Out on the left bank of the spirit (Part II)

When the intellectuals became celebrities and women swooned. On October 29, 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture at Club Maintenant in Paris. The talk, titled "Existentialism Is a Humanism," had been advertised in Combat, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Lbération and via leaflets posted in bookstores. When Sartre arrived the place was packed and the crowd outside blocked the entrance to the building. His first thought was that the communists were demonstrating against him. Combat described the raucous scene in a front-page article headlined "Too many attend Sartre lecture. Heat, fainting spells, police. Lawrence of Arabia an Existentialist."


Sartre’s lecture was the high point of what Sartre’s life companion Simone Beauvoir called the "existentialist offensive" of fall, 1945. Within a few weeks Sartre’s The Age of Reason and The Reprieve had been published, as was Beauvoir’s The Blood of Others; her play, Les Bouches inutiles opened, she gave a public lecture on the novel and metaphysics, Sartre gave his lecture, and the journal Les Temps Modernes was launched with a call for political engagement. (Aronson, "The Night Sartre Became Famous")


After the liberation the US State Department had invited a dozen French writers and reporters to visit the United States. Sartre leapt at the opportunity when Albert Camus asked him to represent Combat. His attitude toward America was not uncommon among French intellectuals, antagonistic on political and philosophical grounds, but as Simone de Beauvoir wrote, American literature, jazz, and films had nurtured their youth. She had never seen him so happy (Poirier, Left Bank).


Sartre's five-month American tour at the beginning of 1945 was a rousing success despite an inauspicious beginning that calls for a brief digression. He never owned anything in his life and never wanted to. Caring nothing for possessions, not even books, which he gave away after reading them, he preferred to spend money on events such as dinner with friends, where he always picked up the check and left lavish tips, peeling bills off the wad of cash he liked to carry. His generosity extended to discreetly paying for students' abortions, covering the rent of past and present lovers, and making loans to impoverished writers.


He was likewise indifferent to personal appearance. When his American hosts picked him up at the airport in New York, they took one look at his shabby attire and immediately whisked him off to a tailor. Two years later when Beauvoir prepared for her first trip to the US, she made a point of purchasing an expensive dress before leaving Paris to avoid similar humiliation.


The lecture Sartre gave at Carnegie Hall attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. Marcel Duchamp, seated in one of the front rows, exclaimed "We are now before Sartre Cathedral." Time magazine ran a five-page article with a photo and a caption that read "PHILOSOPHER SARTRE. WOMEN SWOONED."


The obligation to be engaged. Camus was known as a résistant and journalist as well as for his novels and plays. He recruited Sartre, Beauvoir, and their pupils to write for Combat. Sartre had a reputation as a philosopher, novelist, and playwright, and he wrote essays and articles for any publication that asked. At the age of thirty-six Beauvoir quit teaching and with Sartre's encouragement embarked on a full-time writing career.


The French press did not hold to fine distinctions between journalism and punditry familiar to us today in principle if always not in strict observance. "French journalism was more interested in understanding and influencing the world than in simply reporting the facts…proving joyfully and viciously partisan" (Poirier). Camus's editorials and journalism at Combat were always partisan. He believed that information could not be passed on without critical analysis and demanded a personal tone and style from his journalists.


For his part Sartre threw down the gauntlet in the first issue of Les Temp modernes, a journal he launched with Beauvoir and assorted students and friends in October 1945:


Every writer of bourgeois origin has known the temptation of irresponsibility. I personally hold Flaubert responsible for the repression that followed the Commune because he did not write a line to try to stop it. It was not his business, people will perhaps say. Was the Calas trial Voltaire's business? Was Dreyfus's condemnation Zola's business? We at Les Temps modernes do not want to miss a beat on the times we live in. Les Temps modernes will take sides.


Sartre and Beauvoir saw the journal as democracy and debate in action. They "relished polemics and clashes." Editorial meetings were heated affairs that ran long into the night. Beauvoir disagreed with the art critic about poetry. Raymond Aron refused to publish pro-Communist writers. Beauvoir wrote in her diary, "Our debates had the intimacy, urgency, and warmth of family quarrels."


