Sartre had a passive, self-centred war, well-suited to his deeply civilian temper, with no heroics and a great deal of free time. He was mobilised in September 1939, served in the East of France until he was captured in the collapse of June 1940, spent nine months as a prisoner of war, then sat out the Occupation in Paris. No matter where he was, he wrote, abundantly – in the field, in the prison-camp and in occupied Paris. ‘He participated in the Resistance,’ the cover-note of these War Diaries piously reassures us, but the non-combatant Sartre’s arm was the so-called ‘intellectual resistance’, his boldest moment in it a bicycle trip round the unoccupied zone in the summer of 1941 to sound out helpers. He had neither the sense of oneness with his country’s needs nor, with only one good eye, the physique to want to do more. In these Diaries he welcomes the absolute decline of the military ideal in France by 1939. His own principles when he was called up were ones of cynical insubordination, but since he does not report having any brushes with the order-givers during his service, one has to take it that he kept his principles to himself.
The nine months of the Phoney War were phonier for Sartre than for most. He spent them behind the lines in Alsace doing what he had been trained to do, by Raymond Aron no less, when both were on national service in the Twenties – which was to let up weather balloons and take sightings on them. This quaint, undemanding routine was all the Army seems to have asked of him; there is no mention of parades, drill, training, fatigues. In Sartre’s small unit the military ideal is not in decline, it is irrelevant. These are diaries written in wartime, therefore – not diaries of war, nor very much about war. Sartre is taken up with himself and his ideas, not with what is going on in Europe; he has yet to make his portentous, unfortunate, discovery of ‘historicity’. But if military life for this as yet unrepentant individualist lacks both the servitude and the grandeur it once held for Alfred de Vigny, it does offer him the rare opportunities of exile, from his familiars in Paris, from teaching philosophy, from going after women. The sudden impoverishment of his external life prompts him to look within, to enjoy a happy, voluble season of introspection which he claims is a novelty for him.
To think as much and as freely as Sartre did on active service is an act of defiance; the soldier’s mind is intended to be dulled into grumbling acquiescence. But Sartre’s meteorology was soon done and the rest of his time was for reading and writing: ten or eleven hours a day by his own count, during which he reads a great many books, covers a great many pages of his notebooks, writes long letters to Simone de Beauvoir in Paris (with pressing requests for more writing-paper built into them), and finishes what turns out to be only the first draft of L‘Age de Raison, the first, and quite the best, volume of Les Chemins de la Liberté. He reads critically: Jules Romains, whose ‘unanism’ was a strong and damaging influence on the second volume of Sartre’s trilogy; Flaubert, derided for the awkwardness of his style in an early display of Sartre’s ambiguous negativity towards the bel écrit; Gide, admired but also found wanting as a keeper of journals because he remains irredeemably religious; Jules Renard, another diarist, dismissed by Sartre for his deeply un-Sartrian short-windedness, which prefers the economy of aphorisms to the wholesale elaboration of ideas. (For Sartre, Renard’s brevity is evidence that he was incapable of thought altogether.) So even when bent on writing a journal of his own, Sartre is full of the need to measure its distinctiveness and purity against these chosen predecessors. These are competitive Diaries.
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Vol. 7 No. 4 · 7 March 1985
SIR: A less generous review of Sartre’s War Diaries could scarcely have been written, without actually exposing itself to charges of prejudice and hostility, than that of John Sturrock (LRB, 7 February). Generosity may be no part of a reviewer’s moral baggage, but Sturrock stamps on a chance to invite readers to reach a richer understanding of the relation or Sartre’s thought to his experience. Sturrock implies throughout that the limbo in which Sartre found himself in Alsace was, if not quite of Sartre’s choosing (although he quite peculiarly intimates that Sartre’s partial blindness made him reluctant to ‘want to do more’), at least a pretext for gross self-indulgence. This hardly accords with Sartre’s own reflection on the dislocation in his existence that the ‘phoney war’ had effected, nor with the sense of impotence and the suffering that the Diaries manifest. And it hardly fits with Sartre’s later activity in the Resistance, which Sturrock prefers to deride. Nor was Sartre indifferent to ‘what is going on in Europe’: ‘A decree published in the Journal Officiel discreetly establishes concentration camps in France … what in the world am I supposed to defend, if it’s no longer even freedom?’ (page 22).
Sartre’s descriptions of his fellow soldiers are not, it is agreed, eulogies. But nor are they ‘malicious’ and defamatory in the way that Sturrock, taking them as if they were ‘character studies’ of an ordinary kind, chooses to suppose. Anyone who has read Sartre’s discussions of the elusiveness of the concept of character in Being and Nothingness, or paid any attention to Sartre’s way of understanding personality in his novels, should recognise that the descriptions are intended as appraisals in unorthodox and distinctive moral dimension. The War Diaries are not engaged in portraiture, and the subtle moral vision is far more consonant with a respect for others as free ends-in-themselves than is Sturrock’s characterisation of Sartre. Sartre is quite certainly not guilty of ‘savagely and quickly fictionalising those around him’.
This simplification is consistent with Sturrock’s snap dismissal of the concern for authenticity – presumably an issue that Sturrock’s theoretical affiliations have magically made redundant. It is also consistent with Sturrock’s underlying failing, which is to assume that biographical understanding can proceed by such facile reductions as that of Being and Nothingness to the Diaries, the former a ‘monstrous expansion’ of the latter, and then to reduce the Diaries to an unhappy marriage of egotism and an irresponsible ‘metropolitan clique’. It is a shame that Sartre’s other diaries were lost, for quite banal reasons. And a shame that Sturrock thinks one must be a fanatic to regret their loss.
Vol. 7 No. 5 · 21 March 1985
SIR: It is careless of Mr Gardner to have left out from his letter (Letters, 7 March) the evidence on which he bases his rosy view of Sartre. I wrote that Sartre was ‘self-centred’, not ‘self-indulgent’, and so, judging by the War Diaries, he was, I would like to know what, in these fluent and cocky entries, Mr Gardner sees as the expression of Sartre’s ‘impotence’ or ‘suffering’. I find nothing of the kind. Nor does Mr Gardner’s lonely quotation from page 22 serve too well the purpose he introduces it for: it shows Sartre as alert to certain discreditable things that were going on in France, but not to what might be going on in Germany, a subject scarcely raised in the Diaries. The comment of Sartre’s which Mr Gardner uses is in any case ironic: the sham anxiety of a self-confessed ‘moral clown’. To Sartre ‘freedom’ was an item in his philosophy, not a political virtue worth fighting for. In the Diaries he lights with pleasure on the evidence that France is divided within itself and not united as it should be against an enemy country – witness his ruminations on the difficulties faced by those refugees from the eastern part of the country who had resettled further west.
What was Sartre’s ‘later activity in the Resistance’ which I am said to have derided? Sartre himself never that I know of claimed to have done anything much or to have been a member of the Resistance. I was objecting to the blurb of the book, which duly enrolled him in it as if it were unthinkable that this post-war hero of the Left could have kept his head well down during the war.
I do not know what Mr Gardner means when he says that Sartre’s descriptions of fellow-soldiers are ‘intended as appraisals in an unorthodox and distinctive moral dimension’. Moral dimensions I find more acceptable when they are orthodox and not strenuously ‘distinctive’. Sartre’s descriptions are contemptuous and the idea that they somehow embody ‘respect for others’ is absurd. His victims are not ‘ends in themselves’ but ‘ends-for-Sartre’. Mr Gardner should consider the paradox which Sartre can’t avoid: if he presents us with examples of human freedom of action and responsibility he does so for his own ends and thereby cancels out their freedom.
I do not regard authenticity as a serious question, or as a serious moral category by which one might discriminate between one kind of behaviour and another. It may be fun to decide who around us is authentic and who is not but to try and extend that into an ethical system is disreputable.