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from issue no. 01 - 2004

Sartre and the Christmas of Jesus

Christmas 1940: Sartre, interned in a German prison camp, composed a story to be recited in a hut. It was the play text Bariona, ou le Fils du tonnerre. From it emerges an unfamiliar Sartre who seems touched for a moment by the stunned affection of Mary, Josephs’s gaze and the hopes of the Magi and the shepherds in front of the God child. “They have joined their hands and are thinking: something has begun. And they are wrong…”

by Massimo Borghesi

Madonna with child, detail, Giovanni  Bellini, Museum of Castelvecchio, Verona

Madonna with child, detail, Giovanni Bellini, Museum of Castelvecchio, Verona

1. Sartre’s atheism: a philosophy without paternity?

«Which is the true face of Sartre?» wondered Charles Moeller in a splendid essay devoted to the author 1. «Is it the existential experience of nausea faced with the blind obscene overabundance of nature? Or is this nausea a consequence? Is there, at the origin, an option, a choice in favor of a certain type of human experience at the expense of others? In other words is nausea the fundamental fact or is it the choice made by atheistic thought that forces it to see only one side of life and that always the same?» 2. To answer the question Moeller attempts to decipher the “paradox” of the man Sartre, to tease out the experience that lies behind his thinking. His starting point is a lack, that of his father, which affects the philosopher’s whole vision of the world. Did he not perhaps write, recalling his childhood, «In those days we were all, more or less, fatherless: the Lord fathers were either dead or at the front, and those who remained, handicapped, spineless, tried to get themselves forgotten by the own sons; it was the realm of mothers» 3. For Moeller «it seems that Sartre lacked a fundamental experience, that of fatherhood. … he lacked the experience of the intimate bond that links the sense of God and the sense of fatherhood» 4. Without his father, in his childhood, he saw a stepfather, his mother’s new husband, enter the house. The situation is analogous to that of Baudelaire, a writer studied by Sartre in whom he was able to find a situation similar to his own. «He went through the same drama perhaps, but he resolved it in a different way, with the proud negation of fatherhood, with the violent affirmation of an absolute autonomy, which he was soon to make the pivot of his philosophy»5. A hypothesis difficult to verify, according to the critic, which, however, is impossible to ignore. «I am unable to overcome the impression that the feeling “of being de trop”, that seems so deep in the work (I’m thinking of the scene about the root in La nausée), has one of its origins in the fact that Sartre was fatherless and lived like a stranger with his stepfather» 6. The refusal of the filial condition became rejection of the world, felt as estranged. As “outsider” (A. Camus) man finds himself in an absurd existence, he is «de trop», a creature unwished-for by anybody, desolate and anonymous passer-by in a metropolis deep in fog. Jean-Paul Sartre, according to Moeller, «wanted to deny being a “son”»7. Like modern man, who «wants to be “without father and mother”» 8, his philosophy abolishes any idea of dependence. Freedom, as absolute, creative autonomy, is the negation of otherness, of nature, of God. Liberty is negation of every root, bond, relationship. Sartre has the taste of “nothingness”: the “per se”, consciousness, is the void that dissolves the ugly “thingness” of the world. In the midst, between the “nothingness” of the self and reified reality, there are no more persons, faces, affections. The philosophy of freedom as negativity excludes, up to Being and Nothingness, any experience of positivity. A world overwhelmed by bad faith, the Sartrean universe appears ambiguous, sordid, disquieting. The light of the grace does not rend the night. As Gabriel Marcel has observed, Sartre’s is the most logical system of rejection of all grace that has ever been offered. For God, the stranger par excellence, the foe of freedom and autonomy, there is no place. Sartrean existentialism is rigorously atheist.
All this is true. Moeller has grasped very well the dynamics that led Sartre to deny any otherness, to the double exclusion of God and the world. Just as he grasps the need for which atheism must radicalise itself in anti-theism, in option against God. Nevertheless in his analysis there are unresolved points that merit further consideration. Among them, in the first place, the idea that the anti-Christianity of Sartre relates to his fatherless condition, to Oedipal resentment of his stepfather. The problem, in fact, is more complex. Moeller was unable to resolve it in his essay of 1957 because he did not have available the precious autobiographic confession given in Les mots, published by Gallimard in 1964. The Sartrean rejection of God, his proud autonomy, remained for him a «secret nexus» difficult to untie because «Sartre, as opposed to Gide, never takes center stage»9. That, instead, is something that happens in Les mots where the philosopher gives a picture of his childhood, of his desires, of his religious position. The latter, far from the being determined by the absence of his father, is dominated instead by the figure of his grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, Protestant and vehemently anti-Catholic. «In private, out of fidelity to our forlorn provinces, to the leaden humour of the anti-papists, his brethren, he never missed a chance to mock Catholicism: his table-talk resembled Luther’s. He was inexhaustible on Lourdes: Bernadette had seen “a slut who changed her blouse”…. He recounted the life of Saint Labre, covered in lice, that of Saint Marie Alacoque, who cleaned up the excrement of the sick with her tongue. This nonsenses was useful to me… I was in danger of becoming prey to sanctity. My grandfather disgusted me with it for ever: I saw it through his eyes, that cruel folly nauseated me with the insipidity of its ecstasies, it terrified me with its sadistic contempt for the body»10.
Sartre, divided between his Protestant grandfather and Catholic mother, shut in with “his own God”, experienced profound strain. «In substance the thing prostrated me: I was led to unbelief not by the clash of dogmas but by the indifference of my grandparents. Nevertheless, I was a believer: in my nightshirt, kneeling on the bed, with hands joined, I said prayers every day, but I thought of the good God ever less often»11. Recalling that time Sartre confesses he is telling «the story of a lost vocation: I needed God, he was given to me, I received him without understanding that I was looking for him. Being unable to set root in my heart, he vegetated in me, then died. Today, when people speak to me about him, I say...: Fifty years ago, without that misunderstanding, without that mistake, without that accident that separated us, there could have been something between us»12.
Nativity, detail, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Nativity, detail, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

