Let’s be honest: Existential philosophy is not easy to digest. It’s not meant to be easy to digest. In fact, barring one having pursued post-graduate studies in existentialism, it’s not even all that easy to understand. It is also unfortunate that existentialism was a very short lived, very French fashion that has not aged well. Most people encounter it briefly, if at all, in high school or first year at university, and then it is forced upon them, usually in the form of Waiting for Godot or The Stranger.
Perhaps the great tragedy of existentialism is that it is not user friendly; it has never been broken down to into basic enough ideas, and is often made far more complicated than needs be. This, of course, is not helped by those who championed the philosophy, who often made their texts more complex than needed be to convey their ideas.
These criticisms aside, let us consider Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The couple were at the forefront of the existential movement, and permanently entangled in each other’s lives. To understand the works of Sartre and Beauvoir, one must understand what was happening in their lives at the time, and thus one must understand the role of the other in their respective lives.
Rowley gives a full account of all of the relationships Sartre and Beauvoir had on their own, as well as those lovers they shared over the years.
Sartre and Beauvoir met in 1929 and were together until Sartre’s death in 1980. Though they were in love, they never married, and did not live together. They had decided early on that their relationship was “essential,” and that no other relationship shared with another friend or lover – regardless of how important – would ever trump that relationship. Rowley gives a full account of all of the relationships Sartre and Beauvoir had on their own, as well as those lovers they shared over the years. Her account does show Sartre as the one dictating the terms of his relationship with Beauvoir; Sartre had always told Beauvoir that jealousy was unnecessary and yet never disguised his own jealousy when Beauvoir was involved with another man (whether that makes Sartre seem callous or hypocritical is for the reader to decide).
Tete-A-Tete is arguably more readable than anything either Sartre or Beauvoir have written.
The strengths of Rowley’s account lie in her representation of this bizarre love story. Tete-A-Tete is arguably more readable than anything either Sartre or Beauvoir have written. It is also a wonderful illustration of from what circumstances Sartre and Beauvoir’s works were born. Sartre’s work, especially those more sympathetic to Communism, have not aged well, and in today’s context seem somewhat misguided. However, understanding Sartre’s disenchantment with capitalism and the West in the world after World War II excuses some of his Marxist naivite. Likewise, with Beauvoir, it is interesting to see how Sartre actually encouraged work on her landmark feminist text The Second Sex, shows how her own disenchantment with France during WWII comes out in All Men Are Mortal, and explains why her dedication of She Came To Stay to Olga Kosakiewicz is so decidedly creepy.
Finally, for all of Rowley’s obvious admiration of Simone de Beauvoir, she is still faithful to facts and fairly critical of the philosopher. And while there is an air of a soap opera to Tete-A-Tete, it doesn’t stop it being a damn fine read.