Simone de Beauvoir, The Blood of Others

De Beauvoir’s novel of romance and resistance, set against the backdrop of an advancing German war machine, is rich with tension, moral turmoil and philosophy. On the surface, there is a love story between Jean and Helene, but beneath the richly layered text is an Existentialist argument on personal responsibility and collective guilt.

First, we must address the style of writing. The ever-shifting tense and POV is jarring and unsettling, but as the first chapter resolves, it is breathtaking. It had such a profound effect on me that I went back to the beginning and started reading it all over again.

What first felt disjointed was ultimately evocative as it established the characters, setting and emotional tone in a far more effective manner than straight narrative. (I’m not comparing these two books, but an analog would be Slaughterhouse-Five, which is all the more powerful for its disorienting jumps in time and space.)

Beneath the stylized prose is the core of Existential thought: Life does not contain inherent meaning. We do not choose to be born, nor do we choose the conditions into which we are born, yet we are, to an extent, at the mercy of these conditions—whether one is born wealthy or poor, during a time of war and plague or one of peace and prosperity.

Whatever the conditions, the only truly objective fact is that we exist. Now what?

Jean is the son of a wealthy capitalist, but as he reaches adulthood he can’t bear the burden of unearned affluence. He cuts himself off from this family and their money and takes up a trade so as to live as a member of the working class. But as his working-class pals explain to him, he will never belong to that social class because he had the luxury of choosing that life.

So what is Jean’s obligation? Should he benefit from the accident of higher birth? Or should he toil for the sake of a solidarity that he knows he’ll never achieve?

As the Nazis advance across Europe, the debates about class and organized labor shift to whether France should intervene in Austria and Poland.

While those around him argue the virtues of pacifism and nonviolence, Jean offers a counterpoint.

“I’ve learned from this war that there’s as much guilt in sparing blood as in shedding it,” he says.

He argues that while killing German soldiers and French collaborators would make them guilty of murder, they are equally guilty for the Jews being murdered due to their inaction.

This is the moral crux of the novel: Both the actions we take and those that we don’t (either by choice or ignorance) have profound consequences on others, even those we will never meet. Therefore, if it is impossible to act in a way that doesn’t harm others, what is one’s moral obligation?

De Beauvoir has essentially created an Existentialist version of the trolley problem.

Or as Rush sang, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”

Another aspect of The Blood of Others that I really appreciate is that it provides a different perspective of WWII. Western culture clings tight to this time period because we see it as the last era of moral absolutism—the last time there was a righteous, uncontested war.

At least that’s how we choose to remember it.

While in hindsight, yes, WWII was a righteous cause, but choosing how to engage with Germany in advance was far more complicated than we think of it today. De Beauvoir shows us a different perspective of Paris both before and during the Occupation, when a western society that valued peace and nonviolence was forced to contend with fascism.

“What could we do if, by living up to the values in which we believed, we brought about their defeat? Were we to become slaves to remain free, or kill to keep our hands clean? Must we lose our freedom because we refused slavery, and sully ourselves with a thousand crimes because we would not kill? I no longer knew.”

The Blood of Others also transcends its era. Though set during WWII, it conveys an important message to our current times. Generally speaking, the west has spent the past 75 years basking in the glory of WWII, and has enjoyed the luxury of moral certitude.

But recently, fascism has taken hold in the west, just as Camus warned us it would at the end of The Plague. In describing how the west was at a crossroads, de Beauvoir could very well be speaking to the U.S. and England during the run-up to the 2016 elections:

“Is it possible to stop a country from committing suicide?”

While de Beauvoir masterfully represents the various arguments for and against France’s entry into the war, she is ultimately an Existentialist. We exist. Now what? The triumvirate of de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre agreed that the only way for meaning to exist is by imposing it onto an absurd, meaningless reality. If there is as much guilt in sparing blood as in shedding it, Jean decides that it is better to accept that burden after acting on one’s conscience.

“You have not given me peace; but why should I desire peace? You have given me the courage to accept forever the risk and the anguish, to bear my crimes and my guilt, which will rend me eternally. There is no other way.”

Such is the nature of the absurd.

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