OCTOBER 8, 2019
WRITERS ALWAYS HAVE to make difficult choices about what to leave in and what to cut from their work. The choices become especially acute when a writer is telling her own story. “What an odd thing a diary is,” a character in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Woman Destroyed (La Femme rompue, 1967) says, “the things you omit are more important than those you put in.”
The statement seems to be more personal confession than fiction. Exploring the mysteries and misconceptions about Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) — one of the most underappreciated of philosophers — is the project of the new biography Becoming Beauvoir: A Life by Kate Kirkpatrick. Certainly, Beauvoir’s life story is not entirely new. Not only did she publish memoirs, travelogues, diaries, and letters, but Deirdre Bair published a 700-page biography in 1990 (Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography), drawing on five years’ worth of discussions with Beauvoir, often starting at 4 p.m. sharp, with an ounce of scotch served in Mexican glass tumblers. There have been other biographies, too, such as Hazel Rowley’s Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (2005), and Lisa Appignanesi’s brief portrait (titled Simone de Beauvoir), published in 1988.
However, since these biographies came out, new material has been released, notably Beauvoir’s student diaries (Cahiers de jeunesse: 1926–1930, published in 2008) and her love letters to Claude Lanzmann (published in 2018), which throws previous accounts of her life and thinking into question. There’s still much that we don’t know about Beauvoir because her public image has been distorted. Kirkpatrick’s aim is to show that the primary reason for this is that Beauvoir has been subject to relentless ad feminam attacks:
If her critics could reduce her to a failure as a woman, highlighting her deviance from femininity; or a failure as a thinker, because she was unoriginal and owed everything to [her lifelong partner Jean-Paul] Sartre; or a failure as a human being, highlighting her deviance from their own moral ideals, then her ideas could be summarily dismissed rather than seriously debated.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously urged, “Become who you are!” Yet, as Kirkpatrick points out, most women and members of marginalized communities have been prevented from becoming who they are, and punished if they tried. When Beauvoir called for men to stop treating women as lesser beings, and for women to stop accepting it (for which she was judged unforgivingly), her “becoming who she was” shook the very foundations of patriarchal Western society.
Kate Kirkpatrick shows why Beauvoir’s life and ideas are worth revisiting, and its philosophical richness is one of the book’s greatest strengths. It introduces Beauvoir’s ideas and method, shows how they developed, clarifies those that are original to Beauvoir, and highlights Beauvoir’s criticisms of Sartre’s philosophy. Kirkpatrick does so in a manner that’s accessible and steady, making it likely to appeal not only to readers new to Beauvoir, but also those who learned about Beauvoir in the traditional way.
After the opening chapter introducing her approach and justification, Kirkpatrick follows a fairly standard biographical trajectory from birth to death. From the age of 11, Beauvoir was already thinking philosophically, inspired by books such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860). Beauvoir’s father said she had “a man’s brain,” but valued it only insofar as it made her more marriageable since, in his view, she didn’t have the elegance or beauty of her sister Hélène. In the absence of a dowry, her parents encouraged her to pursue an education, but her tyrannical mother was frustrated that Beauvoir would rather study than help her with the housework.
From the age of 18, Beauvoir kept a journal, in which she wrote about her skepticism of marriage, the travesty that reduces women to baby-making machines, the desire to have her own life rather than relying on a husband, the different perspectives of being for oneself and for others, being and nothingness, the ethical necessity for reciprocity in love, and — for all her religious upbringing — the death of God. Kirkpatrick’s discussion of Beauvoir’s diaries is the historical highlight of the book. It’s particularly important to understand how Beauvoir’s ideas originated and developed, since most of them have been attributed to Sartre. When she wrote about them, people assumed she was taking up his ideas; when she said she wasn’t, she was ignored or not believed.
Beauvoir met Sartre at the Sorbonne in 1929, when she was 21. His reputation had preceded him: he was known as a contemptuous, heartless snob, but Beauvoir found him to be exceptionally generous and a geeky seducer. He brought her presents, including what Beauvoir described as an “atrocious” Japanese painting, “absurd” porcelains, and a picture he drew of “Leibniz bathing with the monads” (in the place of monads — the basic element of reality in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy — Sartre drew mermaids). In spite of the dreadful gifts, they fell in love and, soon thereafter, Sartre proposed an open relationship. It worked for Beauvoir because she was, almost from the beginning of their relationship, ambivalent about Sartre and reluctant to walk away from two other men in her life: her cousin Jacques Champigneulle and another fellow student, René Maheu.
Sartre was the one who became the “incomparable friend of her thought,” a “conversational catalyst,” who encouraged Beauvoir more than anyone else. This is why it’s difficult to talk about either Beauvoir or Sartre without mentioning the other: they spent their lives in conversation, unpacking ideas together. Beauvoir read and edited all Sartre’s work, sometimes even writing his articles for him. When Sartre was depressed because no one but Beauvoir was recognizing his genius, she suggested he write his philosophy in novel form. It became Nausea (La Nausée, 1938), the book that made him famous.
Despite the blurred lines between Beauvoir and Sartre’s thinking, Kirkpatrick methodically draws out many instances where they split intellectually and emotionally. For example, Beauvoir criticized Sartre for overgeneralizing and for glossing over the ambiguity of existence. Sartre thought that emotions corrupt freedom; rather than putting up with Sartre’s scolding, Beauvoir sheltered him from her feelings. She channeled them into journals, other men, or — as when her mother died — smothered them with tranquilizers. Sartre kept passion out of his work too, but Beauvoir wasn’t convinced. Kirkpatrick explains:
[S]he felt like words had to “murder reality before they can hold it,” and she didn’t want reality to die: she wanted to relish in it, to taste the richness of its flavors for herself rather than embalming it for posterity. […] Beauvoir wanted to know the world and to disclose it, truly.
Sartre is the lead contender for the villain of Becoming Beauvoir, although others include Sartre’s adopted daughter, Arlette, and sexist society at large. Sartre would tell Beauvoir she was unoriginal, talk to her as if she were a child, and use his lovers to provoke her. Some of Beauvoir’s friends said Sartre was oppressive. No wonder she was plagued with the imposter syndrome. Kirkpatrick doesn’t go so far to say Beauvoir was in a toxic relationship, but the possibility lurks within the pages.
During the 1930s, Beauvoir watched Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, but she was too dizzy with ambition to pay much attention. When Paris fell in 1940, she found solace in an unlikely place: Hegelian philosophy. It was at this point that she turned to thinking about ethics, long before Sartre did. While Sartre was still writing about radical freedom, Beauvoir asked him: “Once one recognizes one’s freedom, what is one supposed to do?” She thought that freedom for oneself isn’t good enough, and, unless it accounts for others, it’s unethical. In Kirkpatrick’s words: “[T]o listen to the call of freedom in ourselves without hearing the call of freedom for others is solipsism: a kind of spiritual death, a refusal that stultifies our own becoming.”
By the 1940s, Beauvoir became woke. She and Sartre launched an “existentialist offensive,” starting a resistance group, sneaking into and out of occupied territory, and distributing leaflets. They launched a philosophical and political magazine called Les Temps Modernes (modern times), after Charlie Chaplin’s film, and wrote for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic Monthly, among other places. Yet, as they became famous, Beauvoir’s thinking was consistently undermined. She was referred to as the “Notre Dame de Sartre,” “la grande Sartreuse,” his parasite, muse, disciple, ambassador, an also-ran. The New Yorker referred to her as “the prettiest Existentialist you ever saw.” The Daily Princetonian noted that she was elegant and attractive. She was patronized for applying Sartre’s philosophy, and not acknowledged for having ideas of her own.
It didn’t help that Beauvoir said, on more than one occasion, that she wasn’t a philosopher. It’s unclear why. Kirkpatrick proposes, convincingly, that it wasn’t internalized sexism. Rather, Beauvoir wasn’t writing systematically, as Sartre or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel did. Like Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Beauvoir preferred literature because it appealed to readers’ imaginations and challenged them to reflect on what was being said in more creative ways than formalized philosophy does.
It took time for Beauvoir to realize that she had often been a token woman. She was one of the first women — and the youngest person ever — to graduate from France’s highly competitive teachers’ examination, the first woman to teach at boys schools in France, and thought that she hadn’t faced too many barriers. But Sartre pointed out that had she been a boy, she would have been raised very differently. She became cognizant of the wealth of misinformation about women’s experiences and felt compelled to speak up. Her thinking evolved into The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe, 1949), for which she became notorious. In Kirkpatrick’s words, “She had emerged from Sartre’s shadow, only to find herself in the scorching light of scandal — the ad feminam target of ridicule, spite and shame.” The Vatican banned it. Most of all, she was criticized for her portrait of motherhood: how could she speak about it when she had no firsthand experience? Beauvoir rightly responded that it had never stopped men from sharing their opinion.
While Sartre thought situations could be overcome through individual choices, Beauvoir argued that, for women, it’s not so simple. And he was starting to be convinced by her arguments on a number of fronts. After Beauvoir wrote her Prix Goncourt–winning and Vatican-blacklisted novel The Mandarins (Les Mandarins, 1954), Sartre gave up writing novels — including the series he was working on, The Roads to Freedom (Les Chemins de la liberté, 1945–1949). The Mandarins was also the novel in which Beauvoir explored being and nothingness — an idea that she had been toying with in her student days before Sartre was on the scene, and long before his own version of Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943).
Appalled to see a conservative backlash luring women back into homemaking roles after The Second Sex, Beauvoir took on a greater activism role, and finally embraced the “feminist” label that she had resisted for much of her life. She argued and campaigned for legislative changes to expand access to birth control and abortion, and to ban sexism and advertising that demeans women. She gave money to women’s shelters and publishers, wrote introductions, prefaces, references, and letters to readers. Even on her deathbed, Kirkpatrick writes, “she tried to convince her masseuse not to vote for the far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
Beauvoir died at 78, and was buried next to Sartre in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery. The obituaries were harsh. Le Monde headlined, “Her works: more popularization than creation.” The New York Times got the French title of The Second Sex incorrect, and implied that the book was Sartre’s idea. The Washington Post said she was Sartre’s nurse, biographer, and jealous woman. Very few of Sartre’s obituaries had mentioned Beauvoir, while he featured prominently in hers. But, as Kirkpatrick rightly notes, “[n]either of them would have become who they were if it weren’t for their dialogue with each other — if it weren’t for the sum of both their actions.”
Beauvoir had plenty of regrets, contradictions, and failings. Unlike Sartre, she owned up to many of them. She regretted not giving enough attention to the situation of men. She regretted the way she treated other people in her open relationship, particularly her female students and other women. Although it was legal to be sexually involved with teenagers at the time, it was a problem that Beauvoir ignored the student-teacher power differential. Kirkpatrick holds Beauvoir to account for such moral failings. Beauvoir also, at times, regretted her relationship with Sartre. She says that although it was one of her greatest successes, she was also “gypped.” Why? Kirkpatrick proposes that Beauvoir was deliberately provoking her readers.
Kirkpatrick’s style in Becoming Beauvoir is similar. She doesn’t promise a comprehensive portrait of Beauvoir — we can never know anyone completely — but she provokes readers by asking questions about Beauvoir’s actions and motivations. It’s a bold move to infuse a biography with these sorts of conjectures, and some may seem to be a stretch. For example, why did Beauvoir intentionally bury her early thesis work about love and ethics (that is still missing)? Kirkpatrick suggests that Beauvoir didn’t want to outshine Sartre. It’s possible but, as Kirkpatrick herself points out elsewhere, Beauvoir often defended her ideas and her writing, so it’s unclear why she would do so here.
Yet Kirkpatrick navigates the speculative aspects of Beauvoir’s life exceptionally well. In fact, they are among the most engaging parts of the book, giving the impression that the reader is witnessing a form of existential psychoanalysis of Beauvoir — one that focuses on possibilities rather than subconscious repressions. Kirkpatrick often leaves questions hanging, such as how much of The Second Sex is autobiography. Other times, she offers explanations, such as why Beauvoir didn’t share everything with her readers, especially regarding her relationships and sexuality. Modesty, privacy, delusion, legal reasons, fear that her mother would read it, or intentionally creating ambiguity and distance between her and her readership are suggested. One of the most compelling possibilities that Kirkpatrick offers is that Beauvoir actively resisted being a role model. Referencing one of Beauvoir’s autobiographies, Kirkpatrick proposes that instead of providing the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Beauvoir shared a “literary truth” about “what it meant to live an existential choice: there was no ‘decree’ from on high about who she should be, no predetermined path or Epicurean clinamen by which she swerved away from it. Instead, there was a blueprintless becoming.”
Beauvoir’s life is a fascinating story in itself, but Becoming Beauvoir also shows how society has been grossly unfair in its judgment of her. In a subtle way, the book also challenges readers to reflect on their own prejudices and how society continues to apply ad feminam arguments to women more generally. Beauvoir is well overdue for the philosophical credit she deserves, and this book is an important step in correcting the narrative.
Skye C. Cleary is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love(Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life (Vintage, forthcoming 2020). She teaches at Columbia University and Barnard College and is the lead editor of the blog of the American Philosophical Association.