The philosopher who turned down the Nobel 50 years ago

Fifty years ago, Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel Prize for literature. His reputation has waned, but his intellectual struggle is still pertinent.

Updated - May 23, 2016 03:48 pm IST

Published - October 23, 2014 11:49 pm IST

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre

In this age in which every winning author knows what is necessary in the post-award trial-by-photoshoot, how lovely to recall what happened on 22 October 1964, when Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel prize for literature.

“I have always declined official honours,” he explained at the time. “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution. This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social or literary positions must act only within the means that are his own and that is, the written word.”

Throughout his life, Sartre agonised about the purpose of literature.

In rejecting the honour, Sartre worried that the Nobel was reserved for “the writers of the West or the rebels of the East”. He didn’t damn the Nobel but gently pointed out its Eurocentric shortcomings. Plus, one might say 50 years on, Ca change .

Sartre said that he might have accepted the Nobel if it had been offered to him during France’s imperial war in Algeria, which he vehemently opposed, because then the award would have helped in the struggle, rather than making Sartre into a brand, an institution, a depoliticised commodity. Truly, it is difficult not to respect his compunctions.

But the story is odder than that. Sartre read in Figaro Litteraire that he was in the frame for the award, so he wrote to the Swedish Academy saying he didn’t want the honour. He was offered it anyway. “I was not aware at the time that the Nobel Prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient,” he said. “But I now understand that when the Swedish Academy has made a decision, it cannot subsequently revoke it.”

Regrets? Sartre had a few no at least about the money. His principled stand cost him 250,000 kronor (about £21,000), prize money that, he reflected in his refusal statement, he could have donated to the “apartheid committee in London” who badly needed support at the time.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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