Stefany Anne Golberg considers why Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize in Literature:
Written words are a compact between writer and reader. “A writer should never say to himself,” wrote Sartre in What Is Literature?, “‘Bah! I’ll be lucky if I have three thousand readers, but rather, ‘What would happen if everybody read what I wrote?’” A writer can ignore this compact or take responsibility for it. The imperative remains.
It matters, therefore, what institutions a writer allies with, what her political sympathies are, what prizes she accepts. This is to say, Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize was not personal. It was metaphysical. Every act I take as a writer, Sartre was saying, affects the existence of my readers. Accepting the Nobel Prize would have been, for Sartre, to compromise the freedom of his readers. Indeed, it would have compromised the freedom of all mankind.
Golberg goes on to contemplate why, for Camus, accepting the Nobel posed less of an existential conflict:
The difference lay, perhaps, in Camus’ understanding of freedom. The human condition, for Camus, was fundamentally absurd. Man desires reason, meaning, happiness. And yet he lives in a world that is irrational, cold, and silent. Such a confrontation of life’s absurdity could drive a man to despair, possibly to suicide. But despair is only a negation of the Absurd. When one truly embraces the Absurd — i.e., embraces life with all its unreason and messy contradictions — there is an imperative to live. Only in the full acceptance of the absurdity of life can man become free. True freedom is found not just in action — in existing — but in coming to terms with existence. In acceptance.
(Image: 1965 sketch of Sartre for the New York Times by Reginald Gray via Wikimedia Commons)