Talking with Sartre

Heaven and Hell: Others and Interviewers

April 5, 2010By Nick HammondBooks

The recent flurry of books and exhibitions on Jean-Paul Sartre and his circle shows no sign of abating. After Carole Seymour-Jones’s revelatory biography of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, A Dangerous Liaison, John Gerassi’s Talking with Sartre brings us the transcripts of Sartre’s conversations with Gerassi between 1970 and ’74.

What is most appealing about this book is the opportunity it offers to eavesdrop on the words, guarded and unguarded, of one of the 20th century’s most significant thinkers. We not only learn more about his political and philosophical viewpoints but also hear about his personal life and opinions of both friends and enemies.

The biggest failing and, strangely, the greatest strength of Talking with Sartre is the over-sized ego of John Gerassi. The son of artist Fernando Gerassi and Stepha Awkykowich, both of whom were close friends of Sartre, Gerassi has certainly met and befriended many powerful people, but the reader is less likely to be interested in his writings, which he discusses a great deal in the conversations, and his self-proclaimed prowess as a lecturer and critic. At times, he even comes across as opinionated and objectionable. To call someone who dared ask Sartre whether he intended to write a sequel to his autobiographical work Les Mots (The Words) “a rude yokel” seems both unfair and snobbish, especially as this prompted Gerassi to agree to write Sartre’s biography. Yet only someone with supreme self-confidence would be able to stand up to Sartre and debate with him on almost equal terms, and Gerassi certainly manages to elicit a number of fascinating insights from Sartre.

In one conversation, for example, Gerassi refers to the famous line from Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit), “L’enfer c’est les autres” (translated by Gerassi as “Hell is each other”), to which Sartre replies, “But that’s only one side of the coin. The other side, which no one seems to mention, is also ‘Heaven is each other’.” Sartre also makes many telling remarks about various writers and thinkers, especially Gustave Flaubert, about whom he was writing a four-volume study at the time of their conversations. In these areas, Sartre’s literary sensibilities far outshine those of Gerassi, who seems to have no literary sense at all. He tells Sartre that he reads Tolstoy’s great works as history and is bored by Proust (he even misspells the name of the Proust character Verdurin).

Gerassi is clearly much more preoccupied by political questions than literary ones, and most of the book is devoted to discussions of political events of the time, many of which are now obscure and of little relevance to the general reader. However, their fiery debates about such topics as De Gaulle (whom Gerassi admires and Sartre detests) and America (where Gerassi is based) make for riveting reading. Sartre’s comment, for instance, that “America is always in favor of free trade when it benefits America, and never when it does not” seems as pertinent today as it did in 1972. Also, Gerassi is tenacious in asking Sartre questions about his more questionable political stances, such as supporting Stalinist Russia.

As for Sartre’s personal life, we gain many insights. Sartre talks openly about his dependence on amphetamines and the resulting hallucinations. We also learn about the extraordinary situation of his various lovers, whom he visited at regular times each week (and with some of whom he was evidently still having sexual relations in the 1970s). Interestingly, he admits that he ceased having a sexual relationship with the most important woman in his life, De Beauvoir (referred to throughout by her nickname, Castor), as early as 1947. Less surprising is the confirmation of Sartre’s womanizing throughout his life. One gets the strong impression that he sees sexual fidelity as bourgeois, and the only male friends he seems to admire are those who agreed to go “whoring” (Gerassi’s word) with him.

Yet, despite the less salubrious sides of Sartre’s character, the final impression we are left with from this book is of a man deeply committed to many deserving causes, someone who is seldom willing to sit on the fence and is always intellectually curious and unfailingly generous with his money and time. It is a privilege to listen to his voice, 30 years after his death.


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