Jean-Paul Sartre in Sao Paulo

Image: Marlon Griffith


Reminiscence of the visit of the French philosopher to the capital of São Paulo in 1960

When Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were about to arrive in São Paulo, accompanied by Jorge Amado, the now psychoanalyst Luís Meyer contacted me to see if it was possible to do an interview with the two writers on television. He sought me out because he knew of my friendship with Manoel Carlos, who was then working at TV Excelsior.

After contacting Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who agreed with the idea, we met for the first time on television at the time of the interview. In addition to me, among the interviewers were Ruy Coelho, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luís Meyer himself.

After that first contact, we began to see each other practically every day of the couple's stay in São Paulo. Most of the time, at Fernando Henrique's house, where members of the seminar on capital were almost always present: Ruth Cardoso, José Arthur Giannotti, Paul Singer, Roberto Schwarz and others.

Jean-Paul Sartre was always extremely friendly and generous. He even offered us all the texts in the magazine Modern times, that we could freely republish them in a magazine that we considered and that never came true.

Simone was obliged to control Sartre a little, from his alcohol consumption to the time he spent with us. I remember Sartre ordering a third whiskey and Simone's intervention to the contrary. Sartre said: “Just one more!”. She answered: “No”. But he came to an agreement, asking: “Only half a dose?”. Likewise, at the end of the night, he would ask us what time we would meet the next day and suggest “nine o'clock”. Simone said: "Ten o'clock". The same scheme as the whiskey worked: “Nine thirty?”.

In her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir remembers our meetings in a quick sentence, when she speaks of “very cultured university students”. Young people, because all this happened in the mid-1960s.

São Paulo, at the time, was taken over by a “Sartre epidemic”. There were several conferences, all with huge audiences. I remember, to give an example, that the philosopher Gilles-Gaston Granger was among us, dedicated to epistemology and very distant from the intellectual universe of Jean-Paul Sartre. Well, even he told me: “I think Sartre is the greatest contemporary philosopher, because Heidegger's last things…”.

If my memory serves me right, the poet Mário Chamie (who, however, had been enjoying the book since the mid-1950s What is literature?) went, precisely on the occasion of the presence of Jean-Paul Sartre, from strict concretism to his “praxis poetry”.

What happened on Excelsior TV was actually a pseudo-interview. Before going onstage, Sartre and Simone communicated to us the questions they would like answered. All were oriented towards the defense of Algeria (at war with France) and Cuba.

I remember that it was here in Brazil, on that occasion, that Jean-Paul Sartre signed the famous Manifest of the 121, in defense of the Algerian rebels, who caused so much noise in France (on his return to France, Jean-Paul Sartre was not arrested because, according to General Charles de Gaulle, "you don't arrest Voltaire").

The funny thing is that I was asked the following question, addressed to Simone de Beauvoir: “Is Cuba a dictatorship?”. She replied in the negative and with such violence that it made a spectator in the audience ask my friend Jorge da Cunha Lima: “Who is this reactionary boy?”. My friend had to explain the context to him, getting rid of the unpleasant qualification.

The interview lasted three hours, to the amazement of Jean-Paul Sartre, who asked how it was possible for a capitalist company to lose so much money (suspending its programs during that time) to give way to pure propaganda for socialism.

Media philosopher Sartre? Yes and no. No, because before engaging in his political “engagement”, his extraordinary work (philosophy and literature) only reached the directly interested public, more or less five thousand people in France, according to Jean-Paul Sartre himself. In the immediate aftermath of the war, everything changed. Jean-Paul Sartre began to write for newspapers (Heidegger, jealous of his success, called him a mere journalist, after having described him as extraordinary) and even to act through a radio program.

But Jean-Paul Sartre experienced this metamorphosis as a catastrophe. He said it was very painful to live with and share his intimacy with that unbearable other – the famous Jean-Paul Sartre. Besides, his television interview in São Paulo was the first he agreed to do. Until then, he had always declined invitations of this nature. More than a media person, Jean-Paul Sartre was an essentially politically active philosopher. The later mediatic philosopher is the one who narcissistically identifies with this socially produced other, “as a commodity”.

From Jean-Paul Sartre was the example of a great philosopher, so rare in our days, in which school philosophy predominates. Today, even in the extremely technical field of cognitive science, there is something of a widespread return to phenomenology in general and even to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. Surely his work is not “a thing of the past”.

His literary work is uneven. For me, The Paths of Freedom seem not very interesting. Much more significant is the nausea and, above all, the stories collected in The wall, which are extraordinary. In addition, of course, to his great theatrical work.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of Error, illusion, madness: essays (Publisher 34).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, on June 12, 2005.


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