A new book about the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is causing some tremors in the literary world and reigniting a feud among intellectuals over his behaviour during the war, and questioning whether the founding father of existentialism should have stood up to the Nazis rather than failing to pick sides while waiting to see who won.
The aura surrounding Sartre and his close relationship with his fellow writer Simone de Beauvoir during their lifetimes was badly tarnished when their private letters, published posthumously, exposed them as selfish and cruel, particularly towards young female students ensnared in love triangles with them.
This brought back memories of my student days when I joined a club in Paris at Saint-Germain-des-Prés where Sartre used to hold court dispensing his existentialist philosophy surrounded by his flock of adoring young men and women. (I have told a different aspect of the story elsewhere on my blog of the island where nature and sex would blend.)
Juliette Greco, the renowned chanteuse, was often there as a dedicated follower who would enchant her audience of left-wing intellectuals by singing some of her melancholic ballads that gave an atmosphere hard to forget.
The latest controversy that’s hitting the headlines today is perhaps not surprising, for those avid readers of Sartre’s philosophical concepts that manifest themselves so clearly in his novel La Nausée and the trilogy Les Chemins de la liberté, as well as some of the plays, notably Les Mouches and La Putain respectueuse.
As one of his early followers I could sense a dark side to his character that was too entangled to dissect, especially with regard to sexual matters.
Then came Ingrid Galster. The leading German expert on Sartre has now published a book claiming that the pipe-smoking author was insensitive to the plight of the Jews during the Second World War.
She claims he profited from anti-Jewish Nazi policy to obtain a sinecure at a school when the Jewish incumbent was fired and that he seemed indifferent to the fate of Bianca Bienenfeld, a Polish-born Jewish woman who had been de Beauvoir’s lover and student before being lured into Sartre’s bed – who abruptly dumped her in 1940 when she had to go into hiding to escape being taken to a death camp.
‘Never did they worry about my fate or try to get news of me,’ Galster quotes Bienenfeld as saying of Sartre and de Beauvoir.
Suspicion about Sartre’s wartime role focused previously on how his plays survived Nazi scrutiny to be staged in Paris after rehearsals in front of uniformed German censors. Sartre later maintained that Les Mouches, published in 1943, was about resisting France’s collaborationist Vichy government.
Galster has unearthed a document from French secret police suggesting that they were nervous about the trouble the play could cause but she does the author few favours in her book, Sartre Under the Occupation an Afterwards, and suggests his sympathetic writing about the Jews after the war may have been an effort to assuage guilt.
Such ideas are preposterous to the fervent ‘Sartreans’ who guard his legacy and will have none of the assertions of ill-doings attributed to him in the book.
The fierce battle that this latest controversy will ferment is likely to go on for some time and will involve further revelations about French collaboration with the Nazis during the dark period of the occupation.
However, I feel that one should never be carried away by inferences that have nothing to do with Sartre’s tremendous literary output.
Having had the privilege of meeting him more than once in Paris in his club his mere presence was enough to galvanise his audience and leave them almost breathless wanting to follow him in a messianic fervour.
Though his name was ultimately a household word – as was existentialism during the tumultuous 1960s – Sartre remained a simple man with few possessions and very committed to causes until the end of his life.
Needless to say, he was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
He died on 15th April 1980 in Paris. At his funeral on Saturday 19th April fifty thousand Parisians descended on to Boulevard Montparnasse to accompany Sartre’s cortège.
Compared to Voltaire by President Charles de Gaulle, he was truly a literary giant who left his mark worldwide.