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A Long Engagement

Force of Circumstance

by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Richard Howard
Putnam, 658 pp., $10.00

It is a triangular affair: Sartre, Beauvoir, History. The second is in love with the first; the first with the third; the third not at all. Force of Circumstance, the third long volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s huge autobiography is the story of the saddest and most ironic phase of this relationship: from the liberation of France to the liberation of Algeria. The first chapter begins with the words, “We were liberated. In the streets the children were singing:

Nous ne les reverrons plus
C’est fini ils sont foutus…”

The last chapter greets another victory—peace in Algeria—in a different tone: “For seven years we had desired this victory; it came too late to console us for the price it had cost.” What they had learned in the mean-time was that the children were wrong to believe that “we shall never see them again; that even the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was not, as it had seemed, absolute.” Not only had Frenchmen done in Algeria the same things that Germans had done in France: worse still the French people generally had responded to its knowledge of such things with the same indifference as the German people had shown.

The crimes he [Servan-Schreiber] described should have had some effect on public opinion: Arabs shot down “for the fun of it,” prisoners brutally murdered, villages burned, mass executions, etc. No one turned a hair…[Another] narrative—hanging, beating, torture—was read out in stony silence: not one gasp of surprise or disgust: everyone knew already. My heart froze inside me as I once again faced this truth: everyone knew and didn’t give a damn, or else approved.

Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were among the few who did give a damn, and who spoke out at a time when more moralizing writers, including Camus were silent. Camus’s silence was not—as one might perhaps infer from La Chute that it was—part of a general refusal to condemn or to be indignant, an achievement of political quietism. Camus publicly condemned—as Sartre also did—the Russian aggression in Hungary, and Camus did so in terms of intense moral indignation. This silence on Algeria—about which he knew so much more than he did about Hungary—can hardly be interpreted except in terms of a specific evaluation of the Algerian situation. The fact that he never—neither in an imaginative work nor in an essay—revealed what that evaluation was, leaves a great enigma in the life of this brilliant and haunted novelist and writer.

In Force of Circumstance—as also in The Mandarins but in a different way—Madame de Beauvoir is preoccupied by this enigma, and in general by the ambiguously symbolic contrast between Sartre and Camus. She tends to interpret this contrast in the sense of different relations to history. For Camus, according to Madame de Beauvoir, “History was a threat to his individuality and he refused to bow to it” (p. 112). “….to treat the occupation as the symbol of a natural calamity was merely another means of escaping from History and the real problems” (p. 129). “….At one moment forced to yield to History, he attempted as soon as possible to secede from it; sensitive to men’s suffering he imputed it to Nature. Sartre had labored since 1940 to repudiate idealism, to wrench himself away from his original individualism, to live in History…” (pp. 259-60).

This language is hard to decipher; one does not really bow to History, or yield to it, escape from it or secede from it, and living in it is not really a matter of choice, or something that one need labor to achieve. Nor is the “History” repudiated by Camus and accepted by Sartre exactly the Marxist construct, still less the allegorical entity which is held to validate the decisions of contemporary Communist Parties. History, in the latter sense, has been rejected by Sartre and Beauvoir as often as it was by Camus. What seems to be involved is the view that the relation of the writer to this historical process should be explicit and continuous, that the writer has a responsibility to comment, to play the role of Chorus to history, but more boldly than the classical Chorus and with some hope in influencing the action. In practice that is the role which Sartre and Madame de Beauvoir have played in France, and their comments, like those of the ancient Chorus, are based on long-held moral assumptions—that cruelty and lying are wrong, whatever the cause and whatever the provocation. This is the “Kantian-priestly” and “Quaker-vegetarian” outlook, so savagely rejected by Trotsky, that ill-rewarded devotee of history. Sartre, and with him Madame de Beauvoir, use the proud language of the servants of History, but have never attained their military morality. Madame de Beauvoir, in Force of Circumstance speaks as if she bowed to history, and yielded to it, but in fact her book is one long refusal to bow or yield, a protest against seventeen years of real history—with its multiplicity of conflicting lies and cruelties—by a compassionate woman, an inveterate moralizer.

If anyone bowed, it was Camus. If he rejected the language of history and spoke in terms which suggested an old-fashioned idealism and moralism, he was in practice on better terms with real history—the history of his place and time—than Sartre was. The anti-idealist could not stifle his moral protest; the idealist talking of other things quietly acquiesced in those of the bloody realities of history that were nearest to him. The accepted stereotype of the Sartre-Camus contrast—a stereotype which derives mainly, strangely enough, from the contrast between Dubreuilh and Henri in Madame de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins depicts Sartre as the ruthless “means-for-ends” man confronting in Camus the man of moral values, near-Commisar against near-Yogi. This is accurate enough as a description of Sartre-language and Camus-language; as a guide to characters and behavior it is wholly misleading.

