“When I go to Paris, I go to Montparnasse, to visit the grave of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and of Samuel Beckett and his wife Suzanne. I figure that if I can cope with Sartre and Beckett, I can cope with all the stuff in between them and myself.”
Of course, it was a lie. Not that I go to Montparnasse, I have photographs to prove I was there, nor that I seek out the graves of Sartre and Beckett, I have pictures of those, as well. The lie is in the suggestion that I can cope with either of them.
One vacation, when money was short and when days were passed reading books from the local library, I tried to read Sartre’s “La mort dans l’âme” (Troubled Sleep) in English. Set against the Fall of France in 1940, it was filled with a mood of grey bleakness; those who truly “exist” are those who are prepared to engage in resistance against the Nazi occupiers and against the grim fate that has overcome their country.
To exist, for Sartre, meant to stand out against fate; to refuse to simply go along with things; to reject the temptation to drift with the crowd. Sartre would probably have regarded a country clergyman as a collaborator with fate, as someone who failed to take an individual stand, as someone who was part of the crowd, as someone who did not understand what it meant to truly “exist”.
If Sartre’s existentialism is a step too far, the world of Samuel Beckett is a step into the unknown. Beckett allows no lightness, no relief from the unrelenting arbitrariness and meaninglessness of life, “Waiting for Godot” is almost light entertainment compared to some of the other work. The shadow of death seems to lie across the world he creates.
To pretend to be able to cope with the ideas of the two Nobel laureates by simply visiting slabs of stone in a Parisian cemetery is as silly as suggesting that one can appreciate Shakespeare by looking at volumes of his work on a bookshelf. Anyway, were the claim true, the conversation would not have needed to have taken place. Were it true that I could cope with the full implications of existentialism, were it true that the world of Beckett could be embraced with equanimity, then Montparnasse would need never have been mentioned in a Wednesday morning chat.