Simone de Beauvoir: The Courage to Love Differently

The word love has by no means the same sense for both sexes,
and this is one cause of the serious misunderstandings that divide them.
— Beauvoir

In 1968 the French magazine, Elle, serialised Simone de Beauvoir’s novella, The Broken Woman (La femme rompue). One of her most openly feminist pieces, it told the disquieting story of Monique, who discovers that her husband has been unfaithful for the last eight years and that her daughters have neither respect nor sympathy for her. As a woman who has invested deeply in the identity she relished as the lodestar of their lives, Monique is distraught. For much of the narrative she hovers on the brink of breakdown, trying to see clearly into her past and come to terms with the reasons why this crisis should have happened.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
in front of the Balzac statue
in Montparnasse during the 1920s.
PHOTO: Archives Gallimard (Public Domain)

When letters flooded in from readers of the magazine, sympathising with the luckless Monique and identifying with her plight, Beauvoir was astonished. She had not intended her protagonist to be an object of pity but a terrible warning. Monique may have been an admirable wife, but she had been a dreadful Existentialist. She had abdicated responsibility for her personal development in assuming the roles of wife and mother and given up her vital sense of autonomy in order to serve the needs of others. No wonder she was miserable now!

Monique was the last in a long line of deluded heroines created by Beauvoir. Her female characters were ever fools for love, allowing themselves to be drawn into unhealthy behaviour by their lovers out of fear of abandonment and low self-esteem. They are bitches and slaves, complicit in their victimisation, helpless without a man by their side. Beauvoir was well aware of this, and unrepentant: “From a feminist point of view, none of them could be considered a positive role model. I admit that without remorse.”

There is only one role model in Beauvoir’s writings, and it is of course Beauvoir herself, or at least the woman who appears centre stage in her memoirs. In contrast to her tragic fictional heroines, Beauvoir’s love story was essentially a triumphant one. She had managed, against the odds and the disapproval of bourgeois society, to maintain an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre across the whole of their busy, prolific lives. In the early 1960s, as the volumes covering her middle years were published, interest in the Beauvoir-Sartre partnership reached epic proportions. The public had long known them as a power couple, but Beauvoir’s memoirs gave readers the sense of drawing closer to the intimate secrets of their life together, a particularly prurient pleasure given the audacity of their sexual arrangements. The legend that grew up around them was based on Beauvoir’s account of a tender but free union that managed to incorporate other lovers without jealousy or loss of affection: “There has been one undoubted success in my life,” she wrote in Force of Circumstances (La Force des choses), “my relationship with Sartre. In more than thirty years we have only once gone to sleep at night disunited.”

Yet when she wrote those words, Beauvoir at fifty-five was feeling sad and fearful for the future. She was suffering the loss of her youthful looks, afraid that sexual relationships were now at an end for her, and desperately jealous of Sartre’s latest love affair. After their deaths, the executors of Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s literary estates published the letters they wrote to one another and to other lovers, revealing a very different story to the official version that Beauvoir had created. Generally, Beauvoir’s memoirs were rigorously honest about her experiences, but when it came to love affairs, the accounts she gave were partial; as the full facts of her life were revealed, the portrait of a different woman in love emerged.

Beauvoir and Sartre met in the summer of 1929, when they were in Paris studying philosophy for the highly competitive aggrégation exams. Beauvoir was in the middle of an unconsummated romantic affair with a married man, René Maheu, a prettily handsome boy with a soft, feminine mouth and dreamy eyes. Maheu had a study group with his friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Nizan, and he brought the clever Simone along to it. He did this reluctantly, for Sartre, despite his diminutive stature and his bad squint was known for his ability to seduce women through words and ideas. By the time the exams were over, Beauvoir was hypnotised by Sartre’s vivacity, his determination, his plans and projects, and whilst Sartre frankly admired her handsome good looks, he recognised in her singular mental agility an intellect that was the match of his own.

Sartre was not offering marriage…. But he was offering her the gift of a companionship she had never imagined to receive: intellectual adventure alongside a man who would be mentor, lover and friend.

Beauvoir’s mind was outstanding. When she passed the aggrégation exams in philosophy she was, at twenty-one, the youngest ever to do so. She came second to Sartre, a mere two points behind him in marks, yet she had only been studying philosophy for three years, compared to his seven. Much later, it emerged that the examiners had debated long and hard over whom should be awarded first place in the competition, as Beauvoir had impressed them so. In the end, lame excuses gave Sartre the prize; he was the boy from the prestigious École normale, and this was his second attempt at the exams.

For Beauvoir, it scarcely mattered; association with Sartre and his friends had opened up her quiet and studious life to more fun than she had ever known before. Once their working day was done, the men would sing and joke and chat, play jazz records and visit the nearby funfair. “How cramped my little world seemed beside this exuberantly abundant universe!” she wrote. Her upbringing had been sheltered and constrained in a way that seems impossible to twenty-first century eyes. When she entered a café for the first time, aged twenty, she felt it was an act of thrilling rebellion. Both her serious study and her tendency to atheism were considered scandalous. In the aftermath of the First World War, there was considerable pressure on young women to marry and have children; contraception was illegal and refusing motherhood was an unpatriotic act.

The collapse of her family’s finances provided her with what she would consider a stroke of magnificent good luck. “You girls will never marry,” her father told Simone and her sister, aware that he would not be able to provide the necessary dowry. “You’ll have to work for a living.” Simone decided to become a teacher, and even that decision was delayed by a year after the nuns at her convent school warned her mother that “the study of philosophy mortally corrupts the soul.” Once she had finally been sprung from her gilded bourgeois cage, Beauvoir embraced the opportunity for serious study with joy. Her only regret lay in her clear-sighted assessment of her chances for marriage. “I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely,” she wrote rather sadly in her youthful journal. “No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.”

Sartre was not offering marriage. He believed he was destined to be a great writer, which he conflated with the image of the lone male hero; his freedom was essential to him. But he was offering her the gift of a companionship she had never imagined to receive: intellectual adventure alongside a man who would be mentor, lover and friend. The shameful nature of their liaison would have made most women baulk, in an era when virtue was the condition for respect. But Beauvoir swiftly agreed, surprising Sartre. To find a man as ambitious for her as she was for herself must have felt miraculous. She wrote in her diary, “Never have I been so alive and happy, or envisaged such a rich future. Oh Jean-Paul, dear Jean-Paul, thank you!”

Never could she have envisaged how much determination and stoicism her future would require from her, either. Sartre dictated the terms of their relationship according to his desire to have his cake and eat it. He felt strongly that love was not about possession, that it should be generous and benevolent, not restricting in any way. So whilst theirs would be the “essential” love, they should not deny themselves the pleasure of “contingent” affairs with other people. Sartre had the brains to express this as a figment of personal philosophy, but it was inevitably self-serving. He wrote in his diaries that he longed to be “a scholarly Don Juan, slaying women through the power of his golden tongue” and throughout his life he displayed a mania for chasing women single-mindedly up to the point when they gave in to him. He confessed that “nothing struck me as more moving than the moment at which the avowal of love is finally wrenched forth.” After that, he rarely knew what to do with his conquests. But both he and Beauvoir had a singular inability to move on from lovers, insisting instead on binding them as permanently as possible into their lives.

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
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH
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.

La Nausée

La Nausée BY Jean-Paul Sartre
(Gallimard 1938)

Sartre was able to incorporate these events into the legend that would eventually be built up around them: “Nobody could love one of us without being gripped by a fierce jealousy — which would end by changing into an irresistible attraction — for the other one, even before meeting them,” he proudly wrote. And there was undeniably something magical about the couple, blended from their intellects, their ambitions and their passionate natures. A friend of Beauvoir’s, Colette Audry wrote: “I can’t describe what it was like to be present when those two were together. It was so intense that somehow it made others who saw it sad not to have it.” (This was not a problem as far as Sartre was concerned; he quickly had an affair with her.) But Beauvoir’s self-esteem was taking a battering, and she believed that the young women who fell in love with her saw only a reflection of what their own futures could be in her attractively independent, achieving life. Beauvoir’s inability to see her own power was hardly likely to prevent Sartre from abusing his. Towards the end of his life, one of Sartre’s last loves wrote to him “you and [Beauvoir] together have created a remarkable and dazzling thing which is so dangerous for those people who get close to you.” It was an accurate and astute judgement.

But something good did finally emerge from these wretched and complex relationships for Beauvoir: successful fiction. Up until the war years, Sartre and Beauvoir worked hard on their writing with little to show for it except a stream of rejections. Sartre cracked the problem of overcoming his dry, philosophical style by basing his first novel, Nausea (La Nausée) on personal experiences, and he urged Beauvoir to do the same. “To put my raw, undigested self into a book, to lose perspective, compromise myself — no, I couldn’t do it,” Beauvoir recalled in her memoirs. “I found the whole idea terrifying. ‘Screw up your courage,’ Sartre told me, and kept pressing the point.” As ever, Sartre’s persuasion carried the day, and Beauvoir went on to write a roman à clef that launched a frenzy of gossip across Paris. She Came To Stay (L’Invitée) was the story of Sartre, Beauvoir and Olga Kosakiewicz and their tangled relationships; even more so when Olga, tired of Sartre’s manipulative behaviour, took up with another man, Jacques-Laurent Bost who went on to become Beauvoir’s lover, too. Bost did not subscribe to Sartre’s notion of transparency and kept the affair from Olga. Goodness knows, then, what Olga thought when the novel, dedicated to her, was published with the full story intact. The reviewers found it a sleazy, decadent book, Beauvoir’s mother was horrified, and the possibility of the Prix Goncourt was raised.

L'Invitée

L’Invitée
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(Gallimard, 1967)

It seemed as if the honesty that Sartre valued so highly had moved lock, stock and barrel across to the realm of fiction, because it was in precious short supply elsewhere. The writer Raymond Queneau commented on the novel: “Extraordinary veracity of the description, total lack of imagination. Even when S de B attributes a different childhood to one of her characters, it belongs to someone else.” In real life, however, both Sartre and Beauvoir had succumbed to the pressures of dishonesty in order to keep some kind of status quo. The “family” frequented the same cafes to work and to socialise (the Café de Flore in the Boulevard Saint-Germain was their favourite) and the ruling work ethic meant timetables were strict. Sartre took to assigning visiting hours to each of his women, rigid limits that failed to compensate for the entire lack of boundaries elsewhere. He managed to divide and rule, so that each woman fondly felt she was alone in his sexual favours; except Beauvoir, who had the privilege, if it could be called such, of knowing it all. She conspired, but her conscience was far from clear. “I blamed us — myself as much as you, actually — in the past, in the future, in the absolute: the way we treat people. I felt it was unacceptable.”

A Transatlantic Love Affair

A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelsen Algren
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(New Press, 1999)

Sartre and Beauvoir were both headed into serious relationships with other people who would agree that their modus vivendi was unacceptable. As the Second World War drew to a close, first Sartre, and then Beauvoir, was given the chance to spend time in America, an opportunity that both took with delight. No sooner had Sartre stepped off the plane than he was involved with Dolores Vanetti, a Frenchwoman who worked for the United States Office of War Information. She was a completely different proposition to the young, naïve girls Sartre had seduced up until then. She was older, married, rich and sophisticated. Beauvoir knew this was a harbinger of real trouble in their relationship and was sick with worry, plagued by migraines and nightmares and fits of weeping. The glamour of her pact with Sartre had been always part of the reason why the other women fell for him and accepted her as part of the package. Vanetti did not know or care for these rules and by the end of Sartre’s trip she had made it quite clear that it was marriage or nothing. Sartre, an ace prevaricator, returned to Simone and told her everything was fine, although it most certainly was not.

