Sartre and de Beauvoir: self-presentation and the new media

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were a notoriously private couple. Although they frequently wrote and discussed works on their philosophies and beliefs, they had always managed to preserve the intimacies of their personal lives from public scrutiny. This had the opportunity to change in 1967 when Max Cacopardo made an hour-long documentary about the famed couple for Canadian television; in the film, shot by esteemed Canadian cameraman Michel Brault, Sartre and de Beauvoir are interviewed by journalists – and friends – Claude Lanzmann and Madeleine Gobeil as they discuss their thoughts and their lives as Parisian intellectuals. Simone de Beauvoir described the documentary as a “time capsule”, which now seems very fitting: modern viewers are taken on a journey back in time to 60s Paris and are given an audio-visual snapshot of the couple’s lives (Coffin 2010, p.70). While this is arguably the greatest insight the couple gave into their private lives, is it really as ’exclusive’ as the media conveyed or is it simply an example of self-presentation with the couple carefully selecting what they share? This blog post will mainly evaluate the opening five minutes of Cacopardo’s work, which introduces the viewer to Sartre and de Beauvoir, almost as if they are characters in a film.

During France’s transition from the Third to Fourth Republic in the mid 1940s, the way in which news was disseminated was changing; new media television and radio took over from written press and Sartre and de Beauvoir were active figures during this transitional period. From 1945 to 1950 Sartre had a radio show which created “a turning point for [his] thinking about radio” but he always privileged the written word over these new media (Moody 2014, p.245). Additionally, television in France was state-controlled so perhaps this is why Sartre agreed to star in a film for Canadian television in 1967 but not French. Sartre viewed these media as a tool to “conquérir le public virtuel”, in other words encourage audiences to engage with deeper writings (Sartre 1948). Knowing this while watching the opening of Cacopardo’s documentary means that you pick up on the way that Sartre almost teases information about his philosophies and political views – what he says truly does make you want to find out more, which in 1967 would mean reading his texts. For example, as the voiceover talks about Sartre’s writings on Flaubert in a semi-advertorial manner while the film shows him dutifully working, the audio and visual elements combine to intrigue the viewer. Next, you see Sartre being interviewed by Lanzmann and Gobeil, they ask him about his devotion to the cause of Vietnam and why it is so dangerous and he gives a rather circumlocutory response. Given what we know about Sartre’s hierarchizing of medias, this limited provision of information could be him imploring them to read his articles and revues about Vietnam.

There are certain indicators that Sartre and de Beauvoir are trying to change the public’s preconceptions about intellectuals and it is important to remember that they are only presenting a version of themselves that they want others to see. For example, Sartre has chosen to wear a suit for the entirety of his appearances; on one hand this could just be Sartre dressing smartly for the cameras but on the other hand this could be seen as a way of giving the impression of having an occupation (See Fig. 1). He will have definitely wanted to portray intellectualism as a métier; philosophers have often been viewed as separate from the “scholastic universes”, and therefore not considered to be a type of teacher, due to their “academic aristocratism” (Bourdieu 2000, p.25). Through his attire, Sartre is challenging these preconceived ideas and presenting himself as a professional.

FIGURE 1 – Jean-Paul Sartre being interviewed in his Paris apartment.

Another example is how the couple’s apartments are filmed before the people themselves; the camera pans around Sartre’s austere apartment in Montparnasse, showing his unruly desk, modest furnishings and wall adornments, and later around de Beauvoir’s humble home featuring close-ups on photos of her partner. It is likely that they allowed the filming of their private spaces first in order to change the view of intellectuals as being bourgeois, elitist types who represent a “form of privilege” and instead show, and prioritise, the sentimental side which people would never have seen before (Kolakowski 1972, p.8).

Similarly, the conversation Sartre has with the interviewer near the beginning of the clip is candid and different to anything people in France had heard him speak on before. Sartre’s contribution to radio, La tribune des temps modernes, had an anti-Gaullist, polemic agenda; however, no one could take offence at Sartre speaking candidly about where his family lives (Moody 2014, p.247). There is a charming sentimentality to the writer matter-of-factly pointing out his mother’s home, so near to his, and Gobeil makes sure to highlight this by pointing out that all of his loved ones are in Montparnasse. He also indicates where de Beauvoir lives (the couple famously never lived together) using his nickname for her – “Castor”.

Following this, viewers are briefly introduced to the figure of Castor herself – close-ups on her face show her looking powerful and resolute as she stands in her own home (see Fig. 2). In this segment, information about their relationship is given, like the fact that they have seen each other every day for 36 years but spend the mornings working alone; giving the impression of a couple dedicated to each other as much as to their work. They are described without irony as a “free and intimate couple”, even though one of the interviewers was de Beauvoir’s lover for some time and the long-term couple have a living situation which seems strange, especially to a modern audience (Coffin 2010, p.70).

FIGURE 2 – Simone de Beauvoir in her home.

            The documentary was originally made for Canadian television in 1967 and transferred to video in 2005, making it widely accessible worldwide. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a celebrity declining the opportunity to promote their work but despite their prominence in the public sphere de Beauvoir and Sartre steadfastly resisted; towards the end of the documentary when Lanzmann questions why they agreed to be interviewed de Beauvoir explains that she did it out of friendship for the interviewers (Levine 2006, p.463). Yet watching this documentary knowing Sartre’s views on the mass media and the preconceptions about intellectuals in France at the time, there is clear evidence of self-presentation. The act of self-presentation involves conveying a certain image of yourself and the one presented here is one of a sentimental, unpretentious intellect. The motivations for starring in this film seems to be trying to change the perception of intellectuals at the time and getting people to want to read, as television was not Sartre’s preferred media format. We can only speculate about what Sartre would have thought about the wide availability of this film today given that it was originally made for single release on one channel but as long as it tempted people to read his book, it is highly unlikely that he would have had a problem with it.

 

All images are stills taken from the video referenced below.

Primary Sources

Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir, 1967. Film. Dir. Mac CACOPARDO. Radio Canada Television,

AjnaSpirituality, 2009. Simone de Beauvoir & Sartre – 1967. [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxEKiMTrHRc

Further Reading

Baumeister, R.F., D.G. Hutton, ‘Self-Presentation Theory: Self-Construction and Audience Pleasing’, Theories of Group Behaviour, eds. B. Mullen, G.R. Goethals (Springer, 1987), pp.71-87

Bourdieu, P., Pascalian Meditations (Stanford University Press, 2000)

Coffin, J.G., ‘Max Cacopardo, “Sartre and Beauvoir” (review)’, HFrance Review, 10, 13 (2010), 70-72

Kolakowski, L., ‘Intellectuals against Intellect’, Intellectuals and Change, 101, 3 (1972), 1-15

Kuhn, R., The Media in Contemporary France (Open University Press, 2011)

Levine, D., Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 16, 3 (2006), 463-467

Moody, A., ‘Conquering the virtual public’: Jean-Paul Sartre’s La tribune des temps modernes and the radio in France’. Broadcasting in the modernist era in M Feldman, eds. E. Tonning, H. Mead (2014), pp.238-257

Sartre, J-P., ‘Qu’est-ce que la littérature?’, Situations (Tome 3) – Littérature et engagement (Gallimard, 1948), Section 8

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