Sartre’s ‘je refuse’ to the Nobel Prize in Literature

The context

“I reject the award, that’s the truth, but I reserve my explanations for the Swedish press.” On October 22, 1964, two news items shocked French society and, hence, that of the countries that were then on either side of the Iron Curtain: the thinker Jean-Paul Sartre, of recognized communist affiliation, had received the Nobel Prize for Literature, but had rejected it with this statement to the France Presse news agency while eating with his partner, Simone de Beauvoir, in the central Parisian restaurant. The explanations, which we reproduce in full, were waiting for a note that Sartre had written in his own handwriting to be translated into Swedish.

The uproar in Western and Eastern intellectual circles was no less. It had been only six years since the award had been involved in its greatest controversy: awarded to the Soviet writer Boris Pasternak, whose nomination had been a constant for a decade before, the author of Dr. Zhivago He had thanked the award in a letter to the Swedish Academy and, a few days later, rejected the award, also by letter, appealing to the “meaning that this award has taken in the society to which I belong.”

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, in Beijing in 1955

Third parties

This time, without the conditions of Pasternak, from Western Europe, Sartre again rejected the award for its political significance, as he ended up explaining to the Swedish press. Denouncing, in turn, that it had not been granted to authors such as Pablo Neruda, Louis Aragon or Mikhail Sholokhov, in his opinion much more deserving of recognition for their literary qualities than himself.

The only other outrage by a writer to the Swedish Academy had been that of George Bernand Shaw in 1926, when he renounced the prize money. However, he ended up accepting it to establish a fund that would allow him to translate Swedish works into English. In this sense, Sartre raised the possibility of allocating the award money to the Anti-Apartheid Committee in London, although it did not end up being more than a declaration of intent. A glove that the Academy did not pick up.


Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Che Guevara in Cuba in 1960

Third parties

Sartre’s gesture also did not move the criteria of the Nobel juries one iota, that if in the scientific fields the works and discoveries published and made in Western countries continued to prevail, in 1970 they awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who received recognition four years later when he was under house arrest for his “anti-revolutionary activities.”

Sartre also did not change his path after the controversy. In 1967 he instituted together with Bertrand Russell a symbolic tribunal destined to expose the war crimes of the United States in Vietnam to become the thinker of reference for May 1968.


“I deeply regret the fact that this incident has turned into something of a scandal. They gave me an award, and I turned it down. It was like this because I was not informed about it beforehand. When i read on Le Figaro Littéraire last October 15 in the column of the Swedish correspondent that the Swedish Academy had chosen me, but that the decision had not yet been made, I assumed that writing a letter to the academy, which I send the next day, could clarify things and there would be no more discussion.

“At that time I was not aware that the Nobel Prize is awarded without consulting the opinion of the recipient and I believed that there was time to prevent that from happening. But now I understand that once the Swedish Academy had made the decision it could not be reversed a posteriori.

“My reasons for rejecting the award concern neither the Swedish Academy nor the Nobel Prize itself, as I explained in my letter to the Academy. In it I adduced two types of reasons, personal and objective.

All the honors that a writer can receive expose his readers to a pressure that I do not consider desirable “

“The personal ones are these: my refusal is not an impulsive gesture, I have always declined official honors. In 1945, when I was offered the French Legion of Honor, I turned it down, even though I was sympathetic to the Government. In the same way, I have never tried to apply to enter the College de France, as many of my friends have suggested to me.

”This attitude is based on the conception I have about the writer’s company. The writer who adopts a political, social or literary position must act only with his own means, that is, the written word. All the honors you can receive expose your readers to pressure that I don’t consider desirable. If I designate myself as Jean-Paul Sartre it would not be the same if I named Jean-Paul Sartre, winner of the Nobel Prize.

“The writer who accepts an honor of this class involves himself with the association or institution that has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionaries only commit me to myself. While if Nobel Prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre is the champion of the Venezuelan resistance, that also commits the Nobel Prize as his institution.

The writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it is under the most honorable circumstances ”

The writer must, therefore, refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it is under the most honorable circumstances, as it is in the present case. This attitude is, of course, completely my own, and contains no criticism from those who have already been awarded the award. I have great respect and admiration for several of the laureates that I have the honor to meet.

”My objective reasons are the following: the only battle possible today on the cultural front is the battle for the peaceful coexistence of two cultures, that of the East and that of the West. I don’t mean that they should hug 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 from such contradictions. My sympathies undeniably go to socialism and the so-called Eastern bloc, although I was born and raised in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois culture. That allows me to collaborate with all those who seek to bring the two cultures closer together. However, I hope ‘the good man’ wins. That is to say, socialism.

The battle for peaceful coexistence between East and West must take place between men and between cultures without the intervention of institutions “

“That is why I cannot accept an honor granted by cultural authorities, more with those of the West than those of the East, even if I sympathize with their existence. Although all my sympathies are on the side of socialism, I would be unable to accept, for example, the Lenin Prize, if someone wanted to give it to me, which is not the case.

“I know that the Nobel Prize itself is not a Western bloc literary prize, but it is where it comes from. In addition, situations occur that go beyond the Swedish Academy. This is the reason why, in the present situation, the Nobel Prize is objectively held as a distinction reserved for writers from the West or rebels from the East.

”It has not been awarded, for example, to Neruda, who is one of the greatest Latin American poets. There has never been a serious option to give it to Louis Aragon, who certainly deserves it. It is regrettable that the award was given to Pasternak and not Sholokhov, and that the only honored work of the Soviet Union should be published abroad and censored in its own country.

The Nobel Prize remains a distinction reserved for writers from the West or rebels from the East “

“A certain balance could have been achieved thanks to a similar gesture in the other direction. During the war in Algeria, when we signed the Declaration of 121, I should have accepted the award with gratitude because it had not only honored me, but also the freedom for which we were fighting. But things did not happen that way, and only at the end of the battle has the prize been awarded to me.

When discussing the motives of the Swedish Academy, mention has been made of freedom, a word that suggests many interpretations. In the West only abstract freedom is understood. Personally, I prefer a more concrete freedom, which consists of the right to have more than one pair of shoes and to eat enough.

“It seems to me less dangerous to decline the award than to accept it. If I accept it, I offer myself what I will call a rehabilitation. According to the article of Le Figaro Littéraire, ‘my controversial political past has not been taken into account’. I know that this article does not express the opinion of the Academy, but it clearly shows how the acceptance of the award could be interpreted by certain right-wing circles. I consider that this ‘controversial political past’ is still valid, even if I blame my comrades for certain past mistakes.

In the West only abstract freedom is understood. I prefer the freedom that consists of having more than one pair of shoes to be able to eat “

“Nor do I mean that the Nobel Prize is a bourgeois prize, but such is the bourgeois interpretation that would inevitably occur in certain circles with which I am very familiar.

Finally, I have come to the question of money: it is a very heavy burden that the Academy imposes on the laureate, accompanying his tribute with a huge sum, and this problem tortures me. Anyone who accepts the award money can support organizations or movements that one considers important: my thoughts were for the Apartheid Committee in London.

Either you decline the award on generous principles, thereby depriving such an organization of much-needed support. I give up 250,000 crowns because I do not want to be institutionalized in the West or the East. As much as I should not give up, on the other hand, a sum that I can share.

This is the reason that has made the awarding of the award and the rejection that I am obliged to do so painful for me.

“I would like to end this statement with a message of feeling of camaraderie for the Swedish public.”

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This piece corresponds to a series of content published by The vanguard which compiles some of the most relevant speeches of the 20th century from a historical perspective and with an informative spirit.

Ramon Alvarez

Ramon Alvarez

Ramon Alvarez

Ramon Alvarez

Ramon Alvarez

We wish to thank the author of this short article for this outstanding material

Sartre’s ‘je refuse’ to the Nobel Prize in Literature

Hank Gilbert