Simone de Sartre

Douglas Johnson

Has anyone ever written a satirical account of the first meeting between Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre? In an age when victims long to be mocked, in a country where satire is an essential part of the cultural heritage, and with two principals who have together inspired much controversy and aroused much dislike, the apparent absence of ridicule must be significant. There is, in fact, an appealing dignity about the way in which these two lives became linked together. It was in July 1929 that René Maheu, later to become a tempestuous director of Unesco, introduced Simone de Beauvoir to Sartre at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. They were both preparing for the oral part of the competitive examination in philosophy, the agrégation. They were both successful. Beauvoir, who had been given the sobriquet Castor (or Beaver) by Maheu, has claimed that when they went their separate ways that August, she knew that Sartre would always be a part of her life. In 1973, Sartre told an interviewer that he had never been so close to any woman as he had been to le Castor. After his death, seven years later, Beauvoir wrote in La Cérémonie des Adieux:

His death does not separate us. My death will not bring us together again. That is how things are. It was splendid enough in itself that we could live our lives in harmony for so long.[*]

Yet many questions have been asked about this supposedly ideal relationship, and they have not been asked merely by the malicious. In 1949 Beauvoir published Le Deuxième Sexe. Her angry description of women as ‘other’, and her plea for women to overcome their inferior status by imitating the activity of men, is her most influential book. But there have always been many who have thought that they could dispose of her and her arguments by pointing to her alleged subservience to Sartre. It was said that she too readily acknowledged his intellectual superiority and that in their partnership she too readily accepted a subordinate role. Sometimes it has been suggested that she would have remained unknown had it not been for her association with him. It has even been claimed, however paradoxical this may seem, that the works which appeared under her name had actually been written by Sartre.

Beauvoir’s writings may be uneven, her autobiographical works should not be treated as completely reliable, not all of her novels or essays are successful: but one can make high claims for the literary qualities of some of her work, and one must recognise the force of her lively and independent mind. A more telling criticism is expressed by those who do not accept the defence she has given of her own situation. This usually starts with the pact, or alliance, that she made with Sartre in the course of 1929. They agreed that they would give themselves to each other wholeheartedly and without reservations. They would never conceal anything from each other. She accepted Sartre’s statement that what they had together was an essential love – but that it would be a good idea for each of them to have contingent love affairs.

Otherwise Beauvoir’s defence was that she had a profession, both as a philosophy teacher and as a writer. She kept her personal liberty by not marrying Sartre and by not sharing his address. (Why should I share his roof when the whole world was our common property? she once asked.) She avoided motherhood and the humiliation of losing her own name and of being forced to live with the generic maman. Her reply to those who criticised her for not understanding the creative contribution that motherhood makes was to reject the legend that women are supposed to fulfil themselves as mothers. Since no one would ever have the nerve to suggest that women were intended to spend their lives cleaning saucepans, it was necessary to invent the myth that women are destined to be mothers and to fulfil their natural maternal instincts. Living frequently in the anonymity of hotels and cafés, and eating regularly in restaurants, she has avoided the fate of being a fourmi, a drudge, a slave to the ritual of housewifely duties.

Not everyone will accept a self-justification that is based on an intellectual and financial élitism. Whether or not she married Sartre, her critics say, she allowed herself to be dominated by a man. She herself tells us that Adieux is the first of her books not to have been submitted to Sartre before publication. We know, too, that Sartre detested the idea of property and possessions, and that he was convinced that owning these things would have weighed heavily upon him. It could well be that his was the stronger influence in determining that they should not establish themselves domestically. Many readers have expressed surprise at her behaviour when Sartre died. His body was still in the intensive-care unit at the Broussais hospital. Beauvoir asked to be left alone and made as if to lie down beside him, under the sheet. A nurse stopped her, warning her of the danger of gangrene. Beauvoir then lay down on top of the sheet, next to Sartre. Perhaps it is unfair to criticise her feelings as she contemplated the end of more than fifty years of companionship, but it could be that the author of Le Deuxième Sexe was indulging in idolatry. Indeed, it could be that all this section of Adieux is the macabre expression of a lifelong fixation with Sartre.

