Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Sartre, De Beauvoir - hypocrites, heroes, both ?

The French/Paris connections continue, and, as so often, I explored the issues online and this led to a far more complex post than originally intended.

On BBC Radio 4 this morning:

"Tete a Tete: Eleanor Bron reads from Hazel Rowley's biography of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. 2/5. De Beauvoir introduces Sartre to Olga Kosakiewicz."

De Beauvoir was initially repulsed by Sartre's appearance, but came to be infatuated with his mind, which happened to many women (they are another species :-) ).

Sartre and De Beauvoir at university in 1929

In 1934 Sartre went to Germany, but was frustrated because his German was not very good; he wasn't so much worried about the problem of reading difficult texts like Heidegger's "Sein und Zeit", but rather that he couldn't chat up women so well. He said: "Stripped of my weapon I was feeling quite idiotic, and didn't dare to try anything, so I had to fall back on a French woman," the wife of one of his colleagues.

De Beauvoir said that she'd never been bored when with Sartre and that he was interested in everything, e.g. he introduced her to cowboy films (which Wittgenstein liked too; they helped him stop thinking), and American pulp fiction (apparently his mother had encouraged these interests, as a relaxation from the more intellectual input from Sartre's grandfather - though Sartre seems to have downplayed the latter). However, though he was in Germany during the period of Hitler and the Nazis, he took little interest in politics, focusing instead on the abstractions of Husserl and Heidegger.

Sartre and De Beauvoir in 1940, the year the Germans occupied Paris

As a youth he had written - absurdly, and ignoring history: "Anyone who is not famous at 28 must renounce glory forever." At 29 he was still unknown, and went on to prove his youthful self wrong.

The book (Tete a Tete) brought out the ways in which even the greatest intellects can be made into such fools (and worse) by their body's desires. Thus he was madly jealous when Olga, one of De Beauvoir's students (and with whom she had a relationship), had a relationship with one of his protégés:

Olga, Nelson Algren (American writer, with whom Beauvoir had an affair), De Beauvoir

"Sartre became infatuated with Olga and spent two years attempting to seduce her. He failed, but in 1937 he met her sister, Wanda, also beautiful, and even more at sea, and he managed, after two more years, to sleep with her. The day of his triumph, he left her lying in bed, “all pure and tragic, declaring herself tired and having hated me for a good forty-five minutes,” in order to rush out to a café and write Beauvoir with the news."


Meanwhile De Beauvoir had an affair with Sartre's protégé Bost.

Later the chance connections with Paris continued when I read an interview with Natascha McElhone in today's Guardian, and come across this:

"The director James Ivory was casting Surviving Picasso. Athony Hopkins was playing the artist, but the part of Francoise Gilot, the young student who bore two children for Picasso and endured a turbulent decade with him, was the real lead, as well as the perspective through which the picture was filtered.

...she fell in love with an old friend, the reconstructive surgeon Martin Kelly, married him in Provence and moved to Paris, where she fell pregnant. 'We lived in a tiny flat among the rooftops. It was wonderful.'"

McElhone interview

The womaniser

Like Picasso, whom he knew, Sartre was a great womaniser, but I hadn't realised, till I did a search on Google to check some things in the broadcast, the extent to which he failed to live up to his philosophical writing about living authentically and choosing freely but ethically. I don't think many people think of that as involving exploiting rather young, insecure women, aided by de Beauvoir, and then writing letters to each other expressing contempt for the victims:

"Three years after Sartre’s death, Beauvoir published a collection of his letters to her, in which he described in detail his activities in bed, but she edited them to conceal identities. She died in 1986; in 1990, her executrix, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, published Beauvoir’s “Letters to Sartre.” These were unedited—“Is it not, by now, preferable to tell all in order to tell the truth?” Le Bon de Beauvoir wrote in the preface—and they shocked many people. The revelation was not the promiscuity; it was the hypocrisy. In interviews, Beauvoir had flatly denied having had sexual relations with women; in the letters, she regularly described, for Sartre, her nights in bed with women. The most appalling discovery, for many readers, was what “telling each other everything” really meant. The correspondence was filled with catty and disparaging remarks about the people Beauvoir and Sartre were either sleeping with or trying to sleep with, even though, when they were with those people, they radiated interest and affection. Sartre, in particular, was always speaking to women of his love and devotion, his inability to live without them—every banality of popular romance. Words constituted his principal means of seduction: his physical approaches were on the order of groping in restaurants and grabbing kisses in taxis. With the publication of “Letters to Sartre,” it was clear that, privately, he and Beauvoir held most of the people in their lives in varying degrees of contempt. They enjoyed, especially, recounting to each other the lies they were telling."