Beauvoir then left on her trip and, on a thirty-six-hour visit to Chicago, looked up a friend of a friend, the writer Nelson Algren. Their time together was an odd mix of latent eroticism and disquiet, and it might easily have ended there. Only as Beauvoir prepared to come home, full of enthusiasm for her reunion with Sartre, she received a message from him asking her to postpone her departure: he was with Vanetti and things were delicate. Beauvoir, mortified, turned around and went straight into Algren’s arms.

The glamour of her pact with Sartre had been always part of the reason why the other women fell for him and accepted her as part of the package.

The affair would last for five years, although most of it would take place via postal service. Algren, Beauvoir wrote, was “the only truly passionate love in my life.” He was the first man to give her an orgasm, Sartre being notoriously poor in bed. “It’s funny that we get along so well,” Algren told her. “I’ve never been able to get along with anybody.” He was not kidding. Known for his surly nature, Algren was not the obvious choice for a liaison with the cultivated Beauvoir. He was a working class man, tough and prickly, indifferent to European culture and ignorant of the French language. It did not take him long, though, to decide that he wanted Beauvoir to stay in Chicago and marry him, and then the problems began. She knew her career was based in Paris, and her loyalty to Sartre was so strong. As she travelled back and forth across the Atlantic, always having to negotiate the dates with Algren — because Sartre could only dedicate certain weeks to her due to his tight schedule with other women and his arrangements kept changing — Beauvoir fought a losing battle to keep Nelson sweet and loving despite only sharing a fraction of her life.

“I could not love you, want you and miss you more than I do,” she wrote to him, trying once again to explain that “Sartre needs me. In fact, he is very lonely, very tormented inside himself, very restless, and I am his only true friend, the only one who really understands him, helps him, works with him, gives him some peace and poise. For nearly twenty years he did everything for me; he helped me to live, to find myself, he sacrificed lots of things for my sake…. I could not desert him.” Quite what Beauvoir thought she would achieve with these declarations is hard to credit. Algren grew more difficult and hostile towards her each time she flew to see him. He said he did not love her, he refused to sleep with her, he threatened to remarry his ex-wife (and did) and still Beauvoir persisted in behaving as if there were hope. The situation teetered on the brink of unhinging her completely, her anxiety “bordered on mental aberration” she said, and put her on medication. In Chicago was a man she loved passionately who would not agree to the terms of engagement she herself had always lived by. And in Paris, she was half of a famous, revered couple whose relationship had never been more precarious. Sartre, that lonely, tormented man, still had his hands pretty full of the demanding Vanetti.

Les mandarins

Les mandarins
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(Gallimard, 1954)

Beauvoir’s relationship with Nelson Algren inevitably found its way into print, first in Les Mandarins, her Goncourt-winning novel that was again based on the tangle of relationships that dominated this era of her life, and in her memoir, Force of Circumstance. Algren was furious at having his privacy transgressed in this way. When asked about the accuracy of the account in the memoir for Newsweek, he said “She’s fantasizing a relationship in the manner of a middle-aged spinster. It was mostly a friendship… It was casual.” He would review both her books, viciously. The affair had a more oblique but significant impact on what would be Beauvoir’s most famous book, The Second Sex (Le Deuxième sexe). It was, as ever, Sartre who suggested she look into the issue of gender inequality, an issue which Beauvoir declared never to have noticed. But as she set about her research, she became ever more enthralled by the topic. Joan Acocella argues that “the crucial research took place in Nelson Algren’s bed.” Beauvoir reserved her most biting criticisms, not for the men who expected women to be second class citizens, hand-holders and helpmates, but for women who went along with it all out of vanity and neuroticism. Her fiercest words concerned the masochism displayed by the “woman in love” who devotes herself tenderly, excessively to her man only to “gather up the crumbs that the male cares to toss her.” But does she care? Not a bit. For the woman in love will give away her individuality with pleasure in order to become identified entirely with her beloved:

The woman in love tries to see with his eyes… she is interested only in the landscapes she sees with him, in the ideas that come from him; she adopts his friendships, his enmities, his opinions; when she questions herself it is his reply she tries to hear… The supreme happiness of the woman in love is to be recognized by the loved man as a part of himself; when he says “we” she is associated and identified with him, she shares his prestige and reigns with him over the rest of the world.

