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Authors: Hazel Rowley

Tete-a-Tete

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Tête-à-Tête

The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of
Simone de Beauvoir
and
Jean-Paul Sartre

HAZEL ROWLEY

To my father, Derrick Rowley
(1922–2004)

CONTENTS
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Like Abélard and Héloïse, they are buried in a joint grave, their names linked for eternity. They're one of the world's legendary couples. We can't think of one without thinking of the other: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

At the end of World War II, Sartre and Beauvoir quickly gained iconic stature as freethinking and engaged intellectuals. They wrote in a remarkable range of genres: plays, novels, philosophical essays, travel narratives, autobiography, memoir, biography, journalism. Sartre's first novel,
Nausea,
was a landmark in French contemporary fiction; his ten plays were the talk of the Paris theater season; his philosophical essays,
Being and Nothingness
and
The Critique of Dialectical Reason,
made an impact, and his massive biographical essays
Saint Genet
and
The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821–1857
were considered major works, but he is probably best remembered for his autobiographical narrative,
Words,
which won him the Nobel Prize. Beauvoir will always be associated with her groundbreaking feminist essay,
The Second Sex,
her novel
The Mandarins,
which so brilliantly evokes the postwar atmosphere in Europe, and her memoirs.

She would become one of the most famous memoirists of all time. Most of Beauvoir's writing in some way reflects her own life. In addition to four volumes of memoirs, she wrote a book about her travels in the United States
(America Day by Day),
a book about her trip to China
(The Long March),
a narrative about her mother's dying
(A Very Easy Death),
another about Sartre's final years
(Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre),
and two autobiographical novels,
She Came to Stay
and
The Mandarins.
In a sense, Beauvoir was not only Sartre's companion; she was also his
biographer, his Boswell. In writing about her life, she also wrote about his. Sartre encouraged her. As existentialists, they believed that individuals are no more or less than the sum total of their actions, and offered themselves up willingly to the judgment of posterity.

They shared a thirst for the absolute. “Naturally one doesn't succeed in everything,” Sartre said, “but one must want everything.” Beauvoir's favorite of the 1968 student slogans was “Live with no time out.” Both were lifelong rebels. As students, they could not have performed more brilliantly in the French educational system, and yet they turned their backs on academic rigidity and bourgeois niceties, and scorned anything that had the slightest whiff of staid conventionality.

We think of Sartre and Beauvoir and we think of freedom. “Man is constrained to be free,” Sartre said. His philosophy of freedom was not ivory-tower theorizing. It was meant to be applied to life. As existentialists, he and Beauvoir refused any notion of “human nature.” As philosophers, they challenged all social conventions. Nobody was going to tell them how to live their lives, not even their love life. They were conscious of “inventing” their relationship as they went along.

They rejected marriage. They never lived together. They openly had other lovers. They were often friends with each other's lovers; on occasion they shared them. Their original agreement (not conveyed to the third parties involved) was that whereas their other loves would be “secondary,” theirs would be “absolute.”

Sartre and Beauvoir spent their lives grappling with questions of ethics and morality. How were they to make the best use of their liberty? At first they were preoccupied with individual freedom. Later they were highly critical of this rather prolonged early period, which they looked back upon as their irresponsible youth. The Second World War made them conscious of history. In 1945, they established
Les Temps modernes,
a journal that would have a major impact on intellectual life in France, Europe, and even the third world. From that time on, they became public intellectuals who wrote “committed literature” and embraced political
engagement.

They never forgot that they had choices to make, and that freedom comes with responsibility. They discussed these questions constantly. Which of the possible actions before them would be most responsi
ble? What would be the consequences of acting in this way rather than that way? Sartre, in particular, a passionate advocate of world peace and socialism, grappled with the big question of the day: communism. In the 1950s and 1960s, both took courageous stands against the Algerian and Vietnam wars. Sartre's writings on colonialism and racism made him a spokesman for the anticolonial struggle. With
The Second Sex,
Beauvoir wrote what is generally regarded as the founding text of the modern women's movement.

Never for a second did Sartre and Beauvoir, in their relationship with each other, stop living as writers. It was a total commitment, every moment of the day. They promised to tell each other “everything,” down to the smallest detail. Turning life into narrative was perhaps their most voluptuous pleasure. As Roquentin reflects in Sartre's novel
Nausea:
“For the most banal event to become an adventure, you must…begin to recount it.” It was impossible to say which was the more satisfying for Sartre and Beauvoir: the voyeuristic thrill of hearing about each other's life or the cozy enjoyment of narrating their own.

Both were heavily imbued with what Sartre called “the biographical illusion”—the idea that “a lived life can resemble a recounted life.” Already in their adolescence they dreamed of their future lives as if through the eyes of posterity. “I…was extremely conscious of being the young Sartre, in the same way that people speak of the young Berlioz or the young Goethe,” Sartre writes. Beauvoir imagined people poring over the narrative of her life, as she did with the lives of Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Katherine Mansfield. “I wanted people to read my biography and find it touching and strange.”

Along with their mythmaking impulse went a passionate belief in truth-telling. To them, the notion of privacy was a relic of bourgeois hypocrisy. Why keep secrets? As they saw it, their task as intellectuals was to probe beneath the surfaces, plumb the depths of experience, debunk myths, and communicate unvarnished truths to their readers.

They often said they would like the public to know the truth about their personal lives. “It wouldn't occur to me to get rid of letters and documents concerning my private life,” Sartre said. “So much the better if this means I will be…transparent to posterity…. I think that transparency should always be substituted for secrecy.” Both remarked
in interviews that they would have liked to have been more open about their own sexuality, and the only thing that held them back was that other people were involved.

When Beauvoir was seventy, the German feminist Alice Schwarzer asked her if there was anything she had not written in her memoirs that she would say now if she could write them again. “Yes,” Beauvoir replied. “I would have liked to have given a frank and balanced account of my own sexuality. A truly sincere one, from a feminist point of view. I would like to tell women about my life in terms of my own sexuality because it is not just a personal matter but a political one too. I did not write about it at the time because I did not appreciate the importance of this question, nor the need for personal honesty. And I am very unlikely to write about it now because this kind of confession would not just affect me, it would also affect certain people who are very close to me.”

There were omissions in Beauvoir's memoirs, but there was also a lot that she said—enough to excite generations of readers. From the time they started teaching, in the early 1930s, Sartre and Beauvoir were extremely conscious of being a model to young people. They liked teaching, and enjoyed influencing youthful minds. Their enduring friendships were always with much younger people. Both readily inspired “acolytes,” as Sartre called them. This phenomenon hugely gained in momentum when Beauvoir's memoirs began to appear in 1958. In the sixties and seventies, those years of heady social experimentation, innumerable young people took Sartre and Beauvoir's open relationship as their model.

I did too. When I read Beauvoir's memoirs in the late sixties, I was exhilarated—intoxicated, one might say. She made the impossible seem possible. Didn't we all want an intellectual partner with whom we could share our work, ideas, and slightest thoughts? Didn't everyone want to write in Paris cafés amid the clatter of coffee cups and the hubbub of voices, and spend their summers in Rome in complicated but apparently harmonious foursomes? Who wanted monogamy when one could have freedom
and
stability, love affairs
and
commitment?

Everyone knew—Sartre said so in interviews, and Beauvoir said so in her memoirs—that their relationship with each other was superior to all the other relationships in their lives. Young women dreamed of
having Beauvoir's audacity, courage, and liberty. When Geneviève Idt interviewed Sartre in 1974, she asked him if he was conscious of being “macho” in his relationships with women. There was a long pause, and his answer was considered: “I do not believe I was with the Beaver.” (For him, Beauvoir was always “the Beaver.”)

