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‘Les Temps Modernes’: End of an Epoch

Robert Doisneau/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, circa 1945

On December 6, 2018, five months after the death of its long-time editor, Claude Lanzmann, Éditions Gallimard announced that Les Temps Modernes, the legendary intellectual journal, would cease publication. Its editorial committee had earlier proposed changing to a digital format and holding public forums, but Gallimard wasn’t interested. As the editors wrote in Le Monde on May 2, “the review created by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1945, and led by Claude Lanzmann starting in 1986, now belongs to history.”

Its disappearance, the editors admitted, would not “change the face of the world,” its latest issues having failed to inflect the public debate, and even its closing barely having been noted in the press. The shuttering of Les Temps Modernes is significant not simply as the end of a review that had lived seventy-three years—a short life, compared to other intellectual journals in France, like the staid Revue des Deux Mondes, which has been around since 1829; the Mercure de France, appearing in its present form since 1890 and in an earlier incarnation since 1692; and Esprit, founded by the Personalist philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, which first published in 1932—but as the last symbol of an epoch, what Bernard-Henri Lévy called “Sartre’s century.”

As Annie Cohen-Solal wrote in her biography of Sartre, already in its youth “Les Temps Modernes had become the meeting place, the refined club where every month could be found the prestigious signatures of everyone that the left-wing intelligentsia in Europe and America counted among its leading lights.” Reading old issues is to reexperience the intellectual life of the postwar world, when France set the tone and Les Temps Modernes set the terms for every debate of any importance, not just in France, but around the world.

Until its death, the review remained stubbornly faithful to the project Sartre elaborated in his “presentation” in the review’s first issue in October 1945. He wrote that though “all writers of bourgeois origin have known the temptation of irresponsibility… our intention is to assist in producing certain changes in the society around us.” In what was perhaps a dig at the Christian leftists of Esprit, Sartre continued that “we do not mean a change in souls.… For we who, without being materialists, have never distinguished the body from the soul and who know but one indecomposable reality, human reality, we line up on the side of those who want both to change man’s social condition and his self-understanding.” On the political issues of the day, the review, he promised, would “take a position in every case.”

Few publications remained as true to their initial goals as Les Temps Modernes, and few demonstrated the rigor and openness and bravery it did in fulfilling it. Fewer still could boast of contributors of the caliber of those who wrote for the journal, especially in its early days, and the quality and durability of their contributions.

It was in the pages of Les Temps Modernes that we first find Sartre’s “Portrait of the Anti-Semite,” his “What is Literature,” and political writings like his fellow-traveling “The Communists and Peace,” and his post-Hungarian invasion rethinking of communism, “The Ghost of Stalin.” His co-director Simone de Beauvoir was of course also a regular contributor, and in May 1948 we find “Women and Myths,” described in a note as an “excerpt from a work to appear on the situation of the woman”—what would be The Second Sex.

Literature held a prominent place in its table of contents. Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites appeared in the third issue, The Thief’s Journal in July 1946, an issue which also included fiction by Samuel Beckett, who would later also publish poetry in the magazine. Richard Wright’s Black Boy was serialized across six issues in 1946 and 1947, and Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream, a satire of the Sartre cult, was excerpted in 1946.

It was a journal of combat, both political and intellectual, and no battle was more famous than that surrounding the May 1952 negative review of Camus’s The Rebel by staff member Francis Jeanson, who volunteered for the task when no one else at the review would do so. Camus did not take the criticism well, and responded in a letter whose tone was set by its salutation: “Monsieur le directeur.”

Private Collection/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Images
Issue three of Les Temps Modernes, December 1, 1945; click to enlarge

Though Sartre has been presented as the cold, rational member of the Camus-Sartre pair, and Camus the warm Mediterranean, it is Sartre’s response to Camus, which begins “My dear Camus,” that betrays human feeling. Sartre emphasizes the human side of their difference: “Our friendship wasn’t easy, but I will miss it. If you end it today it is probably because it had to be ended.” Though Sartre shared Jeanson’s opinion of The Rebel, he did not despair of Camus: “For us you were – and tomorrow you could be again—the admirable convergence of a person, an action, and an oeuvre.” He continued, “But whatever you might say or do in return I refuse to fight you. I hope our silence will cause the polemic to be forgotten.”

Despite Sartre’s hope, their falling out has never been forgotten, and the success and popularity Camus has continued to experience stands in marked contrast to Sartre’s fall from philosophical grace. As recently as June 2012, Les Temps Modernes dedicated three articles over nearly sixty pages to refuting the anti-Sartre bias in the current philosophical media star Michel Onfray’s book on Camus, L’Ordre Libertaire.

However important it was as a forum for philosophy and literature, it was in the realm of political activity that Les Temps Modernes most stood out during its heyday. In March 1947 it dedicated nearly an entire issue to the Vietnamese fight for independence. Then, at great risk to its continued existence, the review took an uncompromising position during France’s war in Algeria, regularly publishing articles in support of the Algerian FLN’s struggle and on the crimes—the tortures and disappearances—committed by the French. The result was censorship of the magazine, blank pages in place of articles, and the seizure of entire issues. Sartre’s apartment was bombed, and Francis Jeanson went underground to run a network of support for the Algerians, the porteurs de valises, who transported guns and money for the freedom fighters.

Les Temps Modernes frequently published articles on Jewish matters, and in July 1967 it printed one of its landmark issues, a thousand pages of analyses of the conflict in the Middle East, an issue organized by future editor Claude Lanzmann at the suggestion of Israeli leftist and peace activist Simha Flapan. Contained within it, divided in two sections, were articles by both Palestinian and Israeli activists.

Nineteen sixty-eight, the highwater mark of the world left, saw the review covering and championing the Prague Spring, while the student and worker uprising of May 1968 in France saw it fully engaged in the fight in the streets, factories, and universities: “We now know that socialist revolution is not impossible in Western Europe,” asserted the editorial note of the May–June 1968 issue. Leftist thinkers as diverse as André Gorz, Ernest Mandel, Philippe Gavi, and the Italian Rossanna Rossanda appeared in its pages in the following period, and Sartre and Beauvoir provided the far left with their active support.

By the late 1970s the radical project had run out of steam—the restructuring of society it envisioned no longer seemed likely. Les trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of economic expansion in France that followed World War II, were paradoxically—or perhaps not—the years in which political change seemed most possible, during which the left flourished and Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes dominated. What Claude Lanzmann wrote in 1981 after François Mitterrand’s victory in the presidential election defines the period in which Les Temps Modernes thrived: “May 1968 marked much more the end of the time of the absolute than it announced real actions to inscribe in history.”

In the decades that followed, the centrality of the review, headed by Beauvoir after Sartre’s death, and then by Lanzmann from 1986 until his death in 2018, began to slowly then precipitously fade. It still embraced important causes and issues, but times had changed. Thinkers at antipodes from Sartre, Beauvoir, and company came to dominate intellectual discourse, and the voices that reached foreign countries were now intellectuals such as Derrida and Barthes, epitomes of the withdrawal of the intellectual from the political world that Sartre and Les Temps Modernes had condemned. Michel Foucault, who for many assumed Sartre’s mantle, dismissed his massive Critique of Dialectical Reason as “the magnificent and pathetic attempt by a man of the nineteenth century to think the twentieth century.” Modern times, indeed.

The death of Les Temps Modernes can be put down to the general problem of the press, to the death of print. That’s just a part of the answer. France has no shortage of celebrity philosophers today, men like Lévy, Onfray, and Alain Finkielkraut, but their ideas are no longer principally shared through books. Rather, they are stars of many media, appearing regularly on TV and radio, running podcasts, and, in the case of Onfray, leading until September 2018 a free university in Caen in his native Normandy  and selling audio recordings of his lectures. They take advantage of means of celebrity that Sartre never enjoyed. But it is worth noting that, unlike Sartre, of these three thinkers only Lévy has much of an audience outside France—less a testament to the value of his ideas than his Trumpian gift for manipulating the media. 

The public reputation of Les Temps Modernes was influenced, too, by its editor, Claude Lanzmann, who was accused of sexual violence in Israel (where he was briefly arrested), Germany, and Holland. In the age of #MeToo this was a stain difficult to expunge, and it harmed the reputation of the review he led. Le Monde defined Lanzmann, in an article published upon his death, as an “insatiable seducer,” calling him “faithful in friendship, unfaithful in love.” Sartre, too, was known as a serial seducer. But Sartre’s affairs were part of his well-known pact with Simone de Beauvoir. Their agreement that they were free to be with others while maintaining their partnership was perfectly consistent with the ethos of Les Temps Modernes, and even came in some ways to symbolize it.

To finally understand its demise, we must go back to the journal’s first issue. Les Temps Modernes mattered because it dealt with grand issues in a world where change not only seemed possible but was thought to be imminent. Political and intellectual decisions had to be made, and the stakes felt high.

All these years later, many of the review’s political choices strike us as wrongheaded at best, delusional at worst. Socialist revolution did not occur in the West, nor was it ever really possible. Sartre’s fellow-traveling seems unconscionable now, and his support of the far-left puerile. Yet difficult as it may be from our perspective, it is important to see that the review was, within its historical moment, making honest attempts to break out of the closed, bourgeois world it rebelliously grew from in order to seriously engage in changing society. If its call for radical action sounds hollow today, more’s the pity for us.