Intellectual Treason and the Case for the Responsible Writer

In the immediate aftermath of the Occupation, France’s wounds ran deep. The country’s social, political, and economic bases had all just conspired to give legitimacy to an international fascist regime under the watchful eye of Maréchal Pétain, France’s war time leader. But in 1945, vengeance was in the air. Legal purges (l’épuration légale), advanced by the Provision Government, became the order of the day. However, it was the trial of Robert Brasillach, an infamous fascist intellectual, on 19th January 1945, that not only shook the French nation but paved the way for a reconfiguration of what it meant to be a French intellectual. Out of the embers of intellectual French fascism grew a new concept: la responsabilité de l’écrivain (writer’s responsibility). Chiefly advocated by Jean-Paul Sartre, it is both thanks to the historical context and the manner in which he advocated this new idea that we see the emergence of the post-war intellectuel engagé.

The UNESCO Speech and its Context

The 1945 trial of Robert Brasillach represents a rare moment of convergence between two starkly different strands of intellectual thought. On the one hand, Brasillach, the figurehead of French fascism, sat “seul, coupé de tous” (Beauvoir, 1946) whilst key figures of the Existentialist movement, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, observed from the public gallery. It is hard to think of another event which attracted the almost universal attention of the French intellectual milieu. One of their own was on trial.

The emergence of a petition calling for Brasillach’s death sentence to be commuted demonstrates the extent to which the trial transgressed intellectual lines. If Albert Camus was prepared to join forces with eight former columnists of Brasillach’s fascist paper Je Suis Partout, the figure of the intellectual in France was clearly under threat. Any subsequent discussion about the extent to which a writer is responsible for his or her words must therefore be seen through the lens of the Brasillach trial.

Enter Jean-Paul Sartre. In a speech marking the creation of UNESCO given at the Sorbonne (Figure 1), Sartre vigorously defends the notion of la responsabilité de l’écrivain. The lecture was recorded and diffused via la Chaine Parisienne. Held in the prestigious Salle Louis Liard in front of an “audience bondée” (Beauvoir, 1963: pp.125), Sartre opens his lecture proclaiming “on n’écrit pas, on parle pas dans le désert” (we do not write, we do not speak in to a void). As such, he perceives the writer as responsible for fighting for “la liberté humaine”. Whilst no direct reference was made to Brasillach’s trial, he calls upon writers to “éviter que note responsabilité se transforme en culpabilité » (avoid allowing our responsibility to turn into guilt). For Sartre, words matter. Writers, by virtue of their occupation, owe a duty to society to actively fight for the core values of freedom and justice. As will become clear, Sartre believes failure to do so fuels oppression and merits judgement. 

Figure 1: Jean Paul Sartre : Conférence donnée à la Sorbonne pour marquer la création de l’UNESCO (First diffused : 30/11/1946)

The Responsible Writer: Disrupting the Norm

The radio, which played an essential role in the Liberation of France via De Gaulle’s Appel du 18 Juin in 1939, introduced a new element to intellectual discourse: the voice. Sartre’s short, sharp, staccato voice pierces through the broadcast in a way that allows him to alter the emphasis he places on certain ideas. For example, Sartre’s distinction between “lutter pour les droits précis” (fighting for specific human rights), contributing towards “la liberté humaine”, and “écrire sur la liberté” (writing about freedom), which leads to oppression, takes the majority of its intellectual force from his vocal emphasis on the words “pour” and “sur”. Thus, the publicised speech at the Sorbonne allowed Sartre to conceptualise the idea of the responsible writer in a more personal fashion. 

Indeed, according to François Noudelmann, a contemporary French philosopher and scholar, if “la conférence UNESCO prend place au moment où Sartre devient “la” figure intellectuelle de référence pour une trentaine d’années » (the UNESCO Conference takes place at the moment Sartre becomes the intellectual figure of note for the next thirty odd years) (Noudelmann, 2006: pp.46), it is in part thanks to radio’s ability to unite the meaning of words with the intellectual themselves. The intellectual is able to physically embody their work.

Figure 2: The key-note speakers assembling outside of the Sorbonne, November 1946

Moreover, unlike the written text, which Sartre was equally well-versed in, having frequently written for Le Figaro and later in his own publication Les Temps Modernes, broadcasted audio alters the classical conception of the writer and audience. For example, in Sartre’s UNESCO Conference speech, his audience is not only comprised of the 220 people inside Salle Louis Liard, but also an anonymous mass of listeners on la Chaîne Parisienne. The presence of a double audience facilitates the dual character of his lecture as both “un appel moral et un remords personnel” (a moral plea and a plea for personal remorse) (Noudelmann, 2006: pp.45). Whilst speaking directly in front of a mixture of intellectual figures and cultural forces within French life, his speech reflects a personal desire to absolve himself from his failure to appreciate the severity of the situation he experienced when in Berlin, in the 1930s. Meanwhile, directed at a wider audience of French men and women on the radio, he implores on them the moral imperative of the responsible writer. With a double audience comes a double meaning.

This is not to say, however, that at certain points within his discourse, the two intended audiences do not amalgamate. Whilst Sartre laments the “conspiration de silence parmi les écrivains” (conspiracy of silence amongst writers) and calls for the writer to “lever son doigt” (rise up) against injustice, he is interrupted by applause. At this point, the physical audience takes an active role in affirming Sartre’s discourse, whilst the radio audience can only passively and implicitly concur. The medium by which Sartre creates the ‘responsible writer’ is thus dialogic, allowing him to take inspiration from the societal context in which he finds himself. If “existentialism suited the atmosphere of crisis of the 1940s” (Brown, 1986: pp.599) it was only because the writer and the audience were closer than ever. Given that Sartre believed social context had as much to do with the writer’s degree of responsibility as the writer did himself, the immediacy of the receptor’s praise within the medium of public and radio discourse allowed Sartre to practice what he preached.

The Responsible Writer: A New Written Style?

Sartre’s efforts to construct a new identity for the post-war intellectual did not stop at a singular speech given at the Sorbonne in 1946. In 1945, he launched his literary review Les Temps Modernes, a publication that was to embody the values so passionately defended by Sartre in his speech. The contributors were not to be “sedentary figures” but “a band of hunters and gathers” publishing material “geared to immediate consumption” (Davies, 1987: pp.12).

If, according to the Sartrean conception, to be a responsible writer is to actively uphold the rights and liberties of every free man, nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Beauvoir’s critical essay ‘Oeil pour Oeil’. Published in 1946, she denounces Brasillach for “degrader l’homme en chose” (degrading man into a thing) (Beauvoir, 1946) and violating one of the core tenets of Existentialist philosophy that existence precedes essence. Adopting an inclusive style of writing throughout the opening paragraphs of her essay, she refers to how “depuis 1945, nous avons appris la colère et la haine” (since 1945, we have learnt anger and hate) (Beauvoir, 1946). Whilst the written form prevented Beauvoir from calling upon the physicality of her voice to express her ideas, her inclusive and egalitarian written style, relying upon the first person plural pronoun, helps maintain a similar sense of proximity between the intellectual and the audience. She integrates herself within her readership. Actively defending the liberty of the most vulnerable members of society, as a responsible writer, merits doing nothing less.

In the context of the daily press in France being “progressively marginalised in the post-war period with the advent of radio and television” (Scriven, 1993: pp.26), the written style of Beauvoir’s essay goes some way to explaining how the review reached its peak daily readership of 10,000 in the years immediately following its inception (Davies, 1987: pp.217).

Concluding Thoughts

The trial of Robert Brasillach was a watershed moment for the French intellectual class. It demonstrated the extent to which intellectual thought could contribute to the erosion of public freedoms. Sartre’s speech at the UNESCO Conference proved a counterbalance to this threat. With Les Temps Modernes to hand and an increasingly varied audience listening through the medium of radio, the Existentialists birthed the ideal of the responsible writer in their own image. It was a concept born out of necessity which rapidly transformed itself into a concept of necessity.

Jonathan Rutherford.

Primary Sources

Figure 1 : France Culture. (2016). Grandes conférences – Jean Paul Sartre : Conférence donnée à la Sorbonne pour marquer la création de l’UNESCO (1ère diffusion : 30/11/1946) [archived radio]. Available from: https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-nuits-de-france-culture/grandes-conferences-jean-paul-sartre-conference-donnee-la [accessed 11/11/2020]

Figure 2 : Vermeren, P. (2003) La Philosophie saisie par L’UNESCO, Paris : UNESCO.

Secondary Sources

Beauvoir, S. (1946). Œil pour Œil. Les Temps Modernes, 5, pp.813-830

Beauvoir, S. de (1963) La force des choses. Paris: Éditions Gallimard (Collection Soleil, 137).

Brown, J. L. (1986) “Book Review: Sartre Et Les Temps Modernes: Une Entreprise Intellectuelle,” World Literature Today, 60(4), pp. 599–599.

Davies, H. (1987) Sartre and ‘Les Temps Modernes’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Studies in French)

Noudelmann, F. (2006). Que nous dissent aujourd’hui Jean-Paul Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir. Presses Univesitaires de France, 4(216), pp. 44-49.

Scriven, M. (1993) Sartre and the media. Hampshire: Macmillan Press.

Further Reading

Boschetti, A. (1985) Sartre et “les temps modernes” : une entreprise intellectuelle. Paris: Editions deMinuit (Le Sens commun).

Kaplan, A. Y. (2000) The collaborator: the trial & execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marso, L. J. (2012) “Simone De Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt: Judgments in Dark Times,” Political Theory, 40(2), pp. 165–193.

Shattuck, R. (1993) “De Gaulle and the Intellectuals,” Salmagundi, 100(100), pp. 16–25.

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