Douglas Johnson

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.

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[*] 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.