Virginia Woolf and Jean-Paul Sartre

This is just a frivolous thing really. But there is a striking similarity between something that Virginia Woolf wrote in her novel The Waves and a very famous passage in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. So basically I’m wondering whether Sartre ripped off Virginia Woolf. (I’m sure I read somewhere that he taught modern literature sometime during the 1930s, but anyway, he must have been aware of Woolf’s writings). Here’s Sartre’s passage:

Pierre is not here. This does not mean that I discover his absence in some precise spot in the establishment. In fact Pierre is absent from the whole cafe; his absence fixes the cafe in its evanescence; the cafe remains ground; it persists in offering itself as an undifferentiated totality to my only marginal attention; it slips into the background; it pursues its nihilation. Only it makes itself ground for a determined figure; it carries the figure everywhere in front of it, presents the figure everywhere to me. This figure which slips constantly between my look and the solid, real objects of the cafe is precisely a perpetual disappearance; it is Pierre raising himself as nothingness on the ground of the nihilation of the cafe. (Being and Nothingness, p. 10)

Here’s Virginia Woolf’s:

‘It is now five minutes to eight,’ said Neville. ‘I have come early. I have taken my place at the table ten minutes before the time in order to taste every moment of anticipation; to see the door open and to say, “Is it Percival? No; it is not Percival.” There is a morbid pleasure in saying: “No, it is not Percival.” I have seen the door open and shut twenty times already; each time the suspense sharpens. This is the place to which he is coming. This is the table at which he will sit. Here, incredible as it seems, will be his actual body. This table, these chairs, this metal vase with its three red flowers are about to undergo an extraordinary transformation. Already the room, with its swing-doors, its tables heaped with fruit, with cold joints, wears the wavering, unreal appearance of a place where one waits expecting something to happen. Things quiver as if not yet in being…And every moment he seems to pump into this room this prickly light, this intensity of being, so that things have lost their normal uses—this knife-blade is only a flash of light, not a thing to cut with. The normal is abolished. (The Waves)

Okay, so Sartre’s writing style is an abomination, and there seems to be a whole Gestalt psychology thing going on with him which is absent from Woolf’s passage. But even so – it’s the same thing, isn’t it? Pretty much?

If so, I think it’s interesting, because that Sartre passage really is very famous.

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24 Comments.

  1. I may well be wrong, but I doubt that Sartre had read Virginia Woolf. There’s nothing in Sartre that indicates that he either read British philosophy or literature. He did read U.S. writers, surely Dos Passos, U.S. detective fiction, probably Hemingway and Faulkner. I agree with you that there are similarities, but it’s a coincidence in my opinion. Not that Sartre didn’t rip off ideas, to use your words: he used a lot of Heidegger in Being and Nothingness, but I just don’t think that Sartre was aware of Virginia’s Woolf’s existence at the time when he wrote Being and Nothingness. Think of the fact that Sartre presided over the Russell Tribunal on War Crimes in Viet Nam, but Russell had never read Sartre nor had Sartre read Russell.

  2. Not sure that’s right, Amos. Here’s a quote I’ve found – seemingly from Sartre:

    “”I tried to profit,” explains Sartre, “from the research made by certain novelists such as Dos Passos and Virginia Woolf into techniques of narrative simultaneity.”

  3. Ok. I get a grade of 50%. I got Dos Passos right, but didn’t remember Virginia Woolf. Given Sartre’s tendency to use the work of other writers, you may well be right about the origin of the passage in Being and Nothingness.

  4. Well I was very impressed with Dos Passos! 🙂

  5. I’ve always found Woolf’s works to have much in common with continental “philosophy.” For example:


    On “Moments of Being”

    “Every day includes more non-being than being. Yesterday for example . . . has it happened a good day; above the average in ‘being.’ It [the weather] was the fine; I enjoyed writing these first pages; . . . I walked over Mount Misery and along the river; and save that the tide was out, the country, which I notice very closely always, was coloured and shaded as I like—there were the willows, I remember, all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue. I also read Chaucer with pleasure; and began a book—the memoirs of Madame de la Fayette—which interested me. These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments of non-being. I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton. . . . The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. I think Jane Austen can, and Trollope; perhaps Thackeray and Dickens and Tolstoy. I have never been able to do both.”
    (70)

    “2nd May . . . I write the date, because I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make then include the present—at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand upon.” (75)

    In her To The Lighthouse she seems to have adopted some sort of Platonism.

  6. Thanks djk.

    That’s interesting. No doubt there’s a PhD thesis somewhere on this stuff.

  7. Similarities are there, but if Sartre indeed read the aforementioned passage, I perceive it more as creative motive; Sartre, coming to a particular conclusion, was motivated by Woolf’s style and presentation of the idea. I would say if you look back on most authors, of any genre, and their works, you could pry out similar correlations. A piece of the creative impetus…

    I have heard the accusations that Sartre severely ripped Heidegger and even Kierkegaard (Though, in a sense, he thought of his work as a continuation of theirs–if anything his writings are a great primer for Heidegger and Kierkegaard), but I haven’t had enough exposure to Being and Nothingness to comment directly. However, before Sartre is presented as an unoriginal charlatan, his work on consciousness, subjectively conceived (by this, I mean conceived more through introspection than overtly scientific methodology) , is incisive, important, and in my mind required reading for any interested in the subject. It’s where Sartre seemed most comfortable and confident as a writer.

  8. Jeremy, I almost refrained from making this comment butttttt……I sense a degree of suspicion from you concerning Sartre, or at the very least, there appears to be a further implication to your post. If not, consider this comment part of the all pervading Nothingness.

  9. Jeremy:
    There are 6 valid means of knowledge accepted by Advaita. One of them is non-apprehension of existence. It requires priming by prior knowledge. Pierre is supposed to be in the cafe. The book is supposed to be on the table. The dog is supposed to bark at the approach of strangers. Not finding Pierre or the book and not hearing the dog is not an apprehension of non-existence which is impossible as nothing is presented to the senses yet it is a direct and immediate knowledge not gained by any other means. No, I don’t think Sartre read Advaita but his ontology covers similar themes to those scholiasts of the Void, the SarvaSunyaVadins vulgarly known as Nihilists.

    Amos: Anglophone influence. I find in B & N James mentioned 6 times, Hume 2, Pierce 1

    Influence on the Anglophone, Vast and resistant. At times he seems the apotheosis of the Continental, thought cooked then moulied then used to stuff something then roasted then anointed with butter fortified with brandy and set on fire. Gavisconnadde n’est pas or something.

    Elizabeth Taylor: “She seemed not to notice his action: her hand simply lay in his , giving no answering pressure; (from Sleeping Beauty/1953)

    Sartre: “We all know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there but she does not notice that she is leaving it” etc etc. (from Being and Nothingness/Bad Faith 55)

  10. Jake

    Hmmm! If it isn’t coincidence, then there are too many similarities for it to be passed off just as a creative impetus (IMO).

    I’ve read Being and Nothingness a couple of times. It’s a mess, but there are interesting bits (especially in the Being for Others section).

  11. I might be missing something here, but I see nothing suspicious at all in these similarities. The way they describe the situation is very different. Surely we could find other examples of writers prior to Sartre and Woolf who wrote about absences, things not being there. (OK, I can’t think of any, but I’m an ignoramus.) What makes the similarities here uncanny?

  12. My reaction–it almost makes you want to forget your whole education. Normal people just say, “Doggonit, Pierre ain’t here yet,” or “Percival ain’t here yet.” That’s how we say it in Texas. Or rather, “Pete ain’t here yet.” It’s simple and quick. Call me anti-intellectual (go ahead, make my day–we say that in Texas too).

  13. Ah, but if you just say “Doggonit, Pierre ain’t here yet”, then you’re not going to demonstrate that nothingness lies coiled at the heart of being, which is what this is all about.

    Or something. 🙂

  14. Jeremy,
    The Being for Others section is the one that I’m most familiar with, and yes, very interesting indeed…this is in fact the section I usually have in mind when I talk of Sartre’s psychological astuteness. I remember a professor noting that Sartre’s essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” was also a “mess”. A conceivable consequence of prolific writing. I echo Julian’s sentiment on the matter by the way, the similarities do not seem uncanny, though I agree completely that Sartre’s style in this passage is abominable and cheaply histrionic. Also, though they are talking about a similar or the same topic, they are in my view addressing it quite differently. Sartre seems concerned with the encompassing conceptual implications of nothingness–using Pierre as his heuristic device, while Woolf seems concerned with the way in which the absence of something, or specifically someone, can greatly alter our perception of things that previously went unnoticed because of there normality. More specifically, Percival has a clear emotional influence, and in his absence, the influence that his presence conjures up becomes displaced onto the immediate surroundings. Yes, Woolf may be implicitly concerned with absence in-itself, and one would think that if Sartre had read this passage, it may have clarified his own particular ideas on the issue, but I don’t see the passage as a cut and paste affair nor a case of subversively expressing an idea that has already been expressed–which is why I’m lead to believe, through this hasty analysis, that Sartre was creatively influenced with an already present conception of nothingness firmly in hand. One last note, the same teacher who said Sartre’s writing could at times be a mess, had us read as accompaniment, writings from Tolstoy, Kafka, and Dostoevsky, so that we were better able to understand existential concepts. Undoubtedly, literature is a great bastion for philosophical ideas.

    As I continue to write, maybe they are the same, but the same in a different way. Linguistically they evoke something different, but between the lines of their writing, there is an underlying presence of similarity. Something that michael touched upon in his post…this notion has been occurring a lot recently as I read materials of more explicitly disparate subject matter…has anyone else, out of curiosity, experienced this…where two authors are clearly talking about something different, but you sense (whatever that may mean) that they are talking about something very similar. It’s a phenomena that I can’t quite securely place.

  15. Jake

    I don’t have time to respond properly (sorry – I’m always a bit remiss in this way).

    But very quickly, I think you’re setting the bar too high for what counts as significant similarities. The point both Woolf and Sartre are making is that cafe takes on a different reality as a consequence of the absence of Percival/Pierre. So in Sartre:

    it persists in offering itself as an undifferentiated totality to my only marginal attention; it slips into the background; it pursues its nihilation…it is Pierre raising himself as nothingness on the ground of the nihilation of the cafe.

    And in Woolf:

    Already the room, with its swing-doors, its tables heaped with fruit, with cold joints, wears the wavering, unreal appearance of a place where one waits expecting something to happen. Things quiver as if not yet in being…

    There are differences, of course:

    1. As I said, there’s a whole Gestalt psychology riff going on with Sartre: this is what all that stuff about “ground” is referencing.

    2. There’s a big emotional thing for Woolf – Percival in The Waves is her dead brother Thoby (though that’s stating it too starkly); and she hasn’t got the Gestalt psychology thing, so the objects in her cafe are not annihilated in the same way.

    But, you know, I’m still betting Sartre has lifted this, and then used it for his own (slightly different) purposes.

  16. To change the subject radically, Sartre is the last French philosopher that non-French or non-Francophiles read or respect. I agree that lots of Being and Nothingness comes from Heidegger’s Being and Time, but still if I have time (and being) and if my eyesight lasts, I’d like to reread Being and Nothingness. There’s something worthwhile there, as there is in almost everything that Sartre wrote, even the stuff written under the effectives of amphetamines, like the Critique. After Sartre, French philosophy became pop, didn’t it? Why?

  17. Okay, I don’t think we’re too far from agreement on this. I have to laugh because you prefaced this whole thing by saying it was frivolous so I’m trying not to invest myself too much. Whereas I may be setting the bar too high, I feel as if, conversely, you may be setting it a bit too low. I don’t doubt that they are, in the context of those isolated passages, saying nearly the same thing. What I’m suggesting is that Sartre, in an introduction to an extensive survey on the relationship of being and nothingness, would formulate a passage in a manner similar to Woolf’s (assuming he was familiar with that piece) because he felt it usefully conveyed a theme that he subsequently goes on to substantially develop (and less of a surprise considering his literary interests). This is what I was getting at when I suggested the passage may have acted as a creative impetus in the structure of his own understanding. This, if plausible, is in my opinion fairly harmless. If it wasn’t, I’m afraid that providing proper citations would become an infinitely exhaustive task. This involves a lot of armchair psychology, and now I’m entering into psuedoscience territory, but its even possible that Sartre was not consciously aware of the similarity, having such a daunting task of writing set before him. If I could summarize this, I would simply say that it would be an important similarity if that was all Sartre said, if he just left it at that. Perhaps this is a more sensitive issue for those working in an academic field.

