Sartre’s guilty se­crets

Were French in­tel­lec­tual bea­cons Jean-Paul Sartre and Si­mone de Beau­voir in fact a de­vi­ous and dis­grace­ful pair? ADAN­GER­OUS LI­AI­SON

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

THERE IS plenty in t hi s i mpor­tant, heavy­weight book to in­ter­est not only stu­dents of French lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy but also those who strug­gle to un­der­stand the his­tory of France in the last cen­tury and its at­ti­tude to­wards Jews. But you will need a strong stom­ach. The au­thor does not flinch from de­tailed de­scrip­tions of a wide variety of sex­ual ac­tiv­ity and per­ver­sions, as well as se­rial be­tray­als moral and phys­i­cal.

As she ex­plains, Si­mone de Beau­voir, a teacher, liked to break in her pupils through les­bian se­duc­tion be­fore procur­ing them for Jean-Paul Sartre, be­liev­ing this would bind him more strongly to her, the older wo­man. Ac­cord­ing to Jewish school­girl Bianca Bienen­feld, about whom Beau­voir was pas­sion­ate but whom she aban­doned dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Paris: “She liked new ad­ven­tures. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was part of her bour­geois re­bel­lion.”

As a young teacher, Beau­voir was asked what she thought it would mean to be a Jew. “Noth­ing at all,” she replied. “There are no such thing as Jews. There are only hu­man be­ings.” But to any­one liv­ing in France in 1939 and af­ter, it was im­pos­si­ble not to un­der­stand what it meant to be a Jew.

Bianca and her friend, the ac­tress Si­mone Sig­noret, re­fused to wear their yel­low stars. But that was un­usual and highly dan­ger­ous. Beau­voir’s re­sponse to Bianca’s fear of the fu­ture as a Jewish wo­man in Paris was sneer­ing. She de­scribed her for­mer lover as “proph­esy­ing doom like a Cas­san­dra (what’s new) and hes­i­tat­ing be­tween the con­cen­tra­tion camp and sui­cide, with a pref­er­ence for sui­cide”.

Re­mark­ably, Bianca sur­vived (and spoke to Ca­role Sey­mour- Jones for this book) — al­though some of her fam­ily did not, and Beau­voir was struck with re­morse for her treat­ment of the girl.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who had Jewish blood through his ma­ter­nal line, claimed that he was a leader of the “In­tel­lec­tual Re­sis­tance”. Yet Sey­mourJones shows in this deeply re­searched and clear-eyed book, de­tail­ing one of the most fa­mous non-mar­riages in French his­tory, that, while both took many Jewish lovers through­out their lives (th­ese in­cluded, for Beau­voir, Amer­i­can writer Nelson Al­gren and Claude Lanz­mann, maker of the epic film, Shoah; later, Sartre se­duced Lanz­mann’s sis­ter), they also prof­ited from Vichy an­tisemitic laws. Sartre posi- tioned him­self ideally for power and in­flu­ence af­ter the lib­er­a­tion.

Sey­mour-Jones doggedly shows how both Sartre and Beau­voir con­tin­ued to lead com­fort­able lives in Paris through­out the Oc­cu­pa­tion, even tak­ing ski­ing hol­i­days. Both con­tin­ued to eat well — Sartre of­ten at his mother’s el­e­gant apart­ment, Beau­voir at restau­rants or when giv­ing din­ner par­ties thanks to the black mar­ket.

More se­ri­ously, Sartre ac­cepted a new post at the Ly­cée Con­dorcet in Oc­to­ber 1941 which re­quired step­ping into the shoes of a sacked Jewish teacher, Henri Drey­fus Le­foyer, great nephew of the fa­mous Drey­fus.

Ad­mit­tedly, they did not join the openly com­pro­mised sa­lons fre­quented by Nazi of­fi­cers, but they could have made other choices.

Some in­tel­lec­tu­als re­fused to write for cer­tain pub­lish­ing houses, keep­ing an honourable si­lence. Oth­ers left Paris and worked on a re­sis­tance pa­per in Lon­don in an at­tempt to ded­i­cate them­selves to the strug­gle against the Nazis.

For many who have grown up be­liev­ing Sartre to be pos­sessed of a bril­liant mind and re­gard­ing Beau­voir as a fem­i­nist hero­ine, this will be a pro­foundly shock­ing book. They stand ac­cused.


Jean-Paul Sartre and Si­mone de Beau­voir put their per­sonal plea­sure and com­fort be­fore all else, the book claims

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