Beauvoir was writing The Second Sex over the time of her affair with Algren, but it described a pattern she herself had adopted from the moment she fell in love with Sartre. The writing of the book had no cathartic effect on her behaviour; for the mystery is whether Beauvoir had any idea that she was talking about herself. She continued to pester Algren tenderly for a love he had no intention of giving her, and when that relationship finally petered out, and Sartre finally moved on from Vanetti, everything went right back to normal. Beauvoir got over the pain in the arms of a man seventeen years her junior, Claude Lanzmann, who was able to fit in with the program, being Paris-based and not particularly threatened by her relationship to Sartre. And what was there to be threatened by? Sartre would continue for the rest of his life to fall madly in love with other women; he would continue to draw them into his orbit as tightly as he could; he would continue to abhor jealousy whilst doing everything likely to provoke it; and he would concoct ever more outrageous lies to keep his many affairs separately in the dark. Beauvoir remained devoted to him, working alongside him, concerned for every part of his life. There was always love between them, though Sartre was able to conjure that out of words at any time, for whatever woman he was with. Beauvoir kept their pact of transparency right up to the end, although Sartre did not. When questioned by his biographer, Olivier Todd, whether he lied to all his women, even the Beaver (Sartre’s pet name for her), Sartre smiled and replied “Particularly to the Beaver.” When he died, Beauvoir went half mad with grief, throwing herself on his corpse and requiring hospitalisation for a month. For a woman who co-created the doctrine of Existentialism whose basic tenet was the need to respond to the relentless dynamism of life, its perpetual flux and variation, she could not have been a model of greater constancy.

In her old age, the international feminist movement caught up with Simone de Beauvoir, and she loved the new energy this brought into her life. In this Second Wave of feminism, the emphasis on positive role models would be marked, for the women’s movement would be concerned above all with creating a new kind of future for its members, a life of freedom and achievement that few women had ever previously lived. Of course, Beauvoir seemed to have lived that sort of life and for some years she was taken up as an icon, a mascot for female possibilities. How ironic then, that mentally and emotionally, she had been the “woman in love,” for whom, as she wrote poignantly in The Second Sex: “love represents in its most touching form the curse that lies heavily upon women confined in the feminine universe, woman mutilated, insufficient unto herself.”

La femme rompue

La femme rompue
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(Gallimard, 1968)

Beauvoir had bent herself out of shape for Sartre, so thoroughly that she could never undo the alterations. That admirable woman had become who she was by modelling herself on Sartre, following his ideas, his opinions, his philosophy. Looking back on her early life with him she would confess that her fascination led her to forget herself, to cease to exist on her own account. Beauvoir had a life of splendid achievement, but her core had been abdicated, just like the pitiful women she described in her fiction.

Her last fictional works were collected together in The Broken Woman (La femme rompue), three narratives each dealing with that troublesome figure, the “woman in love.” Published in 1968, they spoke to the spirit of the age with its fury against the established hierarchies of power. But it was not Beauvoir’s nature to tell other women what to do. Her characters were not good examples, but terrible warnings. Why would Beauvoir applaud the notion of the role model when she knew better than anyone how aping a model came at the expense of the genuine self? The whole thrust of her argument against the woman in love was that she had held up as an ideal some other being, and cast herself into permanent shadow because of it. Existentialism was about nothing if not the enormous courage it took to define oneself day after day, in ignorance and uncertainty. Beauvoir’s fictions showed the extent of what women were up against if they wanted to achieve anything like authenticity. But she did leave a broad catalogue of behaviours to avoid, most of which she had kindly road-tested first. Her refusal to give women the solutions they asked for was perhaps the best act of feminism she could have undertaken.

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