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(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...

(The entire section is 2,620 words.)