How Jean-Paul Sartre managed to spend his military service working on his novel. ‹ Literary Center

September 20, 2022, 9:58 a.m.

On September 20, 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was enlisted in the French army. Due to his exotropia, which caused him balance problems, and his partial blindness, he did not go to the front. Instead, they made him a meteorologist. It was, as he wrote in a letter to Simone de Beauvoir, “extremely peaceful work; indeed, I do not see any branch of the services which has a calmer, more poetic work, except, that is to say, the breeders of pigeons, always supposing that there are any left today.

“My job here is to send balloons up and then observe them through a pair of binoculars,” he explained. “It’s called ‘doing a weather observation’. Then I phone the battery artillery officers and tell them the direction of the wind. What they do with that information is entirely their business. Young people make intelligence reports based on this; the old school just put it in the wastebasket. In any event, since there is no shooting here at present, either course is equally effective. As for me, I have a huge amount of free time left on my hands, which I’m using to finish my novel.

Sartre was captured by German troops in 1940, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, during which time he also wrote extensively, and spent the rest of his hours reading Heidegger’s work. being and time. (As you do.) It was his eyes again that led to his release – or his escape, depending on who says so. “It wasn’t a very capricious escape, but it was simple and it worked,” writes Sarah Bakewell in At the Existentialist Cafe.

He suffered a lot from his eye problems, thanks to all the reading and writing, which was mostly blind. Sometimes both eyes were so sore that he tried to write with them closed, his writing wandering on the page. But his eyes gave him his escape route. Pleading the need for treatment, he procured a medical pass to see an eye doctor outside the camp gates. Surprisingly, he was then allowed out, showing the pass, and he never came back.

Instead, he returned to Paris and got back to work.

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