Rendered famous worldwide for their committed companionship, a shared ownership of the twentieth-century Existentialism movement and countless individual accomplishments to boot, how may this French philosophical couple’s renown be attributed to the media of their day, and could have been their active participation in the media which led them to become figureheads of the Paris intellectual?
It was in October 1945, just one month after the end of the Second World War, and over a year since the liberation of Paris by the allies, that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir launched their monthly journal, Les Temps Modernes. A joint enterprise of the couple, it was, however, Sartre to assume the role of ‘directeur’, and in its inaugural issue he acquaints the reader with its motive, cementing his role as the public intellectual as he divorces himself from the perceived injustices allowed by prominent intellectuals before him, choosing to align himself with crusaders such as Voltaire and Zola who fought for the bygone innocents Jean Calas and Alfred Dreyfus. He makes no hesitation that Les Temps Modernes will take sides. (Poirer, p. 109)
It was, perhaps, a bold assertion on Sartre’s part to pre-empt such a legacy so soon after the war where he had played little part in the active resistance, his brief involvement with resistant groups Socialisme et Liberté and the Comité National des Ecrivains not amounting to much. (Poirer, 2018) Yet it was his participation in the clandestine meetings which exposed to him a social circle of writers and artists who would come to define the era, and as a collective perhaps inspired Sartre and de Beauvoir to take concise action through their writing when they saw it sensible to do so. Fellow erstwhile writer turned philosopher Albert Camus, for example, had become the editor of the outlawed newspaper Combat in 1943 and befriended them during this time.
Meeting Pablo Picasso through Camus, the artist later designed the masthead which was used until Les Temps Modernes last run in 2019. Although simple, the masthead in question asserts its objective by dominating the page, half of its lettering sporadically inked in red to indicate its political affiliation, symbolising the convergence of reputable press and the authority it yielded but with an ostensible left-wing rhetoric: the journal was intended as a tangible meeting point for Socialists, Communists, and the Gaullists. (Poirer, p. 108) Beyond its symbolism, the playful accents of red almost serve to desacralise the publication, serving to establish its position as with the people, and not in contempt of them. Its emblematic title may be associated with its aspirations to provide contemporary social discourse, whether it be in reference to current affairs (fait divers), literature and theatre reviews, or serialised essays. It was a ‘laboratory of new ideas.’(Poirer, p. 108), a post-war commitment to inform, question, and influence an audience whose trust had been abused by the collaboration of the press under the Occupation.
Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant had already known some commercial success thanks to its Gallimard approved publication in 1943 and the publishing house, although tainted by its collaborationist activity (Le Parti Communiste Francais once accused Sartre by association (Victor, 1972)), agreed to finance Les Temps Modernes for monthly publication. Its cover tentatively pays tribute to this partnership with a format akin to Gallimard classic book covers – the simple centralised text and burgundy lettering almost indistinguishable from the brand – and yet in contrast to Gallimard’s usual style guide, its masthead is in title case, and the logo bears no reference to its financers, thus marking the journal’s intellectual and political independence.
The rituals surrounding its monthly publication, namely offices, editorial meetings cum soirées and public talks, allowed the pair to establish a certain power and influence that set the foundations for their intellectual engagement beyond the lecture theatre – at this point both Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre had given up teaching. Their names now omnipresent both on newsstands and bibliothèques in Paris and beyond (de Beauvoir’s name featured on the November cover), the autumn of 1945 marked their transformation – or rather reinvention – from writers and teachers into intellectuels engagés, armed with the power to publish each month another likeminded intellectual.
The birth of Les Temps Modernes immediately post war furthermore bears some significance in the question of its ideology. Its founders did not hesitate to mobilise their connections to act as an intermediary between intellectual thought and the public, rendering articles from a variety of intellectuals accessible in its journal form: technical philosophy was transformed into public philosophy and edited into features ranging from just few pages to more scholarly articles exceeding 20 pages. (Revues-litteraires.com, 2015) The couple also looked towards a wider Europe which no longer considered France and its capital a point of moral reference following the complicit Vichy regime and its Nazi propagated press. In Sartre’s 1944 essay, Paris sous l’Occupation, one can ascertain a sense of shame he attached to the lives led during the Resistance, and it is through Les Temps Modernes that he resolves to set action into motion. The first issue reflects on this time in recent history, with a ‘témoignage’ to ‘Les morts’ and a philosophical essay from Merleau-Ponty, ‘La guerre a eu lieu’, an approach which calls into question the individual and his responsibility. The resolution of Les Temps Modernes’ was, in effect, to reclaim Paris from its oppressors, those who had ‘hollowed it out’ and ‘depersonalised’ the former reference point of European thought. (Sartre, 1998, p.8) Sartre and de Beauvoir were re-establishing those intellectual circles cultivated undercover during the war and opening them to engage civilians, and this inviting ethos can be seen in the publication’s upheld promise to host twice-weekly open offices for the public, taken ‘very seriously’. (Poirer, p. 112)
Indeed, Sartre was not unaware of the tensions provoked by such a publication as Les Temps Modernes and the sentiments of alienation the notion of intellectualism could produce amongst the working classes. He came to realise that an engaged intellectual had the responsibility of diffusing the perceived vicissitude between the socialist intellectual and the worker, and sought to democratise the journal even further by launching a radio show called La Tribune des Temps Modernes in 1947, aired 25 minutes on six consecutive Monday evenings. The show followed a conventional format, ‘une tribune’ known at the time as a round table discussion format. (Moody, 2014) However, the show may be seen as ineffective in the context of engaging a wider audience since its topical discussion still heavily drew on tenets of philosophy possibly lost on a working man at his supper, and years later manual labourers in the CPF would markedly distinguish themselves from intellectuals like Sartre (Victor, 1972). Nevertheless, its emission coincided with the birth of yet another initiative, this time a political movement established to unite the non-Communist left. The Rassemblement Démocratique Revolutionnaire was arguably a natural progression of things at Les Temps Modernes, and was praised across many French daily broadsheets. (Poirer, p. 226) Sartre’s multi-media presence couldn’t have possibly hurt in getting things off the ground.
The names of Sartre and de Beauvoir now belong to popular culture, and it is important to impart some context to understand this cultural complexity. The notion of a celebrity status attributed to this literary and philosophical couple, to be associated with a media obsession and particular attention given to their work, is no doubt due to Les Temps Modernes and the attention it demanded as a journal at the forefront of post-war social and political commentary. However, it was more specifically their association with the publication linked against the backdrop of their own respective work and lifestyles which caused Sartre and de Beauvoir to achieve a cult-like following and media criticism. In 1943 de Beauvoir’s L’invitée had pondered existentialist theory alongside a semi-autobiographical account of a ménage à trois and shortly after Les Temps Modernes’ release in 1945, the Communist paper Samedi-Soir, averse to the so-called ‘petite bourgeoisie’ de Beauvoir, published details of her open relationship with Sarte and her bisexual affairs. (Poirer, p. 114) They were considered scandalous and unsurprisingly became media sensations. Sartre, only ever wanting to be a great writer and once distinctly apolitical, allegedly saw this fame as a sacrifice to be endured in order to embark on his duty to engage the public. Despite his stance, he did little to subvert the media gaze, and in his ‘présentation’ in Les Temps Modernes positively invited it as he dedicated this introductory essay to a ‘Dolorès’, of little import, were it not for the de Beauvoir consortium. (Poirer, p. 109) It may consequently be suggested that Sartre astutely encouraged such attention to ensure the success of his endeavours, and he is revered to this day as the ultimate intellectuel engagé.
BAERT, PATRICK, 2015. The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual, USA: Polity Press.
BONDY, F. (1967). Jean-Paul Sartre and Politics. Journal of Contemporary History, 2 (2), pp. 25-48.
DAVIES, HOWARD, 1987. Sartre and Les Temps Modernes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
MOODY, A. (2014). ‘Conquering the virtual public’: Jean-Paul Satre’s La tribune des temps modernes and the radio in France. In M. Feldman, E. Tonning & H. Mead (Eds.), Broadcasting in the Modernist Era, 1922-1962, (pp. 245-265). London: Bloomsbury.
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