Private Sartre

John Sturrock

  • War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War 1939-40 by Jean-Paul Sartre and Quentin Hoare
    Verso, 366 pp, £14.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 86091 087 3

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.

Sartre gets some hard philosophy done too, to be worked up later into his chief publication of the wartime years, L’Etre et le Néant. The ontology is already dramatic, with the ‘in-itself’ sturdily opposed to the ‘for-itself’, in intense adumbrations of his mature thought which will make little sense for those new to Sartre. By this stage he had set Heidegger above his earlier mentor, Husserl, whose idealism Sartre now condemns, and has begun to find a doubtful consolation in what to others would seem the overdone bleakness of Heidegger’s existentialism, that hymn to dire contingency. Sartre brings out, for once unwittingly, how macho Heidegger’s ideas are, a man’s philosophy designed for brave and lucid minds like Sartre’s. The contingency of war having, as Heidegger would say, ‘thrown’ Sartre into his present situation, philosophy has become less abstract, less professional – as a private soldier he no longer has a class of sixth-formers to teach. His situation is not one he has chosen or one he will collude with, and because it does not ask to be integrated with the other, free choices of his prewar life he is caught within a profitable hiatus; he can apply his time of unfreedom to thinking back over those earlier choices, and to making sense of all he has been. In the broken form of a journal he can, paradoxically, pull himself together.

At this moment in his philosophical evolution there is still something boyish about Sartre, a levity and wildness which were later to expire, once the success of L‘Etre et le Néant had given him prestige and a cumbrous vocabulary to go with it. ‘I’m sufficient unto myself, in the nihilating solitude of the for-itself ... I’m not at ease except in freedom, escaping objects, escaping myself; I’m not at ease except in nothingness – I’m a true nothingness, drunk with pride and translucid.’ Lyrical flights of self-analysis like this in the Diaries, where he is trying to decide why he has no need or liking for physical possessions, are the dying flourishes of the pre-war Sartre, who defends himself and his friends from the accusation that they were degenerate by an assertion of their ‘intellectual power and gaiety’. In its larval form Sartre’s philosophy is the language-game of an exuberant metropolitan clique, the conspiratorial expression of a milieu. As monstrously expanded in L’Etre et le Néant, its power is diffused and its gaiety stifled. In the War Diaries Sartre is still the happily rampaging egoist, though with dismal premonitions that egoism won’t do, that he must try harder to be, in the guiltily sentimental final words of Les Mots, ‘tout un homme, fait de tous les hommes et qui les vaut tous et que vaut n’importe qui’.

Sartre would have it throughout the Diaries that he is not a serious figure. The urge and the gift for moralising which he brought with him into the Army are fluently exercised on the hypocrisies endemic among his unloved fellow-soldiers. But he presents himself as a ‘moral clown’ performing for others, and though we are left mostly to guess what those others thought of the devastatingly clever Sartre, a superior being slumming in the ranks, he gives hints of their complicity in the role he took on their behalf. ‘Hey Sartre you’re a philosopher, do you think I should ...’ a soldier asks, as if the obsessively independent thinker had finally been allotted a pastoral responsibility in the barrack-room. But Sartre the philosophical clown is a serious enough figure once incorporated into the system of Sartre the philosophical diarist. To others he is an actor, to himself an agent.

What he must escape is the most shameful of social handicaps, inauthenticity, that pervasive ailment of bad faith from which the genuinely unserious man is exempt. Wartime, according to Sartre, makes it easier for people to be ‘decent and authentic’, though he is sparing in the examples he seems to have found of authentic behaviour among soldiers, presumably because their circumstances were too safe and bucolic to test them. But then authenticity was a very arbitrary virtue since Sartre alone could decide who possessed it. Simone de Beauvoir is said to be ‘naturally’ authentic, which might seem to rob her of the credit she could have earned had she been forced to make herself so. Another of his women, less favoured, is denied the sufficient grace of authenticity, natural or acquired: ‘I see, for example, how L.’s desire for authenticity is poisoned by inauthenticity. She’d like to be authentic, from affection for us, from trust in us, in order to join us – and also from an idea of merit. She suffers at seeing a supreme value posited that is alien to her.’ L., who had already been dropped as a lover, is now blackballed from the Authentics club, more in a spirit of triumphant ostracism than of psychological insight. L. is an example of how savagely and quickly Sartre fictionalises those around him; he alone determines whether or not they are genuine, they are his own inventions.

His fellow soldiers suffer in similar fashion. Paul, the NCO, says to Sartre, ‘Me, a soldier? I consider myself a civilian in military disguise’ – which is to trespass on Sartre’s own proud self-definition. Paul comes under the lash: ‘That would be all very fine if he weren’t making himself a soldier – whatever he may say to the contrary – through his volitions, his perceptions, his emotions ... He thus stubbornly continues to flee what he’s making of himself – which plunges him into a state of wretched, diffuse anguish’ (Sartre’s italics). Sartre is not observing this fellow human being, but adapting him, making of him an instant philosophical villain. Paul is in authority, authority is false, therefore Paul must be explained to himself as a living falsehood. His anguish is the imposition of Sartre’s casual logic.

The other ‘character’ Sartre introduces, Pieter, is more sympathetic because he is urban and faintly criminal, the emanation of a working-class quarter of Paris Sartre can identify with. But Pieter is exultantly turned into an exhibit from La Nausée, a paragon of viscosity: ‘While he masturbates his lip, he utters a thousand slurping smacks – reminiscent of the greedy suckings and lappings and “yum-yums” of a nursing infant, or the pantings of a male on the job, or the consenting groans of a woman satisfied – and then the lip re-emerges, obscene and slack, glistening with saliva, and hangs down a bit, enormous and female, spent with bliss.’ As a psychopathological caricature this is brilliantly unpleasant, but it was written in a diary, in the communality of army life, perhaps in the presence of the uncouth Pieter himself. The distance that other writers achieve by seclusion and with time Sartre achieves instantly. He is like Stendhal, who wrote that all his life reality had escaped him because for him to see was to think and reality inescapably an idea.

Sartre’s cherished ‘freedom’, his Nothingness, is not an unequivocally heroic quality when it is also protective, keeping him from absorption by those he is living amongst. He recognises that he is ‘thin blooded’, ‘cold’ even, without going on to recognise that the warmth absent from his daily involvements with others returns in his writing, as an aggression. The War Diaries show other people existing for Sartre only to be written about. His projet, the unifying force in his life by reference to which everything he does is to be rationalised, is the will-to-write. ‘Even in war I fall on my feet, because I think at once of writing what I feel and see. If I question myself, it’s in order to write down the results of my examination; and it’s clear to me I only dream of questioning my desire to write, because if I really tried even for an hour to hold it in abeyance, place it in parenthesis, all reasons for questioning anything whatsoever would collapse.’ Which makes it less extraordinary that in early June 1940, when the French Army was in chaos and the nation foundering, Private Sartre was working at the revision of L’Age de Raison as attentively as ever.

With slower-witted diarists we can assume a reduced quotient of self-consciousness; the diary is as ingenuous a form of writing as there is. With Sartre’s diaries it is otherwise, because however copiously he was writing – and one day’s entry here runs to about eight thousand words – he is writing self-consciously. The diary form suited him, he believed, because its gratuity symbolises the gratuity of thought itself, gratuity being the writer’s translation of the contingent into words. Has anyone ever been quicker or more compulsive in thus thinking his life? In Les Mots he describes how, when he was a boy, he and his mother would sometimes give a running commentary on whatever they were doing as they did it. No wonder he became trapped in the question of authenticity, if everything he ever spoke or did came immediately before him for inspection. True authenticity is not for those who boast like Sartre of their hyper-lucidity. He is pure mind: he cannot hope to be Nature as well. Writing is as close as he can come to being and doing in one, because it is reflexive, and all his life Sartre struggled to believe that writing was as effective a way of being-in-the-world as other, more spontaneous ones.

Reading these Diaries, one sees just how personal his philosophy was, at this stage, before its idiosyncrasy became masked by verbiage and by its spectacular adoption by the young in the Fifties. Its toughness, exemplified by Sartre’s insistence that we at all times ‘assume’ whatever we do, and judge others on the supposition that they, too, have assumed their actions, looks disagreeably like malevolence in the War Diaries, which leave one feeling that Sartre thrived on the supposed hypocrisies of those around him, so acquiring over them the authority which, as an ‘anarchist’, he claimed to find an abomination.

The War Diaries as published are only a part of those that he kept in the winter of 1939-40. The others were lost, in one of those notorious pieces of negligence towards his own writing which are very much part of Sartre’s myth and which bear out that it was writing that counted for him not the having written. He was bound to the activity, not to the product. We can be glad that the Diaries are not complete, since the volumes that have survived are as full an indication of the state of Sartre’s mind and thoughts at this time as all but a fanatical Sartrian could want to read. Their intermittent form is a mercy, when one knows what prolixity he was capable of, since even the longest day comes to an end and with the end of a day there is generally a change of subject.

The War Diaries are not for beginners in Sartre; much in them would be mysterious or random or simply tedious were it not illustrative and premonitory of his later work. They are interesting for being transitional. Self-examination, with Sartre, could not but lead to change, because change was what our freedom in respect of things is for. When he writes explicitly about himself, as here, or as later in Les Mots, it is in the necessary expectation that a different Sartre will emerge at the end, more lucid than ever. Certainly by 1945 Sartre had changed, from the dilettantism he looks back on in these Diaries to the recklessly ideological, topical thinker he never ceased to be thereafter. The War Diaries catch him at a cardinal moment.

I would quarrel with the English translation only in some of the philosophical parts: the Sartrian concept of the visqueux will make few new converts in its guise here of ‘gluey sliminess’ – it would have been better to leave that, and some other items of Sartre’s peculiar idiom, in French, so strongly do they resist the alienation of another language. The translator, Quentin Hoare, has also written an introduction to the book, and footnoted Sartre’s many references to people, places, ideas. This loyal apparatus ensures that we experience these casual writings as a document, finally demystifying the diarist’s own case that he is not serious.