Sartre / Cultures of Defeat

One of the issues with which I am grappling as a scholar concerns the idea of a defeated country in war, and the tenacity of psychologies of resistance and defeat (the myth, perhaps, of the first, and the deniability of the second).

For instance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) today promotes an interpretation of the War of Resistance (1937-1945), essentially the Chinese theater of the Second World War, as an unequivocal victory. But evidence from the early postwar period cries out for a different interpretation, quite naturally.

On the other side of myths of resistance are realities of collaboration. Among the most stunning examples in Europe was recently called forth by the bilingual wordsmith Jonathan Littell’s adroit, virtuosic, and altogether disturbing analysis of Léon Degrelle, the Belgian Rexist-turned-SS officer-invader-of-Russia, Le Sec et l’Humide)….

Léon Degrelle avec ses enfants, sur un blindé, à Bruxelles en 1944
Léon Degrelle avec ses enfants, sur un blindé, à Bruxelles en 1944

I anticipate having some more updates to the Degrelle thread via posts in the coming months, because it is a worthy subject for aspiring comparativists of collaboration such as myself.

Somewhere in between these poles lies the experiences of millions and the key to understanding psychologies of victory and defeat, if they can be understood at all.

This morning, dry and sparse, I finished reading the final installment in Sartre’s trilogy, Le Chemins de la Liberté III: La Mort dans l’Âme [Ways of Freedom III: Death through the Heart ].

Original cover, 1949 Gallimard version
Original cover, 1949 Gallimard version

Fortunately for the curious, a great deal of internet-based analysis of this trilogy and its characters and ideology already exists. Isabelle Grell’s work analyzes Sartre’s construction of women in the trilogy, a task, she adds, which is significant because Sartre “carried around these characters for fourteen years.” (Grell’s monograph on the trilogy appears to be rich and authoritative; she also appears to have a German Facebook page whereby one can chat with her about it.) Benedicte O’Donohoe reminds us that Sartre, while writing the work and being associated with free-wheeling avant-gardism, was in fact living with his mother and being heavily influenced by the creative advice of Simone de Beauvoir.

Sartre and de Beauvoir in 1946
Sartre and de Beauvoir in 1946
Sartre in 1946; courtesy Time Magazine
Sartre in 1946; courtesy Time Magazine

From this point in the post forward, I think I will just attempt to blast through my various thoughts regarding the text, hoping that at a later date I might order things up better or, more to the point, incorporate more of the French original prose. (Somehow I neglected to even conceive of this notion — that in reading English, one was reading through a screen — when I first read La Nausee in my nineteenth year of life in the still-formidable Philosophy Department at St. Olaf College.) But no matter, advance!

After an opening chapter set in a bar in New York City, where the forthcoming German occupation of France is being lamented, Sartre places the reader on Sunday, June 16 in the French countryside. Immediately the notion of personal responsibility for the impending French defeat is raised as a leitmotif:

“Where are we? Lying in the grass. Eight city slickers in the country, eight civilians in uniform, rolled up in pairs in army blankets, lying on a spread of canvas in the middle of a vegetable garden. We’ve lost the war; they gave it to us to do something with it and we’ve lost it. It had slipped through their fingers and got itself lost somewhere up north with a great crash.” [p. 42]

Like Chinese intellectuals in the 1930s, it seems that someone else will be doing the fighting; that all the patriotic slogans and impassioned essays, and yes, even the donning of a uniform does not lead one to actually fight. For the battles are elsewhere in the lost and immense north.

Mathieu, the primary protagonist, opens his eyes with revelations that are both liberatingly optimistic and crushingly mordant:

“Another morning was slowly gathering like a drop of light, which would fall on the earth and drench it with gold. The Germans are in Paris and we have lost the war. Another morning, another beginning. The world’s first morning, like every other morning; everything waiting to be done, all the future in the sky. He freed on hand from the blankets and scratched his ear: the future didn’t concern him, that was for others to bother about.” [p. 43]

Mathieu notes that he has no future, but then turns to the realization that time was still passing, and that he had no purpose more specifically: “Years and years still to be lived; years to be killed.” Killing time, truly! [p. 43]

Sartre writes persuasively and persistently about war’s effect on otherwise unnoticed societal concepts such as time and work, the sinews of daily life. When one is turned away from one’s work, when one is simply waiting for the Germans to arrive so that the trains will run again, foreign rule is not seen as an imposition only. The bureaucratic needs of a society, of individuals, will brook only so much by way of delay. Though he does not note such explicitly, this state of affairs clearly favors the occupiers.

“They had lost the war much as a man loses an hour — without noticing it.” [p. 44]

Mathieu, smarting at the pain of shaving with an old blade, imagines the glorious beard he will grow once he becomes a prisoner [p. 49], and he then again recognizes the beauty of nature: “His heart was in leage with the dawn, the dew, the shadows. Deep within him was a feeling as of a feast day…a table spread on the lawn, the warm droning of sugar-drunk wasps.” [pp. 49-50]

Hostility toward regular soldiers of any nationality comes up several times in the text. The first appears to be from the mouth of an old man, who states “Funny sort of war…It’s the civilians who get killed, and the soldiers who get off free.” [p. 50]. What an anthem! The old man turns out to be an Alsatian (Sartre’s live-in maid at the time was also from Alsace, recall), and he becomes a bit indignant when the younger French imply that Germans, given their common humanity, would certainly not “chopping off the hands of kids.” “He’s filling us up with propaganda from the other war!” chortles Schwartz in response. [p. 51] This is a sentence that I particularly enjoy; it reveals the desire of the relatively young to break from the old wars and imagine that things will be different, while the repetition of propaganda themes from previous conflicts comes all too easily back among others.

“It’s damn funny,” thought Mathieu…He gazed into nothingness and thought: “I’m a Frenchman,” and he found that damn funny, for the first time in his life. “It’s damn funny. We have never really seen France; we have only been in it. France was the air we breathed, the lure of the earth, elbow room, seeing the kind of things we see, feeling so certain that the world was created fro man; it was always so natural to be French, it was the simplest, most economical way in the world to feel oneself universal. No explanations were required; it was for the others, the Germans, the English, the Belgians, to explain by what misfortune or fault none of them was quite human.

And now France is lying on her back, and we can take a good look at her, we can see her like a large broken-down piece of machinery, and we think: That is it — it was an accident of geography, an accident of history. We are still French, but it no longer seems natural. It needed no more than an accident to make us realize that we were merely accidental.

Schwartz thinks that he is accidental, he no longer understands himself, he finds himself embarrassing. He thinks: ‘How can a man be French?’ He thinks: ‘With a little luck I might have been born a German.’ And then his face takes on a hard look and he sits listening to the onward surge of his adoptive country; he is waiting for the glittering armies that will celebrate his change of heart; he sits waiting for the moment when he may trade our defeat for their victory, when it will seem natural to him to be victorious and German.” [pp. 53-54; bold fonts and paragraph breaks inserted by A.C.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s