Chapter 4: Bad Faith and de Beauvoir’s Gendered Self

In light of both Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s theories, outlined above, concerning freedom, love, and the other, we cannot help but be both shocked and confused by their accounts of their own love, as they expressed themselves to each other in their letters. De Beauvoir continually refers to Sartre with such terms as “my life’s own self,” claiming, “we really are one person, my beloved” (LTS 45,50). Sartre, in turn, affirms this sentiment when he tells de Beauvoir, “You, you are truly me. My love, we are simply one, despite the distance, and that gives me a great deal of strength” (WTML 233). Rather than recognize the necessary otherness of the other, each of them constantly dissolves the boundaries of self in their letters when describing their love and their relationship. Drawing on this experience, and reflecting upon this experience, Sartre, I will argue, further develops his thoughts concerning bad faith, while de Beauvoir departs from Sartre in her analysis of love and the importance of situation in the creation of individual female identity, what Pilardi has called the “gendered self” (SDBNOS 230).

This chapter will show the external limitations placed on the project of authenticity which Sartrean existentialism fails to adequately address and which de Beauvoir focuses on in her analysis of women in The Second Sex. First, I will further show the extent to which Sartre and de Beauvoir acknowledge the dissolution of their boundaries of self, becoming a unified self, and the way in which they each claim to live completely for the other. As this complicates things for Sartre, I will explain how this conflict between his understanding of complete individual freedom and his believed union with de Beauvoir leads him to his notion of bad faith and its unavoidability. But even bad faith is not sufficient in describing this tension.

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir acknowledges this conflict only briefly in terms of bad faith before breaking from Sartrean existentialism to find a more complete solution. Acknowledging her unequal status with regard to her union with Sartre in their relationship, I will argue, de Beauvoir gains an insight into the condition of women’s situation as one which restricts their project for authenticity and transcendence. With this emphasis on situation as a limiting factor for transcendence, de Beauvoir breaks from existentialism, which has proven inadequate in handling the conflict she and Sartre notice in their own relationship. Thus, I will show how it is in the understanding of her relationship and dialogue with Sartre that de Beauvoir finds both the need to rethink her conception of authenticity and a method with which to proceed in her own way.

If in their later philosophies, the authentic self must, to remain in good faith, both embrace its own freedom and the freedom of the other, the letters of Sartre and de Beauvoir show a love which appears to be experienced in conflict with these theories which would follow. Rather than live for herself and embrace her freedom as a freedom, de Beauvoir tells Sartre that their love and communication is the reason for her existence. This sentiment is exceptionally noticeable in their epistolary exchange in September of 1939. She tells him, “Everything I live through is lived through in order to tell you about it, so that it makes a little enrichment of your own life” (LTS 71). And Sartre is responsive to this purpose, telling her, “It’s good of you to write to me at such length each time, it feels as though I am living everything you tell me” (WTML 262). Following this statement of purpose Sartre and de Beauvoir each tell the other that the other is not only the object of their actions, but also their reason for existence.

De Beauvoir tells Sartre, “You’re my life, my happiness, and my self. You’re everything for me” (LTS 83). Sartre takes this confession a step further in a response to a similar statement of de Beauvoir’s. “When you wrote you would not survive me if there were some disaster, I felt a profound peace,” Sartre writes, “I wouldn’t like to leave you behind, not because you’d be a free little consciousness sauntering around the world and I’d be jealous, but because you’ve persuaded me you would be in an absurd world” (WTML 241). Elaborating shortly after, Sartre claims, “I’ve never felt so intently that you are me. . . . when two people have lived together for ten years, and thought with each other and for each other, without anything serious ever coming between them, it has to be more than love” (242). Each speaks of the other as their own self rather than as the other.

While it may seem as though both Sartre and de Beauvoir say the same thing in their declarations of love, there are some significant subtleties in the above statements. De Beauvoir claims to live to write her experiences to Sartre, and Sartre feels her living for him. Even his confession, “Everything that happens to me I immediately want to tell you,” does not express the same sentiment provided by de Beauvoir’s, “Everything I live through is lived through in order to tell you about it” (WTML 261, LTS 71 emphasis mine). And, when de Beauvoir mentions that Sartre is everything for her, Sartre affirms the absurdity of the world for her if he should not exist. These subtle, but characteristic and significant, differences require elaboration, an elaboration which I will pursue at length further below in my discussion of de Beauvoir and her understanding of the gendered self in The Second Sex. But first I will discuss the general feeling of the two sides of correspondence together, evaluating their accounts of their experience in terms of Sartre’s developing notion of bad faith.

Though at times Sartre’s remarks remain consistent with his academic view of love and freedom, writing such things as, “I love you dearly, as a person who is not me,” he may include in the same letter remarks such as, “I never ceased feeling one with you deep inside” (122). It may be argued that such a statement is more “romantic” than genuine, that here Sartre merely writes a love letter, offering the typical prose of a typical love letter without actually feeling it. This, of course, would be quite easy for Sartre to accomplish with someone other than de Beauvoir. At one point he even tells de Beauvoir of a letter he has written to someone else “in the ‘great lover’ style with which you’re familiar” (QMIAW 33). But although de Beauvoir is familiar with this style, she also understands that it is not the style with which Sartre addresses her. When he tells her, “we are truly one, my little flower, truly one,” he carefully qualifies his words by adding, “These aren’t just ‘tokens of affection,’ what I’m writing here,” thus distinguishing his letters to her from the “tokens of affection” written to others in the “great lover” style (55). And if these words are not “tokens of affection,” if Sartre does in fact believe them (or feel them) to be true, then they seem to be a prime example of what Sartre himself would call “bad faith.”

As I have noted in previous chapters, Sartre understands bad faith as “a lie to oneself” (BN 48). And, as Sartre has also insisted that “I must necessarily possess a certain comprehension of my freedom,” any denial of this freedom, or of the freedom of others, must be in bad faith (485). “Bad faith,” Sartre explains, “seeks to flee the in-itself by means of the inner disintegration of my being” (70). In this flight, as we have seen de Beauvoir add, one practicing bad faith may seek a foundation in an other, thus “[losing] himself in the object in order to annihilate his own subjectivity” (EOA 45). Clearly, when Sartre writes to de Beauvoir, “I love you, who are me,” he is fleeing his own subjectivity, seeking a union with de Beauvoir which denies his own freedom as well has her freedom (WTML 252). Being in love, experiencing it for himself, Sartre feels this union. And though he comprehends his own freedom, he lies to his own consciousness to escape his feeling of abandonment which would ultimately keep him separated from his beloved, de Beauvoir. Recognizing this conflict through his relationship with de Beauvoir, as he experiences it alongside his theoretical development of freedom, Sartre reaches the conclusion, “most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith” (BN 556).

De Beauvoir’s own philosophy was also affected by these same themes and the manner in which they played out in her relationship with Sartre. Most importantly, in The Second Sex, she refers to the “Woman In Love,” who flees the anguish of her own freedom into the object of her beloved (SS 642). Ironically, in seeking union with this man, her “bad faith raises barriers between her and the man she adores,” as she “misunderstands his freedom” and declines to recognize her own (655). While this claim seems to follow on the heels of a Sartrean existentialism that acknowledges historicity but continually stresses ultimate freedom, in her own analysis, de Beauvoir goes beyond this view to establish her own theory, which stresses situation as an important role in the creation of a gendered self, a self whose freedom is indeed restricted by its facticity. While “The Ethics of Ambiguity stressed the use of one’s freedom and the respect of freedom of others as the core of morality,” Pilardi notes, in The Second Sex de Beauvoir “progressed from heroic assertions of freedom and vague acknowledgments of facticity to the actual details from which freedom and facticity are present for a whole gender” (SDBNOS 67,77). I now intend to show how de Beauvoir’s own relationship with Sartre, her philosophical as well as emotional dialogue, directly influenced the development of her thoughts concerning this concept of the gendered self.4

