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James M. Fenwick

An Article Review

The Mandarins’ Lament

An Analysis of Simone De Beauvoir’s Recent Novel

(Winter 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 1, Winter 1957, pp. 62–68.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR IS MOST commonly thought of in this country as a brilliant female representative of the traditional French bohème, dutifully scandalizing the bourgeoisie with the iconoclasms of a secular existentialism.

This image of Beauvoir as a leader of the St. Germain des Prés literary Fronde is, of course, not without basis. But the overriding fact is that the bulk of her post-war writing – like that of her mentor, Sartre – deals with politics. In its latest phase her writings touching political themes have increasingly become apologetics for Sartre’s own uniquely split-level Stalinist apologetics.

The superficiality of so much of the criticism of her recent writing stems from a failure to assimilate this commonplace. For historical reasons which are not at all obscure the United States is not a politically sophisticated nation. The same causes lie behind the absence of a political dimension in the analyses of most current literary critics. The personal and the psychological rule. It is a pity, for with this failure of perception many foreign novels, in particular, lose a great deal of their resonance. This is especially true in the case of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins. [1]

To find in her novel only a substantiation of the nostalgic and somewhat dated conventional American concept of the French intellectual is to miss the indicative value of the book as a reflection of the contemporary crisis. In point of fact, a person unacquainted with French post-war politics (setting aside, for the moment, his political orientation) will not only lose much of the intended emotional impact of the novel, he will certainly find big sections of it incomprehensible.

Though the non-political aspects of the novel will of necessity be the most interesting ones for American readers they are in the main actually derivative, supportive, or extraneous. In the novel, as in the times themselves, the demiurgos is politics.

In itself The Mandarins represents a shift in emphasis in the point of view of Simone de Beauvoir, as even a cursory comparison with her first novel The Blood of Others, written during the occupation, will demonstrate. In The Blood of Others the focus is on the existential categories of responsibility, guilt, engagement, isolation, and death. While these are present in The Mandarins political problems have come to take on a more concrete, complex, and examined character. If The Blood of Others is the product of a cherished personal, existentialist assessment of life The Mandarins represents a turn toward a social and political evaluation of the same realities.

THE NOVEL IS A DETAILED AND bleak transcription of the life of a certain segment of the French radical literary intelligentsia in the years immediately following the liberation. Since the recasting of actual persons, organizations, and events into fictional form is of hardly more than a token order, it is possible to regard The Mandarins as a social document as well.

In the most general and inclusive sense the novel is a study of the varying reactions of these intellectuals to two interrelated facts: First, that France has with historic finality become a fifth-rate power, closer in a wearying number of ways to a stagnant backwater like Ireland than to the France of 150 years ago before whose Grande Armée all of established Europe trembled. Secondly, that the world fate, including that of France, is currently at the effective disposition of two power-blocs dominated by Russia and the United States.

In the novel these reactions are politically and psychologically precipitated by an attempt to establish a political force relatively independent of the two power-blocs. This organization, the SRL (formally identified in the book only by its initials) is, of course, the RDR – the Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Assembly) – which was organized in 1948. This promising movement, supported by a very broad representation of the anti-Stalinist left and enjoying striking early successes in a period of general political apathy, nevertheless dwindled away and vanished after a brief two years of existence. It is this period which is covered by the book, though the exact chronology is not observed.

The novel opens on Christmas eve, 1944, with the entire cast assembled at a party which in celebrating the liquidation of the von Rundstedt offensive through the Ardennes likewise serves to bring to a ceremonial close the epoch of the resistance, in which all have been deeply involved.

The resistance had been a negation: Against the Germans! Its positive aspect lay in its potentialities for the regeneration of the French radical movement which was in a state of unprecedented prostration following the failure of the popular front, the defeat of the Spanish republican forces, the outbreak of World War II, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the defeat of the French in a six weeks’ war, and the occupation. Under the conditions imposed by the (remember?) Grand Alliance the negative aspect of the resistance lay in its chauvinism and in a political program which hardly got beyond the assertion that in the future things could not return to what they were before the war. “Politics,” says Dubreuilh in the novel, not a little sententiously, “should never again be left to politicians.”

