Philosophy’s Power Couple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Featured in 1967 TV Interview

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir were twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry philosophy’s pow­er cou­ple, in a time and place when pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als were true celebri­ties. In the mid-six­ties, they were not only fas­ci­nat­ing writ­ers in their own right, but also activists engaged in inter­na­tion­al strug­gle against what they defined as the glob­al­ly inju­ri­ous forces of cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism and patri­ar­chal oppres­sion. In 1967, Sartre, along with Bertrand Rus­sell and a hand­ful of oth­er influ­en­tial thinkers, con­vened what became known as the “Rus­sell Tri­bunal,” a pri­vate body inves­ti­gat­ing war crimes in Viet­nam. De Beau­voir mean­while had pub­lished a suite of mem­oirs and prize-win­ning nov­els, and her ground­break­ing fem­i­nist study The Sec­ond Sex had been in pub­li­ca­tion a full twen­ty years.

In the inter­views above with Sartre and de Beau­voir, the “free and inti­mate cou­ple,” a mod­el of exis­ten­tial­ist free love, receives rev­er­en­tial treat­ment from the CBC. The jour­nal­ists describe Sartre as “the most famous and con­tro­ver­sial writer of his time…. An ally of stu­dents and inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies [and] a very pub­lic fig­ure.” Sartre’s Paris apart­ment, an “aus­tere room,” rep­re­sents “a kind of uni­ver­sal con­science.” There are long, lin­ger­ing shots of the writer at work, pre­sum­ably on his Flaubert study, ten years in the mak­ing at this point. Sartre becomes pas­sion­ate when the inter­view­ers ask him about the dan­gers of the Viet­nam War. He responds:

There is noth­ing glo­ri­ous about a super­pow­er attack­ing a small nation which can­not fight on even terms, and yet resists fierce­ly, refus­ing to yield…. My per­spec­tive is sociopo­lit­i­cal as well as moral. The Viet­nam war is the very sym­bol of impe­ri­al­ism, the fruit of today’s monop­o­lis­tic cap­i­tal­ism.

For Sartre, phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics are insep­a­ra­ble. “The war in Viet­nam,” he says, ”dis­putes my work, and my work dis­putes the war.”

When the scene shifts to the sep­a­rate home of de Beau­voir, nick­named “Cas­tor” (the beaver), the cam­era lingers over her col­lec­tion of knick-knacks. Her home is “like a muse­um of her own life… filled with rem­i­nis­cences of Cuba, Africa, Japan, Spain, Chi­na, Mex­i­co.” She dis­cuss­es her time spent with Fidel Cas­tro at his coun­try home (“He fish­es with his gun, shoot­ing at trout”), and talks about her mem­oirs. “I am attached to my past,” she says, “but I don’t shun the present and future. Arti­facts and sou­venirs are meant to pre­serve the present. To buy a sou­venir is there­fore an invest­ment in the future.”

Sartre and de Beauvoir’s rela­tion­ship is sto­ried and com­plex. In his lengthy 2005 expose for The New York­er, Louis Menand describes it thus:

Their liai­son was part of the mys­tique of exis­ten­tial­ism, and it was exten­sive­ly doc­u­ment­ed and cool­ly defend­ed in Beauvoir’s four vol­umes of mem­oirs, all of them extreme­ly pop­u­lar in France…. Beau­voir and Sartre had no inter­est in var­nish­ing the facts out of respect for bour­geois notions of decen­cy. Dis­re­spect for bour­geois notions of decen­cy was pre­cise­ly the point.

Their sex­u­al rebel­lion seems nov­el for the times, but the way they con­strued their open rela­tion­ship also relied on Roman­tic clichés and the medieval for­mu­la of court­ly love. As Sartre would say of their roman­tic “pact”: “What we have is an essen­tial love; but it is a good idea for us also to expe­ri­ence con­tin­gent love affairs.” His Aris­totelian argu­ment, Menand writes, “worked as well on her as a dia­mond ring.” The couple’s egal­i­tar­i­an sex­u­al pol­i­tics often seem at odds with their prac­tice, in Menard’s esti­ma­tion, in which Sartre seemed to gain the upper hand and both wield­ed pow­er over their con­quests.

While spec­u­la­tions on their arrange­ment may seem pruri­ent, the two doc­u­ment­ed their own dal­liances obses­sive­ly in their work—both fic­tion­al and non—referring to their entourage of admir­ers and lovers as “the fam­i­ly.” They adopt­ed young women, fre­quent­ly stu­dents, as pro­tégées, and seduced both women and men in what their for­mer lover Bian­ca Bienen­feld, in her mem­oir A Dis­grace­ful Affair, would call “act­ing out a com­mon­place ver­sion of ‘Dan­ger­ous Liaisons.’”

Author Hazel Row­ley, who also wrote on Franklin and Eleanor Roo­sevelt, doc­u­ment­ed their 51-year part­ner­ship in her book Tete-a-Tete, a biog­ra­phy writ­ten in coop­er­a­tion with de Beauvoir’s adopt­ed daugh­ter (and pos­si­ble lover) Sylvie Le Bon de Beau­voir and con­test­ed by Sartre’s adoptee, Arlette Elka­im-Sartre. Like all rad­i­cal fig­ures, Sartre and de Beau­voir need to be accept­ed as warts-and-all human beings. Their influ­en­tial work is not negat­ed by their con­tra­dic­to­ry lives, but the per­son­al and polit­i­cal do make for a strange blend in the case of these intel­lec­tu­al rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Simone de Beau­voir Explains “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in a Rare TV Inter­view (1975)

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Lovers and Philoso­phers — Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beau­voir Togeth­er in 1967

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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