A Surreptitious Romantic? Reading Sartre with Victor Hugo

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As Christina Howells suggests, Sartre's work betrays a yearning on his part for ‘a supreme moral command or imperative’, coloured by what Iris Murdoch calls ‘a surreptitious romanticism’. Sartre himself seems hostile towards the idea that he harbours a furtive amount of Romantic idealism in man’s essential worth. In 'L’Idiot de la Famille', he criticises the arch-Romantic Victor Hugo for being ‘the vatic poet’ under dictation from on high. However, he also notes a key duality in Hugo that itself is reminiscent of his own philosophical dilemma. ‘Half priest and half anarchist’, Hugo desires a harmonious totality to man's being, but is equally aware of the inexplicable disorder at the centre of existence. Hugo insists that we can but oscillate between the ideal and the real, since man (as Sartre echoes) is caught in a perpetual instability of being. As such, Hugo’s work aligns Romantic voyance with a distinctly existentialist perspective, indicating that both can in fact operate in tandem. A parallel reading of the two can thus serve a double imperative for my reflections on Sartre: firstly, to explore Nik Farrell Fox’s recent argument that the tension between a post-modern sense of despair and a modernist longing for meaning is the drive and not the stumbling block of Sartre’s thinking; and secondly, to reinsert his literature more prominently back into Sartre Studies by way of its effectiveness in performing this fundamental ambiguity through an emphasis on the creative and the unfixed.
Translated title of the contributionA Surreptitious Romantic? Reading Sartre with Victor Hugo
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSartre's Second Century
EditorsBenedict O'Donohoe, Roy Elveton
PublisherCambridge Scholars Press
Pages123 - 141
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9781443801614
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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