The bliss and the fevers of those blazing August days, when men and armor came pounding out of Normandy to liberate France, quickly subsided. “As I remember it,” says one of the characters, “in August there was a lot of talk about everything changing. And it’s just the same as ever. It’s still the ones who work the most who eat the least, and everyone goes on thinking that’s just great.” On the personal level, another muses about the problem of what to do “with this peace which gave us back our lives without giving us back our reasons for living.”

The answer is provided by the initiative of Robert Dubreuilh, who is Jean-Paul Sartre down to his smallest mannerisms (his phobia against being photographed, for example) but without the existentialist ambiance. This is provided by Anne Dubreuilh, Robert Dubreuilh’s wife, who acts as the narrator for this documentary and speaks in the first person. Anne Dubreuilh, who is Simone de Beauvoir’s alter ego, is cast as a psychoanalyst, that social type which is threatening to become as much of a stock figure in modern literature as the Braggart Soldier was in the Roman comedy. By one of those inexpensive transpositions aimed at assuring us that we are dealing with art and not reportage the existentialist atmosphere of life as a prolonged living suicide is conveyed by a pervasive psychoanalytically derived despair.

“Here in France,” says Dubreuilh-Sartre, “we have a clear-cut objective – to achieve a real popular front government.” The aim is not really to create an independent movement: “We don’t want to weaken the CP,” says Dubreuilh, “but we would like the Communists to change their line. Well, here’s our opportunity to bring pressure to bear.” The overall task of the SRL, Anne Dubreuilh tells us, “was to maintain the hope of a revolution which would fulfill its humanist intentions.”

A first step for Dubreuilh is to convert L’Espoir (Hope) an independent left-wing paper, into an organ of the SRL. In the novel L’Espoir typifies such papers as Combat and Franc-Tireur, which emerged from the resistance and enjoyed tremendous prestige in the immediate post-war period. But to secure L’Espoir means to win over Henri Perron, its editor and animator. Perron, whose archetype is Albert Camus, was wrenched into the politics of the resistance and the life of action by the facts of the occupation. The occupation once ended, his only thought is to get back to creative writing. “Four years of austerity, four years of working only for others – that was a lot, that was too much. It was time now for him to think a little about himself.” Perron’s internal strugglings form the real axis of the book.

While he wants to retain his independence, Perron wishes “he could find a few good reasons for his stand.” “I’m rebelling,” he says, “because I’m afraid of being eaten up by politics, because I dread the thought of taking on new responsibilities, because I’d like some leisure, and especially because I want to stay master in my own house.” He feels ignorant. “Until now it hadn’t bothered him – no need for any specialized knowledge to fight in the Resistance or to found a clandestine newspaper ... there was something unfair in this whole thing. He felt obligated, like everyone else, to take an active interest in politics.” Financial problems close in on L’Espoir. He feels the danger of war. And he feels powerless. He was “nothing but an insignificant citizen of a fifth-rate power, and L’Espoir was a local sheet on the same level as a village weekly ... France can’t do anything for herself ... What difference did it make if L’Espoir remained independent or not, if it had more or fewer readers, or even if it went bankrupt? ‘It isn’t even worth the trouble to be stubborn over it!’ Henri thought suddenly.” In the end he yields to the importunities to Dubreuilh.

Hardly has he done so when the ideas of Dubreuilh begin to change. The CP tightens the screws on Dubreuilh through their press. Dubreuilh is disappointed in the concrete results of the establishment of the SRL. But basically he cannot find a justification for an independent existence because he identifies the CP with the working class. The split with Perron comes with Perron’s decision to publish documents on the Russian slave labor camps. This, Dubreuilh feels, is to play the game of the reaction in France and of the United States. He moves closer to the CP. His motivation is the argument from realism:

“The Soviet Union as it should be, revolution without tears – those are all pure concepts, that is to say: nothing. Obviously, compared to the concept, reality is always wrong; as soon as a concept in embodied, it becomes deformed. But the superiority of the Soviet Union over all other possible socialisms is that it exists.”

Perron resigns from L’Espoir, becomes involved in clearing a collaborator on the basis of false testimony, and ends with an uneasy stabilization of relations with Dubreuilh, with whose daughter he has launched a loveless marriage.

