Conclusion

Through a study of their letters as representative of their amorous philosophical dialogue and their respective philosophical treatises as a product of this dialogue, this paper has shown the failure of Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s relationship to achieve authenticity as they themselves defined it. As they each intentionally sought authenticity and found it necessary for the creation of their philosophies of self, this failure, and the tension surrounding this failure, becomes increasingly important to our understanding of their experience of love as it affected their philosophies. Moreover, this failure to achieve authenticity is philosophically significant not because it invalidates their love, but because it proves the philosophy of existentialism unable to handle the intimate relationship of love within the explanations provided by its own system.

Clearly, much of the problem Sartre and de Beauvoir faced in their attempt to achieve authenticity is the necessary result of their difficulty in defining authenticity. In my first chapter, wherein I outlined my method of interpretational access into their letters and philosophies, I showed de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s genuine openness to the question of authenticity, around which they framed the collaborative dialogue which was both their love and their philosophical development. However, in later chapters, I revealed the extent to which they did not, in fact, completely provide an opportunity for discussion of every possible definition of authenticity. When asking the question of how an authentic love can exist when each individual self must continually will itself free and independent, always assuming the absolute contingence of the other, Sartre and de Beauvoir relied on an existential understanding of the nothingness of consciousness, thus limiting the scope of their question to the possibilities of this framework.

Despite its limitations, we still find the dialogical process with which Sartre and de Beauvoir engaged their philosophical development invaluable to understanding the manner in which their philosophies developed. In chapter 1, I showed their reliance on each other’s input in their own development. Calling de Beauvoir his “little judge,” Sartre writes to her, “I write by turns either in my novel or in my notebook according to the things you have to say about them” (WTML 414). Sartre insists that the notebook itself, in which he records his own philosophical thoughts, would not be necessary if he were not separated from de Beauvoir. If they were together, Sartre writes, “then I wouldn’t keep my notebook anymore, I’d tell you everything at that very moment, that’s what I’d do” (WTML 398). And, as de Beauvoir also referred to Sartre as her “little judge,” she placed considerably more importance on Sartre’s agreement for the validation of her own thought, a detail upon which I focused my attention in chapter 4 (LTS 216).

Engaging this dialogical process with a focused concentration, in chapter 2 I explored the tensions involved in de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s discussion and experience of the complex project for individual authenticity. Here, we saw Sartre’s attention to this process, and the specific tensions regarding the question of authenticity and the self, in a letter to de Beauvoir in February of 1940: “I worked on the notebook this morning and cashed in on a few little ideas we had in Paris, you and I, notably that the desire for authenticity was either entirely inauthentic or else was authenticity itself” (QMIAW 64). However, in his philosophical project, Sartre never definitively chooses between these two conflicting positions, which can also be expressed in terms of authenticity as either a result of reflection or as a pre-reflective project. And, as Sartre and de Beauvoir quite clearly did desire authenticity, and since reflection becomes so necessary to Sartre’s understanding of philosophy, this distinction becomes crucial, and his failure to adequately define authenticity in these terms hurts his own project of authenticity.

Showing the development of Sartre’s position on authenticity, the self, and reflection from his early formulation in The Transcendence of the Ego in 1937 to his later stance in 1943, published in Being and Nothingness, chapter 2 of this paper introduced these tensions in the former work and offered Sartre’s concept of bad faith as his solution to the problem in the latter work. Citing Husserl’s phenomenological tenet that all consciousness is consciousness of something, in The Transcendence of the Ego, Sartre clarifies that “the consciousness which says I Think is precisely not the consciousness which thinks” (TOE 45. Rather, it is “precisely the reflective act which gives birth to the me in consciousness” (45). This necessary reflective act will cause problems for the project of authenticity, as Sartre will later write in Being and Nothingness that it is through reflection that “consciousness affects itself with bad faith” (BN 49). In other words, by positing itself as an object, in bad faith consciousness flees the nothingness which it is. Thus, authenticity would seem to be a quality of pre-reflective consciousness, and since reflection is required in the creation of the me of the self, authenticity also appears to be an impossible goal, a goal which cannot be desired.

