By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 semi-autobiographical novel, follows a group of prominent, but ultimately ineffectual Parisian intellectuals in the years that follow the end of the Vichy regime and Nazi occupation. These characters were loosely based on some of the most influential French thinkers of the mid-twentieth century—Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, and de Beauvoir herself—and much of the dialog contained within the book reflects the passionate political and existential arguments that came to define the era between the liberation of Paris and the enactment of the Marshall Plan. While many of these conversations may be considered a bit of a time capsule meant to place one in the smoky jazz clubs and bistros of post-war Paris, de Beauvoir’s depiction of the era echoes our own in many ways. Specifically, she has a great deal to say about the role of the intellectual or writer in times of political strife.

Jay Fox

Whereas a more postmodern work would have treated these self-obsessed intellectuals as vehicles for satire and ridicule, de Beauvoir is far too philosophically honest and daring a writer to treat her subjects with such disdain. Furthermore, she was far too intelligent to be so supercilious when considering something as serious as the devolution of the global political landscape into a bipolar nightmare between American-style capitalism and Stalinism with the looming threat of The Bomb hanging over the collective head of the world. Given that the two sides were still vying for control of Europe at the time the novel was published (and for a long time after that), this was a living, breathing argument that had global implications. Unfortunately, France was faced with being largely geopolitically irrelevant, and these same French intellectuals had been largely relegated to being mere pawns to be used in either American or Russians propaganda. Therefore, de Beauvoir’s use of the term “mandarins” to describe them isn’t without a sense of gallows humor; the word is typically considered a pejorative term for a bureaucrat with too much power.

For Robert Dubreuilh, one of the novel’s central characters who was evidently modeled after Sartre, de Beauvoir described his situation as follows: “If he helps build a future hostile to all the values in which he believes, his struggle becomes absurd. But if he stubbornly insists on maintaining values that will never come down to earth, he becomes one of those old dreams whom, above all, he has always wanted not to emulate. No, between those alternatives, no choice is possible. In either case, it would mean defeat, impotence; and for Robert that would be a living death.”

These words are written from the perspective of Anne Dubreuilh, who enjoys an open marriage with Robert. The novel switches between her perspective and a third-person narrator in alternating chapters that tend to be extremely long (there are only 12 in a book that spans 610 pages). These chapters focus on Anne and Robert, their daughter Nadine, as well as Henri Perron (who was modeled after Camus) and a larger group of writers and former members of the French Resistance attempting, at least initially, to form a united leftist coalition independent of the Communist Party. This coalition, the S.R.L., is the brainchild of Robert, and he eventually convinces Henri, his literary protégé and the editor of the newspaper L’Espoir (Man’s Hope), to make his paper the official organ of the party.

As the novel progresses it quickly becomes evident that the goal of the S.R.L. is impossible, and central to the plot is Henri’s struggle to decide whether or not he wants to publish information that would be damning not only to the Soviets, but to the greater dream of revolution and an independent and socialist Europe. Most of the former members of the Resistance begin to take sides in either the pro-Communist or the pro-American/anti-Communist camps over this question of the camps and come to parrot the talking points of their respective tribe; the S.R.L. is torn apart from the inside; and L’Espoir, which maintains its editorial independence from Russia and eventually does publish a story on the camps, is eventually labeled a rightwing rag. As de Beauvoir writes of the camps, “The camps had become an institution, leading to the systematic creation of a subproletariat. Crime wasn’t being punished by work. Rather workers were treated as criminals so that they could be exploited.”

Despite the brutal reality of the camps and the Soviet regime, Henri and Robert try to remain true to a more egalitarian and humanistic vision of socialism, but this ultimately alienates them from the larger movement and leaves them despised, alone, and bitterly opposed even to one another, even if they are initially the most esteemed members of the group due to their literary talents. Robert even renounces the virtues of the Enlightenment as being part of the ethics of the bourgeoise and proclaims all virtues must be rooted in advancing the cause of revolution (which is reminiscent of Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours). However, such system is not something by which he cannot abide. His struggle, therefore, is absurd. “‘You can’t draw a straight line in a curved space’,” he says. “‘You can’t lead a proper life in a society which isn’t proper.’” For Robert, there is no personal salvation.

Additionally, the novel follows numerous love affairs, most notably the ones between Anne and an American writer named Lewis Brogan, as well as Henri’s relationship with Paula, Nadine, and a young actress named Josette. Each one of these relationships warrants an entire essay, as de Beauvoir’s meditations on erotic love complement and enhance the larger political, existential, and feminist theories at play within the novel. Furthermore, she was a master at writing dialog, and possessed a particular aptitude for depicting how what seems like a minor lover’s quarrel can quickly devolve into a bareknuckle verbal brawl.

That it is true that these passages are vital to fully understanding the complete novel, it seems more imperative to focus on de Beauvoir’s thoughts on the role of the intellectual in a highly bipolarized and fanatical environment wherein nuanced criticism of one political or economic system seems to become impossible, as any critique, no matter how slight, will then be used as ammunition by those who support the opposing system. This is both the case with American support for the Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco and the Portuguese Dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, as well as the numerous atrocities committed by the Soviets, many of which de Beauvoir could not have known about because they only became known to the public following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and have been detailed in problematic tomes like The Black Book of Communism. (All she knew at the time was that the Soviets were holding millions in camps not much different than those constructed by the Nazis.)

As an agent of the American government named Preston tells Henri, “‘We have no objections at all to being criticized. No one is more open to construction criticism than an American.’” This, of course, is followed with: “’You understand of course that if L’Espoir takes a position against America I can no longer continue to sympathize with it.’”

Similarly, when Henri is confronted by Lachaume, a lackey for the Communist Party, he describes the situation in similar terms: “‘If the S.R.L. continues to be a silent, humble little group, working meekly in your shadow, you’d tolerate it, even encourage it! But if we decide to exist in our own right, the sacred union is no longer in force.’” His tongue very clearly in his cheek, one of the characters (Vincent) summarizes the situation like a contemporary Republican might describe the camps at the border of the U.S. wherein children are being kept in cages: “‘That they don’t exist, that they’re an excellent institution, that they’ll disappear all by themselves.’”

In such an environment, the conflation of neutrality and silence becomes perverse; impartiality comes to entail a kind of blindness, and independent intellectuals see their roles diminished as they are replaced by hackneyed pundits and agents of competing powers. Given these conditions, de Beauvoir questions, of what use is the intellectual, particularly the intellectual who attempts to make use of their literary gifts? Are they to remain in the academy? Are they to become aesthetes who focus on creating art for the sake of art? Can they entertain and embrace both the radical and the humanistic or does humanism necessarily entail a certain degree of individualism that precludes collective and, therefore, radical leftist politics?

Unfortunately, this cannot be answered definitively, but de Beauvoir seems to believe that one does have a responsibility to avoid bad faith despite a fairly nihilistic outlook. If this sounds like the ethics of the absurd, it is because the conditions of existence are themselves absurd. As she writes, “You can never possess the world, and protecting yourself against it is out of the question, too. You’re in it, that’s all.” She also offers this advice via Robert: “‘History isn’t rosy. But since you can’t escape it, you’ve got to seek the best way of living in it. In my opinion, abstention isn’t the answer.’”

To put it more poetically: “Since my heart continues to beat, it will have to beat for something, for someone.”



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.