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|Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) - in full Simone Lucie-Ernestine-Marie-Bertrand de Beauvoir|
French philosopher, novelist, and essayist, the lifelong companion of Jean-Paul Sartre and vice versa. Beauvoir's two volume treatise Le deuxième sexe (1949, The Second Sex), which the Vatican placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, is one of the most widely read feminist works. Her own life Beauvoir documented in a monumental, four-volume autobiography. She once stated:
"When we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the "division" of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form."
Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris into a bourgeois family. Her father, Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir, was a lawyer, whose fortunes declined after World War I. Bertrand de Beauvoir's lineage could be traced to Guillaume de Champeaux, one of the founders of the University of Paris. Beauvoir's mother, Françoise Brasseur, was a devout Roman Catholic, born to a family engaged in government servide and banking; she raised her daughters in a strict, traditional mode. However, as an adolescent Beauvoir rejected the religious and social values of her background.
Beauvoir was educated at Catholic girls' schools. Her teenage years Beauvoir spent hoping to marry her cousin Jacques Champigneulle, whom she had known since childhood, but Jacques never proposed her. In 1926, Beauvoir entered the Sorbonne, where she studied philosophy and literature. At the age of 21 she passed the difficult final examination, agrégation. The philosophy agrégation had been opened to women during the period between the two word wars. After having a discussion with Jean-Paul Sartre, the star student of the École Normale Supérieure, she confessed: "I'm no longer sure what I think, nor whether I can be said to think at all." Beauvoir eventually joined Sartre's circle, and became his most trustworthy critic, who read his new manuscript before he sent it to a publisher.
Upon graduation, Beauvoir taught philosophy in several schools in Marseille, Rouen, and Paris. Until being dismissed by the German authorities, she worked from 1941 to 1943 as a professor at the Sorbonne. During the Nazi occupation of France, Beauvoir apparently was not involved with the activities against the Germans. In the late 1944 she founded with Sartre Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Aron the monthly review Les Temps modernes, which took its name from Charlie Chaplin's film. For twenty-five years the review was the most prominent forum for radical political and philosophical debate.
Beauvoir and Sartre met Albert Camus, a member of the Resistance, at the opening performance of Sartre's Les Mouches in Paris in 1943; they talked about books. For a while they were good friends, spending their evenings together with an assortment of friends drinking, dancing, and having impromptu gatherings. Beauvoir took a new interest in cooking. Camus, a regular guest in her apartment on the Rue de Seine, once said that the quality was not exactly brilliant but the quantity was just right. After the war she abandoned cooking and served usually cold meats, cheese and salads.
Beauvoir's Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947, The Ethics of Ambiguity) was colored by the post-war disillusionment. "The problems which seem to her most important are those of mass political action, the relation of a man to his party, and of the party to the people it serves; the problem of how to win freedom by violent means that temporarily deny it. How is the Liberal (or Christian) spirit of individualism to survive a long era of ideological warfare?" (Iris Murdoch in Mind, 59, April 1950)
L'Invitée, Beauvoir's first book, came out in 1943. Before this work she had been writing fiction for over ten years. The fictionalized treatment of Sartre's affair with the young Olga Kosakievicz was born from a crisis that threatened her relationship with him. Françoise and Pierre, the protagonists, are people of the theatre world. Used to share all secrets, their motto is: "You and I are simply one. That is the truth, you know. Neither of us can be described without the other." Xavière, aged twenty, takes up an apprenticeship with Pierre's drama group. Françoise finds that there is something in Pierre's life she cannot share. She sees her as a play object for Pierre. Françoise has an affair with a young man called Gerbert, in whom Xavière also has an interest. Françoise's world of perfect communication with Pierre is destroyed and she realizes that Pierre has lived only for himself. At the end, Françoise kills Xavière. "Without losing its perfect form, their love, their life, was slowly losing its substance, like those huge, apparently invulnerable cocoons, whose soft integument yet conceals microscopic worms that painstakingly consume them." Bauvoir tells that ultimately one is alone – some experiences cannot be shared.
Le Sang des autres (1945) was a novel dealing with the question of political involvement. Beauvoir wrote the work at a time when the final outcome of World War II was still unknown, but in the character of Jean she gave her support to the French Resistance. Jean Blomart is a wealthy young man. He breaks with his family and joins the Communist Party. He meets Hélène, a naive individualist, who lives just for the moment, and do not understand Jean's commitment to his beliefs. Jean must choose between political activism and his private responsibilities. He realizes that he can find freedom in action without love. "He too was alone; he had been wandering all over Paris since morning, with his demobilization gratuity in his pocket; the printing works were closed, his mother was far from Paris. He knew nothing about Hélène. He was alone but he was there. A complete man." The book was filmed in 1982 by Claude Chabrol, starring Jodie Foster as Hélène, who is ready to die for her love, for Jean (Michael Ontkean).
Beauvoir's breakthrough work was semiautobiographical Les Mandarins (1954), which won the Prix Concourt. The central characters, psychologist Anne Dubreuilh, and her husband Robert, were thinly veiled de Beauvoir and Sartre. The third wheel, American Lewis Brogan, was the novelist Nelson Algren. Beauvoir had met Algren in 1947 in the United States where she was on a lecture tour. Algren wished to marry her but in the end she remained loyal to Sartre, who was "a warm, lively man everywhere, but not in bed", as she once said to Algren. Beauvoir addressed the book to leftist intellectuals with a plea to abandon their elitist "mandarin" status, and to participate in the real world political struggle.
