Swinging and Nothingness


“You know, I don’t tell the Beaver everything,” whispered Jean-Paul Sartre to Michelle Vian three years before his death. The Beaver was Simone de Beauvoir. The name was not a term of abuse. Sartre, born 100 years ago, had good reason not to tell the Beaver everything. There was much that was better left unsaid.

Though Sartre indeed did not tell the Beaver everything, the reader of Hazel Rowley’s new book Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
(Harper Collins) might wish that he had told her a bit less. Much of what he told her, and she him, had to do with love—or something like it. In a manner not unlike that crystallized centuries earlier, Sartre and de Beauvoir formed dangerous liaisons with the innocents around them. They lifted them up and let them fall for their amusement—or something like it.

Philosophers are supposed to see the world with clear eyes; with clear philosophical eyes, we can note that Sartre was a troll. He was five feet tall. Neither handsome nor dashing, nearly blind in one eye, and scornful of even the most basic conventions of bourgeois dental hygiene (mossy is a word that comes easily to mind). And yet he got girls like he was in the Beatles. As strange to the American mind as escargot is the French custom of beautiful young woman finding brilliant older men attractive merely for being brilliant—and then sleeping with them!

In October 1945 Sartre gave a lecture entitled “Is Existentialism a Humanism?” The answer was no, and the crowd went nuts. A Parisian newspaper described the scene: “A young woman with radiant blue eyes drinks in Sartre’s every word. Another collapses in adoration before him: she has just fainted!” (Even after death, “the small man,” as his friends called him, would make others fall at his feet. Twenty thousand mourners attended his funeral in 1980 and in the crush a cameraman fell, before the Beaver’s terrified gaze, into the philosopher’s grave.) Existentialism did not become a humanism, but it did become a way to get girls. If we are truly free and every moment is contingent, why not share your essence with my existence? Helping Sartre pull the strings of his desire was de Beauvoir. Rowley’s book highlights various, and in some cases rather vile, machinations of the philosopher king and his philosopher queen with the young entourage at their feet. The tales of their amorous intrigues make disturbing and disappointing reading.

As everyone knows, tête-à-tête is French for “head to head” and means “face to face.” Rowley’s Tête-à-Tête is as much “head to head” as “face to face.” Sartre failed the agrégation, the hyper-competitive national examination one must pass to teach in the French school system, the first time he took it. Studying with de Beauvoir, he passed it the second time around—and did so with flying colors. Only one student seems to have performed better that year—de Beauvoir herself. The future author of The Second Sex didn’t, however, receive the first prize—that went to Sartre. The two brilliant young students became closer and closer. They told one another their most painful memories and their most hopeful dreams, what they thought of Leibniz’s metaphysics and of the smell of rain. The relationship that developed between the two was tender and rich. It was also competitive and cruel.

As Tête-à-Tête shows, in his numerous affairs Sartre showed a strong preference for beautiful rather than smart women. The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal is said to have expressed intense annoyance one day when someone in his presence chanced to say, “I just saw a beautiful woman.” He was not interested in beautiful women, beautiful men, or people talking about either. He was interested in the life of the mind, and he didn’t see what the body had to do with it. Like Sartre, Pascal was blessed with stunning rhetorical resources. He realized that he had the greatest trouble preventing himself from enjoying the effects of his hypnotic verbal power. And so he did what any good Jansenist would do: He had a girdle affixed with iron spikes made for him and when he would receive visits would wear it under his clothes. When he caught himself becoming too pleased by his own entrancing eloquence, he would cross his arms tightly against his thin body and press until the vanity subsided.

Descartes is the author of the most famous sentence in French philosophy: Cogito ergo sum. Pascal is the author of the second most famous one: La vraie philosophie se moque de la philosophie, “true philosophy cares nothing for philosophy.” Whether that is true, it seems to care nothing for beautiful women or biography.

While traveling from East to West Friesland in 1621, the then 26-year-old Descartes defied and confounded a band of sailors bent on murdering him for his money. Are we to understand the cogito differently in the light cast by such an anecdote? And what should Pascal’s mortification of the flesh or Sartre’s indulgences of it matter to philosophy? They change our vision of the man. We admire a man who overcomes pirates—with the force of reason! We hold in uneasy awe a man capable of pursuing vanity into the deepest recesses of his clothing and person. And we hold even a great and courageous man responsible for shabby deceptions and contraceptions (despite his assurances, Michelle Vian became pregnant the first time the two slept together—and yes, he told the Beaver). But are we to understand the being that is or the nothingness that is not any differently as a result?

Hegel had a clever way of dealing with historical personages he didn’t know what to make of—he made history responsible for them. Such figures as the terrific and terrible Napoleon were “world-historical” individuals who, though they seem to be wreaking relentless havoc and creating unjustifiable chaos, are actually, unbeknownst to them, advancing the interests of history. They are pawns in its slow game. French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said that he made his intellectual way by trying to do and say the opposite of what Sartre did and said—all the while admiring him intensely. Bourdieu credited Sartre with enshrining the “myth of the intellectual” (Bourdieu wrote a book called Homo Academicus where he gave taxonomic specifications). As the phrase indicates, it is only a myth. Thinkers were for Bourdieu always deeply entrenched in history, and the world of the mind and the world of the body were never, he claimed, far apart. And yet, he added, this “myth of the intellectual,” which no one so well as Sartre embodied and embedded, was “one of the ruses of historical reason,” one of the means by which Hegel’s history progresses.

Phrased more crudely, what do beautiful women, iron spikes, and pirates have to do with “true philosophy”? Everything and nothing seems the only philosophical answer. Nothing because philosophy is about the essential and not the accidental, about the life of the mind and the rules of reason. Everything because philosophy is also the discipline whose task is the life truly led—and that is a life, for good or ill, with spiked girdles, high-seas adventure, and beautiful women.

Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.