Chapter 3: Love and Freedom

The question of authenticity addressed and pursued by Sartre and de Beauvoir in their dialogue, and its relation to reflection and lived experience in-the-world, necessarily implies the development of existential conceptions of human freedom. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir addresses “what today we call . . . authenticity,” identifying as authentic all “free and true beings” (SS 241). But this conclusion comes only after Sartre and de Beauvoir spent much time working through the complex questions raised by a working existential understanding of “freedom” and “authenticity.” During their physical separation caused by Sartre’s service in the war, de Beauvoir and Sartre worked through these together, developing their individual positions or adaptations which they each would definitively publish in The Second Sex (and The Ethics of Ambiguity) and Being and Nothingness, respectively.

Focusing on authenticity as absolute freedom for creating the self, which involves the possibility and actuality of transcendence in each individual, in this chapter I will show the failure of Sartre and de Beauvoir, in their relationship, to achieve authenticity as they themselves understand it. Significant in itself, in that it helps us to see the experience which contributed to the development of Sartre’s theory of bad faith, this failure to achieve authenticity will become central in chapter 4, where I will show how de Beauvoir uses this failure to develop her notion of the gendered self, in which this failure is a common experience that is more damaging to the self gendered as female.

But first, I must establish this background in her experience with Sartre. In doing this, I will first show how central the question of freedom is to their philosophical understanding of authenticity in their own relationship. This will problematize the possibility of ultimate freedom itself, especially in the relationship of love. Since the relationship of Sartre and de Beauvoir is famous, and even infamous, as an example of existential freedom largely due to their public sexual openness, I will show the extent to which they did determine their freedom in the form of sexual liberation. But I will then show the deeper requirements for freedom under the heading of authenticity. Here, I will use their letters and their philosophies to establish authenticity as an understanding of two liberties, while showing their experience to lack this requirement for authenticity. This will enable me, in chapter 4, to adequately show the experience which led de Beauvoir to break with existentialism in The Second Sex.

Introducing the English translation of Sartre’s letters in Witness To My Life (edited by de Beauvoir), Fahnestock and MacAfee return to Sartre’s outline of his philosophical project, as he explained to de Beauvoir in one of his war letters, “Everything of course hinges on ideas of freedom, life, and authenticity” (WTML xi). Though Sartre expresses this starting point quite definitively, Fahnestock and McAfee point out:

But as he copied it out for her in December, the early version of his new philosophy is ambivalent in its promise of freedom. . . . The first vital step is there–recognition of the individual’s own facticity, like Sartre’s discovery of his life situation bounded by two wars. But as yet there is no clear picture of the personal identity achieved through making choices and acting on them, no application of the philosophy to an authentic self-determined life. Or in other words, there is no philosophic reasoning to back up Sartre’s intuition that “it’s not that man is, he does” (WTML xi-xii).

While Fahnestock and McAfee greatly exaggerate when they claim “there is no philosophic reasoning” to back up Sartre’s intuitive statement and misunderstand the purpose of his letters in even seeking an “application of the philosophy to an authentic self-determined life,” they do rightly, and significantly, observe that the letters provide “no clear picture” of a fully-developed system.

Falsely reading Sartre’s letters as “pages of philosophical essay,” Fahnestock and McAfee mistakenly seek such a clear picture, finding a monologue in Sartre’s letters in which he independently reflects on his own philosophical musings (WTML xxi). This misunderstanding ignores the dialogical nature of their letters and thus belittles de Beauvoir’s side of the correspondence, claiming that the collection of Sartre’s letters is merely “mirrored by Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre” (WTML xii,xiv). In actuality, their experience of their love, as well as their reflective dialogue concerning this experience, was crucial to the project towards a development of a “clear picture” of authenticity and human freedom, concepts which each would develop individually through their collaboration. In Sartre’s other published volume of letters to de Beauvoir, he would write, “More and more, not only you but also my relationship with you is precious” (QMIAW 90). And the execution, understanding, and discussion of their freedom within this relationship was crucial to the “clear picture” each of them would finally attempt to form.

If we look more closely at the passage to which Fahnestock and MacAfee allude, we find Sartre developing his philosophy in his journal and relying upon de Beauvoir’s response to help him form a clear picture. In December of 1939, Sartre writes to her:

here is what I wrote in my journal: “I see how metaphysics and values relate, humanism and contempt, our absolute liberty and our condition in a life unique but bounded by death, our inconsistency as creatures without a God and yet not our own makers, and our dignity, our autonomy as individuals and our historicity” (WTML 382).

After this brief description of the concept which they have been discussing together, Sartre concludes, asking for de Beauvoir’s input on this always important, yet unresolved subject:

Everything revolves naturally around ideas of liberty, life, and authenticity. Tell me whether, from the first little notebook and our conversations, you can get an inkling of what I mean. … I’ll copy it out for you, because it is extremely important and I’m sure you’d be eager to discuss it. But I think we’re on the right track (WTML 382).

And de Beauvoir does respond. Regarding this same notebook, in which Sartre laid out his ethics, de Beauvoir comments,

I’m greedy for the continuation. … I can’t comment without having read the continuation. I find everything right line by line, I only wonder how you’ll resolve it; what I must assume; and, when I assume my freedom, what I do with that assumed freedom (LTS 211).

We see that this freedom was always under question, as de Beauvoir asks Sartre the very questions posed by Fahnestock and MacAfee, proving her letters to do more than simply mirror Sartre’s. I will now examine the ways in which the couple worked through this continual question of their freedom in their experience as it is accounted for in their letters.

Reading many passages in their letters and conveniently excluding others, one can easily see how Fahnestock and McAfee could be tempted to try to find an application of existential philosophy upon their relationship, attempting, as Le Monde does, to find in it a “magnificent exercise of true freedom,” or to posit the love between Sartre and de Beauvoir as “a model of openness and honesty” in the perfect example of an existential relationship (LTS jacket). Their actions, both public and in their intimate correspondence, certainly seem to resonate with the “doctrine” which would become existentialism. But if one reads closer, one finds the doubts, the questions, and the tensions which they worked through. If their relationship was an “exercise” of freedom, it was an exercise which changed with the flow of their ideas. Their experience of freedom was obviously effected by their theories and changing ideas, but these very ideas also necessarily changed with their experience and reflections on such experience.

To those who focus on openness and understanding of sexual liberation within a relationship as exemplary of “true freedom,” the letters of de Beauvoir and Sartre offer many passages which, if read by themselves, would offer credence for such speculation. De Beauvoir tells Sartre, “I need nothing but you and a bit of freedom” (LTS 156). And this use of freedom often becomes manifest in her sexual life, as she takes advantage of their famously non-exclusive relationship. She quite nonchalantly writes to Sartre, “Something agreeable has happened to me, which I didn’t at all expect when I left–I slept with Bost three days ago” (LTS 21). To this she adds, “it’s something precious to me, something intense, but also light and easy and properly in its place in my life, simply a happy blossoming of relations that I’d always found agreeable” (21). While calling the experience intense and precious, however, de Beauvoir still refers to it as secondary to her primary relationship with Sartre. This being made clear, she feels comfortable mentioning her next sexual encounter which she is already anticipating–this time with a woman: “It strikes me as funny, on the other hand, to think that I’m now going to spend two days with Bienenfeld” (21). Even when she expresses how much she misses him while he is away, she is very specific in asking about his return: “We’ll live together again? Promiscuously?” (102). Their relationship was open to flirtations and affairs, but they always came back to each other as their strongest, most important companion.

Sartre also uses his own freedom with other sexual partners, and is even more explicit in his open accounts to de Beauvoir than she is to him. Before he goes to war, he claims that he is “resolved to use my freedom with a little style” (WTML 146). Shortly after this statement of resolve, he too would describe use of sexual freedom, in particular, which resonates with his criticism of “poor guys who have one woman only, one support, and who are extremely uneasy imagining the total liberty of that consciousness” (374). Wanting to give as full an account of a particular affair as possible, Sartre writes to de Beauvoir, “We played around together on the bed in complete silence, which shortens the account of the night. Except for sleeping with her, I did everything. As her figure rather suggests . . . she is delightful in bed” (WTML 155). After continuing to describe the woman’s body in the most minute detail, he notes her jealousy of Sartre’s commitment to de Beauvoir, “In the morning, she said, . . . ‘I’m jealous of Simone de Beauvoir. . . . I’ve always wanted to be with some guy the way you are with Simone de Beauvoir. I think it’s great'” (155). So while Sartre exercises his freedom by “playing around” with others, he constantly reminds de Beauvoir, as she does him, of her privileged position as his most cherished relationship.

