Sunday, April 1, 2012

On Sartre and the French Resistance

For someone who hasn’t read recent works on Sartre, the Resistance, and the aftermath of the Vichy period, a few quotes might be helpful:

Michael Curtis in his Verdict on Vichy, Power and Prejudice in the Vichy France Regime written in 2002 wrote “The Myth of a heroic Resistance movement, cultivated by the media and intellectuals in post-war years, has been dispelled in many works over the last two decades. Relatively few, such as the writers Rene Char and Paul Eluard, were courageous in defying the Occupation in their work. On the part or prominent writers – Andre Gide, Paul Claudel, Francois Mauriac, Jules Romains, Roger Martin du Gard, even Andre Malraux until nearly the end of the war – the rule was silence or inaction. This silence was even more deafening in the case of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior, who so strongly influenced the climate of intellectual opinion after the war, because of their claim not only that they took part in the Resistance in a significant way, but that their courageous defiance inspired their conduct in peacetime.”

On page 232 Curtis writes, “In view of Sartre’s well-constructed self-image as a courageous fighter for freedom against oppression and discrimination . . . [Curtis then discusses some of Sartre’s works].

On page 235 Curtis writes, “One of Jean-Paul Sartre’s magisterial utterances is that ‘the writer is situation in his time: each word has its reverberation, each silence also. I hold Flaubert and Goncourt responsible for the repression that followed the Commune because they did not write a line to prevent it. Balsas, many great writers were silent about Vichy: Andre Gide, Paul Claudel, Francois Mauriac, Jules Romains, Roger Martin du Gard, Andre Malraux until the eleventh hour, and Jean-Paul Sartre.”

On Page 236 Curtis writes, “Barely leaving his table at the Café de Flore in Paris, Sartre began assuming his various mantles; popular author, admired intellectual, sponsor of avant-garde literature, formulator of a new French form of philosophy and potential endorser of resistance. He wrote in Comoedia, a collaborationist weekly backed by German money. His play Les Mouches and his book Being and Nothingness were approved by the German censors. He even, acccording to one critic, drank champagne with the Nazis at the opening of his play. He was blind to Auschwitz.”

Tony Judt on page 46 of Past Imperfect, French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 wrote, “The initial postwar myth claimed that although fighting Resistance may have been a minority, it was supported and assisted by ‘the mass of the nation,’ united in its desire for a German defeat. Only Laval, Petain, and their henchmen felt or acted otherwise. This was the official Communist position. It was largely echoed by the Gaullists, who insisted in their turn that the Resistance had been the natural reflex of a nation faithful to its historical traditions; the ‘insurrection’ of the summer of 1944 was singled out as a ‘popular tidal wave surpassing in its dimensions all such uprisings in the past.’ Although there were from the start those who acknowledged how small and isolated resistance had been, their voice was drowned by the chorus of mutual admiration. In a book published in 1945, Louis Parrot would write of the ‘pure heroism’ of Aragon and his wife Elsa Triolet, the ‘audacious courage’ of Paul Eluard, and the ‘subtly dangerous game’ played by Jean-Paul Sartre, practicing ‘open clandestinity’ in the face of the occupying authorities. This is drivel of course, but it is at least ecumenical drivel: everyone was good.”

Earlier Judt (on page 32) wrote “After the fall of France . . . when excuses for collaboration or compromise became harder to find, intellectuals would find themselves discovering in the very act of political disobedience the freedom they would later defend. The dilemma between ‘being’ and ‘doing,’ which had seemed so significant before the war, collapsed. To do was to be: no longer a universal consciousness vested in a singular self, the intellectual was bound within the organic community and there presented with apparently simple choices, all of which entailed action of one sort or another. Being part of the common purpose, accepting as one’s own the meaning given to a collective action, offered certainty in place of doubt: the intellectual resister took on a mantle of confidence and shed the cloak of insecurity that had shrouded the previous generation.

“Why did some intellectuals find this confidence and others not? For some people, the explanation lies in their disillusion with the initial expectations placed in Vichy; others never harbored illusions in the first place but could only be brought to defend what became the values of the resistance once they had recovered from the shock of defeat and had been sufficiently moved to protest the policies and practices of occupiers and collaborators alike. Third category, which should include men such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, seem to have been waiting for some such moment all their lives, so enthusiastically did they welcome the chance to be part of a romantic commitment whose scope and meaning would transcend, transform, and give practical effect to their earlier writings. The chance was welcomed mostly in theory, however, in practice only a minority of intellectual resisters saw real action of any sustained sort, whether in the Free French armies, the armed resistance, or clandestine networks of all kinds. For most of the rest, it was the association with the community of resisters that counted, the sense of being part of something larger than oneself – a circle of dissenting writers, a resistance group, a clandestine political organization, or History itself.”

Antony Beevor in his Paris After the Liberation, 1944-1949 references Judt (although I can’t tell which of Judt’s books he has in mind) when he writes “On the subject of Politically engaged intellectuals in France – whether Drieu, Brasillach, Malraux or Sartre – Professor Judt has observed that their fascination with violence contained a ‘quasi-erotic charge’. It underlines the fact that while it has long been long been easy to mock Hemingway, the posturing of French intellectuals, although more sophisticated, demonstrated an arrogant irresponsibility which was far more dangerous and dishonest. Sartre tried to reconcile existentialism with his new phase of revolutionary commitment, but predictably it failed to be anything more and an exercise in verbose sophistry. By the end of his life he even began to justify terrorist action.”

A book I haven’t read is Quiet Moments in a War, a collection of letters written by Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir which describes as “A collection of letters by the author of Being and Nothingness depicts Sartre as a soldier, a prisoner of the Germans, and a man of Resistance and charts his path to fame with the publication of his major works.”

Jonathan Fenby in France on the Brink on page 269 wrote “. . . one French literary historian remarked acidly of the country’s most famous post-war couple; ‘On 11 August 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir entered the Resistance, at the same moment as the Paris police.’

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