Now all this is not an exact picture of the genesis and evolution of the RDR. It was, for example, not initiated by Dubreuilh-Sartre, but by persons like David Rousset, a man with a revolutionary past. (It is of some interest in defining Beauvoir’s sympathies to note that while she can palliate the behavior of almost all the characters in the book she has nothing but snobbish contempt for Samazelle (Rousset’s persona in the novel) who is shown as ultimately going over to de Gaulle.) Nor was the RDR conceived of as an organization created simply to exert pressure on the CP, as a reading of its program will reveal. It was a third camp tendency. Neither did the crack-up occur over the question of the Russian slave labor camps. Several factors were at work – not the least of which was the organizational slackness of the RDR.

But the novel does come much closer, indeed, to representing Sartre’s conception, as is evident by a rereading of the discussion on the nature and perspectives of the RDR engaged in by Rousset, Sartre, and Gdrard Rosenthal, which was published in Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes in September 1948. This is not to deny, however, that the factual Sartre was considerably to the left of the fictional one. There is little point, however, in pressing the discrepancies between the novel and the historical fact. We are dealing here with art of a certain dry order and it has its rights. In either case the conclusions which follow would be identical.

The portrait of Dubreuilh which is laid in emerges as that of the Stalinoid type. He is, first of all, linked in many ways to the capitalist world of bourgeois democracy. It is not only a matter of his “whole discreetly privileged life,” but of his attachment to the interior life of the bourgeois intellectual in all its subtlety and complexity, its freedom of inquiry and criticism, and its social disengagement.

At the same time he feels himself an outsider in capitalist society. At odds with the pecuniary and power aims of the controlling stratum, he is also alienated from the working class. Being able to generalize beyond the temporary conjuncture he is fully aware that the capitalist order, particularly the ramshackle French one, is in a state of decline.

As the most obvious heir of this dying order the CP attracts him. For it is the CP which currently has the almost total allegiance of the French working class, the only force within the country capable of overthrowing or (for Sartre) seriously modifying French capitalist society. Many of the CP’s enemies are his enemies, too. Since, also, it is an anti-bourgeois power it is one upon which he can lean in his isolation. Moreover, it is a bureaucratic power toward which the regressive aspects of his own bourgeois personality tend to make him gravitate.

But if for nothing else its intellectual sterility repels him – not to speak of its moral reduction of the individual, its lack of democracy, and its control by a foreign power.

No wonder that Sartre is today a very divided man, supporting the CP yet not joining it, at a time when French CP intellectuals (like Marc Beigbeder, his biographer, for example) are reassessing their whole political past in the light of the 20th congress revelations and the armed struggles against Stalinism which have succeeded it. No wonder, likewise, that despite much trumpeting (including a commercial in The Mandarins) Sartre’s long-heralded major work reconciling existentialism and Marxism has not yet appeared.

EXISTENTIALISM IS A RATHER DEFLATED balloon these days, contrary to the expectations of George Lukacs, the Stalinist culture critic, whose conviction it was that it would become the universal outlook of a capitalism in extremis. Existentialism was in any case never a detailed, concrete, and systematic examination of society in a historical perspective. It is supra-historical, the necessary prediction being simply man in an absurd universe.

Its explanation for human action is diametrically opposed to that of Marxism. Elsewhere Simone de Beauvoir has said, “Man is the sole and sovereign master of his fate if he wishes to be it; that is what existentialism affirms; precisely therein lies its optimism.” The contrast with the social determinism of Marxism is obvious. Up to the present Sartre has been willing neither to accept nor abjure this uneasy stability, whose contradictions have daily become more and more monstrous, particularly since the upheavals in the satellite countries. A limited and none too sanguine interest in seeing just how Sartre will emerge from his present dilemma is certainly in order. [2]

Herbert Luethy is surely right when he says that all that French CP intellectuals have got from Marx is his revolutionary journalism. His sociological and economic analyses, especially in their concrete applications, completely escape them. If the political discussions in The Mandarins seem so superficial, so dull – compared say, on their level, to the discussions between Naphta and Settembrini in The Magic Mountain – it is, we are willing to believe, not simply due to a literary deficiency on the part of Beauvoir but also to the political inadequacies of her protagonists.

