The Thinking 

Sartre and Beauvoir

February 11, 2010


It’s hard to overstate the importance of two French intellectuals, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, in the history of postmodern romance. Much has been written that discredits their image, but the fairy tale lives on.

A cobbled square in a fashionable part of Paris is named for them. Plaques mark a hotel where they stayed. As Hazel Rowley writes in Tête à Tête, her 2005 book about the world-renowned existential philosopher and the feminist thinker:

There are always bouquets of fresh flowers on their tomb in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Their books have been translated into dozens of languages. A vast industry has grown up around them, with shelves of biographies, monographs, and memoirs, as well as innumerable articles, conferences, and university courses on their work and their lives. Tourists haunt the cafes – now the most fashionable drinking places on the Left Bank – where the couple used to write during the war, eager to work in the warmth, surrounded by the bustle of life.

Intellectual girls have long been captivated by Beauvoir, who became the matriarch of feminism with her book The Second Sex, a tome few read in its entirety.When I was in college,  Beauvoir seemed elegant and independent, a paradigm of a new kind of woman who could have her own place and a man too. Sartre’s ugliness added to her mystique. There must have been something powerfully compelling about a man who could command such loyalty even though he was physically so unappealing. A literature course I took in college in 1980 was devoted in part to their romance. It wasn’t about their works so much as about them. They were their own masterpiece of love redefined.

They met in 1929 when they were both studying for the rigorous philosophy agrégation at the Sorbonne. They were among 13 who passed the exam that year. Sartre came in first; Beauvoir, who at 21 was the youngest ever to pass, came in second.

Even when she was young and beautiful, Beauvoir was a decidedly masculine woman, comfortable in a group of men telling bawdy jokes and talking late into the night. One interesting point about Beauvoir: Her father had lost much of his money and had no dowry for either of his two daughters. Early in life, she knew she might never marry and might have to support herself. Perhaps this steeled her to the non-marital state Sartre eventually offered her.

She was infatuated with a married man when she met Sartre, but Sartre was her first lover. He was brilliant, witty, full of life and fun. She saw in him something she believed she would never find in anyone else and she was probably right. They soon got jobs at schools in different provincial towns and spent weekends together.

Sartre, who had once been engaged to another woman, told Beauvoir that he would be a lifelong bachelor. He was incapable of sexual fidelity, but he would like her to be the most “essential” woman in his life. As he said in a letter to Beauvoir, “… no matter what happens and what I become, I will become it with you.” What a great line.  They agreed to see each other often, accept other relationships and tell each other everything about other lovers. This final aspect of their pact was key to the psychological dynamic in the years ahead. They would tell each other everything.

Although an unmarried couple seems unexceptional today, it was scandalous when they first met. Once their affair began, Beauvoir was not permitted in the home of Sartre’s mother and stepfather. His mother would meet them furtively in a cafeteria.

They were both famous for eschewing convention, but in one respect they were utterly conventional. They were ambitious and doggedly industrious. Beauvoir helped Sartre with his work, frequently serving as an invaluable critic. They were hungry for success and fame, and provided vital companionship to each other on the long slog to celebrity status. So much for their famous rejection of bourgeois values.

Finally, after years of obscurity, their hard work was rewarded. His novels, plays and philosophical works were published as were her copious memoirs, theoretical works and novels. They became immense celebrities. Existentialism, as Sartre said, was “nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position.” He took atheism in the only direction it could possibly go: toward the worship of human will and energy. We do not have any real essence, only the sum of our actions.“There is no human nature,” Sartre said, “since there is no God to conceive it.” In his words:

 Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence.

He achieved secular sainthood and became one remarkable inspiration for what we see today: a world where meaning is entirely in what people do.  At first, he was not politically active, but in later years he supported Soviet Communism and terrorism. He was virulently anti-American.

The sordid side of Sartre and Beauvoir’s liaison was described indirectly in Beauvoir’s novels. But the full truth didn’t catch the public’s attention until after Beauvoir’s death in 1986. (He died in 1980.) They had maintained complete honesty with each other, but had lied to others.  They had established a pattern of drawing a young woman into their life and forming a trio.  At least two of the women were sexually involved with both. There were several lesbian affairs for Beauvoir and famous romances with the American author Nelson Algren and the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. There were dozens of affairs and brief encounters for Sartre. At one point, Sartre was entangled with nine women at the same time.

Their idea of freedom was curiously self-serving. Beauvoir had a long affair with the lover of one of her closest friends. She kept a clandestine relationship with him even after he had married her friend. Sartre’s women, several of whom he supported financially for long periods, were not always as content as Beauvoir with his polymorphous life. When one woman gossiped about him, he wrote this to her in a letter:

I never loved you. I found you physically pleasant though vulgar, but I have a certain sadism which was attracted to your vulgarity nonetheless. I never – from the very first day – intended to have anything but a very brief affair with you…

The matriarch of feminism, whose saintly visage still retains its halo all these years, slavishly supported a man who said such things to the women he dumped. Paul Johnson, writing in his book, The Intellectuals, wrote, Sartre was the archetype of what in the 1960s became known as the male chauvinist. His aim was to recreate for himself in adult life the ‘paradise’ of his early childhood in which he was the centre of a perfumed bower of adoring womanhood.”

One of his young conquests killed herself. But then Sartre was drawn to fragile, emotionally tremulous women. He called them his “drowning women.” As he himself stated, he was emotionally stunted. He needed these women and these conquests to feel alive.  And for him, feeling alive was all there was.

