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A Dangerous LiaisonReview - A Dangerous Liaison
A Revelatory New Biography of Simone DeBeauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
by Carole Seymour-Jones
Overlook , 2010
Review by Samin Khan
Jun 26th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 26)

This investigative-fictionalized biography of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir with hundreds of citations from the interviews, books and letters, as well as original lists of verifiable sources, from both Sartre and De Beauvoir themselves, is interesting. Jones' attempt at fictional reconstruction about real life events in movie-script like fashion with juicy details and generous space devoted to rumors and gossip should make the book blockbuster Hollywood stuff. The rewriting of the story has its foundation in secret letters accidentally discovered in 1986, by De Beauvoir's former lover Jacques Laurent Bost. The letters are published without cuts as Jones considers them the paradigm of her research thesis. By reconstructing the events, she believes to have found evidence of sexual manipulation of dependents and students, collaboration with Nazis and being lured by the KGB in the form of Lena Zonina (KGB agent and Sartre interpreter in Russia). The philosophical love marriage continued for more than half a century. Sexual partners were switched and tolerated without compromising the "essential mutual love", consequently, for Jones emotionally harming unsuspecting intimates due to the couple's duplicity and secret mutual liaison.

The book divides the couple's life into five periods, accordingly in five chapters, the period of 1905-38 covers their childhoods, adolescences, romances and career defining education and early jobs. During the second World War 1939-44 (second part) Sartre is described as a reluctant soldier, as a POW and as a quasi-collaborator with Nazis during the last years of German withdrawal from France. 1945-56 is the period when careers as writers and journalists are established. There is also global fame as leftwing political agitators fighting the bourgeois. The fourth period (1956-68) covers the events of couple's infatuation with communist Russia, existence as celebrity writers of global reach and wealth. The last fifth period of 1969-86 describes events from family intrigue, ill-health, celebrity battles and subsequent demise of Sartre and De Beauvoir in Paris.

In the beginning we find Sartre as a child in the company of old women, sitting on his heels to wee like little girls, a speck in his right eye; when his long curly hair is cut the Pretty Poulon (called by his mother) is called a toad. As a Youngman he will seduce women not by looks but by his clever conversation like Capote. Sartre meets De Beauvoir in the summer of 1929; he is known for shouting "Thus Pissed Zarthustra" from a college rooftop but is absolutely brilliant. She taps on his door, and ends up sleeping with his roommate Llama. Sartre's profligacy impresses De Beauvior due to her penniless childhood. She (citation from page 79) experiments with her body at the age of 13 in the Chestnut forest.   His encounter with her later transforms Sartre's self-concept from an ugly toad to a man of destiny. She continues to have relationship with Maheu and Llama, and finds a part time teaching job at Lyce Victor-Duruy. Sartre offers her to have a lease of two years of intimacy in Paris (citation from page 89) the start of famous morganatic marriage. In 1929 he writes to De Beauvoir "Life is a game already lost; so it never makes me feel serious but free". As lecturer in Marseilles, LeHarve instead of his desired destination of the same job in Japan; students remember him as a short man, wearing an open neck black shirt and sports jacket, hands in pocket, smoking a pipe. He allows students to smoke in the class and treats them as his equals, an impressive radical teacher-student relationship, rare even in today's academic circles of the western world.

In February 1935, Sartre experiences altered consciousness with psychedelic drug Mescaline, voluntarily administered by psychiatrist Daniel Lagache. The world metamorphoses into strange surreal existences where an umbrella is a vulture and shoes changes into human skeletons. His masterpiece philosophic novel "Nausea" written in Virginia Wolf and James Joyce style of "Internal Monologues" has been refused by publisher "Edition d' Europe" as vague script which Sartre himself admits to be of no use. However, it is later accepted for publication in April 1937 at Gillimard Editorial Conference (citation from page 179 detail of meeting with Paulhan Publishers are given). With this major event his personal nausea comes to an end; life becomes youthful and beautiful again. Sartre book "The Wall" according to critics borders on obscenity, and his mother, Anne-Marie, is critical of that too. "Family is such a shit", Sartre wrote to De Beauvoir in a letter. De Beauvoir writes in her journal "I preferred the truth; the question was how to find it. Usually Sartre will propose a theory and I will offer a critique".  In 1920 Edmund Husserl wrote "if the world disappears, pure consciousness will remain". Sartre thrilled by this idea, rises against his master in "Transcendence of the Ego" arguing "ego is not materiality and not formally in consciousness, it is being of the world out there like the ego of another".

We find Olega, Wanda, Bianca, Bost sexually attached to the couple during various stages of their lives. In epic times when Sartre is bubbling with ideas, De Beauvoir refuses to attach herself to literature, for the fear that it may become too serious like life or love. Femininity is neither natural nor innate, it is only social programming, she writes in the "The Other Sex". The look from another consciousness, wherein being for other is revealed, self becomes an object of indifference, love and hate as a being in the world. According to Jones during this part of their careers, Sartre and De Beauvoir are declared by education authorities unfit to teach after a complaint by a student Nathalie's mother for corrupting the youth. De Beauvoir is alleged to have been in lesbian relations with Nathalie; the former is subsequently handed over to Sartre and Bost in an unethical deceitful manner. Sartre is indicted on account of his short stories in "The wall" and not on original charges according to Jones.

