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The last days of Jean-Paul Sartre
A review of La Cérémonie des adieux by Simone de Beauvoir.
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In the third volume of her memoirs, The Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that she did not perceive death as a physical reality until 1954, when word reached her of Sartre’s having been hospitalized, for unstated reasons, during a trip to the Soviet Union. Something “irrevocable” had happened, she declared. “Death had closed its hand around me; it was no longer a metaphysical scandal, it was a quality of our arteries, it was no longer a sheath of night around us, it was an intimate presence penetrating my life, changing the taste of things, the quality of the light, my memories, the things I wanted to do: everything.” Although the German Occupation and the liberation of Paris had made violence commonplace, her quasi-symbiotic relationship with Sartre conferred upon her—or so this account might suggest—a sense of invulnerability that vanished the moment her intellectual mate began to falter.
Arteries are very much an issue in La cérémonie des adieux, for this short work chronicles year by year the deterioration of Sartre’s mind and body after 1970. The vertigo he experienced in Moscow was the first of many danger signals that went unheeded during the late Fifties and Sixties. To produce The Critique of Dialectical Reason and his 2800-page opus on Flaubert, The Family Idiot (where “falls” govern the whole interpretative scheme), Sartre often labored thirty hours at a stretch, popping amphetamines and smoking several packs of Boyard cigarettes a day. Why he drove himself so mercilessly is open to conjecture, but it may be worth recalling what de Beauvoir wrote about him as a young man in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, that in his view the literary work was “an absolute end” that carried within itself “its raison d’être, its creator’s, and even perhaps . . . the entire universe’s.” Absolute ends do not promote personal hygiene. Bound up with the fantasy of omnipotence and self-sacrifice, writing remained for Sartre a romantic vocation whose glory lay in its power to consume the writer. Consume him it did. By 1970,when he was sixty-five, his vascular system was a shambles.
De Beauvoir’s memoir commences in September of that year. After he had drunk a quantity of vodka at dinner one Saturday evening, Sartre began dozing and let his cigarette fall from his lips. The next day he was sufficiently recovered to leave de Beauvoir’s apartment for his own, but when they met several hours later, she found him unsteady on his feet: he bumped into furniture, reeled as they left a restaurant, and pitched forward while getting out of a cab. The dozen or so medical examinations he underwent during the next month brought to light a circulatory problem in the left hemisphere of his brain, and a general narrowing of the blood vessels.
In the next two years, there were other such episodes during which his mind would wander, and on one occasion he fell down, badly bruising himself about the head. It seems odd that a physician whom he consulted, in what soon became an excruciating round of consultations at the Salpêtrière hospital, should have given him a clean bill of health after reading his encephalogram, since just to walk cost him considerable pain, and the spells of drowsiness to which he was subject visited him more frequently. But this memoir contains much that is odd. Sartre himself showed no disposition to question diagnoses that flew in the face of evidence. His ideal doctor would have assured him that he need not forego the consolation he derived from whisky and tobacco, that his health was proof against his enemies, including above all himself, who could destroy it with impunity.
By 1973, his condition had grown significantly worse. In February he suffered a stroke that left his face distorted and one arm paralyzed. He recovered from these effects, but a subsequent stroke would twist his mouth into the permanent smile he wore during the last years of his life, and delusory states became a regular occurrence. “The weather was beautiful, Sartre was happy to be back in the Midi, he was reading detective novels,” de Beauvoir recalls of the holiday they took that summer. “But he still had confusions. He had asked: ‘Just what are we doing here? Oh yes! It’s because of my fatigue. And then, we’re waiting for Hercule Poirot.’” Further probes revealed that he was pre-diabetic, which did not persuade him to abstain from liquor, except for brief periods, and at the behest of de Beauvoir, who sometimes went about his flat hiding or uncovering bottles. Before long, diabetes set in, with all that that particularly aggressive disease can inflict upon the victim. When he died in 1980, his body was covered with gangrenous sores.
These ailments, horrible though they were, were tolerable in comparison with the one that ended his literary life. During the Spring of 1973, Sartre’s vision began to dim. It was determined that he had suffered a thrombosis of the temporal vein and hemorrhaging inside his one good eye. Ophthalmologists made cheerful sounds until a test in October showed retinal degeneration of a kind often associated with diabetes. From then on, he progressed toward blindness, never altogether losing his sight, but retaining only as much of it as allowed him to make out blurred shapes, light, and color. After 1975, written words reached him through the mediation of Simone de Beauvoir and of other people in his entourage.
