into the seine with all of us, malcolm gladwell first
From Anne Applebaum’s review of Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic by Michael Scammell in the NYRB. In this passage, she’s coming to the end of a redescription of a rather riotous evening that Koestler, his girlfriend, Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, and Camus’ wife spent together in Paris:
Scammell, whose fine-tuned sense of irony serves him well here, describes that evening’s conclusion:
“They broke up at dawn. Alone with Sartre, Beauvoir sobbed “over the tragedy of the human condition,” then leaned on the parapet of a bridge over the Seine and said: “I don’t see why we don’t throw ourselves in the river.” “All right,” agreed Sartre, “let’s throw ourselves in,” and began to cry himself. In another part of the city, Koestler too burst into tears as he stared into the Seine. Then he disappeared into a pissoir and shouted to Mamaine, “Don’t leave me, I love you, I’ll always love you.” They got home at about eight o’clock and slept all day, except for Sartre, who stuffed himself with pep pills and dragged himself off to the Sorbonne to give his lecture. It wasn’t possible even for an existentialist to address the students “sans moi.””
Leaving aside its entertainment value, that particular passage raises some interesting questions. We are not so many years removed from 1946, in the grand scheme of things. Yet much has changed since then, starting with the rules of acceptable public behavior. It is simply not possible to imagine any three prominent contemporary American public intellectuals—say, Malcolm Gladwell, Niall Ferguson, and David Brooks—indulging in a night on the town such as that one, let alone weeping over the human condition and threatening to throw themselves into the Seine at the end of it. Hollywood starlets and pseudo-celebrities behave that way in our culture, not serious people.
Oooof. Now I’m weeping and thinking about throwing myself into the East River, next time I’m there. If that’s a representative roster of NYC intellectuals aujourd’hui, and christ maybe it is, then yes, the human condition is truly fucking not well.
There’s something else that’s funny to say about this, but I’m not going to say it. Perhaps I just came to the party late. Right! Back to work then!