"I raise myself on my elbow, I look at the house, the linden tree, the cradle in which Maria is sleeping. It's a day like any other, and in appearance the sky is blue. But what a desert! Everything is still. Perhaps that stillness in only the silence of my heart. There is no more love in me, for anyone, for anything. I used to think, "The world is vast inexhaustible; a single existence is hardly enough to drink your fill of it." And now, I look at it with indifference; it's nothing but a huge place of exile." (in The Mandarins)
Les Mandarins and the feminist classic The Second Sex (1949), were banned by Roman Catholic authorities. Beauvoir argued that "one is not born a woman; one becomes one". Women are "the other", the sex defined by men and patriarchy as not male, and consequently they are less than fully human. Judith Okeley has said that Beauvoir in fact produced "an anthropological village study of specific women", in which the village is that of mid-century Paris and the women are mainly middle-class. (Simone de Beauvoir. A Re-Reading, 1986) Critics have questioned de Beauvoir's assumptions of the male as norm, but her views about misogyny in myth and literature have been extremely influential.
Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958) was the first of four volume memoirs. Beauvoir described her happy childhood, intellectual development and of course Sartre. It was followed by La Force de l'âge (1960), La Force des choses (1963), and Tout compte fait (1972), which examined from an existentialist perspective her choices between love and work.
Beauvoir herself thought that she had not influenced Sartre at all, "because she felt that she was not a philosopher, but rather a literary writer." (Beauvoir and the Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism by Margaret A. Simons, 1999) She recalled, that once when Raymond Aron and Sartre had a series of conversations, she was excluded because her "mind moved too slowly for them." In general, Beauvoir differed from Sartre with her focusing on women's condition and tracing of sociopolitical, economic and ideological conditions behind freedom. Her own philosophical studies, Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944) and The Ethics of Ambiguity, show the influence of Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943), and are not considered her best work.
When De Gaulle seized power in 1958, Beauvoir was so disappointed she burst into tears. During the following ywars, Beauvoir travelled widely, often with Sartre, visiting Portugal, Tunis, Switzerland, Italy, USA, and China. She was with Sartre when he met Castro and Khrushchev but she did not enjoy these public occasions. Moreover, she did not accept Castro's political purges and persecution of homosexuals.
Although Beauvoir was a well-known figure in the service of social and political causes, she behaved reticently toward people who did not belong to the small circle of her intimates. The photographer Gisèle Freund, who met her from time to time for over forty years, noted that she seldom smiled. "Not smiling was probably her way of protecting herself from others," Freund concluded. (Photographer by Gisèle Freund, 1985)
In the late 1960s, Beauvoir became involved with the feminist movement, but her engagement was first largely intellectual. Especially she championed on issues dealing with abortion and sexual violence. With Sartre she participate in 1967 in the Bertrand Russell Tribunal of War Crimes in Vietnam. Originally he thought that "I would not have to do very much more than lend my name", but actually she had to follow Sartre to several meetings in the Eastern European and Latin American countries.
In her later works Beauvoir depicted the problems of aging and society's indifference to the elderly. Une mort très douce (1964) dealt with the illness and death of her mother. Beauvoir asked herself, why this loss had shocked her so much. When her father died, she had only mentioned it as a fact in the memoirs. At the end of the book she realizes that there is no such thing as a natural death.
Beauvoir's book on Sartre's last years, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre appeared in 1981. After his death her life was marked by bitter disputes with Arlette Elkaim. At the age of 18, the young Algerian Jewish student had telephoned Sartre discuss about Being and Nothingness. He liked her and started to do more and more his writing at Arlette's apartment. Eventually Sartre adopted Arlette and spent several weeks each summer in the house he had bought her in the south of France.
During the last period of her life, Beauvoir's drinking habits hastened her physical and mental collapse. She had always liked the taste of alcohol and she could drink men under the table. And like Sartre, she used drugs, mostly amphetamines. Beauvoir died in Paris, on April 14, 1986. She was buried in the same grave as Sartre.
For further reading: Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Womanby Toril Moi (2008); The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir by Emily R. Grosholz (2004); Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism by Nancy Bauer (2001); Beauvoir and the Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism by Margaret A. Simons (1999); Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography by Deirdre Bair (1990); Simone de Beauvoir by J. Heath (1989); The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir by E. Fallaize (1988); Simone de Beauvoir by L. Appignanesi (1988); Simone de Beauvoir: An Annotated Biography by J. Bennett and G. Hochmann (1988); Simone de Beauvoir: A Life, a Love Story by C. Francis and F. Gontier (1987); Simone de Beauvoir by J. Okely (1986); Simone de Beauvoir, a Femnist Mandarin by M. Evans (1985); After the Second Sex by A. Schwartzer (1984); Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment by A. Whitmarsh (1981) - Place to see: Café de flore, 172 boulevard Saint-Germain , 75006 - Haut of Sartre, de Beauvoir and the Existentialists. Other important feminist writers: Marilyn French, Betty Friedman, Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing