Wednesday, November 18, 2009
When Young Was Sexy and Paris Simmered
By A. O. SCOTT
HEAR this is the work of a promising young filmmaker," a fellow critic said to me just before a screening of "The Dreamers." He was joking, of course, since the director of "The Dreamers," which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is the 63-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci, who has long since fulfilled his youthful promise. But like most jokes, my colleague's remark contained a kernel of insight. Just as the younger Bertolucci, who made "Before the Revolution" while still in his early 20's, often seemed wise beyond his years, so does Bertolucci the old master plunge into his art with a reckless, confident ardor that might easily be taken for precociousness.
Fittingly enough, one of the themes of "The Dreamers," adapted by Gilbert Adair from his novel "The Holy Innocents," is the passion and folly of youth — not just youth as a universal aspect of the human condition, but youth in Paris in the spring of 1968, one of those enchanted historical dawns when, to quote Wordsworth, "to be young was very heaven."
Mr. Adair's story, of an American exchange student who falls under the spell first of the Cinémathèque Française and then of two of the cinephiles he meets there, is well suited to Mr. Bertolucci's chief preoccupations. The director, a devotee of Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma" (which inspired "Before the Revolution"), has long been fascinated by the unwitting or reluctant participation of flawed, passive individuals in grand political and social dramas, from Italian Fascism ("The Conformist," "1900") to Chinese Communism ("The Last Emperor"). He has also frequently — sometimes simultaneously — investigated the unsettling consequences of sexual intimacy, most famously in "Last Tango in Paris," and also in "Luna," "Stealing Beauty" and "Besieged."
"The Dreamers," which is disarmingly sweet and completely enchanting, fuses sexual discovery with political tumult by means of a heady, heedless romanticism that nearly obscures the film's patient, skeptical intelligence. The three main characters, 20-year-olds besotted by sex, movies, ideas and each other, express themselves with an unguarded sincerity that would be easy to patronize or to mock.
In his voice-over narration, Matthew (Michael Pitt), a sweet-faced American who reads Susan Sontag and writes letters home to his mother, describes how the true aficionados in the cinematheque sit in the front row, so they can be the first to receive the images coming off the screen. This is a silly notion, of course — especially given that the cinematheque was devoted to showing old movies — but it is also a beguiling one.
Many of the other ideas expressed and enacted in "The Dreamers," like the Situationist graffiti on the walls of Paris proclaiming the existence of a beach underneath the sidewalk, have a similar naïve beauty. This makes the film vulnerable to the derision of those for whom sophistication consists in pointing out that there is no such beach, and who will object that Mr. Bertolucci refuses to scold or to satirize the idealism of an earlier generation or to wax pompous about its legacy.
Matthew and his new friends, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), the twin children of a French father and an English mother, exhibit a sometimes awkward seriousness that Mr. Bertolucci treats with tender solicitude. (They also exhibit a great deal more, but we'll get to that in a moment.)
In the course of their long sojourn in the decadent bourgeois squalor of Theo and Isabelle's vast apartment, Matthew and Theo argue furiously about subjects from Jimi Hendrix to Buster Keaton to Chairman Mao, and Mr. Bertolucci revels in their unself-conscious intensity, gazing affectionately at these children who speak solemnly of "cinema," who quote André Bazin with reverence and for whom the movies, far from being an escape from the world, are a means of entry into it.
This idea that living in and through movies is not a solitary neurosis but a mode of communion is made gloriously literal by Mr. Bertolucci's use of archival clips — of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, of Robert Bresson's "Mouchette" and Samuel Fuller's "Shock Corridor," among many others. These silvery images, along with well-chosen songs by the likes of Hendrix, the Doors and Françoise Hardy, pop into the story like dreams and punctuate the hothouse claustrophobia of that apartment, where most of "The Dreamers" takes place.
Theo and Isabelle, whose relationship is incestuous in all but the most technical sense, also use movie references as the basis for a sex game whose psychological sadism makes Matthew uncomfortable, though after a while he is seduced into playing along. The ensuing triangle is like a soft-core updating of Henry James, with Matthew representing an open-minded, skeptical sensibility exposed to the dark shadows and gothic mysteries of Old Europe. Even as he is fascinated by Theo and Isabelle's kinky fairy-tale world, he wants to free them from it, and from each other, and his liberal spirit balks at the extremity of Theo's political radicalism.
The sex in this movie is, as measured by the display of body parts and the amount of time the actors spend out of their clothes, more explicit than even the most notorious scenes in "Last Tango." (Since Fox Searchlight admirably declined to force Mr. Bertolucci to cut it, "The Dreamers" is being released in the United States with the rarely applied NC-17 rating, the present-day equivalent of "Last Tango's" X.) But the cruelty and despair that haunted the couplings in that Paris apartment 30 years ago are for the most part banished from this one.
There is an almost Edenic quality to the nakedness, which is not to say that the film's treatment of sexuality is altogether innocent. "I read in Cahiers du Cinéma," says Theo, "that a filmmaker is like a peeping Tom." That he delivers this line while soaking in the bathtub with his sister and their American guest only emphasizes the point.
But it is hard to imagine a voyeur more benevolent than Mr. Bertolucci, whose eager scrutiny of the eros of the young is, like Jeremy Irons's in "Stealing Beauty," less a matter of prurience than of an honest, nostalgic appreciation of natural human vitality. And the director, unfailingly generous in his refusal to embarrass his characters, is equally generous in sharing his sensual enthusiasm with the audience.
I don't only mean that the unadorned loveliness of Ms. Green's limbs and Mr. Pitt's torso are pleasing to look at — though I would hardly deny such a thing. Their beauty is enhanced — is discovered — by Mr. Bertolucci's visual technique, which gives his frames the poise and vibrancy of paintings by Ingres or Caravaggio. (Their shadowy, melancholy luster comes from the cinematography of Fabio Cianchetti.) Except, of course, that these pictures move. There is perhaps no living filmmaker who moves his camera with such exquisite, expressive grace. Movie love is not only the subject of "The Dreamers," but also its method.
But there is more to life than sex and movies, much as we might wish it otherwise. There is, for one thing, "the street," where the events of May 1968 are unfolding. The disturbances began, legend has it, with protests against the government's firing of Henri Langlois, the founder and director of the Cinémathèque Française, but their rapid escalation takes place off screen, while Theo, Isabelle and Matthew are lost in their reverie of carnal exploration and emotional sadomasochism.
The reality principle asserts itself in the end, first with the arrival of Theo and Isabelle's distracted parents and then with a cobblestone that crashes through the window, leading the dazed dreamers out in search of the beach they had been promised.
"The Dreamers" is rated NC-17 (No one under 17 admitted) for nudity and explicit sexuality.
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci; written (in English, with some subtitled French) by Gilbert Adair, based on his novel; director of photography, Fabio Cianchetti; edited by Jacopo Quadri; production designer, Jean Rabasse; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 115 minutes. This film is rated NC-17.
WITH: Michael Pitt (Matthew), Eva Green (Isabelle), Louis Garrel (Theo), Robin Renucci (Father) and Anna Chancellor (Mother).
Sunday, November 08, 2009
"In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation."
Simone De Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir is among the greatest of the existentialists and writings about her and Jean Paul Sartre often overlook the philosophy that shaped her life and her values. The play, Transatlantic Liaison, (click for a fine review of this play) based on Beauvoir's relationship with Nelson Algren makes clear her belief that affairs can actually enhance a relationship. Similarly, she argued with Algren that her love for Sartre was such an important part of who she was that were she to break it off she would cease to be the person Algren loved. It is a sophisticated and profound statement, key to the ethics of existentialism.
In my view, the last line of the following article is wrong. My understanding of Beauvoir is that she was superior in many ways to Sartre, that she needed her other relationships even more than he needed his. her other relationships were more holistic, stimulating the mind as well as the body. Many of his seem purely sexual. When Sartre claims he is incapable of loving an ugly woman, Beauvoir proves her superiority by loving an ugly man-- Sartre, himself. But she loves beauty as well, and experienced it fully in her affairs with both men and women.
Still, this article makes enjoyable reading and gives plenty of thought for speculation about 51 amazing years of love and devotion.
Stand By Your Man
The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir.
by Louis Menand September 26, 2005
Jean-Paul Sartre preferred the company of women. As one would expect of the great advocate of transparency, he discussed his reasons frankly. “First of all, there is the physical element. There are of course ugly women, but I prefer those who are pretty,” he explained in an interview for the documentary “Sartre by Himself.” “Then, there is the fact that they’re oppressed, so they seldom bore you with shop talk. . . . I enjoy being with a woman because I’m bored out of my mind when I have to converse in the realm of ideas.” “Sartre by Himself” was filmed in 1972, when Sartre was sixty-six; his interviewers were loyal associates from the journal he founded after the war, Les Temps Modernes. None of them encouraged him to expand on the topic, since Simone de Beauvoir was present, and everyone in the room understood that the legend of their relationship was in her keeping. But everyone in the room also knew that Sartre liked the company of women because he devoted much of his time to the business of seducing them.The nature of Sartre and Beauvoir’s partnership was never a secret to their friends, and it was not a secret to the public, either, after they were abruptly launched into celebrity, in 1945. They were famous as a couple with independent lives, who met in cafés, where they wrote their books and saw their friends at separate tables, and were free to enjoy other relationships, but who maintained a kind of soul marriage. Their liaison was part of the mystique of existentialism, and it was extensively documented and coolly defended in Beauvoir’s four volumes of memoirs, all of them extremely popular in France: “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” (1958), “The Prime of Life” (1960), “Force of Circumstance” (1963), and “All Said and Done” (1972). Beauvoir and Sartre had no interest in varnishing the facts out of respect for bourgeois notions of decency. Disrespect for bourgeois notions of decency was precisely the point.
Sartre and Beauvoir had met in Paris in 1929, when he was twenty-four, she was twenty-one, and both were studying for the agrégation, the competitive examination for a career in the French school system. Beauvoir was a handsome and stylish woman, and she had a boyfriend, René Maheu. (It was Maheu who gave her her permanent nickname, le Castor—the Beaver.) But she fell in love with Sartre, once she got over the physical impression he made. Sartre was about five feet tall, and he had lost almost all the sight in his right eye when he was three; he dressed in oversized clothes, with no sense of fashion; his skin and teeth suggested an indifference to hygiene. He had the kind of aggressive male ugliness that can be charismatic, and he wisely refrained from disguising it. He simply ignored his body. He was also smart, generous, agreeable, ambitious, ardent, and very funny. He liked to drink and talk all night, and so did she.
Sartre had been engaged, though the engagement was broken off after he failed his first attempt at the agrégation; but he and Beauvoir decided that their love did not require marriage for its consummation. “The comradeship that welded our lives together made a superfluous mockery of any other bond we might have forged for ourselves,” Beauvoir explained in “The Prime of Life”:
One single aim fired us, the urge to embrace all experience, and to bear witness concerning it. At times this meant that we had to follow diverse paths—though without concealing even the least of our discoveries from one another. When we were together we bent our wills so firmly to the requirements of this common task that even at the moment of parting we still thought as one. That which bound us freed us; and in this freedom we found ourselves bound as closely as possible.
Sartre proposed a “pact”: they could have affairs, but they were required to tell each other everything. As he put it to Beauvoir: “What we have is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.” Beauvoir’s whole life to that point had been an effort to escape from the culture of her family. Her mother had been educated in a convent; her father was a conservative Paris lawyer of diminished means who, though he was proud of his daughter’s mind, discouraged her interest in philosophy, and would probably have discouraged her pursuit of any career if he had been able to provide her with a dowry. So she was excited by the affront to conventional standards of domesticity that Sartre’s arrangement posed. She also had a high opinion of Sartre’s brilliance as a philosopher. An argument based on terms like “essence” and “contingency” worked as well on her as a diamond ring. She saw (before he did, but in some ways she was cannier than he was) that the pact bound to her for life a man whom she knew would never be faithful. It closed the normal exit.
