(Three new covers)
To begin with—what one doesn't see, in this photo, is proper scale.
To put aside metaphoric scale for the time being, Sartre was reputedly only four feet eleven inches tall. A real shrimp. Simone de Beauvoir, the philosopher, feminist theorist and activist, ("Femmes, vous lui devez tout!" "Women, you owe her everything!" proclaimed Le Nouvel Observateur upon her death in 1986), writer of fiction, and perhaps co-author of some of Sartre's works—was taller than Sartre was. And a good deal more attractive.
She seems the smaller of the two people in the photo, but it is de Beauvoir here who seizes our attention…
Aside from being central in the frame, her gaze contains the photograph's "punctum." (Roland Barthes: "The punctum is the accident which pricks me—but also bruises me, is poignant to me.") She is both the literal center, and the emotional center of the picture.
Her eyes bore into Sartre—or do they? For the longest time I thought she was focused on the photographer/the viewer. (Did d. B. have a stray eye as Sartre did? Her right eye seems aimed at us, her left at him) But now I think she is fully focused on Sartre. And assessing him. And the assessment seems to me none too flattering. The left side of her mouth curls up with tension. She grasps one of her hands with the other; as if inhibiting herself from gesturing as he does. The pose looks casual—but isn't.
What is bothering her? is it the fact that she has assumed a role, literally, in the background? That she is caught mute, and he conversationally, in media res? Is her reaction, her intensity, due to the fact that, pointedly, Sartre's focus rests squarely on a third party? It is impossible to view this photograph without seeing, or at very least sensing, a triangle...
Knowing what we know about dB and JPS, it's easy to make assumptions about the photo's psychic content. Facts that seem to bear on the proceedings: 1. De Beauvoir’s greatest work, the monumental Second Sex, is nothing if not the ultimate discourse on the sidelining, the objectification and back-grounding of women. 2. This couple, notoriously maintained menages (plural) a trois. In light of these facts—DB's silence here seems deafening.
In any case, the photo's attraction derives from us watching the watcher.
-------------Photos are like memoirs. They are chronicles which not only document, but which deceive, and which sometimes reveal truths unintentionally...
When I look at any photograph of these two lifelong lovers, Sartre and de Beauvoir, I think what I've thought often when I'm in Paris and a statuesque beauty walks by with a lumpen toad of a man (think Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin), i.e. "why this loser?" These couplings simply don't make sense. To make matters worse, Sartre could be un petit con. A jerk. Ask anyone. Of course, he was "Sartre." In the sense of: the intellectual giant. So that had to add to his sexual appeal. Right? But still.
So to begin to understand what seems to be a real romantic mismatch, one could do worse than read de Beauvoir's memoir of Sartre's last ten years, Adieux, (La Cérémonie Des Adieux): which is a history of dB's and Sartre's time together and a transcript of Beauvoir's conversations with Sartre (conversations which turn extremely pointed at moments).
Importantly, this is the only book dB. wrote that Sartre did not read, edit and (one assumes) approve, first.
Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre were, of course, philosophical and spiritual soul mates. Their actual sexual/romantic co-existence was complex and fraught to say the least. It was predicated on:
1. Not formally marrying
2. Having affairs
3. The necessary disclosure of these affairs and the details thereof to one another.
It's this last bit that always strikes me as both unnecessarily cruel, but also in some sense necessary and unsurprising given that the participants in this "open" relationship were intellectuals who prided themselves on their un-averted gaze—their ability to see and acknowledge all that is difficult in life. They were both, after all, avowed existentialists.
What emerges from this text:
Much of what kept dB. and Sartre together as a couple, finally, is a deep disrespect for bourgeois notions of what a relationship should be. We take for granted that this repudiation of marital mores is what makes the French "french," but this was not in fact always the case. To some extent, Sartre and de Beauvoir helped make the "menage" a quintessentially french behavior—at least they made of it something which was, if not morally acceptable, then intellectually desirable.
In the end "the arrangement" betwixt the two seemed to cause, as these things always do, a tremendous amount of pain and lasting harm not only to the participants, but to an ever-widening circle. Call me old fashioned, but, what one wants to see, upon finishing this book, is a certain regret— a pang expressed by these two lovers at having missed out on some of the salutary aspects of monogamy. In the end, frankly, their whole deal sounds exhausting. (Again, the photo: one want to shout "Look at her: you idiot!") And its the sheer fatigue of having to maintain this complex openness that I think ultimately inhibited their intimacy.
Alexandre Dumas once wrote that "marriage is a heavy chain—it must be borne by two, or three." On the evidence of these pages, even five or six people couldn't do the job. This was one heavy chain.
If one comes away from Adieux feeling vexed by the inscrutability of dB.s attitude towards her romantic affairs, perhaps The Woman Destroyed offers some insight. This work of fiction is divided into three sections—two stories and a novella. Each an expose of a woman coming to terms with disappointment.
"The Age of Discretion," takes on aging and parenthood—a mother's conflicted feelings about her grown son; "Monologue" is a tragic tirade: a bitter and lonely middle-aged woman spills forth during a New Year's Eve celebration: and the titular story "The Woman Destroyed," the best of the three, is the diary of a woman betrayed by her husband. None of the three segments are what you'd call "feel-good" reads. Put another way: nobody, after reading this book, will want to age into a "femme rompue." It is decidedly NOT a good thing to be. (One assumes that there is something of dB in each of these these women. Though none of them seems to possess de Beauvoir's stamina and fortitude. Maybe they are the women she wishes she could be? Expressing, as they do, their anger and regret? Perhaps this is going too far.)
Nevertheless there is much to learn here. These (more or less) tragic characters stick in the mind, provide a way in to dB's philosophical work, and show little glimpses of the woman behind the public persona .
"You do not die from being born, nor from having lived, nor from old age. You die from something . . . Cancer, thrombosis, pneumonia: it is as violent and unforeseen as an engine stopping in the middle of the sky . . ."
From de Beauvoir's beautiful, insightful, incandescently painful memoir of her mother's sickness and passing: A Very Easy Death, published in 1964. This book should be required reading for, well, for everyone; but most certainly required reading for anyone who has ever lost a parent (A demographic which will include, eventually, everyone). This book should also be a curriculum staple in every medical school. Doctors should read every word of it, twice. A Very Easy Death should be on the MCAT.
As D. Beauvoir recounts the illness, treatment and death of her mother, all facets of the experience are covered: the personal (bereavment, filial duty); the broadly metaphysical (ontology, ethics); but most importantly the clinical (palliative care, disclosure, euthanasia...) and the impact these clinical decisions have on the lives of the families of the ill—the care takers.
How much care is too much care?
Where does the patient end, and the illness begin?
How much information should be disclosed to the dying?
To say that the book covers material that is still extremely relevant is to gloss over the more uncomfortable fact that, confoundedly, these topics are still not discussed rationally in the public arena.
Those who earn their keep writing about the vicissitudes of health, and health care owe de Beauvoir a debt of gratitude. Specifically those who write the literary, non-fictional, clinical, patient-centered health care narratives which are so popular these days (written, more often than not, from the M.D.'s perspective). Which is to say that not only was the Susan Sontag of Illness as Metaphor made possible by this little book, but also Atul Gawande was made possible by this little book; Abraham Verghese was made possible by this little book; Joan Didion's last two books were made possible by this little book...
I wish I had known of A Very Easy Death when my own father was succumbing, with excruciating slowness, to cancer over twenty years ago. I was a teen, and it wasn't given to me to understand that the obstacles me and my family were facing were universal obstacles. This book would have given me, if not necessarily solace, then...what exactly? Perhaps the feeling of being less alone.
A brief word on the cover designs. They are not exactly based on, but inspired by the affiches and wall stencils from the 1968 riots in Paris.
I was intending to use this style for my repackaging of the Julio Cortazar backlist (to be revealed at a later date) but in the end it seemed somehow more fitting for these late works of dB's. If you are interested in seeing more of these posters you can purchase a gorgeous book called "la beaute est dans la rue."
I wanted a style that had a certain directness—and I liked the idea of co-opting the visual language of revolution for a writer who was nothing if not (philosophically, politically) revolutionary. Also the style is more or less temporally and geographically correct. The simplicity of the style made it possible for me, with my limited skills, to make them myself.
I also wanted covers that weren't overtly sexed. (Not covers that were un-"sexual," but rather covers that were unfixed on the male/female axis). I certainly did not want to use any of the tropes normally given to "woman writers." (Another post on this topic for another time)
A propos of ugliness and beauty, the cover for The Woman Destroyed is as close as I've ever come to a "jolie-laide" cover. And I kind of love it because of that. I've certainly made ugly covers before; and I hope that I've made pretty ones. But it's the coexistence of both attributes that makes me happy here.
 In Camera Lucida, Barthes postulates that a photo contains "the co-presence of two discontinuous elements."
 Interestingly, from the perspective of philosophical semiosis: the shadow of a lamp completes the composition.
 De Beauvoir: "To ask two spouses bound by practical, social and moral ties to satisfy each other sexually for their whole lives is pure absurdity."
 Not that the French haven't always been disposed to take lovers, but rather: the very philosophical systematization of this complex pas de trois I think of as uniquely Beauvoir-Sartrian.
 All good fiction writers are "philosophers." Occasionally, a good writer will be, in fact, a philosopher. Which is to say, first and foremost a philosopher. Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir all fall into this camp. Whether the philosophy makes the fiction more or less compelling is a question for another time. What's nice about this book is that one gets the sense of dB's philosophy without having to wade through all that pesky Hegelian dialectic.
 In America at least
 As an aside: Roland Barthes' Mourning Diary makes an interesting counterpoint to de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death…