Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sartre - Paris riots

BBC Radio 4 continued with readings from Rowley's "Tete a Tete" and again Sartre doesn't come out of it very well. He seems to have had affairs with the nearest women wherever he went, thus he had an affair with a female guide for his group in the US, and with his Russian and Japanese translators. While De Beauvoir devoured books on the countries, Sartre preferred to get to know the culture through intimate personal contact. His Russian translator objected to being treated like the embodiment of Soviet woman, she wanted to appreciated as herself. She was also dismissive of his refusal of the Nobel prize partly because it had been given to Pasternak for political reasons (he was anti-communist) and not Shokolov. But she regarded Shokolov as a mere government lackey and she said that Sartre was ridiculed in the Soviet Union over this.

However, once again it's not black and white; Sartre did valuable work in pointing out the violence inherent in the capitalist system, some of it not dramatic, but systemic oppression:

Aronson: This leads us to the unresolved dimension of the Sartre-Camus conflict, the aspect of it that is still very much with us today and needs addressing. The other half of the story is Sartre's equally compelling insight into systemic violence. Sartre understood deeply the violences built into capitalism and colonialism, which he found no less appalling than Camus found revolutionary violence. He illuminated, as no one else has, the everyday structured violence of oppressive social relations, the violence that comes to be depersonalized and experienced as "the way things are."

Paris rioters - the danger of assumptions

Hence the revival of interest in him, cf. previous post, and his ideas are clearly of relevance to the recent riots in Paris, and I think Sartre would have been in sympathy with them. He was on the side of the students in May 1968. The recent Paris riots also featured on BBC Radio 4 on thursday:

"Three months on from the riots which tore through the heart of France, Paul Henley hears worrying evidence that anger and resentment remain in the suburbs."

Significantly, Henley himself was a victim of media coverage, which led him to make false assumptions about the young men involved:

'The task of meeting and interviewing young people from the Paris suburbs who had been involved in the infamous riots had struck me as a difficult one.

I had imagined several days of hanging around grim housing estates trying to work my way into the confidence of defensive, jaded and probably monosyllabic youths.

What actually happened proves the importance in this business of not making assumptions.

I contacted a youth worker, Mohamed Mizane, who is based in the housing projects of Montreuil, which saw some of the worst violence.

'... A small crowd of teenagers - all of them from north and west African families - filed in, shook my hand and said they would like to talk about the riots.

I began by apologising for my rather dodgy French, saying I hoped they would understand me nonetheless.

The response was like that of a class of polite English public school boys: "Bah, non... not at all, your French is much better than our English," and so on.

"The riots were just a way of getting ourselves heard," said one 19-year-old, "even if it wasn't the best way.

"We burned cars, litter bins and all that stuff... and suddenly the politicians and everybody else took notice of us."

"This is a difficult place to live," said a black youth who insisted on taking my microphone and holding it end-down against his mouth, like a rapper.

"When you watch your brothers - five or six of them - trying to get a job and getting nowhere, you wonder what the point is.

"Everyone's on the dole here, and nobody sees any way of getting out."'

The role of design

The report also dealt with the role of urban design; one architect had been able to redesign some of the estates to make them less inhuman and in these there had been no riots. Cf.:

'These districts have sporadically gone up in flames before, attracting public and political attention for a brief span, and then reverting to normal life out of most peoples' sight and mind.

Former President François Mitterrand once publicly sympathized with the inhabitants of the projects, wondering aloud in 1990, while he was still in office, "What can a young person hope for, born in a soulless neighborhood, living in an ugly building surrounded by ugliness, grey walls in grey surroundings for a grey life, surrounded by a society that prefers to avert its eyes and get involved only when it is time to get angry and to stop people from doing things?"'

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)."

Monday, January 30, 2006

Exercise/death on the pavement/Paris bistros

Sunday lived up to its name, so I decided to get out earlier than usual and get some exercise. Fortunately I didn't leave about ten minutes earlier, because this was on my route, with ambulance and police still there:

It was lucky that it was a Sunday morning; this is Wembley High Street, which is usually packed with people.

The photo was taken about two hours later, after I'd got back from my walk to Wembley market. On the bus I saw that the car was still there. So when I got home, I got my camera and walked back - when it's sunny even this extra effort seems quite pleasant. Then walked home - having had more exercise than intended and another example of why one should...

always carry a camera !

