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Talking with Sartre

Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates

Edited and translated by JOHN GERASSI
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Talking with Sartre
    Book Description:

    What would it be like to be privy to the mind of one of the twentieth century's greatest thinkers? John Gerassi had just this opportunity; as a child, his mother and father were very close friends with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and the couple became for him like surrogate parents. Authorized by Sartre to write his biography, Gerassi conducted a long series of interviews between 1970 and 1974, which he has now edited to produce this revelatory and breathtaking portrait of one of the world's most famous intellectuals.

    Through the interviews, with both their informalities and their tensions, Sartre's greater complexities emerge. In particular, we see Sartre wrestling with the apparent contradiction between his views on freedom and the influence of social conditions on our choices and actions. We also gain insight into his perspectives on the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the disintegration of colonialism.

    These conversations add an intimate dimension to Sartre's more abstract ideas. With remarkable rigor and intensity, they also provide a clear lens through which to view the major conflagrations of the past century.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15108-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. November 1970
    (pp. 1-26)

    GERASSI: How young were you when you first realized that you were different from your friends, your peers and classmates? Your father was dead. Your maternal grandfather—who was the master of the house, the bearded titan who played god in the local school production, the benevolent tyrant who treated your mother as your sister, even made you share a room with her in his house—must have colored your vision of the world very early.

    SARTRE: Yes and no. His care, his appreciation of my literary fantasies—I spent all my free time at home reading and writing adventure...

  5. December 1970
    (pp. 27-46)

    GERASSI: When I went over our last session, I was struck by your very last statement, that you had a “happy” year. You were unhappy in La Rochelle but happy in Berlin? I thought that, to you, “happiness” was a reactionary concept.

    SARTRE: Shit—ha-ha, I have to be careful with my words with you. As an individual I was miserable in La Rochelle in public, but mind you, perfectly contented alone with my writing. La Rochelle was a bigoted, foreigner-hating, reactionary, Protestant, closed hole. As an individual, I was perfectly at ease in Berlin, a musical, agitated, fun-loving, open...

  6. January 1971
    (pp. 47-57)

    GERASSI: You told me at lunch last week that all your judgments were always wrong. Why?

    SARTRE: Hey, not all. I mentioned my mother. But partly because she was such a prude. She would never talk about anything that had sexual connotations. So I sort of dismissed her. Yet, you know, I could discuss Dostoyevsky with her. I did when I was twenty. Before, I thought she was like my sister—remember that before she remarried, we shared a room. She would even read Heidegger, or at least one thing, “What Is Metaphysics?” She also got hold ofBifur,the...

  7. March 1971
    (pp. 58-75)

    GERASSI: We had sort of concluded last time that revolutionaries must also be rebels, the difference being that one rebels out of hatred and one becomes a revolutionary, as Che claimed, out of love. Questions: When one is influenced by a novel, is it emotion or reason?

    SARTRE: Are you talking about the novels that influenced you, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy?

    Well, as we discussed at lunch last Sunday, I was influenced especially by Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy I read as history, at leastWar and Peace. Anna Kareninabored me.

    One of your colleagues at Vincennes [the University of Paris VIII, where...

  8. April 1971
    (pp. 76-87)

    GERASSI: Aha, I seeThe Sun Also Riseson your desk. Are you reading Hemingway these days?

    SARTRE: I read them all a long time ago; I’m just rereading this one. I read an article that said Hemingway was an anti-Semite and fought with all his Jewish friends over this book, because the only Jew in it is bad. Our intelligentsia pretends that there’s an unwritten rule that says if the villain is the only black man or Jew or whatever in the novel, then the author is saying that all blacks or Jews or whatever are bad. Your father...

  9. May 1971
    (pp. 88-92)

    GERASSI: I reread Castor’s memoirs during the break [I was then teaching at the University of Paris VIII] and came across her statement that during the Popular Front “we were voyeurs rather than participants.” How do you justify that?

    SARTRE: It’s hard. The rallies, the marches, the demonstrations were all actions we agreed with, but it wasn’t our thing; I mean, the Popular Front was a kind of rising by workers, and while we completely sympathized with workers, we weren’t workers, so if we participated in their thing, it would be as strangers. Workers seized their factories. What was I...