The first issue featured an article on poverty, inflation, and famine and an account on the trial of Pétain by Aron; a short story about racial discrimination in America by Richard Wright; an essay by Beauvoir explaining existentialism; an excerpt from Jean Genet's forthcoming book Pompes funèbres (Funeral Rites), which opened with the line "To me, sausages and pâtés tasted like corpses"; and a piece called "Nuits san importance" ("Meaningless Nights") by Nathalie Sorokine, a former lover of Beauvoir, based on her experience with American GIs in Paris where she revealed that she prostituted herself for cigarettes, coffee, and milk (Poirier).


Aron was a friend and former classmate of Sartre, as was Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a philosopher of the phenomenological school and pro-Communist, Marxist persuasion. Sartre and Beauvoir allowed Merleau-Ponty to use the pages of Les Temps modernes to wage what Poirier terms "a campaign of destruction" against Arthur Koestler, the resolutely anticommunist author of Darkness at Noon who happened to be their friend, some of the time anyway.


Sartre would over the years be an on-again, off-again defender of communism, reluctant to criticize the Soviet Union because whatever its flaws it represented the future hope of humanity, but nonetheless denouncing the Soviets for acting like Americans when their tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956. The communists considered the whole bunch, Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and Koestler, all traitors, whatever the divergences between them.


The attempt to find a Third Way between soulless American capitalism and Stalinist dictatorship, "a complete renewal of social democracy," not just another "tired compromise between left and right, socialism and capitalism," is a recurrent theme of Left Bank. It may be difficult today to picture the degree to which one way or another communism played into the political and ethical positions taken by French intellectuals, whether they were party members, sympathizers wary of party dogma but reluctant to criticize, or firmly in the anticommunist camp.


For a period of about twelve years following the liberation of France in 1944, a generation of French intellectuals, writers, and artists was swept into the vortex of communism. By this I do not mean that they became Communists; most did not. Indeed, then as now, many prominent intellectuals in France had no formal political affiliation, and some of the most important among them were decidedly non-Marxist…But the issue of communism—its practice, its meaning, its claims upon the future—dominated political and philosophical conversation in postwar France. The terms of the discussion were shaped by the position one adopted on the behavior of foreign and domestic Communists, and most of the problems of contemporary France were analyzed in terms of a political or ethical position taken with half an eye towards that of the Communists and their ideology.

"[T]he apparent injustices of Communist governments fell under a special dispensation—"all political justice exercised in the name of the oppressed is legitimate to the precise extent that the authority exercising it is combating that oppression"…Capitalism, on the other hand, was not a transhistorical carrier of good intentions but an actual condition of experienced inequality and injustice, which must therefore be measured not by its intentions but by its acts. (Judt, Past Imperfect)


A passage from Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins illustrates the effort to grapple with conflicting moral imperatives. Maybe Sartre was in good faith wrestling with difficult issues in a world that is always messy and ambiguous. Or maybe, in a less charitable take on it, we might wonder if he was driven to rationalization by doctrinaire rejection of capitalism and everything bourgeois.


Scriassine (a character based on Koestler) introduces Robert (Sartre) and Henri (Camus) to a Russian defector who presents evidence of a vast system of Soviet forced labor camps holding fifteen to twenty million men. The evidence is convincing but as yet unconfirmed. Robert shows Anne (the Beauvoir character and here the narrator) copies of the documents and together they agonize over what should be done:


"You say that if I remain silent about the camps I'd be an accomplice," he said. "But in speaking out, I'd become an accomplice of the enemies of the Soviet Union, that is, of all those who want to keep the world as it is. It's true that those camps are a horrible thing. But you mustn't forget that horror is everywhere."


Suddenly, he began speaking volubly. He isn't the type for great historical frescoes, vast social panoramas, and yet that afternoon, as the words tumbled from his mouth, all the wretchedness of the world fell over that sun-drenched countryside: weariness, poverty, the despair of the French proletariat, the misery of Spain and Italy, the enslavement of the colonial peoples, the famines and plagues of China and India. All around us, men were dying by the millions without ever having lived; their agony blackened the sky, and I wondered how we still dared to breathe.


"So you see," Robert said, "my duties as an intellectual, my respect for the truth—that's all just so much idle chatter! The only question is to know whether in denouncing the camps, you're working for mankind or against it."


"All right," I said. "But what reason have you for thinking that the Russian cause is today still identified with the cause of humanity? It seems to me that the existence of the camps makes it necessary to review the whole Russian question."


"There are many things that we should know!" Robert said. "Is it really a question of an institution that is indispensable to the regime? Or does it relate to certain policies that are subject to modification? Can we hope that they'll be quickly liquidated once Russia begins rebuilding? Before making any decision, I want to know these things."


Camus wanted a collectivist economy and liberal policies, but he knew no more than anyone else how to reconcile the two. "Socialism," he said, "does not mean the devotion to one man, a sect, a catechism, or even to a class or government...Socialism is a striving by thought and action to improve the material and moral conditions of members of a society by collectivizing the economy." Biographer Olivier Todd contrasts Camus with Raymond Aron, who credited Camus with excellence in literary talent but thought that his economic and diplomatic analyses lacked rigor:


Camus and Aron…both believed in the need for a national sense of solidarity, and both were wary of Communists. Camus was a partisan of a different kind of socialism than what the Communists offered: his did not sacrifice political freedom…At the time, Aron also gave socialism a chance to unite the "governmental direction of economy, under the influence of the popular masses," with "personal and intellectual liberalism which France is not resigned to sacrifice."


Camus and Aron agreed only in appearance, for Camus was primarily interested in morality, what existed and what should be desired, whereas Aron was interested in politics as the art of the possible.


Not surprisingly, our heroes ran afoul of the Communist Party line on literary theory and aesthetics as laid down by the Zhdanov Doctrine, which defined the principles of Socialist Realism. (Zhadanov had been appointed by Stalin as head of the bureau controlling cultural policy in the USSR and coordinating all Communist parties in Europe.) The doctrine imposed strict and ruthless censorship on artists who did not adhere to its tenets. Louis Aragon, Surrealist poet, novelist, and editor of Ce Soir,and Laurent Casanova, who was in charge of the party's relationship with French intellectuals, drew up a list of intellectuals to be attacked in the Communist press: Malraux, Gide, Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir, Mauriac, Aron, Wright, and Koestler.


Sartre and Beauvoir were hammered from all sides. Communist papers such as Ce Soir and L'Humanité went after them every bit as viciously as did the Catholic and right-wing press.


The Catholic daily La Crois laid into Sartre's L'être et le néant: "This atheist existentialism is a far greater danger than the eighteenth-century rationalism and the nineteenth-century positivism put together." The Communists branded Existentialism "a sordid and frivolous philosophy for sick people." They attacked Sartre personally, claiming that his dirtiness was both physical and moral and that, just like a pig, he wallowed in dirt. As two bourgeois who had decided to disavow their social origins, Sartre and Beauvoir understood the bourgeoisie's violence against them, but they were deeply hurt by the Communists' reaction. (Poirier)


Sartre and Beauvoir met in 1929 when they were philosophy students at the École Normale Supérieure, where Beauvoir was allowed to attend classes and sit for the highly competitive philosophy agrégation exam although not, as a woman, allowed to officially enroll. At twenty-one she became the youngest student ever to pass the agrégation in philosophy, taking second place for the highest score, barely losing out to Sartre, who was taking the exam for the second time after failing it on his first try the year before. She thus became the youngest philosophy teacher in France. Impressed by Beauvoir's success on the exam, Sartre arranged for an introduction and she became a member of his closed, notoriously elitist circle of friends.


Each recognized in the other a worthy intellect and kindred sensibility. They were soon partners, but neither was interested in marriage or anything else that smacked of bourgeois respectability. If The Wild One had been set in the Paris of that era, the Brando character's response to the question "What are you rebelling against?" would have been unequivocal: "the bourgeoisie." Within weeks after being introduced Sartre and Beauvoir agreed their relationship was essential, and any affairs, of which each would go on to have many, would be contingent and they would share details about them with one another. The contingent affairs included relationships with students and for Beauvoir both women and men.


By 1945 they were public figures. "Wherever you walked in Paris in October 1945, bookshop windows displayed Beauvoir's and Sartre's latest novels side by side while newsagents sold Les Temps modernes. The three publications were discussed in cafés, in newspapers, and on the radio" (Poirier).