As I further illustrated in chapter 2, Sartre seems to try to escape this problem first by finding authenticity in reflection, claiming, in a letter to de Beauvoir, “in a sense, authenticity is the affair of an intimate journal” (QMIAW 157). Without coming to a conclusion on this important distinction, in Being and Nothingness Sartre skirts the issue of authenticity in favor of an elaboration on bad faith. Marginalized to a footnote, Sartre speaks of authenticity as “a self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted” by bad faith, but adds that a description of authenticity itself “has no place here” (BN 70). Referring to authenticity as a self-recovery of being after its corruption through bad faith raises many of the questions I have asked regarding its status as a reflective or pre-reflective act, questions which Sartre does not answer as he places more importance and emphasis on bad faith as his primary solution to the problem.

As I argued in chapter 3 of this paper, this already questionable reliance on bad faith becomes considerably more tenuous for Sartre when used to determine the project of authenticity with regard to the relationship of the self to the other in love. As his conception of man as completely free conflicts with his experience of his own love with de Beauvoir, Sartre uses bad faith to explain his feelings of oneness with her as a lie he tells to his own consciousness. In his letters to de Beauvoir in 1939, we already have seen Sartre’s determination of the absolute nothingness of man’s existence, in which the self is only created through the willing of freedom in definite acts of behavior. He writes, “I’m persuaded to my core that it’s not that people are, they do” (WTML 319). This incipient understanding reaches its fruition in 1943, when in Being and Nothingness 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). This being the case, the lover must accept the freedom of his own nothingness as well as the freedom of the other.

As Sartre explains the requirements of an authentic love, “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 a freedom” (BN 367). And de Beauvoir wholly agrees with this assessment, in the theoretical development of her earlier letters and in 1947 in The Ethics of Ambiguity, where she writes, “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). And later in 1949, though de Beauvoir breaks from Sartre in many significant ways in The Second Sex, she still follows Sartre on this point, reserving the label of authenticity for “all free and true beings” and stressing that in a relationship an “authentic love should assume the contingence of the other” (SS 241,654). However, as I showed in chapter 3 in the letters exchanged between she and Sartre while he was away at war, we find that they themselves did not meet these requirements for authenticity in their accounts of their own love.

In these letters exchanged in the years of 1939 to 1941, Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s understandings of their own relationship betrays this core of absolute nothingness and independence, as their accounts reveal their belief in the necessary and unifying nature of their love. While initially showing their willing of freedom in the form of sexual liberation, then revealing the tensions inherent in accepting the other as free when in love, in chapter 3 I introduced their own classification of their love as “essential,” thus raising questions regarding the extent to which their relationship truly was based on two independent liberties.

In an important passage from de Beauvoir’s autobiographical work The Prime of Life, I cited her account of Sartre’s description of their love: “‘What we have,’ he said, ‘is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs'” (POL 24). And de Beauvoir, in turn, would admit to Sartre, “I’ve thought of you almost always as yourself, separated from me–but also as the essential, undefined condition in my own life” (LTS 315). Since she herself defines “the essential” as the necessary or “absolute,” one of these two thoughts must be incorrect (SS 643). Their relationship cannot be both essential, with absolute necessity, and separate, with complete individual freedom. Sartre would solve this dilemma as he himself faced it, I first argued in my conclusion to chapter 3 and explored more fully in chapter 4, by classifying the thought of an essential union as another example of bad faith.

Even more overtly in conflict with the existential view of the ultimate freedom of self and other, in the first portion of chapter 4 I showed, in the letters of Sartre and de Beauvoir, their belief not only that their love was somehow “essential,” but that it actually unified them within a single self. De Beauvoir calls Sartre “my life’s own self,” believing that they “are really one person” (LTS 45,50). And Sartre’s understanding of their love resonates with this, as his own account, “you are truly me. My love, we simply are one,” is almost identical to hers (WTML 233). Statements such as these by de Beauvoir and Sartre show their love, and their individual selves, to be inauthentic, under their own requirements for authenticity. Here, their individual inauthenticity, as exposed in the denial of their own respective self’s freedom and nothingness of consciousness, makes authenticity in their relationship an impossibility. In denying their own freedom, they also deny the freedom of the other, thus breaking the primary qualification for an authentic relationship.