  10. October 1971
    (pp. 93-121)

    SARTRE: Welcome back. How’s Fernando?

    GERASSI: He was operated on for cancer of the esophagus. A tough one. He’s OK now, but the doctor told me it can’t last.

    Et la petite [Catherine Yelloz]? She went with you? Yes. She was great. We were at the hospital almost all the time, but she was very helpful, especially to Stépha, who can’t really see or hear very well anymore.

    Like me, huh?

    Worse. And she can’t walk without terrific pain. Do you know that she is so fond of her garden, and she knows her flowers and vegetables so well by...

  11. December 1971
    (pp. 122-139)

    GERASSI: Let’s get back to the war. I reread the two articles [“Paris Under the Occupation” (1944) and “The Liberation of Paris” (1945), reproduced inSituations,vol. 3 (1949)] in which you dealt, indirectly mind you, with fear of death and torture: the first, which everyone knows, is where you wrote that you were never as free as during the occupation; the second, which you wrote for English readers, in which you claim that all the French suffered because of the resistance.

    SARTRE: Hold on. Let’s put them in perspective. The first is philosophically perfectly clear, right? During the occupation,...

  12. January 1972
    (pp. 140-155)

    GERASSI: Speaking as we were at lunch about your bookWhat Is Literature?you agree that you write for the bourgeois to get him or her more committed against the very bourgeois class’s selfish self-centeredness, correct? Isn’t that the same reason Aragon writes? You don’t write for the worker, and neither does he. Workers aren’t going to read yourFlaubert,and workers aren’t going to read [Aragon’s]Aurélienor [his wife, Elsa Triolet’s]Cheval Blanc.¹

    SARTRE: Hold on. You’re mixing different issues there. First of all, novels by communist hacks are sold at communist rallies, meetings, conferences, and conventions by...

  13. February 1972
    (pp. 156-164)

    GERASSI: You said the other day that you became a fellow traveler in ’52, with the Henri Martin affair. But what happened when the Korean War started? Were you silent?

    SARTRE: That was our first big crisis atLes Temps Modernes,I mean between Merleau and me. The others were natural: Aron was a right-wing social democrat, so he had left. Malraux wanted to be part of de Gaulle’s team, so he left. But the first really significant issue was when the guns started in Korea. First of all, we believed most of America’s propaganda, that the North [Koreans] invaded...

  14. March 1972
    (pp. 165-170)

    GERASSI: France went through a very agitated period from 1945 to 1962, yet that was your most productive period as well.

    SARTRE: The end of the resistance, war in Indochina, the collapse of the tripartite ministry, the RDR, the war on Algeria, and if we go to 1966, the destruction of the left in France. We, inLes Temps Modernes,and I personally, responded to each crisis, each phase. We made some mistakes, like the RDR was a bad one, but we were more or less on the button during each phase, internationally, which was the most, but not only,...

  15. April 1972
    (pp. 171-178)

    GERASSI: At lunch last Sunday, you referred to Malraux as a pig. Was it because, as Castor wrote in her memoirs, he tried everything to get Gallimard, your and his publisher, to dumpLes Temps Modernes?

    SARTRE: In general, yes, he’s a pig. Everything about him is phony. I mean,The Human Conditionis a fantastic novel, one of the really great ones of this century, certainly, but he, himself, is a phony. An adventurer who went to Cambodia to steal its artworks and sell them. He’s always been a money man. OK, I know, he saved your father from...

  16. May 1972
    (pp. 179-204)

    GERASSI: I reread “Merleau Vivant” since last week, as well as his major works, and was struck by how careful you were not to imply that you were not great friends.

    SARTRE: Yes, I was a bit hypocritical. Have you read hisPhenomenology of Perception? So you realize how close it is to much of what I wrote inBeing and Nothingness? He had read some of that work, and had asked me not to publish it until his book came out, chapters I had written during the war, before his, and he was hurt that I did not wait....

  17. June 1972
    (pp. 205-213)

    GERASSI: I’ve just read the new issue ofLes Temps Modernes,which is dedicated to the maos in France, just when the GP andLa Cause du Peupleseem to be crumbling.

    SARTRE: Don’t confuse the various groups. You went to the meeting ofLa Cause?

