The Sexiness Surrounding French Existentialism

Who says all rigorous intellectual forays must have serious beginnings?

One day, while bored at work, I stumbled upon this amusing web-comic from Dead Philosophers in Heaven.

I then spied the link at the bottom of the post, which led to an old and incredibly excellent New Yorker article. I highly suggest you read it, as it’s entertaining and also what led me to my current choice of reading material.

The first time I heard about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir was in the philosophical mind-fuck novel Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder (if you consider yourself weak on your philosophical knowledge, go read this immediately). But while both figures were considered intellectual big-hitters for their vigorous promotion of modern existential philosophy, nowadays they seem better known for their tumultuous and quite scandalous relationship/s with each other and an array of brilliant and rugged men (on Beauvoir’s part) and tremulous, beautiful young women (on BOTH their parts) than for their mental gifts. Mind you, these relationships were considered scandalous to the pre-WWII French bourgeoisie, but I guess they’d also be considered scandalous to contemporary international bourgeois conceptions of PC behavior as well, now that I think about it.

In any case, I found it curious that even while my mother described Beauvoir’s intellectual and feminist achievements with admiration (such as her acing her French aggregation examinations at the incredibly precocious age of 21, her winning the prestigious French Prix Goncourt literary prize, or the resounding impact her foundational work The Second Sex had on contemporary feminism), she simultaneously rolled her eyes at the idea that Beauvoir and Sartre actually maintained that their famously open relationship was in any way superior to regular monogamous relationships. Rather than to knee-jerkingly assume my mom was simply a close-minded victim of her bourgeois upbringing, I figured I’d read some of the original materials on my own.

I had heard about Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins in Marjane Satrapi’s fantastic graphic novel Persepolis (more on that work soon to come). I found the roman a clef so engrossing, I read the entire 612 page tome in one weekend. It’s a great novel about the despairing role of the intellectual in the post-war Paris of the 1950s. It also provided great insight into what Beauvoir probably felt about her own relationships as portrayed through the lives of fictional characters.

But now I’m reading a book which piercingly analyzes the real deal. As referenced in the New Yorker article, Hazel Rowley’s Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre provides an in-depth look at the famous couple’s multiple relationships, with references to their philosophical works and their fiction writing. Rowley is clear that the book isn’t a biography of either person, but rather that it examines how they connected with each other and others, and how they tried to really practice what they preached.

All emotions are the product of choice; thus jealousy was simply human weakness, one which could be controlled. Humans are absolutely free; thus antiquated ties such as marriage were hopelessly backward and constraining. These were principles both Sartre and Beauvoir lived by in their day-to-day; however, it must be said that in their constant existential efforts to be authentic, said efforts were often tainted with pettiness, lies, and often downright cruelty, particularly towards others.

While I’m not looking for an “open” relationship of my own any time soon, I don’t think they were as ridiculous as some make them out to be in their different way of approaching life. I greatly admire their no-bullshit approach, with all their human failings; after all, the ennui of the bourgeoisie lifestyle, with all its judgement and ability to crush the soul, presents a much greater threat than existential deviancy ever did. Love them or hate them, these two philosophers were certainly never boring; I can’t wait to get through this book.

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