Tag Archives: Paris

The Sorbonne – Simone de Beauvoir’s university

IMG_1967The last stop of my visit to Paris exploring the old haunts of the French philosophers is the Sorbonne. A beautiful and ancient large sandstone building, it dominates the Latin Quarter’s bustling urban terrain of cafés, bookshops and boutiques.

My daughter Alex and I first spot it while riding northwards towards the Seine on the wide arterial of St Michel Boulevard, along with Paris’s other peak hour traffic of motor scooters, bicycles, Citroens, Peugeots and pedestrians. We gasp at the sight of it rising up to our right, its majestic features brought into spectacular contrast by the rays of the setting sun.

Simone de Beauvoir was a student at this venerable institution in 1929 when she met Jean-Paul Sartre. It was here that she studied for and passed the agrégation, the highly competitive national examinations in philosophy. Passing this entitled her to lifelong tenure teaching philosophy in France’s high schools. By 1943, however, she had managed to lose this privilege in scandalous circumstances when a parent complained she and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre had both seduced their teenage daughter while she was Beauvoir’s student. Beauvoir and Sartre had got away with such behaviour previously with other students, but on this occasion it led to Beauvoir having her teaching licence permanently revoked. This sanction didn’t have much of a negative impact on Beauvoir’s life, however, as by this time she had had developed a considerable reputation as a writer and as Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrity partner and co-spokesperson for the new philosophy of existentialism.

The Sorbonne, founded in the mid-12th century, was one of the very first universities to be established in Europe, and has been a centre of intellectual activity in Paris ever since.

More recently, the Sorbonne was the central stage for the notorious uprisings that brought Paris to a standstill in May 1968. These protests, which began with students occupying the Sorbonne’s buildings in response to government policies about university administration, spread like wildfire amongst other students, teachers and workers throughout France culminating in a general strike of a staggering ten million workers. Throughout the weeks of civil disorder that took France to the brink of collapse, the Sorbonne became a battleground for bitter hand-to-hand fighting between students and riot police. Makeshift barricades of furniture, cars and street debris were erected by the Left Bank’s protesting students just as they had been in the French Revolution two hundred years earlier. For several days, the whole country held its breath, fearful of a another revolution, until eventually a very rattled President de Gaulle accepted the resignation of his Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and called for a general election, finally diffusing the mutinous mood in the streets.

Today, my hopes of exploring the interior of this venerable institution are frustrated by a uniformed security officer guarding the entrance. So I resign myself to taking in the view from the outside as a steady stream of students and teachers come in and out. In front of the building, the Place de la Sorbonne — a large busy square open to the public — is abuzz with young students milling among its sidewalk cafés and bookshops.IMG_1959 A sign that says Libraire Philosophie announces a bookshop devoted solely to philosophical texts, a sight I have seen more than once on this trip to Paris but never in my home country of Australia. The bookstore appears to be connected with the university, as it has a poster announcing the Sorbonne’s philosophical courses and the associated recommended reading. The philosophy of Sartre and his philosophical predecessor Martin Heidegger feature heavily. Phenomenology and existentialism still appear to be fashionable in this part of town.

As I bask in the beauty of this glorious building and its changing colours in the fading sunset, it occurs to me that all the places in which Sartre and Beauvoir studied, wrote, dined, drank, conversed and made love during their years as Paris’s favourite intellectuals are within walking distance of this square. They were even buried only a stroll away in the Cimetière Montparnasse.

In front of the aforementioned bookshop, I catch sight of two young lovers deep in an embrace.IMG_1956 I imagine that Sartre and Beauvoir would have sometimes met in this exact place during the heady early days of their lifelong love affair.

I grab my camera, thinking the scene before me might just be a perfect cover for the book I have recently finished writing – Lovers of Philosophy – about the love lives of Sartre and other influential European thinkers.

I wonder, as I capture these two paramours on film outside the philosophy bookshop, could they be a Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir of the future?

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Breaking into the École Normale Supérieure

photoFor as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the École Normale Supérieure. So many French philosophers I have read about have studied there. Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Hyppolite, Althusser, Beauvoir. In fact, Sartre and Beauvoir first met here in 1929, when both were studying for the agrégation, France’s toughest exam for want-to-be-philosophers. Throughout the twentieth century, this most elite of Paris’s educational institutions has been a breeding ground for new bold new ideas, a hotbed of -isms, including existentialism, humanism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism and more recently, postmodernism.

Naturally, when I was in recently in Paris doing research on the lives of French philosophers for my book Lovers of Philosophy, I wanted to visit the place where so many prominent continental philosophers developed their initial ideas. So, along with my 14-year-old daughter Alex who was travelling with me, I found myself cycling through the Latin Quarter in search of this esteemed institution. It’s usually more fun looking for places that are off the tourist track when travelling, and this journey was no exception. Before long, we found ourselves on the Rue d’Ulm, a narrow tree-lined backstreet with cheap and battered bicycles chained up along the railings of its wide pavements, a clear sign we were close to a place frequented by poor and struggling scholars. Sure enough, we soon saw increasing numbers of young people in that universal student uniform, jeans and T-shirts, walking along singly or in twos and threes, books and bags in hand. Then we came across what we were looking for, an old nondescript sandstone building with a faded sign across the top of its entrance. The sign said École Normale Supérieure.photo 1

I had travelled 26,000 km, all the way from Brisbane on the other side of the world, to visit the place where Sartre and Beauvoir had met ninety years ago, but now I faced an unexpected obstacle. There was a boom gate and security guard at the university’s entrance, with access only allowed to authorised students and staff. I thought about just trying to discreetly walk in as a student let himself out, but my conscientious, rule-abiding and embarrassment-averse daughter got visibly nervous when I mentioned this idea, and I had to admit I didn’t fancy the prospect of being handed over to French authorities for trespassing in a school of philosophy.

Eventually I decided to just ask the security guard. I explained that I was interested in visiting as I was writing a book on Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers who had studied here. His English was nonexistent, and the little of the French language I knew departed me at this crucial moment. Consequently, I made no headway at all in trying to communicate an idea clearly beyond my limited linguistic capacities. So I resorted to the age-old technique of tourists, especially of the American variety, of repeating myself, getting louder each time. ‘Sartre! Sartre!’ I boomed, gesticulating meaninglessly and unhelpfully at the young and bewildered security guard. Clearly he had never heard of the esteemed philosopher, but he started looking up his computer database to see if he could find a student or staff member by that name. Knowing he was unlikely find the name of a student who hadn’t been there since the 1930s, I shook my head, waved my hands, and tried another tack:

‘Can we just go in for 5 minutes?’

‘Sure’, he nodded, and opened the gate.

Easy as that, after all.

Somewhat exhilarated, we walked through the security gate and up the stone stairs into the institution’s front building. Inside we found several highly intelligent-looking impossibly young philosophers of the future going about their business. ‘Try to look like a student’, I whispered to my daughter, who was thoroughly enjoying our adventure by now. Posters of upcoming philosophical events graced the walls.photo 4 One poster featuring a large full-length photo of Jacques Derrida looking wistful on a beach announced a talk that day about the recently deceased father of deconstruction.

The foyer then opened up into a beautiful garden, in which students with laptops, papers and books sat here and there on park benches and tables. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a lovely light breeze rustled through the trees and shrubs in the garden as students murmured softly and earnestly to each other. I couldn’t make out whether they were talking about philosophy or their social lives, but I did notice one attractive-looking young female student looking at her paper with a middle-aged man, presumably her professor, sitting very close to her as he pointed at the unwieldy manuscript on the table before them. I instantly recognised what appeared to me to be an example of a notorious and age-old pattern in university teacher-student relations.

photo 5I sat with my daughter on the edge of the garden, in a stone recess in one of the four walls that bordered the garden. Both of us tried our best, with a spectacular lack of success I suspected, to look inconspicuous.

I then realised that this was probably the very garden in which Beauvoir had first met Sartre many years ago. I recalled reading an account of her visiting the École Normale Supérieure one day from the nearby Sorbonne University where she was studying, whereupon she saw a student pouring a bucket of water from a second storey window on to his fellow students below, whilst shouting ‘Thus Pissed Zarathustra!’ The twenty-one-year-old Beauvoir was most impressed with this young man’s mischievousness, not to mention his knowledge of the philosophical work Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher whom she was familiar with and greatly admired. The water-pouring prankster was, of course, the future existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Within weeks he and Beauvoir would team up to become the most renowned philosophical couple in history.

photo 2

Nizan’s name is a third-way down the centre column

I wandered out of the garden into an exit on its far side, which led into another foyer. On one of the walls of this large sandstone room I found a large memorial board of the type that sadly one sees frequently throughout Europe. This board listed the names of previous students of the École Normale Supérieure who had perished in the Holocaust. Amongst this list I recognised the name Paul Nizan. I remembered from my reading that Nizan was one of the students whom Sartre had poured water on in that fateful prank in 1929. He was one of Sartre’s closest friends at the École, and became a close friend of Beauvoir’s, too. He, along with Beauvoir, was part of a small group of students that met regularly at Sartre’s place to discuss philosophy. It was at this group’s meetings that Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship blossomed. It came back to me on seeing Nizan’s name on that board, that I had read how he had been detained during World War Two and transported to a concentration camp, never to be seen again.

In her autobiography, Beauvoir would later write of the shock and despair she and many others experienced in the wake of World War Two:

‘It was a ravaged world… No blade of grass in any meadow, however I looked at it, would ever again be what it had been.’

photo 3

The start of a love affair at the ENS in 2014? Sartre and Beauvoir started theirs here in 1929

It was into this ravaged world, in which people had lost faith in institutions such as the church, the state, and even science and technology to guide them, that the existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Beauvoir, based on the idea that each of us must create our own meaning in life, would later flourish and become the philosophy de rigueur on the streets of post-war Paris.

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Sartre and Beauvoir’s Final Resting Place

Sartre and Beauvoir's grave in Montparnasse cemetery

Sartre and Beauvoir’s grave in Montparnasse cemetery

Jean-Paul Sartre and his lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir were both buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, just south of their old stomping ground in St-Germain-des-Prés. When Sartre was buried there in 1980, an incredible 50,000 mourners came out to bid farewell to their favourite intellectual. Soon afterwards, Beauvoir, despite her many illustrious achievements as a writer, philosopher and pioneering feminist thinker, would rate her greatest accomplishment as her relationship with her beloved Jean-Paul. Beauvoir died in 1987, and was laid to rest beside her late partner.

Recently, along with my fourteen-year-old daughter Alex, I visited Paris to retrace the footsteps of this extraordinary couple. On an uncharacteristically warm and beautifully clear sunny day in October, we hired some bicycles and pedalled our way along the wide boulevards of Paris’s Latin Quarter in search of the cemetery where the objects of our pilgrimage were buried. Using our map of Paris to guide us, we eventually came across its entrance, nestled in Montparnasse on a quiet tree-lined residential street.

We secured our bikes, and proceeded into the grounds to be greeted by a little, slightly crumpled Frenchman sitting at the gate.

Je voudrais voir Sartre et Beauvoir’, I explained in my hesitant French.

He produced a well-worn laminated map and pointed out the location of Sartre and Beauvoir’s plots on it, over on the other side of the cemetery.

Merci’, I replied, at which point he suggested in thickly accented English:

‘Would you like to take the map with you – you can return it when you come back.’

I took up his kind offer, and as we set off into the cemetery grounds, I noticed as I read the guide he had given us that there were many other esteemed people buried here, including the French writer Marguerite Duras and the American critic Susan Sontag. There were a few other visitors strolling through the grounds, some like us looking for famous people, others paying their respects to deceased relatives and ancestors.

‘This is actually a really nice cemetery’, my daughter observed with an air of pleasant surprise (she had earlier been quite sceptical of my suggestion that visiting such a place would be a good way to spend the morning). I had to agree with her observation. Sunlight that filtered its way through branches and leaves of old plane trees that graced the cemetery grounds warmed our skin as we wormed our way through scattered headstones, some old and neglected, others well-tended with fresh flowers. Birds twittered serenely in the foliage above us as we traversed through this expectant landscape of cement tombs and inscribed stone.

After some time following the directions we had been given, my daughter called out that she had found it. Sure enough, there before us lay a faded sandstone grave bearing the names and years on this earth of our two philosophers. Beauvoir’s headstone was covered with lipstick kisses, lovingly placed there by a previous visitor. Both graves were littered with notes and objects from others from all around the world who had come here before us to pay their respects. I felt compelled, too, to write a note of thanks for the inspiration their works and lives had given me. I folded the handwritten message and left it there amongst the others. My daughter took a few photographs of me standing beside my muses.IMG_3845

In the twenty minutes or so that we lingered at the grave, a few other people came along to pay their respects in the warm silent Paris sunshine. A family speaking a language I didn’t understand arrived, chattered loudly, and pointed at the graves for a while before dispersing, guide book in hand. A young female student came and stood there quietly for a long period in deep reflection. An older lady and then a younger man, both on their own, turned up and stood there in silence. None of them wanted to talk. Each of these solitary pilgrims seemed to want to spend time alone with the thinkers, just as they had when they had read their books. After they all left I too spent some time alone with the writers who had filled my imagination years ago with stories of a bohemian and bustling Paris before, during and after the war.

