The Existentialist Couple: Sartre and Beauvoir

It is interesting to know that Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous existentialist philosopher and political activist, failed in his first attempt at his agrégation, a form of exit exam which qualifies a person for a teaching post, in 1928. Failing this was a blow to the young Sartre, especially because he considered himself to be the brightest mind of Ecole Normale Supérieure. But fate has its strange ways, and this failure proved to be of monumental importance in Sartre’s life—it gave him a chance to meet Simone de Beauvoir. Their intimate and enigmatic relationship would later produce a whole cultural and philosophical revolution.

Beauvoir began to study for her aggregation in 1929, and her boyfriend René Maheu introduced her to a study group, of which Sartre was also a part. The two, recognizing in each other their intellectual match, were instantly attracted. Beauvoir was a beautiful, intelligent woman. Sartre was not that handsome, but he had a sort of aggressive male ugliness that becomes charismatic. And even though Beauvoir was having a relationship with Maheu, she fell in love with Sartre, and they began to study together in the group. When the results of the next agrégation came, Sartre was placed first and following very closely, Beauvoir got the second position. It is now widely believed that Sartre was given the first position simply because he was a male; the examiners agreed that she was strictly the better philosopher. And we must also consider the fact Sartre was giving the exam for the second time, while it was the first attempt for Beauvoir. And Beauvoir also got the distinction for becoming the youngest person ever to obtain the agrégation in philosophy. In a sense, their destiny was revealed right then: this is how the two would remain together throughout their lives. And even though Beauvoir was probably the sharper and more intelligent of the two, Sartre would acquire a greater fame as a philosopher.

There is no doubt in the fact that the two were in love with each other. Beauvoir wrote in her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, “Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream companion I had longed for since I was fifteen: he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspirations raised to the pitch of incandescence. I should always be able to share everything with him…” However, their relationship was also one of the most unconventional of relationships. The two felt that their relationship transcended the social institution of marriage, and therefore the two never married. This was explained by Beauvoir herself: “The comradeship that welded our lives together made a superfluous mockery of any other bond we might have forged for ourselves.”

Their love affair is well-known for its complexity. Sartre had proposed a pact to Beauvoir: The two would have individual, separate lives. They would be free to have other relationships. They could have affairs with other people. But they would share everything with each other, every detail of their liaisons. This was the kind of soul marriage they had. As Sartre explained to Beauvoir, “What we have is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.” This statement by Sartre is perhaps the best philosophical description of their relationship. Maybe it was the rebellious nature of Beauvoir and her desire to escape from the bourgeoisie culture of her family which attracted her to this settlement, but she must surely have realized that this pact gave a license to Sartre to be unfaithful.

Sartre was indeed famous as a Don Juan, as a seducer of women, and surely preferred the company of women, especially pretty and charming ones. Bianca Bienenfeld, one of the countless women with whom Sartre had had affairs, wrote about him, “Just as a waiter plays the role of a waiter, Sartre played to perfection the role of a man in love.” This allusion to waiter is perhaps one of the most sophisticated criticisms of the disparity between Sartre’s life and philosophy. Sartre has used the example of a waiter to elaborate his concept of mauvaise foi (‘bad faith’ or self-deception) that the waiter pretends that this particular role of café waiter determines his every action and attitude, but the truth is that he has chosen to behave in this way, and by doing so he lets himself be defined by the role society has given him.

Beauvoir’s works were often read and seen as an echo of Sartre’s philosophy, perhaps also because of Beauvoir’s own insistence on being called ‘Sartre’s disciple’. Beauvoir’s utter devotion to Sartre, even at the cost of her status as an original philosopher is incomprehensible. Edward and Kate Fullbrook have argued that it was Beauvoir, and not Sartre, who was the intellectual force behind some of the key existential ideas. Beauvoir and Sartre worked closely throughout their lives, and Beauvoir edited all books Sartre wrote, and Sartre read Beauvoir’s works before they got published. It has now been discovered that Sartre had read a manuscript of Beauvoir’s novel She came to Stay before he started writing the masterpiece of existentialism, Being and Nothingness. And therefore Beauvoir’s employment of concepts like bad faith was not under the influence of Sartre, but rather, vice versa. It was Sartre who took these ideas from Beauvoir. Existentialism was the child of the love of Sartre and Beauvoir.

The pact between Sartre and Beauvoir was supposed to be equal; both were free to have as many affairs they wanted. But it seems that in real life Sartre was far more equal than Beauvoir was. While Sartre was continuously engaged in an endless succession of affairs, Beauvoir responded with relatively few but longer-lasting relationships. It is quite evident that Beauvoir suffered from jealousy; the autobiographical writings of Beauvoir express a hyperbolic love for a man who was never sexually faithful to her. Although she had several love affairs, it is clear from her writings that she would have gladly given them all up if she could have Sartre all for herself. And yet, despite everything she achieved in her life as a writer, philosopher and feminist, Beauvoir is content to state, “Our relationship was the greatest achievement of my life.”