Exercise - the Paris connection, advice from an American

"The French Paradox Resolved"

"The idea of a French Paradox is virtually a tautology. In a thousand different ways the French declare along with Walt Whitman: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. And the contradiction which most annoys the calory-conscious Anglo-Saxon is the apparent ability to stow away large quantities of butter, cheese, eggs and fatty meats and still maintain a remarkably low incidence of heart disease.

...some investigators are now suggesting that the determining historical factor has actually been exercise. Exercise?! Don't be ridiculous. It's got to be something you can buy across the counter - that's the American Way!

Whatever the experts may finally conclude, I've arrived at my own solution. Two separate weeks, with a week off in between, I've eaten myself silly in Paris - a grand total of nineteen serious lunches and dinners. At the end of each week I came home, climbed on the scales, and discovered that I'd put on exactly one pound. That's right, one pound. After a couple of days, without any particularly effort, it went away. [My third trip a couple of months later, for ten days, added two pounds, but they came off with equal ease.]

I could write a book, itemizing the ingredients of the foods I'd eaten and sorting them into revolutionary new categories, such as monofolics, bifolics and trifolics. (The words don't mean anything; I just made them up.) But if I were to be honest, I'd have to admit that my method was, in every sense, pedestrian. I walked. Everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but a total of between four and six hours a day.
It was tiring the first couple of days, but I got used to it. And Paris is such a wonderful city to walk in! Not always beautiful, but always fascinating. Inside the peripherique there are few areas that are actually dangerous - at least I didn't discover any the hard way.

Simple, isn't it? It'll work a treat in Paris, and once you get back home to Orange County, all you have to do is totally alter your entire way of life. Throw away the TV remote control. Pull the plug on your freezer and shop for food every day - real food that comes in bags, not boxes. Leave the gas-guzzler in the garage and walk that dusty mile to the mall along a highway screaming with traffic - no sidewalk, just the dirt along the edge, not even a track, because nobody ever walks there - until a police car picks you up, takes you to the station and grills you for hours about your suspicious behavior.

And if they don't lock you up in the loony bin you can try it again tomorrow."

In London, as in Paris, we have pavements, which we happily use with cars and huge lorries zooming past, sometimes a few inches away and we don't give it a thought, especially when there are heavy metal railings seeming to offer us some protection - but ...

... it makes you think: carpe diem and eat well while you can.

Paris bistros

Whiting's article is linked to a set of very interesting reviews of bistros in Paris:

with some very honest criticisms of some bistros and praise of others, including some cheap, relatively unknown places, e.g.:

"Why is this preeminent exemplar of artistic and gastronomic history [Polidor, 41 rue Monseur-le-Prince, 6th] denied a mention in most of the guides? Not a word in Gault-Millau or Michelin of course, though the latter gives three crossed forks/spoons to the 18th century literary café Le Procope, now swallowed up by the Flo Group and regurgitated as a trappe de touriste."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

British sang-froid

I do like British understatement. On BBC Radio 4, World at One, Nick Clarke, a reporter who had been away in hospital, sent a reply to listeners who had wished him well. He said he'd had a large tumour and this had meant that he'd had to have one leg amputated up to the hip: "So a pretty miserable Xmas." - as if the in-laws had been a bit boring!

Then there's children's unsentimental curiosity; his kids had asked what had happened to the leg. Had it been put in a bin, was the bin big enough? !

He reported that a doctor had said to him: "'Look, how many legs do you need to be a radio presenter?' - I took his point."

I remember hearing about soldiers' black humour during the Falkland's War, possibly apocryphal, during an artillery bombardment, one called out: "I've lost my leg!" One of his pals said: "No you haven't; it's over here." It might be an update of this:

'In 1815, on the eve of Waterloo, Wellington extended Paget's command so as to include the whole of the allied cavalry and horse artillery. He covered the retirement of the allies from Quatre Bras to Waterloo on 17 June, and on 18 June led the cavalry charge of the British centre, which checked and in part routed D'Erlon's corps d'armée (see Waterloo campaign). One of the last cannon shots fired hit Paget in the leg, necessitating amputation. According to anecdote, he was close to Wellington when his leg was hit, and exclaimed, "By God, sir, I've lost my leg!" -- to which Wellington replied, "By God, sir, so you have!"'