As matters worked out, the pact meant that Beauvoir not only discussed with Sartre his interest in other women; she often formed intimate friendships with the women herself. At first, she was distressed to discover that she sometimes felt jealous. Sartre advised her that jealousy, like all passions, is an enemy of freedom: it controls you, and you should be controlling it. Sartre soon stopped sleeping with her, and she had her own serious affairs, notably with Nelson Algren, a transatlantic relationship that lasted from 1947 to 1951, and Claude Lanzmann, with whom she lived from 1952 to 1959; she wrote openly about her relations with both men in “Force of Circumstance.” But she remained committed to Sartre and to the pact; and the relationship, with its carrousel of changing partners and café tables, lasted fifty-one years.
Beauvoir never pretended that her memoirs told the whole story. “There are many things which I firmly intend to leave in obscurity,” she warned in “The Prime of Life.” Though she strategically employed pseudonyms in the memoirs, enough was revealed, and enough suggested in her romans à clef “She Came to Stay” (1943) and “The Mandarins” (1954), to satisfy most curiosities. Sartre died, after a prolonged debilitation, in 1980. A year later, in a book called “Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre,” Beauvoir published a series of “conversations” with Sartre that she had conducted in 1974, in which she guided him through philosophically tinged musings on his affairs. Even for existentialists, it was painful reading:
DE BEAUVOIR: Were you ever attracted by an ugly woman?
SARTRE: Truly and wholly ugly, no, never.
DE BEAUVOIR: It could even be said that all the women you were fond of were either distinctly pretty or at least very attractive and full of charm.
SARTRE: Yes, in our relations I liked a woman to be pretty because it was a way of developing my sensibility. These were irrational values—beauty, charm, and so on. Or rational, if you like, since you can provide an interpretation, a rational explanation. But when you love a person’s charm you love something that is irrational, even though ideas and concepts do explain charm at a more intense degree.
DE BEAUVOIR : Were there not women you found attractive for reasons other than strictly feminine qualities—strength of character, something intellectual and mental, rather than something wholly to do with charm and femininity? There are two I’m thinking about.
And so on. It was hard to say whether the conversation was more humiliating for her or for him, with his boorishness so plainly on display. Still, it was possible to stick to the no-fault view: these were consenting adults. Their erotic lives were no one’s concern but their own.
That view soon lost tenability. Three years after Sartre’s death, Beauvoir published a collection of his letters to her, in which he described in detail his activities in bed, but she edited them to conceal identities. She died in 1986; in 1990, her executrix, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, published Beauvoir’s “Letters to Sartre.” These were unedited—“Is it not, by now, preferable to tell all in order to tell the truth?” Le Bon de Beauvoir wrote in the preface—and they shocked many people. The revelation was not the promiscuity; it was the hypocrisy. In interviews, Beauvoir had flatly denied having had sexual relations with women; in the letters, she regularly described, for Sartre, her nights in bed with women. The most appalling discovery, for many readers, was what “telling each other everything” really meant. The correspondence was filled with catty and disparaging remarks about the people Beauvoir and Sartre were either sleeping with or trying to sleep with, even though, when they were with those people, they radiated interest and affection. Sartre, in particular, was always speaking to women of his love and devotion, his inability to live without them—every banality of popular romance. Words constituted his principal means of seduction: his physical approaches were on the order of groping in restaurants and grabbing kisses in taxis. With the publication of “Letters to Sartre,” it was clear that, privately, he and Beauvoir held most of the people in their lives in varying degrees of contempt. They enjoyed, especially, recounting to each other the lies they were telling.
Some of those whose names appeared in “Letters to Sartre” were alive in 1990, and the book opened mouths that, for various reasons, had remained shut while Sartre and Beauvoir were alive. The chatter has not stopped, which means that Hazel Rowley’s new book, “Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre” (HarperCollins; $26.95), is basically an update on a breaking story. Sartre and Beauvoir were prolific letter writers, and most of their correspondence remains under the control of their estates. Le Bon de Beauvoir allowed Rowley to see many of the unpublished letters in her possession; one of Sartre’s longtime mistresses, Michelle Vian, let her leaf through her collection. But Sartre’s executrix, Arlette Elkaïm, did not respond to inquiries. Rowley interviewed Lanzmann, but he did not show her his letters from Beauvoir. She read the letters Sartre wrote to his Russian lover Lena Zonina between 1962 and 1967, though Elkaïm will not permit them to be published. Rowley is able to tell a fuller version of a story that has been written many times, but it is probably still some distance short of complete. (She also includes in the book—it sounds like a Woody Allen joke—a photograph of Beauvoir in the nude.) It seems fair to say that, in a manner consistent with an open-minded lack of prudery, Rowley is horrified by the behavior she describes. Readers looking for a friendlier spin can consult the pages on Sartre’s love life in Bernard-Henri Lévy’s gigantic “Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century” (2000), but even Lévy, a delightfully unabashed heroworshipper and special pleader par excellence, is reduced to complaining that what’s really disgusting is everyone’s obsession with the subject. That may be true, but it is not much of an argument.
Sartre and Beauvoir liked to refer to their entourage as “the Family,” and the recurring feature of their affairs is a kind of play incest. Their customary method was to adopt a very young woman as a protégée—to take her to movies and cafés, travel with her, help her with her education and career, support her financially. (Sartre wrote most of his plays in part to give women he was sleeping with something to do: they could be actresses.) For Sartre and Beauvoir, the feeling that they were, in effect, sleeping with their own children must, as with most taboos, have juiced up the erotic fun.In 1933, when she was teaching in Rouen, Beauvoir had a seventeen-year-old student named Olga Kosakiewicz, a daughter of a Russian émigré who had been dispossessed by the Revolution. Olga was attractive, dreamy, unhappy; Beauvoir struck up a friendship, and they began to see each other outside of school. In the summer of 1935, Beauvoir proposed that Olga should put herself under the protection of her and Sartre, who would pay her way and be responsible for her education, and a few months later Olga moved into a room in the Hôtel du Petit Mouton, where Beauvoir was living, and they began an affair. Sartre became infatuated with Olga and spent two years attempting to seduce her. He failed, but in 1937 he met her sister, Wanda, also beautiful, and even more at sea, and he managed, after two more years, to sleep with her. The day of his triumph, he left her lying in bed, “all pure and tragic, declaring herself tired and having hated me for a good forty-five minutes,” in order to rush out to a café and write Beauvoir with the news. (“She Came to Stay” is an account of the Sartre-Beauvoir-Olga affair that, from all the evidence, is only lightly fictionalized—except that at the end of the novel the Beauvoir character murders the Olga character. Beauvoir dedicated the book to Olga.)
Bianca Bienenfeld was the daughter of Jewish refugees from Poland. She became Beauvoir’s student in 1938, when she was sixteen. The two went on a hiking trip at the end of the school year and began an affair. Beauvoir introduced Bianca to Sartre, and he began wooing her. “I was very attracted by his charm, spirit, kindness, and intelligence,” Bienenfeld wrote in her memoir, “A Disgraceful Affair,” which was published in France in 1993. (The French title, “Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Dérangée,” is a takeoff on the title of the first volume of Beauvoir’s memoirs, “Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangée.”) “Just as a waiter plays the role of a waiter,” she wrote, “Sartre played to perfection the role of a man in love.” (This, too, is an allusion with a sting: it refers to a famous passage in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness,” which he began working on around the time he was courting Bienenfeld, about the bad faith of the waiter, who lets himself be defined by the role society has given him.) Sartre eventually persuaded Bienenfeld, who had never slept with a man, to accompany him to a hotel, where, he suavely confided to her, he had taken another girl’s virginity the day before. The first encounter was unpleasant: Sartre had a mildly sadistic attitude toward sex. He took enormous satisfaction in the conquest but little pleasure in the sex (and so he usually terminated the physical part of his affairs coldly and quickly). Still, he and Bianca became lovers, and Sartre and Beauvoir kept up the pretense that they were both in love with her until they had had enough, and then, prompted by Beauvoir, Sartre wrote a letter announcing the end of the affair.
Three months later, the Germans arrived in Paris. Bienenfeld barely escaped capture during the Occupation; her grandfather and an aunt died in the camps. She says that Sartre and Beauvoir never inquired about her or tried to find her during the war. She reunited with Beauvoir in 1945, and saw her once a month until Beauvoir’s death. She had no idea that Beauvoir had connived with Sartre to drop her, or that both of them regarded her as a shallow nuisance, until she read about herself in “Letters to Sartre.” “Their perversity was carefully concealed beneath Sartre’s meek and mild exterior and the Beaver’s serious and austere appearance,” she wrote in “A Disgraceful Affair.” “In fact, they were acting out a commonplace version of ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ ”
Nathalie Sorokine, another student of Beauvoir’s, was also the child of Russian émigrés. She and Beauvoir became sexually involved while Beauvoir was still having her affair with Bienenfeld. (“I’ve a very keen taste for her body,” Beauvoir wrote to Sartre.) Sorokine, too, slept with Sartre and, with Beauvoir’s encouragement, with another lover of Beauvoir’s, Jacques-Laurent Bost. (This is where you start to need a scorecard: Bost was Olga Kosakiewicz’s boyfriend when Beauvoir seduced him; he later married Olga, but continued, in secret, his affair with Beauvoir, who remained Olga’s intimate friend.)
The ideal form for a Sartre and Beauvoir ménage was the triangle. If they couldn’t fashion one, they contrived a simulation: when Sartre couldn’t get Olga to sleep with him, he seduced her sister. Later on, their affairs followed a copycat pattern. In 1945, Sartre went, alone, to the United States, where he met and began an affair with Dolores Vanetti, a Frenchwoman who had moved to the United States during the war and was married to an American doctor. Sartre proposed marriage (a detail he neglected to share with Beauvoir), and, since Vanetti was emphatically not interested in à-trois arrangements, Beauvoir felt threatened. In 1947, Beauvoir went, alone, to the United States, where she met and began an affair with Nelson Algren. (She never told Algren about Sartre’s affair with Vanetti; he learned about it by reading “Force of Circumstance.”) In 1952, when she was forty-four, Beauvoir began her affair with Lanzmann, who was twenty-seven. In 1953, Sartre began an affair with Lanzmann’s sister, Evelyne. She was twenty-three.Biographers have trouble getting the complete story because there is contentiousness between the estates, and this, too, is a consequence of the pact. Sartre met Arlette Elkaïm in 1956. She was a French Algerian, nineteen years old, who had fled to Paris after her mother committed suicide. Sartre took her in, and they had a brief affair. In 1965, he adopted her as his daughter. Since Beauvoir had no legal relationship to Sartre, and since Sartre did not make a will, Elkaïm was his sole heir. Beauvoir, though, was not far behind. In 1960, she met Sylvie Le Bon, a seventeen-year-old student. Rowley suspects that they were lovers, though she reports that Le Bon “talks about this subject . . . with vagueness and ambiguity.” (Le Bon says that the relationship was “carnal but not sexual,” which sounds a little Clintonesque.) After Sartre died, Beauvoir adopted Le Bon, who now controls access to Beauvoir’s writings, as Elkaïm controls access to Sartre’s.
What makes the Existentialist Family different from other twentieth-century counter-domesticities—Bloomsbury, for example, which had its own quasi-incestuous, partner-swapping patterns of intimacy—is the asymmetry of most of the pairings. Sartre’s novels and plays earned him a great deal of money after the war, but he spent virtually none of it on himself (a lifelong habit). In 1946, at the peak of his celebrity as the philosopher of freedom and authenticity, he moved in with his mother. He used most of his income to support friends and current and former mistresses. He described the women he was attracted to as “drowning women,” women whose lives were damaged or insecure—which, of course, was why they offered the devotion he demanded. They were all a little desperate, and Sartre was the leading intellectual in a culture that treats its intellectuals like pop stars. He set his women up in apartments within ten minutes of his own and, every week, made what he called his “medical rounds.” Each woman had specified hours allotted to spend with him. The women almost never saw each other; in many cases, they never knew about each other. But they all knew about Beauvoir, and Beauvoir was Sartre’s standing excuse: the Beaver wouldn’t like it; he had to spend more time with the Beaver.And the Beaver is the great mystery at the center of the whole system. What explains her? One theory is plainly wrong. That is the theory that her relationship with Sartre was a post-patriarchal partnership of equals, combining genuine mutuality with genuine autonomy, and rejecting the superstitious equation of sexual fidelity with commitment—in less pretentious terms, an open marriage. But 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, like Bianca Bienenfeld, with the fury of the betrayed. Algren never forgave Beauvoir for concealing Sartre’s affair with Vanetti from him: when her books appeared in English translation, he reviewed them, and they are reviews from hell.