In Force of Circumstance Madame de Beauvoir firmly repudiates the notion that Les Mandarins was a roman à clef: “Henri, whatever people have said, is not Camus; not at all. He is young, he has dark hair, he runs a newspaper, the resemblance stops there. As for Dubreuilh…authoritarian, tenacious, closed, unemotional and unsociable, somber even in his moments of gaiety, he could scarcely be more different from Sartre.” Henri is more herself than he is Camus: “The joy of existence, the gaiety of activity, the pleasure of writing, all those I bestowed on Henri. He resembles me at least as much as Anne does, perhaps more.”

The repudiation is both excessive and revealing. It is excessive because, for example, the resemblance between Henri and Camus obviously does not stop where she now says it stops. For Camus had, and had in her eyes, also those attractive qualities—“joy of existence,” etc.—which, as she says, she possessed herself and “bestowed” on Henri. In Force of Circumstance she is, for adequate reasons, severe about Camus’s later years, but in referring to his death she evokes once again, in moving language, the young man he had been:

It wasn’t the fifty-year-old man who’d just died I was mourning: not that just man without justice, so arrogant and touchy behind his stern mask, who had been struck out of my heart when he gave his approval to the crimes of France: it was the companion of our hopeful years, whose open face laughed and smiled so easily, the young ambitious writer, wild to enjoy life, its triumphs and comradeship, friendship, love and happiness.

Those who identified Camus with Henri were not, then, so wildly wrong. As for Dubreuilh, a reader may feel—as I do—that, while that rather grim figure may be as its creator tells us, quite unlike the “real” Sartre, it is such a Sartre as might be created by some of the suppressed feelings of one whose life has been dominated by loyalty to Sartre, and by a relation which has been both less and more than marriage. “There has,” she says at the beginning of the epilogue to Force of Circumstance, “been one undoubted success in my life: my relationship with Sartre.” The reader of Force of Circumstance is likely to accept this, and yet to feel that this success, like others, has not been achieved without sacrifices. There is an intellectual sacrifice, surely, in agreeing to share successively all those elaborate and highly personal constructions in which Sartre has sought to accommodate himself with History. There might well be an emotional sacrifice, for a woman, in conforming to Sartre’s ideas of liberty in personal relationships. In Force of Circumstance the love-affairs, as well as the drinking parties, seem both resolute and sad. Something else, too, has been sacrificed: style. Sartre writes with immense vigor, stamina, and resource, but also with a deliberate carelessness, a Jansenist rejection of elegance. There is no time for queasiness about le mot juste: History is knocking at the door. Madame de Beauvoir has in practice followed Sartre in rejecting the pursuit of a phantom precision, and in assuming the duty of prompt and copious utterance. “The only alternative,” she says speaking of her diaries, “would be to pay real attention to how one writes things down and I haven’t time.” She probably means this only of her diaries, not of her novels, essays, and autobiographies, but in fact she everywhere gives the impression of writing at great length because she lacks the time to write otherwise. Yet this is not the way she wants to write, nor, it seems, the way she thinks she writes. In a surprising passage in the epilogue she says,

Words without doubt, universal, eternal, presence of all in each, are the only transcendent power I recognize and am affected by: they vibrate in my mouth, and with them I can communicate with humanity. They wrench tears, night, death itself from the moment, from contingency, and then transfigure them. Perhaps the most profound desire I entertain today is that people should repeat in silence certain words that I have been the first to link together.

Unfortunately this desire is not very likely to be fulfilled. Madame de Beauvoir’s words can be respected for many qualities: integrity, courage, decency, pertinacity, a certain shrewdness, a flair for intellectual and moral dilemmas, an explicit and anguished sharing in the conscience and consciousness of our time. These qualities make many of her books important and interesting, but I doubt if anyone will ever wish to remember a line she wrote. She belongs too much to Sartre to be able to write like one who believed in Yeats’s

Words alone are certain good

—far fewer words, be it noted, than she took to say the same thing. Of the three writers—Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir—the only one who lives by his style is Camus, who became, like many other stylists, increasingly unscrupulous, arrogant, and irresponsible. Madame de Beauvoir loyally accepted the responsibility she owed, through Sartre, to history, and the austerities which go with such responsibility. But we know now that there is in her that which, left to itself, would reject History for Literature. It was this that produced, in Henri of Les Mandarins, a fusion of her own personality with that of Camus. One reason why history is different—for both good and ill—from History is that men and women have unplumbed resourcefulness in circumventing the idols they themselves create.

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