This post was prompted by my re-reading Simone de Beauvoir's Letters to Sartre, translated and edited by Quentin Hoare, a book with a permanent place of my bookshelf, acquired many years ago, and one which I re-read from time to time, as I age.
Simone and the love of her life, Jean-Paul Sartre (and she his), were both atheist existentialists, prolific philosophers, writers, theorist and Marxists. Sartre also wrote several plays (in 1964, he was awared the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he did not accept) and de Beauvoir's work, The Second Sex, is widely aclaimed as foundational to today's notions of feminism.
Whatever you think of their philosophy and politics (and I have a lot of say on that, very separate subject), theirs was a great love, perhaps in a version to which many of us would not subscribe (see more below) but without question, it was deep, enduring and intense.
Much has been written about Sartre's and de Beauvoir's union, in both kind and unkind words. Much of that praise and criticims followed the publication of their letters to each other, hundreds of letters literally, written sometimes several times a day. The majority of de Beauvoir's letters to Sartre were published posthumously and many opine that these letters shed a fresh and rather revisionist light on the image they cultivated, of themselves and of each other, during their lives. My commentary on such opinions is a subject for another day - for the moment, I wish to celebrate this objectively enduring union, multi-dimensional, complex and profound.
Sartre and de Beauvoir met in 1929 and remained together until their deaths in 1980 and 1986, respectively.
For them, "together" had a unique meaning - they lived in a philosophically and emotionally committed relationship but entirely open in a sexual sense. Sartre and de Beauvoir had lovers of their own and even lovers they shared (de Beauvoir was involved with several women during her lifetime) and they related to each other, including in writing, the details of these external relationships (for to call them simply flings would be unaccurate and unfair to their true depth. Some of these relationship had important emotional components). Without question, this openess added a challenging dimension to their union and while it would be easy to dismiss it as simply selfish and convenient for both and each of them, I think the truth of their influence on their love for each other is far more complex. Their committment to each other was so "essential", it was undisturbed by the presence of others in their lives, including sexually.
Sartre and de Beauvoir never married and did not have any children together.
Simone's letters to Sartre are prolific and they cover a wide variety of subjects but they are, most essentially "love letters". In fact, each of Sartre and de Beauvoir wrote to the other with tenderness, longing (when they were not together), and passion. Simone called their relationship the greatest achievement of her life and while many dismiss this statement as demonstrative of her inferior role in their relationship, I do not agree. Why take away from Simone the right and, importantly, the ability to make that assessment free of Sartre's or society's "undue" influence on her?
Sartre and de Beauvoir are buried together, at Pere Lachaise Cemetary in Paris. They were both ardent atheists so in their lifetimes, they might not have believed they would end up together, in heaven, but I am a sucker for a good ending (not to mention that I believe in heaven) so I do say: their love endures, up there, somewhere, up high...