Hearts and Minds

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

When Jean-Paul Sartre was asked last year if his works would have been any different had he not known Simone de Beauvoir, he answered that everything he had written before he met her contained the essentials of his thought. He added, however, that because of their fifty-year close friendship, his writings certainly bear the impact of their common experiences and struggles. Axel Madsen’s Hearts and Minds is neither a literary promenade nor another investigation of philosophical debates. It attempts to uncover the affinities between Beauvoir and Sartre as individuals and as writers, to show how the two reacted to a particular political and intellectual milieu, and to present the reader with simple yet human facets of their longtime liaison.

Some readers may be confused, at first, by the book’s title. Those who remember the 1975 documentary on Vietnam, Hearts and Minds, could mistake this new book for the script of the film by Peter Davis. Perhaps to avoid any ambiguity, a subtitle has been added with specific references to the author’s main objective: to depict the relationship between Beauvoir and Sartre. The parallel between the film and Madsen’s book cannot naturally be perceived on the level of substance but rather in the intentions of both director and author. Through a montage of interviews and newsreel footage, Davis had created a powerful visual essay whose purpose was to understand the attitudes and beliefs of a generation: the Westmorelands and the Rostows, the Ellsbergs and the Stones. By adopting a similar title, Madsen sets the tone for his book. He interviews his main subjects, Sartre and Beauvoir, looks into their writings, immerses himself in the France of the postwar era, and attempts to grasp the attitudes and feelings of that period.

Sartre and Beauvoir met in 1928 as students of the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where they studied philosophy, Greek, logic, and psychology. The following year, they took the difficult state examination for the agrégation, a competition in which Sartre’s name was listed first. Beauvoir ranked second. Music, writing, American novelists, and cinema brought them even closer, and before he was off for his military service, Sartre proposed a two-year negotiable contract which would bind them, yet which would safeguard each one’s freedom. At a time when the education of respectable bourgeois girls was geared towards motherhood and rearing a family, Beauvoir opted for a lifestyle that went against the grain. Feminism was either a taboo word or unheard of in most parts of the country, and her rejection of accepted social conventions (an attitude seen by her critics as a sign of eccentric tendencies) expressed one woman’s desire for self-fulfillment and control over her own destiny. Ironically, the man who was to become her life partner was a machismo until the age of fifteen, as Sartre would concede later. He was surrounded for many years by a group of women composed of his mother, grandmother, and their friends; his father died when he was two years old. It was in this milieu, encouraged by a domineering grandfather, that he learned the superiority of man over the “second sex.” If his liaison with Beauvoir did not turn into a battle of the sexes, it was often put to the test, and it endured in spite of their outside paramours, or as Beauvoir liked to call them, their “contingent love affairs.” For those who perceived Beauvoir’s dependence on Sartre as paradoxical with her outspoken stand on feminism, she would answer that the fact that she recognized and admired his superior political activity in no way downgraded her nor weakened her rapport with him. In effect, their relationship was long-lived because of their mutual respect. She was his best and most useful critic and vice versa.

One of the virtues of this book is that the biographical data does not take over the narrative completely. Madsen, the accomplished biographer of another statesman of French letters, André Malraux, relates the chronological events of Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s lives to other significant contemporary incidents. Thus, the reader is offered a comprehensive and dynamic picture of France, and enabled to see the two authors’ main works in their context, set against the background of wars, political polemics, and intellectual currents.

Sartre dominated the Parisian intellectual scene for more than a decade in the postwar years. Almost every aspect of French letters is affected by his thought, whether it is the novel, the drama, or the philosophical essay; a score of articles and prefaces add to his already voluminous production. Except for two or three of his popular works, Sartre is not widely read in France nowadays. The diminishing interest in his writings among French scholars and students alike in his own country can be traced to various factors, one of which is the loss of actuality. Sartre’s popularity was no doubt the result of his intellectual versatility, but it also resulted from his ability to fill the void created by World War II. He grasped the contemporary mood and responded to the individual’s pessimism by confronting it with the notions of freedom, responsibility, and engagement. Beauvoir’s novels and other writings often echoed Sartre’s concepts of existentialism or expanded his theories. In Hearts and Minds, Madsen gives us a useful account of the two writers’ production and is able to...

(The entire section is 2235 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, October 1, 1977, p. 262.

Books West. I, October, 1977, p. 41.

Christian Science Monitor. LXIX, November 3, 1977, p. 22.

New York Times Book Review. September 25, 1977, p. 3.

New Yorker. LIII, November 14, 1977, p. 218.

Progressive. XLI, December, 1977, p. 55.

Saturday Review. V, October 1, 1977, p. 28.