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Sartre’s Legacy Still Controversial

April 11, 2000

PARIS (AP) _ Jean-Paul Sartre, the thundering voice of France’s postwar intelligentsia, is back where he’d like to be _ stirring controversy in the bookstalls of Paris.

Revered by some as a versatile man of letters and reviled by others as a misguided political activist, Sartre is being remembered as a potent cocktail of literary talent, political blunders and philosophical reasoning.

In recent weeks, the existentialist philosopher’s controversial legacy has been dissected in a flurry of new books and articles in the major French media. Mayor Jean Tiberi unveiled a plaque Tuesday renaming the Saint-Germain-des-Pres square on the Left Bank for Sartre and his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir.

For Jean-Marie Rouart, member of the prestigious Academie Francaise, Sartre is the stuff from which the last century was made.

``You can criticize Sartre. You can make a list of his mistakes. You can love him or hate him,″ Rouart wrote in the daily Le Figaro. ``The only thing you can’t do is ignore his importance.″

Sartre’s place in the world of French letters can’t be ignored, but it has been conspicuously empty since the author of ``Nausea″ and ``Being and Nothingness″ died April 15, 1980. His funeral was a national event.

But Left Bank Paris, notably Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where Sartre and de Beauvoir shared an apartment for years, entertaining friends and hammering out political theories, no longer exists as they knew it.

Today their favorite haunts are overrun with rich tourists and fashion mavens meandering among book shops-turned-designer boutiques.

Still, this is where Paris authorities decided to honor Sartre, renaming it the Place Jean-Paul Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir, rather than a street near the National Library favored by intellectuals.

``This intersection is where two great minds and two exceptional destinies met,″ Tiberi said. ``It’s where they cemented their union by reading each other’s manuscripts penned the night before.″

Sylvie Lebon de Beauvoir, de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter, said she had lobbied for years to have the square named for Sartre and de Beauvoir.

``They rejected all honors and titles during their lifetimes, but I think they’d be pleased to have such a special part of Paris named for them,″ she told The Associated Press.

Despite all the media fuss, Sartre has all but disappeared from French high school curricula.

″`Nausea″ has fallen into oblivion,″ said high school French teacher Helene Giansetto. ``Teachers sometimes put the plays on general reading lists, but they’re not very popular.″

One of the most compelling tributes to Sartre comes from Bernard-Henri Levy, who made his name in the 1970s by debunking leftist ideology.

While Levy’s ``Le Siecle de Sartre″ (The Century of Sartre) condemns Sartre for defending Fidel Castro, justifying terrorism, equating the Holocaust with dropping hydrogen bombs and refusing the Nobel literature prize, the book nonetheless has a forgive-all tone in the name of genius.

Levy, 51, said the book’s purpose was to understand how a free man could become a totalitarian intellectual.

``That’s the Sartrian mystery. He invented all the anti-totalitarian vaccines and somehow forgot to inoculate himself,″ Levy said in an interview.

Sartre’s blunders are legendary: he justified the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and earned the wrath of Soviet dissidents by claiming there was complete freedom of speech in the Soviet Union.

The two Sartres, Levy said, are like ``two souls thrown into the same body, like Moby Dick the whale, with his two eyes set so far apart that the brain receives two distinct, and often divergent perceptions of the world.″

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