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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2567

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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 modernes. In this newspaper, Sartre formulated his theory of “littérature engagée,” or committed literature, which he defined as fiction for a political or social cause, written with intent to persuade, literature with a call to action. In Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (1948; What Is Literature?, 1949), Sartre stressed the social and political responsibilities of the writer. Writing is a political act, Sartre claimed. The writer finds himself in a particular historical situation and must speak out against racism, colonialism, the Cold War, the hydrogen bomb, and other crucial issues and play a role in shaping a new ideological consciousness. Most of his fiction, such as the plays Les Mains sales (1948; Dirty Hands, 1949), Les Séquestrés d’Altona (1959; The Condemned of Altona, 1960), and the unfinished three-volume novel, Les Chemins de la liberté (1945-1949; Roads to Freedom, (1947-1950), were clearly engagé works.

While de Beauvoir and Sartre were always opposed to capitalism and the bourgeoisie, even in their apolitical youth, it was not until the war that they began to study Karl Marx and to support the idea of a revolution to bring about a Socialist society. For a time, they supported, but did not join, the French Communist Party. Sartre’s criticisms of the Soviet Union for its treatment of Soviet intellectuals, the existence of the gulag, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 meant, however, an inevitable break with the French Communist Party. Sartre was always equally critical of the United States, however, and in his later years became an activist of the extreme Left. He was following, as he said, the great example of Émile Zola, who, toward the end of a long and distinguished literary career, threw himself into the turmoil of the Dreyfus affair, risking exile and imprisonment. Sartre served on Bertrand Russell’s War Crimes Tribunal, which found the United States guilty of genocide in the Vietnam War, and he played an active role in the May, 1968, student revolt, editing a newspaper published by a Maoist student group, La Cause du Peuple, which he and de Beauvoir distributed to passersby. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre risked trial for treason by signing the famous “Manifesto of the 121” in support of independence for Algeria against the French government.

Adieux focuses so exclusively on Sartre that the reader who is unfamiliar with the work of Simone de Beauvoir will not be aware of her importance as a major literary figure. Her first novel, L’Invitée (1943; She Came to Stay, 1949), was an important contribution to the Existentialist notion of the “other,” illustrated in fictional form by her use of a bizarre love triangle. In “Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre,” Sartre speaks at length about the other women in his life, and there were many, although his relationship with de Beauvoir was the most important. He and de Beauvoir had agreed never to marry because marriage would be merely a concession to the bourgeois morality they had rejected. They had also agreed that each would be free to have love affairs without suffering the guilt and jealousy that would tend to overwhelm a more conventional relationship. She Came to Stay, the story of a young woman who comes to live with an older couple and becomes the man’s mistress, was based on a real incident in which one of de Beauvoir’s lycée students had an affair with Sartre. In her memoirs, de Beauvoir later revealed how upset she was about this relationship. Instead of being angry at Sartre, however, as most women would have been, de Beauvoir was angry at herself for her jealousy which, she felt, was a betrayal of everything in which she and Sartre believed. In the novel, de Beauvoir takes her revenge and murders her rival at the end. In real life, the situation was satisfactorily resolved when the student in question fell in love with another man. De Beauvoir herself has had other lovers besides Sartre. On a trip to the United States, she met the Chicago writer Nelson Algren. Their very tempestuous relationship is described in her memoirs and also fictionalized in Les Mandarins (1954; The Mandarins, 1956) which is dedicated to him. In her fifties, she had a long attachment to a much younger man, the journalist Claude Lanzmann, who wrote for Les Temps modernes.

De Beauvoir also wrote a significant novel of the Resistance, Le Sang des autres (1945; The Blood of Others, 1948), in which a woman, at first indifferent to the Occupation of France, becomes a heroine of the Resistance and dies for the cause. In 1954, she won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins. She has always denied that it is a roman à clef, but it is narrated by a female character, Anne, who goes to the United States and meets an American writer in Chicago with whom she falls in love. Anne’s French companion and another man, who strongly resemble Sartre and Camus, found a newspaper much like Les Temps modernes. These two leftist men wish to create a political party independent of both the Soviet Union and the United States. They are faced, however, with the question of whether, at the height of the Cold War, they should reveal the existence of Soviet prison camps to their public and risk strengthening the French Right. The Les Temps modernes editors faced, in real life, a very similar dilemma.

Perhaps her most important books are the four volumes of her memoirs. Notable for their honesty, they are an excellent source, not only for her life and Sartre’s but also for European intellectual life in general. The first volume, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959), is a devastating portrait of what it was like for a girl to grow up in a French upper-middle-class family in the early twentieth century. For her, freedom from her stifling environment came only when she met Sartre at the university. The second volume, La Force de l’âge (1960; The Prime of Life, 1962), describes the harrowing years of the late 1930’s and the Occupation of France, and, on a personal level, it deals with her decision to embark on her own literary career. La Force des choses (1963; Force of Circumstance, 1964), the third volume, is the best account of the Cold War years and the disillusionment of so many European intellectuals when the war, the Resistance, and the Liberation failed to bring about the better world for which they had hoped. The final volume, Tout compte fait (1972; All Said and Done, 1974), written from the perspective of her old age, is a rich philosophical reflection on the life she and Sartre shared. It is also full of her deep commitment to political activities and especially to her new role as a feminist leader.

Although she has said that she is not a woman of action, de Beauvoir did become an activist. At first, reluctant to follow Sartre like a shadow, she did not become as politically active as he. Nevertheless, during the Algerian crisis, she, too, risked imprisonment for signing the “Manifesto of the 121.” She testified in court for a former student accused of a pro-Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) terrorist bombing. She supported Francis Jeanson, a colleague on Les Temps modernes, who was illegally engaged in helping the FLN. She wrote articles about Djamila Boupacha, a young Algerian female victim of torture by the French army, and she became president of the Djamila Boupacha Committee for a free independent Algeria. Indeed, like Sartre, de Beauvoir in her later years has devoted herself wholeheartedly and militantly to a number of political causes.

In addition to her contribution to the development of Existentialist thought and her achievements as an engagé writer, de Beauvoir has also pioneered in the field of feminist theory. Her book Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953), was not only an extremely well-documented social history of women, but it also had a philosophical framework, part Marxist, part Existentialist, by which the oppression of women could be comprehended. For de Beauvoir to discover the oppression of women was to struggle against it, just as she had done against torture and repression in Algeria and against the shocking treatment of the elderly in La Vieillesse (1970; The Coming of Age, 1972). Against the prevailing Freudian belief that “biology is destiny,” de Beauvoir declared, “You are not born a woman; you become one.” De Beauvoir has since repudiated certain propositions in The Second Sex; for example, she no longer maintains that the liberation of women will come with the Socialist revolution, nor does she any longer equate the state of motherhood with inevitable loss of an autonomous self. Nevertheless, for all the book’s flaws, it was she who introduced feminist questions into the postwar intellectual scene. The Second Sex provoked sharp attacks against de Beauvoir; her “unnatural” life as a single, childless woman was held against her, and for many years, she did not call herself a feminist. Since 1968, however, de Beauvoir has been active in the women’s movement, becoming president of the Ligue des Droits des Femmes (League of the Rights of Women) and writing for various feminist journals such as Nouvelles féministes and Questions féministes. Now in her late seventies and in failing health, de Beauvoir, having paid her last tribute to Jean-Paul Sartre in Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, says that the prospect of her own death does not frighten her, and that, while she will write no more books, she will continue to be active in the women’s movement.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

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

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