I’d cut out the photograph of Sartre, snipping it from the gutter of the book. Where else to ponder it but on the bridge? It might tell me something. I swallowed my tea, pulled the door gently to, crept down the passage, then remembered I didn’t need to tiptoe any more. Stella had gone. Grabbing a coat I strode out into a gusty drizzle.
I’d have the town bridge to myself, apart from the odd workman huddled at the corner waiting for an early lift, scanning his red-top, sandwich box tucked under his arm. It would be an hour or more before the rabble of schoolchildren invaded the narrow pavement.
Minutes later I’m here on the town bridge, leaning against a chill parapet, stamping my feet and peering through the half-light at a black and white photograph.
It shows the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, taken by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1946, just after the War. He’s standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris. I know little about Sartre, and less still about existentialism. But I do know something about photographs – how to decipher and decode them, and fathoming out why they were taken. I’m used to conjuring a story out of a grainy black and white. It’s an exercise in imagination – that’s what I told my students when I taught photography.
So, what about this photo of Sartre?
Like me he’s standing side on to the bridge, facing the viewer, but looking away, brow wrinkled, expression puzzled. Behind is the blurred spatter of the Institut Francais – if I don’t know my French philosophers I know my Paris. In the photograph the uneven boards of the pedestrian Pont des Arts look snow-covered, and judging by the philosopher’s heavy airman’s jacket, it was taken on one of the coldest days of winter. And that neatly tied scarf was surely tied by a woman. But the rigidly intellectual writer Simone de Beauvoir? Would she waste time forming such a perfection?
In the immediate foreground is the profile and shoulder of the architect Jean Pouillon – so the caption tells me.
What’s going on? What are the two men talking about? Sartre had recently published his existential treatise ‘Being and Nothingness’ to public acclaim and was a celebrity. Only the French could get themselves excited about an abstruse volume of philosophy so soon after their country had been overrun by Panzer tanks and Hitler’s stormtroopers. While Goering was being prosecuted for war crimes in Nuremberg, here in Cartier-Bresson’s Paris it is as if the chaotic world outside has been obscured by the clammy mist rising off the Seine. Are these the only two beings in Sartre’s exclusive world of philosophic nothingness? If they are, then Cartier-Bresson has captured what is a rare moment of stillness in a still traumatized world. That makes it one of the most remarkable of his famous ‘decisive moments’.
Sartre looks worried, perplexed, eyes twisted in his characterstic squint, as if he has stumbled on an unexpected flaw in a piece of irrefutable philosophical logic. Then again, Poullion may be a competent architect but possibly unable to grasp the niceties of Sartre’s existential ponderings. The architect is holding something – a portfolio? Could they be discussing plans for a proposed extension to Sartre’s Paris apartment? ‘Two rooms, I think, Pouillon. A spacious study for me and another, somewhat smaller of course, for Simone.’
I look up. A gull floats by heading for the distant quay. Like Sartre I, too, am standing on a bridge on a winter’s morning, worried and perplexed. The Pont des Arts may be the perfect rendezvous for intellectual discussion, but my bridge certainly isn’t. It’s bordered not by the august elevations of the Louvre but by the town’s Stasi-like job centre and the fake half-timbered bulk of the Rose and Crown.
Can Stella see me from her window on the hill? Are you watching, my love?
Chilled to the bone, I hunch my shoulders. I need answers. What to think about the photograph? What to do about my estranged wife? What to do about my life, for Christsakes? First things first, the photo. A cyclist in bright yellow lycra speeds by and then a delivery van and a mini with a tubercular exhaust.
It’s hard to concentrate but somehow I don’t think Cartier-Bresson was recording a moment in a particularly abstruse philosophical dialogue. More likely Pouillon has just told the philosopher a joke and he’s fully expecting Sartre to burst into laughter. But Sartre simply looks puzzled. The punchline has been uttered, and the great philosopher, pipe thrust between his Michelin lips, is pondering its meaning. You can see the rictus in his face. Maybe he’s trying to conceal his distaste for Pouillon. We all hate joke tellers, they disturb the flow of conversation, demanding laughter and approval. If Sartre could throw the architect over the parapet he probably would.
Breaking up with Stella has been no joke. But I’m no jumper, not off this bridge anyway, I’d simply sink into a mattress of soft mud.
In the photograph we are, of course, seeing only what Cartier-Bresson wants us to see. Even he, the greatest of the great portrait photographers, cannot show us what’s happening outside the confines of his chosen frame.
What we aren’t seeing are the hundred pairs of Parisian eyes trained on France’s most famous thinker. From both sides of the Seine Sartre is being observed through the mist – a bridge, remember, is a public place. From a score of apartments and offices along the Quai du Louvre he is being minutely examined. Some may even have binoculars trained on him.
‘Surely that is Monsieur Sartre the famous existentialist?’
The French would know where the English wouldn’t, not unless Sartre was a footballer or tabloid celebrity. But there is the mist, so maybe the philosopher did go unseen by the Parisian hordes.
I risk a glimpse up to Stella’s window overlooking the river. Like Sartre, am I too being watched?
If it is a joke Cartier-Bresson must be party to it. This image was no random candid shot. He wasn’t paid to photograph nonentities, even if in this case he was photographing a philosopher who made a living out of non-existence. He never used a long lens on his Leica and must have been breathing down his subjects’ necks, a necessary participant in this decisive moment. Remember, there’s always one extra person present in a posed photograph – the photographer. Could it be Cartier-Bresson who told the joke? We can’t see Pouillon’s face. Maybe he’s as perplexed as Sartre.
This photograph tells us everything and nothing, it’s more a puzzling fiction than a record of a precise moment in space and time. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment grows more indecisive by the second.
Light gathers over my ex-wife’s top-floor flat. Stella, are you watching me? Feeling self-conscious, I lean over the parapet and watch the tide running, its measured, patterned flow disturbed and broken by the cutwaters. Stella, are you there? Is that shadow at the window you in your nightgown? My tears well. Like this tidal river it’s all flooding back in again.
What have I learned? Little else than that I’ve conjured a story about a photograph that is completely false. Sartre never owned anything and would never commission an extension to his rented Paris flat. And Jean Pouillon remained an intimate friend until the philosopher’s death. That’s the problem with the imagination, you get carried away and turn fiction into fact. It can lead you in the wrong direction, precisely what this bridge has done to me. I’m the butt end of a joke I didn’t get. With no wife any more I, too, am a being with nothing. I don’t know if that makes me existential, but it makes me depressed, if that’s part of the Sartrean experience.
The little I know about existentialism tells me that what you do is your own choice. Always. What happens in your life is up to you and you only. So, should I climb the hill now and reclaim my wife?
A second shadow appears alongside you at the window. Is someone else calling you back to a warm bed, Stella? The light lifts. I watch an embrace.
I turn and head for home. That’s the problem with bridges. They offer you a simple, direct path from one side of a river to the other but they can lead you nowhere, or to somewhere you definitely don’t want to go.
Did Sartre laugh at the joke? I hope so. Philosophers are lugubrious enough at the best of times.