Just Above Sunset
June 26, 2005 - The man who thought he was being chased by a lobster ...

Home | Question Time | Something Is Up | Connecting Dots | Stay Away | Overload | Our Man in Paris | WLJ Weekly | Book Wrangler | Cobras | The Edge of the Pacific | The Surreal Beach | On Location | Botanicals | Quotes

The man who thought he was being chased by a lobster

through the nightmare streets full of loud music...




Notes from Tuesday, June 21, 2005: the moon was just about full (actual full moon June 22), they had that music thing going in Paris, and Jean-Paul-Sartre would have been one hundred years old on this date, but he's dead.

This "
Fête de la Musique" thing?   Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, covers it for us, and Don Smith of Left Bank Lens sends photos.

Here are the basics


PARIS, France (UPI) -- France kicked off summer Tuesday with musical festivities now being replicated worldwide.

Musicians and wannabe musicians were out serenading audiences across the country, marking the 24th annual "Fete de la Musique."

Founded in the early 1980s in France, the "fete" - or celebration - is being replicated in some 100 cities scattered across five continents.

Some 5 million French are musicians, Le Figaro reports, although many are amateurs….


As noted last year about this time in these pages –


This is madness in Paris, where the longest day of the year gives everyone reasonable natural light until well after ten in the evening.  (Paris in on the far western edge of its fifteen-degree time zone so the sun sets very, very late.)  In 1997 up in Montmartre, strolling rue des Abbesses, you would have heard a lot of Brazilian bands, as I recall, and then, further east down the street, one could walk into an ancient stone church where one could sit and listen to some ancient looking nuns doing plainchant sorts of things.  In June of 2000, on a long walk from rue Daguerre down rue des Rennes and ending up at the Buci market area (a long slog), the city seemed filled with over amplified seventh-rate amateur rock bands, crappy novelty New Orleans groups doing "Hold That Tiger" (Tenez ce tigre?) and such things – and a heavy mental band outside the hotel window that played (quite badly) until four in the morning.  Awful stuff.  I missed Patricia Kaas across the river on the right bank.


Hollywood has nothing like thing, or is like this all the time.

But all of this year's music will no doubt drown out whatever Sartre stuff is going on, and the BBC reports that officials at France's National Library are quite disappointed by the poor visitor figures for a current anniversary exhibition of his work.  Ah well.

Mixed feelings?


"France hated him when he was alive and shuns him in death," French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said.

But in his heyday, his radical ideas earned him a following that has been compared to that of a pop star.

There was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) could not move without being mobbed in the street.

His existentialist ideas made him an icon for a whole generation of intellectuals.

According to the British philosopher Julian Baggini, Sartre's "point is that freedom is something we're kind of afraid of, and we always want to deny we have, so we always try and make excuses for our behaviour, and say it's not our responsibility".

"And his real point was, no, we do have to choose. And not just about what we do, but what we believe, and the values we hold."


Yep, and Sartre supported the Soviet regime in the fifties and then the Maoists, then he defended the killing of those Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and he turned down the Nobel prize for literature – it was just too bourgeois, of course.  So there have been a series of tributes and events, but he does have this reputation as an apologist for totalitarianism.  It's not all just "holding forth in a smoky cafe on the Left Bank with his partner, the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir."

Lately those Left Bank Cafes - the Flore and Les Deux Magots – are filled with American tourists who hate the smoke and want smoking banned throughout Paris, just as we have done here (we got rid of philosophy discussions early in the nineteenth century, of course).  Adam Gopnik explains what two those places are now all about here in his book "Paris to the Moon."  Those days are gone.

For a fine assessment of Sartre for us - we, the Americans - you might check out this:

Exit, Pursued by a Lobster
Jean-Paul Sartre: Brilliant philosopher, or totalitarian apologist?
Jim Holt - Posted Monday, Sept. 22, 2003, at 8:28 AM PT - SLATE.COM

Holt writes for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine and the title has to do with Sartre's experiments with mescaline, which left him with the recurrent fear that he was being pursued by a lobster.  Who knows?  Perhaps he was so pursued.

A bit of what Holt has to say –


As an intellectual superstar and monstre sacre, Sartre has no equal in the English-speaking world. Even in France you would have to go back to Voltaire to find a figure of comparable stature. At his funeral in 1980, a crowd of 50,000 people followed the cortege through the streets of Paris to the Montparnasse cemetery. This ugly little wall-eyed scribbler had done it all. He created existentialism, a philosophy that could be lived. His treatises and novels sold in the millions; his plays were boffo successes; his public lectures were mobbed. He founded Liberation, which was to become France's most powerful left-wing newspaper, and Les Temps Modernes, for years its premier intellectual journal.

By dint of sheer intellectual authority, Sartre could engage his bitter adversary Charles de Gaulle as an equal, even though de Gaulle was head of state. ("One does not imprison a Voltaire," the general said of him.) …


Yep, a big gun.  And Holt suggests that if you combined aspects of Bertrand Russell, Arthur Miller, Noam Chomsky, Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen, and Mick Jagger you might have a pretty good idea of how big a gun he was.