Though “we know that the starting-point of Beauvoir’s writing of The Second Sex was her decision to write about her own life,” Pilardi clarifies that de Beauvoir also “claimed that the direct confrontation with the issue of women’s condition and the production of what she called ‘femininity’ in The Second Sex did not occur as a direct analysis of her own life” (SDBNOS 76, 227). And, more specifically, she has insisted on the equality of her relationship with Sartre. In an interview with Alice Schwarzer, de Beauvoir claims,

the problem [of gendered inequality] never arose, because there is nothing of the oppressor about Sartre. If I’d loved someone other than Sartre, I would never have let myself be oppressed. . . . I don’t think that, given the way of life we have chosen, I have often had to play the female role (Schwarzer 37,59).

However, though she openly denies the implication of her relationship with Sartre under her analysis in The Second Sex, in de Beauvoir’s Letters To Sartre (as well as in his letters to her), one cannot help but recognize the many ways in which their relationship (during the period on which this paper focuses) appears to exemplify the relationship of love as articulated in her chapter entitled “The Woman in Love” in The Second Sex.

The “Woman in Love” chapter begins with de Beauvoir’s assertion, “The word love has by no means the same sense for both sexes,” and her further explanation, “It is the difference in their situations that is reflected in the difference men and women show in their conceptions of love” (SS 642,643). Here, de Beauvoir clearly makes a move beyond Sartrean existentialism and even her own perspective in The Ethics of Ambiguity, in which she followed Sartre in stressing the absolute freedom of consciousness to define itself. While we have seen de Beauvoir’s emphasis in The Ethics of Ambiguity on “man’s project toward freedom” as “embodied for him in definite acts of behavior,” in The Second Sex she would retain the terminology and groundwork of existentialism to emphasize woman’s situation as an unavoidable restriction on this previously absolute and universal capacity to will one’s own freedom (EOA 78).

Understanding man as the essential subject, capable of transcendence, de Beauvoir speaks of woman as the inessential object, a relative Other, doomed to immanence:

The individual who is a subject, who is himself, if he has the courageous inclination toward transcendence, endeavors to extend his grasp on the world: he is ambitious, he acts. But an inessential creature is incapable of sensing the absolute at the heart of her subjectivity; a being doomed to immanence cannot find self realization in acts (SS 643).

In such a situation, Pilardi notes, the “female-for-itself can’t transcend, due not to an internal problem, for example, bad faith–Sartre’s famous case–but to external conditions” (SDBNOS 62). For Sartre, as every consciousness is its own nothingness and therefore has an equal opportunity for free self-creation and transcendence, all that stands in the way of this project is consciousness itself through its own bad faith.

By emphasizing the importance of an external situation, de Beauvoir breaks from Sartrean existentialism, distinguishing differences between men and women with regard to their hopes for complete freedom. The woman in love, in particular, exemplifies the manner in which women are taught to give up their own transcendence, subordinating themselves to the essential male subject. De Beauvoir adds,

Shut up in the sphere of the relative, destined to the male from childhood,habituated to seeing in him a superb being whom she cannot possibly equal, the woman who has not repressed her claim to humanity will dream of transcending her being toward one of these superior beings, of amalgamating herself with the sovereign subject. There is no other way out for her than to lose herself, body and soul, in him who is represented to her as the absolute, as the essential (SS 643).

