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.

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[*] 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.