Paragons of bad faith

<strong>A Dangerous Liaison</strong>

Carole Seymour-Jones <em>Century, 392pp, £20</em>

This fascinating yet deeply troubling double biography looks at the lives of the 20th century’s most notorious intellectual double act, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, from the perspective of their sex lives. They rejected the hypocrisy of bourgeois marriage, but the experiment in “free” love that they replaced it with was cold and sordid. A distinction between their “essential” love and merely “contingent” sex with others hid the cruelty that led them to betray each other and exploit young women.

In occupied France, an analogous distinction between “essential” resistance and “contingent” compromises with the Vichy regime leaves the reader asking how much of their philosophy was self-justification. Although Sartre was a borderline collaborator, he later portrayed himself as an active resister while denigrating his erstwhile friend and genuine anti-fascist Albert Camus. Sartre then converted to Soviet-style communism just when tales of the Gulag had become impossible to ignore.

The couple’s truly emancipatory philosophy emphasised the ethical responsibility that falls upon the individual in a godless universe. But in trying to lead exemplary lives they came unstuck and ended up as paragons of bad faith.

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything