"The man really writes too much," the philosopher William Barrett once protested, smack in the middle of an essay, as the was struggling to put Jean-Paul Sartre in perspective.
"The Words" Sartre called his autobiography, and from the moment he learned to read, at the age of four, words seemed to be streaming out of him, like balloons above the heads of cartoon characters.
When he first appeared on the international scene, just after World War II -- a short, intense, rather wild- eyed ex-professor of philosophy, holding down the strategic table at the Cafe de Flore on the Left Bank of Paris -- Sartre became an instant legend, a tall tale of prodigiously spoken and written language. The story was that he scribbled articles, and even books, on his cafe table-desk while carrying on dazzling monologues before such auditors as Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.
Sarte always had a word or two -- and a lot more -- for every subject. As a philosopher, he turned out tomes with head-spinning titles like "Being and Nothingness."
A maverick Marxist, he felt called upon to take a political posture on every issue until, over the years, Sartre-watchers grew dizzy. He wrote scathingly about the Vietnam war. He wrote profoundly about anti- Semitism.
The words spilled over into nearly every literary form. Sartre wrote novels, like "Nausea," and plays, like "No Exit" and "The Condemned of Altona."
He once asked, "What is Literature?" -- and answered himself, thoroughly.
When he died last week, Sartre left unfinished a four-volume study of that master of novelistic economy, Flaubert. He once wrote words than that poet Baudelaire, applying far more words than that poet ever dreamed of consuming in his lifetime.
In 1964 the world surrendered to Sartre's all-surrounding words and awarded him the Nobel prize for literture. He turned it down -- and, of course, he had a few words to go with that. A writer, he said, should not permit himself to be transformed into an instruction.
What, in the end, was Sartre trying to say with all those words? As the well-publicized "Father of Existentialism," he became criticized for being an abstract theorist -- "the quintessence of the urban intellectual." In fact, Sartre had been a member of the French Resistance, and words, for him, were inseparably related to acts. Freedom could hardly be an abstraction to a "freedom fighter." Confronted by Naism, Sartre insisted that freedom started with the choice of a word in the face of evil, and that word was "No."
Because he believed that all words, all lives began with this "No," Sartre became classified as a pessimist, a man living on a thin edge of his negative.He preferred to call himself a "stern optimist"; he may have been something more. Like most French philosophers, Sartre thought of himself as a rationalist in the tradition of Descartes ("I think, therefore Iam"). He officially disapproved of passions. But all those words, at last, constituted a kind of passion.
When one reads Sartre as a secret romantic, his "commitment" (as he called it) to his "No" can ring out like a knight's vow. He says, "There is always a possibility for the coward to stop being cowardly." And one hears him stating, in fact, the possibility of being a hero.
When he remarked not long ago in conversation, "Let us say that one can improve one's biography," he was characteristically understanding his credo: The self is a choice; we are what we do. Has any modern humanist dared to promise more?
What he had a character in a play say, he could have said of himself: "Freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet." He made a career of recording this state of being "condemned to freedom," as he put it. He kept his integrity by shouting that "No," but the word his lips were always twisting to form seemed to be "Yes." It was as if all those other words constituted a lifetime of gallant stammering toward the one word that escaped him.