The Sartre Simone de Beauvoir portrays is a Doppelgänger whose connections with the living and with his own self became increasingly tenuous. Indeed, it may be said of this otherwise clinical narrative that its sadness has to do not only with the pain we imagine he endured (and the humiliation we imagine lies in store for us), but with the distance into which he receded as those who knew him best looked on helplessly. Even when he possessed the strength to argue causes that had always been of great importance to him, he did so in a remembered way, with little of the spark that had once ignited his intellect. “Things slid over him and, as all his friends remarked, he was distant, somewhat asleep, almost gloomy, with a smile of indiscriminate gentleness frozen on his lips,” notes de Beauvoir, who says enough to suggest that his death came almost as a relief from the despair of organizing her life around an intimate ghost and inhabiting the vacancy of his presence. Vide is a word one often encounters in La cérémonie des adieux. Sartre himself would use it when the need to confide thoughts about his inner life prevailed over the discretion he normally observed.
Recording interminable conversations with Sartre on Sartre would seem to have been one strategy by which de Beauvoir proposed to fill the emptiness (those they held during the summer of 1974 are included here;-they occupy some four hundred pages and dwarf the memoir itself). Revisiting places they had enjoyed together in a happier time was certainly another. Still the indefatigable tourist she had always been, de Beauvoir accompanied Sartre on holidays to Aix, Geneva, the Greek islands, Capri, Rome, and again and again to Venice. But the passages that show him stumbling in befuddlement through a landscape of antiquities or reading detective novels against a backdrop of noble monuments or staring blankly from a terrace at the Provençal countryside only amplify for us, as they must have for her, the sense of his diminution. He looks at the great Roman aqueduct called the Pont du Gard, which any French schoolchild would instantly recognize, and wonders if it’s a nineteenth-century bridge. While he walks in the old Campus Martius, oblivious to the Pantheon, he raves about a family of cats pissing on him. So much for Edouard Herriot’s aphorism that “culture is what’s left when one has forgotten everything else.” On the European stage, where they used to tour as the king and queen of intellect, de Beauvoir became a prompter and Sartre a naked old man missing cues. Never were his movements more confined than during these journeys, which exposed him to a truth that could be denied, or at least fudged, in the busy routine of life on the Left Bank.
Perhaps Sartre’s persistent denunciations of “a regime that keeps us all locked in a concentrationary universe” were to some extent inspired by the despotic order illness imposed. When his mind lapsed on one occasion, de Beauvoir heard him fantasize about a “preface” (Sartre was generous with prefaces, as he was with money) to be written for “a young man who had attempted suicide because his parents were holding him prisoner.” But one infers from what she writes that his own self was another formerly cherished idea with which he came to live on terms of dispassionate, even remote, familiarity. There is great pathos in the scene de Beauvoir evokes of Sartre asking her, during lunch at the Coupole, whether she found him as intelligent as before—like a ruined beau wanting a withered belle to flatter him, or Garcin trying to make Inès his accomplice (in No Exit).
Such petitions were rare. Little by little he relinquished his claim upon the powers he had had and presented himself as a survivor existing more or less at peace with himself beyond the grave of his literary oeuvre. “I am not in fact dead. I eat and I drink, but I am dead in so far as my work is finished,” she quotes him as saying. During an interview with Michel Contat, he declared: “My occupation as a writer is completely destroyed.... In one sense it robs me of all reason for existing: I was, and I am no longer, if you wish. I should feel very defeated, but for some unknown reason I feel quite good: I am never sad, nor do I have any moments of melancholy in thinking of what I have lost.”
Limbo would not have been quite so agreeable without the clique of women who spelled one another in ministering to his needs. They were, among others, de Beauvoir and her young companion, Sylvie le Bon; the actress Wanda Kosakiewicz, whose older sister, Olga, had once threatened to supplant de Beauvoir in Sartre’s affections; Michèle Vian, who had taken up with Sartre after her separation from Boris; and Arlette Elkaïm, who had become his mistress in 1956, when she was a lycée graduate preparing for the Ecole Normale, and his adopted daughter eight years later, when she was in danger of being deported as an Algerian national.
