Review : ‘Sartre : images d’une vie,’

photos collected by Liliane Sendyk-Siegel, text by Simone de Beauvoir. (Paris, Gallimard, 1978, 105 pp. 65 fr.)


W. D. Redfern


In her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir describes Sartre and herself as being, before the Second World War, ‘des elfes.’ She meant that they were substantially carefree and politically irresponsible. On film, there remains something elfin about these ageing gnomes of Paris, these philosophical paedophiliacs, so envious of the youth of others, so caustic about their own childhood and adolescence.


Man is condemned to be free, and celebrities to be photographed. Sartre, for one, seems to have welcomed this sentence with grace and even alacrity. He appears little worried by his own sarcastic words in Les mots, where he accuses his grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, of succumbing to the two arts invented by the nineteenth century: the Hugolian art of being a grandfather and the art of photography: ‘Il raffolait de ces courts instants d’éternité où il devenait sa propre statue.’ Has Sartre ended up a comparable victim? How statufied has he become? This album starts with a curly-haired moppet in baggy pants standing fearlessly at the cardboard prow of a studio boat before a fake seascape. It is tempting to drum up symbolic overtones from this shot, but in fact it is hearteningly normal. When those blond locks were shorn, according to Les mots, the infant Sartre was transmogrified overnight from a prince to a toad: his walleye was unveiled. Sartre has always excelled at subverting fairy-stories. In the process, he has largely succeeded in minimizing the danger of being inflated to an established and comforting maître à penser.


Two of his school reports reproduced here, ‘Must think harder’ and ‘Shows plenty of grit,’ have stood the test of time, for Sartre is one of the most courageous, intelligent, yet occasionally obtuse, of French thinkers. Like the Enlightenment philosophes for whom he has only grudging respect but with whom he has many affinities, he has always been a predominantly public thinker. So many of the snaps here are of Sartre in cafés (his locals) where, like Bernanos, he for a long time did much of his writing. The one photo of him entirely alone is a splendid, almost allegorical, study of Sartre in dark clothes bending forward as he trudges against the wind across a bleakly anonymous landscape. It could be the moon.


After the curiously aged-looking top lycée classes on show, one of the most attractive photos is of Sartre and Nizan (Nitre and Sarzan, as an absent-minded professor used to call them) at the École Normale Supérieure. What with their linked arms and their natty togs, they look as if they are going to break into a routine. Indeed they had a kind of intellectual double-act, where for some years Sartre was the straight man and Nizan had all the best lines. If he had survived the war, Nizan might well have rebecome the sort of contester that Sartre has always needed to bring out his best.


There are few laughs in this collection, apart from a still from a home-movie, in which a supposedly virginal young Sartre is taking the initiative in being debauched by Simone de Beauvoir; and a pleasing montage of Sartre’s face tacked on to the rotund, squatting Egyptian scribe statue in the Louvre. The stress throughout in fact falls mainly on faces (the nearest to photographing minds that the French can achieve?) There is little sense of physical context (and even the famous Sartrian term of en situation has always been a rather cerebral notion). This lack is especially apparent in the series of photos to do with Sartre and the theatre, where there are no shots of tableaux or sets, but only of directors and actors striking ‘natural’ poses off-stage.


In the last thirty years Sartre has been a globe-trotter, but far more ballasted than his Oreste, who was so lacking in gravity before rooting himself in Argos. Even so, it is clear from the wealth of travel souvenirs featured here (Castro appropriately scratching his ear while gazing down at his diminutive visitor, during the Cuban revolutionary honeymoon) that other countries are always mediated for Sartre by friends or by guides who become friends. You wonder how freshly observant his eye has ever been for foreign parts. He has always loved Stendhal but this Stendhalian gift has been denied him. But other new challenges he has always confronted. Many of the pictures relate to his intense activities since the 1960s: anti-Vietnam demonstrations, the Russell Tribunal on war crimes, numerous petitions, his provocation of the French Government to arrest him along with fellow editors of underground newspapers. He is still in the news, still making a kind of history.


Perhaps the camera cannot lie, but it can certainly go doggo. This collection unfortunately captures little of the drama of Sartre’s life or of the drama inherent in Existentialism itself. The recent film made by Astruc and Contat, Sartre par lui-même, was also sycophantic, like this largely hagiolatrous iconography. Sartre himself said, when he refused the Nobel Prize, that he had no desire to be buried alive. Perhaps no camera could seize the good-humoured stoicism of Sartre in the face of his loss of eyesight. Here on film, Sartre seems mainly, as he said at the end of Les mots, a man amongst men, no better and no worse than the rest of them. The words are missing (and Simone de Beauvoir’s functional commentary cannot replace them). Even so, who would ever have thought that Sartre of all people could warm the cockles of your heart, as well as stimulating, or grating on, the meninx? In all the photos here, Sartre is ubiquitously dwarfed by his companions. The camera can lie.