Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Partying in Paris 1944: with Sartre, de Beauvoir & Camus

In 1944 the Nazi occupation of Paris was in its last deadly phase. The RAF was bombing the city's railway stations and the Resistance was stepping up its activities - to be met with fierce repression and mass executions. Following a show trial, 23 members of a Jewish and other migrant workers' resistance group led by Armenian communist Missak Manouchian were executed, most of them in Paris in February 1944.

A group of artists and writers linked with various degrees of commitment with the Resistance met and socialised in these conditions, holding parties in each others houses with quite a guest list.

Pablo Picasso was living in Paris at the time and wrote a play, Desire Caught by the Tail, which was performed in the home of surrealist writer Michel Leiris, with Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beavoir and  Albert Camus taking part, and the audience including Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan and Picasso himself. The party continued after the play: 'Those who stayed after midnight had, because of the curfew, to stay til dawn; Mouloudji sang 'Les Petits paves', Sartre sang 'Les Papillons de nuit' and 'J'ai vendu mon ame au diable'.

George Bataille
'Eager to continue the mood of celebration, some of their friends went on to organise a series of ‘fiestas’, as Leiris called them. The first was held in March at George Bataille’s flat, where the musician Rene Leibowitz was in hiding; for the second Bost’s mother lent them her villa in Taverny. They drank and they clowned. Queneau and Bataille duelled with bottles; Camus and Lemarchand played tunes on saucepan lids; Sartre conducted an imaginary orchestra from the bottom of a cupboards…'

Sartre and de Beauvoir
'The third fiesta was held in June 1944 at Toulouse’s flat, where the huge circular drawing room opened on to a garden. The hall and the rooms had been decorated with flowers, ribbons, garlands, knick-knacks… At three in the morning, Toulouse [Simone Camille Jollivet] made her appearance, wearing rouge on her eyelids and blue eye-shadow on her cheeks. Unsteadily she danced a paso doble with Camus. The party lasted til daylight, and when Sartre and De Beauvoir, together with Olga [Kosakiewicz] and Bost, were walking through the deserted Place de Rennes, they saw placards on the station wall: no trains would run until further notice. Later on in the day it was announced over the radio that English and American troops had landed in Normandy.’
Simone Jollivet ('Toulouse') 
Of course this group of friends were also famous for their socialising in Saint Germain cafes such as Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore. It was while hanging out at the latter in May 1944 that Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir first met Jean Genet who came over and introduced himself.

Jean Genet
After the war they continued to party - in 1946 for instance Sartre, de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Francine Faure took Arthur and Mamaine Koestler out on the town 'to a little dance hall in the rue des Gravilliers and then to a nightclub, the Scheherezade' followed at four in the morning 'to a bistro in Les Halles, where they drank a great deal'. As existentialism became fashionable Sartre popped in a couple of times to Le Tabou, a nightclub on the rue Dauphine that had became popular with its  black-clad aficionados. In May 1947, the news magazine Samedi Soir published a  report entitled 'This is how the troglodytes of Saint-Germain live!', which described the 'gigantic orgies organised by filthy young existentialists' who spent their time 'drinking, dancing and loving their lives away in cellars, until the atom bomb - which they all perversely long for - drops on Paris' (quoted in Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey).

Mamaine and Arthur Koestler
It's tempting to apply Sartre's notions of 'seriality' and 'group-in-fusion' to these convivial spaces, the former the everyday condition of individuals in isolation from each other and the latter characterising those situations when individuals overcome their separation in collective activity (Sartre famously quoted the storming of the Bastille as the supreme example). If post-rave we can conceive of the dancefloor or even the cafe as an example of 'group in fusion', Sartre tended to see the group's fusion being dependent on the individuals within it define themselves against some 'third' other. He wrote of the cafe as  'a milieu of indifference, where other people exist without troubling about me while I don't worry about them', and indeed did much of his writing in cafes on this basis.

Francine Faure and Albert Camus

Source of all quotes unless otherwise stated: Ronald Hayman, Writing Against: A Biography of Sartre

No comments: