On the morning of 16 April 1980, two well-known Oxford figures chanced to meet in the High. ‘Have you heard the good news?’ called out the one, the former head of a prestigious college. ‘Sartre is dead.’ The other, a well-known and distinguished man about French history, was delighted. According to his own account, the two of them then enacted a little dance or jig to express their pleasure. The occasion may be compared with Mrs Bessie Braddock’s notorious celebration in the newly-elected House of Commons of 1945, when she marked the absence of Winston Churchill from the government Front Bench with a few rhythmic steps.
This endearing scene was surprising in England. The more gentle, and civilised, attitude which most English or Anglo-Saxon people feel that they ought to show towards the conclusiveness of death (Harry Truman’s remark when he heard of the death of Stalin, ‘I’m always sad when I hear of the passing of an acquaintance of mine,’ was in this sense typical) is not usually shared by the more cynical and abrupt French – ‘un emmerdeur de moins,’ replied a Paris lycée teacher when her pupils asked her what she thought about the death of Bernard Shaw. But it was the French who, on this occasion, showed the greater sentimentality. The news of Sartre’s death was greeted with general emotion, and more than fifty thousand people followed his coffin from the Hôpital Broussais to the cemetery of Montparnasse. His grave, which is only a few hundred metres from the Boulevard Edgar Quinet where he spent his last years, is constantly decorated with flowers. There is no evidence of French professors dancing with joy in any equivalent of the Oxford High, such as the Boulevard Sébastopol.
It is also surprising to find hostility to Sartre in England, where his work has always been appreciated: indeed, the French would say where his work was always over-appreciated. It is as if the nostalgic English have never lost, or allowed successive generations to be ignorant of, the enthusiasm with which the activity of Sartre and his contemporaries was greeted during the excitements of the Liberation. But in France Sartre was always controversial and always had opponents to denounce his ideas and ridicule his art. There were times when he was without doubt the most hated writer in France; people paraded in the Champs-Elysées with placards saying Mort à Sartre; more than one attempt was made on his life; and it was sometimes difficult to tell who disliked him the most, the Communist Left, the nationalist Right, or the Catholics and bourgeois who occupy a vague middle ground in French society – did not Genet describe Sartre as ‘l’emmerdeur de la bourgeoisie’? But at his death a great variety of French people vied with each other in praise of his intelligence, honesty, courage and vitality. The comparison with Voltaire was common (although Althusser preferred to compare him to Rousseau), and it was generally assumed that he had been a uniquely important figure in the culture of 20th-century France.
[*] For an account of the literature which has been published on Sartre since his death see the special number of La Quinzaine Littéraire, No 369, 16-30 April 1982, ‘Sartre Deux Ans Après’, especially the article ‘Un Troisième Discours’ by Oreste Pucciani.
Vol. 4 No. 12 · 1 July 1982
SIR: It is a pity that such a distinguished historian of French culture as Douglas Johnson (LRB, 20 May) should have found so little to say about the publication of the Pléiade edition of Sartre’s fiction. In a lengthy article replete with anecdotal claptrap (do we really need whole paragraphs about Oxford imbeciles or Foucault’s imagined dance techniques?) and careless factual errors, I find only one sentence devoted to a criticism of this important volume: ‘The editorial work that has gone into this volume is remarkable.’
Indeed it is. The five years of documentation on the part of four eminent Sartrean authorities (Idt, Contat, Rybalka, Bauer) have produced what is probably the most useful and scholarly edition in the Pléiade series to date. The documentary, critical and bibliographical material which accounts for a good six hundred pages of the text marks a new departure from and a definite improvement on the already high standard of the Pléiade house-style. Some serious consideration, if only for the sake of informing his readers, should have been given to the exceptional quality of this enterprise.
As for Sartre’s involvement with the French Maoists, it is misleading to refer to ‘his Maoist phase’. Unlike the frivolous and dangerous charade of oriental expertise propounded by Sollers and the Tel Quel group (where one can talk of a Maoist phase), Sartre’s published comments on Mao’s China were cautious to a degree, and he repeatedly pointed out how little was actually known in France about the complex realities of the Cultural Revolution. As a reading of On a raison de se révolter would make clear, but as Douglas Johnson already knows since he quotes Georges Michel to this effect, Sartre ‘made himself available’ to these young turks. He shared neither their ideas (such as they were) nor their methods and made this clear to them: but he did recognise, and respond to, their need for counsel and for the prestige which his name afforded them.
On the subject of names, the chief of these Maoists was not Paul Victor, but Pierre Victor. Contrary to the romance invented by Professor Johnson, Victor was not a convert to the Jewish faith and did not publish (until the final three interviews in Le Nouvel Observateur) under the name Benny Lévy. Benny Lévy is his name and he always was Jewish; Pierre Victor was the nom de guerre he chose to avoid difficulties with certain anti-semitic elements of the extreme Left. Note: the transliteration chosen, in English or French, by this writer is with a ‘y’ in both names and not, as Professor Johnson hazards, ‘Benni Lévi’.
I should be very surprised to learn that Foucault greeted the news of Sartre’s death in the manner described by Johnson. The emotional and intellectual immaturity, not to say infantilism, of the Oxford pair of Johnson’s opening paragraph rings too true, alas, to be readily disbelieved. But it would have made for a more thoughtful introduction had Johnson analysed the world-view implied by such behaviour. How on earth he finds this malice ‘endearing’ is beyond me. Perhaps he found Clive James’s obscene remarks on Sartre’s partial blindness equally ‘endearing’ when the latter tastelessly chortled the news of Sartre’s death in his Observer column?
University of Alberta
Douglas Johnson writes: The letter from Mr Wilcocks has all the violence, and the inability to recognise irony, that one expects from the enemies of Sartre. As, however, this letter is meant to support Sartre, then I welcome it, and I certainly subscribe to his praise of the Pléiade edition of the novels. On the subject of Victor, of course I knew what his real name was. In La Cérémonie des Adieux, one of the books I was reviewing, Simone de Beauvoir writes ‘Benni Lévi – le vrai nom de Victor’ and speaks of him as having greatly changed after he had become Sartre’s secretary. ‘Comme beaucoup d’anciens maos [sic], il s’était tourné vers Dieu; le Dieu d’Israel, puis qu’il était Juif.’ What I did not know was that Victor, the name by which he was known to everyone (including his philosophy teacher Althusser), was a nom de guerre, adopted because of ‘certain antisemitic elements of the extreme Left’. It would be interesting to have precisions about this. I apologise for having, like Simone de Beauvoir, spelled ‘Lévy’ as ‘Lévi’. This is about as culpable as it would be to spell ‘Wilcocks’ as ‘Wilcox’.