Both Beauvoir and Sartre were extraordinarily magnetic and their fame added to their attraction. Young people readily fell under their spell. They called their closest circle of friends “The Family” and it was a highly incestuous grouping. The Beauvoir-Sartre legend was a tale of freedom. Freedom from some conventions, but not others. Manipulation and selfishness are older than marriage and bourgeois domesticity. Louis Menand wrote in his New Yorker review of Rowley’s book:

… it is clear now that Sartre and Beauvoir did not simply have a long-term relationship supplemented by independent affairs with other people. The affairs with other people formed the very basis of their relationship. The swapping and the sharing and the mimicking, the memoir- and novel-writing, right down to the interviews and the published letters and the duelling estates, was the stuff and substance of their “marriage.” This was how they slept with each other after they stopped sleeping with each other. The third parties were, in effect, prostheses, marital aids, and, when they discovered how they were being used, they reacted, s Bianca Benenfeld [author of a well-known memoir], with the fury of the betrayed.

 Beauvoir and Sartre were also training themselves to be above normal emotions. This was freedom. They considered it a point of pride to transcend jealousy. With others, honesty wouldn’t work. That’s because the other people in their lives were mere mortals.


                                       — Comments —

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Your sense of Beauvoir and Sartre is entirely accurate; you justly convey the creepiness of their arrangement. Is there such a thing as mediated homosexuality? Beauvoir and Sartre lead me to believe so: He was interested, vicariously, in her men and she was interested, vicariously, in his women. To paraphrase “Old Dusty,” when human nature doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.

Laura writes:

Thank you. Interesting possibility. Beauvoir was by her own admission bisexual. I never considered he might be indulging an interest in men. 

By the way, they both drank heavily, and he becamed addicted at one point to prescription medication. One time a young woman friend was visiting Beauvoir’s room. They drank so much cherry brandy that the girl stumbled down the stairs when she left and slept in a heap at the bottom for the night.

I’m not sure I conveyed the real strangeness of their connections with certain young women. In at least one case, Beauvoir approached a girl’s parents and asked for permission to take her under her wing and financially support her. The parents thought, “Oh, isn’t that nice of you.”  Beauvoir was to be the girl’s mentor, but it became much more complicated. In other cases, Beauvoir and Sartre reduced young vulnerable women to a state of financial dependence. (Beauvoir’s key feminist idea was that women must be financially independent to achieve equality with men. Kind of hypocritical.) In their own minds, and in the minds of the girls, it was generosity.

 Thomas writes:

You know, there’s an important moment in La nausée when the “studious man” in the town library is denounced by a local urchin for being a “pedo.” That scene has always struck me as grotesquely “overdetermined.” This heightens my intuition that the Beauvoir-Sartre arrangement was a “cover” for something else. 

As for “bisexuality,” the “bisexuals” whom I knew in grad-school at UCLA in the 1980s seemed to me to be a variant of the classic “closet-case.” One way or another, the “bisexuals” always graduated to one same-sex conviction or another. The alleged ambivalence was temporary camouflage. 

Corollarily, some (not all, but some) homosexuality might be a case of vicarious desire for the opposite sex. Thirty-some years ago I wrote correspondence and advertising copy for an architectural firm in Malibu owned and largely staffed by homosexuals. It being Malibu, many of those guys had celebrity connections. One was Rock Hudson. The gossip about Hudson from his pathics was that his chief interest was in men who had “been with women.” It gives a new twist to those Hudson/Day movies. 

The “gay” crowd would probably be happier (more prone to be integrated with the larger society) if greater honesty were permitted in describing and addressing it. Then we would all be happier.

Laura writes:

Whatever neuroses may have been involved, these relationships were also the expression of their philosophical beliefs. I wonder how many of Sartre’s girlfriends really bothered to read his books and ponder what they said. 

Eric writes:

You are too kind to Sartre. He treated The Beaver [Beauvoir’s nickname] like merde. She was jealous all along of his extra-curricular couplings; the arrangement was something he forced upon her. There was a pattern of him taking a lover, then she taking one herself (sometimes the same one) to get even. Not all of them were reported back to headquarters, per agreement, and some of them were much more involved than The Beaver knew. Not only was she tormented with jealousy, but the rules of the game (written by him) obliged her to “come out” in print and in public about her knowledge of his affairs – and to say she was OK with it. She had to be Elizabeth Edwards every damn day for her whole life.

The free and open and honest relationship was shot through and through with jealousy, suspicion, and deceit, right up to the end: Sartre’s legacy was his papers and writings, and Beauvoir naturally assumed she would, as his Main Beaver, get the goods. Instead, he willed the lot of them to his latest hump, an 19-year-old Algerian, without The Beaver’s knowledge, touching off a long and expensive legal battle upon his death.

Sartre was an idiot and a cad.

Laura writes:

I agree he was a cad, but I don’t think he forced the arrangement upon her. She was a young and beautiful woman when he offered it to her. She could have left.  Beauvoir was capable of her own betrayals and ruthlessness so I have a hard time seeing her as victim. She had a very active sex life. Nelson Algren, the American author, was in love with her when she was in her forties. She offered him the same sort of open relationship and he wanted no part of it.

Given that neither of them had children, Sartre’s decision to will his estate to a younger woman, one of his quasi-sisters and former lovers (they had stopped having sexual relations long before), made sense. The people who objected to this decision the most were his other lovers, not Beauvoir.

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