La Grande Sartreuse

Douglas Johnson

  • Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment by Anne Whitmarsh
    Cambridge, 212 pp, £14.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 23669 X
  • Un Fils Rebelle by Olivier Todd
    Grasset, 293 pp, £5.50, June 1981, ISBN 2 246 21231 6
  • The Intellectual Resistance in Europe by James Wilkinson
    Harvard, 358 pp, £14.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 674 45775 7

There will be many who will find it significant that Anne Whitmarsh, beginning a careful and detailed study of Simone de Beauvoir with a section called ‘Biographical Notes’, should make the first entry read, ‘1905 21 June: Jean-Paul Sartre born in Paris’, and the last: ‘1980: Death of Sartre’. There are those for whom Simone de Beauvoir is important only because of her association with Sartre. Her four volumes of autobiography are sometimes seen merely as useful source material for the life of Sartre. A film about her, shot in 1978, was said to show that, even in old age, she remained Sartre’s disciple as well as his companion, since in his presence she continued to behave like a good pupil, looking for approval, not allowing herself to smile at the jokes and replying to questions diligently and awkwardly. She has herself repeatedly emphasised that it was Sartre who was creative and original, who took the initiatives and who dominated the relationship. ‘I must talk about him,’ she once wrote, ‘in order to be able to talk about us.’ There are so many references to Sartre in this book that he does not even figure in the index.

Must we then consider Simone de Beauvoir simply as an appendage to Sartre, someone whose life has been endowed with special value and importance because of her propinquity to a great man and whose writings have drawn weight and meaning from the creative energy of her companion? It is as if the mocking names by which she was known in the first days of fame, names such as Notre Dame de Sartre and La Grande Sartreuse, contained an essential truth.

Curiously enough, it is not Anne Whitmarsh who rescues her from these charges so much as Olivier Todd, whose severe yet affectionate memoir, Un Fils Rebelle, describes his relations with Sartre without proposing any assessment of either Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir. Todd, who did not discover his own father’s identity until well on in life, found in Sartre something approaching a substitute father. For more than thirty years he associated with Sartre and his ‘famille’, in which Simone de Beauvoir (‘le Castor’) occupied the most privileged place. In Todd’s view, it is necessary to reverse the inevitable question. Instead of asking, ‘non sans une pointe de machisme modéré et un peu de mauvais snobisme’, what would have happened to Simone de Beauvoir had it not been for Sartre, one should ask what would Sartre have become without Simone de Beauvoir. The answer is that he would always have been Sartre, but another, quite different Sartre. De Beauvoir was for him ‘la référence, l’axe, la permanence’. Todd describes his first visit to Sartre, in 1948, when he was still living with his mother, Madame Mancy. She had apparently realised that le Castor, ‘cette céleste épouse’, was to be ‘l’ancre durable’, that she represented stability for everyone. Todd is enthusiastic about this couple who never said tu to each other in public and who were so totally in harmony that they complemented each other’s thoughts as naturally as they completed each other’s sentences.

The main point of his book, however, is to describe how he broke away from Sartre’s spell and how, as a result both of his experience as a journalist, especially in Vietnam, and of his Anglo-Saxon education and background, he was able to preserve a critical detachment, to see Sartre’s weaknesses and failures. He deliberately contrasts himself with those, such as Jacques-Laurent Bost, who were ‘des petites ou des moyennes planètes qui se sont écrasées sur le soleil de Sartre’. He does not for a moment consider Simone de Beauvoir as one of these planets. Not only did she point out the errors in Sartre’s logic and contribute the practical good sense which enabled Les Temps Modernes to be regularly published, she also corrected the rigidity of Sartre’s reactions. When Todd, a young conscript under orders to join his unit in North Africa, contemplated desertion rather than share in the repression of nationalist movements, Sartre automatically advised him to obey orders but to carry out ‘de l’agit-prop’ in the ranks. De Beauvoir was more ready to understand Todd’s dilemma. She was always, he rightly says, more interested in people than Sartre was.

In some ways Sartre was a fugitive personality. He lost manuscripts, mislaid letters, started works which he never finished, failed to correct texts which bore his signature, studiously refused to admit to the mistakes of the past, was magisterially uninterested in reading what had been written about him (the reported comment, ‘Ayer est un con’, was made in ignorance of the article in which Ayer discussed his philosophy), and wherever he lived, gave the impression of being perpetually ‘in transit’. It was typical that he should have encouraged Simone de Beauvoir to write an autobiography which would necessarily describe many details of his own life at a time when he himself, in Les Mots, was embarked upon a highly literary, rhetorical and non-historical account of his childhood. Although Simone de Beauvoir has written about the pact which she and Sartre had made together, whereby the one would never lie to the other, Todd recounts that once, when he asked Sartre how he managed to navigate amongst his many affairs with women, his ‘amours contingentes’, the reply was that he lied to them. It was, Sartre explained, simpler and more honest. ‘You lie to them all?’ queried Todd. ‘To them all,’ replied Sartre, with a smile. ‘Même au Castor?’ ‘Surtout au Castor’.

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