A man of his time

I'm not a saint, who is, but I haven't sunk that low. But one musn't be too pious; even Sartre was a man of his time (as he tried to show in Flaubert's case, at great length, in his final, uncompleted work) and the womanising was quite common, especially in artistic-intellectual circles, adultery more accepted amongst married French people, and even arranged marriages were still common amongst the middle and upper classes, which affected De Beauvoir's best friend:

"As a student, Zaza met and fell in love with Maurice Merleau-Ponty [who went on to become a major philosopher]. Unfortunately for the two lovers, Mr. Le Coin had already arranged a marriage for his daughter. Zaza’s parents demanded that she never see Merleau-Ponty or Simone again, as they deemed both to be corrupting influences. Elizabeth Le Coin died of encephalitis in 1929.

Simone wrote of Zaza’s short life several times. For de Beauvoir, the death of her friend revealed how unreasonable French social order was and how unfair life could be."


Intellectual heroes of our time

Michael Dirda also argues against being too condemnatory:

"So the verdict is clear: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were . . . human. They behaved badly sometimes, made mistakes and inadvertently harmed those they claimed to love. And yet I find it hard to judge them as harshly as I suspect some other readers will. A Frenchman who liked pretty girls, an intellectual woman who was lonely for physical love -- Just appalling! Utter depravity! Those existentialists always were in league with the devil.
Sometimes even philosophers and moralists fail to live up to their own highest ideals. But does that negate the importance of their public example or the value of their writing?
Fundamentally, Sartre pursued as pure an intellectual life as one could ask -- he worked like a demon, gave away his money faster than he earned it, helped and supported those he loved, and tirelessly contributed to, or contested with, the literature, politics and philosophy of his time. For 50 years, he and Beauvoir campaigned on every front to free the human spirit from its mind-forged manacles. In what really matters now, Sartre was certainly right -- we should lead our own lives and not those that society wants us to lead. (Asked why the government didn't arrest the philosopher after Sartre made inflammatory statements during the Algerian War, Charles de Gaulle answered: "You do not imprison Voltaire.") And Beauvoir was obviously right too -- women have been demeaned as the "second sex," and had she not spearheaded the "Manifesto of the 343," abortion might have remained illegal in France for years to come.

...for freshness and charm, Beauvoir's most appealing books remain her memoirs The Prime of Life and The Force of Circumstance -- gossipy, artful (Rowley reminds us that they subtly distort her past with Sartre) and almost as good as Boswell on Samuel Johnson and his circle. In a long reading life, few hours have ever rivaled the weekend I spent, alone in my tiny room in Marseille or with a coffee in a nearby café, devouring the fat Livre de Poche editions of those two books.

...Yes, at times this amazing couple may have been all too human, but for me, and for many others, they nonetheless remain intellectual heroes of our time."

"We'll drink to that !" S and B in 1974


Sartre's views:

THINKING: 'It would be better if I could only stop thinking. Thoughts are the dullest things. Duller than flesh'

GOD: 'I do not believe in God... But in the internment camp, I learnt to believe in men'

CRITICS: 'Critics are people who have had no luck in life, and at the point of despair, found a little quiet job as the caretaker of a cemetery...'

The Sartre revival

'Scott Mclemee, who recently chaired an academic symposium on Sartre in the US, said: "If Sartre's legacy once seemed a casualty of the Cold War, it grows ever more pertinent to the way we live now. The arguments over systemic violence, emancipatory struggle, and terrorism that dominated much of his work have now come back into view as matters of interest well beyond the community of Sartre scholars."'


"It is the stuff of legend. And the hunger for that legend today is unmistakable. It has been a long time since any thinker left so large a mark on an age as did Sartre. The first sign of a revival came three years ago, on the 20th anniversary of his death, when the mediagenic French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy published a best-selling book, recently translated into English as Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (Polity Press).

... In a neat inversion of the stereotypes about French radicalism and American conservatism, some younger scholars in the United States are emphatic about Sartre's continuing importance as a revolutionary theorist. "If you had dropped Being and Nothingness into my lap, I don't think that would have lead me to work on Sartre," says Neil Roberts, a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago, who delivered a paper at the society's conference at Purdue. "I came to Sartre through an interest in Caribbean and African thinkers, including Frantz Fanon," says Mr. Roberts. "What got my attention wasn't just his introduction to Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, but his study of Patrice Lumumba." Both essays appear in a recently translated collection of Sartre's essays, Colonialism and Neocolonialism (Routledge, 2001)."



Anonymous Ms. Glaze said...

Fascinating! I've studied and taught Satre from the theater performance point of view, but never really delved into the relationship between ole' Jean Paul and Simone de Beauvoir.

Sure gives his play 'No Exit' another layer of meaning especially when you look at the relationship between the two female characters.

Great stuff...thanks for the perspective and petit histoire.
Amy (Ms. Glaze)


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