The last days of Jean-Paul Sartre

In the third volume of her memoirs, The Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that she did not perceive death as a physical reality until 1954, when word reached her of Sartre’s having been hospitalized, for unstated reasons, during a trip to the Soviet Union. Something “irrevocable” had happened, she declared. “Death had closed its hand around me; it was no longer a metaphysical scandal, it was a quality of our arteries, it was no longer a sheath of night around us, it was an intimate presence penetrating my life, changing the taste of things, the quality of the light, my memories, the things I wanted to do: everything.” Although the German Occupation and the liberation of Paris had made violence commonplace, her quasi-symbiotic relationship with Sartre conferred upon her—or so this account might suggest—a sense of invulnerability that vanished the moment her intellectual mate began to falter.

Arteries are very much an issue in La cérémonie des adieux,[1] for this short work chronicles year by year the deterioration of Sartre’s mind and body after 1970. The vertigo he experienced in Moscow was the first of many danger signals that went unheeded during the late Fifties and Sixties. To produce The Critique of Dialectical Reason and his 2800-page opus on Flaubert, The Family Idiot (where “falls” govern the whole interpretative scheme), Sartre often labored thirty hours at a stretch, popping amphetamines and smoking several packs of Boyard cigarettes a day. Why he drove himself so mercilessly is open to conjecture, but it may be worth recalling what de Beauvoir wrote about him as a young man in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, that in his view the literary work was “an absolute end” that carried within itself “its raison d’être, its creator’s, and even perhaps . . . the entire universe’s.” Absolute ends do not promote personal hygiene. Bound up with the fantasy of omnipotence and self-sacrifice, writing remained for Sartre a romantic vocation whose glory lay in its power to consume the writer. Consume him it did. By 1970,when he was sixty-five, his vascular system was a shambles.

De Beauvoir’s memoir commences in September of that year. After he had drunk a quantity of vodka at dinner one Saturday evening, Sartre began dozing and let his cigarette fall from his lips. The next day he was sufficiently recovered to leave de Beauvoir’s apartment for his own, but when they met several hours later, she found him unsteady on his feet: he bumped into furniture, reeled as they left a restaurant, and pitched forward while getting out of a cab. The dozen or so medical examinations he underwent during the next month brought to light a circulatory problem in the left hemisphere of his brain, and a general narrowing of the blood vessels.

In the next two years, there were other such episodes during which his mind would wander, and on one occasion he fell down, badly bruising himself about the head. It seems odd that a physician whom he consulted, in what soon became an excruciating round of consultations at the Salpêtrière hospital, should have given him a clean bill of health after reading his encephalogram, since just to walk cost him considerable pain, and the spells of drowsiness to which he was subject visited him more frequently. But this memoir contains much that is odd. Sartre himself showed no disposition to question diagnoses that flew in the face of evidence. His ideal doctor would have assured him that he need not forego the consolation he derived from whisky and tobacco, that his health was proof against his enemies, including above all himself, who could destroy it with impunity.

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