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Simone de Beauvoir in 1945. Photo/Getty Images

Becoming Beauvoir: A reappraisal of the harshly judged feminist thinker

A biography of feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir can’t help mentioning the man who keeps stealing her oxygen.

Love, actually? After you read Becoming Beauvoir, Kate Kirkpatrick’s lucid, sensitive biography of Simone de Beauvoir, to be left puzzling, still, over de Beauvoir’s relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre feels like letting the side down. Becoming Beauvoir meticulously delineates how a clear view of de Beauvoir, French philosopher, writer and author of 1949 “feminist bible” The Second Sex, has been obscured by the figure of Sartre, philosopher and key exponent of existentialism, who famously wrote, “Hell is other people.”

De Beauvoir gives good quote, too. “One is not born,” she declared, “but rather becomes, a woman.” She had a lot to put up with during that process. “Why, when Beauvoir died, did every obituary of her mention Sartre,” writes Kirkpatrick, “while when Sartre dies, some obituaries didn’t mention her at all?” De Beauvoir has been cast as mistress, muse, mere populariser of Sartre’s work, which includes such splendidly angst-ridden titles as Nausea and Being and Nothingness. “… the prettiest existentialist you ever saw,” smirked the New Yorker in 1947. When she died, in 1986, an obituary declared her a woman with, “as little imagination as her inkwell”. “Sartre’s sex slave?” mused the Times Literary Supplement in 2001. Oh dear.

De Beauvoir didn’t always help. “I am not a philosopher,” she maintained. “Sartre is the philosopher.” Yet, Kirkpatrick makes a convincing case that de Beauvoir had developed her own philosophical thinking before she met Sartre. “In the 40s, Sartre claims that she gave him a theory of time when he was reading her novel She Came to Stay. So, that’s a place where he acknowledges he got something from her,” she says, on the phone from the UK where she lectures in religion and philosophy at King’s College London.

New evidence comes from de Beauvoir’s student diaries. “She talks about reciprocity as what’s required for love to be authentic. This is a concept that you don’t see Sartre using in a positive way until later in his career.”

De Beauvoir met Sartre in 1929. He was 24, she 21. A significant moment for 20th-century thought. They also achieved a certain celebrity – not to say notoriety – for their amorous adventures. They became lovers. De Beauvoir wrote of Sartre in her student diaries, “[He] is in my heart, my body and above all (for in my heart and my body many others could be) the incomparable friend of my thought.”

It was complicated. There were to be many others with access to de Beauvoir’s heart and body. She and Sartre made a “pact”: “What we have,” he told her, “is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.”

De Beauvoir’s “contingent” others included American writer Nelson Algren. He didn’t think much of the pact or of thinly disguised appearances in her novels. Claude Lanzmann, friend of Sartre, who made the nine-and-a-half hour masterpiece on the Holocaust, Shoah, was 18 years younger than de Beauvoir. He was the only man she ever lived with or addressed with the familiar “tu”. Sartre had an affair with Lanzmann’s sister. The elaborate arrangements of what de Beauvoir and Sartre called “The Family” threaten to make the Bloomsbury Group seem like amateurs.

De Beauvoir and Sartre never lived together. It sounds like a funny sort of love. “It depends what you want to say love is,” Kirkpatrick says. “Sartre clearly had some sort of fidelity to her that was different from his relationships with other women. I think, in general, intellectual relationships are often underestimated.”

With Claude Lanzmann and Jean-Paul Sartre at Giza. Photo/Getty Images

The exchange of ideas can be an intimate business. Institutions of higher learning have to deal with what can become an erotically charged atmosphere. “Yes, it can be supercharged and I think for them, at one stage, it was. Then it lost the erotic charge, but there was still a genuine kind of friendship love.” The French language manages these nuances better, Kirkpatrick feels. “There are so many different words for love. You can have amitié amoureuse, which is a loving friendship, or you can have amitié intellectuelle … In their case I would want to say something like that did last, but I don’t think he ever conceived of love with the kind of generosity that she did.”

Though in affairs of the heart, de Beauvoir could also be cavalier. Some of her lovers were young women who were her students and who went on to have affairs with Sartre. The pact required reporting their dalliances to each other in sometimes daunting detail. In a letter, de Beauvoir describes the “pungent fecal odour” of one of her “contingent” others.

Sartre was less honest with other lovers. “He wasn’t committed to the idea that people deserved to be treated equally and I think he held a lot of views that were deeply suspect. But that wasn’t the point of the book,” says Kirkpatrick, nudging talk away from Sartre. He’s taken up enough of de Beauvoir’s oxygen. “The more paragraphs you give to him, the fewer you give to her.” She does say, “I think I was pretty light-handed with Sartre, given his behaviour.”

De Beauvoir came to understand that their pact could result in collateral damage. People got hurt. “… this defect in our system,” she called it. “Ah, yes,” sighs Kirkpatrick. “Those chapters on the relationships – it was not pleasant to have to go through and set them all out.” Do we still judge women more harshly when it comes to sexual freedom? “Yes, I think we see that throughout Beauvoir’s career. She, at least, renounced this kind of behaviour, but Sartre – there was no renunciation. He just carried on.”

For all the meeting of minds, they could disagree. “If you think that existentialism is about just choosing to be free and to will yourself to be whatever you want to be, she’s certainly not that kind of existentialist,” Kirkpatrick says. “It’s blatantly obvious to her, and I think to a lot of women, that you can’t just will yourself out of the kinds of repression that women live even still.”

De Beauvoir became an activist. In the 1970s, she started identifying as a feminist. “She did say she was a feminist in 1949, but by the 70s she had changed her position. Earlier in her career, she thought men were her comrades and she didn’t understand the hostility towards men that some feminists expressed.” The idea was to work for the revolution, after which women’s problems would disappear. “She became suspicious of the idea that women should just help and wait instead of advocating for their own needs.”

Her ideas about gender were before her time. She drew on psychology to talk about the effect of the ways, for instance, baby girls are socialised differently. She campaigned for the right to abortion. She wanted an anti-sexism law passed. “That was pretty amazing. If you use a racial slur or a religious slur, that is punishable by law. But you can call a woman – these are her words – a bitch or a whore or a slut and there are no consequences at all.” She was very modern.

Still, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of de Beauvoir’s birth, French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur in 2008 published a photograph of her bottom. She was doing her hair in the bathroom of her lover, Nelson Algren, naked but for her rather fashionable shoes. It was taken by his friend, photographer Art Shay. Might she have posed? “No,” Kirkpatrick says. “The photo was taken without her consent. I have no idea why she was standing naked in the bathroom doing her hair but the story is [Shay] took the photo and she turned around and said to him, ‘Naughty man!’ and carried on doing her hair. I don’t know whether she just didn’t care at that point, whether she didn’t think it would ever end up in publication.”

Now the photos are on the internet. “What sells more papers: a fair and balanced portrait of the ‘greatest feminist theorist of our time’ or a photograph of her ass?” wondered a review of Becoming Beauvoir. “I think the fact that photo was published on the 100-year anniversary of her birth when she had campaigned to make explicit images of women illegal is pretty depressing,” Kirkpatrick says. It does seem aggressively patronising. “Yeah, it reinforces her as Simone de Beauvoir, erotic object, instead of Simone de Beauvoir, the person who challenges the reduction of women to being erotic objects.”

De Beauvoir. Photo/Shutterstock
The book records some arguably less admirable actions. During World War II, Sartre did time as a prisoner of war. He also was given a job previously held by a Jewish teacher sacked under Vichy law. He refused to sign the Vichy oath, a declaration that he was not a Jew. De Beauvoir signed the oath and worked for Radio-Vichy. She “worked on a programme about music in the Middle Ages, which was arguably neutral,” Kirkpatrick writes. “It’s one of the things, like much in the life of Beauvoir and Sartre, that is politicised,” Kirkpatrick says. “People will say, ‘Oh, she was a collaborationist’, but I don’t think the content was collaborationist.” As for the oath, “I think she felt bad about it, so it seems to me by her own judgment she felt she had failed in some sense by signing. It’s true she wasn’t just supporting herself at the time. She was also supporting other people.”

