Michael Dirda

Jean-Paul Sartre (left) and Simone de Beauvoir (far right), ca. 1948
Jean-Paul Sartre (left) and Simone de Beauvoir (far right), ca. 1948 (Yves Manciet / Rapho)

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Tête-à-Tête

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre

By Hazel Rowley

HarperCollins. 416 pp. $26.95

As the French say, here is a book that gives you furiously to think. In Tête-à- Tête Hazel Rowley -- who has previously written biographies of Christina Stead and Richard Wright -- probes the intimate lives of two of the most celebrated intellectuals of the mid-20th century: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). As she explains, this isn't a full-fledged biography of France's dynamic duo, nor is it a re-examination of their ideas; instead, she resolutely focuses on the men and women with whom the pair fell in love.

The result is an enthralling book, almost a highbrow Francophile edition of US Weekly. But instead of Brad and Jen and Angelina, here we find an ugly, walleyed existentialist philosopher, the elegantly beautiful author of The Second Sex and the Gallic equivalent of a bevy of young starlets who share the bed of one or the other -- or sometimes both. Readers will turn these pages alternately mesmerized and appalled.

Though scrupulously nonjudgmental (most of the time), Rowley portrays Sartre as a tireless seducer of attractive and neurotic girls in their late teens or twenties. Beauvoir, by contrast, comes across as a lonely woman desperately in need of love, falling into the arms of young female admirers, philandering husbands, a rough-hewn American novelist (Nelson Algren) and finally a youthful Jewish firebrand. (She and Sartre might have claimed the old Stephen Stills anthem as their own: "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with.") Meanwhile, stepping in for cameos are some of the most famous names in French cultural history -- Jacques Lacan (the psychologist for one of Sartre's girlfriends), philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, political theorist Raymond Aron, writers Michel Leiris and Raymond Queneau, jazz trumpeter and novelist Boris Vian (whose wife, Michelle, left him for Sartre), the very young Françoise Sagan, Claude Lanzmann (who made the nine-hour Holocaust documentary "Shoah") and, of course, the charismatic Albert Camus.

Early in their relationship, Sartre and Beauvoir agreed that they would remain devoted intellectual companions for life -- theirs clearly a "marriage of true minds" -- but each would be allowed to enjoy secondary affairs. Not only might they fall in love with new people, they also promised to tell each other every detail of their romances. Sartre valued highly this sort of openness, what he called "transparency." Beauvoir, I think, might well have been content to simply marry her young and brilliant lover, but acquiesced to this arrangement, eventually embracing it wholeheartedly when she realized that her physical appetites were stronger than his. "Pretty feeble" is how Sartre, with astonishing frankness, described his orgasms, saying that they never meant much to him. (He stopped sleeping with Beauvoir altogether in his mid-thirties.) What he obviously liked most was the pursuit, the surrender and the adoration of beautiful "drowning women." As he possessed no physical beauty himself, he seduced them with his quicksilver intellect, ardent language (he wrote hundreds of love letters) and, eventually, his increasing fame.

Yet Sartre seldom behaves as a classic roué; in fact, he seems almost a romantic, weakly susceptible to the charms of those with whom he comes in daily contact -- Beauvoir's students, a French emigré who escorts him around New York, his Russian and Japanese translators, the younger sister of an acolyte, the wife of a good friend. In some cases, he energetically courted a woman for years before she succumbed to his blandishments. (Nearly all are initially repulsed by his ugliness.) More surprisingly, he actually -- in some sense at least -- loves each and every one of them and never willingly gives up any. They simply join his ever-growing "family." After passion ebbed Sartre financially supported virtually all the women he ever cared about and continued to see those who lived in Paris every week, if only for a meal and a few hours of conversation. For those who yearned to be actresses -- at least three -- he even wrote plays like "No Exit" and "The Flies," which made them stars, if only for a while. In effect, the philosopher of commitment stayed committed with an oddly old-fashioned galanterie -- a gentleman, after all, doesn't casually discard his mistress merely because she has grown old or they have tired of each other.

Nonetheless, this advocate of transparency lied to cover up his multiple affairs, adopting what he called a provisional "temporary morality." In some instances, only after his death did certain women learn that Sartre was carrying on simultaneous multiple liaisons. Indeed, he would justify his mendacity with the conventional excuse that he was attempting to spare people's feelings. He might also have added "everyone's doing it," for he moved in an artistic and intellectual milieu where people slipped in and out of one another's beds with impressive alacrity. Still, it's impossible to excuse his occasional moments of brutal callousness. Once he wouldn't defer a trip for a few days to remain by the side of a very young woman, pregnant with his child, when she underwent an illegal abortion.

