Unequal Relationship?

Issue section: 
(301)

Rebecca Pitt's review of the new biography of Simone de Beauvoir by Lisa Appignanasi in the September issue of Socialist Review was well written and admirable in its lucidity and enthusiasm for its subject.

However, there is one factor which was unfortunately ignored, despite being mentioned early in the book. This was the tensions created by the 'contingent relationships' de Beauvoir and her lifelong partner, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, had in conjunction with their own 'necessary' one.

Even though they agreed to reject the 'bourgeois' conformity of monogamy, by rejecting marriage and living a life of sexual freedom, it is made clear that in this 'relationship of equals' the truth was far more complex. Compared to the 'countless affairs' Sartre had in his lifetime, de Beauvoir had only comparatively few 'passionate affairs'.

Consequently, they seem to have had a different understanding of what their, albeit mutually agreed, sexual freedom truly meant. To de Beauvoir it appears to have been the liberty to form subsidiary, meaningful and loving relationships, while to Sartre it simply gave him the opportunity to be openly promiscuous.

In fact, it seems that for him it had also negated any obligation to be honest in any of his relationships. When asked by a colleague how he managed to sustain his many affairs simultaneously, he is said to have replied, 'I lie to them... especially "Beaver" [de Beauvoir].' Although it may accord with the existentialist 'man is condemned to be free' philosophy with which he first made his name, this kind of behaviour seems contrary to the left wing activism and politics with which he later became identified, not to mention the feminist writings of de Beauvoir herself.

The biography also admits that de Beauvoir was often jealous of Sartre's other lovers, despite her having relationships of her own, a fact she apparently admits in her own writings. It also mentions there was at least one case when, fearing one of Sartre's 'contingent relationships' was going to assume the position of 'necessary relationship', she tried to evoke feelings of jealousy in him in return by embarking on a new affair of her own, which may have worked. This demonstrates that perhaps even he was not always completely at ease with her subsidiary relationships (something he would have undoubtedly put down to 'bad faith' and 'bourgeois' thinking).

I am aware that all this may be controversial to some - a number of people (including Rebecca Pitt herself) seemed both horrified and indignant when I first voiced this at Marxism 2005. However, I feel somewhat vindicated by this new biography, and its treatment of this key aspect in Simone de Beauvoir's life, which shows that, like all relationships, the 'open' one she had with Sartre was complex and not always mutually satisfactory, even if it was based upon the principles of their deeply held beliefs and of their own devising.

Finally, if anyone wonders why this esteemed feminist writer retained a lifelong affair with someone who often acted in a manner she found highly distasteful, I would hazard to say it was for the same reason women often stay with even physically abusive partners - she loved him.

Jonathan Tipton
Preston