Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre pro­duced plays and nov­els like The Respect­ful Pros­ti­tute (1946), which explored racism in the Amer­i­can South. These works were crit­i­cized as too polem­i­cal to count as good lit­er­a­ture. What might in the present day cul­mi­nate only in a Twit­ter fight led Sartre to pub­lish a whole book defend­ing his prac­tices, called What Is Lit­er­a­ture? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Lin­sen­may­er from the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast explains Sartre’s view, out­lin­ing both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seri­ous­ly any­way. In short, Sartre sees the act of writ­ing fic­tion as an eth­i­cal appeal to his read­er’s free­dom. The read­er is chal­lenged to hear the truths the work express­es, to under­stand and take action on them. More direct­ly, the read­er is chal­lenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the read­er’s atten­tion and imag­i­na­tion to “flesh out” the sit­u­a­tions the book describes. The read­er takes an active role in com­plet­ing the work, and this role can be aban­doned freely at any time. If a writer cre­ates an escapist fan­ta­sy, the read­er is invit­ed to escape. If the writer pro­duces a piece of lying pro­pa­gan­da, then the read­er is being invit­ed to col­lab­o­rate in that fun­da­men­tal­ly cor­rupt work.

So if writ­ing is always an eth­i­cal, polit­i­cal act, then Sartre should­n’t be blamed for pro­duc­ing overt­ly polit­i­cal work. In fact, writ­ers who deny that their work is polit­i­cal are dodg­ing their own respon­si­bil­i­ty for play­ing hap­haz­ard­ly with this poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous tool. Their work will pro­duce polit­i­cal effects whether they like it or not.

The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Lit­er­a­ture) is a two-part treat­ment of the first two chap­ters of this text, weigh­ing Sartre’s words to try to under­stand them and deter­mine whether they ulti­mate­ly make sense. Lis­ten to the full episode below or go sub­scribe to The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast at

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the host of The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life and Naked­ly Exam­ined Music pod­casts. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Exis­ten­tial­ist Phi­los­o­phy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Pos­si­bil­i­ties

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Con­cepts of Free­dom & “Exis­ten­tial Choice” Explained in an Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry

Jean-Paul Sartre on How Amer­i­can Jazz Lets You Expe­ri­ence Exis­ten­tial­ist Free­dom & Tran­scen­dence

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Actresses Lucy Lawless & Jaime Murray Perform Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” for The Partially Examined Life Podcast

Spartacus sartre

Lucy Law­less (Star of Xena the War­rior Princess and notable con­trib­u­tor to such shows as Spar­ti­ca, Bat­tlestar Galac­ti­ca, and Parks & Recre­ation) pre­vi­ous­ly appeared on the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life Phi­los­o­phy Pod­cast in Fall 2012. And, in Spring 2013, she sang with me (under my musi­cian moniker Mark Lint) on an orig­i­nal song called “Things We Should Do Before We Die.” Now she’s joined fel­low PEL host Wes Alwan (“The Valet”) and me to cre­ate an audio­play of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play “No Exit,” where she plays the work­ing class, hos­tile les­bian Inès Ser­ra­no with a pret­ty hilar­i­ous off-the-cuff gener­i­cal­ly Euro­pean accent against my rel­a­tive­ly dead­pan Joseph Garcin.

The third damned soul in our one-room hell was played by a delight­ful­ly shrieky Jaime Mur­ray, friend and Spar­ta­cus co-star of Lucy’s. You like­ly know Jaime for her role as Lila, the psy­chot­ic main guest star in Sea­son 2 of Dex­ter, and right now she appears in the sci-fi shows Defi­ance and Ware­house 13.

The play is about three dead peo­ple stuck in a room togeth­er, any two of which would prob­a­bly reach some equi­lib­ri­um. But, as a three­some, they enter into a tox­ic dynam­ic where none can get what he or she needs out of the oth­ers.

To hear Lucy, Jamie and me per­form “No Exit,” click below or lis­ten at


The record­ing was made in sup­port of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life episode dis­cussing Sartre, cov­er­ing this play as well as his essays “Exis­ten­tial­ism is a Human­ism” (1946), and “Bad Faith,” (which con­sti­tutes part 1, chap­ter 2 of Being & Noth­ing­ness, 1943). These con­vey the essence of Sartre’s exis­ten­tial­ism and give a pic­ture of his view of man’s rad­i­cal free­dom (we’re con­demned to be free!) and what for him serves as some sem­blance of an ethics.

For the Sartre episode, click below or lis­ten at


The audio­play is the sec­ond in a series, with the first being the PEL Play­ers’ per­for­mance of Pla­to’s dia­logue, The Gor­gias.

For those with who want more, PEL offers access to an out­takes reel. The pic­ture above fea­tures both actress­es in Spar­ta­cus.

Mark Lin­sen­may­er is the head hon­cho at The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life, the #1 down­loaded phi­los­o­phy pod­cast on the plan­et, which pro­vides amus­ing, in-depth dis­cus­sions of philoso­phers old and new. Mark is also a musi­cian who wrote a song just for this audio­play.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: A BBC Adap­ta­tion Star­ring Harold Pin­ter (1964)

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Clas­sic Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

The Exis­ten­tial­ism Files: How the FBI Tar­get­ed Camus, and Then Sartre After the JFK Assas­si­na­tion

100 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.