Women of the Seraglio by Diaz de la Pena

Women of the Seraglio by Diaz de la Pena

Intellectuals 3 – Brecht and Sartre

(Part 1 here, and part 2 here.) I’ve just finished chapter 9 Sartre (I’m not blogging about Hemingway chapter 6 or Bertrand Russell chapter 8). Would you believe it? Sartre and Brecht were complete bastards, especially to their women, just like Rousseau, Shelley, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Karl Marx! (Why did all these intellectuals seemed to require their own harem?)

I haven’t read any Bertrand Russell except for a few quotes on the Internet, and only read “The Old Man and the Sea” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway. I read Sartre’s “Les Jeux sont Faits” for A-level French, and read and watched several plays by Brecht as part of my university German studies (“Leben des Galilei“, “Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder“, “Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan“, “Die Dreigroschenoper“).

One clarification: although all the intellectuals in the book so far have been writers and artists, it is not as artists that Johnson is analyzing them, but as intellectuals. This is particularly clear in the case of Tolstoy, who wanted to do more than just be a writer, even if a superlative one, and in Johnson’s opinion this was Tolstoy’s tragedy because he was so unfit for the roles he wanted to play.

This holds true for Brecht and Sartre (and for Russell, too). We see in their early stages tremendous energy and talent as well as opportunism. Then, in the latter part of their lives, they become increasingly alienated and irrelevant, mainly through their own fault.

Sartre, for example, quickly rose to fame as “l’enfant terrible” of post-war France, a figurehead for France’s intellectual regeneration and redemption after the ignominy of occupation. He wrote tremendous amounts: plays, novels, poems, songs, lectures, newspaper articles, books on philosophy. This was the time when Marxism and Communist Parties in Europe were in the ascendant, and Sartre hitched his wagon to that star, even though his philosophy of existentialism was a strongly individualist one and so at odds with Communism. He later found himself in the embarrassing position of having committed himself to an increasingly unpopular idea (communism) and its representative regimes in Moscow and Peking. He wrote warmly in praise of Mao’s China, and after a trip to Moscow wrote, “There is total freedom of criticism in the USSR.” He later admitted he had lied.

Harsh, hard and heartless

Brecht, writes Johnson,

invented an intellectual of a new kind, rather as Rousseau or Byron had in their times. Brecht’s new-model egghead, for whom he himself was the prototype, was harsh, hard, heartless, cynical, part-gangster, part-sports-hearty.

“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!”

Johnson compares the written or spoken words of Brecht and Sartre with their actions. Sartre described a philosophy of action, but he himself did very little. For example, during the Second World War,

if he had followed his philosophical maxims, he would have done so by blowing up troop trains or shooting members of the SS. But that is not in fact what he did. He talked. He wrote. He was Resistance-minded in theory, mind and spirit, but not in fact…. He did not lift a a finger, or write a word, to save the Jews. He concentrated relentlessly on promoting his own career. (p. 230.)

Sartre was obsessed with words and at the end of his life that was all he had (his autobiography is titled Les Mots).

But for the man who failed in action, who had indeed never been an activist in any real sense, there were always ‘the words’ … Sartre confessed that words were his whole life… Sartre always preferred to write nonsense rather than write nothing. He is a writer who actually confirms Dr Johnson’s harsh observation: “A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not.”

Johnson adds a pathetic vignette culled from film director John Huston’s autobiography. Sartre stayed at Huston’s house in Ireland while they worked together on a screenplay about Freud. Sartre talked and talked. Huston would be unable to get a word in edgeways and would sometimes just leave the room. He could hear Sartre babbling on, and when Huston returned to the room Sartre was still talking!

This begs the question, as does Rousseau’s example, of why people seem to be so easily hypnotized by words, when a man’s actions so obviously belie them?

The feminist who ended up an unmarried drudge to her man

With respect to Simone de Beauvoir, to all intents and purposes, but not in fact, his wife, there is another strange contradiction, one that seems to be a common characteristic of intellectuals:

this brilliant and strong-minded woman became Sartre’s slave from almost their first meeting and remained such for all her adult life until he died…In the annals of literature, there are few worse cases of a man exploiting a woman. This was all the more extraordinary because de Beauvoir was a lifelong feminist… De Beauvoir, in fact, was the progenitor of the feminist movement  and ought, by rights, to be its patron saint. But in her own life she betrayed everything it stood for.

The frequency of this kind of exploitation amongst the intellectuals in this book begs the question, to what extent was the ruthlessness or heartlessness of these men an attraction for the women? Johnson, so far, has neither asked nor answered the question. He seems completely puzzled by it.

To be great, is it necessary to be a bastard?

Another question is, whether being a bastard is necessary to being a great artist? There was an article on a similar topic recently: it was about “bastard bosses” and asked, are bastard bosses better bosses? It gave as examples Steve Jobs who “is legendary for calling almost every idea “sh*t” and berating employees.” [Cult of Leadership: H-P and the elite boss]

This would make an interesting blog entry all on its own, as there are many other examples of successful leaders being “bastards”, such as Coach Carter, Jaime Escalante, Sakuragi-sensei

Perhaps the redeeming (and crucial) difference is between those who place ideas above people and those who place people above ideas in their system of values:

Camus… like Orwell and unlike Sartre… consistently held that people were more important than ideas. (p. 240.)

Towards the end of their lives, both Sartre and Russell became increasinly irrelevant. They were convinced of their own self-importance and the value of their opinions about world events, yet they failed to realize that they lived lives far removed from the people they claimed to support:

… the inconsistency, incoherence and at times sheer frivolity of [Sartre’s] political views. The truth is he was not by nature a political animal. He really held no views of consequence before he was forty. .. he was capable of supporting anyone and anything… (p. 241.)… The trouble with Sartre is that he did not know, and made no effort to meet, any workers…   What Sartre said about the [various Afro-Asian dictators’] regimes which invited him made not much more sense than his accolades for Stalin’s Russia.(p. 245)

Certainly, Russell was not a man who ever acquired extensive experience of the lives most people lead or who took much interest in the views and feelings of the multitude….Russell’s background was that of the Whig aristocracy who, while sealing themselves hermetically from contact with the populace or even the gentry, had an arbitrary taste for radical ideas. (p. 198)

Indeed, once Russell was released from the restraining hand of [CND founder Canon John] Collins and his friends, extremism took over his mind completely and his statements became so absurd as to repel all but his most fanatical adherents. … Many of Russell’s sayings, from 1960 on, were not merely fervent but outrageous…

Blood on his hands

Johnson blames Sartre for consequences of his words.which “he did not foresee, and what a wiser man would have foreseen”.

Since Sartre’s writings were very widely disseminated, especially among the young, he thus became the academic godfather to many terrorist movements which began to oppress society from the late 1960s onwards. (p. 246.)

His influence on South-East Asia, where the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, was even more baneful. The hideous crimes committed in Cambodia from April 1975 onwards, which involved the deaths of between a fifth and a third of the population, were organized by a group of Francophone middle-class intellectuals know as the Ankga Leu (‘the Higher Organization’). Of its eight leaders, five were teachers, one a university professor, one a civil servant and one an economist. All had studied in France in the 1950s, where they had not only belonged to the Communist Party but had absorbed Sartre’s doctrines of philosophical activism and ‘necessary violence’. These mass murderers were his ideological children. (p. 246.)

Johnson’s final paragraph on Sartre brings Sartre and Russell together:

Indeed Sartre, like Russell, failed to achieve any kind of coherence and consistency in his views of public policy. No body of doctrine survived him. In the end, again like Russell, he stood for nothing more than a vague desire to belong to the left and the camp of youth. The intellectual decline of Sartre, who after all at one time did seem to be identified with a striking, if confused, philosophy of life, was particularly spectacular. But there is always a large section of the educated public which demands intellectual leaders, however, unsatisfactory.

Given that this is true, and it seems to be borne out by the evidence in Johnson’s book, the question arises, why does the educated public demand intellectual leaders?