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Letter from Paris: Gide, Sartre and Café Communism

The funeral homages paid to André Gide by his colleagues showed a peculiar embarrassment. It was as if nobody were sure exactly who Gide had been. Nobody showed any passion except the Catholic Mauriac, who was obviously disturbed by the tranquility with which Gide, that “evil pilot of souls,” had taken his leave of this world, wholly unrepentant and in fact replete (“C’est bien, c’est bien…”were his last words). Most of the others looked as if they had trouble focusing their thoughts on the author of The Counterfeiters. A great man of letters had died, that was sure enough. But that he had also been a great man, or even a great writer, nobody seemed willing to concede without a reservation of some kind.

At eighty-two, Gide had doubtless outlived his fame and influence. That, however, does not completely explain the puzzled looks around his deathbed. What escaped his contemporaries was the exact meaning of Gide’s insistent retreat into himself, the way he had of caring for the world, and even literature, so much and no more, always withdrawing at the crucial moment, like a guest who interrupts a conversation he has himself started, getting up and leaving with many apologies but no explanation. Such was the style of Gide’s pursuit of happiness. But could happiness be that elusive? Could fulfillment be obtained that way? Could such a man have had real contact with the world he so persistently caressed and observed, but at the same time kept at such a distance? The claim to personal happiness, unaccompanied by the clear statement of a belief, is what mystified the intellectuals about Gide. While he was still there, he could be respected and ignored. Dead, he became utterly elusive.

The only unconditional praise Gide received was from the Timon of Athens of French letters, Paul Léautaud, who said nothing about the writer, and testified simply: “I have always had not only a true sympathy, but also a great esteem for André Gide. I still feel that way.” Until, quite unexpectedly, Jean-Paul Sartre himself, the philosopher of engagement, came out in favor of the moralist of the acte gratuit.

The gesture was typical of the irrepressible generosity that makes Sartre so captivating. Nobody had dared praise Gide: he, who could well be considered the most anti-Gidian of all living writers, would do it. He did it, naturally enough, by attempting to relate Gide to existentialism. According to Sartre, the one characteristic that remained fundamental in Gide was the consistency with which he lived through the crucial experience of modern times: Nietzsche’s “death of God” (which is also the point of departure of Heidegger’s and Sartre’s philosophical positions). For Sartre, Gide is set apart by the fact that he arrived at the elimination of all religious belief through the trials and errors of sensibility rather than through speculation. “He could, like so many others,” Sartre writes, “have relied on concepts, made up his mind when he was twenty on whether he was going to be a believer or an atheist, and stuck from then on to his decision. Instead of which, he made a point of testing his relationship to religion. Hence, the living dialectics that led him eventually to atheism is an itinerary that can be retraced after him, but it does not lend itself to an abstract definition…What makes Gide’s example unique is the fact that he chose to become the truth he was sensing.”

In order to praise Gide, Sartre had to leave out that most Gidian of attitudes: the pursuit of happiness through non-commitment. The ex-surrealist Georges Bataille, now editor of the scholarly magazine Critique, felt free to face the issue more squarely. It is his levity that Bataille finds characteristic of Gide—the will to remain on the surface of things rather than descend to the level where moral problems become torturing. Anguish, he remarks, was for Gide a synonym for artifice, and artifice the equivalent of falseness, while a certain serene acceptance of contradictions and ambiguities was the mark of spontaneity and truth. “What makes Gide’s Journal so significant,” Bataille writes, “is the fact that in it we find underlined and confessed without gravity the contradictions by which he was able to bring the art of living to a subtlety which few people have ever attained.”

It is because he was so wary of intellectual rigor, Bataille suggests, and remained to the last impervious to both fanaticism and conformism, that Gide in 1946 could still address to the younger generation such messages as this: “What is the use of looking for new masters?” Communism, like Catholicism, demands, or at least advocates, the submission of the mind. If it can be saved at all, the world will be saved by rebels.”

Rebelliousness, intellectual pliancy and the search for happiness were synonyms to Gide. Today this combination seems naive, if not ludicrous, to most people. Our time demands intellectual rigor and straight choices. Naturalness and spontaneity have become the most problematic of all notions. As for happiness, it is no longer either a “new idea” (as Saint-Just thought it was in his time) or a clear one. The meaning of pleasure might still be fairly evident to a contemporary European, but happiness has become a problem whose solution, whose statement even, has to be postponed until the moment when all the other questions are answered. Which amounts to saying that we live in a world of bleak moralism, a world of tasks, duties and obligations. Exactly the kind of world from which all his life Gide strove to keep away.

But are today’s moral appeals in fact less ambiguous than the ambiguity of Gide? Judging from current literary production, the “opposite seems to be the case. When Simone de Beauvoir, in 1947, published her essay “For an Ethics of Ambiguity,” her arguments may not have been convincing, but her thesis reflected a real situation.