As a POW between 21 June 1940 to the end of March 1941, a kick from a German soldier awakens in Sartre the neo-consciousness and the meaning of collective existence, political life as a being in itself, obeying orders in prison even when one is disgusted by submission, the depth of thought in his writings about sadomasochism, slave-master relationship can be traced to these events. In prison he is reported to have been indifferent to personal hygiene but when a student from Ecole Normale recognizes him, he starts cleaning up regularly. On return home he organizes resistance of fifty Philosophy students named as a Socialist-Liberationist group in Paris. In 1949 he creates a political party RDR with personal investment of 300000 Francs against Charles De Gaulle party of RPF, who he compares with Hitler. However, the newly created CIA is diverting funds from the European Marshal Plan towards espionage on anti-Communist activities in France. As a result RDR soon splits into two groups as Sartre quits the party due to internal rift.

Meanwhile, De Beauvoir's literary thought matures in "She Came to Stay", including vivid description of her feminist Philosophy and sexuality (citation page from 374-3). Sartre in 1952 initiates the famous influential magazine "Les Temps Moderns". At a later stage the infatuation of the couple with communist Russia continues to new heights; during a visit to Tashkent according to Simone De Beauvoir Sartre experiences a minor stroke. After his return to Paris he sleeps more and is slow in his speech. While on tour of Brazil, a rightwing French organization, OAS (Organization Arme Secrete) launches extremist propaganda against the couple at home. Five thousand protesters shout death to Sartre on the Algerian issue; the couple has no choice but to escape to Cuba for a while. Returning home is a media event; they immediately go into hiding under police protection. In 1963 their neighborhood and subsequently, apartment is bombed by rightwing extremists as grim reminder of how unpleasant home can become for honest intellectuals in critical times. According to Jones International Union of Writers during the cold war was a KGB front in the western world (90% penetrated by KGB, citation from page 410, we are not told how the figure was calculated). Lena Zonina, Sartre interpreter of Russian language is a bait from KGB to control the great man. Jones goes a little overboard when she narrates that Sartre masturbates in Moscow while waiting for Lena Zonina (citation page from 424). We don't know how the author arrived at this specific conclusion from her impressive list of sources. The reason probably is author's attempt to present the book as a movie script like the Oscar-winning movie on the life of Capote "In Cold Blood". The trick is perfectly justified if acknowledged in the right spirit and with the right intention by the author. I would have respected the great man differently though.

In 1964 Sartre refuses the Nobel Prize which costs him 26 million Francs.  He biographer has once again mildly slipped into English-French bias and quoted the obvious wrong explanation for this: the desire for Zonina, the desire for media attention, and a secret KGB liaison as alleged causes; overlooking the great man's magnanimity and authenticity as other probable even genuine causes. In Sartre's interview, after the polite refusal to accept Nobel Prize, says that it was not meritorious and doesn't include authors from across the Iron Curtain. His consistency and credentials as a leftwing writer can hardly be questioned on the basis of well publicized works as president of Russell's "War Crimes Tribunal" over the Vietnam War and exchanges of hostile letters with French President Chares De Gaulle, championing of workers' rights and incredulity towards the bourgeois is beyond dispute. In 1968 Sartre legally adopts 28 years old Arlette, according to Seymour Jones, the cobra (Sartre) incestuous fantasies have found fulfillment as there are rumors of Arlette's pregnancy.

The last years of Sartre ill-health are characterized as a struggle for Simone De Beauvoir to make him cut down on his drinking. On 17 March 1980, when she comes over to awake him, his condition is not good. He is immediately taken to intensive care of Broussais Hospital where his condition is diagnosed as Pulmonary Edema. Sartre on his deathbed asks for whisky from Jean Poulline and worries about who will pay for his funeral cost. On 14 April 1980 at 9:00 PM he is declared to have passed away. Two journalists break into the hospital room invading the family privacy; they are immediately caught and removed. Sartre's death like his life becomes a controversial media event. De Beauvoir later writes "You will be put in box wherefrom you will never come out, we will never communicate again, even if I am buried beside you or our ashes mingle". He is buried in the place about which he said "In the cemetery, old grave effaces the tragedy of long forgotten death". Under French laws, after Sartre's death his apartment is sealed for tax deduction purposes, his only remains are stick furniture, papers and a huge debt; a perfect end to the life of a true proletarian.

Five years later on the same day 14 April 1985 Simone De Beauvoir dies of the same, lungs condition pulmonary edema, and is buried next to Sartre. A huge gathering of about 5000 friends and admirers follows the coffin to the grave.  The gossip will be forgotten in few years but the legends and great ideas will live longer. French Philosophy and Literature starved after Voltaire till the 20th century, but due to the contribution from the queen and king of French Existentialism, the waiter in the café, the chestnut tree will live in the imaginations of millions of readers for ever.


© 2012 Samin Khan


Samin Khan works as Assistant Director of Higher Education in Government of KPK Pakistan and Lectures on Philosophy


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