In Paris in the middle of the last century, one of the worst fates that could befall an attractive young woman was to catch the eye of Jean-Paul Sartre. This world-class misogynist was soft on dictators but destroyed women's lives, causing anguish, breakdowns and possibly a suicide. In the 1970s, when Sartre was blind and enfeebled by two strokes, he was still boasting "there are nine women in my life at the moment", and that did not include Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he had famously made a "pact" in 1929.
In those early days, Sartre told de Beauvoir that they were "two of a kind", that their love for each other was primary and essential, but that should not stop them having "contingent relationships". De Beauvoir agreed to Sartre's terms, even though the arrangement seems to have meant different things to them and caused her a great deal of heartache. Its effect on the "contingent" relationships was disastrous.
"The Beaver [de Beauvoir] and I used to joke with Sartre about all his mad women," says Sylvie Le Bon, de Beauvoir's adopted daughter. "We told him: 'It's you who drives them nuts'." He was still doing it at the very end of his life when a young Greek woman called Helene Lassithiotakis had a psychotic episode in a Paris street. Lassithiotakis was soon on medication which made her silent and gain weight, but she was beautiful and Sartre liked being with her. He called off the affair after five years, complaining that she was too self-seeking.
According to Hazel Rowley, who in Tête-à-Tête recounts Sartre and de Beauvoir's affairs matter-of-factly but to devastating effect, his women friends went on introducing him to attractive women. Sartre would ask "if they were beautiful, then take them out to lunch and grope them outrageously," Rowley says. Apparently his technique had not improved since the days when he took a shine to Wanda Kosakiewicz, fragile younger sister of his lover Olga, and his initial overtures made her vomit.
Sartre persevered in his pursuit of Wanda, whom he described to de Beauvoir as displaying "the mental faculties of a dragonfly". Of course he also betrayed de Beauvoir with Wanda. Sartre decreed that Wanda, despite her lack of aptitude, should become an actress. Her stage career was not a success and she remained emotionally and financially dependent on him for many years.
Bianca Bienenfeld, a former pupil and lover of de Beauvoir, had a breakdown after her affair with Sartre; according to her psychoanlayst, Jacques Lacan, it happened because Sartre and de Beauvoir had had a quasi-parental relationship with Bienenfeld and broke the incest taboo when they both slept with her Another of Sartre's lovers, Evelyne Ray, eventually committed suicide.
Years later, her ex-husband Serge Rezvani caused uproar when he observed: "Today I can say that Evelyne was the consenting victim of a misogynous frivolousness which, until 1968, characterised the Left Bank intelligentsia". This remark goes to the heart of the problem with the Sartreans, including de Beauvoir, and demonstrates why their private lives cannot be separated from their work. Sartre's philosophy in the boudoir, so to speak, demonstrates the same flaw as his intellectual apparatus: a shameless recourse to a convenient state of denial. The man hailed by Edward Said as "one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century" was equally ready to turn a blind eye to the horrors of the USSR and the gross deceptions he practised on women he claimed to love.
Thus he assured Evelyne Ray he was no longer sleeping with anyone else, keeping from her his simultaneous affairs with Wanda Kosakiewicz and Michelle Vian. Around the same time, after a three-week trip to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet Writers Union in 1954, he insisted that there was complete freedom of expression in the USSR.
Sartre did admit later to saying "a number of friendly things about the USSR which I did not believe", excusing himself on the grounds that "it is not polite to pour shit on your hosts as soon as you are back home". He denounced the invasion of Hungary in 1956 but visited Moscow again in 1962 when he began an affair with his interpreter, Lena Zonina. During the four years of his affair with Zonina, Sartre "fell into line with Soviet propaganda almost completely," says Rowley.
Sartre's entire world was built on lies. He argued for complete freedom in sexual relationships, disregarding the asymmetrical positions of men and women, and did not even follow his own principle of "transparency" with his lovers. De Beauvoir's willingness to go along with all this self-serving nonsense undermined her morally and emotionally, but she might not have written The Second Sex without it.
Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published by PenguinReuse content