I don't quite remember how I got interested in reading Sartre. Sometime in the first or second year of my college, I got a copy of Being and Nothingness. At the time, I was a complete newbie to reading anything difficult, let alone philosophy. In hindsight, I can't help but feel pity at the incompetence and foolhardiness of my former self. I did attempt at reading the tome and promptly gave up after a few pages. This was a long time ago. I know better know, but nowhere near how much I should. Lately, I have returned to thinking about existentialism in context of my thinking about Raga Svara, which really is an extension on my general thinking about life. I am currently reading two of his is popular essays: Existentialism is a Humanism and A Commentary on The Stranger.
I have read Existentialism is a Humanism about 5 years ago, but I think I need to reread it in the context of my general improvement in understanding philosophical texts. The latter is a literary criticism of Albert Camus's "The Stranger". I have not read The Stranger earlier (the only Camus work I have read is The Fall). These are both different from the way I would have normally approached a work. I prefer not to read secondary literature or commentaries before reading the original work. Existentialism is a Humanism is a synthesis of Sartre's oeuvre and I will be better placed to read and comprehend his earlier works (Nausea, Being and Nothingness, The Words, etc) if I read this first.
I knew Sartre was a highly regarded and prominent thinker even during his time, however the introduction to the volume that I have brings to light his absolute pervasiveness and astounding breadth which I was not familiar with.
The following excerpt is from introduction to Existentialism Is a Humanism by Annie Cohen-Solal (L'Existentialisme est un humansime):
And from Algiers, the twenty-six year old journalist and playwright Albert Camus expressed his unconditional admiration for (Sartre's) Nausea; he called it "philosophy put into images" and "the first novel by a writer...of limitless talent from whom we can expect everything".
Another successful strategy allows Sartre to place Camus in a literary tradition that includes Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Gide, Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard - with whom Sartre elsewhere acknowledges his own kinship.
Literature, philosophy, theatre, literary criticism, journalism, politics, cinema: Sartre and Camus were involved in every intellectual sphere, at the same time and using similar means But nothing really swayed their political positions or their convictions Each followed his own path and without influencing the other in the least.
Sartre, the writer from metropolitan France, became the apostle of anticolonialism and took a radical, global position as prophet of every third-world cause. Camus, the Algerian, withdrew in to an attitude of consensus-seeking, developing his mythology of fraternity and reconciliation: Sartre, the well-to-do bourgeois, the arrogant holder of the agrégation in philosophy, against Camus, the autodidact, son of Catherine Sintès, a cleaning woman.
He (Sartre) began defending existentialism against its detractors - against Communists, who accused it of being "contemplative", "a luxury", "a bourgeois philosophy"; against Catholics, who condemned it "for emphasizing what is despicable about humanity, for exposing all that is sordid, suspicious, or base" - and he responded to their objections one by one.
This lecture became one of the mythical moments of the postwar era, the first media event of its time, giving rise to the "Sartre phenomenon."
If today we can state unequivocally ht Sartre became, around 1960, the first global public intellectual, a few sentences from "existentialism Is a Humanism" allow us to date the origin of his "universal" project to 1945: "Every project, however individual, has a universal value. Every project - even one belonging to a Chinese, an Indian, or an African - can be understood by a European..."
Sartre's body of work is anything but a closed, satisfying, reassuring system of thought, It is a located in a philosophy of lived experience, in an attitude of rebelliousness in complete accord with his theoretical model, and in a very keen ability to perceive new cultural trends.
I think the "lived experience" loci in the phenomenological and existential traditions is what I find in close proximity to my own curiosity and understanding of the world.