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Simone de Beauvoir’s second coming

For decades Simone de Beauvoir was seen as a mere accessory to Sartre. But we are only beginning to understand her contribution to today’s politics.

The opening pages of the titular novella of Simone de Beauvoir’s 1967 trilogy, The Woman Destroyed, start promisingly enough. A woman gazes in wonder at an autumn landscape. She is travelling alone, having kissed her husband goodbye at the airport. Her children have left home. She is free. “For the surprising thing about it is my being here, and the cheerfulness of my being here,” she writes in her diary, with an enthusiasm she has not felt since her twenties. Pretty soon, it all goes wrong. The husband is having an affair. No longer able to see herself through his eyes, no more wife, lover, mother, she unravels. She – or one version of herself – is destroyed.

In her excellent new biography, Kate Kirkpatrick tells us that The Woman Destroyed was Beauvoir’s great flop. Not many people wanted to read about the destruction of a middle-aged woman’s life, about loss, ageing, helplessness, madness (or unexplained vaginal bleeding). There’s no exit in the story. No last-minute recognition that tramping alone through an undiscovered landscape in the autumn of life unencumbered by husband, children, femininity, maternity, etc, might just be fabulous. Only the relentless unravelling of a mirage of a woman, and a lesson learned tragically too late. “To know your limits, you have to be able to go beyond them,” she concludes, “in other words, you have to be able to jump right over your own shadow.”

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant, still crisp, formulation from The Second Sex (1949) is now as legendary as the turbans she took to wrapping around her hair in the war years. One interpretation of this famous phrase is now feminist orthodoxy: anatomy is not destiny; it is the cultural meanings of gender that “make” women out of us. This is a truth reconfirmed every time women catch sight of themselves in the male gaze: “Oh her again,” we sigh, “whoever she is, that gendered construction of someone resembling myself,” having her thigh pawed, her labour cheapened, her words ignored.

But what if we’ve only understood half of Beauvoir’s lesson? Kirkpatrick’s biography shows why we’ve much more to learn from Beauvoir than the tiresome bad faith involved in being a woman in a crassly gendered world. We are not just “made” women, we must also deal with the more difficult existential, moral, and eventually political work of becoming a woman. If women are to unpin their wings from the absoluteness of the male gaze, they must first learn to jump over their own shadows. Then – and this is the real existential question – who knows what might follow?

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Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher, writer, icon, feminist and long-term companion of existentialism’s bad-boy frog-prince Jean-Paul Sartre, certainly had many shadows to jump over, both in her own life and in the many lives – in biographies, public imagination, philosophy and feminist theory – that she has lived since her death in April 1986, almost six years to the day after Sartre died.

The largest shadow, of course, was Sartre himself. The two met at the prestigious École Normale, where she was studying for the agrégation in philosophy. A high-bourgeois Catholic girl with a precocious academic talent, Beauvoir, who was born in Paris in 1908, had worked hard to get this far. The examiners very nearly awarded her first place in the oral exam on the grounds that she was the “true philosopher”, but Sartre (who’d failed the exam first time round) was judged the true normalien – as a woman, Beauvoir could only attend classes and was not officially enrolled at the school, so she came second.

Many have also assumed Beauvoir was also unfairly demoted to second place by Sartre. In their now salaciously infamous pact outside the Louvre, the young lovers swore their commitment to one another – and to the freedom to take other lovers, the “contingent thirds”, as they became known, in a phrase that ill-serves any of those involved. It was an arrangement that lasted until their deaths.

Pretty much everything written about Beauvoir since begins with the question of her philosophical and sexual (or, as it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, not so sexual) relation to Sartre. In the early years, the story was as crass in its sexism as it was blithely overconfident about the political and historical challenges presented by existentialism. Beauvoir was derivative. She wrote in Sartre’s shadow. The Second Sex was simply existentialism pour les femmes. Her hugely successful novels, including She Came to Stay (1943), the wartime The Blood of Others (1945) and the immense The Mandarins (1954) were complex meditations on how to live right by others as well as by oneself in the direst of historical circumstances. But they were received as clever romans-à-clef that merely put Sartre’s ideas into pseudo-fictional scenarios.

Her later memoirs, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Force of Circumstance (1963), A Very Easy Death (1964) and All Said and Done (1972), exposed the darkest places of being – love, death, intimacy, guilt – to unforgiving scrutiny. Yet these were not read as strikingly original developments in the long history of philosophical life-writing, but as exercises in living as Sartre thought you should. When Le Monde announced Beauvoir’s death, it did so with the headline:“Her works: more popularisation than creation.”

This was already a pretty silly thing to say in 1986. From the 1960s on, Beauvoir had thrown her own shade on second-wave feminism, helping create networks of resistance and solidarity that simply had not been available to her when she wrote The Second Sex in the late 1940s. She was instrumental in campaigns for abortion rights and birth control throughout the 1970s. In 1973, the journal that she and Sartre had set up, Les Temps Modernes, dedicated a column to exposing the grotesque absurdities of misogyny with wit and derision: it was called “Everyday Sexism”. She started a campaign to outlaw sexist hate speech on the same terms as racist abuse.

So often Beauvoir is presented as being quintessentially of her time: in smoky cafés drinking apricot cocktails, rolling between sheets and philosophical controversies, red coat matching her lipstick, moving through the era’s longest-running nouvelle vague movie along with its best-known actors: Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Violette Leduc, Claude Lanzmann (17 years her junior, and the only male lover she addressed as tu). But we are only just beginning to realise how relevant she is to our time as well.

