1926, George Bernard Shaw turned down the prize mon­ey, offend­ed by the extrav­a­gant cash award, which he felt was unnec­es­sary since he already had “suf­fi­cient mon­ey for my needs.” Shaw lat­er relent­ed, donat­ing the mon­ey for Eng­lish trans­la­tions of Swedish lit­er­a­ture. Boris Paster­nak also refused the award, in 1958, but this was under extreme duress. “If he’d tried to go accept it,” Le Guin writes, “the Sovi­et Gov­ern­ment would have prompt­ly, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly arrest­ed him and sent him to eter­nal silence in a gulag in Siberia.”

These qual­i­fi­ca­tions make Sartre the only author to ever out­right and vol­un­tar­i­ly reject both the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture and its siz­able cash award. While his state­ment to the Swedish press is filled with polite expla­na­tions and gra­cious demur­rals, his filmed state­ment above, excerpt­ed from the 1976 doc­u­men­tary Sartre by Him­self, minces no words.

Because I was polit­i­cal­ly involved the bour­geois estab­lish­ment want­ed to cov­er up my “past errors.” Now there’s an admis­sion! And so they gave me the Nobel Prize. They “par­doned” me and said I deserved it. It was mon­strous!

Sartre was in fact par­doned by De Gaulle four years after his Nobel rejec­tion for his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 1968 upris­ings. “You don’t arrest Voltaire,” the French Pres­i­dent sup­pos­ed­ly said. The writer and philoso­pher, Le Guin points out, “was, of course, already an ‘insti­tu­tion’” at the time of the Nobel award. Nonethe­less, she says, the ges­ture had real mean­ing. Lit­er­ary awards, writes Le Guin—who her­self refused a Neb­u­la Award in 1976 (she’s won sev­er­al more since)—can “hon­or a writer,” in which case they have “gen­uine val­ue.” Yet prizes are also award­ed “as a mar­ket­ing ploy by cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism, and some­times as a polit­i­cal gim­mick by the awarders [….] And the more pres­ti­gious and val­ued the prize the more com­pro­mised it is.” Sartre, of course, felt the same—the greater the hon­or, the more like­ly his work would be coopt­ed and san­i­tized.

Per­haps prov­ing his point, a short, nasty 1965 Har­vard Crim­son let­ter had many, less flat­ter­ing things than Le Guin to say about Sartre’s moti­va­tions, call­ing him “an ugly toad” and a “poor los­er” envi­ous of his for­mer friend Camus, who won in 1957. The let­ter writer calls Sartre’s rejec­tion of the prize “an act of pre­ten­sion” and a “rather inef­fec­tu­al and stu­pid ges­ture.” And yet it did have an effect. It seems clear at least to me that the Har­vard Crim­son writer could not stand the fact that, offered the “most cov­et­ed award” the West can bestow, and a heap­ing sum of mon­ey besides, “Sartre’s big line was, ‘Je refuse.’”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Human, All Too Human: 3‑Part Doc­u­men­tary Pro­files Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger & Sartre

Albert Camus Wins the Nobel Prize & Sends a Let­ter of Grat­i­tude to His Ele­men­tary School Teacher (1957)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.