The most significant example of the difficulties into which contemporary intellectuals run when they attempt to derive ethical conclusions from rigorous conceptual analysis is of course Sartre himself. Under Nazi oppression and during the desolate years that followed the end of the war, Sartre was successful as an intellectual leader mainly because he presented the younger generation with a view of life which, while it omitted any preoccupation with personal happiness, seemed to exalt in the individual a more primary impulse: freedom, the idea that, even in the most extreme situation, even reduced to the condition of a victim, man could be free; that he was, indeed, “condemned to be free.”

Sartre’s message was certainly energetic. In the first place, he seemed to appeal to the individual and his inner resources, beyond all groups, classes and accepted ideologies. In the second place, he himself gave an example of energy by making it plain that he wanted to be an intellectual leader and by assuming the responsibility of interpreting “modern times” for the use of his contemporaries. Finally, Sartre offered a philosophy, but not a credo. There was something of the teacher about him, but very little of the preacher. What he said was that nothing was prescribed between heaven and earth, that no choice was in itself more valid than any other, but that no one could escape the consequences of his own choice. To be fully responsible was the thing.

Considering Sartre’s formidable talent, what is surprising is not the success he has had, but that his success and influence have not been greater. Today, while the position of Sartre, the novelist and the playwright, is as strong as ever, Sartre, the philosophical teacher and the public man, finds himself in difficulties. To put it briefly, it looks as if “modern times” had proved tougher than tough Sartre.

Analyzing Sartre’s philosophy is quite a job. Professor Jean Wahl, who has tried to do it with painstaking care, has not yet gone farther than page 85 of L’Etre et le Néant. But setting the philosophy aside, one can consider the moral exhortation that was derived from it. In so far as it was an exhortation to action and responsibility, Sartre’s message was supposed to create new perspectives, to arouse new energies, and to withstand the test of events, at least in the sense of helping to place contemporary problems in a new light. The fact is that, for all its originality, Sartre’s position does not seem to have had much influence on the way people look at the moral and political issues of our time. The reason is probably that his formal intellectual approach, offering a method for analysis and criticism rather than a basis for positive assertions, could not lead to anything but ambiguous conclusions.

A good example of this radical ambiguity is Sartre’s famous formula of moral duty: “Man is responsible for his acts to all of humanity.” In the context of a philosophical examination, such a proposition might well offer food for reflection. As a piece of advice, it amounts to saying: “The road of moral life is made up of nothing but holes,” or, even more cruelly, to a philosophical translation of the judicial warning to the accused: “From now on, everything you say (or do) can be held against you.” Which is, after all, exactly what Sartre means by moral teaching: the communication of a sense of utter insecurity (and culpability) out of which is supposed to spring the moral decision to make of one’s life an act of gratuitous, and conspicuous, expenditure of energy. Clearly, no particular consequence could be drawn from this kind of philosophical shock treatment.

As for his political ideas, Sartre himself has offered the demonstration that his philosophical views do not lend themselves to any definite political conclusion, except to a refusal of authoritarianism and a generous preference for oppressed people against their oppressors. His first position in politics was slightly pro-Communist, although always critical of Communist methods (and especially of Communist contempt for intellectual values). At the same time, he questioned certain tenets of Marxism. That was when he was struck by a thunderous sequel of excommunications from Moscow and from Rome. These could have marked his official consecration as an intellectual leader; but Sartre refused to take up the challenge. Today, his position is the same as that of a number of left-wing Socialists: he is anti-Stalinist, refuses to take sides in the Cold War and continues to think in terms of a Socialist revolution. Such a position can be justified or criticized in terms of the most traditional doctrines of the French Left, but it has no necessary connection with Sartre’s philosophical ideas. That is no reflection on Sartre, the citizen, but one can hardly avoid the impression that the political leader has been defeated by political reality.

In addition to a play about the German Peasant War, Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, Sartre is now writing a treatise on man which will be a detailed account of existentialist ethics. Meanwhile, his concern with political themes remains unabated. He has recently written a remarkable preface to Roger Stephane’s Portrait de l’Aventurier, a book in which T. E. Lawrence and André Malraux are considered as representatives of that most modern type, the intellectual-adventurer. Sartre’s essay is a brilliant piece of psychological dialectics, the kind of writing he excels in. The “adventurer” is characterized as a bourgeois individualist who seeks the exaltation of his ego in action, as opposed to the “Communist,” a man for whom action means peace of mind through the substitution of the party for the self. The first abolishes moral responsibility; the second eliminates the responsible subject. Both are wrong, Sartre concludes, and a “new synthesis” must be found. The reader, however, must wonder how anybody can be declared wrong on the basis of a “synthesis” that is yet to come.