Quelle surprise, the press took a salacious interest in their unconventional relationship and ongoing affairs. Beauvoir was judged more severely because she was a woman, but Sartre took his share of hits as journalists speculated about how a man with his looks could manage his serial seductions. A story in Samedi soir in 1945 claimed that an invitation to sniff his Camambert cheese was one technique, good cheese being a precious commodity in postwar Paris. There is a well-known story about the evening when, with the usual suspects gathered in some Left Bank bar, Camus asked Sartre why he was going to so much trouble chatting up a woman. Sartre replied, "Have you had a proper look at this mug?"


Sartre had to try hard, something to which Camus, handsome, athletic, stylishly evoking Humphrey Bogart with his trench coat, collar turned up, and cigarette, could not relate. Sartre's success could be attributed to


his air of intellectual energy and confidence. He talked enthrallingly about ideas, sang "Old Man River" and other jazz hits in a fine voice, played piano, and did Donald Duck imitations. Raymond Aron wrote of Sartre in his schooldays that "his ugliness disappeared as soon as he began to speak, as soon as his intelligence erased the pimples and swellings of his face." Another acquaintance, Violette Leduc, agreed that his face could never be ugly because it was illuminated by the brilliance of his mind, as well as having "the honesty of an erupting volcano" and "the generosity of a newly ploughed field." (Bakewell, Existentialist Café)


Liberation and the war's end brought a euphoric freedom after years lived in "precarious equilibirium…between life and death," a freedom that for young people like Claude Lansman, a Jewish résistant, meant a need "to prove my own existence with sometimes gratuitous acts" (Poirier). Times were still hard. Paris was grimy and plagued by strikes and electricity shortages. Food and wine were rationed. With it all though came a tremendous energy and vibrancy as Parisians took to the cafés in the glorious spring of 1945. American films came to Paris cinemas. That spring also brought the release of Marcel Carné's Les enfants du paradis, a film whose "making and story embodied perfectly the moral contradictions the French had endured and were still facing" (Poirier).


Young American writers and artists flocked to Paris. Many were veterans who could study at French universities on the GI bill. Their number included Richard Wright, Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Nelson Algren, Theodore White, Art Buchwald. "On the night [Juliette] Gréco started her career [as a singer], there was a twenty-four-year-old American in the audience who had just starred on Broadway in…A Streetcar Named Desire. Cocteau, also in the audience…was looking at Marlon Brando looking at Juliette Gréco" (Poirier).


Life could be an adventure, and not always a comfortable one, in a city digging out from the war. On his first night Buchwald stayed at a cheap hotel in the Pigalle quarter; the next morning he learned that most of the rooms were rented by the hour. Mailer, having delivered the manuscript of The Naked and the Dead to his publisher and pocketed the advance, set sail for France with his wife.


[He] planned to stay in Paris for a year, to learn French and write and party no end, all at once…The Mailers were not living on a grand scale in Brooklyn…but they did not expect to be so uncomfortable in Paris. Along with the strikes, there were electricity shortages and a generally gloomy atmosphere. They shivered through the first few weeks while staying at the Hôtel de l'Avenir…a hundred yards away from the Luxembourg Gardens. (Poirier)


The room had a pull-down bed, and the rudimentary bathroom was of course down the hall where it was shared with other hotel guests.


Black jazz musicians came to Paris because there was a tremendous audience and enthusiasm for jazz and to get away from the racism that was inescapable in America. In 1949 Juliette Gréco met Miles Davis after his first performance in Paris and the two of them fell in love. When later Sartre asked Davis why he and Juliette did not get married, he replied, "Because I love her too much to make her unhappy."


At first Juliette did not understand what he meant. Could it be that he was a womanizer and would not want to leave the mother of his two small children for her? No, it was simply a question of color. "If he'd taken me back to America with him, I would have been called names," Juliette realized years later. In the 1950s, at the Waldorf in New York, where she was a guest, Gréco invited Miles to dinner. "The face of the maître d'hôtel when Miles came in was indescribable. After two hours the food was more or less thrown into our faces." At four in the morning, Juliette got a call from Miles, in tears: "I do not ever want to see you again here, in a country where this kind of relationship is impossible." Gréco suddenly understood that she had made a terrible mistake. 'I'll never forget this strange feeling of humiliation. In America, his color was more blatantly obvious to me, whereas in Paris I had never noticed it." (Poirier)


Young people embraced jazz and existentialism. Before she became a singer, Gréco sometimes worked the door at Le Tabou, a popular new basement nightspot. "I was ruthless," she said, "believe me. There were nights when I only let philosophers in!"


Commentators of a more conventional bent were outraged by the nihilistic antics of rebellious young people. The May 3, 1945, edition of Samedi Soir ran a front-page story with the headline "THIS IS HOW THE TROGLODYTES OF SAINT-GERMAIN-DES-PRÉS LIVE." There was a photo of a "tall, handsome, discheveled, dark-haired, nineteen-year-old man," an aspiring film director named Roger Vadim, who held a candle to a young woman in trousers whose long black hair was covered in cobwebs. That would be Juliette Gréco. The journalist asked what they believed in. A young woman with Vadim and Gréco, Anne-Marie Cazalis, answered, "Existentialism."


The journalist reported that those "poor young Existentialists are drinking, dancing, and loving their lives away in cellars until the atom bomb—they all perversely long for—drops on Paris." The communists were just as stodgy. Two Soviet journalists who claimed to have visited Le Tabou were aghast at what they witnessed: "These poverty stricken young people live in squalor and ask you to pay for their drinks. It is a youth reveling in the most vulgar sexuality" (Poirier).


Cazalis would later be recruited by the gossip magazine France Dimanche and dispatched with a young Italian paparazzo to spy on Sartre's mother. Having failed on their first attempt, they were sent back with a camera and instructions to press the doorbell, snap a photo, and run. The next day Sartre "discovered a picture of his startled-looking maid Eugénie in the newspaper with the caption: AN EXISTENTIALIST'S ANXIOUS MOTHER" (Poirier).


The decade's end brought the publication of Beauvoir's great feminist work Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) in 1949. The book that had its origin when Sartre suggested women's condition as a topic for what she initially envisioned as a short essay was a sensation, elevating Beauvoir's reputation worldwide. She was now considered the equal of Sartre and Camus.


Not everyone was a fan. Many Parisian males were less than thrilled by Beauvoir's account of how men oppressed women. Camus was "simmering with rage. He accused Simone of demeaning French men and making them look ridiculous" (Poirier). The right-wing and Gaullist press hated Le deuxième sexe, communists ridiculed it, and the Vatican put it on the banned books list.


Beauvoir got away from it all by splitting Paris with Sartre in October. In Provence she began writing Les Mandarins (The Mandarins), a roman à clef that would


feature everyone she knew and had slept with, from Arthur Koestler to Nelson Algren, Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus, Merleau-Ponty to le petit Bost [a student], all hiding behind false names. Nelson Algren would never forgive her for it, but she would receive France's highest literary distinction for it. (Poirier)


The dawn of a new decade found Beauvoir planning a trip to America to be reunited with Algren, whom she met and fell in love with on her first visit to America in 1947. Sartre was on his way to Mexico for a lecture and book-signing tour. Camus escaped Parisian domestic life (which we will touch on in Part III of this essay) and dissatisfaction with politics with a tour of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. In Argentina his plays were produced and The Stranger and The Plague were released in translation. There he was known as "el numero 2 del existencialismo" (Poirier).


Meanwhile, new faces made the scene: Vadim, Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and a young woman named Françoise Sagan, who "discovered that she was attracted to young women and older men, and was resolved to make love for pleasure and nothing more. Monogamy, an alien concept, served only to enslave people" (Poirier). Her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), would be a scandalous overnight sensation and international bestseller.


And far from least there was a seventeen-year-old runaway with a police record for petty theft who had been cut loose by his family. François Truffaut had set up his own ciné-club called Cinémane, a "Cinema Club for Film Addicts," in the Latin Quarter. He was taken under the wing of a young film critic named André Bazin, who got him released from the minor delinquents' center where he was imprisoned and secured a job for him at Travail and Culture writing notes on films being released each week. At the first staging of a film festival in Biarretz in July 1949, Truffaut "bumped into a group of committed cinephiles, slightly older than him: among them were Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard. La Nouvelle Vague [the new wave of French cinema]…was born then and there, on a Biarretz Beach" (Poirier).


To be continued. Part I dealt with occupation, resistance, liberation, and the purge of intellectuals accused of collaboration with the occupier. In Part III I reflect on the meaning Camus, Sartre, and Beauvoir have for me as I ponder our present time of discord and crisis.


References and Related Reading


David Matthews

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