Tête-à-Tête by Hazel Rowley


The subtitle is The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Long as it is, the title could use another word in there somewhere. I would suggest “creepy.” While I learned a great deal about the work of these two brilliant public intellectuals of the 20th century, the book focuses on their unusual relationship and their connections to others, especially the group of women connected to Sartre. I’m overwhelmed by all I would like to recount about them, so I’ll just record some apparently random bits about them.

They were both brilliant and hard working; they met as students of philosophy and both became teachers. She was always busy, and become known by their friends as the Beaver. Their lives were, of course, terribly affected by the war, and both were active in resistance. Sartre gained fame for his books and plays as did Beauvoir to a lesser extent. Their lives are a blur of working hard at writing, travel, evenings at La Coupole or another of their favored spots.

Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex was her most important work. I now blame her for what I have long thought was the misguided approach of feminism. Here’s a quote the author chose from that book:

The advantage man enjoys…is that his vocation as a human being in no way runs counter to his destiny as a male….His social and spiritual successes endow him with a virile prestige. He is not divided. Whereas it is required of women that in order to realize her femininity she must make herself object and prey, which is to say that she must renounce her claims as a sovereign subject.

My view is the world feminists should work for venerates caregiving as well as the currently venerated “men’s various successes.” Women’s apparent inclinations to be supporting and caring should be as valued as much as any other important undertaking. Men should be “encouraged” to be more like women and temper their ambitions with their connections to others. Virility should include caretaking ability in its definition.

The creepy part, as told by the author:

The bulk of their correspondence to each other was published a few years later [after their deaths]. Readers were left reeling with shock. It turned out that these two advocates of truth-telling constantly told lies to an array of emotionally unstable young girls. (Sartre called them “little fibs,” “half-truths,” and “total lies.”) And here was Beauvoir, who throughout her life had publicly denied ever having had an affair with a woman, telling Sartre about her pleasurable nights making love with young women! … And why were they both so disparaging about the young women they went to bed with?

This is just the beginning of the revelations of their, especially his, bad behavior. Revolting is another word the title could have added.

A few of his political views that I learned about were his support of the USSR version of communism far longer than other European intelligentia did. It was the invasion of Hungary in 1956 that affected his view. And he was enamored with Maoism, with its rejection of elitism, hierarchies, and leaders. Said the epitome of the elite in France.

His death in 1980 caused a remarkably strong reaction in France. The funeral procession, moving his body from the hospital in Montparnasse past his old haunts in the area to the cemetery, was slowed by the crowd, estimated to be 50,000. This YouTube clip from the funeral begins with a shot of Giscard d’Estaing, and ends with Simon de Beauvoir and is quite moving.

I found this book to be endlessly fascinating and I have so much more I could write about. The author, an Australian, wrote three other biographies. I want to remember the appearance of Edward Said in this book.

Hazel Rowley, Tête-à-Tête, HarperCollins, 2005, 416 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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