“You can say what you please about them, but you have to admit that Communists are the only optimistic people today.” They have a goal in life and they work for it.” This sort of argument is still being repeated, especially by intellectuals. Its implications are twofold and somewhat contradictory. The first is that optimism is the unmistakable mark of a genuine accord between ideals and practice; the second is that, to be a Communist, all you need is a certain robust simplemindedness, to be acquired through the removal of intellectual scruples and sophistication. The truth of the matter is that allegiance to Communism today is a complicated feat of mental engineering. It requires both moral ambiguity and intellectual abstruseness.

In literature, an instructive example is offered by the case of Roger Vailland, an ex-surrealist converted to Communism during the Resistance. He is the author of three novels and a play, all successful. A writer of undeniable talent, what makes Vailland sociologically interesting is the fact that he represents an attitude widespread among those young intellectuals who came to the party after the great shift of 1939. Admitting that Communism must be swallowed whole, these people yet fail to see why their affiliation should cut them off from smartness and sophistication. They can toe the party line without feeling like fools, but accepting Aragon’s “socialist realism” is too much for them. They try to solve the problem by a strategy that consists of sticking to the letter while playing around with the spirit as much as they can.

Vailland is a real “virtuoso” at this trick. On the face of it, his play “Héloise et Abélard” was a furiously anti-clerical performance. François Mauriac wrote a whole column in the Figaro protesting Vailland’s blasphemies. But the spectator who kept in mind the author’s political affiliation could not help suspecting that the Church of the twelfth century was not the only target of Vailland’s anger. It was never certain, however, that the author was really carrying out some kind of undercover opposition to the party.  Vailland’s Abélard was a kind of bourgeois individualist who revolted in the name of pride and sexual passion, rather than truth. L’Humanité could find no ideological fault with the play except an excess of anti-Catholicism.

“This is just fiction,” says Vailland in the “warning” that precedes Drôle de Jeu (“The Strange Game”), a novel about the Resistance published in 1945. Such a warning approaches heresy, since the first tenet of “socialist realism” requires adherence to historical truth. The book describes the lives of a group of conspirators in 1944. The story moves rapidly, in an atmosphere of danger rather than violence. Sex and drinking play an important part. The hero, Lamballe, is a Gaullist, a sex maniac, a drug addict and an adventurer. Rodrigue, his lieutenant, is a Communist, a good, enthusiastic boy full of admiration for Lamballe’s courage and smartness. Lamballe is in the Resistance because he hates the collaborationist bourgeoisie from a strictly individualistic point of view. Rodrigue sees in the struggle against the Nazis a step toward the liberation of the proletariat. Lamballe does not make political sense, but, however irritating and vulgar, he is a character, while Rodrigue, ideologically correct, is no character at all. The Communists are right, but they are awfully dumb, is what Vailland seems to be saying.

One finds the same two characters, and the same juxtaposition of corrupted cleverness and good-natured dullness, in Vailland’s latest novel, Bon Pied Bon Oeil (a title whose English equivalent could be “Still Going Strong”), a sequel to Drôle de Jeu. The book is chiefly remarkable for the portrait of a girl, Antoinette, an impulsive Saint Germain-des-Près character who does all sorts of wrong things and pays for them with a lot of trouble. Communist discipline is the only kind of certainty Roger Vailland considers obtainable in our time. If he were straightforward, his would be simply another case of propaganda literature. But he has talent, and does not want to look like a pious fool. He needs cleverness, rebelliousness, and even doubt, somewhere. Lamballe and Antoinette, his individualistic heroes, take care of that by remaining at a respectful distance from the moral perfection of which they approve.

Vailland’s Communism is an intellectual artifice that can be defended only around café tables. What is significant is the fact that its ingredients: egotism masked as self-denial, revolt for the sake of conformism, and the cult of action accompanied by crass hedonism, are the same from which French right-wing intellectuals tried to build the ideology of French fascism. The humble people who are supposed to be the raison d’être of Vailland’s conviction, do not appear in his novels.

If, having witnessed Vailland’s performance, one feels nostalgic for that deep current of emotions, ideas and human solidarity which, before the war, justified the assertion l’intelligence est à gauche, one should go to that solitary writer, Louis Guilloux. His latest novel, Le Jeu de Patience, published a year ago, is undoubtedly among the two or three that will remain of this rather muddy postwar period. This lovingly reconstructed chronicle of life in a small Breton town during the past forty years, exclusively concerned with the histories of humble people, is not only a solid work of art but also a monument to what the socialist ideal really meant in France: not at all an ideology, and much less a “line,” but a stubborn sense of friendship. And a “pursuit of happiness.”