Prev-IndexNL-Next

Nederlog

December 18, 2012

Philosophy: The exemplary Sartre and De Beauvoir



Sections
Introduction   
1. About my communist youth
2. The exemplary Sartre and De Beauvoir
3. Conclusions

About ME/CFS


Introduction:

After yesterday's Nederlog on seeing and hearing interviews with Bob Dylan, whom I hadn't paid much attention to for over 40 years, but could now get a lot  more information about thanks to the internet, today there is a look on the exemplary Jean-Paul Sartre - maitre penseur - and Simone de Beauvoir.

1. About my communist youth

As I said yesterday, and have also written about on my site, I stem from an Amsterdam communist family, with parents and grandparents who were heroes of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis, and indeed with parents who remained communists all their adult lives, whereas I gave up communism age 20, in 1970, precisely at the time when, especially in Amsterdam, many hundreds, very possibly several thousands of students of my generation, became communists.

In one way, the trigger was the same, if it also had quite opposite effects: The student-revolt in France, in May 1968, and - far less spectacularly, although it did involve the ooccupation of the main building of the University - in Amsterdam, in May 1969.

With my background and temperament, I had been present at both: Travelling to Paris, first in May and then in June of 1968, to see the revolt, the occupied buildings, the workers and red flags on occupied factories, the street fights, and the eventual collapse: I had seen all that, but did not participate, because I am and always was a thinker rather than a revolutionary, and indeed was the only person I knew in my then circle of friends and acquaintances, all leftists of my generation, who refused to throw stones at the police, and who never did, believing them to be dupes of the system, as I believed ordinary people to be dupes of the system.

Likewise, I had entered the administrative building of the University of Amsterdam, known as The Maiden House (Maagdenhuis) across the wooden bridge built by workers of the Communist Party, of which I by then was a card carrying member, while that building was occupied by what claimed to be Revolutionary Students, and left it again after some 6 or 8 hours, having seen a great mess, a considerable anarchy, and at least one fist fight between a journalist and a student.

In either case, the events convinced many students of my generation, in Holland and in France, and indeed also elsewhere, who all did not have my background, nor my knowledge of Marxism, to become or to want to become, marxist revolutionaries of some kind - though indeed there were more reasons, such as The Sixties in general, when very many attitudes, values, and ways of thinking rapidly changed; the continuing war in Vietnam, with cluster bombings by the US; the radical attitudes of many pop stars, including Bob Dylan, whom I wrote about yesterday; the Black Panther movement and race relations in the US; and the fashionability, romanticism, daring and relative ease of posing as a student radical who meant well with the world and humankind, and who clearly had time on his or her side, and more.

My own appreciations of it all, with my very abnormal family background, and with my considerable knowledge of Marx,
Marxism, and leftist attitudes and ideas,  were bound to be not quite the same as the attitudes of many  students who turned into revolutionaries, or who at least pretended to do so, the last being a diagnosis I will come to in a moment, after clarifying my position and take of what I had seen in 1968 and 1969, with considerable curiosity and in considerable detail, for I had been present at many meetings, read many fliers and arguments and plans, and also knew considerable parts of the leftist literature of the time, not only from Holland and France, but also from Germany, such as the leftist radical weekly Konkret, in which Ulrike Meinhof
"Protest is when I say this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more"
wrote a column.

As I said, both my parents were communists, and my father was rather well informed about
Marxism, and indeed was a very intelligent man, who would have made a very good academic, if only he had come from a background that had the money to allow him to study. Instead, he had become a house painter, and then had been radicalized and turned into a member of the Dutch Communist Party in 1934 or 1935 because of the rise of Nazism and, as he himself told me, because of Dimitrov's defeating Goering in debates in court about the fire of the Reichstag, that the Nazis probably had lit themselves to blame on the German communists, so as to be able to destroy them.

