For your first piece in our “Know Who You’re Googling” series, Loretta Barnard looks at the brilliant and viciously marginalised Simone de Beauvoir.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)—philosopher, novelist, academic, feminist, journalist, activist, trailblazer. She was born and died in Paris, and although quintessentially French, she was a woman for the whole world.
The acutely intelligent Simone graduated from the Sorbonne in 1929. Aged 21, she completed post-graduate studies and became the youngest person to qualify as a philosophy teacher in France.
It is, of course, impossible to discuss de Beauvoir without reference to Jean-Paul Sartre. When they met in 1929, she felt she’d met her intellectual equal. They bounced ideas off one another for over fifty years, and appear to embody the Shakespearean idea of “a marriage of true minds.”
Intellectually bound, they never married, preferring to live their existential philosophy that eschewed absolutes and promoted individual freedoms.
This meant that they could have sexual relationships with other people. In spite of his unprepossessing appearance and reported hygienic ambivalence, Sartre was a bit of a lad and certainly made the most of this arrangement. There was no shortage of willing partners.
Simone herself enjoyed a number of affairs but not on the scale of her beloved Sartre. I wonder what she really thought about his constant sexual infidelity. It’s one thing to embrace this as a philosophical stance on an intellectual level, but emotionally? I, for one, couldn’t do it.
At one stage, Simone and Sartre formed a three-way relationship with a student, which inspired Simone to write the novel She Came to Stay (1943). In it she describes how the lengthy sojourn of a young girl in a couple’s home wreaked havoc on their relationship. As well as examining the complexities of relationships, the novel also explores existential themes and considers the ambiguity between individual liberties and social responsibilities.
This was a theme she expanded on in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), where she wrote:
“As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it.”
The work she is most famous for is The Second Sex (1949), in which she challenged the nature and structure of the patriarchal system, stating that longtime existing political, social, and theological practices had created a world in which women were deemed inferior to men. She exhorted women to liberate themselves from the patriarchy by becoming more self-sufficient and striving for economic independence.
When she claimed that the whole “wife-mother” thing is a construct devised by men to keep women in their place, people were affronted.
It all caused a bit of an uproar and established its author as an influential feminist. The Second Sex is still a core text in feminist philosophical studies.
Her novel The Mandarins (1954) won the Prix Goncourt, pretty much the acme of French literary awards. At its heart, it questions the role of intellectuals in post-war Europe. It’s political and philosophical but also partly autobiographical (the two main characters are clearly substitutes for Simone and Sartre).
All the while, Simone continued to write philosophical and political essays. She also wrote four volumes of autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958) is possibly the best known. Commentators aver that these volumes provide an excellent overview of French intellectual life from before World War II up to the early 1970s.
Simone de Beauvoir is remembered primarily as a feminist philosopher, but as she grew older, she considered the issue of ageing. A Very Easy Death (1964), Old Age (1970) and Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981) are critical of the generally apathetic treatment of the elderly in society, a topic that’s sadly regularly in the news these days.
A thinker till her last breath, Simone died in 1986. She was buried in the same grave as Sartre.