The Time Jean-Paul Sartre Turned Down the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is usually considered a pretty great thing to get one’s hands on. To do so means that within you’re given intellectual field, you did good, kid, you did good. This year’s recipients, announced last week, would seem to throw further evidence toward this line of thinking.

In 1964, Jean Paul Sartre — the “Hell is other people” guy — decided, ‘Nah.’ Sartre refused that year’s award in Literature. Rarely short for words, the French philosopher delivered a lengthy official refusal that October. It was translated into English and published by the New York Review of Books later that year. (Click the link to read it in full.)

Existentialist heartthrob that he was, it probably makes sense that Jean-Paul Jean-Paul sited both subjective and objective reasons for his decision. Speaking to the subjective, he said:

The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionists commit only myself, while if Jean-Paul Sartre the Nobel laureate champions the Venezuelan resistance, he also commits the entire Nobel Prize as an institution.

The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.


My objective reasons are as follows: The only battle possible today on the cultural front is the battle for the peaceful coexistence of the two cultures, that of the East and that of the West. I do not mean that they must embrace each other—I know that the confrontation of these two cultures must necessarily take the form of a conflict—but this confrontation must occur between men and between cultures, without the intervention of institutions.

I myself am deeply affected by the contradiction between the two cultures: I am made up of such contradictions. My sympathies undeniably go to socialism and to what is called the Eastern bloc, but I was born and brought up in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois culture. This permits me to collaborate with all those who seek to bring the two cultures closer together. I nonetheless hope, of course, that “the best man wins.” That is, socialism.

This is why I cannot accept an honor awarded by cultural authorities, those of the West any more than those of the East, even if I am sympathetic to their existence. Although all my sympathies are on the socialist side. I should thus be quite as unable to accept, for example, the Lenin Prize, if someone wanted to give it to me, which is not the case.

And that’s why Sartre said no no Nobel.

photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann, Creative Commons/flickr