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.