My daughter and I left the graveside and proceeded to make our way back to the cemetery entrance, whereupon we came across a funeral service, where forty or fifty well-dressed mourners smoked cigarettes, talked and embraced quietly around the grave of their beloved. I found myself imagining the day when Sartre was buried here, when tens of thousands of mourners filled the whole cemetery to capacity. On that day Paris’s citizens had scrambled across headstones and climbed trees in chaotic scenes, trying to get a glimpse of their beloved hero before his casket was lowered into its grave. According to newspaper reports of the service, there was mayhem in the now-quiet cemetery that day as many in the crowd surged to see their philosophical idol before he was laid to rest. And in front of them all, given some space as a sign of respect, had been Simone de Beauvoir dressed in black, kneeling at the graveside and convulsed in grief.

I found myself wondering, as I returned the map to the man at the cemetery gates and cycled off with my daughter into the gloriously sunny day, whether a time would ever come again when thousands would turn up to say good-bye to a man or woman of ideas, or whether those days had passed into history forever.


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Visiting Sartre’s apartment

Sartre's apartment at 42 Rue Bonaparte

Sartre’s apartment at 42 Rue Bonaparte

It’s a warm early autumn evening in Paris and I’m standing across the street from Jean-Paul Sartre’s old apartment at 42 Rue Bonaparte in St-Germain-des-Pres. The sun is still out, although the shadows cast by the cafes, boutiques and galleries that grace this still-bohemian yet chic inner-city street are starting to lengthen. Scooters, motor bikes and cars bustle up and down the street, competing with local shoppers, promenading lovers, bookshop browsers and families in their Sunday best emerging from a late afternoon tea at the street’s famed specialty macaron patisseries. The footpath here is only two-and-half feet wide, so although it’s not too crowded, pedestrians regularly spill out on to the cobble-stoned street.

As I look up at the shuttered second-floor balcony of the legendary philosopher’s home, I recall from my reading that Sartre moved in here when he was forty-one years old to live with his mother, following the death of her second husband Joseph Mancy. Sartre had resented Mancy ever since he had inconsiderately displaced Sartre at the age of twelve from his position as sole object of his mother’s attention. As a child, the sensitive and lonely philosopher-to-be had no friends his own age, and had been inseparable from his mother ever since the death of his father when he was an infant.

When the opportunity presented itself for the forty-one-year-old to be reunited with his much-missed mother in her perfectly located apartment overlooking one of the Left Bank’s most charming and cosmopolitan streets, he couldn’t resist. The pair were joined by Eugénie, the mother’s longstanding faithful family maid, who insisted on referring to the now-famous adult Jean-Paul as she always had — by his childhood pet name of ‘Master Poulou’.

There is no sign or plaque today to mark the apartment’s previous esteemed resident. From my vantage position across the street, I scan the philosopher’s old residence, and can just make out what appears to be an art-deco table lamp, its light diffusing through a muslin curtain that flaps at the apartment’s full-length window in the warm evening breeze. I strain to see through the veil of shifting drapes, but other features of the apartment’s interior elude my gaze. At this point my imagination takes over, and I see the thick-spectacled writer, pipe in mouth, at his desk at the window looking out on to the jostling bohemian postwar Paris streetscape below, as he would have done in the 1940s and 50s when he lived here. Black-and-white photos I have seen of Sartre at work in his rue Bonaparte address come flooding back to me, in which he sits surrounded by untidily crammed bookshelves at a desk covered with paper, pencils, and an overflowing ashtray. According to those who knew him back then, the prodigious writer didn’t have the healthiest of lifestyles during these years. He didn’t like fruit or vegetables, maintaining his furious writing schedule on a diet that consisted almost entirely of sausage, cigarettes and up to fifty pills a day of the amphetamine Corydrane.

Like many successful writers, Sartre had a daily ritual, though his was unusual even by the standards of his fellow bohemian intellectuals and artistes. The first thing this Don Juan of philosophy would do every morning was to make it clear to whomever he had seduced the night before that she should now leave so that he could get on with his writing. After a coffee and morning cigarette, he would then set to work at his desk for several hours before breaking for lunch with his beloved companion and fellow-philosopher Simone de Beauvoir at the nearby Café de Flore or the Café Deux Magots. During lunch Sartre would discuss the progress of his morning’s writing with Beauvoir, but he would also invariably relate to her details of his most recent sexual conquest. Sartre had managed to convince the initially reluctant Beauvoir years earlier that, in keeping with the principles of freedom inherent in their existentialist philosophy, they should not only have an open relationship in which each was free to take on other lovers, but that they also had a duty to document their experiment in freedom and to disclose everything about these intimate encounters to each other. Remarkably, the two philosophers stayed faithful to this arrangement for the entire fifty years they were together.

