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Simone de Beauvoir

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Jessica Rizzo

November 21, 2007

Critical Fem. Studies 

Simone de Beauvoir: The foremother of us all

Any study of the written works of Simone de Beauvoir would yield the conclusion that the author of The Second Sex was perhaps the most significant leader, example, and emblem of the feminist cause in the twentieth century.  Though arguably the most controversial as well, her impact cannot be underestimated.  Despite the fact that her prolific output of fiction, drama, memoir, essays, social and political critique could keep any scholar busy indefinitely, hers was a life that was in itself too interesting to be exiled from the realm of an inquiry into her feminism.  It is often great fun to explore the biography of such a figure, to extricate which plotlines in novels or thought lines in essays were lifted from the author’s life (In de Beauvoir’s case, nearly all).  To nosily uncover the glamorous and the sordid details brings to life the fascinating presence that can otherwise hide behind an impenetrable wall of words.  In Simone de Beauvoir’s case, however, the life emerges, a text as worthy of study as the “work.”              De Beauvoir was not ignorant of this.  Although she was in her fifties before she deemed her lifelong self-scrutiny in its unadulterated form something worthy of the world’s gaze and began writing her memoirs, she had a particular approach to writing that drove her from her first attempt to write a book at the age of seven through her lifetime.  De Beauvoir wrote, be it fiction or non-fiction, in an attempt to understand herself.  She wrote novels to disentangle her complicated feelings regarding the various love triangles she partook of over the years.  She wrote A Very Easy Death to straighten out her reactions to her mother’s death.   By and large, The Second Sex was a ferocious effort to understand her status as a woman in the world.  It certainly started out that way.  De Beauvoir wrote that the project originated, “almost by chance.  Wanting to talk about myself, I became aware that to do so I should first have to describe the condition of woman in general.”  In one interview she said, “One day I wanted to explain myself to myself.  I began to reflect all about myself and it struck me with a sort of surprise that the first thing I had to say was ‘I am a woman.’” The desire for deeper self knowledge is hardly unique among writers’ inspirations, but Simone de Beauvoir’s case is of special interest for several reasons.  First, she was far more aware and honest about her endeavors than most writers.  Second, depending on the angle, her life looked either like the perfect illustration of the kind of existence her writings called for, or like a perfect contradiction.  Third, an examination of her life and work reveals that for her, “understanding herself” often meant analyzing the ways in which she was different, generally far ahead of the times, and looking back to investigate why the French, or womankind, or humanity had not yet caught up with her.              Many critics of The Second Sex criticize Simone de Beauvoir for assuming the huge responsibility for writing about women without being one.  That is, they assert that de Beauvoir did not live the life of an ordinary woman, and they are absolutely right.  Some further contend that this separation undermines her authority on the subject, while others believe that the distance was what allowed her to write with the necessary amount of objectivity.  The reactions of women worldwide who felt such personal resonance with the essay that they imagined de Beauvoir must have been listening at their bedroom doors seems to suggest that the latter opinion is the truer.  Still, the remarkable degree to which she could remain objective is something that is often questioned, but very difficult to fully understand.  Simone de Beauvoir grew up in the most ordinary of families.  Everyone around her took it for granted that the greatest success to which she could aspire was the acquisition of a suitable husband.  De Beauvoir, the devout little Catholic, who attended a girls’ lycée that mandated homemaking courses which instructed young women in the art of being “docile, placid, and agreeable at all times, “ grew up to be the atheistic, “high priestess of existentialism” who advocated free love, and denounced the “slavery of marriage.”  It is extraordinary to see how this woman was able to more or less ignore her traditional, sexist, bourgeois upbringing and become the radical figure she was.  De Beauvoir would be the first to emphasize that no individual exists in a vacuum, independent of the society and culture into which they are born, but if ever one did, at least with regard to personal development, it was de Beauvoir.              In Deirdre Bair’s biography, Simone’s childhood is described in detail.  She was the oldest of two daughters, a beautiful child, high-spirited, precocious, intelligent, and infinitely more interesting to her father, Georges, than the younger, less curious and nimble-minded Hélène.  There are few clues to the mystery of her rejection of the bonds of traditional femininity in her upbringing.  George knew that she was a terribly clever child, and when she was still young he was more than happy to supply her with books (censored first of course by Francine de Beauvoir, the morality police), and engage with her in serious conversation about ideas.  Still, this brief burst of encouragement, which died off when her father realized she had reached marriageable age, scarcely seems an adequate explanation for the radical presumption that caused de Beauvoir to throw herself into higher education and academic competition with men, let alone the lifestyle and work of her later years.  Simone was deeply wounded when her father abruptly severed their nurturing relationship, rejecting her for not morphing gracefully into a lovely, passive bride-to-be when it would have been most convenient for her to do so.              