    I understand the remiss response by the way. I’m imagine that devoting your complete energies to this blog is on the lower end of the priority list. I’m grateful that you provide what you can, as all who interact on the site benefit greatly. A philosophy blog especially, where the discourse is much more demanding (seemingly in content alone), requires a great degree of mental energy that isn’t always in store. I know, the few times I have posted here, I feel somewhat drained after posting and yet feel as if I only scratched the surface of what I actually intended to say….best

  18. Hi Jake

    Well I pretty much agree with all that. I didn’t mean to suggest that this was plagiarism (I was being a little bit provocative with my “ripped off’ comment). There’s nothing wrong with being inspired, etc.

    I think what makes this interesting is just that this passage is one of the most famous in Being and Nothingness.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the question of whether it should be referenced (if it isn’t just a coincidence). In fairness, I suppose Sartre couldn’t know in advance that this would become such a talked about part of the book.

    It’s even got its own YouTube reading!

    Thanks for your last paragraph, by the way. 🙂

  19. I don’t know guys, am I missing something here or have none of you considered that ideas from the fields of Gestalt psychology and other fields such as, for example, the phenomenology of Husserl (in part mediated through Heidegger), played a major part in the formation of Sartre’s ontological project?

    And, similarly, Woolf had a keen interest in many of the intellectual currents of the time (I don’t know a lot about Woolf’s life and interests so this is only a guess of mine, due to the psychological experimentation and boldness of much of her work, and its focus on issues such as the fluid and holistic nature of consciousness as opposed to the more conventional novelistic picture of individual consciousnesses as separate and temporally linear entities)?

    Is it not probable that they both discovered the ideas behind each of their quoted paragraphs above independently and espressed these ideas in coincidentally similar fashions?

    No doubt there are countless other examples of (relatively) contemporaneous writers expressing similar ideas to one another based on the vast body of ideas which floated around throughout their education and not necessarily for any plagiaristic reasons?

    Also, the fact that this is such a talked about part of the book is neither here nor there. It is one of the many concrete examples in Being and Nothingness which serve to highlight and express Sartre’s ideas. These concrete examples are the best part of the book – I recall one particular incident involving someone spying through a keyhole and then suddenly being altered once he finds that he has been spotted by a witness to his shameful behaviour, becoming intensely aware of his activity whereas before the facts of himself, the keyhole, and the door had merely existed as a kind of ground to the real focus of his consciousness.

    I’m blathering slightly here, sorry, still a little braindead after a trip to Krakow for a stag party last weekend..

  20. One of the interesting things that Sartre did was actually to write his own novels to illustrate ontological conditions. Perhaps it was the other way round. Some have been looking to famous writers to discover moral themes and attitudes, virtue in Jane Austen, the mind of the axe killer, Dead Souls a prefiguration of surplus value and so forth but Sartre had it coming and going. Let’s face it, a lot of analytic type philosophy is boring. The Continent strikes Back.

  21. or have none of you considered that ideas from the fields of Gestalt psychology

    Right. So what you’re saying is the fact that I’ve mentioned Gestalt psychology several times is indicative of not considering it?

    Is it not probable that they both discovered the ideas behind each of their quoted paragraphs above independently and espressed these ideas in coincidentally similar fashions?

    I think it is fairly improbable. But possible (which is why I’ve mentioned the coincidence possibility several times).

    the fact that this is such a talked about part of the book is neither here nor there.

    It is precisely here and there. If a talked about part of a book is lifted (inspired by) from somebody else then that’s interesting – in the frivolous sense I talked about in the original posting.

  22. William Booth

    I, at the moment, have just reached this part in Being and Nothingness and was absent mindedly looking up commentary on it. Im quite impressed by the level of thought put out by those who have participated in this discussion and would like to thank you for it because I do find it usefull.

    By the way, I find it highly imporbable that two people could tackle this quetion in a very similiar way such as this since the amount of other useless factors about the passages, the fact that both are early to a cafe and are waiting on a friend, shows that one was most likely inspired by the other.

  23. William Booth

    Hmmm I believed I messed up on that last post. I said both were in a cafe and, after going back and looking through Woolf’s passage, I dont see why I thought that it was also in a cafe.

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