Again, Sartre explains such a tension through his concept of bad faith, a flight from the anguish caused by an understanding of his own nothingness. As I pointed out in the first portion of chapter 4, since Sartre claims, “I must necessarily possess a certain comprehension of my freedom,” by denying this freedom, as he does when accounting for his love of de Beauvoir, he tells a lie to himself, thus living in bad faith (BN 485). Just as bad faith “seeks to flee the in-itself by means of the inner disintegration of my being,” Sartre flees his own in-itself into his union with de Beauvoir (BN 70). In this way Sartre accounts for his belief in his union with de Beauvoir, not as authentic, but as a lie in bad faith. And since he himself cannot escape bad faith, for he feels union with his beloved, he must conclude, as he does in Being and Nothingness, that “most of the time we flee anguish in bad faith” (BN 556). As Sartre finds he can universalize this statement in his philosophy of human relationships, this last resort to bad faith becomes his last word on the subject of authenticity and love.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, in which she remains consistent with Sartrean existentialism even with her addition of an ethics, de Beauvoir also relies upon this concept. In bad faith, she writes, man “loses himself in the object in order to annihilate his subjectivity” (EOA 45). In this case, the object could be the objectification of the self through reflection, as described in chapter 2 of this paper, or the object could be, as it is in the case of her love of Sartre, the beloved with which the lover seeks unity. It is this latter case to which I devoted the latter portion of my fourth chapter and upon which de Beauvoir focuses in her specific treatment of the “Woman in Love” in The Second Sex (SS 642).

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir begins with Sartre’s existential rationalization of bad faith, claiming that for the woman in love, “bad faith raises barriers between her and the man she adores” (SS 655). But then, finding bad faith, and existentialism in its entirety, inadequate to suit her purposes, de Beauvoir then proceeds to break with Sartre’s system, forming her own gendered framework which emphasizes situation as well as freedom in the creation of self. Specifically with regard to love, as I approached her views in chapter 4, de Beauvoir writes, “It is the difference in their situations that is reflected in the difference men and women show in their conceptions of love” (SS 643). Though she emphasizes situational differences, and by doing so breaks from an existential devotion to complete freedom for every self, de Beauvoir still uses the concepts and terminology of existentialism to describe these differences.

Through her own experience in giving herself to the “we” formed in her union with Sartre, I argued, de Beauvoir found that the woman in love is brought up to give up her own transcendence in her relationship with the man who is seen as the essential subject. Thus, the man achieves transcendence as a free individual while for the woman in love “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). Through social pressures and situations, women are taught to reduce themselves to immanence in support of men’s project of authenticity. De Beauvoir gains this insight, I argued in chapter 4, through reflection on the extent to which she does this in her own relationship with Sartre, acknowledging him as superior and seeking validation in her association with him.

Though de Beauvoir’s departure from Sartre’s existentialism is significant, her continued dependence on the absolute freedom and otherness of the other in The Second Sex hurts her ability to adequately describe the nature of love as much as it does for Sartre. By resorting more and more to “bad faith” as a justification for his emotions or thoughts which contradict his system, Sartre’s system itself unravels around the way in which he deals with the relationship of love. Though in many ways he and de Beauvoir remain open to the possibilities of thought concerning authenticity, these possibilities become restricted by their insistence on the absolute boundaries of each free self in every circumstance. When he thinks thoughts contrary to his intellectual understanding of his existential system, Sartre categorizes these thoughts in the margins of bad faith. But, as I have shown, in his love of de Beauvoir, these thoughts become more and more prominent in his view of this relationship. And, as bad faith moves from the margins of his philosophy to the center of his thought, his philosophy of the ultimately free self in relation to others in love collapses upon itself.

In other words, as bad faith becomes the rule rather than the exception to his philosophy, existentialism is exposed as inadequate in describing the relationship of love. As his own emotions and his own thoughts stand in opposition to his philosophical system, this strongly suggests a failure of the system to come to terms with these thoughts. Sartre would have bad faith, as a lie told to himself rather than truth, explain away all of his own thoughts which betray his system. But as these thoughts appear in the heart of his most intimate experience, bad faith is not capable of taming this beast which experience has created for Sartre’s existentialism. The opposition has become too large for Sartre to contain. Thus, existentialism, with its unwavering requirement of individual nothingness and freedom in the face of the other, cannot handle intimacy. Two individual liberties, embodied in two consciousness which are always engaged in a struggle of opposition, have no hope of becoming united into one self. Thus, when this union is felt or thought, it can be nothing but damaging to the self which seeks authenticity, and, as de Beauvoir adds, this damage is even more destructive for the self gendered as female.

With their insistence on the boundaries of self established by consciousness as its own nothingness and its own freedom, Sartre and de Beauvoir do not allow for the possibility, in their conception of existentialism, that love does in fact blur the boundaries of self and create an intimate unity from two individuals in relation. Though they feel this unity and understand it intellectually in their experience of their relationship, their refusal to evaluate the basic premises of existentialism prohibits Sartre and de Beauvoir from adequately examining intimacy from a philosophical theoretical standpoint. Thus, around this failure to account for love and intimacy, the system of existentialism, as it attempts to handle human relationships in experience, crumbles to the foundations which make it incomplete. De Beauvoir surely sees much of these limitations for existentialism and therefore is enabled to better handle differences as they obviously do exist in each individual’s possibility for freedom. But in the end, even her system in The Second Sex, with its lingering existential focus on freedom and definite, absolute boundaries of self, fails to account for the positive possibilities for love as a unifying dissolution of individual identities.

However, my claim that existentialism fails in its attempt to describe authenticity in human relationships, and consequently that Sartre and de Beauvoir failed to achieve authenticity under these inadequate terms, does not extend to a negative evaluation of their experience, of their love itself as a failure. De Beauvoir herself, in a letter to Sartre in November of 1939, calls their love “a fine success,” claiming, “It’s perfect and there’s nothing to be done about it” (LTS 168). And, in this same month, Sartre writes to de Beauvoir,

Never have I felt so forcefully that our lives have no meaning outside of our love and that nothing changes that, neither separations, nor passions, nor the war. You said it was a victory for our morality, but it is as much a victory for our love (WTML 344).

And this statement by Sartre, though its account of their relationship as the only meaning in their lives directly contradicts the philosophy he espoused in his system of existentialism, still rings true as a validation and a justification of his love of de Beauvoir. Despite the shortcomings of their philosophy, the relationship of Sartre and de Beauvoir was indeed a success, as an experience, as a love, and as an intellectual companionship in which each philosopher grew from the dialogue in which they engaged.

Thus, while not completely discarding existentialism, we cannot help but find their relationship itself and, even more significantly, the process with which de Beauvoir and Sartre developed their philosophies to be much more interesting than the philosophies themselves. In their love and through their letters we find an access to the dialogue out of which existentialism was forged, a valuable example of the effect of experience on the development of a philosophy, and the manner in which tensions between theories and experience are played out in an actual relationship. As there are bound to be tensions between any philosophy and its practical execution or engagement, this insight into the experience of a philosopher, and the process by which their philosophy developed, would prove invaluable in the analysis of any thinker. An understanding of how the philosophy developed provides a unique access into what the philosophy means, both for the philosopher and to us as readers. In the specific case of the letters of Sartre and de Beauvoir, studied in this paper, we are given a glimpse into the human reality of love as it is experienced, as it may be accounted for, and how one particular relationship shaped the thoughts of two of the most famed and influential thinkers of our century.

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