Vice and Verse

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are buried in the same grave in Paris. The visitor may be tempted to pause and murmur, “How sweet.” He would be wrong. She was his mistress throughout his lifetime, but her theme song could not have been “A good hearted woman in love with a two-timing man.”

For one thing, twice did not begin to cover Sartre’s womanizing; for another, she tried to match him, affair for affair. He treated her like dirt; she was dogged in her devotion. How odd that her book The Second Sex became a sacred text for a certain kind of feminist. Despite Sartre’s philandering, Simone stood by her man. She made a career out of being his betrayed mistress. It is all there in She Came to Stay. He was less sentimental about it. Perhaps it is only because she outlived him that they share that common grave.

I love Edna St. Vincent Millay – the poems, not the person; she never answered my letters – but the poor woman’s life was a long spiral into drugged and drunken disaster. Her candle burned at both ends and, in the phrase, she went both ways. Nonetheless, a recent life of the poet celebrates her self-destructive behavior under the romantic illusion that defying the decalogue is the price that had to be paid for that exquisite verse. There is a similar recent life of de Beauvoir which recounts her humiliating devotion to Sartre and celebrates it as liberation from those womanly roles supposedly arbitrarily imposed by society. If de Beauvoir is the model of the new woman, Dorothy Parker was Marie of Roumania.

Perhaps Sartre’s greatest infidelity to Simone, in her eyes, was his turn to religion in old age. As a brash young existentialist, he was a self-proclaimed atheist. He was also a fellow traveler, against all the evidence of Communist brutality. Nevertheless, if Bernard-Henri Levy is right, the aging Sartre, blind, feeble, but still on the qui vive for pliant females, turned to the study of the Bible. Levy suggests that it was Judaism rather than Christianity that interested him. Simone de Beauvoir almost hysterically denied this supposed late conversion. One can understand why. One of the things she shuffled off for Sartre, and under his tutelage, was the Catholic faith of her girlhood. Her apostasy was a kind of love offering. How cruel then that the companion of her atheism should have ended up poring over the Bible, wanting to learn Hebrew, repudiating all the philosophical positions that had made him at once famous and infamous.

What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffers the loss of his own soul? A searing question, that. But how much more tragic to lose one’s soul and the consolations of the temporal world as well. Any artist, however implicitly, is seeking the meaning of life. In stories, the protagonist faces a crisis and what he then decides to do decides who he is, what morally he is. How ironic that one who devotes himself imaginatively to this fundamental fact of human life is unable to confront it in his own. The most powerful stories depict moral failure. Of course, as Oscar Wilde observed, we weep but we are not wounded. in following such stories. There is the spectator’s distance, and there is the artist’s distance as well. One need not be a good man to be a good artist.

But only the good can give good moral advice.

Why is it that so many whose personal lives are a shambles are drawn to political activism? Since the agitation is usually for liberal and morally destructive causes, this is perhaps not too puzzling. Millay, Dorothy Parker too, and of course Simone de Beauvoir set out to change the world when they couldn’t get their own house in order.

A few years ago, Paul Johnson wrote a book about the disastrous personal lives of so many who have wanted to prescribe for mankind. He was chided for this. Didn’t he know that personal immorality has nothing to do with public policy? Did he, poor benighted devil, think with Plato that the good ruler must first be a good man?

The notion that vice is the prerequisite for verse, for art generally, is akin to that, I suppose, but do not ask me to lay it out analytically. It is a Romantic notion that the artist is exempt from ordinary moral rules. However tragic his personal life, however depraved his morals, the art that results is taken to be the justification of vice.

Tell it to Dante. Tell it to Browning or Wordsworth. Tell it to the Marines.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.