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Jean-Paul Sartre on "the Neapolitans" -from- Letters to Beaver
   
Lettres au Castor et à quelques autres (Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir and others)

During the course of some 50 years, Sartre (1905-1980) and his intimate friend Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986) carried on a voluminous exchange of letters between themselves as well as with others. After Sartre's death, De Beauvoir made a selection of the letters and annotated and published them (image, right). They appeared in 2 volumes covering the years 1926-1939 and 1940-1963, respectively. The passage below is from vol 1. From references in the text, it was probably written in 1937 or 1938.

Sartre's term of endearment for
De Beauvoir was Castor, which means "beaver" in French. Apparently this leading figure of existentialism (you must lead a meaningful life even if life itself is meaningless) thought that "Beauvoir" sounded like the English word "beaver". Maybe it does if you say beaver with a thick enough French accent, maybe bee-VAIR. (And maybe it doesn't!) Anyway, for an existentialist, it's not a bad pun. The letters have appeared in various languages; the Italian translation retains the pun with Castoro; at least one English translation does not and calls the collection Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir. I am not aware that Satre knew of other idiomatic meanings of beaver particularly in U.S. English. (Sartre was a fan of American literature, especially "proletarian" writers such as Dos Passos and Steinbeck and helped familiarize his countrymen with them.) If he was familiar with other meanings, maybe he thought it would be even funnier if he could get in a clever double whammy pun at the expense of one of the great feminist writers of the twentieth century. Funny man, Jean-Paul.

His short passage on Neapolitans is negative, to put it bluntly—and even offensive, but it is, in some respects, perceptive, although he seems to have homed in on stereotypes from an earlier age. It bears comparison with Mark Twain's description of Naples (at this link). The translation, below, is mine. I have put asterisks at some points with a few notes at the end. - Jeff Matthews

The Neapolitans
   De Beauvoir and Sartre in Beijing, 1955.    
I'll tell you about Neapolitans. Naturally we didn't get to see everything, much less understand everything on Saturday afternoon. It all happened little by little. Yet everything was there all around us, leaving us in the dark, guessing as to exactly what there was to understand. Anyway, here it is. I'll go through it in chronological order.

There are only a very few large streets. Corso Umberto was opened a half-century ago in order to regenerate the city; thus it looks orderly and clean. It runs from the station to Piazza Trieste e Trento,* as straight as the letter i, like a dry furrow, with the forbidding and dusty look of so many large streets in southern Italy and in southern France as well (around Toulouse and Albi). Then you have via Roma, via Duomo, and via Diaz, where they have put up the new post office,* an immense modern building in fake black marble—it couldn't be more out-of-place in Naples; it's a perfect Fascist monument that would be much better placed in Littoria,* the city that Mussolini built from nothing in the Pontine swamps. But what's interesting is that all of these beautiful streets don't really make up a quarter, a section of the city; they are crossed by hundreds of squalid little alleys. If you get off into those a bit, you'll find yourself in the densest part of teeming, popular Naples and think yourself a hundred miles away.

Naturally I have to tell you about the people of these streets, the Neapolitans. Maybe they're the only people in Europe that a visitor, in the city for only a week or so, can learn enough about to have anything to say. That's because Neapolitans are the only people you can actually watch living their lives, from top to bottom, head to toe. I imagine that nowadays under this austere Fascist regime they conceal themselves when they make love. But 20 years ago they probably did it on the front door step, or maybe in their large beds with the doors wide open. On the day we arrived, they all seemed so open in their total lack of modesty, say, in comparison to the people of Rome. Unfortunately they're not attractive or pleasant, and their public displays of  intimacy are rather repugnant. From a distance people may look splendid because of the gaudy rags they wear. Beaver will tell you about those tattered old slippers she wore. I'm thinking of a young woman and a little girl I saw climbing up some steps where they had reached about the halfway point when I saw them. The little girl was wearing purple and the young woman still had on her night gown and had tossed a coat over it that was so green it would put your teeth on edge. It's not at all uncommon to see children in light colorful pajamas decorated with arabesque designs or bright floral patterns. But if you get close up, you see that their rosy little faces are marked with eczema and scabies.

It's precisely this tragic background that gives you a complete, full understanding of those beautiful streets I mentioned. Yet the population of Naples doesn't really seem to be a proletarian one. Taken together, they're not a class, but rather a flock. As far as their natural social environment goes, it's the street. They don't give the impression at all that they think about their situation, or judge it or even put up with it conscientiously. To me they don't seem cheerful. Maybe untroubled.* (Beaver says, though, that the young people do seem very cheerful).

