(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (published in France in 1981 as La Cérémonie des adieux) is an account of the last years and death of Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) by his lifelong companion, the writer Simone de Beauvoir. She does not spare the reader the most intimate clinical details of Sartre’s last illnesses but dwells on his symptoms and his increasing debility much as she had done when describing the final illness of her mother in Une Mort très douce (1964; A Very Easy Death, 1966). Sartre began to lose his faculties, experiencing periods of forgetfulness and failing to recognize people he knew very well. He had high blood pressure, dizzy spells, difficulty in walking, episodes of incontinence, and, worst of all, for an intellectual whose life was his books, he became virtually blind and could no longer work. One may or may not relish this frank account of Sartre’s deterioration—a condition which de Beauvoir attributes partly to his having taken large doses of the drug Corydrane while writing his major philosophical work, Critique de la raison dialectique (1960). One has to appreciate, however, her courage, her honesty, and her fidelity to her convictions. True to the Existentialist atheism she and Sartre shared, she refuses to entertain any falsely comforting notion of immortality. After his death on April 15, 1980, she says, bleakly, “His death does separate us. My death will not bring us together again. That is how things are.”

The second and longer section of Adieux, “Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre,” is a series of informal interviews conducted by de Beauvoir in 1974 in which Sartre discusses his ideas, his work, and his political activities. These conversations and such filmed interviews as Sartre par lui-même (1976), published in book form in English as Sartre by Himself (1978), are valuable sources for students of his work. Except for Les Mots (1964; The Words, 1964), the story of his early childhood preoccupation with literature, Sartre never wrote an autobiography. In a rambling, unsystematic way, “Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre” provides a biographical framework for his life. He speaks of the development of his philosophical ideas, his friendships with such men as Paul Nizan, the Communist writer killed in the war in 1940, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the prominent philosopher who frequently wrote for the left-wing newspaper Sartre edited, his stormy relations with fellow novelist Albert Camus, and the political activism of his later years. Sartre and de Beauvoir both took part in the Algerian struggle for independence and the French student revolt of 1968, and they both denounced American involvement in Vietnam. As late as 1973, Sartre began a new project, an independent far-left newspaper, La Libération. Ill health, however, soon compelled him to give up active participation in the venture.

One curious thing which emerges from “Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre” is the political naïveté de Beauvoir and Sartre exhibited as young adults in the 1930’s. Sartre, who spent a year in Germany studying the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, seems not to have been particularly struck by the rise of Nazism. In France, although they both supported the Spanish republicans in 1936, de Beauvoir and Sartre remained essentially apolitical. They did not vote. They were not a part of the French Popular Front, and, as Sartre said, “We were very pleased that the Popular Front had succeeded. Our feelings linked us to these groups, but we did nothing for them. On the whole we were spectators.” Surely, this is an odd statement from the apostle of commitment. It took World War II, the humiliating defeat of France, and Sartre’s experiences as a prisoner of war to awaken him to the need for collective political action.

Existentialist theory posits an absurd or meaningless world in which human freedom is the only absolute. It denies any a priori values, be they predicated on Christianity, on Marxist ideology, or any other system of thought. Everyone must have the courage to accept the meaninglessness of existence and everyone must use his freedom to choose his own values. There are, however, “authentic” and “inauthentic” choices as described in Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956) and in de Beauvoir’s one work of systematic philosophy, Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (1947; The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948). To be free is to choose a course of action which is bound to have an effect on others, and a “wrong” or “inauthentic” choice would be one that limits or destroys one’s own or another’s freedom. By this definition, it was clearly wrong to collaborate with the Germans in Occupied France. Hence, the events of World War II had the effect of transforming Existentialism from a philosophy of extreme individualism to one of social responsibility. Sartre, profoundly moved by his experiences of solidarity with others in the harsh conditions of the prison camp, came back to Paris determined to take part in the Resistance against the Germans and the Vichy government. He founded the short-lived Resistance group, Socialism and Liberty, contributed to the underground press, finished Being and Nothingness, and wrote Les Mouches (1943; The Flies, 1946), a modern version of the Orestes myth. This drama was performed in Occupied Paris despite its thinly disguised call for revolt against oppression. After the Liberation, Sartre made a much quoted, seemingly paradoxical remark: “Never were we more free than under the Germans.” What he meant was that each Resistance fighter, in choosing freedom even at the risk of death, chose not only for himself but reaffirmed freedom for all. This statement summed up the new social and political direction he had given to Existentialism which had become an ideology and a movement as much as a philosophical theory.

After the war, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Raymond Aron, a liberal writer, founded a nonaligned leftist political party, Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Assembly), and a newspaper to publicize their views, Les Temps...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

America. CLI, August 18, 1984, p. 84.

The Atlantic. CCLIII, May, 1984, p. 116.

Library Journal. CIX, June 1, 1984, p. 1124.

Ms. XII, May, 1984, p. 36.

The Nation. CCXXXVIII, April 28, 1984, p. 516.

The New Republic. CXC, May 21, 1984, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, May 6, 1984, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LX, May 21, 1984, p. 133.

Newsweek. CIII, May 7, 1984, p. 94.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 16, 1984, p. 72.