Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Mandarins II

I'm a third of the way through the novel and will probably have comments to make all the way up to the end. The politics, unsurprisingly, are a little tedious, but that is made up for by engaging dialogue, usually between the women, and particularly when their private thoughts are included. One of the most entertaining characters is Nadine, whom de Beauvoir has invented as the daughter of Anne (de Beauvoir herself) and Robert Dubreuilh (Sartre). In reality de Beauvoir and Sartre never married or had children, so perhaps this was an amusing exercise for de Beauvoir. Nadine is, in turn, unusually precocious for an eighteen-year-old and childishly impetuous in her daily life. Some of her moodiness can be attributed to the fact that her boyfriend, Diego, who was the son of a Spanish Jew, had been captured and presumably executed during the war. Even by contemporary standards Nadine is quite a libertine. Besides generally sleeping around, she takes up with Henri Perron (Camus), who is in his mid-thirties and a colleague of her father. This is obviously not a Puritan society, as no one, including her parents, bats an eye. Henri himself isn't even attracted to Nadine and only goes along with her to humor her. It interests me that what was considered passé in Paris seventy years ago might still cause an uproar in the U.S. today: Henri might be denounced as a pedophile, Nadine's parents might consider legal action against him, etc. At least in this group of intellectuals, sex is a private matter between individuals and carries no implications about a relationship beyond that. In this case, even Henri's live-in girlfriend, Paula Mareuil, doesn't mind. As you might expect, the relationship between Nadine and Henri quickly disintegrates, and in hindsight anyone who had made a fuss about it would look foolish. To me, it is far more civilized to live this way than to bow to the rigid and generally idiotic dictates of political correctness. At times Nadine seems implausible as a character, but I think she acquits herself well in the context of the novel.

I gather that de Beauvoir is seen by some as too cool, too detached and too serious to write good fiction, and while this may be an inescapable matter of personal taste, I find that I often think exactly as she does. My impression is that most people don't spend a lot of time examining their relationships with others and are simply guided by the social norms that they have been immersed in for all of their lives. Thus, the model for many people is to fall in love, get married, have children and continue their spousal romantic love until death. I appreciate de Beauvoir because she goes a step further than the many novelists who simply lament the development of problems in relationships between men and women and stupidly ignore the question of whether the expectations that people held were ever realistic. De Beauvoir actually thinks these things through both in her novel and in her personal life and arrives at reasoned conclusions that permit her characters and herself to live without depending on questionable concepts of someone else's making. Like de Beauvoir, I favor the realistic adjustment to facts over sentimental lamentations when delusional thinking doesn't produce the outcomes I expect.

As for the politics, there is little to theorize about here. Robert (Sartre) backs the socialist S.R.L. party, which is in a power struggle with the other party of the left, the Communist Party. On the right there is the same conservative party as today, the National Front. At heart most of the leftists are communists, but because of geopolitics they don't consider communism a viable solution for France. The Cold War is only beginning, and clearly either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. is going to become the dominant power in the world. While he may not yet have been fully cognizant of the crimes of Stalin, Robert thinks France must stick with the U.S. even though he dislikes and mistrusts American imperialism. To this end he encourages Henri to commit his small, intellectual newspaper, L'Espoir, to the S.R.L. The communists are also courting L'Espoir, and Henri, who would prefer to remain independent, is put in a predicament. As far as I've read, it appears that he goes with the S.R.L., which pleases Robert and perhaps will improve L'Espoir's financial situation.

I had hoped to encounter some deeper discussion of political thought in the book, and perhaps I will later on. Thinking about some of these issues myself, I can see why communism would have been appealing to the characters. In the end I think something resembling communism may well become the preferred form of government. If you look at world history over the last three hundred years, the dominant forces have been economic, not political. The idea of a classless society may never have come into existence if there hadn't been centuries of inequality caused mainly by the growth of capitalism. To a certain extent the evils of communism as expressed in American propaganda represent a straw man that discredited communism before any attempt was made to understand it. The early failure of communism in China and the later disintegration of the U.S.S.R. had more to do with economic mistakes than anything else. The combination of economic failure in one part of the world and economic success in another part of the world is almost enough to topple the political regimes that preside over the weakest economies. Moreover, a strong economy is necessary for a strong military defense. In my view, China under Mao, the Soviet Union under Stalin and Cuba under Castro were simply early experiments that failed. However, in China since Deng Xaioping, communism has changed course and China may soon have the largest economy in the world. Russia is a different story, and because it still depends on oil rather than a diversified economy for economic growth, it has fallen far down in rank as a world power. As I've said repeatedly, if you were able to remove corrupt or incompetent politicians from power and replaced them with competent leaders or, ideally for me, AI, the world's future might look a lot brighter than it currently does.

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