Her ambition, sneered at by those she loved most, and by society as a whole, seemed to drive her forward regardless.  Where it came from is a mystery.  Simone simply saw herself as one of the boys.  When she was still very young, family members deemed her, “the girl with the man’s brain.”  She was the center of attention in her family, dictating her wishes and making them come true with temper tantrums.  She flat out refused to help her mother and sister with housework, an outrageous demand that Georges always validated by explaining that the girl had to study.  By the time her father was no longer on her side, everyone had become accustomed to this fact of life, and no one would ever have dared asked Simone de Beauvoir to take out the garbage.  The seemingly spontaneously generated and wholly independent strength of her will explains why she would later feel such an affinity for Sartre’s Existentialism.  The existentialist philosophy charges individual human beings with the responsibility for creating the meaning and essence of their lives as persons, a burden many consider too heavy to bear.  De Beauvoir, long before she met Sartre was living the life of the perfect existentialist.              One thing which no doubt made it so difficult for her to accept some of the later difference feminists was that all of her self-worth was tied to her proficiency for achievement in the male sphere.  That was feminism for her, being able to participate in the same philosophical conversation, and at the same level as minds like Sartre.  She scarcely noticed what an extraordinary accomplishment it was for her, a woman, to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and become the youngest person ever to pass the agrégacion, a competitive civil service examination.  As a young adult, she was almost entirely disconnected from her identity as a woman, at least in the professional and academic circles that were the center of her life.              Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre has long been the most troubling piece of her personal life for feminists who would otherwise have no qualms about accepting her as their unquestioned queen.  Simone met Sartre in 1929, and they began to work together when she was twenty-one and he was twenty-three.  Initially, their shared work consisted of helping one another study for the upcoming agrégacion, each attacking the other’s thesis with hypothetical questions so that they would be better prepared to defend themselves against a jury of examiners.  Sartre was immediately impressed by her intellect, in addition to finding her physically attractive, and had even gone out of his way to arrange an introduction through a mutual friend.  Simone described her initial impression, “I was intelligent, certainly, but Sartre was a genius.”  Both of them went on to pass the agrégacion with flying colors.  After what was reportedly an extremely difficult decision, the committee decided to award Sartre first place and Simone de Beauvoir second.  Here it was, in the very beginning, where the undeniable imbalance in their relationship began.  Simone did not need a collection of important philosophy professors to tell her that Sartre was more brilliant than she.  She subordinated herself from the start.  When the two of them began writing and publishing, regardless of whether Simone was working on an independent project, her first priority was always to read, edit, and comment on his original work.  Sartre would read look at her work if he had the time.  Assessments offered by agrégacion committee members provide some interesting information that may help explain the shape their relationship naturally took.  “If Sartre already showed great intelligence and a solid, if at times inexact, culture, everybody agreed that, of the two, she was the real philosopher,” recalled a M. Maurice de Gandillac who remembered de Beavoir as “rigorous, demanding, precise, very technical.”  From the start, he was the creative one, the original one, and she was the one with the sharper, clearer head for logical argument.  He did not have to espouse this, ask her to make critiquing his work a priority.  She had no illusions about how she measured up against his intellect, and she gave her time and energy to him and his writing freely.              This dynamic situated the couple perfectly for an evolution into the cultural icon they would later become.  Sartre published Being and Nothingness in 1943, and within the decade had earned himself the title, “Father of Existentialism.”  Simone de Beauvoir was known long afterwards, even to herself, as Sartre’s greatest disciple.  It is particularly interesting to compare Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s writing on relationships.  De Beauvoir wrote with greater subtlety and with more realistic detail about the female experience than Sartre who in Being and Nothingness discusses love and relationship as such, “In one sense if I am to be loved, I am the object by whose agency the world will exist for the Other; in another sense I am the world” (482). From the male perspective, of course, Sartre was able to consider the existence of others as the source of a kind of commentary on the self.  An individual need not even enter into real relationship to be submitted to the paralyzing Look of the other which makes us see ourselves as we are seen from without, which turns us into objects.  De Beauvoir’s enormous accomplishment with The Second Sex was to show how subjectivity has never been possible for woman at all.  Sartre writes of love as a sort of satisfying confusion of the subject-object roles.  He writes that the lover “wants to be the object in which the Other’s freedom consents to lose itself, the object in which the Other consents to find his being and his raison d’être as his second facticity” (479).  Sartre always wrote using the neutral “he” de Beauvoir takes issue with in the introduction to The Second Sex, but the language he uses to describe the lover-beloved relationship clearly crosses over into gender specificity.  