In What is Literature? Jean-Paul Sartre, a French existentialist philosopher, novelist and playwright, challenges us, the writers, to formulate some questions: ‘What is writing?’ ‘Why write?’ ‘For whom does one write?’ and ultimately ‘What is Literature?’
The writer deals with significations
The writer can guide you and, if he describes a hovel, make it seem the symbol of social injustice and provoke your indignation. The painter is mute. He presents you with a hovel, that’s all. You are free to see in it what you like.
One might think that he [a poet] is composing a sentence, but this is only what it appears to be. He is creating an object. The words-things are grouped by magical associations of fitness and incongruity, like colors and sounds. They attract, repel, and ‘burn’ one another, and their association composes the veritable poetic unity which is the phrase-object.
It is true that the prosewriter and the poet both write. But there’s nothing in common between these two acts of writing except the movement of the hand which traces the letters.Prose is, in essence, utilitarian. I would readily define the prose-writer as a man who makes use of words. The writer is a speaker; he designates, demonstrates, orders, refuses, interpolates, begs, insults, persuades, insinuates. If he does so without any effect, he has not therefore become a poet; he is a writer who is talking and saying nothing.
One is not a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way.
For one, art is a flight; for another, a means of conquering. But one can flee into a hermitage, into madness, into death. One can conquer by arms. Why does it have to be writing, why does one have to manage his escapes and conquests by writing?One of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential in relationship to the world. If I fix on canvas or in writing a certain aspect of the fields or the sea or a look on someone’s face which I have disclosed, I am conscious of having produced them by condensing relationships, by introducing order where there was none, by imposing the unity of mind on the diversity of things. That is, I feel myself essential in relation to my creation.
As a matter of fact, the writer knows that he speaks for freedoms which are swallowed up, masked, and unavailable; and his own freedom is not so pure; he has to clean it. It is dangerously easy to speak too readily about eternal values; eternal values are very, very fleshless.
I shall say that a writer is engaged when he tries to achieve the most lucid and the most complete consciousness of being embarked, that is, when he causes the engagement of immediate spontaneity to advance, for himself and others, to the reflective. The writer is, par excellence, a mediator and his engagement is mediation.