Simone de Beauvoir: The Courage to Love Differently

This must have been at least partly due to Sartre’s unrealistic belief in the power of mind over the body. Sartre’s first real love, a courtesan with literary talents called Simone Jolivet, had ticked him off astutely when he asked her not to sleep with other men. Did he think he owned her, Jolivet demanded? Was he, in return, prepared to give up the École normale for her? Sartre hurriedly backed out of that particular trap. “I concluded that jealousy was possessiveness. Therefore I decided never to be jealous again,” he declared. This was of course nonsense, but Sartre firmly believed that willpower could transcend every inconvenient emotion. He abhorred self-pity, and believed tears and nerves and excessive emotions were all weaknesses. This was not good news for Simone de Beauvoir, who suffered from them all. She would try to tell Sartre that the body was “subject to irresistible forces on occasion,” but her overriding instinct was not to complain, and to see things from Sartre’s point of view, and so she did her best to master her own violent feelings. For both of them, definitive splits would have meant facing absolute emotions, which might in turn have led to questioning the philosophical beliefs they had based their lives upon. This would never be an option.

Letters to Sartre

Letters to Sartre
BY Simone de Beauvoir
AND EDITED BY Quintin Hoare
(Arcade, 1993)

Instead, Sartre chose a slower form of torture, which he termed “transparency.” He believed the solution to jealousy was to tell each other every detail of their affairs with absolute honesty. That way they would never feel excluded from each other’s lives. Beauvoir was put to the test very quickly and very thoroughly, for the next eight years would see the couple moving separately around France for their teaching posts. Sartre kept up a steady stream of conquests whose details she would be forced to hear about and even to witness. Beauvoir had emotional and cultural barriers to overcome before she could follow his lead. “Promiscuity in a woman still shocked me,” she confessed. It was a humiliating example of the extent to which she would put her own desires and inclinations to one side, in order to serve Sartre’s interests.

But having bought into the terms of the pact with Sartre, Beauvoir proved how willing she was to do anything to keep them. Whilst Sartre threw himself energetically into the chase after women, Beauvoir radiated a magnetism that drew them to her. Repeatedly, she would start up a passionate friendship with one of her young female students, time would be spent in cafés or on long walks, discussing philosophy and then more personal topics. They would share books and music. Beauvoir would begin by wanting to help her student, to bring her on and improve her self-esteem; somehow, these pedagogic concerns seemed to end up in sexual liaisons. And then, once Sartre had heard about the student, and the student had heard about Sartre, he would step in and take Beauvoir’s place. The original model for this pattern was Olga Kosakiewicz, a Russian exile from a noble family, a bright girl with serious limitations in her confidence and her tenacity, which Beauvoir and Sartre believed they could cure. She was Beauvoir’s protégée, and once Sartre had met her and fallen obsessively in love with her, he decided she should become their responsibility. Olga had no desire for Sartre, although she admired “something of the Medieval knight about him.” Sartre was used to women turning him down at first and persisted in a courtship that was complicated by his being Olga’s teacher and her financial guardian. The intense frustration he suffered was conveyed in its minutiae to Beauvoir: “The agony which this produced in me went beyond mere jealousy,” she would write many years later, stoically bearing it all.

Beauvoir longed for a close, intimate relationship she could throw herself into; Sartre wanted every woman that came into his proximity, and Beauvoir appeared to have been unable to refuse him anything at all.

The American critic, Joan Acocella, said of Beauvoir: “When, early in her career, she worked as a lycée teacher, she would use her own bed as a holding pen for girls to offer up to him.” She was not the only writer who would accuse Beauvoir of pimping for Sartre. But this seems to ignore the energies at work in the complex web of relationships that the couple wove around themselves. Beauvoir longed for a close, intimate relationship she could throw herself into; Sartre wanted every woman that came into his proximity, and Beauvoir appeared to have been unable to refuse him anything at all. Then neither of them was able to let go of the people who had stumbled into their web. Around them grew the “family” of lovers and ex-lovers, Olga and her sister, Wanda, whom Sartre moved onto when he realised that Olga would never give in; and the former students of Beauvoir, Bianca Bienenfeld and Natalie Sorokine. Bianca Bienenfeld would eventually suffer a long-lasting breakdown from the quasi-incestuous relationships she had with her mentors, whilst Sorokine’s mother would see that Beauvoir lost her teaching job. This was somewhat ironic when Natalie was the most aggressive and brattish of Beauvoir’s students, and very much the instigator of their affair. She backed up Beauvoir and Sartre against her mother when the police came asking questions.

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