Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris

by Agnes Poirier

In December 1944 Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Never were we freer than under the German Occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. ... They deported us en masse. ... And because of all this we were free.”

Sartre spent nine months as a prisoner of war, but after his release in 1941 he spent the Occupation in Paris, replacing a Jewish professor at the Lycée Condorcet. He described the courage to resist suffering as “the secret of a man” and insisted that, since the dangers of the Resistance were shared, the Resistance was a true democracy “for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline.”

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Sartre’s not entirely straightforward remarks indicate the complexities of the French wartime experience and the accommodations made by many who lived through the four years of Nazi occupation in France. In her entertaining account, Agnes Poirier shows how a loosely connected group of Left Bank writers, philosophers and their lovers came to terms with les années noires, emerging in 1945 with a new philosophy of radical freedom, which they called the Third Way, as an alternative to the communist and capitalist models for life, art and politics.

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