In any case, the result for me was that by the time I was in my late teens, my knowledge of Marx and other communist classics was quite considerable, because I was interested in philosophy since I was 14 or 15, and because my father was the person who was responsible for the education of the communist party members in the communist ideology in Amsterdam, and had a considerable row of books, many dating from before World War II, that had been buried underground from 1940-1945, with texts from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, of which by the time I was in my late teens, in 1968 and 1969, I had read large parts, as indeed I had also read fashonable (neo-)marxist writers of the time, such as Lukacs, Marcuse, Benjamin, and Adorno, and also writers of the student left, such as Cohn-Bendit, Dutschke and, in Holland, Regtien.

So I knew rather well what it all was supposed to be about, and it was precisely because I considered myself when 18 and 19 a young Marxist Revolutionary, who also was a member of the Dutch Communist Party, that I had gone to Paris in May and June of 1968, and into the Maagdenhuis in June 1969: I wanted to understand revolutionary events, to learn from them, and indeed had been a leftist believer prior to going to Paris in 1968.

Having been there, my attitudes had shifted: While still believing the Marxist analysis of capitalist society was mostly correct, it also had been clear to me, already around 1966, that I did not really know much of alternative ideas, and indeed had asked my father when around 15 why the bourgeois seemed to believe and use Keynes's economical teachings rather than those of Marx, since it seemed obvious to me that it would be in their interest to use the most veridical analysis of their own capitalist economy. His answer was fair and balanced: He said that he did not know why that was so, though he felt sure there must be some reason.

What struck me in Paris in 1968, and later in Amsterdam in 1969, though I was on the side of The Left and the students much more than on the side of the government or the police or silent majority of citizens, who for the most part, if not all, were on the side of the establishment, was that the leftist student leaders pronounced very confidently in front of cameras on all manner of things I knew they knew even less about than I did, and that besides, as personalities, they all seemed very eager to stand in front of a camera while lecturing the world, while  none of them seemed to me to be strong personalities like my father certainly was, who indeed was a very credible marxist revolutionary, who looked rather like Humphry Bogart, and had survived more than 3 1/2 years as a political prisoner in German concentration camps, again as part of the communist resistance there: I was definitely not impressed with the student leaders I saw, since they all seemed poseurs - pretenders, phonies, hypocrites - to me, rather than anything else.

And another thing that struck me was that, while all these students and student leaders were very confident that the time was on their side, and revolution was good, and capitalism bad, not only did they know little of Marxism: They knew little of the things they dogmatized about, indeed rather like happened in the Dutch Communist Party, where there also was an enormous amount of confident dogmatism based on solid ignorance - as had struck me strongly when, around 17, I had inquired about George Orwell, and had been told he was a traitor and a liar, while upon further asking none of my confident spokesman had read anything by him, which indeed they considered reprehensible because... he was a traitor and a liar.

My attitudes shifted around 1968 in that I got much more interested in philosophy, which until then I had not taken very seriously, believing with Marx that
The philosophers have only interpreted the world;
the point is to change it.

I gave this up, or saw through it, precisely because I had seen that the students and communist party members who claimed to act in his name did not even know his books; did a lot of interpreting on the basis of very little relevant knowledge; and were planning and proposing changes without really knowing what they wanted to change, or how to do it - that is, other than by occupying buildings, organizing demonstrations, and spreading leaflets and slogans.

Besides, around 19 I had found that I was much interested in mathematical logic, mostly through reading Wittgenstein when 17, being stimulated to do so by an essay by the Dutch writer W.F. Hermans, and then Bertrand Russell, whom I thought a brighter mind and a better writer than Wittgenstein, and who had written a lot about logic, and was one of the founders of modern mathematical logic, and also the Dutch logician Evert Beth, whose books on philosophy of science and logic I had liked a lot.

Then again, such interests as I developed from age 19 onwards - rapidly extending to A.J. Ayer, Ernest Gellner, Karl Popper, Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach and such, were very uncommon at the time: What persons of my generation with intellectual aspirations read were people like
Marcuse, Mandel, Carmichael, Dutschke, and Meinhof, that I had read already and found uninteresting, mistaken, and generally not intelligent nor informed enough, and often - e.g. in Marcuse's case - filled with obscure nonsense, and also people like Sartre and De Beauvoir, who had thorougly failed to impress me, even though they were then widely regarded as great intellects who were dedicating their lives to the liberation and enlightenment of mankind, and had been doing so ever since being in the French Resistance against the Nazis.