In her autobiographical novel The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir would write of the philosophical distinction Sartre had made, and which she had evidently accepted, with regard to their love and their freedom to experience other relationships:

He explained the matter to me in his favorite terminology. “What we have,” he said, “is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.” We were two of a kind, and our relationship would endure as long as we did; but it could not make up entirely for the fleeting riches to be had from encounters with different people. How could we deliberately forego that gamut of emotions–astonishment, regret, pleasure, nostalgia–which we were as capable of sustaining as anyone else? We reflected on this problem a good deal during our walks together (POL 24).

As Sartre and de Beauvoir “reflected on this problem a good deal” when they walked together, the problem of love and freedom occupied a central position in their letters. But this distinction, of which they seem so fond, creates an obvious tension with their philosophies. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir defines “the essential” as the necessary or “the absolute,” associating it with the subject rather than the contingent object (SS 643).

Under these terms, then, how can two people have a love felt as essential, while remaining ultimately free individuals? When de Beauvoir admits, “I’ve thought of you almost always as yourself, separated from me–but also as the essential, undefined condition of my own life,” she exposes the tension inherent in such a complicated position (LTS 315). And, in this statement we also find the beginnings of de Beauvoir’s notion of the gendered self, in which the essential is associated with the male subject and the female is relegated to the inessential, contingent object. I will focus my attention on this gendered distinction in chapter 4 of this paper, but for now we must first examine the tensions inherent in defining a relationship as “essential,” even without regard to gendered difference.

To complicate this position simply in terms of Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s classification of their own relationship as essential, de Beauvoir also admits at times to feeling assurance in essential relationships with others. Writing of Bost, with whom she had previously so complacently described sleeping, de Beauvoir writes to Sartre, “There’s one thing of which I’m now sure, which is that Bost forms part of my future in an absolutely certain–even essential–way. . . . I want a postwar existence with him–and partly for him” (LTS 277). Here we find de Beauvoir breaking, apparently, from Sartre’s evaluation of their relationship, which she had previously accepted. De Beauvoir realizes the assumed “contingent love affair” with Bost as now “essential” in some way. This inconsistency exemplifies de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s openness to the undetermined “problem” of love and freedom, while at the same time exposing the deeper conflict found in the seemingly simple distinctions they had made between “essential love” and “contingent love affairs” and between their own love and their relationships with others.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre explains that “freedom has no essence,” since “freedom is perpetually in question in my being; it is not a quality added on or a property of my nature” (BN 438,439). Like man’s being, which is also always in question, freedom is originally a nothingness on a pre-reflective level. Thus, as consciousness continually reflects on the cogito to create itself out of this nothingness, Sartre writes,

It is also to the cogito that we appeal in order to determine freedom as the freedom which is ours, as a pure factual necessity; that is, as a contingent existent but one which I am not able not to experience. I am indeed an existent who learns his freedom through his acts, but I am also an existent whose individual and unique existence temporalizes itself as freedom (BN 439).

In this passage, we find two important points which require further elaboration. First, freedom, as a nothingness, is only realized by a human reality through the acts of a consciousness in the world. However, freedom as freedom must be determined by a reflective consciousness, not by a pre-reflective spontaneity.

Tentatively working through such concepts, Sartre writes to de Beauvoir, “human reality is consciousness first and foremost, or, to put it another way, whatever it is, it is also consciousness of being so” (WTML 396). And this consciousness itself “simply exists without any foundation. It is a sort of nothingness inherent in consciousness which we call its gratuitousness” (396). Consciousness, as a lack, establishes its freedom through definite acts, as Sartre writes, “human reality is of a particular type, as constituted by its existence in the form of a value to be realized through its freedom” (395). In Being and Nothingness, Sartre would develop this same idea through the later terminology of existentialism.

Here, Sartre speaks of “human reality” as “a particular type of existence,” which “is its own nothingness. For the for-itself, to be is to nihilate the in-itself which it is. Under these conditions freedom can be nothing other than this nihilation” (BN 439). Thus, finally, Sartre speaks of freedom as a nihilation of the in-itself and a projection of values through acts in the future. But originally, in his letters, Sartre would admit to the development of his thoughts and his dialogue with de Beauvoir. He concludes, “This is clearly no more than the merest beginning. I’ll copy out the rest tomorrow and the day after. But here already is material we can discuss” (WTML 379). Resulting from these conversations, Sartre would further develop his thoughts on the reflective nature of willing freedom, as described above, while de Beauvoir would contribute an existential ethics, which I will now discuss, with these concepts in mind.

Concluding Being and Nothingness, Sartre asks if freedom will “situate itself so much the more precisely and the more individually as it projects itself further in anguish as a conditioned freedom and accepts more fully its responsibility as an existent by whom the world comes into being” (BN 628). Though he ends by claiming that such a question “can find [its] reply only on the ethical plane. We shall devote to them a future work,” Sartre did not complete this proposed ethical analysis (628). Rather, it was de Beauvoir who would write this work. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir focuses on values as they are realized through freedom. She claims,

To wish for the disclosure of the world and to assert oneself as freedom are one and the same movement. Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence. The man who seeks to justify his life must want freedom itself and above everything else (EOA 24).

Value, like consciousness, is a lack, a nothingness. Man, in his own nothingness and contingency, must resist any pre-established morality which would deny his own freedom.

De Beauvoir refers to the willing of freedom as the creation of value: “Value is this lacking-being of which freedom makes itself a lack; and it is because the latter makes itself a lack that value appears. It is desire which creates the desirable” (EOA 15). This very willing of freedom brings with it the necessity of the creation of an ethics. De Beauvoir writes, “To will oneself free is to effect the transition from nature to morality by establishing a genuine freedom on the original upsurge of existence” (EOA 25). As “Moral choice is free,” man has a great responsibility in the willing of his own freedom and the creation of morality (40). This responsibility of choice is the burden of freedom as it is manifest in the acts performed in the world. De Beauvoir adds, “we have already seen that freedom realizes itself only by engaging itself in the world: to such an extent that man’s project toward freedom is embodied for him in definite acts of behavior” (78). In a letter to de Beauvoir in October of 1939, Sartre articulates this position by writing, “I’m persuaded to my core that it’s not that people are, they do” (WTML 319). As freedom has no more essence than consciousness to begin with, it can only be defined in the actions of one willing freedom.

De Beauvoir’s ethical system relies upon intentionality in the free willing of definite acts in the world, which rests largely upon the distinction made by Sartre between the voluntary and the spontaneous action in Being and Nothingness. Sartre writes, “The voluntary act is distinguished from involuntary spontaneity in that the latter is purely unreflective consciousness of causes across the pure and simple project of the act” (BN 451). For this reason, de Beauvoir would note in her Ethics, “The contingent spontaneity can not be judged in the name of freedom” (EOA 41). Thus, spontaneity cannot be judged in the name of morality, since it has no reflective attitude with which to be conscious of its moral responsibility and active willing.

In contrast, the voluntary act “requires the appearance of a reflective consciousness which apprehends the motive as a quasi-object or which even intends it as a psychic object across the consciousness reflected on” (BN 451). Thus, the willing of freedom is crucial to the creation of self of which I spoke in my previous chapter. “The goal of this reflective scissiparity is,” Sartre writes, “to recover the reflected-on so as to constitute that unrealizable totality ‘In-itself-for-itself'” (451). Of course, this goal is not realizable in good faith, since it inevitably posits the reflected-on as an object, denying the nothingness which it is. Thus, “the will is in essence reflective,” and as it reflects upon itself, attempting to establish itself as a foundation for its being, it constantly runs the risk of bad faith (451).

Though “I must necessarily possess a certain comprehension of my freedom,” this freedom is not always seen as a blessing (BN 439). In fact, Sartre writes that we are “condemned to be free,” as beings which are “a freedom which chooses,” yet “do not choose to be free” (485). As a nothingness, our own freedom is not its own foundation. Thus, Sartre explains:

the for-itself apprehends itself in anguish; that is, as a being which is neither the foundation of its own being nor of the Other’s being nor of the in-itselfs which form the world, but a being which is compelled to decide the meaning of being–within it and everywhere outside of it. The one who realizes in anguish his condition as being thrown into a responsibility which extends to his very abandonment has no longer either remorse or regret or excuse; he is no longer anything but a freedom which perfectly reveals itself and whose being resides in this very revelation. But as we pointed out at the beginning of this work, most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith (BN 556).

This flight into bad faith can take many forms, as the for-itself seeks to deny its own freedom. De Beauvoir gives the example of the sub-man, who, by submerging his own freedom in bad faith, “loses himself in the object in order to annihilate his subjectivity” (EOA 45). And, by denying his own freedom and subjectivity, the man in bad faith denies the freedom of the other.

As important as accepting one’s own freedom is the acceptance of the freedom of the other, even (and especially) in the relationship of love, in which temptation of experience leads “every consciousness,” as de Beauvoir finds accurate in Hegel, “[to pursue] the death of the other” (LTS 328). In The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir claims, “It is only as something strange, forbidden, as something free, that the other is revealed as an other. And to love him genuinely is to love him in his otherness and in that freedom by which he escapes” (EOA 67). Love then, “is the renunciation of all possession, of all confusion. One renounces being in order that there may be that being which one is not” (67). In willing oneself to be free, one wills others to be free, as “Only the freedom of others keeps each one of us from hardening in the absurdity of facticity” (EOA 71). De Beauvoir describes the ideal love similarly in The Second Sex: “Genuine love ought to be founded on the mutual recognition of two liberties; the lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated” (SS 667). In this sense, at least on a purely sexual level, de Beauvoir and Sartre do appear to exercise their freedom in their recognition of the freedom of the other. But the exercising of freedom and the project of authenticity require much more than a simple exercise of sexual liberation and hold a greater significance.

When de Beauvoir writes, “To will oneself free is also to will others free” (EOA 73), she makes an assertion which follows from Sartre’s analysis of freedom in Being and Nothingness, to which he adds, that when one loves freely, “He wishes that the Other’s freedom should determine itself to become love . . . [he] wants to be ‘the whole World’ for the beloved” (B&N 367). Here, the freedom of the other, implied in the freedom of the self, is essential for love to exist and flourish. Emphasizing the freedom of the beloved at all cost, “the man who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved” (367). The beloved cannot be enslaved, either by an overbearing lover who denies the beloved’s transcendence or by a reduction to immanence brought on by a belief that love is a product of destiny or determinism.

De Beauvoir recognizes this and refers again to Being and Nothingness when she writes, in The Second Sex, “That is one of the meanings of the Tristan and Isolde myth. Two lovers destined solely for each other are already dead: they die of ennui, of the slow agony of a love that feeds on itself” (SS 658). Calling such a belief a form of “psychical determinism,” Sartre writes that in this case,

The lover will then feel that both his love and his being are cheapened. If Tristan and Isolde fall madly in love because of a love potion, they are less interesting. The total enslavement of the beloved kills the love of the lover. The end is surpassed; . . . Thus the lover does not desire to possess the beloved as one possesses a thing; he demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess a freedom as freedom (B&N 367).

In this passage we see the necessary connection between love and freedom which we saw clearly in de Beauvoir’s work, a conception of freedom which seems to resonate with the accounts of their own freedom and recognition of the other’s freedom in their letters. However, we also see that freedom is more than the allowance of other relationships. Rather, it would seem essential to the fabric of the relationship, considering each of their views on freedom and human reality, that each acknowledges the other, as well as themselves, as free, individual beings, with all of the responsibility this entails.

In the section which follows, I treat their conception of freedom with regard to their notions of self in their letters, pursuing this problem of love and freedom, with particular regard to Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s problems in the experience of their relationships and their own apparent bad faith, which was especially crucial in the development de Beauvoir’s analysis of the gendered self. Going beyond sexual liberation and beyond the discussion of bad faith, we find that de Beauvoir’s requirement for a “genuine love” to be “founded on the mutual recognition of two liberties,” in which “the lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated,” did not work in her own relationship with Sartre (SS 667). I will argue in chapter 4 that de Beauvoir’s recognition of her own relationship as one in which she herself gave up transcendence, subordinating herself to Sartre, the essential subject, gave her the material with which to describe the gendered situation of women in The Second Sex.

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