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DANGEROUS UKRAINIAN RELATIONSHIPS: philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in the land of love and freedom

Антанас Суткус. Жан-Поль Сартр и Симона де Бовуар на пляже Ниды. Литва, 1965 год
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Antanas Sutkus. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on the beach of Nida. Lithuania, 1965 / twitter.com

 

He was an existentialist philosopher. She — a convinced feminist. Both were dedicated to free relationships in marriage and considered freedom as an absolute value. Sixty years ago, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir visited Ukraine. Today, this event is mostly forgotten. But it proves once again how bizarre threads of fate sometimes connect different cultural worlds.

 

GLOBAL SCALE ANNIVERSARY

 

In 1964, the USSR leadership turned the 150th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko’s birth into a global-scale propaganda show. Not only Soviet, but also foreign editions were full of publications about the Ukrainian poet. Ukrainian Shevchenko scholars gave lectures and reports at scientific conferences throughout Europe.

UNESCO was involved in the anniversary. At the International Forum of cultural figures, the best minds of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine spoke about Shevchenko. The Republican Shevchenko anniversary committee was established, which added an unprecedented scope to the holiday.

On May 31, 1964, more than 30,000 people gathered at the Kobzar’s grave. Including 2000 participants of the Plenum of the Unions of Writers, the International Forum, dozens of creative teams and public organizations.

All this was continuously filmed and broadcast on radio and television. But the cherry on the anniversary cake was the participation of European «stars» — Jean-Paul Sartre and his wife Simone de Beauvoir — in the celebrations.

 

FEARS OF FALLING OUT OF HISTORY

 

Sartre and Beauvoir became the real rulers of the minds of the Western intelligentsia, which was fascinated by «left-wing» ideas. Even when Sartre became aware of Soviet repression, this did not discredit the communist idea as a matter itself in his eyes. In it, he saw the eternal human desire for freedom and equality.

«Every anti-communist is a bastard», Sartre declared unequivocally. However, judging by the play «Dirty Hands», communists and the French Resistance got a lot of abuse from Sartre. In reality, he didn’t look much like a «true» Marxist.

His philosophical colleague Stanislaw Lem argued that Sartre was very afraid of losing popularity among the masses, «falling out» of history, to be forgotten. There was more political fashion than conviction in his «leftism». He was afraid for nothing; in order to enter the world culture, one novel, «Nausea», would have been enough for him.

Sartre left behind dozens of brilliant literary works. However, with philosophy, it turned out to be more complicated.

 

Жан-Поль Сартр и Симона де Бовуар прогуливаются по пляжу Копакабана, Рио, 21 сентября 1960 года
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir walk on Copacabana beach, Rio, September 21, 1960 / rtbf.be

 

PERMITTED REVOLUTIONARY

 

There is no question that Sartre is the recognized meter of French existentialism. However, there are many who believe that his contribution to philosophy is slightly overrated. For example, following the cultural theorist George Steiner, the philosopher Alexander Piatigorsky thought that way.

Sartre carefully sculpted his «self-image» as an adherent of left-wing ideas, philosophical radicalism, and anti-Americanism. But, strangely enough, he was not harassed under any regime. He was a kind of «permitted» subversive element.

Even the Germans and the Petain followers did not touch him during the occupation. It was during the occupation that he wrote his major philosophical book «Being and Nothingness». No matter how much Sartre positioned himself as a radical «left-wing» thinker, his philosophy of existentialism is extremely individualistic.

It is difficult to match it with the leading role of the party and class dictatorship. So what did such a strange and complex person in Ukraine «forgot» on the anniversary of Taras Shevchenko?

 

SHEVCHENKO — THE FIRST EXISTENTIALIST

 

According to Sartre, a man lives in a meaningless world, but thanks to free will, he endows the world with meaning. The problem of freedom of choice is the key to the philosophy of existentialism. Shevchenko, who praised the «holy will», inevitably turned out to be «one of his own» for the French philosopher. There is undoubtedly an inner relationship between them.

Reading Shevchenko’s diaries, it seems that Taras could say after Sartre: «Hell is others!», «I did not die in captivity, I will not die in freedom» — under this life attitude of Kobzar could well be signed by Sartre. Actually, he did, characterizing Taras Shevchenko as a Ukrainian existentialist and forerunner of European existential philosophy.

Not surprisingly, existentialism as a worldview structure seriously influenced the work of such Ukrainian writers as Valerian Pidmohylny, Stepan Protsiuk, Vasyl Stus, etc.

 

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FROM KYIV TO LVIV

 

Sartre arrived at the Shevchenko anniversary as part of the UNESCO delegation at the invitation of another Ukrainian colleague, Mykola Bazhan, who headed the anniversary committee. Bazhan was a remarkable poet and an outstanding intellectual. He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which, as we know, Jean-Paul Sartre refused in his time. So, the French existentialist had someone to talk to and something to talk about.

Sartre had quite a rich program in Ukraine. He visited Kaniv, where he climbed Taras Hill and took part in the anniversary meetings. In Kyiv, he had numerous meetings and speeches — in the Union of Writers, with young Ukrainian writers, in the editorial office of the magazine «Vsesvit».

The philosopher was not even too lazy to cross the whole Ukraine and go from Kyiv to Lviv, where he delivered several lectures to university students.

 

UNDER THE CONTROL OF SPECIAL SERVICES

 

It is not known to what extent such speeches gave Sartre pleasure. As is proper for a great friend of communism, the philosopher behaved in an emphatically loyal manner to the Soviet regime. He was eager to talk about French literature and complimented the Soviet system. However, eyewitnesses claim that Sartre felt constrained. How else could it be when the questions and the names of the students who asked them had been approved in advance by the «right people?»

There was no French translator. There were only students and professors from the French department in the hall. Most of them were well aware of the French classics. But they knew little about Sartre’s work — his translations had not yet been published.

Sartre himself, it seems, understood all this perfectly well, so he made attempts to escape from the custody of the «authorities». There is a legend that in Lviv, he secretly escaped to a party with some geologists, who were famous for their free-thinking.

 

Жан-Поль Сартр и Симона де Бовуар присутствовали на церемонии празднования 6-й годовщины основания коммунистического Китая в Пекине. 1 октября 1955 года на площади Тяньаньмэнь
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir attended a ceremony celebrating the 6th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing. October 1, 1955 in Tiananmen Square / wikimedia.org

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

 

In Kyiv, the philosopher also tried to dilute the «officiousness» and see representatives of the dissident intelligentsia. At the Hotel «Ukraine», he organized a meeting with Ivan Dziuba, Ivan Drach, and Lina Kostenko. The latter were more surprised that Jean-Paul and Simone lived in different rooms.

Sharp-tongued Lina Kostenko immediately remarked that the old and ugly Sartre had only one thing left to do — existentialism! But the Ukrainian Dziuba was a different matter: handsome and talented — what’s the point of him being an existentialist? It must be said that Jean-Paul was indeed a short, squint-eyed, and rather untidy person in everyday life — a sharp contrast to the exquisite Simone!

Relationship spouses were very unusual, even by French standards. To this day, researchers wonder whether they were intimate. Apparently, the marriage was more of an intellectual union. Simone often preferred women to men, and she picked up Sartre’s young lovers — when you control the cheating husband, you feel much more confident.

 

DANGEROUS UKRAINIAN CONNECTIONS

 

Simone de Beauvoir was the author of the book «The Second Sex», which was called the Gospel of European feminism. Her popularity in Europe was no less than that of Sartre, but in Ukraine, almost nobody had heard of her. And the writer herself tried to keep in the shadows, playing the modest role of «her husband’s wife». And, in general, who knows what to expect from these Ukrainians?

Once in Paris, their lives had already been turned upside down by two Ukrainians — sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz. With the first, they slept with both of them until she left them. The second left Sartre for another existentialist, Albert Camus. Jean-Paul loved her madly, so he was suffering immensely.

«What does she think? Am I not better? I’ve been so good to her», he complained to Simone. But what can you do, trying to get Wanda back meant undoing everything he had preached: «Everyone is free. Therefore, they make their own choices». Unfortunately, what Simone was thinking accompanying her husband on a Ukrainian tour, we will not know.

Perhaps the philosopher might have been wrong: what if love, rather than freedom, is what gives meaning to human life in the first place?

 


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