I spent the first week of winter break devouring Carole Seymour-Jones’s A Dangerous Liaison, a “revelatory new biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.” I ordered this book in September, but wanted the time to fully devote to its 540+ pages. Relative isolation in south Florida with my parents, iPod, and beach chair seemed an ideal setting for reading about the infamous 50-year polyamorous relationship between two of the most influential theorists of the 20th century. As a self-described theory nerd, though, I was most looking forward to accounts of Beauvoir and Sartre’s pillow talk discussions of philosophy and a comprehensive account of their individual development as existentialist thinkers. In this effort, the biography falls short. Instead, the detailed portrayal illuminates the complex arrangement of ‘essential love’ that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre entered into in the fall of 1929 in the Tuilerie Gardens of Paris.
Upon meeting Sartre at the École Normale in Paris, Beauvoir established an immediate intellectual connection with the young student of Gide and Hegel. Simone de Beauvoir became the youngest woman (twenty-one) to ever pass her final oral examination in philosophy, and the ninth woman to ever pass. When the rankings came out, in fact, only one student ranked higher: Jean-Paul Sartre, three years her senior. The educational hierarchy between Beauvoir and Sartre foreshadowed the subordination Simone would experience in all facets of their relationship. Seymour-Jones writes that “for the rest of her life, Simone de Beauvoir would consider herself second to Sartre.”
From childhood observations of her mother’s monotonous routine, Beauvoir vowed to never sacrifice her freedom for bourgeois domesticity. Sartre, too, maintained that “‘he was not inclined to be monogamous by nature’” and condemned marriage as a “‘despicable bourgeois institution.’” One can imagine how confused Beauvoir must have been, therefore, when Sartre proposed marriage to her three times in the span of a few weeks. She vehemently refused, and critiqued Sartre for going against their philosophical ideals of individuality and freedom – what would later be called Existentialism. “The balance of power at this point lay with Beauvoir,” yet it was actually Sartre who proposed the idea of a “pact of ‘essential love’ which allowed for secondary affairs and was intended to guarantee their ‘reciprocal liberty’” – a pact which would become the template for a polyamorous relationship enshrined in existential history.
In Beauvoir’s mind, entering into this pact of essential love with Sartre was the most realistic embodiment of the philosophies which they professed in academia. Yet the realities of the relationship (which I will not bore you with) left Simone as the clear victim of patriarchal domination at the hands of a power-hungry celebrity. Going into this biography, I had an idea of the types of affairs in which Beauvoir and Sartre engaged; I did not predict the sheer number of simultaneous affairs, nor the heartbreaking effects of these relationships on Beauvoir. Even though the couple maintained complete honesty with one another (in a far more detailed manner than any person I know could stomach), jealousy and manipulation reigned for over four decades.
I want to focus this post on the mind-blowing contradictions between Beauvoir’s brilliant feminist theory and her polyamorous relationship with Sartre. Essentially, Simone fully bought into the idea that “whoever wants the ends – equality between the sexes – must want the means,” and she let those ‘means’ be defined by Sartre’s incredibly patriarchal interpretation of their pact of essential love. In retrospect, there were abundant signs of Sartre’s misogyny – his theoretical assertions practically drip with it. Though Sartre later delved into praxis, most notably in his affinity for the USSR and the student demonstrations of Mai 1968 (to be discussed later), his existential theories epitomize the danger of the male gaze.
“Sartre gives the example of a woman who goes out with a man for the first time; halfway through the evening he takes her hand. To leave the hand there is to consent to flirt; to withdraw it is to break the harmony of the moment. Her intention is postpone a decision, and so she leaves her hand ‘between the warm hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing. We shall say that this woman is in bad faith.'”
Sartre likens this female “deception” to the actions of the bourgeoisie, and in Beauvoir’s shared goal of exposing hypocrisy within capitalist society, she agreed with her partner. The complete denial of female agency is exemplified countless times in Sartre’s violation of desperate young women (many of whom were cultivated first by Beauvoir in lesbian relationships). What Beauvoir and Sartre failed to realize was that their observations on the comportment of the bourgeoisie stemmed solely from their privileged position as academics and products of the petit bourgeois.
