What would it be like to be privy to the mind of one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers? John Gerassi had just this opportunity; as a child, his mother and father were very close friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and the couple became for him like surrogate parents. Authorized by Sartre to write his biography, Gerassi conducted a long series of interviews between 1970 and 1974, which he has now edited to produce this revelatory and breathtaking portrait of one of the world’s most famous intellectuals. Through the interviews, with both their informalities and their tensions, Sartre’s greater complexities emerge. In particular, we see Sartre wrestling with the apparent contradiction between his views on freedom and the influence of social conditions on our choices and actions. We also gain insight into his perspectives on the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the disintegration of colonialism. These conversations add an intimate dimension to Sartre’s more abstract ideas. With remarkable rigor and intensity, they also provide a clear lens through which to view the major conflagrations of the past century.
John Gerassi is professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, author of Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century.