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
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.
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.
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.)
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. ♦