Commentary Magazine


The Mandarins, by Simone de Beauvoir

The French Intellectuals
by H. Stuart Hughes
The Mandarins. By Simone de Beauvoir. Translated from the French by Leonard M. Friedman. World. 610 pp. $6.00.

The Mandarins is unquestionably an important book. Two winters ago in Paris it shared honors with Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse as the most discussed novel of the season. A public accustomed to short novels—or vast romans fleuves appearing in 200-page installments—for once showed itself capable of sustaining interest in a thick volume, dense with personalities and argument. But to say that Simone de Beauvoir’s new book is important is not to maintain that it is a great, or even a good, novel. It may actually be no more than a phénomène.

Although full of cleverness and shrewd observation, The Mandarins shows only scatterings of humor. And in particular it lacks the quiet irony that comes from an awareness of the comic aspects of one’s own behavior and that of one’s friends. Aside from a few burlesque episodes in which the rich and their hangers-on are satirized with calculated malice, The Mandarins maintains a tone of strenuous earnestness—one is tempted to say, solemnity. The author may laugh at those outside the privileged circle. But inside, in the world of the mandarins themselves, all is muted respect. The ironic promise of the title is never fulfilled.

The implied comparison between Chinese and French civilization is familiar, and in this case profoundly justified. Fine cooking, the cultivation of one’s garden, a disabused philosophy of life—the elements of the parallel need only be suggested. Above all, the two societies have agreed in ascribing the supreme personal status to a self-perpetuating literary intelligentsia. In France the summit of individual eminence has traditionally been membership in the Academy, a body which maintains a position of sanctified prestige not unlike that of the United States Supreme Court. As eventual aspirants to this honor, the talented young men of France have for generations received an education that may well be the most rigorous in the world—but one whose abstract intellectualism has been combated by a distinguished minority of critics extending from Pascal to Sorel. A surfeit of rhetoric in the lycées and the grandes écoles has produced an educated class that is incomparably articulate: beside them American intellectuals are mere stammerers. But it is an intelligentsia that is interested in discussing only the sort of subjects that lend themselves to Cartesian categorizing—which in practice means the same subjects that French intellectuals have been discussing for two and a half centuries: the presumed general principles of the universe and of mankind, and in particular the ethical aspects of politics.

This is the world of The Mandarins—a world in which abstract ideas are charged with passion and lead autonomous existences. It is the universe of the pure intellectual about whom one of Simone de Beauvoir’s characters complains: “Give him paper, time, and he lacks for nothing.” Here, despite the unremitting play of dialectics, the central presuppositions of the intellectual class are never challenged: the mandarins apparently feel no need to question the validity of the abstract reasoning that has led to the conviction that the Soviet Union is ultimately preferable to the United States, and that the latter is “preparing to subjugate Europe.”

A reviewer cannot help wondering why Simone de Beauvoir chose the novel form to initiate us into this world. For as a novel The Mandarins is cumbersome and contrived. The dialogue is frequently dazzling—but just as frequently wordy and self-conscious. The sexual passages are heavily specific. And the longest of the love episodes—a dismal affair in Chicago which Harper’s Bazaar has unaccountably chosen to publish as a short story—is told with an amateurishness that is down-right embarrassing. This book never seems to have been sufficiently pruned. While the first half is well-paced and absorbing, the latter part flags unmistakably as a weary repetitiousness takes over. And the flatness of the original style is not improved by the pedestrian fidelity of the translation.

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So much for The Mandarins as a novel. As reportage, one may evaluate it quite differently. Like much of the work of Arthur Koestler, it is journalism of a high order—an imaginative presentation of a milieu that has been observed with both sympathy and penetration. The characters are superbly rendered. They are lifelike for the very reason that they are either actual living figures or types that anyone who knows contemporary France will readily recognize. There is Henri Perron—a scarcely altered Camus. There is his preceptor, friend, antagonist, and eventual father-in-law Robert Dubreuilh—an older, nobler, vastly enlarged Sartre. There is the latter’s wife Anne—not very convincing as a practicing psychiatrist but more credible in her role as the consort of a leading intellectual. One may add to the gallery their daughter Nadine, who “in spite of her experiences in various French and American beds . . . still seemed in the middle of the awkward age,” and a host of minor figures, French, Russian, and American. For these alone, The Mandarins would be worth reading. As a portraiture of intellectuals in postwar France, it has no equal.

Moreover, its major theme has an unquestionable nobility. Through the maze of subplots and side-episodes, it is the relationship between Perron and Dubreuilh—their original friendship, their falling out, and their eventual reconciliation—that gives significance to the whole. In this central series of episodes, the novel constitutes an artfully re-arranged account of the most celebrated dispute that has occurred in the French intellectual world since the Liberation: the split between Sartre and Camus over the question of Soviet concentration camps. What is admirable in Simone de Beauvoir’s presentation is the way in which she generalizes a personal antagonism into a major parable for our time. And in so doing she manages to give each protagonist his due as a man of good will striving for peace and justice according to his lights.

Through this central ideological dilemma and the characters who personify it, Simone de Beauvoir has acutely analyzed the manners and aspirations of the French mandarinate. Despite her undisguised emotional involvement with them, she has succeeded in displaying their weaknesses—their pedantic concern about their most trivial doings, and their unshakable conviction that all virtue lies on the left. Yet she also manages to suggest the moral strength that these very failings reflect. We Americans may smile at the French intellectuals’ devotion to lost causes and their insistence on the moral responsibility of the individual for all ‘the collective evil of our time. Yet our smile has the wryness of resignation: long ago nearly all of us gave up the fight. The French may be suffering from a great illusion—but they are still fighting.

The Mandarins, in short, succeeds best where it tries least. As a work of art, it is disappointing. As an only partially intentional revelation of a state of mind, it is an invaluable piece of documentation. Simone de Beauvoir’s Parisian intellectuals alternate between an attitude of discouraged pointlessness in a world in which only the United States and Russia seem any longer to count, and the traditional assumption that it is their personal universe that alone really matters. Basically, they live in a world they no longer understand. Intermittently aware that their inherited presuppositions are carrying them farther and farther from reality, they struggle desperately to swim back to the familiar shore.

With each year that passes, the French intellectuals and their compeers in the United States are finding it harder and harder to communicate. The French look to us increasingly doctrinaire and intellectualist—we Americans appear to them to be slipping ever deeper into the quicksands of adaptability and empiricism. Feeling their cultural primacy threatened, the French have fallen back on a dogged defense of their national heritage. Meantime we Americans have outgrown our original provincialism—and even our more recent sense of liberation from it. I doubt whether there has ever been a group of intellectuals so free from merely national attitudes.

A generation or two ago one might have written very nearly the same thing of the French. A feeling for universal interests was the proudest feature of French culture. Today in Paris one senses a narrowing of vistas, a cramped self-consciousness, a tendency to live on cultural capital. The Mandarins epitomizes this intellectual impasse: the striving for universality is there, but the result is parochialism. It suggests that the overriding problem in France today is how to rise again to the old sense of confident intellectual grasp. And it is only a minority who have ventured to assert that the way to do so is to subject to a ruthless re-examination the cult of general principles that has led into a dead end.

The prospects for re-adaptation are not improved by the fastidiousness of the French literati about the aesthetic quality of the ideas they will countenance. Mandarins to the last, they seem to prefer to sink with dignity into anachronism rather than to adjust to changed conditions. We Americans, whose pretensions have been more modest, may suggest that it is only through the adoption of new methods and new themes—however undistinguished their origin—that the way to major intellectual creation can again be thrown open.

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