While this flight from the freedom of the self into the object of the other could indeed be described simply as an example of bad faith. De Beauvoir herself refers to this existential theory, albeit briefly, when mentioning a letter written to Victor Hugo by his lover, Juliette Drouet, who “dreams of reconciling liberty and love: ‘I would at once be independent and enslaved'” (SS 662). To this, de Beauvoir comments, “It is characteristic of bad faith to permit passionate and contradictory affirmations” (662). But, as we have seen, de Beauvoir’s critique goes beyond this internal explanation to show the situational impediments (not just “lies to oneself”) for the transcendence of an entire gender.

Despite de Beauvoir’s claim that her analysis of the condition of woman in The Second Sex was not directly brought about from reflection on personal experience, her earlier letters to Sartre provide evidence to suggest otherwise. She refers directly to the typical love letter in The Second Sex this way:

The hackneyed theme: “To feel so little in your arms, my love,” recurs again and again in amorous dialogue and love letters. “Baby mine,” croons the lover, the woman calls herself “your little one,” and so on. A woman will write: “When will he come, he who can dominate me?” And when he comes, she will love to sense his manly superiority (SS 645).

In this passage alone, de Beauvoir addresses two important points concerning the woman in love, specifically with regard to their expression in “amorous dialogue” or in love letters. First, the woman in love feels small and enveloped in the self of the man, her own self becoming a possession of his. Second, de Beauvoir mentions the woman’s love of “his manly superiority,” thus accepting herself as an inferior being and relying upon the lover for domination. In her own “amorous dialogue,” both of these points appear quite overtly, though here they are not yet presented as a critique. I will now focus on de Beauvoir herself as “the woman in love,” in her relationship with Sartre, exposing her own experience with each of these points. Through this analysis, I intend to show how her own experience and her own “amorous dialogue” provided her with the initial insight into the female situation necessary to begin The Second Sex.

Though de Beauvoir continually refers to Sartre as “my dear little one,” thus suggesting a possible reversal of gender positions outlined in the above passage from The Second Sex, she refers to herself as still smaller, writing an account of her love which bears a remarkable resemblance to the above passage: “I feel your affection strongly, oh! so strongly, as though you were folding me in your little arms–my dear love” (LTS 178). In writing this, she uses the very “hackneyed theme” which she would find so damaging in The Second Sex, making herself small in comparison to the larger, stronger male. Sartre himself would assume the union of their two selves, but without appearing to give his own self completely up. He writes, “I love you, you who are me” (WTML 252). But he realizes this understanding not as giving himself over to her (he does not say “I am you”), but as somehow subsuming her identity within his own. When de Beauvoir writes to him, “I’d so like to have a long time of our life together, and see with you the people you choose to see. But I’ll do exactly as you wish, of course,” Sartre responds, “Oh, yes, my dear love, you are living my life for me, make no mistake about it (LTS 91, WTML 278, emphasis in original). Here, Sartre and de Beauvoir each admit to a complete union, though quite obviously not a complete equality as de Beauvoir would later have us believe.

Of course, as “existentialists,” Sartre and de Beauvoir always, at least publicly, expressed opposition to such a complete union, a union socially exemplified in the institution of marriage. Marriage, understood existentially, proposes to join two free selves into one heading, thus denying the freedom, the fundamental nothingness, of each self and limiting the potential for transcendence of each for-itself. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir identifies this problem as more significantly dangerous to women. She writes, “If the wife is herself exclusively the amorous type . . . only the presence of her husband lifts her from the limbo of ennui” (SS 661). Because of her situation, marriage expects this of women significantly more then for men. Thus, Pilardi notes, for the woman in love, “traditional marriage will be the imprisonment of the self, at least of the self gendered as woman” (SDBNOS 202). For these reasons, the existential and the gendered, Sartre and de Beauvoir would never “traditionally” marry. However, their relationship itself did not succeed in completely avoiding these difficulties.

