“Who actually was Simone de Beauvoir?” is something I’ve been asked several times since the publication of my book. I’ve taken to responding that de Beauvoir and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre were the Bob Geldof and Bono of France in the post-second-world-war years.
Like these rock singers and global ethical campaigners, de Beauvoir and Sartre acted as triggers of the public and political conscience. They spoke out. They ranted (though with impeccable logic). They mounted platforms and television programmes. They had their pictures taken with Fidel Castro and many other heads of state. They drank and smoked and engaged in a variety of couplings, and all the while they were passionate about the need for freedom from moralising cant and pious humbug – whether of the state or church variety.
They imagined shaping a useful life and a just society. They castigated Joseph Stalin and the French Communist Party as well as Joseph McCarthy, despite their leftward leanings. They championed Algerian independence from colonial rule and had to keep moving to escape right-wing “terrorist” attempts. They knew about what we now call globalisation and kept the developing world and its concerns in the public eye – hunger, dictatorial regimes, colonial exploitation, and independence.
They protested against the Vietnam war, sold newspapers in the streets and sided with the student rebels in 1968. On top of all that, Simone even managed to set the agenda for a good half of humanity’s movement away from (a sometimes pampered) servitude. That done, she took on the plight of the old. Meanwhile, Sartre refused the Nobel prize for literature: he didn’t want to be an institution.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre did all this, and they weren’t even rock stars. Instead they wrote books – thick philosophical tomes, novels, plays, autobiography, and penetrating analyses of their times. In those years it was possible to be “a public intellectual” and command a large audience and even the ear of politicians. 50,000 flocked the streets of Paris when Sartre died in 1980. When Simone followed, nearly six years to the day, the newspaper headlines blared: “Women, you owe her everything”.
The voice of the “other”
There is much I find fascinating about de Beauvoir. Above all else is perhaps the trenchant quality of her intelligence. It doesn’t allow her the feelgood comforts of a marshmallow morality. In The Second Sex, her monumental analysis of women’s condition – showing how women are made and not simply born – the gaze is Olympian. She is sharply attuned to the attractions of complicity, where the silk-lined servitude, the raptures of life on one’s knees before man or God may hold more appeal for women than the cold air and hard work of the free agent cast into shaping her own and society’s destiny.
Yet, for Simone, being the “other” trapped in the male gaze and its attendant social institutions means accepting mutilation. It’s worth remembering that The Second Sex served as the source for those discourses of the “other” which shaped the identity and orientalist politics of the 1980s and 1990s.
Then, too, her relationship with Sartre is riveting. It’s difficult now to reimagine the adventure.
We’re in 1929, fifteen years before French women got the vote. The dutiful daughter of a puritanical and catholic bourgeois household engages on an experimental love pact with a young, ugly, exuberantly intelligent philosopher, who instead of love and marriage, a house and children, promises only honesty and the freedom to philander - which he does, again and again. So does she, with less alacrity and less frequently – though with recorded passion.
When her letters to the American novelist Nelson Algren were published, they were something of a revelation – above and beyond the autobiographical inflections of her prize-winning novel, The Mandarins. The Simone in love who signs herself in English “your loving little frog” is the same woman as the one who contemporaneously writes The Second Sex and sees her television interview with Radio Canada banned by the Archbishop of Quebec because of her views on religion and marriage. Simone is a bluestocking who doesn’t mind taking hers off.
The spirit of refusal
After Simone’s death and the publication of her and Sartre’s correspondence, a scandal erupted. The letters contained details of lesbian affairs, machinations worthy of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Our own times seem to be as prone to moralising as the Pètainistes of collaborationist France against whom the whole rebellious tide of existentialism was launched.
At the end of a full life recorded in one of the century’s greatest autobiographies, Simone states that the undoubted success of her life was her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a comment that makes you pause. Probing what this remarkable woman might have meant by it was part of my impetus in writing her life.
Yet whenever I take part in a panel – or campaign for the writer’s organisation PEN against the British government’s religious hatred bill – it is the public face of Simone I think of. That adamant refusal of half-truths and political expediency, and that embrace of social responsibility – just in case a difference can be made by the independent voice – give hope that, even in our soundbite world, it’s worth giving intelligence a chance.
Simone and Sartre – in his centenary year – would undoubtedly have approved of G8 protests and “making poverty history”. They might also have wondered why the amount spent on security to keep out the wrong kind of protestor was enough to write off the debt of several African nations.
They were already accustomed to bombs and terror. In the early 1960s in France, the perpetrators were most often the OAS, the militant defenders of Algérie Francaise. Simone de Beauvoir was adamant that no matter how frightened one was, succumbing to the silencing pressure of these particular terrorists was not a possibility. In that, as in so much else, she proved a courageous and remarkable woman.
Lisa Appignanesi’s book Simone de Beauvoir (Haus) is available at the special price of £7.99 from Haus Publishing (Haus@hauspublishing.com). Lisa Appignanesi’s other recent books include the novel, The Memory Man (Arcadia) and Freud’s Women (Phoenix).