The Voluble Monsieur Sartre

1940s knickersThe theatre critic, Robert Francis, once described Jean-Paul Sartre as that strange teacher of philosophy who "specialised in the study of his students' underwear." There is an element of poetry, then, in the fact that film director, John Huston, approached Sartre in 1959 to write the screenplay for a film about Sigmund Freud. Sartre accepted the commission, pocketing a cool $25,000, but managed to produce a screenplay of such length that had it been filmed it would have resulted in a motion picture that lasted more than five hours.

Huston reports that Sartre's volubility was by no means restricted to the written word.

"There was no such thing as a conversation with him; he talked incessantly, and there was no interrupting him. You'd wait for him to catch his breath, but he wouldn't. The words came out in an absolute torrent. You might be able to catch him off guard and get in a point, but if he answered you at all - which was seldom - he would resume his monologue instantly. Sartre spoke no English, and because of the rapidity of his speech, I could barely follow even his basic thought processes. I am sure much of what he said was brilliant. It was never, however, succinct. Everyone's face had a glazed look, even though they all spoke fluent French. It was quite a scene: Sartre himself taking notes... Sometimes I'd leave the room in desperation - on the verge of exhaustion from trying to follow what he was saying; the drone of his voice followed me until I was out of earshot and, when I'd return, he wouldn't even have noticed that I'd been gone."

(Source: John Huston, An Open Book)

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