Transcendence Estranged: Sartre, Kafka and French Existentialism

Dr. Jo Bogaerts

Promotor: Prof. dr. Vivian Liska, Co-promotor: Prof. dr. Arthur Cools

In 2015 I completed doctoral research on which I had been working for four years with the support of the Institute of Jewish Studies and under the stimulating guidance of prof. Vivian Liska and prof. Arthur Cools. In my dissertation, entitled Transcendence Estranged: Sartre, Kafka and French Existentialism, I argue that the relation between Kafka’s literary work and French Existentialism needs revision. Starting from the post-war period, when ‘l’offensive existentialiste’ and the so-called ‘Kafka vogue’ coincided, the assumption has been that Sartre, and other existentialists, turned to Kafka by way of illustration of the main theses of their philosophical work.

Contrary to the received view, I argue that Kafka in fact challenges Sartre’s theory of transcendent freedom. Sartre maintains that even if the subject cannot justify his own existence, he is nonetheless wholly responsible for his ‘transcendence’, i.e., the ways in which he overcomes the factical aspects of his situation. Considering the mystified condition of Kafka’s heroes – victim of an inescapable predicament and an inevitable downfall – Sartre’s notion is untenable in this connection. Interestingly, rather than dismissing Kafka for this reason Sartre expresses profound admiration for the German-Jewish writer, who he calls, referring to The Metamorphosis (arguably one of Kafka’s most fatalistic short stories) one of the 20th century’s greatest authors.

In the subsequent chapters of my dissertation I trace the numerous, albeit short and sometimes enigmatic, references to Kafka in Sartre’s work. Starting with the early articles of literary criticism, written during the 1930s, I work my way through Sartre’s early wartime experience, his philosophical magnum opus Being and Nothingness, the key 1943 article Aminadab or the Fantastic Considered as a Language, and, finally, the committed post-war writings. Based on analysis of these sources, I show that Sartre was aware of the discrepancy between his notion of transcendent freedom and the tenor of much of Kafka’s literary work. Indeed, he consistently refers to Kafka as a means of bringing out an estrangement of transcendent freedom. Kafka thus constitutes a profound but hidden critical influence on Sartre’s thought, which helps us reassess the modernity of Sartre’s philosophical work. In this sense, my work links to reconsiderations offered by Nick Fox, Christina Howells, and others.