Friday, September 09, 2016

The War, Internment and Occupation and Camus

From Bakewell's ATECafe:
She found the city uncannily normal-except that now there Were Germans strolling everywhere, some seeming arrogant, others perplexed or abashed. Even half a year later, in January 1941, the dia~ rist Jean Guéhenno was observing, ‘It seems to me I can read their embarrassment on the faces of the occupying forces. . .They don’t know what to do on the streets of Paris or whom to look at.’ Beauvoir resumed her habit of writing in cafes, but had to get used to the sight of groups of uniformed Nazis enjoying their coffees and cognacs at nearby tables.

She also set about adjusting to the small frustrations and compromises that became necessary for Parisians. To keep her teaching job at the school, she had to sign a document stating that she was neither a Jew nor a Freemason. It was ‘repugnant’, but she did it. Finding blackmarket produce or fuel for the coming winter became almost a fulltime occupation as supplies dwindled in the city. Anyone who had friends in the countryside as she did-would depend gratefully on their sending parcels of fresh food. Sometimes these took too long to arrive, however: the first package Beauvoir received contained a beautifully cooked joint of pork, crawling with maggots. She scraped them off and salvaged what she could. Later she devised ways of washing smelly meat in vinegar, then stewing it for hours with strong herbs. Her room had no heating, so she went to bed wearing ski trousers and a woolly sweater, and sometimes taught her classes in the same outfit. She took to wearing a turban, to save on hairdressers, and found that it suited her. ‘I aimed at simplification in every sphere,’ she wrote in her memoirs.

One necessary adjustment was learning to put up with the idiot1c and moralistic homilies emanating every day from the collaborationist government-reminders to respect God, to honour the principle of

the family, to follow traditional virtues. It took her back to the boutgeois’ talk she had so hated in her childhood, but this time backed by a threat of violence. Ah-but perhaps such talk was always backed by hidden threats of violence? She and Sartre later made this belief cen’ tral to their politics: fine-sounding bourgeois values, for them, were never to be trusted or taken at face value. They may have learned this attitude during the regime of humbug that was Occupied France.

Beauvoir still did not know whether Sartre was alive. To keep herself calm (and warm) she started going every afternoon, after a moming’s teaching or writing, to the Bibliotheque nationale or the library of the Sorbonne, where she read her way through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The effort of sustained attention was comforting, and so was Hegel’s stately vision of human history progressing through inevitable sequences of thesis, antithesis and synthesis towards sublimation in Absolute Spirit. She would leave the library each afternoon feeling a radiant sense of the rightness of all things-a feeling that lasted for about five minutes before the city’s grubby reality brought it down. It was then that Kierkegaard had more to offer. She read him as well-that awkward, anguished, irreverent anti-Hegelian. Reading both at once must have been disorienting, yet somehow, like just the right combination of uppers and downers, it gave her what she needed. Both philosophies found their way into her gradually evolving novel L’invitée. They would become two key sources for her and for existentialism in general: Kierkegaard with his insistence on freedom and choice, and Hegel with his vision of how history plays out on an epic scale, swallowing up individuals.

Meanwhile, at Trier in the Rhineland near the Luxembourg border, Sartre was alive and well and imprisoned in a POW camp, Stalag 12D. He too was immersing himself in reading a difficult book: Being and Time. Heidegger’s work had already answered to his need for comfort in 1938. Now, as Sartre read him in a closer and more sustained Way, he found him to be the perfect inspiration for a nation in defeat. Heidegger’s philosophy had grown partly out of the humiliation of Germany in 1918; now it spoke to a humiliated France after june 1940. As Sartre read it, he also worked on his own philosophical notes, which

were growing into a book. In one of the many brief letters he tried to send Beauvoir, on 22 July 1940, he added as a postscript, ‘I’ve begun to write a metaphysical treatise.’ This would become his greatest work: L’étre et le néant (Being and Nothingness). The very day he mentioned this, to his relief, he received a backlog of seven letters from Beauvoir. His letters then began reaching her too, and they were back in contact at last. Then Sartre escaped.

It wasn’t a very swashbuckling escape, but it was simple and it worked. He had been suffering a great deal from his eye problems, thanks to all the reading and writing-which were mostly done one eyed. Sometimes both eyes were so sore that he tried to write with them closed, his handwriting wandering over the page. But his eyes gave him his escape route. Pleading the need for treatment, he procured a medical pass to visit an ophthalmologist outside the camp gates. Amazingly, he was then allowed to walk out, showing the pass, and he never went back.

Sartre’s eyes had in fact saved his life several times over. First they exempted him from front-line combat, then they saved him from forced Nazi labour; now they gave him his ticket out of the Stalag. This blessing came at a cost in the long term: exotropia can cause a degree of tiredness and difficulty in concentrating that may have contributed to his destructive tendency to self-medicate with stimulant drugs and alcohol in later times.