In November 1976, I interviewed Simone de Beauvoir in her apartment in the Rue Schoelcher, opposite the Montparnasse cemetery. I was a graduate student, writing a doctorate on “Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialist Autobiography,” and deeply involved in the women's movement. Beauvoir had changed my life, and I worshipped her. I asked burning questions about her relationship with Sartre—about truth-telling, jealousy, third parties, and double standards for men and women. Beauvoir insisted there had been no jealousy between them, and as for double standards, she thought relationships between the sexes easier for women than for men because, given women's secondary status, men tended to feel guilty when they left them. She answered my questions as if by rote, without the slightest reflection or hesitation. By the time she ushered me out the door, I could see, and it saddened me, that she herself could not disentangle the reality of her life from the myth.

Already then existentialism had an old-fashioned ring to it. We had entered the postmodern era. It was modish to scorn the notion of individual responsibility. Now that the whole sordid truth about Stalin's crimes had emerged, the French “New Philosophers,” as they were called, viewed Sartre's sympathy for communism during the cold war as the foolishness of a deluded Stalinist. And the so-called “radical feminists” were impatient with what they saw as Beauvoir's “male” values, and in particular her indulgence of that execrable male chauvinist Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre died in 1980; Beauvoir in 1986. They did not destroy their letters or journals, and they made it clear that they intended them to be published at some point after their deaths. The bulk of their correspondence to each other was published a few years later. Readers were left reeling with shock. It turned out that these two advocates of truth-telling constantly told lies to an array of emotionally unstable young girls. (Sartre called them “little fibs,” “half-truths,” and “total lies.”) And here was Beauvoir, who throughout her life had publicly
denied ever having had an affair with a woman, telling Sartre about her pleasurable nights making love with young women! We wondered, how could Sartre write so coldly and clinically about taking his latest girlfriend's virginity? And why were they both so disparaging about the young women they went to bed with? At the same time, they were more vulnerable than we had imagined. And their passion for sharing the tiniest details of their daily lives—the smell of the rain, the color of headlamps in the dark, a humorous conversation they overheard in a train—was frankly endearing.

In recent years, Sartre and Beauvoir have continued to divulge their tangled secrets from beyond their graves. Beauvoir's love letters to Nelson Algren, published in 1997, astonished readers. Her correspondence with Jacques-Laurent Bost, published in 2004, surprised people all over again. Was this feverish, ardent, sensuous woman the Simone de Beauvoir they thought they knew? If so, why on earth did she stick with Sartre? “How could she live with that bespectacled fellow, with his metallic procurer's voice, his creased blue suit, his obsession with crabs, homosexuals, tree roots, the slime of being, and the whole Heideggerian marmalade,” one critic puzzled, “when she had such vitality, fire, wit, and freshness? What a mystery.”
1

Today the wheel has come full circle. After several decades in which Sartre and Beauvoir aroused little interest, particularly in France, there is a new recognition that they had the courage and daring to flout convention, they tried to live according to an ethic of freedom and responsibility, and they opened many doors. Maybe they strained at times against their own philosophy, but whatever their failures, few people have lived life more intensely. Who would have imagined that Bernard-Henri Lévy, France's most famous New Philosopher, would write a book, tantamount to a love letter, called
Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century,
and that in it, he would defend Sartre's relationship with Beauvoir as one of the great love stories of all time?

I, too, felt a need to return to this past terrain. Like many others, I was once personally invested in the success or failure of the Sartre-Beauvoir relationship. Michel Contat, the well-known Sartre scholar, who writes that his personal life was much influenced by his existentialist mentors, describes the stakes Sartre-Beauvoir enthusiasts once
faced: “If Beauvoir and Sartre succeeded, we were not wrong, and if we failed we could only blame our own deficiencies. But if they failed and hid their failure, they were fakers and imposters.”
2

With the distance of time, I am no longer concerned with Sartre and Beauvoir's success or failure. I am interested in the truth, and truth does not fit into categories. What we know about this relationship comes mostly from Beauvoir. I have always wondered: What did Sartre feel about it? How about their lovers and friends?

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