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If it has been difficult to appreciate this radical Beauvoir until now, this is partly due to the trashing her reputation received immediately after her death. The publication of her letters to Sartre in 1988 suggested a breezy disregard for some of the “contingent thirds” – the young female students who became her lovers, who she then passed on to Sartre. When both she and Sartre tired of Olga Kosakiewicz (the “she” in She Came to Stay) Beauvoir embarked on a long-term affair with Kosakiewicz’s boyfriend and later husband, Sartre’s own former student, Jacques-Laurent Bost. Was this liberating sexual contingency or mere moral indifference?

Others worried about the extent to which Beauvoir seemed to efface herself before Sartre’s reputation. Why does she “seize every opportunity to declare herself intellectually inferior to Sartre?” despaired Toril Moi in her 2008 biography. Beauvoir was not a woman in the right way or not a feminist in the right way; in neither casting of her life has there been much space for appreciating her “becoming” in the sense that Kirkpatrick wants us to understand.

The Beauvoir reintroduced to us in this book is a full and critical partner in Sartre’s existentialist project. Kirkpatrick has combed through Beauvoir’s student diaries (as yet untranslated), the more recently published letters with Lanzmann, and previously uncollected and unpublished writings to show us a complex woman who knew – long before her detractors – that the stakes in existentialism were profoundly moral and political.

The key existentialist question is: how can I get to be myself in a world full of others who want me to be for them? Sartre thought this was why we are forever locked in conflict, struggling for mastery over other people. But even as a student Beauvoir understood that the struggle to exist was a more nuanced affair than the faux-heroic posturing assumed by some of Sartre’s fanboys.

As early as 1944, in her very first full-length work of philosophy, Pyrrhus and Cinéas, she was worrying about the political morality of existentialism. If there is neither God nor any secular determinist plot to guide us, if all life is merely the struggle to exist, what’s the point of doing anything? It was a question that resonated sharply during the Nazi occupation.

Her answer was that we should care about our actions – both because we can control our actions in a way we cannot control the world (particularly when it is overrun by fascists), and because it is through our actions that we become who we are. People are too quick to resign themselves to the idea that doing good is impossible, she repeated in an essay published in Les Temps Modernes just a year later, “but they are reluctant to envision that it could be possible and difficult”.

Kirkpatrick rightly describes this as Beauvoir’s forgotten ethics of love. An essential – perhaps the essential – project of becoming Beauvoir was the difficult but possible act of loving authentically in spite of the limits given to us by the world; despite being made a “woman” for example. To jump over your own shadow, in the end, is to discover yourself in a world of other people. This may be hell, as in Sartre’s version (“hell is other people” are the famous closing words of his play, No Exit), but this is also where the human condition is really and messily encountered. True enough, Beauvoir got her fingers sticky on other people’s lives (and bodies) in the process, but hers was never a philosophy of completion or mastery. The book she wrote in response to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was called The Ethics of Ambiguity.

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A politics of ambiguity followed. In 1960 Beauvoir began advocating on behalf of Djamila Boupacha, a militant from the Algerian National Liberation Front, who had been arrested for attempting to bomb a café in Algiers. Boupacha had been brutally tortured and raped. She never denied her involvement, or her commitment to overthrowing French colonialism, but contested her sentence on the grounds of her torture. Beauvoir’s opening lines in the introduction to the book published in 1961 on the case read: “A 23-year-old Algerian woman, an FLN agent, has been imprisoned, tortured, and raped with a bottle by the French military: it is banal.”

In the same year, another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, would use the phrase the “banality of evil” to describe the thoughtless mendacity of the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, then on trial in Jerusalem. The cases were different, but both women had in their sights the lethal banality of collective indifference. For Beauvoir, the insouciance with which the French casually condoned colonial violence was a political, moral and existential outrage. It nearly broke her. Witnessing the Algerian War in her forties and fifties was as devastating as living under Nazi occupation had been in her thirties; worse, even, because now she could see the continuities and complicities more clearly. In her memoir, Force of Circumstance, Beauvoir wrote of this period: “I needed my self-esteem to go on living, and yet I was seeing myself through the eyes of women who had been raped twenty times, of men with broken bones, of crazed children: a Frenchwoman… I wanted to stop being an accomplice in this war, but how?”

We would be justified in suggesting that there was more than a little white-woman-existential-feminist-saviour-complex going on here. The literary critic and Palestinian activist Edward Said would later recall Beauvoir arrogantly opining “babble… about Islam and the veiling of women” when he visited the couple in Paris following the Camp David Accords in 1979 (he also found Sartre disappointing, but for different reasons). But there is also a sense that Beauvoir knew that becoming a woman also meant owning up to one’s own false alibis – seeing not only what one’s situation denied you, but also what it gave you.

Ditching the faithless spouse and taking off for an autumn road trip might be one jump over the shadow of patriarchy, but when colonial violence is being done in your name, it would still be an act of bad faith. This is a grown-up existentialism that sometimes has been hard to see beyond the glamorous turpitude and celebrity soirées of existentialist mythology.

If there is a Beauvoir text that we might also do well to engage with today, it is the short, as yet untranslated, Privilèges. One can be born privileged, she argues there, but through one’s actions one can become something other in the world, without, possibly, sucking up too much space in the process. If “there’s one thing to learn from the life of Simone de Beauvoir”, Kirkpatrick concludes, “it is this: no one becomes herself alone”. More than 30 years after her death, we’ve barely begun to understand what this means. 

Lyndsey Stonebridge is professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham. Her most recent book is “Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees” (Oxford University Press)

Becoming Beauvoir: A Life
Kate Kirkpatrick
Bloomsbury, 496pp, £20

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries