Turning Abruptly from Friendship to Love: Sartre’s Piercing Love Letter to Simone Jollivet
By Maria Popova
As a lover of spectacular love letters, especially ones between history’s creative and intellectual power couples — like those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin — I was delighted to come upon a gem from legendary French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905–April 15, 1980).
Three years before he met trailblazing philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who would become the love of his life, 21-year-old Sartre became besotted with another Simone — the French actress and playwright Simone Jollivet. In a beautiful 1926 missive, included in the altogether wonderful collection Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir, 1926–1939 (public library), Sartre addresses Jollivet as “my dear little girl,” even though she is two years his senior — perhaps a sweetly awkward deflection of his insecurity about his own age in courting a woman older and far more experienced than he was.
My dear little girl
For a long time I’ve been wanting to write to you in the evening after one of those outings with friends that I will soon be describing in “A Defeat,” the kind when the world is ours. I wanted to bring you my conqueror’s joy and lay it at your feet, as they did in the Age of the Sun King. And then, tired out by all the shouting, I always simply went to bed. Today I’m doing it to feel the pleasure you don’t yet know, of turning abruptly from friendship to love, from strength to tenderness. Tonight I love you in a way that you have not known in me: I am neither worn down by travels nor wrapped up in the desire for your presence. I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself. This happens much more often than I admit to you, but seldom when I’m writing to you. Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things. At Toulouse I simply loved you. Tonight I love you on a spring evening. I love you with the window open. You are mine, and things are mine, and my love alters the things around me and the things around me alter my love.
My dear little girl, as I’ve told you, what you’re lacking is friendship. But now is the time for more practical advice. Couldn’t you find a woman friend? How can Toulouse fail to contain one intelligent young woman worthy of you*? But you wouldn’t have to love her. Alas, you’re always ready to give your love, it’s the easiest thing to get from you. I’m not talking about your love for me, which is well beyond that, but you are lavish with little secondary loves, like that night in Thiviers when you loved that peasant walking downhill in the dark, whistling away, who turned out to be me. Get to know the feeling, free of tenderness, that comes from being two. It’s hard, because all friendship, even between two red-blooded men, has its moments of love. I have only to console my grieving friend to love him; it’s a feeling easily weakened and distorted. But you’re capable of it, and you must experience it. And so, despite your fleeting misanthropy, have you imagined what a lovely adventure it would be to search Toulouse for a woman who would be worthy of you and whom you wouldn’t be in love with? Don’t bother with the physical side or the social situation. And search honestly. And if you find nothing, turn Henri Pons, whom you scarcely love anymore, into a friend.
I love you with all my heart and soul.
Complement with Sartre on why “being-in-the-world-ness” is the key to the imagination, then revisit this ever-expanding archive of spectacular love letters.
Published June 21, 2013