    No, but I heard those who quit the paper let loose on Pierre.

    They really admire him, his knowledge, his analytical skills, his tenacity. But they consider him a dictator and they stuck to their decision to quit.

    The whole editorial board? All seven?


    And then, inLes Temps,Glucksmann praised Pierre.


  18. October 1972
    (pp. 214-226)

    SARTRE: Tell me, how’s Fernando?

    GERASSI: He’s suffering a great deal, mainly because he won’t take the morphine. He claims he can’t paint with it. How about you, and Castor, how was your summer?

    She’s fine, as you’ll see on Sunday. She traveled quite a bit in August; I just worked, mostly onFlaubert,then went down to Nîmes with Arlette.

    I see the third volume just came out. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. It got rave reviews.

    Yeah, much better than the first two volumes, with reason, I think—the third is much better.


  19. November 1972
    (pp. 227-232)

    GERASSI: I hear the maos are planning a daily newspaper.

    SARTRE: They’re planning one for next year, February.

    They have the money?

    Yes. I don’t know from where.

    And they’re calling for a boycott of the elections?

    Yes. They hated Secours Rouge. Because it was composed of petty intellectuals, which is precisely what most of the maos in Paris are. Anyway, now they want to launch committees all over France called Truth and Justice, organized “at the base,” meaning by and with the proletariat, which of course none of them are. The whole Maoist movement, it seems to me, is...

  20. May 1973
    (pp. 233-246)

    GERASSI: So we’ve both been traveling quite a lot since we last met.¹ How did you enjoy Japan?

    SARTRE: I can’t answer except with stupidities, like this was beautiful, that was crowded. I mean, I understood nothing. We were taken everywhere. We met union leaders, socialist party chiefs, deputies, but so what? Everything by translation. Just fancy tourists. Israel was different. Everybody, almost, speaks English, which Castor understands quite well and I manage, and many speak French. Also we had many old friends there, with whom we could ask embarrassing questions.


    Doomed. The hope of one Jewish-Arab state is...

  21. June 1973
    (pp. 247-254)

    GERASSI: What got into Malraux to be so vindictive againstLes Temps Modernes?De Gaulle had not yet come to power?

    SARTRE: I don’t really understand. I think it was because we ran stuff by Victor Serge, and his friendship with Trotsky’s wife. Malraux hated Trotskyists, probably because he was once very close to them, and he had no respect for Serge, perhaps because so many intellectuals did.¹ We published sections of his memoirs and some of his letters, including to Trotsky’s wife.

    And why did Gallimard cave in to Malraux’s demands, whenLes Temps,though not a review well...

  22. November 1973
    (pp. 255-261)

    GERASSI: InBeing and Nothingness,you had two goals, to get rid of determinism so as to affirm our freedom, and to stress the fullness of that freedom through the creativity and contingency in our actions, and our consciousness of them, which you define as active and call praxis.

    SARTRE: Not yet, that’s in theCritique.I take it you have read the notes I gave you last year of both my ethics and volume two of theCritique.Don’t forget, neither is ready yet, and won’t be for quite a while.

    InBeing,you relied on Hegel’s notion of...

  23. November 1974
    (pp. 262-271)

    SARTRE: How is Fernando feeling?

    GERASSI: I think he knows he’s going to die. He asked me to tell the surgeon that he does not want to come out of the operation if he cannot go through to the end of summer without morphine. He can’t paint with morphine, he says.

    Did the doctor agree?

    He called me for a meeting yesterday morning, just before I left the University of Pennsylvania hospital, to go to the airport in New York. There were six of them in the room, the anesthesiologist, his helper, another surgeon, and two other doctors. They asked...

  24. Farewell
    (pp. 272-276)

    Sartre died in 1980, at age seventy-five, in great part because of his abuse of drugs. But as he once told me, since he had rarely slept more than four hours per night, in effect he had lived much more than the average person. “Do the arithmetic,” he laughed; “at seventy I’m already ninety.” For his obituary, the Anglo press gave him a nice send-off but claimed he had become totally irrelevant.Newsday,however, asked me to write my farewell. This is what I wrote, which was published intact on April 17, 1980.

    Some of us may not even know...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 277-304)
  26. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 305-306)
  27. Index
    (pp. 307-318)