Or that was the publicly accepted tale, of which more below. The reasons I was not impressed by Sartre and De Beauvoir were specific for me:
  • I had tried to read Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" and - especially, since I considered myself a marxist - "Critique de la Raison Dialectique" and had found both intentionally obscure, pretensious and with little real content.
  • I had earlier concluded that the Soviet Union and its satellites were dictatorships, and had read some about the Russian concentration camps: Sartre's insisting in the 1950ies, for many years also, that "There are no concentration camps because socialism is a humanism" seemed to me a sick joke.
  • De Beauvoir's insistence that "woman is not born but made" seemed to me either in plain contradiction with biological facts, or to conveniently forget and deny that the male roles are as much a matter of learning and education as the female roles, while I also had found the rest of "Le Deuxieme Sexe" a pretentious bore to read.
  • I had found Sartre's "Nausea" nauseating: Very boring, very artificial not in the least bit interesting.
  • I did not like existentialism as it reached me in Holland, although that could only be blamed on Sartre and De Beauvoir indirectly: It was "a philosophy" that seemed to consist of boring quotes from Sartre, and a lot of Juliette Gréco, cafés and clubs with fishnets draped against the wall, boring French chansons, and lots of wine and the smoking of very dark Gitanes cigarettes.
So let me turn to these two French philosophical worthies, very much admired in the circles I knew in Holland, which may be labelled "the fashionable left", both from the communist and labour parties, and from intellectuals and would be intellectuals:

They were widely admired by many, and often written about and quoted, mostly because they were considered to be serious and important philosophers and writers, who also were progressives, who had spend most of their adult lives fighting the good fights for the causes that mattered to anybody who was on the left or who considered himself or herself a progressive, which is what most Dutch intellectual under 40 and most students then, in the Sixties, considered themselves to be.

2. The exemplary Sartre and De Beauvoir

Before turning to the real lives and interests of
Sartre and De Beauvoir, I should point out explicitly that, apart from the last of the above list of points, which may be considered a matter of taste, my reasons not to like Sartre and De Beauvoir, already in the 1960ies, were mostly intellectual, and arose because, unlike most of their Dutch admirers, it turned out, I had taken the trouble to read some of their books, and found them mostly boring and very pretensious.

Also, I should add, in fairness, that there were quite a few Dutch intellectuals who had read them, and especially Sartre, but who seemed all to have read Sartre's plays or literary writings rather than his philosophy - and I agree his plays and literary writings are more palatable and a lot less obscure than his philosophy, and that I have no and had no disagreement with someone admiring those.

But I was more interested in philosophy than in literature, and had especially sought out the former, and found it intentionally obscure and pretty useless - as indeed others argued at the time, and earlier (such as Raymond Aron), but then I did not know of these in the 1960ies, and judged for myself.

Now I have arrived at the exemplary lives of Sartre and De Beauvoir, that I yesterday found out about, indeed a lot later than others, as I will explain, but then this does deserve to be more widely known than it is.

Having fast internet since three years, and being meanwhile 62, I have both the means and the reasons to look into my own past and into whoever contributed to parts of it, and as I just have explained, especially Sartre, but also De Beauvoir, because of her long relationship with Sartre, and also because of her influence on postmodern feminism as that became fashionable in the Dutch universities from 1980 onwards, were somewhat seriously considered and weighed by me in the 1960ies, and rejected for what were mostly intellectual reasons.

This is worth stressing, because until 2008 I did not know of any that follows below, that I learned in 2008 from a review of Carole Seymour-Jones's book in the Dutch daily I read, that
was followed by a row on the pattern "how dare you blacken the reputation of these saintly liberators of mankind?!".

At the time, I had no fast internet and did not look into the matter, also because I had never been able to take Sartre and De Beauvoir serious as philosophers or public intellectuals, but lately I had reasons to look into French philosophy of the 1960ies, and then quickly found what follows, that all are reviews of the following book:
A Dangerous Liaison
by Carole Seymour-Jones
Publisher: Century
574 pages
1st published May 2008
I have not read it, but if your mind is tuned that way, it may be quite interesting, as follows from quotations from reviews by persons who have read it, as it happens all women.

Let me start with
which is a review by Glenys Robarts, dated April 12, 2008, that starts as follows - and I quote by indentation in blue, and comment unindented in black:

He was one of the most brilliant minds. She was his lifelong companion who pioneered feminism., and not at all on the level or in the field of what did make sense to me

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were perhaps the most influential couple of the 20th century.

Their legendary love pact - they never married but swore mutual devotion to each other with the freedom to have affairs - was an attempt to overthrow the stifling hypocrisy that, for so long, had dictated most people's lives.

Serial seducers: Simone de Beauvoir and lover Jean-Paul Sartre, whose writing paved the way for our Godless permissive times, lived private lives of utter depravity
(...)

As it happens (and see below) that seems fair enough, although I do not consider Sartre one of "the most brilliant minds" (since he doesn't come close to those who are, such as Von Neumann, Feynman, Ramsey or Russell); and also there may have been more "influential couple"s (John and Jackie? Richard and Elizabeth?)

Their private lives were wildly experimental. Simone de Beauvoir had affairs with both men and women, while Sartre, despite his stunted stature and ugly squint, was always surrounded by adoring muses happy to pamper his genius.

When he died in 1980, 50,000 people turned out on to the Paris streets.

(...)

And while Simone de Beauvoir preached her ideal of feminist independence and equality, eschewing such 'bourgeois' concepts as marriage and children, and claiming women should behave just like men, the truth is such a lifestyle made her bitterly unhappy and she became obsessively jealous over Sartre's countless conquests.

Despite her high-flown rhetoric, it was only for revenge and out of frustration that she embarked on affairs, always secretly hoping they would provoke Sartre to return to her.

And, astonishingly, it was her craven desire to please him that led de Beauvoir to groom young female lovers for Sartre, commonly girls she had bedded herself.

(...)_

Their multiple affairs went on until World War II when Sartre was called up and their sex games had to be conducted through letters.

Left behind in Paris, Simone continued to seduce both men and women, writing titillating descriptions of her activities to Sartre behind the Maginot Line, which reveal her heartlessness and the vulnerability of her conquests.

Today, she would be behind bars for her sexual activities with her young pupils, but in those days she got away with it.

Tragically, the lives of these girls, who were pathologically jealous of each other over their teacher's attentions, were permanently blighted.

One took to self-harming, another committed suicide. Most remained pathetically unfulfilled and dependent on the childless Simone, who perversely referred to them as her 'family'.

Yet Simone had no maternal feelings for them at all. She showed no empathy even when one of them, a Jewish girl whom she seduced when she was 16, nearly lost her life at the hands of the Nazis who were advancing on Paris.

Simone's lack of scruples extended to her war record.

She took no part in the Resistance, like other writers of the time, concentrating on her sex life.

(..)

At which point the reader may think: "Well... the Daily Mail? Paragraphed per sentence?"

But it is not just the Daily Mail. Here is a review in The Guardian:
This is by by Joanna Briscoe and starts as follows:
The story of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre is hardly mired in obscurity. All that unlicensed shagging, bisexuality, existentialism and turban-wearing; all that philosophical rigour, complete with bohemian outbursts against the bourgeoisie, make this a tale so well known it could virtually be appropriated by Disney. Picture a toadish Sartre expounding to a lipsticked De Beauvoir at Café de Flore with a coterie of underaged lovers panting in the jewelled light of the spirit bottles.

(...)