But how good was Sartre as a philosopher?


Some critics say that in creating existentialism he simply took the ideas of Heidegger and give them a Gallic gloss. Sartre's Being and Nothingness, they complain, is just Heidegger's Being and Time with some racy passages thrown in about the anus and Italian love-making. That is unfair. It is certainly true that Sartre, who grew up in a bilingual Alsatian household, owed a great debt to German thought. But the starting point for his philosophy, as he always insisted, was the Cartesian formula "I think, therefore I am." Consciousness, the core of our being, is an emptiness or "negativity" that must fill out its nature through arbitrary choices - that is the idea behind Sartre's celebrated aphorism "We are condemned to be free."

Despite the phenomenological complexities of his philosophy, Sartre managed to make it exciting. Anybody could become an existentialist, especially the young. The teutonic dread of Kierkegaard and angst of Heidegger gave way to Sartrean fun.


Ah, screw Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and let's have some Sartrean fun!


In the underground caves of St. Germain-des-Pres, jazz dancing was deemed the highest expression of existentialism. Never has a serious philosopher had such an impact on nightlife. Sartre even wrote a rather beautiful song for the great chanteuse Juliette Greco to sing at the Rose Rouge.


I guess you had to be there.  And it is hard to determine what Sartre made of Juliette Greco's hot affair with Miles Davis.
As for the negative stuff?  In the fifties he aligns himself with the Communist Party – "this at a time when the crimes of Stalin were being documented and other intellectuals were abandoning the party."


He broke with Camus because the latter denounced totalitarianism. He was silent on the gulag ("It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps"), and he excused the purges of Stalin and later Mao. When the defector Victor Kravchenko published I Chose Freedom, the first inside account of the horrors of Stalinism, Sartre wrote a play implying that Kravchenko was a creation of the CIA. Even when Sartre was on the right side, he could be morally tone-deaf. In opposing the war in Vietnam, he urged the Soviet Union to take on the Americans, even at the risk of nuclear war. And in championing Algerian independence, he wrote (in his preface to Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth) that for an African "to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time."


Yipes - read Holt for all the details.

But in the end Holt is kind.  Sartre was the Last Intellectual.


True, France still has writers on philosophical questions who also march in demonstrations. (One of them, Luc Ferry, has even been made the nation's minister for education.) But there will never again be a combination of totalizing theoretician, literary colossus, and political engage like Sartre. Today's French intellectuals look like puny technocrats by comparison. Luckily, they proved to be on the winning side of history, so they can afford to be gracious to him, to say, along with de Gaulle, Sartre, c'est aussi la France.


So full moon, music in the streets, and it was Sartre's birthday.  Here in Hollywood not much was happening.


Additional Notes:

Sartre – excerpts from the AFP wire Tuesday, 21 June 2005 18:32:00 GMT


[1] In fact, says historian Annie Cohen-Solal writing in Le Monde newspaper, the French have largely turned their backs on Sartre, while his philosophy goes from strength to strength in other parts of the world.

There is "a strange divide between the way Sartre is viewed in France and in the rest of the world," she wrote in Le Monde Monday.

[2] Sartre's legacy will also be dissected and debated in several major symposia this summer, including one in southwestern France's Salies-de-Bearn, from June 29 to July 1, and another in Cerisy-la-Salle, on the Channel, from July 20-30.

[3] The last traces of the Renault automobile factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, where an iconic photograph showed the pro-Marxist philosopher haranguing the workers, disappeared under the wreckers' ball a few weeks ago, and is rapidly being replaced by apartments and offices for the bourgeoisie.

[4] One of the foreign countries that did remember Sartre on the day of his birth was Austria, where the cultural channel of the ORF public radio has dedicated a series of broadcasts to the theme Sarte and freedom.

A major article in the weekly Profil magazine describes Sartre as "a great intellectual, humanist and activist."

It said his reputation has been dusted off, so that one now "rediscovers a pop-star of philosophy" who helps people find their authentic selves.


Ah, more of that "pop star" business.

And Tuesday night's music program?

AFP Wednesday, 22 June 2005 01:40:00 GMT


[1] A bevy of popular French singers performed before more than 70,000 people, according to the police, in the grounds of the Versailles palace.

French Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres hailed the success of the four-hour concert, where performers included Bryan Adams, Yannick Noah and Shakira. A firework display lit up the skies over the chateau.

[2] This year's theme took the fete back to its beginning: amateurism. And even if there were fewer headline acts that in previous years, there were still plenty of marquee names on stage.

French actress Sandrine Kiberlain, who has just released an album, was one, along with electronics music wizard Emilie Simon and rock band Deportivo.

The French Senate celebrated in its private backyard -- otherwise known as the Jardin de Luxembourg -- with a display of Brazilian rhythms featuring 150 percussionists.


So the Brazilian music up on rue des Abbessess up in Montmartre in 1997 has gone upscale.  The Jardin de Luxembourg no less.  Cool.


From Ric Erickson: Sartre's grave -

Sartre's grave...

Sartre's grave...

Photos  Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....