FEBRUARY 15, 2021
WE KNOW SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR as a prize-winning novelist and memoirist, existentialist philosopher and political actor, companion of Jean-Paul Sartre, and chronicler of her times. But we did not know her as a rival to Ann Landers — at least until now. Yet this, in effect, is the stunning revelation in historian Judith G. Coffin’s new book, Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir. During her postwar career as one of France’s best-known intellectuals, Beauvoir found herself thrust into the role, if not the title, of advisor for le courrier du coeur (the “letters from the heart” feature in popular newspapers).
One of the differences, of course, is that the correspondence between Beauvoir and her readers was not the stuff of newspaper columns — indeed, was not even public knowledge. Several years ago, Coffin had the great fortune to be the first researcher to open an uncataloged Beauvoir archive at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: 46 boxes containing some 11,000 letters sent to Beauvoir by her readers from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. No less fortunately, Coffin had the great intelligence and skill to translate these letters into English for us and cast them in a lucid and fascinating account of Beauvoir’s relationship to her readers then and since.
Beauvoir first caught the attention of many of these readers as the author of Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). Published in 1949, the book was, in Sarah Bakewell’s apt phrase, an experiment in “applied existentialism.” With nearly encyclopedic range, Beauvoir attempted to distill the lived experiences of women through the abstract concepts of existentialists. With her clarion call that “one is not born, but instead becomes a woman” (“on ne naît pas femme, on le devient”), Beauvoir revealed the ways in which women are condemned to lives of bad faith, assuming the roles imposed upon them by men. In the consequent clash with their subjective selves, Beauvoir argued, women confront a chronic existential crisis of how to be a woman.
In a nation still reeling from the material, social, and political wounds inflicted by four years of German occupation, the book was a literary bombshell — a choc littéraire, galvanizing as many readers as it scandalized. Particularly bracing or bewildering was Beauvoir’s mapping of the minefields of sexuality and maternity that all women must navigate. While the très catholique (and très misogynistic) novelist François Mauriac lamented the decadent portrayal of France that Beauvoir offered to the world, other writers hailed her moral courage and clarity. Anne Desclos (a.k.a. Dominique Aury), an influential critic and editor (as well as author, under the pen name Pauline Réage, of The Story of O [Histoire d’O, 1954]), praised Beauvoir for violating “the rules of decency and good upbringing” (“les règles de la pudeur et de la bonne éducation”), as well as for breaking the monopoly that doctors and priests held on discussions of sex.
But the Mauriacs and Aurys were not the only ones who felt compelled to respond to Beauvoir’s book. While we do not think of Beauvoir as a dispenser of sexual advice, Coffin remarks, “readers had good reason to see her this way.” It was not The Second Sex alone that gave readers this reason, but also the cascade of memoirs and novels that soon followed. From her roman à clef The Mandarins (1954) to the novelesque Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, 1958), Beauvoir encouraged her readers — as did Jean-Jacques Rousseau two centuries earlier — to see her as a friend and confidant. Beauvoir received thousands of letters in which her correspondents sought advice ranging from the everyday, such as where they could find contraceptives, to the existential, such as how they can lead lives of authenticity.
While many readers sought Beauvoir’s views, many others simply wanted her ear. “Since your first books,” one correspondent wrote, “then The Second Sex, then the memoirs, I have wanted to ‘talk’ to you.” Readers wanted to talk about their grief over flailing or failed marriages, their confusion over what they had been taught to want and what they knew they rightly wanted, their gratitude to Beauvoir for finding the words and strength to express what they themselves neither could nor would. For many of these correspondents, the meaning of courrier du coeur becomes nearly visceral. Quoting a line about “penetrating into the lives of others” from Beauvoir’s 1960 memoir The Prime of Life (La Force de l’âge), one correspondent tells the author that she has “reached this goal, and it gives you responsibilities, and speaking for myself, I can no longer consider you a stranger.”
While responsibility was right up the existentialist’s alley, it is not altogether clear how Beauvoir responded to this particular summons. If she made copies of her responses to her correspondents, they are, maddeningly, gone. Still, as many letters attest by expressing gratitude for an earlier reply, it is clear Beauvoir did take on this particular responsibility. As for the lack of a paper trail, Coffin argues that it is a good thing since this invites us “to imaginatively re-create those conversations.” An important insight, to be sure, yet it is still a pity that Beauvoir’s own words are mostly missing in action. (Another historian, Marine Rouch, has undertaken the epic task of tracing and interviewing Beauvoir’s correspondents in order to reconstruct these epistolary relationships.)
I, for one, especially felt this absence when reading the excerpts from correspondents who took issue, at times violently, with Beauvoir’s positions. This was particularly the case during the well-named sale guerre — the “dirty war” between Algerian nationalists and the French military in Algeria (1954–’62). Beauvoir’s support of Algerian independence and her encouragement to young Frenchmen to resist the draft sparked great admiration for her undoubted courage but also intense anger at her alleged betrayal of her country. One correspondent, who had served as a doctor and soldier in Algeria, wrote that, when a day of judgment arrives, “if people like you aren’t lucky enough to be judged legally incompetent, you will be put up against the wall.”
Yet disagreement from her correspondents ranged across other battlefields. These might have been metaphorical, but they were nevertheless meaningful. This was, in particular, the case with Beauvoir’s role as a pathbreaking feminist. During the 1960s, Beauvoir’s stance on women’s issues grew increasingly passé in the eyes of a younger generation. They were not, as Coffin notes, interested in Beauvoir’s brutally candid account of her losses and failures, laments and fatigue in her 1963 memoir The Force of Circumstance (La Force des choses). “You were once an ideal woman,” a young correspondent wrote, but now “you disappoint us.” After the student revolution of 1968, Beauvoir had been reduced to a mere figurehead in the eyes of the leaders of the new wave of women’s liberation. Coffin quotes the wonderful French writer Annie Ernaux, who quipped that all she learned from Beauvoir was that “it was a misfortune to have a uterus.” (Perhaps Ernaux would agree, in light of Beauvoir’s later and equally blunt writings on aging, that the real misfortune is growing old.)
Of course, it was not just Ernaux’s generation — or mine, for that matter — that learned so much from Beauvoir. As the work of contemporary feminists suggests, it seems likely that we will long continue to “appropriate” Beauvoir’s original insights into the situation of women. Unfortunately, it seems less likely that we will learn to appreciate once again how this very flawed human being nevertheless showed remarkable courage in her long struggle to defend the rights of those unable to defend themselves. As the letters in Judith G. Coffin’s Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir reveal, this courage marked the lives of countless thousands of women and men.