In 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Sartre published the essay “Anti-Semite and Jew”, “which is part of the way that Lanzmann became interested in his position”, says Kirkpatrick. De Beauvoir supported Lanzmann during the gruelling business of making Shoah. “She also helped finance it, absolutely.”

Kirkpatrick writes: “She didn’t believe that any single point in her life showed ‘the’ Simone de Beauvoir because ‘there is no instant in life where all moments are reconciled.’” At de Beauvoir’s funeral, the crowd chanted the words of philosopher Élisabeth Badinter: “Women, you owe her everything.”

As a woman and as a fellow philosopher, what does Kirkpatrick feel she owes her subject? “One of the things I really appreciated was how common her experience seems to be, especially early in her life – having moments of elation and confidence in herself quickly followed by moments of extreme self-doubt.” Such insecurity isn’t only a female condition. “But, in her case, it was inspiring to see how she persisted and didn’t give up on herself.”

Kirkpatrick might have needed to draw on that inspiration as an academic writing about de Beauvoir in a scholarly but also sympathetic and accessible way. “It has been a concern going into the writing of this book because the academy doesn’t always smile on efforts to communicate outside of it,” she says diplomatically. “So far, I have to say, people have been very encouraging and recognise that it’s important to do this kind of stuff because, as de Beauvoir said, it’s a huge privilege to be able to study such thinkers.”

Becoming Beauvoir begins with a quote from The Second Sex: “To emancipate woman is to refuse to enclose her in the relations that she sustains with man, but not to deny them to her.” Becoming Beauvoir is true to that spirit. De Beauvoir described Sartre as, above all, despite everything, “the incomparable friend of my thought”. There’s something to be said for that. “Now I say to my students that one of the best things you can do for your grades is form friendships with people who care about and want to talk to you about ideas. If you had someone who loved both literature and philosophy in a similar way to you and who had read many of the things that you were passionate about, which was the situation for both of them when they met in 1929, then I ultimately think that they made each other better philosophers and writers.”

Kate Kirkpatrick. Photo/John Cairns/Supplied

As for the less intellectual side of the relationship, Kirkpatrick describes de Beauvoir visiting Sartre in his dying days. He had cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes … they both ended up the worse for drink. “Beauvoir spent the day next to him,” writes Kirkpatrick, “listening to him breathe.” Love, probably.

The odd commentator has complained that Kirkpatrick doesn’t go into how de Beauvoir relates to right now: the Me Too movement, Donald Trump. “I did that on purpose because I think, if anything, feminism is more divided now than when she died in 1986. I thought it was probably a good thing to let the reader make connections as they like.” Fair enough. It’s all there. The issues de Beauvoir thought about – abortion, sexism, what it means to be a woman, how we define ourselves – are no less pressing.

De Beauvoir had some advice for her student self in 1927. “Don’t be ‘Mlle Beauvoir’,” she insisted. “Be me.” By any reckoning, she managed that, and continues to. “In her essay ‘Pyrrhus and Cineas’, she says that Epicurus didn’t mean to start Epicureanism. You don’t know what’s going to be founded on the basis of your work,” says Kirkpatrick, of de Beauvoir’s legacy. “I think her work is like a lot of great philosophers of the past in that it will continue to be a philosophy to think with, even though aspects of it are certainly going to date and have dated already. But she’s still someone who is fascinating to think with.”

So she remains an incomparable friend of our thought. “How do we become who we are? Is it our actions that make us who we are or are we something in advance that our actions only confirm?” Kirkpatrick says. “I think she was committed to the idea that our actions make us who we are, so she stops becoming herself, in one sense, on the day that she dies. In another sense, she won’t stop.”

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.