Friday, September 30, 2016

The Prime of Life V

I got so tired of the remainder of the book that I skimmed it. The period in this section includes the German invasion and occupation of northern France and Vichy France to the south, from 1940 to the end of the occupation in 1944. Sartre initially joined the army, was captured and was subsequently released. He wrote the philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness and the plays No Exit and The Flies. By the end of the war de Beauvoir and Sartre had begun to travel in wider artistic circles. They socialized with Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet and befriended Albert Camus. Sartre became more politically-minded than he had been previously and hoped to steer France in a socialistic direction after the war. This is the same territory covered at the beginning of The Mandarins.

Because de Beauvoir's descriptions in this volume seemed inadequate from the beginning, I looked briefly into other biographical sources in order to get a better sense of what actually went on. Although she makes veiled references to it, she has elided practically all of the considerable sexual activity that was taking place within her circle at the time. I can understand to some extent why she would do this. There is the element of privacy, and most of the people were still alive when she wrote the book. However, this is supposed to be a memoir, and I find it unacceptable that she glosses over facts that more clearly illustrate the nature of her relationship with Sartre than she succeeds in doing otherwise. She repeatedly states that the relationship was at the core of her life, yet in the book he comes across as some guy whom she sees – every once in a while –  to discuss their writing. Fortunately, their literary executors have since released many of their letters, which reveal that Sartre had a tremendous sexual appetite for pretty young women, preferably virgins, and that de Beauvoir played a significant role in finding and grooming them for him. De Beauvoir herself had sexual contact with them but does not seem to have been a lesbian or bisexual, though one author speculates that she may have had erotic interactions far earlier with her childhood friend, Zaza. Apparently Sartre had as many as nine mistresses at a time, and some of them were unaware of the others. Sartre and de Beauvoir themselves stopped having sex early in their relationship, and it is possible to stretch things a little in order to portray them as advanced thinkers in this realm, but one must consider that de Beauvoir has deliberately covered up Sartre's activities and that some of the women who became sexually involved with him later said that they had been used and discarded. I have no interest in pursuing this vein further and am content to agree with Louis Menand's assessment in this article. The most plausible explanation for de Beauvoir's authorial choice in how to handle the activities in question is that she was playing the traditional role of supportive wife in a patriarchal society, which, though out of keeping for the author of The Second Sex, reflects who she was.

The sex part, per se, has little influence on my opinion of de Beauvoir, and I am more concerned that she chose to saddle herself with Sartre, whom I don't admire at all. I would have liked her more if she had attached herself to someone less seedy and manipulative. Beyond her academic abilities she may not have been as smart as you may think. Unfortunately, I am going to have to kick her out of my personal pantheon, where George Eliot still resides, because she reminds me too much of a Jackie Kennedy or a Nancy Reagan in her willingness to bolster a man of little merit: Kennedy was unfaithful and Reagan was not very bright. She demeaned herself by making sacrifices for Sartre, who, in my opinion, wasn't worth it. I have lost all enthusiasm for her writing and may not read any more of it. On the positive side, she is occasionally perceptive and always articulate, but on the negative side she is lacking in imagination, and, above all, the compromises that she made for Sartre found their way into her work, which diminishes her in my mind.

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