Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Prime of Life II

Sartre tried to line up a teaching position in Japan to follow his military service, but he failed to do so and ended up teaching in Le Havre instead. De Beauvoir got a job teaching at a lycée in Marseille. She impetuously set about exploring the region alone on foot and by hitchhiking. Once two men attempted to abduct her, and she managed to escape. At the lycée she was so young that many thought she was a student. One of her colleagues, a married woman, tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. Before long she took a new position in Rouen in order to be closer to Sartre and Paris.

During this period their interests were eclectic. Sartre had lively friends in the theatrical world, and they read widely, always discussing issues that they deemed important. Their reading and entertainment included more lowbrow than highbrow material. They watched films with Buster Keaton and Sartre particularly liked detective novels. They closely followed crime stories in the news. De Beauvoir especially liked the works of John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. They managed to travel on inexpensive vacations to Spain, Italy and London. The pattern that they were to follow for the rest of their lives began to emerge.

It is at this juncture that, for me, the reader, the picture becomes a little myopic. While de Beauvoir's writing seems honest and open and she seems to be relatively perceptive, I am beginning to become a little uneasy with her point of view and feel the need for a second opinion, which you never get in memoirs. I can accept de Beauvoir's perspective, in which her life with Sartre meets all of her expectations, and that he may have been the only person who could offer that to her, allowing her to live free from the social constraints that had been the bane of her youth, but I don't get a sense that I would analyze the situation exactly as she did if I had been there, because she seems to be overreacting to her past and possibly is placing more faith in Sartre than is justified. My problem is that Sartre was not a great thinker, and, for that matter, not a great writer. He was constantly generalizing, but his theories were often bad or even stupid. De Beauvoir obliquely hints at this, and the impression I get is that, to her, Sartre was sort of a lifestyle choice more than anything else, and that ultimately ideas were not all that important to her. Rather than take a systematic approach to this problem, I am simply going to read Tony Judt's Past Imperfect, in which the French intellectuals of that era, Sartre in particular, are eviscerated. I'm not sure that I'll agree with Judt on every position, since both he and Sartre have different points of view from mine, but you can always count on Judt for a well-written, rigorous analysis.

The good part of de Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre, as far as I'm concerned, was their willingness to discuss everything in great detail:

Sartre sometimes upbraided me for my insouciance, just as I became irritated when he spent too long buried in a paper. To justify my attitude I invoked the theory of the 'solitary man'. Sartre objected that the 'solitary man' does not lack any interest in the course of events: though his thought may not depend on external supporting opinion, this does not imply that he opts for ignorance. Sartre's counter-attack shook me, but I persevered in my attitude. I wanted people to despise the futile contingencies of daily life, as I thought Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Van Gogh had done. The position I had adopted suited me somewhat ill; there was nothing in me of the visionary, or the solitary, or indeed of the lyric poet. I was really indulging in escapism, putting myself into blinkers so as to safeguard my piece of mind. For a long while I stuck obstinately to this 'rejection of humanity', which was also the inspiration of my aesthetic views. I liked those landscapes in which there was no apparent sign of man's presence, or else the sort of camouflage – local color, picturesque background – which concealed such presence from me. In Rouen my favorite spot was the Rue Eau-de-Robec: its shapeless, rickety houses, lapped by filthy water, looked very much as though they might be destined for some wholly alien species of inhabitant. I was attracted by those people, such as madmen, prostitutes, or tramps, who had in one way or another denied their own humanity.  

Certainly neither Sartre nor de Beauvoir can be accused of mental laziness. I identify more with de Beauvoir, because it was Sartre's "save the world" mentality that got him into trouble, putting him in way over his head, where he badly tackled issues that he didn't even understand.

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