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Sartre Essay

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Olivia Alter

21/07/2011 Sartre

Discuss Sartre's view of the relationships between art and 'engagement' in Qu'est-ce que la littérature?
In the first two parts of Qu'est-ce que la littérature?, Sartre discusses the difference between poetry and prose, mainly from the viewpoint of 'engagement' in literature. But before one can begin to analyse his arguments of this opposition, a definition of 'engagement' is needed, as well as a knowledge of what Sartre is aiming to show with this term, and how he applies it to art, whether it be poetry, prose, or others. In Pour qui écrit-on?, the third part of the text, Sartre says that, for him, 'un
écrivain est engagé...lorsqu'il fait passer pour lui et pour les autres l'engagement de la spontanéité immédiate au réfléchi' (pg84) 1. This suggests an active awareness, and so 'engagement' has the sense of writing with a purpose, or a commitment to a cause, and this is when we can see the differences emerging between poetry and prose. Sartre believes that a writer must be 'engagé' to reveal the world through language. Nevertheless, in poetry, language is not used in the same way as in prose. Since poets consider 'les mots comme des choses et non comme des signes' (pg19), language becomes opaque, without a meaning other than that which it is associated with, and so does not have a purpose as prose language does, of naming and changing the world. Sartre places poetry in the same category as music, sculpture, and painting, and claims that none of them can be committed, or at least not in the same way as prose. Poetry has the same origins ('l'émotion, la passion…la colère, l'indignation sociale, la haine politique' (pg24)), yet the words embody a 'sens' rather than a 'signification', and it is the denial of language as a tool, which is necessary to the act of 'dévoilement', or changing the world, that shows how poetry, representative of arts other than prose, cannot be committed. A prose writer, on the other hand, understands that 'parler c'est agir' (pg27). Language is a transparent and utilitarian method of communication, which means that the writer can use it as an instrument for change. By writing, the writer 'a choisi de dévoiler 1

Page numbers are from Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (Gallimard-Folio, 1948)

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