BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody

Introducing Sartre: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, author, and critic, and this introductory guide discusses each of those aspects in descending order of emphasis – meaning it’s largely about his philosophy but it offers insight to his literary works and touches upon his criticism. This is the third book in this series that I’ve read, and I found it to be the best, so far. The other two books I’ve read also each explored the work of a philosopher (fyi – the others were Baudrillard and Kant,) and I think this one was the most appealing to read because it was able to draw upon Sartre’s literary work to convey his philosophical ideas more narratively. Because of this, the book required less intensity of concentration to keep complicated concepts and jargon straight. (Not that any of these books is particularly challenging, but with the hook of characters and stories it’s that much easier to hang on the ideas being expressed.)

As with the other books in the series, the book consists of many tiny sections, each of which uses graphics (usually in the form of cartoons) to emphasize certain information. In the case of this book, there were about seventy-five sections. Many of the sections discuss biographical aspects of Sartre’s life, and influential world events he lived through. The philosophical sections delve most heavily into the existentialist and phenomenological concepts most closely associated with Sartre, but also investigate his political philosophy. With regards to his political philosophy, there was extensive discussion of Sartre’s ideas about freedom and Marxism. Sartre was an ardent advocate of Marxism, but – like many – the theoretical appeal it held for him was somewhat tarnished by the brutal realities seen in Russia and the Eastern European satellite states. As alluded to, there are sections that discuss historical events as they pertain to shifts in Sartre’s thinking.

There are sections that explore Sartre’s various literary and philosophical publications – most notably “Nausea” which is Sartre’s most well-known literary work and which contains some of his most influential ideas. As for his work as a critic, the book focuses heavily upon Sartre’s writings about Baudelaire.

The graphics are all black-and-white cartoons, most of which serve a function similar to text-boxes in reiterating key concepts, or sometimes showing competing ideas in the form of a discussion. They are simply drawn and easy to follow.

I found this to be a useful way to gain some insight into the work of Sartre, who was little more to me than a familiar name before reading this book (though I was aware of his affiliation with existentialism.) If you are looking for a concise guide to Jean-Paul Sartre, this book is worth checking out. I read it via Amazon Prime.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No OneThus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The gist of this philosophical novel’s story is that the Persian sage, Zarathustra, comes down from his cave to inform people of his breakthrough, only to find the townspeople are utterly uninterested. This leads Zarathustra to take his show on the road, where he does better in discovering individuals who rise above the common man, but still they miss the mark of Übermensch – the Superman.

This book somehow simultaneously manages to be abstruse and readable. It can be tough reading when it uses symbolism and leitmotifs that are tough to crack, and when the story arc consists of long sequences of Zarathustra talking at people one after another. [It’s worth noting that I read that this was a particularly challenging book to translate, and so some of the difficulty may result from the edition I read being too literal or not literal enough.] On the other hand, it’s packed with pithy, quotable lines. The most famous of these is, “God is dead.” Others include: “Die at the right time!” “Better know nothing than half-know many things!” and “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.” Also, as I stated the plot in a tiny paragraph, it should be clear that the general flow of events isn’t hard to keep up with.

The quotes I presented above offer substantial insight into the philosophy being presented. First, with “God is dead” Nietzsche is advancing the existentialist fundamental that one needs to look not at religion for life’s meaning or for the means of proper behavior, but one must create one’s own meaning and morality. While some believe that Nietzsche is arguing for amorality, it seems that he’s more arguing to move beyond accepting pre-labeled boxes of “good” and “bad” handed down from on high, and rather insisting that one must make one’s own decisions about such matters. It must be remembered that society’s dictates also include collective prejudices and other negative biases. Second, the whole of the book is dedicated to the recognition that mankind must move beyond its current state of being constrained by the shackles of church, state, and society, and rise to a super-state (i.e. “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.”)

For me, this book picked up in the fourth and final part. This section brings together the more intriguing people Zarathustra interacted with along the road. In general, the book started as a slow read, but became much clearer and more readable as I went. The arguments are not hard, nor is the chain of events, but the way things are stated can be a bit incomprehensible. This may be one of those books for which one would be served by opting for a more heavily annotated edition rather than just the raw text.

I’d recommend this book. Whether one accepts its arguments or not, they are worth understanding.

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