The ambiguity of a reciprocal love ~ a tribute to Simone de beauvoir

I mentioned in an earlier post the podcast I listened to on Simone de beauvoir, where guest speakers discussed on how she came about the premise for her book, ‘The second sex’; I’m reading a newer translation of her work these days and was inspired to write a poem for her. So much of the book still rings true but that’s for another day, another poem. A lot many poems there will be too, given that I enjoy reading the works of contemporary philosophers.

There was reference in the podcast, to the relationship between Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, which according to experts, defined her work and life. It is interesting in that, no philosophy discussion on de Beauvoir is complete it appears, without an allusion to their liaison. In her own views on love and relationships, Beauvoir believed that men remained ‘sovereign subjects’ in love – love for the women they valued was only a part of their life along with their other pursuits. In contrast, for women, love was expected to become their whole life, a total abdication for the benefit of a master.

In her relationship with Sartre, which was polyamorous, she tried to live up to her ideal of a reciprocal love. I am unclear, whether, despite the many interpretations of her letters and her autobiography, she truly had a reciprocal relationship with Sartre as she had perhaps, with her one time lover, the American novelist Nelson Algren. Sartre set the terms of their connection and caused her a great deal of emotional pain. This explains possibly, the contradictions in her views and her writing. It brings me to thoughts on authenticity in love as well as reciprocity, themes Beauvoir wrote about, for I cannot reconcile her philosophy with how she actually lived.


The urge for procreation, sexual pleasure and companionship are rooted in the biological, but the views on how  women and men are defined  alongside their innate urges, appear to be constantly evolving, away (I hope) from a narrow patriarchal lens. Needless to say, I find Beauvoir’s view, on women’s abdication of themselves in love compelling yet, quite disturbing. I do admire her immensely, as a philosopher, writer and I imagine the relationship she had with Sartre in this poem.

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In Babel, the intellect of a strange passion / snaking like a kundalini rising / to a merging of minds exiled from Eden thus / Yahweh hadn’t discovered your dualism / You hadn’t found Yahweh / It’s a Dewey decimal that conjoined at the hip/  a spine to spine misplacement, on wooden shelves mulling existence / in a contrived  synchronicity of ivory sluice gates / alongside a tributary of refined thought// 


Emotional floodplains were of poetic silt / He seeking a place in the book of tidal songs / You, looking to punctuate his aphorisms of shimmering wit / Turbid waters, settling in existential poems / Strange thoughts festered in those saline tears / like crustaceans that couldn’t quite make up their mind / where they wished to be / Was it in the depths of an ocean trench / or the flowing arteries of sun kissed lands//


Such spiritual devotion, yours, my lovely / coursing with the sweetness of a ripened apple /  shiny and real as a fertilized ovum / pulped within exocarp / red paper weight on sheaves that framed the ancillary sex/ living your authentic out of body experience / feelings of love displaced like the pip of an afterthought / His book of pleasures / as true as his eyes sought light at daybreak / where hidden passions found clay in the moulding and manipulation of your mortification / A cold code of ethics he spilled on your sentient longing but you wrote it for him//

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Beauvoir was a passionate woman beneath it all and the terms of their relationship were set by Sartre, which caused her a great deal of pain. She did imply that her intellectual and emotional connection with him defined her as well as her work. I find that it contradicts on occasion what she stood for as a feminist writer (even though she refused to be labelled one before her sixties).

On a separate note, given that we celebrated women on the 8th of March, is her liaison with Sartre the only lens we wish to use when speaking of an accomplished philosopher like de Beauvoir, the lens she used as well? It does give a distinctly human touch to someone when their work is described in the shadow of their relationships, and most women are seen to be described thus ( as mothers, lovers, daughters etc). I am not averse to this but would it not be an equality of the sexes in principle, if the same lens were used on men too, instead of only glowing accounts of their accomplishments in light of their professionalism, (detached from home and hearth as we are wont to see them described). After all, it is both sexes that are yoked to the humanity of the species and not just one that has taken the responsibility of being authentic. It brings to mind the three Swiss newspapers that described the recently-elected director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as a 66-year-old Nigerian grandmother. De Beauvoir seems as relevant today as in the last century.

Note: Authenticity, ambiguity, existentialism are recurrent themes in the collective philosophy of de Beauvoir and Sarte. They met while studying together and each had an indelible impression on the other in their work. De Beauvoir also wrote ‘the ethics of ambiguity’.