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

Updated: Dec 1, 2019

Whereupon I forge onward with hope I can wrap things up with some semblance of lucidity.

Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre became part of the adventure almost fifty years ago. Simone de Beauvoir I knew only as the author of The Second Sex and by way of association with Sartre and Camus until Agnès Poirier's wonderful book Left Bank piqued my interest in her. The Mandarins seemed a good place to start because the novel featured "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 former student], all hiding behind false names." I was only just settling into it when a friend up from Eugene recommended Deirdre Bair's biography of Beauvoir as I rattled on about Left Bank and The Mandarins over coffee at Peet's on NW Couch just up from Powell's. Afterward I stopped by the library on my way to the bus stop and added it to the reading stack. This is how it has always gone for me. One book, one author, one adventure in ideas leads to another and another after that.

I finished The Mandarins and am well into the biography (each weighs in at better than 600 pages). The Mandarins is overlong and could have done with some judicious editing, particularly the sections that draw on Beauvoir's love affair with Nelson Algren. The Paula character puts willingness to suspend disbelief to the test. And I liked it a lot. Beauvoir's account of the intellectual, political, moral, and personal dilemmas faced by her characters just after the end of the war is convincing, at times intense and moving. The theme that purity is not an option, that compromise and concession cannot be escaped, resonates today.

Bair's biography is simply fascinating. This is first because of Beauvoir herself and second because so many fascinating and remarkable figures fell within her orbit. Of these Sartre is foremost. The two of them were just bizarre, as individuals and as a pair. I feel more in tune with Beauvoir than with Sartre, but less so than with Camus, for whom I have always felt an affinity.

Allow me now another of the digressions to which I fall prey. I had no notion the young Sartre was such a madcap. Deirdre Bair relates the story of him and a pal on the roof of the École Normale dropping water balloons on the heads of passersby while shouting "Thus pissed Zarathustra!" Philosophy hijinks.

Sartre was something of a clown, his conduct scandalously public. People declined to join his resistance group, which fizzled out before it amounted to anything, because he was a loose cannon with a penchant for drawing attention to himself, not a quality to be desired in a member of an underground movement. A friend suggested to Sartre and Beauvoir that they should "try to be useful," concentrate on writing, and "leave espionage to those who know how to do it." Bair quotes Samuel Beckett: "There were always those whom no one took seriously, neither the résistants nor the Gestapo. Sartre seemed to many people to be among these."

Our heroes had feet of clay. They always do. In this we may claim kinship. Sartre and Beauvoir endured criticism for doing nothing much by way of resistance during the occupation. Deirdre Bair concludes that "they did not openly or willingly consent to the German occupation and they did not fraternize, but neither did they take heroic or extraordinary means to resist it…Their record is not scrupulously clean, but neither is it clearly soiled."

Sarrtre and Camus met in June 1943 at the opening of Sartre's play The Flies. In the beginning Sartre considered Camus his best friend. As for Beauvoir and Camus, they had an uneasy relationship at best, colored by Camus's attitudes toward women and Beauvoir's perception of those attitudes, and by her sense that Sartre's infatuation with Camus made him a threat. It is all intriguing but not a subject I feel adequate to get into without considerably more reading and research.

The famous break came with critic Francis Jeanson's review of L'Homme révolté (The Rebel) in the May 1952 issue of Les Temps modernes. Jeanson complained about Camus's "thirst for moderation," "infinitely flexible and malleable thought," and vague humanism. Camus objected to the criticism and responded with a sixteen-page reply that opened with the coldly formal salutation "Monsieur le directeur." He refused to refer to his critic by name. "One doesn't decide on the truth of an idea according to whether it is left- or right-wing," he wrote, "and even less by what the left or right wing decides to make of it…In fact, if the truth seemed to be with the right wing, I would go along with it."

Sartre was miffed by the salutation, thinking something less formal was in order in light of their friendship, and he felt obliged to defend the critic whose review he himself had commissioned and with which he basically agreed. This he did with "nineteen vitriolic pages" of his own, which began, "My dear Camus, our friendship was not easy, but I shall miss it." He characterized the disagreement as not about basic issues but a matter of "wounded vanity." Sartre's reply precipitated a series of exchanges in which each called the other bourgeois. Maybe it is worth noting here that Sartre's family background was bourgeois, as was Beauvoir's. They spent their lives rebelling against bourgeois values and conventions. Camus came from a working-class, pied noir (French settler) family in Algeria and said that the little morality he knew he learned on the soccer field and the stage, which remained his real universities.

Revelations about Soviet forced-labor camps lay at the heart of the quarrel. Camus felt that the issue could not be ignored. It must be addressed publicly. A stance had to be taken. Sartre believed that public denunciation would play into the hands of the right wing where it would be put to use for propaganda purposes.

"The hard core of disagreement between Camus and Sartre was communism…Although Sartre was not a member of the Communist Party, he still believed in socialism with a human face. Sartre continued the myth of the bourgeois as liar, swine, exploiter, social climber, and philistine who might approve of the rights of man but was in fact a colonialist.

"Sartre accused Camus of secondhand knowledge of Marx, but it is not clear that Sartre's own scholarship was less shoddy: Raymond Aron, who had read Marx thoroughly, maintained in his L'Opium des intellectuals (The Opium of the Intellectuals) that on the subject Camus and Sartre were 'equally incompetent.'

"Camus and Sartre both wanted a new, more humane social order, but Sartre remained a violent revolutionary in theory, while Camus was a man in revolt who rejected revolutionary excess, whether Jacobin or Communist in origin." (Olivier Todd, Camus)

Camus said that he did not mind being caught contradicting himself and that he did not want to be a philosophical genius. The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel are the works of an intelligent man who has read widely and thoughtfully but not with the depth associated with scholarship. As for Sartre, Tony Judt sums him up nicely: "As a rule, philosophers found Sartre slippery; playwrights thought him didactic. But each supposed him to be a genius in the other activity."

In their personal lives too they were not beyond reproach. Sartre and Beauvoir's relationships with students considerably younger than themselves has been the subject of harsh scrutiny. Sartre's sometimes frenetic sexual activity and attraction to younger women, Beauvoir's casual approach to sex, and a shared taste for alcohol in more than moderate amounts all went with wholesale rejection of everything bourgeois.

Camus's numerous affairs are amply documented, as is the anguish they caused his wife, who eventually suffered a mental breakdown. Some of the affairs were genuine romances. Others were casual flings. He was deeply in love with the young actress Maria Casarès, and jealous when she carried on affairs of her own as freely as he did. In the film Les enfants du paradis, Casarès portrayed the wife of the mime Batiste, who was madly, desperately in love with Garance, played by Arletty. Her role took an ironical turn in the affair with Camus, where she was the beloved and Francine Faure Camus the suffering wife. Camus would not leave his wife because of the commitment to his marriage and his children, a commitment that did not include fidelity. Beauvoir wrote of him: "He was handsome, attractive, people fell for him, and he thought himself omnipotent."

Anti-intellectualism is, as the saying goes, as American as apple pie. We like to think that intellectuals and writers are held in higher regard in other places, and they sometimes are. Sartre was a fierce critic of all things Gaullist, including Charles de Gaulle's looks. When urged to arrest his antagonist because of Sartre's activities in support of the Algerian struggle for independence, de Gaulle responded, "One does not arrest Voltaire."

Passages from The Mandarins portray other sentiments. Henri Perron, Albert Camus thinly disguised, declares, "I'm an intellectual, period. And it annoys hell out of me when they make that word an insult. People seem to think that if you keep your head empty you automatically fill your balls." A few pages later Nadine, a headstrong eighteen-year-old girl who is having something of an affair with the older Henri, tells him,

"I'm not the clinging vine type…I'm not a leech. And besides, I don't love you; you can set yourself at ease about that…How can anyone love an intellectual? You have a set of scales where your heart should be and a little brain at the tip of your pecker…And fundamentally…you're all just a bunch of fascists."

In another episode Anne, the Beauvoir character and fictionally Nadine's mother, is annoyed by the phoniness she encounters at a high-society function:

"I let them explain to me with well-worn slogans that country [America] from which I had just returned…Listening to them, I said to myself that people really had no right to endow intellectuals with sophisticated feelings. It was these men and women here—the worldly and pseudo-worldly—who went through life blinded by bad clichés, their hearts filled with banalities."

As often happens I have a boot in both camps. Henri speaks for me. So does Anne. As for Nadine, I just kind of get a kick out of her.

For all the political engagement, the commitment to causes, the furious polemics, that dream of being a writer remained at the heart of who each of them was. Beauvoir refers to it again and again in The Mandarins. I think here of Samuel Beckett's formulation: "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express."

Agnès Poirier writes that Sartre thought fame "idiotic and a high price to pay. He had wanted to write novels, to be a writer, to be a genius living in obscurity like Baudelaire." Camus spoke of writing as one of the few pure things in his life. In its absence, "the only thing is to decide which is the most aesthetic form of suicide, marriage and a forty-hour-a-week job, or a revolver."

High-sounding declarations notwithstanding, they wanted to be taken seriously, their books read, their plays performed. They had a responsibility as intellectuals to be engagé, engaged, committed, and to provide the ideology for a third option, neither American bourgeois capitalism nor Soviet communism, independent of both. Still it was the act of going to the desk, or the table at the café, and writing that mattered. Deirdre Bair shares the familiar picture of Beauvoir as a "café habituée" during the war, when she settled in at Café de Flore, in part because it was heated and her hotel was not, "seated alone at a table, fountain pen in one hand, cigarette in the other, a pile of manuscript pages before her, a beautiful but shabbily dressed woman, occasionally shivering in the cold but happily lost in thought." The obligation to express.

Following the disaster of 2016 individuals and groups stirred to activism by the specter of the Trump regime took to styling themselves the resistance, more a descriptor than a formal name for a movement that does not really have one. I do not know when or where "resistance" first came to be associated with opposition to Trump from the left, nor if the echo of the French Resistance was deliberately invoked. Of course I think of Camus, Beckett, and thousands of other résistants, many of them, it should not be forgotten, members of the Communist Party, who risked and in some cases gave everything. Our risks are not comparable. Our struggle is not a war of bullets and bombs. Nonetheless, the stakes are high.

In speaking of Camus, Beauvoir, and Sartre, I use the word "heroes" advisedly. Their thinking could be slippery and their scholarship shoddy. Beauvoir's assertion that Camus thought himself omnipotent could apply equally to her and Sartre, who was known to put his formidable intellect and literary talents to the service of crackpot ideas and dubious causes in the name of freedom, justice, humanity. Here, while we can only speculate, it is fair to wonder about the effect on his critical faculties of the amphetamines Sartre took to maintain his tremendous output as he agreed to write almost anything that was proposed so he could make money to support the many people who depended on him, Beauvoir among them.

My old philosophy professor Dr. Matsen taught courses in pre-Socratic and medieval philosophy, the latter including the great thinkers and scholars of the Islamic tradition, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Ghazālī, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), as well as the Christian and Jewish traditions. He liked to say that we stand on the shoulders of giants. I am hesitant to claim that Camus, Beauvoir, and Sartre were giants. Maybe it is enough to say they are worthy of being reckoned with, and we find the reckoning worthwhile. There are individuals who offer something that warrants respect though their flaws be many. They are models and maybe a kind of confirmation that if I am on the wrong track altogether, there is some precedent for it and I am not alone there. Their relevance lies less in guidance toward the resolution of our problems than in the example of the commitment to take them on.

It is also fair to wonder how much impact intellectuals really have on social and political affairs. Is writing political action? Does it amount to anything more than talking to, and screeching at, one another? Robert Debreuilh, Sartre thinly disguised in The Mandarins, tells Henri that he is writing a chapter about the idea of culture. "What's the meaning behind the fact that man can't stop talking about himself," he asks. "And what makes certain men decide they can speak in the name of others? In other words, what makes an intellectual?"

What, indeed, makes an intellectual? By what dispensation do we claim authority to be taken seriously as someone with something to say? What compels us to put pen to paper and assert there is value in it in what amounts to an existential leap of faith about as great as the leap taken to belief in God or to the opposite belief that there is no God?

I have no better answer to these questions today than I did fifty years ago. Reason and logic take us only so far and never far enough. Yet somewhere within whoever it is that I am there remains an existential imperative, a drive, an instinct, the responsibility to judge as best I can within the limits of my imperfect understanding and the human condition what might be done to make this world a little bit better place, with a little more justice, a little more freedom, and a little less suffering for women and men, and to act on that judgment in whatever ways are open to me, knowing all along that it is possible I am wrong about everything.

Maybe it comes down to no more, nor less, than Beckett's obligation to express. Maybe this is the best that we can do. Beneath it lies the abyss, the absurd, Emerson's deep under which a lower deep always opens. In the face of wrongs that we may not know how to right, our choice is between speech and silence. Silence is an alternative we do not accept. We do what we can.

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