Revealingly, the feminist Beauvoir almost never criticizes Sartre's apparent bad faith, nor does she judge his relationships as exploitative. (In later years she does point out that the philosopher's financial generosity had subtly infantilized several of its recipients.) Not that Beauvoir's own attitude toward some kinds of truth could be any less complicated. She more than once insisted that she had never engaged in lesbian sex when this was patently not so. A lie of convenience, I suppose, and yet Beauvoir could sometimes turn around and display an unfettered honesty that would thoughtlessly, even cruelly, injure. When Nelson Algren, who had hoped to marry her, discovered that she was revealing the details of their intimacy to the world (in fictionalized form in The Mandarins and more directly in her memoirs), he was mortified and, ultimately, unforgiving. (Rowley cites his vicious reviews of Beauvoir's later books.)

So the verdict is clear: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were . . . human. They behaved badly sometimes, made mistakes and inadvertently harmed those they claimed to love. And yet I find it hard to judge them as harshly as I suspect some other readers will. A Frenchman who liked pretty girls, an intellectual woman who was lonely for physical love -- Just appalling! Utter depravity! Those existentialists always were in league with the devil.

Sometimes even philosophers and moralists fail to live up to their own highest ideals. But does that negate the importance of their public example or the value of their writing? This is a vexed question. Long ago, the Catholic Church wisely ruled that sacraments remained valid no matter how saintly or sinful the priest who performed them. Outside their study and away from their desks, virtually all artists, writers and thinkers tend to be as flawed as you and I. And sometimes even more so. Jefferson kept slaves and probably fathered children by at least one of them, the exquisitely sensitive Rousseau abandoned his newborns at foundling hospitals, the almost religiously moving composer Richard Wagner was fervently anti-Semitic, Hannah Arendt's beloved teacher the philosopher Martin Heidegger initially supported Hitler, and let's not even start on the private lives of our most revered poets and painters. Use any man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?

Fundamentally, Sartre pursued as pure an intellectual life as one could ask -- he worked like a demon, gave away his money faster than he earned it, helped and supported those he loved, and tirelessly contributed to, or contested with, the literature, politics and philosophy of his time. For 50 years, he and Beauvoir campaigned on every front to free the human spirit from its mind-forged manacles. In what really matters now, Sartre was certainly right -- we should lead our own lives and not those that society wants us to lead. (Asked why the government didn't arrest the philosopher after Sartre made inflammatory statements during the Algerian War, Charles de Gaulle answered: "You do not imprison Voltaire.") And Beauvoir was obviously right too -- women have been demeaned as the "second sex," and had she not spearheaded the "Manifesto of the 343," abortion might have remained illegal in France for years to come.

That said, recent years haven't been kind to the master of existentialism, and more and more we value Sartre the artist rather than Sartre the philosopher. The stunning first novel, Nausea , the classic one-act drama "No Exit" ("Hell is other people"), the beautifully composed childhood memoir The Words as well as the heartfelt What Is Literature? -- these are the works we return to, not Being and Nothingness or The Critique of Dialectical Reason . Though Beauvoir's The Mandarins won the Prix Goncourt, her fiction is probably little read now. What stands, even for those who argue with it, is The Second Sex , as important a work in feminist history as Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woma n and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women . Almost the same might be said of her groundbreaking study of our declining years, The Coming of Age . But for freshness and charm, Beauvoir's most appealing books remain her memoirs The Prime of Life and The Force of Circumstance -- gossipy, artful (Rowley reminds us that they subtly distort her past with Sartre) and almost as good as Boswell on Samuel Johnson and his circle. In a long reading life, few hours have ever rivaled the weekend I spent, alone in my tiny room in Marseille or with a coffee in a nearby café, devouring the fat Livre de Poche editions of those two books.

Back in 1929, Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded first place and Simone de Beauvoir second in the French national examination in philosophy. The committee debated long and hard who should receive the top honor. History will continue that debate. Yes, at times this amazing couple may have been all too human, but for me, and for many others, they nonetheless remain intellectual heroes of our time. ·

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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