Saturday, April 21, 2012

How the Young Jean-Paul Sartre Ousted a Principal with the Assistance of Charles Lindberg

In 1924, the 19 year old Jean-Paul Sartre came seventh in an entrance exam to École Normale Supérieure (ENS) of Paris. Along with him entered his best friend Paul Nizan. "Many can say, as I do, that they have had four years of happiness" Sartre later said of his life at ENS. Actually, he was there for five years, leaving in summer 1929. Sartre benefited from the company of young and bright students in ENS and its library. He read extensively borrowing hundreds of book from the it.

If there was a reason for discontent at ENS to Sartre and his friends, it was their principal. Gustave Lanson was an eminent literary historian. When he took up the post in 1919 he was already 62 years of age. Nizan looked down on him as a 'little old man, patriotic, hypocritical and powerful, with a respect for soldiers.' For Sartre and his friends, neither eminence nor power mattered. They continuously subjected the principal to satirical attacks. Sartre impersonated him in a play (A l'ombre de vieilles billes en fleur) they acted at the annual revue of March 1925. Reporting the event, L'Oeuvre stated: "The student Sartre sustained the role of M. Lanson brilliantly."

Image: Gustave Lanson, from Wikimedia Commons

Two years and two months later, Charles Lindbergh, an American pilot three years Sartre's senior, emerged from obscurity flying a single seat, single engine plane, Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic on May 20-21, 1927. This was followed by many accolades and awards bestowed upon him. One award made him an 'honorary pupil of École Normale Supérieure.' However, this was just a part of a huge practical joke perpetrated by Sartre, Nizan and three other students, which eventually ended the long lasting duel between Lanson and Sartre, giving the youngster an unexpected victory.

After the solo flight of Lindbergh, the five students telephoned the evening papers, informing them of 'a unanimous decision by the disciplinary council of ENS to make Lindbergh an honorary pupil.' The papers carried the story. Furthermore, Le Petit Parisien announced on May 25 that Lindbergh will be at the ENS that morning at 9.30. At the appointed hour, a crowd of about 500 had gathered to greet the great man, who arrived in a taxi. This phony 'great man' was a student who had a slight resemblance to Lindbergh. He was greeted with an ovation by the crowd which had gathered and as he was carried on the shoulders of his fellows the crowd followed and an old man even kissed his hands.

Reporting of the successful act, the newspapers referred scathingly to Gustave Lanson. Greatly upset, he resigned. This was an unusual instance at which the students defeated the establishment by their practical jokes.


Ronald Hayman, Writing Against: A Biography of Sartre, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London (1986)

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