Though de Beauvoir and Sartre never officially married, they referred to themselves quite often in terms of marriage. When de Beauvoir mentions, “Saturday’s precisely our anniversary,” she refers to the “morganatic marriage” she has had with Sartre for the past ten years (LTS 109). Sartre elaborates, “when you receive this letter it will be exactly ten years since we were married morganatically, and . . . My dearest love, I immediately renew the lease for ten years” (WTML 280). So, they did have at least a type of marriage between them, as Sartre would say such things to her as, “Your little husband loves you” (331). Now, de Beauvoir does make an exception in her description of marriage, in a footnote to The Second Sex, “It is a different matter if the woman has found her independence in marriage; then love between husband and wife can be a free exchange by two beings who are each self-sufficient,” providing the possibility for a marriage to escape the difficulties of a “traditional marriage” (SS 661). However, though not a “traditional marriage,” the relationship of Sartre and de Beauvoir did not escape the problems of a traditional marriage.

It is interesting and significant that they used the word “morganatic” to describe their relationship, a word usually reserved to mean a royal marriage in which neither the wife nor the offspring of the marriage receive rights to her husband’s wealth in the event of is death. But it does seem a fitting name for their relationship, considering their account of it. In their “morganatic marriage,” Sartre and de Beauvoir succumbed to the essential difficulties inherent in the traditional marriage and incorporated the problems of a morganatic marriage. In other words, they did occupy unequal positions in their relationship and yet also believed in the unifying of their two selves under the term “we.”

De Beauvoir and Sartre each speak of their relationship using the term “we,” de Beauvoir writing to Sartre, “We’re as one–I feel that at every instant,” and Sartre content in responding, “We are simply one, my dear little Beaver” (LTS 61, WTML 268). Both de Beauvoir and Sartre feel strength in this understood oneness, this “we.” De Beauvoir writes of “this strength of our love that I feel between us, this close bond uniting us amid all this gloom,” identifying Sartre as “not variable matter,” but as “the base, which dulls the worst sorrows and makes joy so easily possible. . . . you’re my strength, my assurance, and the source of all good things” (LTS 37). This strength, and the view of the lover as everything good and assuring, epitomizes the woman in love as de Beauvoir describes her in The Second Sex:

The supreme happiness of the woman in love is to be recognized by the loved man as a part of himself; when he says “we,” she is associated and identified with him, she shares his prestige and reigns with him over the rest of the world; she never tires of repeating–even to excess–the delectable “we” (SS 653).

De Beauvoir, as the woman in love, felt this happiness and assurance in the “we” which described her relationship with Sartre. And, though she was to claim that following Sartre was a product of her own freedom, she relinquished much of her own self and belittled much of her own thought under “the delectable ‘we'” she had with Sartre.

In The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir writes of the “we” formed between them as a unification of their selves, and thus their thoughts on all issues:

Very conveniently I persuaded myself that a foreordained harmony existed between us on every single point. “We are,” I declared, “as one.” This absolute certainty meant that I never went against my instinctive desires; and when, on two occasions, our desires clashed, I was completely flabbergasted (POL 118).

Treating Sartre as the necessary absolute, this foreordained harmony meant more that de Beauvoir would agree with Sartre than vice versa. Though they each actively pursued the same questions of freedom and authenticity, in the end, de Beauvoir readily (at least publicly and officially) embraced the position at which Sartre had arrived. As a major feminist leader, due largely to The Second Sex, many feminist critics noticed this ready subordination to Sartre. In her defense to follow Sartre, Pilardi notes, “she neatly if unconvincingly insists that it was indeed a use of her freedom to acknowledge his superiority and freely follow him philosophically” (SDBNOS 230). This position is unconvincing, especially when viewed in light of her actions and her letters to Sartre.