But however passé existentialism and even, tragically, basic feminism may now seem, there is no doubt that De Beauvoir's The Second Sex is one of the great texts of women's liberation; and that her refusal to abide by the dictates of her era, and her open relationship with Sartre, were ahead of their time.
Again, this seems fair enough, and personally I was not at all impressed by "The Second Sex", though indeed I have known some intelligent women who were. Also, it seems to me that De Beauvoir's "open relationship with Sartre" was "ahead of their time", while literally true silently passes over many more women who did similarly, but who did not get as famous.

To continue with salacious bits
The reader almost has to suspend disbelief as they seduce, swap and abandon yet another conquered virgin while amusing themselves on the side with prostitutes, teenagers, long-term admirers and, occasionally, each other.

(...)

In Rouen, De Beauvoir taught the 17-year-old Russian emigrée Olga Kosackiewicz, who inspired both her first novel, L'Invitée (She Came to Stay), and Sartre's Age of Reason. In a classroom seething with crushes on the "incredibly dazzling" young teacher, Kosackiewicz was picked out, seduced, and presented to Sartre, who developed an obsessive desire for her. De Beauvoir, despite the shrugging protestations in her memoirs, was consumed with jealousy. Sartre then took up with Olga's younger sister. Bohemian free love was not without its complications.The pattern was repeated later: De Beauvoir taught, seduced, and procured girls for Sartre.
That was not discussed in the 1960ies, yet how "liberating" that would have been! I am not wholly serious, but I was at that time seriously informed, quite a few times, by what seemed knowledgeable Dutchmen, that Sartre and De Beauvoir had been in the French Resistance.

Not so:
The postwar myth that sprang up around the two as impassioned heroes of the Resistance was, as Seymour-Jones demonstrates, dangerously wrong. "Resistance from the Café Flore," as Raymond Aron sneeringly described it. Sartre had profited as a teacher from Vichy racial laws (...) They have been accused of collaboration, and indeed here they appear strangely cut off, callous and absorbed with themselves both during the war and in their later visits to Russia and passionate involvement with communism, Sartre elevating the notion of "the writer" as though it granted him a unique moral licence.
Then there is the Jewish Chronicle's review:
This is by Anne Seba, and starts thus:

There is plenty in this important, heavyweight book to interest not only students of French literature and philosophy but also those who struggle to understand the history of France in the last century and its attitude towards Jews. But you will need a strong stomach.

The author does not flinch from detailed descriptions of a wide variety of sexual activity and perversions, as well as serial betrayals moral and physical. As she explains, Simone de Beauvoir, a teacher, liked to break in her pupils through lesbian seduction before procuring them for Jean-Paul Sartre, believing this would bind him more strongly to her, the older woman. According to Jewish schoolgirl Bianca Bienenfeld, about whom beauvoir was passionate but whom she abandoned during the nazi occupation of Paris: “She liked new adventures. Homosexuality was part of her bourgeois rebellion.”

Ms Bienenfeld survived, but not through Sartre's or De Beauvoir's efforts, that were not precisely heroic either:

Sartre positioned himself ideally for power and influence after the liberation. Seymour-Jones doggedly shows how both Sartre and beauvoir continued to lead comfortable lives in Paris throughout the occupation, even taking skiing holidays. both continued to eat well — Sartre often at his mother’s elegant apartment, beauvoir at restaurants or when giving dinner parties thanks to the black market.

More seriously, Sartre accepted a new post at the Lycée Condorcet in October 1941 which required stepping into the shoes of a sacked Jewish teacher, Henri Dreyfus Lefoyer, great nephew of the famous Dreyfus.
Ready for more? Well, a final review:
This is by Gillian Tindall, who opens as follows, and is a woman who agrees with me on De Beauvoir's "Second Sex":
Let me put my cards on the table. On many occasions, both in France and in England, I have heard or read women of my own generation, the generation of the daughters that Simone de Beauvoir did not have, say what an important book her Le Deuxième Sexe was to them in youth, how it shaped their thinking. I listen uncomprehendingly. To me, this, Beauvoir's most famous work, is a baggy, old-fashioned French academic thesis, groaning under the weight of piled-up examples of all kinds and dates. Many of its assertions were already out-of-date in even mildly liberal circles long before it was written. Yet in spite of its over-copiousness it has huge gaps in coverage and central areas of obtuseness. To believe, as Beauvoir apparently did all her life, that 'a woman is not born but made' is already a substantial handicap. A worse one, however, was her complete inability, remarked upon even by her most sympathetic contemporaries, to understand maternity as anything but a stultifying trap.
Quite so, as far as I am concerned. And the same holds for the following, which indeed is my main reason to pay so much attention to the exemplary lives of Sartre and De Beauvoir:
This book, however, will do nothing to rescue her reputation as a writer, nor does it set out to. Indeed it will do nothing for either her reputation or Sartre's in most quarters. Ever since their deaths in the 1980s, six years apart, there has been a seepage of disclosure and reappraisal. We have learnt the extent to which this equivocating pair were Communist fellow-travellers for a full decade after the revelations of Stalinist brutalities and the Hungarian uprising destroyed the myth for all but the most bigoted party members. We have learnt how they failed to play any significant part in wartime resistance, but managed to create a subsequent impression that they had been in on it all
And there is this, which also seems quite fair to me, given the extent to which both were lionized, admired, held up as examples, also in Holland, in the 1960ies and afterward, indeed probably until "Dangerous Liasons" appeared, and perhaps still, for I do not know the Dutch academic leftists as honest and forthright persons, and perhaps they hold this is all justified for people of the distinction of Sartre and De Beauvoir:
There is a telling moment, halfway through the book, when the author describes her two central figures as 'glued together by their lies'. She is referring to their shifty repositioning of themselves in the years after the Occupation, but the phrase might stand equally as an epitaph for their entire life together. The title, with its reference to Laclos's notorious eighteenth-century study of pimping in high society, tells it all. Sartre, for all his libertarianism, was sexually a cold fish, preferring the initiation of virgins or other exotic conquests to sex with a familiar equal. Beauvoir of course knew this, and developed a lifelong fear that their much-trumpeted union would not survive. Her solution was to provide him with girlfriends whom she could control.
That seems to be the summary of their lives.

3. Conclusions

What to conclude from the above? At least four things, it seems to me
  • First, it seems to me that Ms Carole Seymour-Jones has done a good work: A tale like the above suggests, needs to be told, if only as a warning and a much deserved demythologization.
  • Second, what sanctimonious shits the couple were! - and I do not refer in the first place to their careers of sexual deceptions and personal abuse, but to their setting themselves up as public intellectuals and as thinkers of totally different character than they in fact were and knew themselves to be. (For connoisseurs: See Bad Faith.)
  • Third, in case the above amuses or interests you: There are 564 pages of it by Ms Carole Seymour-Jones, so that seems the place to go in case you want to be undeceived about the couple's exemplary excellencies, or want to know more, e.g. about Sartre's fondness for amphetamines.
  • Fourth, while I had not planned on including Sartre or De Beauvoir in my Philosophy section, because I never could take them serious as philosophers, I now will, namely as exemplary cheats.
What is life, after twenty-five? A continuous series of disillusions.
----
P.S. There will be more links and if necessary corrections, hopefully tomorrow. Also, I freely admit I will probably not read Ms Seymour-Jones's book, because I think I have got the message, but I do recommend it to readers who have believed in Sartre's or De Beauvoir's greatness, or indeed in the strange species of public intellectuals: All fame corrupts, and a desire for fame corrupts immensely.

Dec 19, 2012: I did insert more links and corrected some typos.


About ME/CFS
(that I prefer to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate search machines) which is a disease I have since 1.1.1979:
1. Anthony Komarof

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS(pdf)

2. Malcolm Hooper THE MENTAL HEALTH MOVEMENT:  
PERSECUTION OF PATIENTS?
3. Hillary Johnson

The Why  (currently not available)

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2003)
5. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2011)
6. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

7. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
9.
Maarten Maartensz
Resources about ME/CFS
(more resources, by many)



       home - index - summaries - mail