In a series of interviews with the German journalist Alice Schwarzer, Beauvoir has discussed the problem of her relations with Sartre. In 1973, she asserted, in Sartre’s somewhat laconic presence, that they enjoyed complete equality. Sartre, she said, had influenced her with regard to philosophical ideas, whilst she had influenced him in ways of living. In fact ‘influence’ was not the word she chose to use: she preferred to speak of ‘osmosis’. If it seemed that she had followed Sartre’s initiatives – in political matters, for example – this was not because she was a woman and Sartre a man: it was because Sartre was the sort of person who was always opening up new possibilities and perspectives. She claimed that they had escaped from the traditional relationship between men and women and from the roles that are traditionally associated with it. In 1982, commenting on her book Adieux, she explained that although in the first two or three years of her association with Sartre their sexual relations were important – since it was then, and with him, that she was discovering her own sexuality – this ceased to be the case because Sartre was not particularly interested in the sex act. Their relationship was essentially intellectual.

A problem arises, however, when one reads the letters which Sartre wrote to her. There can be no question that Sartre was a superb letter-writer. Even when he writes of long train journeys where he has to stand in the corridor for hours, or gives an account of what he has eaten and drunk or how much he has written, or asks for books and ink (and money) to be sent, there is an energy in these letters which makes for good reading. The most interesting are probably those that date from the months after September 1939 when Sartre was called up and after June 1940 when he was a prisoner of war. They reveal what is often forgotten – that Sartre had an excellent sense of humour. There is nonetheless something disagreeable, and eventually tedious, about his insistence on telling Beauvoir about his affairs with other women.

In the spring of 1948 when Beauvoir is in the United States, Sartre writes her a long letter in which he describes his work pattern, mentions the nightly success of his play Les Mains Sales, gossips about a drunken brawl involving the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, talks about the hot weather and the visit to Paris of Princess Elizabeth, and goes into some detail about two women. One is Dolorès, about whom he had previously written that she loved him ‘à faire peur’. He describes their affair as ‘stationnaire’, and explains his violent reaction when she writes to tell him that she is sacrificing herself for the sake of her husband. The other, described as ‘la petite’, is a young American journalist. She is ‘gentille et amusante’ and he feels genuine friendship for her, but ‘sous un certain rapport, elle me tue.’ She usually comes to see him in the Rue Bonaparte, where he lives in his mother’s flat. She arrives at about five in the evening in a state of exhaustion and sleeps on his bed for about three hours. Then they play a little music together, she on the violin and he at the piano. They go out to dinner (‘elle adore manger’) and return to her flat in a taxi. Then, whether he is going to spend the night with her or return to his own room, ‘invariablement ... je monte et je m’exécute.’ In the mornings he always has his breakfast in the Rue Bonaparte, and he is precise enough to say that he drinks the delicious coffee that Dolorès has sent him. He concludes this section of the letter by explaining that ‘la petite’ is attached to him, but that she realises she will have to go. There will be a ‘pénible départ’ for her, but, he reassures Beauvoir: ‘pour vous, mon doux petit, pas de pénible retour.’

This example of a day in the life of a great writer is not edifying, and it is difficult to see why, in the same letter, Sartre should grumble about having to give up his time in order to see some friend of Koestler’s. More serious, however, is the cruelty which the letter reveals: an example, perhaps, of what Beauvoir herself, in one of her interviews with Alice Schwarzer, describes as the truth being used as a weapon of aggression. Since Beauvoir does not publish her replies to Sartre, it could be that this one-sided correspondence gives a misleading impression of Sartre as a pasha, surrounded by adoring women and recounting his successes in a manner that appears to be classically ‘macho’. But it is difficult to believe that Beauvoir derived any pleasure from such compulsively frank disclosures, even though at the time she was with Nelson Algren and though she claimed that she was only once fearful of having lost Sartre (and that was over Dolorès). In Adieux, Beauvoir writes of a conversation which took place in 1978. Sartre complained that he was not getting enough work done and she replied that this was because he was seeing too many young ladies. With what she describes as naive self-satisfaction he told her that he had never been so popular with women before. Beauvoir adds that it was largely to them that he owed his taste for life, and she is not as critical of Melina and the others (except when they smuggle in whisky and vodka) as she is of Paul Victor, whom she accuses of trying to exploit Sartre’s declining intellect. In this she is generous and dignified. But she must be suspect to feminists.

