It started with a breakup. It was one that I hadn’t expected, and in hindsight, one that I was in no way prepared for. As is so often had been the case, my insecurities had got the better of me, and through internal self-sabotage I had metamorphosed into somebody I barely recognised.
My usual response in this kind of situation is to blame a history of mental illness, and to embark on a bender that would last until the arse fell out of my existence. Usually about a year.
I sought the advice of an older and wiser friend. She told me to read Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Are you fucking kidding me, I thought. Here I am, on the verge of a break down, behaving in ways that I would later found out very nearly lost me job and my home, and you’re telling me to read a 500 page book of dense French philosophy.
But I took her advice, and I read Being and Nothingness. When I re-emerged, I finally felt comfortable within my own emotions, and had become obsessed with the complex relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
To condense a very long book, Being and Nothingness suggests that there are two types of thing in this world: things that contain being (humans, animals), and things that contain nothingness (inanimate objects - pens, tables, that kind of thing). Beings filled with consciousness are in a constant state of flux, and subject to change. Objects that are inanimate on the other hand, are not subject subject to change, and are filled with nothingness.
Satre's theory is that something strange happens when you (a person, filled with being) realise that you are being looked at by a person who you desire. You become aware that the person is looking at you, but you don’t know what they are seeing. But, because you want to be with that person, you make an approximation of what you think they are seeing, and you try and become that. In the process of this, you turn yourself into an object, contradicting the nature of your being. This is a societal structure which leads to people full of being feeling empty.
Similarly, in romantic relationships, our psychological disposition often leads to us turning the person that we love into an object. This is not only a projection of what we think that person wants, but a projection of our own deeper insecurities.
When this happens, we lose our sense of agency and individuality, changing the nature of ourselves due to the fundamental idea that love will complete us. We lose control of our destiny. Sartre and Beauvoir both wrote extensively about this concept, which they called ‘bad faith’, arguing that this is the reason why most relationships fail.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre met as philosophy students in Paris in 1929. For over 50 years until their deaths in the 1980s, Beauvoir and Sartre lived in an open relationship that was difficult for outsiders to define.
They both believed that the great challenge of their age was to realise the independent freedom created by the absence of God. The frightening thing about life was not an absence of meaning, contrary to what many critics of existentialism thought, but rather the fact that as an individual, you were fully responsible for the consequences of everything that you did.
Together Beauvoir and Sartre made a vow to have a relationship that was free of the ego traps that they saw as inhibiting the realisation of the self. It would be a lifelong attempt at what they called Authentic Love.
As a couple they were together an icon of free-thinking post-war Europe, yet more often than not, they lived with, and slept with other partners. While they had a sexual relationship, they never once lived under the same roof, preferring instead to meet in cafes, where they would often compare detailed notes on recent love affairs.
As the poet Arthur Rimbaud had written some 60 years earlier, love has to be reinvented.
Following the loss of life of the First World War, there was huge pressure on young women to become mothers. Simone de Beauvoir, an atheist and gender-theorist at least 50 years ahead of her time, had rejected the well-worn path in favour of a life dedicated to study and writing, and had now embarked on an art-as-life deconstruction of the traditional models of relationships. France had found the antithesis of what it expected from a woman, which of course made her the most important woman of the age.
But, were they really happy?
Since the publication of their diaries from the 1960s onwards, questions have been raised as to whether this new model of a relationship was in fact a trap of its own. In particular, Beauvoir seems to have suffered emotionally from the complicated nature of their relationship. Although she had several high profile affairs, most notably with the American writer Nelson Algren, and despite the fact that she would also send students that she seduced the way of Sartre, it was Sartre who was the notorious womaniser.
Is an infidelity an infidelity if it is within the agreed framework of an honest relationship? It was a continual thorny issue for both of their various lovers caught in the crossfire, but for Beauvoir and Sartre I don’t think it was.
This is beside the point however. I did not become interested in the shared philosophy of these two French philosophers because of polyamory - I am not polyamorous, and have never felt a desire to be.
Furthermore, I don’t know if it’s possible for any relationship to be lacking in moments of sadness or jealousy. Would anyone really want that?
The freedom to fall both in and out of love without guilt. The freedom to change, and the acceptance that other people can change. The acceptance that love for a person can exist without wanting to own them. The freedom to love fully without being consumed by it. This instead is what I took from their relationship.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre are buried together under a shared gravestone in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. Despite a hugely influential career as a writer, philosopher, and the founder of modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir stated that her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre was ‘the one undoubted success’ in her life.
Words by Rob Greer.