But now he was free. He headed for Paris, and arrived both pleased with himself and disoriented. For months, he had been stuck with other prisoners all day and all night, and had discovered to his surprise that it was comforting to be so merged in solidarity and sameness with his fellow men. There was no fighting for personal space in the camp. As he wrote later, his own skin was the boundary of the space he had, and even as he slept he could always feel someone’s arm or leg against his own. Yet it did not disturb him: those others were part of himself. He had never found physical proximity easy before, so this was a W elation. Now, coming back to Paris, he found himself putting off the moment of going back to his former haunts:

On my first night of freedom, a stranger in my native city, not

having yet reached my friends of former days, I pushed Open

the door of a café. Suddenly, I experienced a feeling of fear~or

something close to fear. I could not understand how these

squat: bulging buildings could conceal such deserts. I was lost;

the few drinkers seemed more distant than the stars. Each of them was entitled to a huge section of bench, to a Whole marble table. . .If these 111611, shimmering comfortably within their tubes of rarefied gas, seemed inaccessible to me, it Was because I no longer had the right to place my hand on their shoulder or thigh, or to call one of them ‘fat-head’. I had rejoined bourgeois society.

It seemed that Sartre would rarely be had been as a prisoner of war.

relaxed and happy again

Beauvoir was briefly jubilant at seeing Sartre, then frankly pissed off by the way he began passing judgement on everything she had been doing to survive. He interrogated her: did she buy things on the black market? ‘A little tea occasionally’, she said. And what of that paper certifying that she was not a jew or a Freemason? She should not have signed that. To Beauvoir, this only showed how sheltered Sartre’s life had become in the camp. He had enjoyed swearing undying fraternity with his comrades while rubbing up against their thighs and shoulders, but life in Paris was different-not as ‘bourgeois’ as he seemed to imagine, and more psychologically tough. Unusually, Beauvoir sounds critical of Sartre at this point in her memoirs. But he unbent quickly He proved happy to eat her black-market stews, and he too made the adjustments necessary to get on with life, and even to be published under Nazi censorship.

On the other hand, he was adamant that he had come back to do something. He assembled a dozen friends into a new Resistance group Under the name "Socialisme et liberté’ and wrote a manifesto for them. The group spent most of its time writing or discussing manifestos and polemical articles, but even this was dangerous enough. Thev had a

bad scare when one member, jean Pouillon, lost a briefcase filled with incriminating pamphlets together with the group members’ names and addresses. They all faced arrest, torture, death. Luckily, the person who found the briefcase turned it in to a lost-property office. The incongruity of this~the threat of Gestapo torture coexisting with the decent civic tradition of the lost-property oHicecaptures the strangeness of life under Occupation.

The group foundered eventually'of not knowing what to do’, wrote Sartre later. But being involved had a positive effect on their morale, as did other attempts at resistance, even those that seemed fey or futile. There was much encouragement to be found in miniature rebellions such as those of jean Paulhan-one of their group-who left small anti-collaborationist poems signed only with his initials lying around on café tables or post-office counters. Other Parisians made similar gestures: forbidden to fly tricolour flags on Bastille Day, for example, people would find ways of bringing red, white and blue together, perhaps on a colourful scarf, or by wearing a red jacket together with a blue purse and white gloves. It all mattered.

Merleau-Ponty was now back in Paris too, and he founded a Resistance group called ‘Sous la botte’ (Under the Boot), which then merged with Sartre’s. He married Suzanne Berthe Jolibois towards the end of 1940, and they had a daughter, to whom they gave the patriotic name Marianne-an Occupation baby who was also a sign of hope for the future. He taught at the Lycée Carnot, where, despite his own activities, he urged his students to be cautious. When he found, one day, that they had taken the obligatory portrait of Marshal Pétain down from the wall, he ordered them to put it back, not from any collaborationist sentiment but to protect their safety. Everyday life required constantly negotiating this balance between submission and resistance, as well as between ordinary activity and the extraordinary underlying reality.

It was even possible to have holidays from the Germans: Beauvoir and Sartre made several cycling trips in the 'free' zone of southern France, where the Vichy puppet government was in charge. They sent their bikes over in advance, then sneaked across the border through forests and fields at night with a guide, all clad in dark clothes. After spending a few weeks wheeling around the roads of Provence, and visiting other writers whom they vaguely hoped to coax into working for the Resistance (including André Gide and Andre Malraux), they crossed back again, refreshed by the taste of partial freedom. At least there was more food in the south, although they could not afford to buy much of it. Lack of good nutrition made them weak and accident’ prone. Sartre once somersaulted over his handlebars, and Beauvoir collided with another bike, falling hard on her face and sustaining a swollen eye and a lost tooth. Weeks later, back in Paris, she squeezed a boil on her chin and felt a hard white nubbin emerge. It was her tooth, which had buried itself in the flesh of her jaw.

