Becoming a Woman Through the Eyes of Simone de Beauvoir
What would be the title or theme of your autobiography? Would you try to impress, add some glitter? It’s what Simone de Beauvoir could have done, but didn’t, as Kate Kirkpatrick shows in a new biography.
Heroes, myths, legends, there is one thing they have in common: they all had their biographies written in their own lifetime. In her seven-part biography of male heroes in Western European history, Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Heroes, 2004) confirms this without (I think) noticing it: the men she tells became heroic either wrote an autobiography, or had their biographies written by contemporaries. If they showed qualities that weren’t so legendary—and oh, they did!—these were suppressed in the embellished tales inscribed on papyrus, vellum, or paper. For what is an (auto)biography without a consistent storyline that explains why one person could become so great, greater than their contemporaries, greater, in at least one particular aspect, than all those who went before?
Heroes are made, then, and you can do it yourself. That is not to say that less favourable or diverging accounts are forgotten. Researchers, by unearthing and comparing sources which were deliberately kept from the public eye, stored in archives, or from the hand of a little-known author, can uncover the true (or truer) face of a historical person.
It can be a bit of a delusion when you discover one of your personal heroes-of-history might not be the person she has told everyone she was, especially when she's more than she let others see she was. In the newest biography of Simone de Beauvoir written by philosopher Kate Kirkpatrick, the stories attached to De Beauvoir’s life and career are revealed to be carefully constructed myths. In the case of a philosopher who was in search of the answers to what it means to be a truthful human being all her life, that’s kind of a surprise.
It’s always easier to defend someone having the privilege of hindsight. In her biography, the slightly frustrated Kirkpatrick asks the question: why could nobody, even after her lifetime, see De Beauvoir as Sartre’s “intellectual interlocutor, an active participant or even inspiration in the development of his thought?” The book reviews De Beauvoir’s life from the suffocating moments as member of a bourgeois Paris family, to the “epic life” she lived as a famous writer and, in old age, a feminist activist. What makes the book worthwhile for a public not only interested in the making of a feminist, is that it highlights De Beauvoir’s development as philosophical thinker. In the field of philosophy, most people would simply label her Sartre’s disciple, or at best a “female ambassador” for existentialism.
Kirkpatrick, however, gives us a peek into De Beauvoir’s private diaries and provides the reader with some expert help in understanding her novels, which causes a light-bulb moment that will never allow us to underestimate this woman’s status as philosopher again. The Second Sex, De Beauvoir’s “feminist handbook” was of course her most influential achievement (“a woman is what a man is not”), leading to her prominent role in the feminist movement in Paris in the 70s. Her work in general, in which she dissected the dynamics of marital relationships, was a wake-up call for women all over the world.
The problem is: everything she wrote was full of philosophy, Kirkpatrick argues, not only as the result of De Beauvoir’s excellent education and wide reading, but because her whole life she tried to make sense of the nature of (reciprocal) relationships. Not exclusively male-female relationships, by the way. How do love and dedication to someone else relate to your own being as an individual, indeed as a woman? If one person’s actions define the life of others, how can everybody become the person they want to be within themselves? With these and similar ideas she influenced Sartre’s work.
Yet all her life De Beauvoir did not present herself as the philosopher she was. The woman who unofficially beat Sartre in the agrégation exam at the age of 21 could not muster the courage to be immodest and claim her intellectual status. Becoming a hero is about boldness, about claiming your prize. In her four volumes of autobiography, De Beauvoir does defend herself from consistent accusations that she was unoriginal and lacking in imagination. But did she put herself on a par with Sartre? That's something I had trouble understanding on the basis of Kirkpatrick’s book—time to read the autobiographies for ourselves.
In an interview in 1985, one year before her death, De Beauvoir says herself about the refusal to call herself a philosopher:
“I’m not a philosopher in the sense that I’m not the creator of system, I’m still a philosopher in the sense that I’ve studied a lot of philosophy, I have a degree in philosophy, I’ve taught philosophy, I’m infused with philosophy, and when I put philosophy into my books it’s because that’s a way for me to view the world and I can’t allow them to eliminate that way of viewing the world.” (Simons 1989, 20; via Kirkpatrick 2019, 392)
Why could nobody see De Beauvoir as an intellectual interlocutor to Sartre? My suspicion is it’s because she did not present herself (enough) as an independent thinker when (re)writing her life. Had De Beauvoir consistently presented herself as a philosopher standing on the same level as Sartre, she would have gone into the records under that name. Sure, there would have been even more criticism because she dared, as a woman, to be so bold. A tantalizing thought is that she probably didn’t feel at liberty to be bold, precisely because she was a woman in twentieth-century Paris.
Heroes can’t be heroes if they don’t know how to make others forget their less favourable qualities. If you had the unfavourable quality of being a woman in the twentieth century, however, probably all you could do is bust through some doors and not be too loud about it.
One comfort: although the autobiographies don’t give us the full picture, the knowledge they provide about De Beauvoir’s life did place her unconditionally on the world's intellectual map of the leading ladies, with or without the epithet of great thinker.
 Kirkpatrick 2019: 383.
 ibid., 22.
 ibid., 233.
Hughes-Hallett, L. (2004). Heroes. Saviours, Traitors and Superman, Fourth Estate: London.
Kirkpatrick, K. (2019). Becoming Beauvoir. A Life, Bloomsbury Academic: London/New York.
Simons, M.A. & Todd, J.M. (transcr. and transl.) (1989), 'Two Interviews with Simone de Beauvoir', Hypatia 3.3, 11–27.
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