For we are dealing here with a literary intelligentsia, not a revolutionary one. They operate on slogans like “the spirit of the resistance,” “the unity of the left,” “the war danger,” “the defense of democracy,” and “domination by the United States,” unexamined phrases which leave them helpless before the practical politics of the CP. They are captives and idolators of the word. Action to implement their ideas, that is, the fusion of their ideas with the social power of the working class, never really arises as a problem. For them there is no organizational question, that problem which is always such a burning one to revolutionists. Workers as individuals nowhere appear in the novel except very briefly to Perron as memories of embarrassing, alienated, and contemptuous allies in the resistance. These intellectuals are therefore inevitably forced to confront their own impotence or to find support in the CP, which is based on the working class. The idea of the working class as the social prime mover in our epoch, as an independent force capable of breaking the hold of both capitalism and Stalinist reaction, really never crystallizes as a focal idea for these people.

They are nationalist, chauvinist. Germany does not even appear as a problem in The Mandarins, for example. Nor do they think in terms of some sort of larger integration such as a United States of Europe, not to speak of a democratic socialist Europe, the only basis upon which the economy of France can hope to begin to survive. In the end you realize that at heart they do not even have the perspective of a social revolution in their own country – simply a program of pressure on the existing government.

ANOTHER, AND ALLIED, BLIGHT of the times taints the book – academicism, particularly in its aspect of detachment, which really comes down to cowardice and moral callousness. Beauvoir, the former lycée professor, played no role in the resistance. As she herself documents in America Day by Day, when she visited the United States after the war her time was almost equally divided between night club hopping, drinking, lecturing at universities, simple sight-seeing, and bewailing the times’ decay with the Partisan Review crowd. She has no basic identification with the working class world or with working class politics. What a contrast between The Mandarins and the rich literature in France over the past thirty years which finds its setting in the workaday world outside the Latin Quarter!

THIS LACK OF INVOLVEMENT with her characters gives a contrived atmosphere to anything in the book which is not on the plane of ideas – sex, love, tenderness, deep feeling, human relations, the physical setting, nature. Like the writings of Francoise Sagan, The Mandarins sounds like a very clever fulfillment of an assignment in Advanced Composition in some university. But the whole book misses fire. Even a momentary comparison with the work of Colette reveals everything.

Under these conditions it is not surprising that there is not a whole person in the book, not one who escapes the pestilence of hopelessness, not one who is capable of love. Lambert joins the staff of Les Beaux Jours, a literary journal catering to former collaborators. Vincent pursues a career of killing former collaborators who have never been brought to justice. One of those he kills is Sezenac, a former member of the resistance who turns out to have been an informer. Paula, Perron’s mistress is institutionalized and released effectively a zombie. The CP intellectuals are revealed as captives – and know that they are. Anne, the raisonneuse of the book, decides – on the next to the last page – not to commit suicide.

Part of this atmosphere is, of course, the product of the existentialist formula and is therefore a reflection of the decay of the times as viewed by a given school and a specific individual of that school. As with Simone de Beauvoir herself, mortality and death gnaw at the well-being of the people in her books day in and night out as persistently as ever they did at the population of Europe during the Black Death. Action seems a final futility.

In the long run we are all dead, and no person who has not come to some sort of reconciliation with that fact is ready for a total experiencing of life. On this level, one of the problems for Marxists, at least, is to differentiate between irreducible existential problems and those which are the product of epoch, class, and accident. Not the least of the victories of socialism in resolving the basic problems of physical and psychological existence will be to permit ever increasing numbers of people to confront the problems of beginnings and ends, and of transcendence, in all their infiniteness. Their responses will have a gravity and a beauty denied those evoked in The Mandarins, which are in the end so largely simply the lament of an articulate caste in a dying culture ...

* * *


1. The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir, The World Publishing Company, New York City 1956.

2. The Hungarian events have provided us with this opportunity. Shortly after this review was written Sartre and, needless to say, Beauvoir, along with several other non- party and party intellectuals, issued a statement condemning the Russian armed intervention in Hungary.

Since we have every confidence in Sartre’s unquestionable gift for transforming the obvious into the incomprehensible, we would attach only moderate importance to his recent turn except that it is symptomatic of the greatest reexamination of conscience that has taken place among French left-wing intellectuals since the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact. And since this re-examination is taking place under infinitely better circumstances than could possibly have obtained in 1939 it warrants the closest attention. – (J.M.F.)

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