We even thought that many of them must be happy, all humanists in their own wayalmost animal-likeand that they must spend all day in close quarters with others whom they love to the very quick. They don't earn a lot of money but everything is so cheap they don't need a lot. For a few cents they can get a thick slice of watermelon from a street vendor—things of that nature. They certainly get enough to eat. Those dirty sickly little kids—all they do is eat; they always have a huge piece of bread stuffed with cooked peppers in their hands. Then, when Neapolitans are not eating, they're sleeping. That's not a legend either. In the afternoon, there are entire streets so sound asleep, it's like Sleeping Beauty's castle—with people stuck in the same position they were in when sleep overcame them. There are three musicians asleep on a sidewalk staircase, resting against the wall; their instruments, covered by a grey cloth, lie next to them. Here is a young man who has curled up in the flat basket where he keeps the fruit he sells and is now resting amid green foliage and what's left of his fruit. Waiters in black vests and white jackets are sleeping at the tables that they will be setting in an hour's time. Others are sleeping on walls, against lamp posts, on the ground. On the beach there's a sailor asleep near a boat; he has one leg up with his foot resting on the edge of the boat. Those who are not asleep are red-eyed and look troubled, as if they were remembering a bad dream or were about to begin one. They're always between one nap and the next and look confused. But when it comes to stealing or begging, they spring into an incredible state of alertness, but an alertness that is totally without intelligence.

Neapolitans are not intelligent, they are beyond good and bad taste. It never occurs to them to fix a window or street such that they are pleasant to look at. They put plants everywhere, true, but they love them the way they love the backsides of their children—like animals—they love plants because the plants are green and alive. They have no sense of depth; in Rouen and Paris there is something so strange and profound about the poor that you want to go up to them and ask them what they are thinking. But it's clear that Neapolitans are not thinking anything at all. Yet the streets they use and the daily objects they use and the way they are arranged, all of that is fascinating and deep. It's because of the filth that lies over everything, the way the sunlight lies on the roofs of Torino and the years lie on the Roman columns of the Forum. The wood of the kegs they store water in, of tubs, of doors, of the metal of their locks and toolseverything is a deep coal black. The objects have, through use, become rusted, dirty, rotted and have turned into something that well exceeds their original intent. They are no longer tools, plates or utensils; they exist unto themselves and are absolutely beyond description. Not human. And that is the Neapolitan weakness. They let everything go, which gives all of these things a chance to build relationships that may be fascinating but are absolutely involuntary: a basket of fruit next to an accordion in the barber shop; a container of shriveled tomato preserves beneath an image of the Blessed Virgin; a small open grill stove filled with burning coals, resting on a rickety chair. All this is the triumph of chance. Everywhere in Naples, chance is the triumphant master. It even wins at horrors. On Sunday, I saw a girl walking under a strong sun. She kept her face turned to the left to avoid the strong sunlight. She was squinting with her left eye and her mouth was twisted into a grimace; but the right side of her face seemed rigid and dead, yet her right eye was wide-open, blue, transparent and sparkling, reflecting back the rays of the sun with the inhuman indifference of a mirror or glass window. It was ghastly enough but also strangely beautiful; her right eye was of glass. Only in Naples could chance outdo itself like that; a miserable girl dazzling and glowing with a piece of mineral stuck in her poor flesh as if they had ripped out her eye to make her all the more beautiful. I think that in ten days we must have seen eight or nine Neapolitans with a glass eye.

Naturally there are Neapolitans who are simply beautiful. They have brown bodies and lean, beautiful faces as soft as those of orientals and mischievous caressing eyes. Most of the men sport a thin black mustache, which makes them look like villains in American films. They know they're good-looking and put on poses, some of which have a certain grace about them, like the young man I saw half-stretched out aboard his horse-drawn cart; he was singing and had his shirt open to show his brown chest.

notes:
1 *...Trieste e Trento". No, it doesn't. It runs from the train station to the stock market.           ^up to 1-3
2 *...new post office." Finished in 1936, one of the indicators of when the letter was written.   
3 *...Littoria."
That is the old Fascist name. Today, the city is called Latina.                                   
4 *...untroubled." Tough to translate. The French insouciant can go from care-free (in my view, a little too happy for this context) to thoughtless (too negative). I settled on untroubled, although dumb and happy or blithely ignorant would also work.         ^up to 4


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