The place, left empty of God, became occupied by literature, by the art of writing. «This failed pastor, faithful to the wish of his father, kept hold on the Divine to pour it into culture… I discovered this fierce religion and made it my own so as to gild my faded vocation … I became a Cathar, I confused literature with prayer, I made a human sacrifice of it»13. Sartre felt himself predestined, chosen, “analyst of the undeworld”. «From this came that lucid blindness from which I have suffered for thirty years. One morning, in 1917, in La Rochelle, I was waiting for friends who were to go along to high school with me; they were late, and I soon didn’t know what else to invent to distract myself: I decided to think of the Almighty. Immediately he rolled up into the sky and disappeared without giving any explanation: he doesn’t exist, I told myself with formal amazement, and believed the problem resolved. And in a certain way it was resolved, given that afterwards I have never had the least temptation to reopen it. But the Other remained, the Invisible, the Holy Spirit, that one who was guarantor of my mandate and who lorded it over my life through large anonymous and sacred forces. I had a great deal more trouble ridding myself of that since it had settled into the back of my head …. For a long time writing was an asking of Death, of Religion, in a disguised form, to rescue my life from chance»14. This faith, when Sartre wrote Les mots, was lost. «The retrospective illusion is in dust; martyrdom, salvation, immortality, everything deteriorates, the building falls in ruin, I caught the Holy Spirit in the wine cellar and I chased him out; atheism is a cruel enterprise and long-lasting»15. Aware that «culture saves nothing nor nobody, it doesn’t legitimate»16, since «one gets rid of a neurosis, one doesn’t cure oneself»17, Sartre still can’t not recognize that «threadbare, erased, humiliated, thrown into a corner, passed over in silence, all the features of the boy have remained in the fifty-year-old»18. The literary characters loved in adolescence continue to live in the memory. «Griselda not dead. Pardaillan still lives in me. And Strogoff. I depend only on them who depend only on God, and I don’t believe in God. Go work it out. As for me, I can’t work it out and I wonder at times if I’m not playing at now-you-win-now-you-lose and trying to trample on my one-time hopes just so everything will be given back to me a hundredfold. In that case I would be Philoctetes: magnificent and stinking, that cripple gave away everything, even his bow, without conditions: but underneath, underneath, one can be certain he’s expecting his reward»19.

2. The birth of Jesus as «first morning of the world».

Sartre did not become an atheist because, having lost his father, he rejected the figure of the stepfather. The anti-Catholic idiosyncrasies of Charles Schweitzer had decidedly greater weight in dissolving the young faith of his grandson. In clear proof of which there is a work, written in 1940, in which Moeller’s thesis that Sartre «wanted to deny being a “son”», is belied. It is the play text Bariona, ou le Fils du tonnerre, translated now for the first time into Italian by Christian Marinotti Editions 20, that Sartre wrote during his time in a German prison camp. Moeller mentions it fleetingly: «In prison he wrote a Christmas lauds to be recited in a hut»21; nor could it have been otherwise since the first edition of the work, 500 privately printed copies, occurred in 1962. From it emerges an unfamiliar Sartre, far from the nihilist of La Nausée, open to the hope stirred by the novum of the birth. A Sartre who recognizes the positiveness of Being and able to depict, with rare delicacy, the stunned affection of Mary, along with the protective modesty of Joseph, for the “God child”.
After the rout of the French army, in June 1940 Sartre was taken prisoner by the Germans. In August he was transferred to Germany to the prison camp of Triers where he was to stay until April 1941. Apart from the privations, the bullying, it was not a negative period for Sartre. The experience of comradeship among the prisoners took him out of his solitude, out of the resentments of Roquentin, out of contempt for the world. It was the prelude to that move toward Marxism in which he was afterwards to believe he found the possibility of a “group in fusion”, of an authentic life, steadfast in the struggle. «In the Stalag I found a form of collective life that I hadn’t come across since the École Normale, and in short I want to say I was happy there»22. There he met some priests, among them Abbé Marius Perrin, with whom he formed a friendship. «Everything said,» writes Annie Cohen-Solal, «he felt himself in brotherhood with the priests. Despite interminable debates on the faith»23. In the camp, Merleau-Ponty remarks, «this antichrist had woven cordial relations with a large number of priests and of Jesuits»24.
It was in this context that the idea was born for the play Sartre wrote for the Christmas of 1940. Rehearsals took place in the shed that Father Boisselot was granted by the commander of the camp for holding mass, concerts and entertainments. In its essential lines the play tells of a Jewish village headman, Bariona, who, faced with the demand from the Roman procurator for an increase in taxes, accepts to pay but asks the villagers to have no more children. Rome shall exert its power over the desert. In his suicidal imperative Bariona doesn’t yet know that his Sarah wife is expecting a child. The dramatic discovery doesn’t get him to change his mind, though his wife opposes him. It is in this situation that Bariona is told by the shepherds of the birth of the Messiah in a stable in Bethlehem; news that to him reeks of delusion, of deceit. The Jewish headman broods on killing the child, on destroying the empty hope. On his arrival in Bethlehem he finds Sarah and, near the stable, a kneeling crowd, deeply moved and happy. Amazed, he abandons his aim and, on learning that Herod means to kill Jesus, assembles his people, who take up their weapons, and, aware of going to his death, goes out to meet the king’s henchmen. Sartre was very happy with the piece. Writing to Simone de Beauvoir he said: «I have written a very moving Christmas mystery, it seems, to the point that one of the actors burst into tears»25. Thirty years afterwards, however, he was to give a negative interpretation of it, stressing the political purpose of the play: «I wrote Bariona, which was very poor but did contain a theatrical idea…. The Germans didn’t get the allusion to commitment, they simply saw a Christmas entertainment»26. And again: «If I took the subject from the mythology of Christianity, it wasn’t because the direction of my thinking had changed, even momentarily, during imprisonment. It was a matter of finding, in accord with the captive priests, a subject that for Christmas evening could ensure the broadest unity among Christians and non-believers»27.
The adoration of the Magi, detail, Gentile da Fabriano, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The adoration of the Magi, detail, Gentile da Fabriano, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

All this has its truth. It’s hard to explain otherwise the clearly political anti-German ending of the play. It is also true, however, as Cohen-Solal observes, that, for Sartre, it was a «more important experience than it seemed»28. It is no accident that, in the same span of time, he became enthusiastic about Claudel and Bernanos: «The two great discoveries that I have made in the camp have been The Satin Slipper and The Diary of a country priest. They are the only books that have really made a deep impression on me»29. Bariona, in fact, is much more than a political pamphlet of struggle, even if that aspect is clearly present. In it Sartre came close to a perception of the mystery of birth and motherhood, and also of the Christian mystery, as he never had done before nor was to do again in his writing. In this sense it truly constitutes, as Antonio Delogu says in the introduction to the Italian edition, «a veritable exception»30 in the range of Sartre’s thinking. Bariona is, first of all, escape from the vision of the world expressed in Nausea and in the stories of The wall, a vision that is still at the center of Being and Nothingness. The words that Bariona says to Sarah to convince her to get rid of the child in her womb express the existentialist nihilism of the early Sartre: «Woman, this child you want to bear is like another reprint of the world. Through it the clouds and the water and the sun and the houses and the punishment of men will exist once more. You will re-create the world, it will form like a thick black crust around a small scandalized consciousness that will remain captive there, in the middle of the crust, like a tear. Do you understand what enormous incongruity, what monstrous error of tact it would be to lead the failed world to new exemplars? To have a child is to approve the creation of the world from the bottom of one’s heart, it is to tell the God who torments us: “Lord, all is well and I give you thanks for having made the universe”. Do you really want to sing that hymn?…. Existence is a horrendous leprosy gnawing us all and our parents are to blame»31.
Not to procreate is to expiate the guilt of the parents, the guilt of God. It is to reject an impure, failed creation. Bariona expresses all the resentment of the Gnostic, “Cathar” rebellion, of a nihilism that hates Being. The negation of the child is the negation of a new beginning. What exists deserves to perish: death is judgment on the world. Faced with Sarah’s question: «And if not matter, is it the will of God that we beget?»32, Bariona asks for a sign, the manifestation of God. He asks for a sign, but in reality he doesn’t want to believe: «I shall not ask for grace and I shall not say thank you… Even if the Eternal had shown me his countenance among the clouds I would refuse just the same to hear him because I am free, and against a free man, God himself can do nothing. He can reduce me to dust or kindle me like a torch… but he can do nothing against that pillar of bronze, against that inflexible column: the freedom of man»33.
Bariona is Sartre, the Promethean Sartre of absolute freedom, of the negation of otherness as supreme form of autonomy. The Sartre who forbids himself all possible hope, seen as escape, as desertion from the inexorable harshness of existing. Bariona cannot hope, cannot await the Messiah. «This world is an endless fall, well you know it. The Messiah would be the person who would put a stop to this collapse, who would suddenly turn things upside-down… and we’d be born old and get young again right back to childhood»34. That isn’t possible: «The dignity of man is in his despair»35. So far nothing new. This the well-known Sartre, the “existentialist” Sartre. However, in the play appears the figure of king Balthazar, one of the Wise Men, played on stage by Sartre himself turned actor. Balthazar represents the new moment that intervenes in Sartre’s vision, the moment of hope: «it’s true we are very old and very wise and we know all the evil of the earth. Yet when we saw that star in the sky, our hearts rejoiced like those of children and we became children and we set out, for we wanted to accomplish our duty as men who hope. He who loses hope, Bariona, shall be driven out of his village… But on him who hopes, everything smiles and the world is given as a gift»36.
Balthazar’s hope is the hope of Sarah. She, too, wants to go to Bethlehem: «Down there, there is a happy and contented woman, a mother who has given birth for all mothers, and is like a permit that has been given me: the permission to bring my child into the world. I want to see her, see her, this happy and holy mother»37.
His wife’s intention doesn’t make Bariona retreat. Having learned from a kind of seer about the Messiah’s destiny to die on the cross, his intention to kill the child for the good of his people, to «preserve the pure flame of revolt in them», ripens in him38. In Bethlehem, in front of the stable, Bariona comes on Mary with her back to him, he doesn’t see Jesus in his mother’s arms, he only sees Joseph. «But I see the man. It’s true: how he stares! With such eyes! What can he have behind those two clear eyes, clear as two limpid depths in that sweet lined face? What hope? … To find the courage to snuff out this young life between my fingers, I shouldn’t have first seen him in the depths of his father’s eyes. Let’s be gone, I’m beaten»39. The look of Joseph fixed on Jesus halts the murderous hand of Bariona who can’t prevent himself from envying the stunned happiness of the crowd that has hastened to worship the child. An illusory happiness, from his point of view, and yet evident: «They have joined hands and are thinking: something has begun. And they’re wrong, it’s clear, and they’ve fallen into a trap and they’ll pay dearly for it later; but nevertheless, they’ll have had this minute; they’re lucky enough to believe in a beginning. What is more moving for the heart of man than the beginning of a world and youth with its ambiguous features and the beginning of a love, when everything is still possible, when the sun is present in the air and on faces… And I am in the great night of earth, in the tropical night of hate and misfortune. But – deceptive power of faith - for my men, thousands of years after the creation, in this room, in the glow of a candle, arises the first morning of the world» 40.
Bariona doesn’t share this hope. «There: they sing and I stand alone on the threshold of their joy …. They have abandoned me and my woman is among them and is glad, having forgotten my very existence. I am on the street on the side of the world that finishes and they are on the side of the world that begins. I feel more alone on the edge of their joy and prayer than in my deserted village»41. Only now, unable to share in the common joy, Bariona is truly alone. A solitude only apparently overcome in the seventh tableau, the last in the play, in which Bariona in the end changes his mind and gathers his men to save Jesus from Herod’s mercenaries. It is the most “political” part and, perhaps, the least successful that justifies the judgment given off the cuff by Abbé Perrin on the day after the performance: «In this Bariona there is nothing of the mystery of the classical Christmas: the Virgin is not seen nor the Child, except against the light… Bariona’s men go off, perhaps to death, but they will die to prevent the slaughter of the hope of free men»42.
The judgment is pertinent and, yet, not altogether exhaustive. In reality Sartre was never closer to intuiting the Christian mystery, that new beginning that makes hope possible. A beginning linked to the birth of a child. As Bariona says: «A God-Man, a God made of our humble flesh, a God who would agree to know the taste of the salt in our throats when the whole world abandons us, a God who would accept in advance to suffer what I suffer today… Let’s be gone, it’s folly43». This folly changes into «anxious amazement» in the tender and fearful look of Mary. «She looks at him and thinks: “This God is my son. This divine flesh is my flesh. He is made of me, he has my eyes and the shape of his mouth is the shape of mine. He looks like me. He is God and he looks like me”. And no woman has had in lot her God for herself alone. A little God one can hold in one’s arms and cover with kisses, a warm God that smiles and breathes, a God one can touch and who lives»44.
Sartre was not to write like this again, neither of God nor man. The play of Christmas 1940 was to remain, from this point of view, an «exception», as if the particular atmosphere of the camp has made him closer to the mystery of existence. Enough, at all events, to give us one of the most beautiful representations of Christmas in the literature of the twentieth century.


1 Ch. Moeller, Létterature XX du siècle et christianisme, II, La foi en Jésus – Christ, Tournai-Paris 1957, chapter on «Jean-Paul Sartre or the refusal of the preternatural
2 op. cit., pp. 348-349.
3 J.P. Sartre, Les mots, Paris 1964.
4 C. Moeller, Jean-Paul Sartre or the refusal of the preternatural, cit., p. 350.
5 op. cit., pp. 350-351.
6 op. cit., p. 351.
7 op. cit., p. 406.
8 op. cit., p. 401.
9 op. cit., p. 351.
10 J. P. Sartre, Les mots, cit., p.95.
11 op.cit., p. 96.
12 op.cit., pp. 97-98.
13 op.cit., pp.169 and 170.
14 op.cit., pp. 236-237.
15 op.cit., p. 238.
16 op.cit., p. 239.
17 Ibidem.
18 Ibidem.
19 op. cit., p. 240
20J. P. Sartre, Bariona, ou le Fils du tonnerre, Paris 1970,
21 Ch. Moeller, Jean- Paul Sartre or the refusal of the preternatural.
22 J. P. Sartre, Oeuvres romanesques, Paris 1981, p. LXI.
23 A. Cohen-Solal, Sartre, New York 1985, tr. it., Sartre, Milan 1986, p.188.
24 M. Merleau-Ponty, Sens et non sens, Paris 1948
25 J. P. Sartre, Lettres à Castor et au quelches autres, Paris 1983
26 Cit. in: S. De Beauvoir, La Cérémonie des adieux, Paris 1981, p. 238.
27 M. Contant-M. Rybalka, Les Ecrits de Sartre – Chronologie, Bibliographie commentée, Paris 1970, p. 564.
28 A. Cohen- Solal, Sartre, cit., p.191.
29 Interview of Sartre by Claire Vervin for the article Lectures de prisonniers, in Les lettres françaises, 2 December 1944, p. 3.
30 A. Delogu, A very affecting mystery of Christmas, Introduction to: J. P. Sartre, Bariona or the figio of the thunder, cit., p.VII.
31 J. P. Sartre, Bariona o il figlio del tuono, cit., p. 36.
32 op.cit., p. 38.
33 op.cit., p. 61
34 op.cit., p. 64
35 op.cit., p. 68
36 op.cit., pp. 70-71
37 op.cit., p. 72
38 op.cit., p. 89
39 op.cit., p. 97
40 op.cit., p. 101
41 op.cit., p. 102.
42 M. Perrin, Avec Sartre au Stalag XII D, Paris 1980, p. 78.
43 J. P. Sartre, Bariona ou le Fils du tonnerre, cit., p.7844 op.cit., p. 91.
44 op.cit., p. 91

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