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. 

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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.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.