Intentionally or not, his descriptions of the lover wishing to lose her freedom in and her consciousness in the beloved, and the lover wishing to see his existence reaffirmed in the eyes of the beloved reflect the historical gender roles still operating at the time.  Simone de Beauvoir simply named this in The Second Sex, called attention the fact that woman always happened to be that other concerned with devoting, submerging, losing herself in the subjectivity of man.  Sartre wrote about the subject-object connection as something that was relative, something that in all but the deepest and most fundamental ways changed based on the situation. De Beauvoir noticed that woman did not get to take turns being subject and object, in love relationships or otherwise.              One article in The New Yorker dubbed Simone de Beauvoir “The High Priestess of Existentialism,” but even when she was a high priestess, she was only a priestess serving the divine entity that was Sartre.  This arrangement has outraged feminists who would have found in de Beauvoir a less complicated, more perfect heroine and role model had she lived an entirely independent life, regarding herself as second to no one.            Aside from Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir’s life more or less matched up with that of “The Independent Woman” she describes in the last section of The Second Sex, “Towards Liberation.”  She always lived off of her own income, earned by teaching philosophy, or from her writing.  She never allowed herself to be enslaved by that contemptible bourgeois institution that she perceived  marriage to be, opting rather for a succession of lovers with whom she could sever ties immediately if she so chose, some affairs lasting decades, others only a night.  She was well-versed in the ways of birth-control of the time and never had to see her life crippled by the acquisition of a child.    The trouble is, for Simone, there was no “aside from Sartre,” and she would be the first to fly into a rage if anyone tried to erase his enormous presence from her life.  The two of them seem at once to be perfectly lucid when discussing their highly unusual relationship, and completely deluded.  “What is unique between Simone de Beauvoir and me is the equality of our relationship,” Sartre once said.  All her life, Simone held dear to her the dream of the “writing couple,” the perfect contingent relationship, a working professional partnership, but also one of absolute intimacy and honesty.  In many respects, she and Sartre were actually able to achieve this.  Their relationship lasted fifty years, remaining the central focus of both of their lives long after the sexual passion had dissipated.  Only his death in 1980 was able to separate them, and even after he was gone, she devoted herself to the memory of her great love, writing Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, and publishing his letters.              Simone de Beauvoir believed that she was Sartre’s intellectual inferior, and that his work was more important than hers, but this was not a conclusion she automatically drew because she was a woman.  In her mind, the only acceptable thing to do with one’s life was to devote oneself to the greatest work possible, and Sartre’s work was greater, more important than her own.  This is a very mature, very unselfish view, but one cannot help but wonder about the accuracy of her appraisal.  Certainly, if we today compare Sartre’s prolific output, with the comparatively few original works Simone de Beauvoir produced in her lifetime, Sartre wins the numbers game.  Still, he most definitely would not have been able to accomplish all he did without her help, and she most definitely would have been able to accomplish more had she not devoted most of her life to editing for him.  It is difficult to ignore the fact that professionally, they fell into the traditional male-dominant relationship, especially given other imbalances in their personal lives such as the number of outside lovers he had, compared to her, and how much he took in the relationship where she gave.              For Simone de Beauvoir, the love she shared with Sartre was perhaps a limitation on her freedom, but it was not a limitation that ate up her life and reduced her creative capacities.  Sartre was her lover, but also her intellectual hero.  She devoted herself to him as a disciple devotes herself to a visionary.  We seldom scorn such devoted disciples for not each creating wholly original movements or ideological systems.  Their love limited her, but carrying the most remote concern or feeling for another human being in one’s heart is limiting.  An entirely selfish individual naturally has the greater power of agency, since he need think only of himself, but such individuals do not exist.  Their professional relationship was actually much more significant than their romantic relationship for posterity, as well as for they themselves.  De Beauvoir has been criticized for the secondary professional role she played, but it is a criticism she never understood.  Entirely independent achievement, the kind one can put one’s name on, purely for the sake of independence is something de Beauvoir almost laughed at, in the face of so much important work to be done.  In The Second Sex, she writes, “I heard a charwoman declare, while scrubbing the stone floor of a hotel lobby: ‘I never asked anybody for anything; I succeeded all by myself.’ She was as proud of her self-sufficiency as a Rockefeller.”  Such a route was not for Simone de Beauvoir.  Her relationship with Sartre mainly opened up a new kind of agency for her.  With him she gained the ability to work with and through real genius in a symbiotic way that was quite different from the restrictive, androcentric, heterosexual relationship she denounced.  In her pseudo-autobiographical novel The Mandarins, the disillusioned Sartre character remarks, “You can’t draw a straight line in a curved space.  You can’t lead a proper life in a society which isn’t proper.”  Simone de Beauvoir did seem to draw this straight line, and the implausibility of it has driven fans and critics mad.  