After lunch Sartre would return to his apartment and Beauvoir to her hotel (the couple never lived together at any stage during their long, successful and highly unconventional relationship) and resume working through to the early evening.

It is now about 7pm and I’m not sure how long I’ve been standing here on rue Bonaparte caught up in my imaginings about Sartre’s life, but I notice the sun is starting to set. At this time of day sixty years ago, Sartre would have finished work and begun getting dressed to go out for an evening aperitif at one of his favourite local bars with Beauvoir and a few of their friends. They had an illustrious list of associates at the time, including fellow existentialist writer Albert Camus, avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and even, for a short period, Pablo Picasso.

La Hune Bookstore

La Hune Bookstore

I turn around to take in the surrounding view, and notice that directly across the street from Sartre’s old apartment is a bookstore. A large sign in the store window says Philosophie, underneath which is an impressive list of titles on Europe’s finest thinkers. I find the entrance to the store in a side-street around the corner and go inside, where I am greeted with row after row of works by and about Sartre, Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Levi -Strauss, Deleuze, Derrida, Hegel, Foucault and many others. The bookshop is full of other people browsing, who, as far as I can make out, are all French. I feel heartened to see such an interest in ideas and philosophy in this part of Paris so many years later.

I notice all the titles are in French. I ask the bookstore attendant, a rather gaunt but handsome young man with slicked-back dark hair, ‘avez-vous libres en anglais?’ He replies ‘non, seulement français’. They have nothing in English, only French. I purchase a slim volume about Kant as a souvenir, and as I leave the store, determine to myself that I will make a concerted effort to learn more French so I can read this and other books published in a country that clearly values ideas and literature much more than my own.



As I come out of the bookstore on to the side street, I encounter the beautiful St-Germain church, into which are streaming hundreds of worshippers for the evening mass. I follow them inside to be assailed by the sweet pungent scent of incense, and a church packed full of locals singing a hymn in full voice. To my right are candles lit to the memory of the departed. At the front of the church, beyond the jostling crowd of the faithful, are a flurry of priests in white performing the mass’s rituals. As I gaze around, intoxicated by the soaring voices, I take in the exquisitely beautiful stained glass windows and gothic statuettes leaning from the church’s interior walls and marble pillars.

After another hymn I leave and enter a small garden on the church’s grounds. A couple of people, each on their own, sit on bench seats absorbed in books they are reading. In the centre of the garden is a bust of the aforementioned poet Apollinaire. It is only later, on consulting my guidebook back in my hotel room, I read that this sculpture was done by his friend Picasso, and originally erected a block away in the Café di Flore, the favourite haunt of not only Apollinaire, but also his close friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I am also reminded that in St-Germain, Paris’s oldest church, lie the remains of the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes.

The sun has now almost completely set as I sit on one of the park benches in this beautiful garden with my fourteen-year-old daughter Alexandra, who is accompanying me on this pilgrimage of the French philosophers. And although this is only the first day of her first ever visit to Paris, I can already tell from the look in her eye it won’t be the last.

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Free Love


Sartre and de Beauvoir’s relationship lasted continuously for over fifty years from soon after they met in 1929 until Sartre’s death in 1980. But their relationship was a most unusual one. From the very beginning of the relationship, they agreed, at Sartre’s suggestion, that each would be free to take on other sexual partners as they pleased. But to avoid jealousy or the deceit characteristic of many bourgeois marriages, they would be totally honest with each other at all times about their other liaisons. As it turns out, they both took on many lovers and shared honestly with each other about their experiences. Sartre, in particular, seemed addicted to seduction, spending long periods pursuing his quarry, and keeping de Beauvoir informed of his progress. But de Beauvoir, too, had many lovers, a considerable number of them female.

Their lovers were often students, young actresses or courtesans, all plentiful in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

Both philosophers, by choosing this lifestyle, were being true to the existentialist philosophy they developed, which was based on exercising one’s personal freedom to create a life worth living. They also fulfilled what they believed was their duty to document this existentialist experiment, in the many novels, letters and memoirs they left behind.

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