Two theories are left. One, a respectable but minority view among Beauvoir scholars, is that she was the engineer of the whole pact. It was Beauvoir who rejected marriage, not Sartre, who felt lucky to have her on any terms; and it was Beauvoir who was the dominant partner intellectually, not, as she always publicly insisted, the other way around. The view has some evidentiary support. Beauvoir was far more passionate sexually and complex emotionally than Sartre, and she was also, arguably, the stronger, if less creative, mind. Deirdre Bair, in her 1990 biography of Beauvoir, reported that the jury for the agrégation, in 1929, debated whether to award first place in the competition to Sartre or Beauvoir. They gave it to Sartre—he was, after all, a man, and it was his second try—but they agreed that Beauvoir was the real philosopher. She was the youngest agrégée in French history. A close comparison of their books by no means supports the notion that her thought was parasitic on his. But the theory that Beauvoir tolerated the system because it was the system she created founders on “The Second Sex.”
Beauvoir wrote her great book in two years, a fast pace for her. She started it while Sartre was deeply involved with Vanetti, and it was published in 1949. The edge on its analysis still gleams. (The English translation, made in 1952, is badly misleading, as a number of scholars, notably Margaret Simons and Toril Moi, have pointed out—an abridgment filled with mistakes that distort and sometimes invert Beauvoir’s meaning. According to Moi, proposals to produce a new translation have been ignored by Beauvoir’s American and French publishers.) The book’s final chapter, “The Independent Woman,” arguing that only economic self-sufficiency can release women from subordination, was one of the inspirational texts for the women’s movement of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. But you can no longer read it without thinking of Olga and Wanda, Arlette and Michelle—the women Sartre supported, who never had independent careers, and who knew that they were allowed access to Sartre only as long as they were “pretty” and never bored him by talking “in the realm of ideas.” A little intellectual pretension, the flattering kind shown by a young admirer, was titillating, of course. It was necessary to get the attention of the great man, who was not disappointed, because he was not surprised, by its limitations. “If a woman has false ideas,” Beauvoir writes in “The Second Sex,”
if she is not very intelligent, clear-sighted, or courageous, a man does not hold her responsible: she is the victim, he thinks—and often with reason—of her situation. He dreams of what she might have been, of what she perhaps will be: she can be credited with any possibilities, because she is nothing in particular. This vacancy is what makes the lover weary of her quickly; but it is the source of the mystery, the charm, that seduces him and makes him inclined to feel an easy affection in the first place.
There is no more remorseless dissection of the situation of the successful man’s mistress than “The Independent Woman,” and, since Beauvoir always wrote out of her own experience, it is possible to imagine that chapter as a coded letter to Sartre, the evisceration that she could never deliver to his face.
If “The Second Sex” can’t be squared with the life, we are reduced to the final, depressing theory that the pact was just the traditional sexist arrangement—in which the man sleeps around and the woman nobly “accepts” the situation—on philosophical stilts. Sartre was the classic womanizer, and Beauvoir was the classic enabler. In the beginning, the bisexuality was her way of showing the proper spirit. “I’ve a very keen taste for her body”: who is speaking that sentence? The woman who wants it to be heard, or the man who wants to hear it? Later on, she had other men, but finding a man willing to enter a sexual intimacy without strings is not the most difficult thing in the world. (Algren turned out not to be one.) Beauvoir was formidable, but she was not made of ice. Though her affairs, for the most part, were love affairs, it is plain from almost every page she wrote that she would have given them all up if she could have had Sartre for herself alone. ♦