The same perspective of privilege led Simone and Sartre to develop a flawed affinity for the Soviet Union. When questioned by fellow existentialist Albert Camus on how he could possibly reconcile the murder of millions in Soviet gulags, Sartre responded that the camps are no more inadmissible than French colonialism in Africa or the state violence towards French workers. Sartre claimed that “the Iron Curtain is only a mirror, in which half of the world reflects the other. Each turn of the screw here corresponds with a twist there, and finally, both here and there, we are both the screwers and the screwed.”
It was not until the 1960s and the Mai 1968 student revolutions that a marked division developed between Sartre and Beauvoir in terms of their acknowledgement of their privileged (and flawed) perspective. Both theorists realized that in order “to merit the right to influence men who are struggling, one must first participate in their struggle.” This realization led Sartre and Beauvoir to express their solidarity with the movements and occupations both through their writings and physical presence in the Latin Quarter.
Sartre: “‘These young people don’t want the future of our fathers – our future – a future which has proved we were cowardly, worn out, weary…Violence is the only thing that remains, whatever the regime, for students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system. The only relationship they can have to the university is to smash it.'”
Unlike Sartre, however, Simone de Beauvoir recognized much sooner the misogynistic realities of both the Soviet model that the worshipped and of the Mai 68 student occupations. “Beauvoir expected socialism to deliver sexual equality. It had not. Even the gauchiste men of the 68 demonstrations did not treat women as equals.” This crucial realization led to revisions of Beauvoir’s watershed work of feminist theory, The Second Sex. The basic tenet of The Second Sex is that all male ideologies are directed at justifying the oppression of women, and that women are so conditioned by society that they consent to this oppression. Instead of Sartre’s interpretation of this “consent” as “bad faith,” Simone removes blame from women and stands by her most famous statement: On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.
Regarding the 68 occupations, Simone remarked:
“’Men made the speeches, but women typed them. Men were on the soap boxes and on the podiums, but women were in the kitchens making coffee. So they got fed up with this because they were intelligent women…I finally understood that women could not expect their emancipation to come from the general revolution but would have to create their own. Men were always telling them that the needs of the revolution came first and their turn as women came later…'”
This quotation is heavily underlined and starred in my book not only because it was a turning point in Beauvoir’s feminist consciousness, but also because I can relate strongly to it. I know I’m not alone in having been encouraged to subordinate female revolution “for the cause.” Once one realizes that the general revolution – be it state communism or campus activism – does not exist to serve the purposes of women, true liberation from the patriarchy is achievable.
Seymour-Jones correctly states that “there could be no more glaring contradiction than that between the principles enshrined in The Second Sex and her past practices with Sartre.” These contradictions frustrate me to no end. As a feminist and political theorist, I, too, struggle with the application of my academic passions to reality, particularly romantic relationships. Simone de Beauvoir undeniably maintained a relationship with Sartre which, with the exception of the first year, was driven completely by his desires. Though they experienced relatively equal acclaim in their professional lives, Beauvoir and Sartre’s personal life was clearly dominated by misogyny and overwhelmingly skewed power dynamics. Beauvoir had tried to avoid domesticity and patriarchy through her pact of essential love with Sartre, yet the reality of their relationship and the incredible despair that Simone experienced at times (she developed a collapsed lung from one particular incident of jealousy), makes it clear that she was no more liberated in her personal life then her stay-at-home mother was in the early 20th century. Misogyny – not equality – ruled in their relationship and in society.
My question to you, readers, is this: does this contradiction make Simone de Beauvoir any less important as the foremost Marxist-feminist? And, perhaps more relevant, can we, as women, ever truly escape the power of misogyny? Is there such a thing as a relationship with truly equal power dynamics? Even today in the 21st century, most women will argue that an open relationship benefits the man more than the woman. I will save the diatribe on polyamory vs. monogamy for another post, but suffice it say that what Simone de Beauvoir experienced in her relationship with Sartre did not result in the equality of the sexes which she strives for in her feminist texts. Can Beauvoir really be blamed for “talking the talk” of feminism and not “walking the walk” in her romantic encounters, given the underlying hegemony of misogyny in relationships?
I will leave you with our all-time favorite quotation of Beauvoir’s, from The Second Sex:
“The most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend women’s concrete situation. And there is no reason to put much trust in the men when they rush to the defense of privileges whose full extent they can hardly measure.”
Read Full Post »