Their names recur on almost every page and induce something of the same dizziness one can experience reading a Feydeau farce as de Beauvoir summarizes the rendezvous they made every day to collect Sartre here or deliver him there, to eat with him, tuck him in, fetch him at hospitals and airports. “At Wanda’s, Sartre had more or less fallen down. She had put him in a taxi; in front of the Dôme café, Michèle was waiting to accompany him to his fiat; there he had again lost his balance several times. In the morning, she had driven him to Arlette’s and he had fallen once more. I got him on the phone: his voice was clear but weary. He lunched with Arlette, who brought him home in a friend’s car.”
The privileges that attended invalidism were not lost on Sartre. Like that fatherless only child he describes in Words who was considered by his family a gift from heaven, he delighted in being an object of common devotion and told de Beauvoir: “I have never pleased women more than I do now.” Did this fuss his harem made over him promote a kind of regression? De Beauvoir suggests as much. The shamelessness with which he admitted being incontinent struck her as an indication that the puritan whose self-esteem was vested in language had succumbed on some level to an infant who did not distinguish his refuse from himself.
Why did Simone de Beauvoir work her journals into this remarkably circumstantial memoir? She claims in the preface to have written it for those of Sartre’s friends who would like to know more about his last years and surmises that with it she will have made her own valedictory. La cérémonie des adieux is thus characterized by its author as a labor of love and as a twofold gesture of farewell. The title comes from Sartre, who said to her, as they prepared to go their separate ways one summer: “Alors, c'est la cérémonie des adieux!” Accompanied by an enigmatic smile, the expression seemed to her fraught with terrible significance.
But it is hard to read her book, or the passages in which she recalls Sartre’s relationship with a certain Benni Lévi, and not conclude that farewells can provide an excellent occasion for parting shots. Benni Lévi, alias Pierre Victor, was one of those voluble young ideologues whose voices would never have been heard much beyond the Latin Quarter cafés they frequented if not for May 1968, which brought them into sudden prominence. Under the nom de guerre he presumably acquired during the insurrection, Lévi became director of a Maoist group known as the “Gauche Prolétarienne,” the G.P., and expounded, in Marxist-Leninist terms, the need for a popular movement outside the Communist Party that would abolish the bourgeois republic.
His views were compatible with those of Sartre, who had come to believe that intellectuals, embodying the Hegelian “unhappy consciousness,” would not achieve real coherence until they merged with the mass, that only this merger would enable them to transcend the contradiction between their knowledge, which claims universality, and their social origin in the ruling class. The briefs he wrote after 1968 all vilify authority (save his own, which he denied having), elites, bureaucratic structure, reflective life. They evoke a moral society predicated upon absolute egalitarianism, to be brought about by the “people” asserting its freedom from masters who alienate or “reify” humanity. “The source of all justice is the people,” he proclaimed. “I have chosen popular justice as the most profound and the only true kind.” Although Sartre found anarchism the most congenial theory of government, his political discourse reveals a partiality to hermetic modes of thought that would have stood him in good stead during the Terror. Indeed, dicta such as “Revolutionary violence is immediately moral because the workers become the subjects of their history” and “[the intellectual] must not speak but try, with the means he has at his disposal, to give speech to the people” are hardly distinguishable from the statements that constituted Jacobin orthodoxy in 1793-94. Against “bureaucratic” justice Sartre upheld what he liked to call “wild” justice (justice sauvage), the consummation of which would be a world with no room in it for the intellectual processes bourgeois capitalist society develops and honors. He was, it could be said, intent on arguing out of existence everything that had formed Jean-Paul Sartre, while following a line that denounced as evil any force, convention, or authority that made Jean-Paul Sartre less than whole.
To suggest that this anti-intellectualism, which is essentially Marxist, grew on Sartre as he felt his intellectual powers wane would be wrong, for much of his previous work, including the famous phrase, “Hell is the other,” anticipates it. The decline of his powers may, however, help explain his infatuation with Benni Lévi, in whom he saw not only the “new philosopher” combining manual and intellectual activity, but an Alcibiades combining male and female qualities. “What immediately pleased me when I saw you was the fact that you seemed much more intelligent than most of the political types I had met, especially the Communists, and much freer,” he told Lévi in a conversation published by Libération. “Above all, you didn’t refuse to address topics other than political ones. In other words, you could edge away from the matter at hand and have the kind of conversation I like to have with women. . . . You’re a bloke with feminine qualities.” Through Lévi, Sartre dreamed of playing a Socratic role with the generation that came of age in 1968 and of recapturing French youth, who had jilted him for other philosophical heroes.
