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Vingt-huit jours au Japon avec Jean-Paul Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir.

In 1966 nobody could have foreseen, the French least of all, that France's intellectual paramountcy, recognized and celebrated the world over, was on the point of drowning in its own empty verbiage. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir bestrode the awed world like Wagnerian giants, and when they arrived in Tokyo, to be guided around the country by Asabuki Tomiko, celebrated in her own country as the funnel through which contemporary French literature had entered Japan (Maurois, Sagan, Cocteau, Beauvoir herself), sixty reporters and photographers and thousands of students awaited them at Haneda Airport. It is a fascinating story, replete with matters worthy of deep reflection. It is also a glittery spectacle that strikes us today as utterly grotesque.

In so short a time, just over thirty years, we have come to see that Sartre's quaint notion of man's being free is self-evidently a wobbly premise upon which to spin a philosophic house of cards, all the more preposterous in light of Jean-Paul's concurrently quasi-religious faith in Soviet communism. ("Anyone who is anticommunist is necessarily a dog," the great man proclaimed.) Had he lived longer, he might well have churned out more thousands of pages, as he had on Jean Genet and Flaubert, to demonstrate that Fidel Castro too was a saint. So much for his intellectual prowess. As for Simone, with the exception of The Second Sex, still canonized for reasons having nothing to do with literary merit, she too is fast fading into a has-been. In France today hardly anybody reads Jean-Paul or Simone any more, whether for pleasure or for enlightenment, no more than they do Anatole France or Andre Gide, comets who streaked across our heavens in their time but are now sunk into an obscurity far beyond our horizons of active concern.

But nobody suspected any of this in 1966, nor does it have any bearing on the real interest of Asabuki's charming little book, which does after all shed a great deal of light on a period that is, like it or not, part of the world's literary history. Tomiko was at Haneda airport too, awaiting the celebrities, and contracted to be their interpreter throughout the twenty-eight days they were to spend together in Japan, the two guzzling amazing amounts of gin and whiskey while she observed, dryly. She had studied in France from a young age and had continued (and continues still) to spend her life between the two countries. Little did she wot she would be witness to Sartre's dying days, years later, poignantly recounted here as a most moving epilogue, or that, still later, she would one day be recording her reactions to Beauvoir's death too, and compiling what may turn out to be the definitive listings of Sartre's and Beauvoir's works translated into Japanese, as well as of Japanese works written about them, listings which conclude this volume.

While I greatly admire the impeccable tact with which Asabuki skirts the dangerous frontier between objective reporting and skillful concealment of her subjective opinions, reading between the lines I have come to suspect - though I may be mistaken - that she was fully aware of how utterly unintellectual, how downright boorish and platitudinous were the comments made on things Japanese by these two supposed (at the time) cerebral giants. Beauvoir was constantly announcing everything was vraiment tres beau. Well, yes. She had prepared for her trip by reading Murasaki Shikibu in advance, which is like preparing for a trip to England by reading Shakespeare. Sartre, more to the point, read Tanizaki, was rightly enough bowled over, and thought this author should have received the Nobel Prize. (But would he then have advised Tanizaki to accept it, as Sartre in the event did not?) Their second day in Japan, each had already become adequately expert on the Japanese to come out with glaring generalities: the Japanese all [verb], the Japanese all [another verb]. Of course, this is par for the course when any of us are tourists, a generality that seems to hold true. It did for me. I too drew conclusions from first encounters with the Japanese and thought I had their number; but seven years later, when I left Japan, I realized the common ground supposedly underlying all Japanese was more mysterious, less attainable by us outsiders than ever. But then I never walked through life, as Sartre and Beauvoir did, prefacing all my generalities with, "As an intellectual, I think . . ."

If Asabuki's attributions of direct quotations to the pair sometimes smack of Japanese blandness rather than of French incisiveness, Sartre's and Beauvoir's lectures were taken down verbatim, and indeed Sartre afterward presented the manuscript of one of his read-off speeches to her; yet these other quotations are every bit as bland. Or might that be because they are sometimes translated back into French from the Japanese? No, their speeches have all the accoutrements of genuine intellectual effort, but not the substance. Sartre blithely explains away other philosophers' disagreements with him by branding them as faux-intellectuals, not exactly the equivalent of a dialectical victory, arriving at a truth through the exchange of logical arguments. Beauvoir hammered away at women's rights in a way that was no doubt innovative and indeed revolutionary at the time but that strikes many if, alas, not yet all of us today as full of obvious banalities. She could also be obtusely Victorian on related subjects.: "It is certain that homosexuality is a perversion of human nature," said she, she who had reigned over Saint-Germain-des-Pres, no less, at the time it was in some ways the French Christopher Street.

Thirty thousand Japanese sought tickets to hear the two speak in a hall which could hardly hold two thousand. It is fascinating to read how Sartre hoped to avoid Mishima and then ran into him by chance inside a corridor of the Hotel Okura; years later, after Mishima's ritual (and botched) suicide, Sartre was to tell Asabuki, "In Japan, I shook his hand. To think that the hand I shook was the hand that opened his belly." We learn Jean Genet died the same day as Sartre. How odd to find Sartre and Beauvoir speechless, for once, before the very same statue of Nara's Kudara-Kannon that, as I write, is on temporary, display in the Louvre (in straight up-and-down stasis from in front; in elegant, flowing movement from the sides, the Japanese "equivalent," as the posters say, to the Venus de Milo). Can you conceive that Sartre has had more readers in Japan than in any other country in the world? A Japanese woman wished to collect Beauvoir's nail clippings in order to boil them up into an all-powerful elixir.

In short, however fallen these idols have become, Vingthuit jours is a must-read for everybody interested in one of the most remarkable phenomena in world literature, the cometlike rise and fall of two writers who actually believed and preached that literature could change the world. Would that Sartre and Beauvoir had been right, perhaps; but then, they were so often wrong, dead wrong.

Leslie Schenk Chevilly-Larue, Fr.
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Author:Schenk, Leslie
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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