In her letters, de Beauvoir continually belittles her own ideas, deferring to the thoughts developed by Sartre. She tells Sartre of an experience with a woman who “told me I must find it disagreeable when you changed your theories in which I’d placed my trust, and I’d answered: ‘I change a few too–it adds a bit of variety to one’s life and I quite like that'” (LTS 221). Sartre changed his theories often and with great importance, while de Beauvoir “changed a few too” to add “variety” to her life. As the woman in love, de Beauvoir looked to Sartre as a foundation to be associated with, a necessary “we” in which Sartre was the necessary and essential, while de Beauvoir seemed to be the inconsequential, the inessential. She writes to him, “My love, it’s not just our relations that you’ve accomplished–it truly is your life, your principles, and my own life as an indirect consequence” (LTS 103). Giving the significance of the principles they both agreed upon (as “we”) completely to Sartre, while calling her own life an “indirect consequence,” enabled de Beauvoir to subordinate herself to the “we” formed by she and Sartre, allowing his philosophy to justify her own self as well, and to give her identity as a “Sartrean.”

Abandoning her self to this “we,” during the war (after Sartre’s duty concluded) de Beauvoir justified her writing of philosophical articles under the byline of Jean-Paul Sartre with the observation that, as she put it, “he was too busy” (Bair 293). Bair observes, “if Sartre had been too busy to write these articles, she was certainly an appropriate substitute. So the question remained as to why she had not signed her own name to them” (294). When asked this very question, de Beauvoir simply responded, “It was Sartre. Anyway, what did it matter whose name it was? Someone had to write them” (294). Here, Sartre’s name stood for both of them, substituting his primary name for the “we” de Beauvoir saw it to represent. De Beauvoir was, and would always be, his first reader and “little judge” of his work (WTML 308). But this relationship, though Sartre usually was also her first reader, was not equal or completely reciprocal. When it came to defining their philosophies, de Beauvoir would defer to Sartre, and tend to devalue or not recognize the important developments she herself made.

“But in 1944,” Bair comments, “Simone de Beauvoir began to discover that if she wanted to continue to believe in the infallibility of their pact she would have to think about herself in another way” (Bair 294). During this time, de Beauvoir began to understand herself, at least provisionally, as her own self, who made choices independent of Sartre. In The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir describes this period:

I was led to revise certain postulates which hitherto I had thought we were agreed upon, and told myself it was wrong to bracket myself and another person in that equivocal and all-too-handy word “we.” There were some experiences that each individual lived through alone (POL 223).

Recognizing, in this same work, “I had ceased to exist on my own account, and was now a mere parasite” de Beauvoir began to realize her dependence upon Sartre and the extent to which she had given up her own self (POL 223). And, it would seem, as a result of this recognition, de Beauvoir notices, “that from this point on I always had ‘something to say'” (Bair 297). And, she would have her own written philosophical contributions, to which she would sign her own name, as The Ethics of Ambiguity was published in 1947, and The Second Sex followed in 1949.

Pilardi raises the questions, “how did she minimize her own contributions while acknowledging Sartre’s? In what ways was she, too, philosophically and politically creative, as she describes Sartre to be?” (SDBNOS 230). To this she adds, “Further, in what ways did her own thinking lead his along new paths? These last questions can be asked against Beauvoir’s own protestations” (230). While, I sought to provide answers to the last of these questions in chapters 2 and 3 of this paper, in the present chapter I have worked towards answering the first of them. Pilardi herself answers this last question quite appropriately with her own observations of de Beauvoir’s contribution of “the companionate self” in The Second Sex:

The “we” that Beauvoir formed through her relationship with Sartre, what I call “the companionate self,” . . . appears to be opposed to the existentialist notion of the self as a subject marked by individual choice, responsibility, and freedom. This “we” becomes the clearest indication of the mismatch between the existential self and the gendered self (SDBNOS 219).

And, we have also noticed, also against de Beauvoir’s own protestations, the manner in which her “amorous dialogue” with Sartre was itself invaluable in providing her with an understanding of the gendered self as it is experienced in the situation of the woman in love. Through her relationship with Sartre, she first experienced this situation, and then grew to understand that she had her own contributions to make regarding the pursuit of authenticity for the female gender. She “had something to say,” and she would use her own name.