Have yourself an existential Christmas

How Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy began with the nativity.

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“You should know that I am writing my first serious play and am putting all of me into it (writing, staging, acting it) and it’s about the nativity… I have written a scene about an angel announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds that took everyone’s breath away.”

Jean-Paul Sartre penned these lines in a letter to Simone de Beauvoir in December 1940. He was writing from Stalag XII-D in Trier, a prisoner of war camp in south-west Germany, after his capture by German troops that summer while serving as a meteorologist in the French army.

By that point, Sartre had already published significant works of philosophy, such as The Transcendence of the Ego (1936), and was emerging as a respected novelist after the publications of Nausea (1938) and The Wall (1939), a collection of short stories and essays. But France’s experience of invasion and military occupation between 1940 and 1945 was the spur to new levels of creative industry.

In the months between the start of the Second World War in September 1939 and his capture in June 1940, Sartre filled thousands of pages of notebooks, wrote most of his novel The Age of Reason (1945) and worked on a number of other literary projects.

While in captivity he composed large chunks of his philosophical masterwork, Being and Nothingness (1943), read prolifically and kept a diary. As the literary scholar John Sturrock once noted, “the nine months of the Phoney War were phonier for Sartre than for most”.  

Although the war passed in relative serenity for Sartre, it became the universal backdrop against which all of his philosophical concerns about the nature of existence and political liberty were conceived.

His nine months as a POW also led him to champion the virtues of resistance to tyranny and oppression. Nowhere was this ideal expressed in more guileful tones than his play, Bariona, or, the Son of Thunder, a retelling of the Annunciation story, when the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she will bear a son.

Sartre admitted in his letter to de Beauvoir that the reason he had joined the camp’s group of playwrights was because it meant he could “avoid working on the land, for which… I have little talent”.

Yet there was another, more subversive intent behind the words and directions of Bariona. The plot centres on a village near Bethlehem. When a colonial envoy from Rome commands the village to pay more taxes, the village chief, Bariona, suggests that the residents pay the monies but vow to have no more children, since this will end “the suffering of our race. We shall beget no more. We shall consummate our lives in meditation on evil, injustice, and suffering.”

But after the birth of Christ is announced, the villagers abandon Bariona and travel to Bethlehem to pay tribute to the great redeemer, while Bariona’s wife, Sarah, denounces his retreat into despair and informs him that she is pregnant.

Bariona demands that she go to a “witch doctor” to get an abortion, which she refuses to do, declaring that “even if I knew that [my child] would betray me, that he would die on the cross like a thief and cursing me, I would still give birth to him”.

Bariona is resolved to kill the newborn messiah but stops when Balthazar, one of the wise men (played by Sartre in the camp production) reveals Christ’s true, existentialist purpose – not to create heaven on Earth but rather to transcend humanity’s suffering by giving it meaning. “You will discover the truth which Christ came to teach you and which you already know: you are not your suffering. Whatever you do and however you look at it, you surpass it; because it means exactly what you want it to… Christ came to teach you that you are responsible for yourself and your suffering.”

Bariona is persuaded by Balthazar’s message that redemption is found not through despair but through the choices we make, however difficult they appear, and in the revolt against our condition. The play ends with Bariona vowing to lay down his life and resist Herod’s plan to kill Jesus.

Staging Bariona on Christmas Eve in one of the large tents in Stalag XII-D, and in front of 2,000 prisoners, allowed Sartre to address the trauma of national defeat and capture in the most insurgent terms. According to eyewitness accounts, the performance was incredibly moving and was followed by Midnight Mass.

Shrouded in the Christian myth, the play’s allegory of resistance to Nazism escaped the camp’s censors. But in a letter to the critic Paul-Louis Mignon in 1968, Sartre wrote that the “script was full of allusions to the circumstances of the moment, which were perfectly clear to each of us. The envoy of Rome to Jerusalem was in our minds the Germans. Our guards saw him as the Englishman in his colonies!”

With its complex themes of suffering, choice, authenticity and freedom, Bariona can be read as a source from which the great tributaries of Sartre’s postwar philosophy flowed.

But it was the pervading sense of hope and joy that made Bariona resonate with such radical charge the night it was performed. It is a play that  endeavours to lift the dead hand of spiritual gloom through its promise of future liberation.

As Bariona says in the play’s concluding monologue addressed to the audience: “And you prisoners, this is the end of this Christmas play which was written for you. You are not happy, and maybe there is more than one of you who has that taste of gall in his mouth… But I think that for you, too, on this Christmas Day – and every other day – there’ll still be joy!”

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Gavin Jacobson is commissioning editor for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special