These considerations arise from Sartre’s letters. Adieux, which consists of a detailed account of Sartre’s activities and ailments in the last ten years of his life, also contains some three hundred pages of conversation between Sartre and Beauvoir, recorded in 1974. Here the matter of Sartre’s relations with women is also discussed. He explains his reluctance to become friends with men and dwells on his enthusiasm for living in a group, such as existed at the Ecole Normale or in the prisoner-of-war camp. What he disliked about men was that many of them sought to confide in him, to entrust him with something which was more or less secret, and to seek out his advice. He had no objection to being told personal stories which were entertaining, as when Giacometti told him how he went to a brothel looking for the ugly, slatternly woman, but he found it unbearable to have an emotional bond with a man which arose from knowledge of the secret things in his life. Yet if women confided in him it didn’t annoy him at all. On the contrary, he sought their confidences. This, as Beauvoir points out, might have been out of a machismo which assumed that women were weaker vessels and that it was natural that they should turn to a man.

On sexual relations Sartre is explicit about his preference for touching over copulation. At his Paris lycée he had sexual adventures with young girls, but like his fellow lycéens, he despised those girls who gave themselves easily. As a student he still had purity-seeking dreams of childhood loves. Later he saw his role as more active and rational, whilst the part played by the woman was largely emotional. It wasn’t that he believed that women couldn’t exercise reason but that he also believed that a woman had an aggregate of emotional and sexual qualities, and he was drawn towards that aggregate in order to take possession of her affectivity. In other words, he wanted women to love him so that their sensibility could belong to him.

Sartre believed that women put affectivity first, and that their sensibility was unimpaired because of their traditional upbringing and because of the material and social conditions that prevailed in society. Did he believe that this would change when society was changed by social revolution? It seems likely that he did, since this was the view Beauvoir took when she wrote Le Deuxième Sexe. There she denied that she was a feminist, on the grounds that she believed that women’s problems would automatically be resolved in the context of socialist development. Women, she said, could not fight on specifically feminine issues irrespective of the class struggle. Now, as she makes clear to Alice Schwarzer, she realises that in countries where socialism has been created, equality between men and women has not been achieved. In left-wing and revolutionary organisations in France there is a profound inequality between men and women. Therefore she has become a feminist and a member of the Women’s Liberation Movement. She believes that it is now necessary for women to take their destiny in their own hands: but she is still convinced that the women’s cause remains linked to the class struggle. It could be said that none of this will impress those who seek to integrate Marxism with feminism. There is talk of the class-struggle model but none of the gender-struggle model. One is reminded of the letter where Sartre says that he has been reading the Goncourts and a novel by Renard. He comments on how distant they seem – ‘ça fait rudement époque.’

When Sartre was in America with Dolorès, Lévi-Strauss spoke to her about him. He said that he could not possibly find him agreeable after reading L’Invitée, where Simone de Beauvoir portrayed him as an unspeakable bastard. ‘Merci bien, petit charmant, pour le portrait’ was Sartre’s own comment. It is clear from Adieux and from the letters to ‘mon charmant Castor’ that their friendship was special: we should not look at it as the embodiment of certain ideas about women. Does it matter that Sartre could behave shabbily to her, or that Beauvoir sometimes sought to be treated as an honorary man? Their companionship has to be judged in their terms: it is not an everyday story of writing folk.

[*] Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, a translation by Patrick O’Brain of La Cérémonie des Adieux, will be published by Deutsch in association with Weidenfeld later this month.