In 1946, when we were still living in France, I came upon a publication called “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean Paul Sartre. It captivated me. Sartre wrote of choice, personal responsibility and discipline. He advocated a philosophy of free will, of man being the architect of his own destiny, with no help from religion or other diktats. Sartre rejected other-directed moral imperatives and received values. I liked the idea of man being defined by his actions and their consequences, without a prescribed way of life. To Sartre, life was a succession of free choices. Jean Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a political activist and a novelist. I read No Exit, Nausea, The Flies and others and enjoyed them all.
But Sartre’s views led him to strange engagements. Like many other intellectuals of the day he had become a Communist during World War II. To him communism was an antidote to fascism. Wasn’t Stalin fighting and defeating the Nazis? After the war, Sartre traveled to Russia and wrote a favorable report, unable to see forced collectivization, and the mass executions of political “enemies” that did not fit his preconceived views.
Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir when they were both studying philosophy. De Beauvoir was a novelist and a feminist. She wrote: The Second Sex and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter which I read and found to be a little heavy. She had no sense of humor.
De Beauvoir and Sartre had the same philosophy of life and thus a very strange relationship. They were a couple but led totally independent lives. Sartre loved women and both he and de Beauvoir had many affairs. She even introduced him to other women. They both affected to despise conventions and to reject bourgeois morality. Though she was a feminist, de Beauvoir was totally subjugated by Sartre.
In May 1968 they both joined the student revolt in Paris and marched with placards glorifying Mao Zedong. They had chosen a path that I could not follow and I lost my respect for them. It was incomprehensible to me how such intelligent people could so willfully blind themselves to what was happening around them.
Many of their peers had also fallen prey to this bizarre fascination for Mao and his little red book. How they could overlook the 36 million or more dead in the artificial famine of the “Great Leap Forward” and the tortures, massacres, and imprisonments of anyone not in favor with the ruling powers was incomprehensible to me. Why did they ally themselves with the executioners rather than the victims? I saw a yawning trench between their ideals and the path they had chosen to follow.
French intellectuals in those days also worshiped Stalin and Castro and exhibited a virulent anti-Americanism. It was their way of “epater le bourgeois,” (to shock the middle class). They seemed to enjoy this role. They had followers in the United States including Leonard Bernstein who affected this form of “radical chic” also.
Protected from reprisals because they lived in a democracy, they became “revolutionaries” from the safety of their armchairs. To me, it was blatant hypocrisy. The French author Jean Francois Revel called Sartre an impostor with his Marxist acrobatics. He wrote that Sartre was a philosopher of liberty who hated liberty and wondered why this intelligent thinker chose the intellectual night of Communism.
Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but turned it down stating that writers should not affiliate themselves with institutions.