The Existential Life: Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I heard those names spoken with some reverence by my professor of Western Thought, a course deemed essential to round out all college degrees by the university I was attending. In the next breath, the professor uttered, “Existentialism.”

Even now, I’m not entirely sure what the word means although its precepts (or at least some of them) are sacred to me: individual responsibility, freedom, and choice. Agnès Poirier, author of Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950 helps lift some of that fog of vagueness.

When I picked up this book, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Its attraction for me resided in three endlessly fascinating words: Paris, Art; and Left Bank. I was also curious what that particular decade was like when a world war destroyed much of Europe. How did people cope with its aftermath? How did they begin to recover from it?

What Poirier presents is something like an intimate history of the intellectual ferment and creativity that exploded in Paris after the war. It’s akin to reading the exhilarating narrative of eagles taking wings after being held in captivity. In Poirier’s words: “Left Bank is a portrait … of the young men and women …who “promised themselves to reenchant a world left in ruins.”

And that is exactly what they do. Those writers, thinkers, artists etc. fueled the rebirth of the creative and intellectual life of Paris and the rest of the western world. At the center of that history, we find de Beauvoir and Sartre, two brilliant minds who defined not only their era but who also proposed ideas that have endured to this day. The couple lived, thought, worked, and loved (or had sex) freely.

Brassaï (1899-1984)
Repetition du Désir attrapé par la queue chez Picasso
16 juin 1944. Photographie, épreuve aux sels d’argent. 23 x 18 cm
BNF, Estampes et Photographie

To make it easier to absorb the dizzying array of characters and events, Poirier includes a timeline and a list of people who figured prominently in the rebirth.

The first major temblor comes from a 1945 lecture bolstered by Sartre’s “bible” for existentialism. Being and Nothingness, first published in 1943. It sold well at that time but not for its content. A tome weighing exactly a kilo, people initially bought it as a substitute weight for the usual copper weights which were being melted for ammunition.

In 1945, the Sartre-de Beauvoir team began the publication of a journal Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times) that was widely praised as “stimulating and thought-provoking.” The seeds of existentialism were being cultivated. In October of that year, Sartre gave a lecture Is Existentialism a Humanism? to a packed, energized audience who rushed out to buy his weighty tome. Thus, was born the cult of existentialism.

Albert Camus who was already publishing his own journal Combat, also declared himself an existentialist. Eager and receptive young minds flocked to Paris for its invigorating and liberating (particularly for black writers and artists escaping racism in the US) atmosphere. Apart from the three main players, this cast included, Jean Cocteau, Norman Mailer, Alberto Giacommetti, Alexander Calder, Saul Bellow, Samuel Beckett, Pablo Picasso, to name a few. It’s a list made up of future Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners and acclaimed artists.

The second major temblor took place in 1949 when Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, possibly the most influential book on feminism. The well-researched book showed “women’s “inferiority” taken for granted” with no ”convincing justification for it; and

“how myths and mythology imprinted human consciousness to the detriment of women, weaving tale after tale about the “eternal feminine.”

De Beauvoir—inevitably, naturally —advocated equality in love and sex for women and asserted a woman’s rights to seek abortion for unwanted pregnancies. She made enemies from among her friends and lovers and the Catholic Church banned the book. But a new era for women had been born.

Those years after the war were an enviable, intoxicating time. Nothing was held sacred and people—at least, theoretically—could live as they chose.

Sartre’s existentialism:

“ … placed men and women at the heart of their lives and that of society. Responsibility for their actions as much as for their inactions, for their commitment or lack of it, was theirs and theirs alone. No more excuses; men and women were what they did or what they did not have the courage to do. Sartre’s philosophy also offered new, modern freedoms expressed through jazz music, American literature including pulp fiction, all kinds of popular culture usually looked down on, sexual experimentation, and innovation in the arts.”

Maybe Existentialism is vague to me precisely because of the freedom it gives people to choose how they live. An existential life is subject to the many interpretations of those who choose it.

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