Back in Paris, it was important to stay mindful of how dangerous the occupiers were-something easy to forget if you were not among their direct targets. Sartre wrote of how the Germans gave up their seats to old ladies in the Métro, they showed affection to children and stroked their cheeks’. What’s more, he added, 'do not go imagining that the French showed them a crushing air of contempt’-though they did venture small discourtesies when they could, as a way of preserving self-respect. Jean Guéhenno’s diary recorded times when he deliberately failed to give directions on the street to Germans, or gave them rudely, in a way he would never normally do. Merleau-Ponty noted the difficulty he had in overcoming the rules of good manners that he had learned in childhood, but he too forced himself to be rude as a patriotic duty. For someone as naturally affable and well brought up as he, it took a decided effort.

Jews, and anyone actively suspected of Resistance activity, had a grimmer sense of what the Occupation really meant-but they too could be blithe for too long. When the regulation came in on 29 May 1942 that jews must wear the yellow star, many of Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s Jewish friends ignored it. They also defied the bans on using restaurants, cinemas, libraries and other public places. As each new rule was announced, a few took it as their cue to flee if they could, usually via Spain to Britain or America, but others stayed. It seemed possible to live with the insults and threats-until it wasn’t.

At the most unexpected times, terrifying holes could open up in the fabric of things. Sartre described it cinematically:

You would phone a friend one day and the telephone would ring and ring in the empty apartment; you would ring his door bell and he wouldn't come to the door; if the concierge broke in, you would find two chairs drawn up together in the hallway with German cigarette ends between the legs.

It was as if the sidewalks of the city opened occasionally, he wrote and a tentacled monster reached up to drag someone down, The café: always filled with familiar faces, also became an index to disappearances. Beauvoir wrote of how two attractive Czech women, regulars at the Cafe Flore, were suddenly not there one day. They never came back. It was unbearable to see their empty places: ‘it was, precisely, a nothingness’.

Cafés such as the Flore continued to be a focus for Parisian life. For a start, they were the best places to keep warm, certainly better than the sparse, cheap hotels in which many lived without heating or proper cooking facilities. Even after the war, the American writer James Baldwin would observe in the 19505, ‘The moment I began living in French hotels I understood the necessity of French cafés.’ They also became places to talk, to conspire a little, to keep one’s mind alive. They certainly governed Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s social lives, being the places Where they saw ever-increasing circles of new acquaintances: poets, playwrights, journalists, artists like Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, and avant-garde writers such as Michel Leiris, Raymond Queneau andjean Genet. The latter, a former thief and prostitute now gaining fame as a writer, simply marched up to Sartre one day in the Flore and said bonjour. This was one of many relationships forged at wartime café tables.

They met Albert Camus in a similarly abrupt way, but at the Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt, where he introduced himself one day in I943 while Sartre’s plav The Flies was in rehearsal. He and Sartre already knew a lot about each other: Camus had reviewed Nausea and Sartre had just been writing a piece on Camus' The Stranger. They immediately got on well. Beauvoir later said that she and Sartre found Camus ‘a simple, cheerful soul’, often funny and bawdy in conversation, and so emotional that he would sit down in the snow in the street at 2 am. and pour out his love troubles.

Since his lonely interlude in Paris in 1940, Camus had travelled to and from Algeria a few times. His Wife Francine was still there, having become stuck in the country when Allied forces captured it-Albert being near Lyons at the time, receiving treatment for a bout of the tuberculosis from which he suffered throughout life. He had now finished the 'absurds’ he had been working on three years earlier; these spoke above all of his dislocated experience as a French Algerian, caught between two countries and never fully at home in either. They also reflected his early experience of poverty: the Camus family had never been well off, but their situation had become dire after Camus’ father Lucien died in the first year of the First World War. (Being recruited into an Algerian regiment, he was sent into battle wearing a picturesque colonial uniform of red trousers and a bright blue waistcoat, fatally inappropriate for the grey mud of northern France.) Albert, born on 7 November 1913, was then less than a year old. He grew up in a sordid apartment in Algiers with his brother, his grieving illiterate and deaf mother, and his grandmother, who was both illiterate and Violent.

Thus, while the bourgeois young Sartre had his dreams of literary derring-do, and Merleau-Ponty had his happiness at being unconditionally loved, and Beauvoir had her books and sweet-shop Windows, Camus grew up into a world of silence and absences. His family had no electricity, no running water, no newspapers, no books, no radio, few visitors at home, and no sense of the wider ‘life-worlds’ of others. He did manage to escape, to a lycée in Algiers and then to a career as a journalist and writer, but his childhood marked him. The very first entry of his first diary, written when he was twenty-two, contains the remark, 'A certain number of years lived without money are enough to create a Whole sensibilitv.’

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