Thus began a collaboration no one could have foreseen. After publishing their conversations about leftist thought since 1968, On a raison de se revolter, they addressed the problem of “power and freedom” in a dialogue that kept them quite busy throughout the 1970s. By 1974, Sartre had appointed Lévi his secretary and relied upon him increasingly not only to serve as his reader but to act as his spokesman. This liaison caused great consternation among Sartre’s older friends. De Beauvoir, Horst, and Pouillon all found the demagogic style in which Lévi usually held forth more praiseworthy at rallies than at editorial board meetings of Les Temps Modernes, which he attended. But such grievances as they brought to Sartre fell on deaf ears. What he liked about Lévi was precisely the bullyboy, the enrage devoid of the scruples and manners that he felt had inhibited him. “He appreciated in him the radical nature of his ambitions,” asserts de Beauvoir, “the fact that, like Sartre himself, he wanted all. 'Naturally, one does not achieve all, but one must want all.’”
In the account de Beauvoir gives, trouble arose when the surrogate turned his pugnacity upon the master and sought to exchange roles. The pretext for this switch was, oddly enough, Judaism. As 1968 faded into the past, Lévi, who could not sustain a conviction except in the turmoil of some dramatic event, grew disenchanted with Marxist-Leninist dialectics. His intellectual life required live audiences, great theaters, messianic occasions. So it was that the ex-Maoist came in due course to embrace the God of his fathers (he was an Egyptian Jew) and, what is more, to urge religion upon Jean-Paul Sartre. For this proselytical campaign, Lévi received encouragement from Arlette Elkaïm, herself an Algerian Jewess, who joined him in studying Hebrew. “Victor believes categorically that the origin of all ethics lies in the Torah, but I don’t agree with him at all!” de Beauvoir reports Sartre as exclaiming one day.
Willy-nilly, Sartre lent himself to Lévi’s ventriloquistic exercises, perhaps because he was afraid the dialogue in which he had found a raison d’être might end, or simply because truth-telling was no longer worth a quarrel. In 1978, the two, along with Arlette, spent five days in Jerusalem questioning Israelis and Palestinians on the likely consequences of Sadat’s recent visit. Soon afterward, the Nouvel Observateur published a report signed by Sartre and Lévi which, to judge from its general tone, the latter had written by himself. Several years passed and on the eve of Sartre’s death the Nouvel Observateur brought out yet another “collaborative” piece, this one an interview. “Victor didn’t express any of his opinions directly; he fobbed them off on Sartre, playing, in the name of goodness knows what revealed truth, the part of attorney,” de Beauvoir contends. “His tone, the arrogant superiority he assumed over Sartre were revolting to those of us who had read the text before its appearance.”
La cérémonie des adieux brings to mind a novel by the Goncourt brothers, Manette Salomon, in which a painter of genius falls under the bewitching influence of a Jewess who lures him into the ghetto, estranges him from his friends, and finally renders him impotent. One wonders if Simone de Beauvoir did not intend, with this memoir, to suggest that the Sartre whom outsiders had taken hostage was Jean-Paul Sartre only in name. Betrayed by her lifelong consort, who betrayed himself, she emerges as the polestar of his wandering soul. “Victor was supported by Arlette, who knew nothing about Sartre’s philosophical works” is the sort of remark, made en passant and ostensibly without rancor, that puts her reborn Jewish rivals in their place forever. What we have at the end are two couples, the false one of Arlette Elkaïm and Lévi-Victor, and the true one of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, who are joined again in a final scene, with de Beauvoir lying beside Sartre’s corpse. “I asked to be left alone with Sartre and I wanted to stretch out beside him under the sheet,” she writes. “A nurse stopped me: ‘No. Be careful... gangrene.’ That’s when I learned the true nature of his sores. I lay down on the sheet and slept a little. At five o’clock, some orderlies came. They folded a sheet and a kind of garment bag over Sartre’s body, and they carried him away.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 September 1982, on page 70
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