Fitting into that crooked space cost her, if it makes her extraordinary life seem more conceivable.  The piercing precision and stone-cold strength of the voice of the woman who wrote The Second Sex was strikingly incongruent with that of the woman who for decades in the habit of weeping into a glass of red wine at a café in the Saint Germain de Prés.  Still, whatever doubts she had about herself, however imperfect the lifestyle was, she took massive steps forward, and when she found an idea or a position she felt she could identify with in her life or her work, she clung to it, as if the strength of her conviction could make it true for everyone.               Simone de Beauvoir’s life, while complicated and certainly not without its contradictions, was a revolutionary and a laudable one, and should in no way negate or tarnish the legacy she left for feminists.  Not only was her life a sort of model for modern relationships in certain ways, much of her work actually served as a call for the kind of feminism we have today.  De Beauvoir would no doubt have been horrified at the splintering of the feminist movement that has occurred.  In her own time, de Beauvoir had to face the difference feminism split that occurred in America, and it outraged her.  When The Second Sex was first published in France, it was a sensation.  It took four years for the piece to get translated and published in the United States, by which time feminism had changed, almost enough to begin outgrowing de Beauvoir and her philosophy.  She quickly became feminism’s “sacred monster,” more valuable as a figurehead than for the ideas she actually had to offer.  The biggest issue younger feminists took with de Beauvoir was her treatment of the “problem” of the female body.  In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir treats the body as an obstacle to be conquered.  She speaks of the blessings of birth control and improving technologies that were making it increasingly possible for a woman to ignore not only biology, but the fact of her own corporeal existence.  Of course, de Beauvoir came from a heavy philosophy background, and was no doubt flummoxed to some degree by the theoretical mind-body problem, and she correctly observed that for women the problem was more pronounced, but her discussion of women’s’ bodies neglected some important real world concerns.              The obvious problem, one to which de Beauvoir consistently refused to give satisfactory attention, is that however many degrees of success we might achieve while trying to minimize the existence of the body, it is ultimately a doomed project, and many women have judged it to be a better use of their time to honestly confront their bodies, perhaps even to see what is good about the body.  Also, though de Beauvoir persuasively argued away the notion that childbirth is the mandatory obligation of every woman, she could not get around the fact that bearing children is a necessary operation, and women are the only ones who can do it.              Many feminists of the day responded to de Beauvoir’s not adequately helpful advice in this area by becoming difference feminists, a faction for which de Beauvoir felt mostly contempt, as they championed values and attitudes that were in direct conflict with the views expressed in The Second Sex.  In the book’s conclusion, she writes “It is not sure that [woman’s] ‘ideational worlds’ will be different from those of men, since it will be through attaining the same situation as theirs that she will find emancipation.”  Difference feminists rejected this strategy, and since the 1950’s, feminism has only splintered into tinier and more diverse warring factions.  Despite the negative views Simone de Beauvoir adopted towards feminists disloyal to the main movement and anyone who did not agree with her personal philosophy, it seems likely that the state of feminism today would have delighted her.  Feminism has splintered so far that it is all but impossible to talk about “feminism” anymore.  So many of the more recently developed feminisms are hybrid ideological systems that have to do with the female relationship to some other issue.  Feminist disability advocates, the African-American womanists, eco-feminists; these are but a few examples of the feminisms that have emerged more recently, and they are feminisms that reflect greater freedom for women than the feminisms of fifty years ago.  The disjointed feminism we have today is not the sign of a weakening or breaking down of the feminist cause, but a hopeful sign.  Women, even in their fight for liberation, can afford to differ from each other today as they never could before.  They have Simone de Beauvoir to thank for this.  She exposed and explained the cultural and historical factors that forced us all to be the same, and though she reacted poorly to it in her own time, the branching off that feminism is doing now is taking advantage of the freedom she provided by showing us how misleading our assumptions about women’s limitations were.              Simone de Beauvoir will have finally triumphed when her kind of feminism is no longer necessary.  The recent New York Times article that examined the case democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is trying to make for himself as a new sort of post-feminist candidate, the best candidate for women even though he is a man, may signify the beginning of the kind of world de Beauvoir hoped for.  She wanted a world where gender would not factor into the equation, where one’s sex would in no way impede one’s freedom.  Such a world is slowly coming into being, and the mark of de Beauvoir’s success will be the moment when her work becomes largely irrelevant, detailed descriptions of a world that no longer exists.   Works Consulted:Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Summit Books, 1990.Beauvoir, Simone de. The Mandarins. Cleveland: Meridian Books 1960Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Alfred Knopf Inc., 1952.Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1956