Simone De Beauvoir
CURTIS CATE,who represents the ATLANTIC in Europe, here gives us an appraisal of Simone de Beauvoir, France’s leading femme savante. Miss de Beauvoir’s latest book, THE PRIME OF LIFE, recently published by World, is the second volume of her memoirs. In it she discusses her friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre.
THE France into which Simone de Beauvoir was born on the ninth of January, 1908, though fairly solidly bourgeois, was in the throes of one of its periodic crises. The country had just been shaken to its roots by the Dreyfus case, which had split families right down the middle into warring factions, and by the final severance between church and state, enacted by the Combes ministry in 1905, which denied parochial schools any further financial aid from the government — an issue which can still arouse considerable political heat in France, as in the United States.
Simone de Beauvoir’s father, like the French superpatriots of his day, was an anti-Dreyfusard who liked to quote Daudet and Maurras and to say that nationalism was his only religion. An avid reader of Maupassant and Bourget, he had wanted to be an actor, but since this was considered an infra dig profession for someone from a good family — the De Beauvoirs stemming from the petite noblesse in Normandy — he had had to reconcile himself to the bar as a forum for his oratorical gifts. Being a lawyer, however, never really appealed to him; his first love remained the stage and its informal miniature, the salon, where he could do what most interested him in life — dazzle, charm, and seduce his listeners, which was what he felt to be the proper occupation for a person of his station, an untitled aristocrat.
In Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, the portrait drawn of this easygoing dilettante, more fascinated by the glitter of the word than the drudgery of work, is not unsympathetic, and it contrasts rather sharply with the corresponding portrait of her mother, a rather introverted woman from a “pious and rich bourgeois family” in Verdun who tried to compensate for the provincial malaise she felt in the more sophisticated social climate of Paris by exercising a tyrannical sway at home over her two daughters and the cook. Unlike Simone’s father, who was a skeptic and who would smile when one of her aunts talked about the miracles at Lourdes, her mother was an ardent believer who confessed regularly and never missed going to Mass. “The consequence of this,” Simone de Beauvoir observes in a remarkable paragraph, “is that I grew used to considering my intellectual life — incarnated by my father — and my spiritual life — directed by my mother — as two radically different domains, between which no intercourse was possible. Saintliness was of another order from intelligence; and human things — culture, politics, business, customs, and usages — did not stem from religion. Thus I banished God from the world, which was destined to influence the later course of my evolution profoundly.” And she adds a little further on: “This disequilibrium which condemned me to a perpetual soul-searching largely explains why I became an intellectual.”
The first volume of her memoirs, fittingly entitled Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), is in part the chronicle of her gradual estrangement from her mother’s Catholic faith. There was a time, when she was ten, when she thought seriously of becoming a nun, convinced that “there was no room for the supernatural in the world of the profane.” It took her straitlaced teachers at the Institut Adeline Désir to chill this youthful ardor, partly by their old-maidish ways and partly by dint of their “unctuous sermons, solemn repetitions, lofty phrases, mincing airs,” which struck her as synthetic and stupid and which confirmed her in the belief that the world of women was a closed, cramped, bigoted place, a scholastic reenactment of life under the maternal thumb.
This conviction was strengthened by the appearance in her life of her cousin Jacques, the second of the three men who were to exercise a fateful fascination on her. His descriptions of the brilliance of his teachers at the College Stanislas (where De Gaulle spent one year) filled her with envy. It only remained for her father to remark from time to time that “Simone has a man’s brain . . . Simone is a man" for her to feel the full weight of this sexual dispossession, a feeling which has evidently haunted her ever since, if one is to judge by The Second Sex, the essential purpose of which was to claim for women what the author considered had hitherto been the unjustified monopoly of men.
By THE time she was fourteen, her growing sense of disillusionment had come to encompass both God and her father. One day, one of her confessors revealed himself to be a miserable tattler, and she asked herself: Could God possibly be as stupid as the priests who serve Him? Just what kind of being was He, and on which side did He stand? Her own father was an agnostic, like the leading thinkers and writers of the age; it was chiefly women who went to church, yet men were unquestionably their superiors. In the end she came to the conclusion that God was too perfect and exalted a being to have anything to do with such a patently imperfect world.
This growing agnosticism was paralleled by a corresponding decline in the aura of that other idol of her youthful firmament, her father, whose lack of sympathy for Dreyfusards and radicals gradually came to envelop anyone professing even mildly progressive leanings, like Marc Sangier’s social welfare Catholics. It was from this second estrangement that that sense of solitude which echoes strongly through the novels she was to write twenty or thirty years later must have stemmed. We can only surmise, since she does not say so specifically, that her father’s male vanity suffered from a suppressed longing for a son and heir and that it was exasperated every time he received a report of her high classroom grades. “Too bad Simone isn’t a boy,” he would sigh. “She could have gone to Polytechnique!” — that is, to the M.I.T. of France. Instead, the only career which seemed open to a girl of her superior intellectual gifts was that of schoolteacher, and her father had a horror of this particular species of human being, so many of them being Dreyfusards, pacifists, socialists, and God knows what else!
His crankiness, owing partly to the onset of old age, was aggravated by growing financial difficulties. Like so many other French bourgeois who had bought Russian railroad shares at the turn of the century, he was seriously hit by the Bolshevik Revolution, which wiped people out at a stroke. A shoe factory, which provided a temporary source of revenue, finally folded up, and he was reduced to eking out a rather precarious existence in financial publicity, a form of journalism which bored him profoundly. The family was forced to move from the spacious apartment on the Boulevard Raspail to a far smaller and bathless apartment on the Rue de Rennes, and under the strain of this cramped adversity the once solid fabric of Simone’s parents’ married life began to rip. Her father began frequenting cafes, and on Sundays he would leave his wife alone while he went off to the races.
From these domestic vexations there was scant room for escape. Not once during her teens did she set foot on a beach, enter a gymnasium, or swim in a pool. The body was tacitly considered a source of shame and evil, and she was forbidden by her mother to put on makeup. Even at the age of nineteen, when she was already enrolled at the Sorbonne, she still had to dissemble in order to make clandestine visits to the Russian ballet without her mother’s permission, and she was twenty before she ever set foot in a bar.
It is also well to remember, in evaluating her later evolution, that these years — the period between the wars — were marked by a spirit of bourgeois distrust and apprehension worthy of Molière’s L’Avare. It was a period of negations, vetoes, and refusals: the refusal to devalue the franc for reasons of prestige, with the result that by the mid-1930s a million Frenchmen were out of work; the refusal to liberalize the citizenship laws in Algeria, with results which have continued to bedevil France right down to the present; the refusal to adopt anything but a molelike military posture behind the vast underground warren of the Maginot Line; the refusal to budge when the Germans marched into the Rhineland, followed by the refusal to give help to the Spanish Republic against Franco. It was an era presided over by Alain, a bargain-basement philosopher whose doctrine taught the metaphysical importance of saying no to everything, and it reached its climax, appropriately enough, in the semifossilized France of that octogenarian, Pétain.
That Simone de Beauvoir should have reacted to the experience of these formative years by developing a marked dislike for the stuffy, defensiveminded bourgeois France of her parents was, under the circumstances, not unnatural. Relatively early in her adolescence she had realized the hollowness of her father’s complaints that the workers were now the top dogs in the country and the managers in a pitiful plight, when she paid a visit to the sixth-floor garret to which Louise, the maid, was banished every night after work. Yet even so, the virulence of her antibourgeois bias, the obvious product of a guilty conscience at belonging to a privileged milieu, seems to have acquired a quite extreme and irrational force. To cite but one example, she turned her back on the humanism of the Nouvelle Revue Française, since it implied that “one could reach the universal while remaining bourgeois; and I had just realized that such a hope is a delusion.”
It is at this point that one can begin to measure the patent irrationality which has filtered into a supposedly rational attitude. For why should attaining the universal be any more impossible for a bourgeois than for a patrician or a proletarian? This is a purely arbitrary notion, but one which the passage of the years does not seem to have affected. Years later, when she sat down to write The Second Sex, the same prejudice was there, waiting in the wings, so that when she asked herself why it was that the eighteenth century in Europe — a feminine century if there ever was one — should not have produced any women geniuses comparable to Dante or Shakespeare, she came up with this explanation: “This fact can be explained by the general mediocrity of their condition. Culture has never been the sole perquisite of a feminine elite, cut off from the mass; and it is from the mass that masculine geniuses have often sprung.”
This statement might pass muster but for the odd intrusion of the word “mass,” which has been slipped in here through a typically Sartrean piece of sleight of hand. For if we think back on the period in question, what do we find? The geniuses of this age — Hume, Swift, Gibbon, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Vico, Guardi, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Bach, Handel, Mozart — were almost to a man of stout bourgeois origins. But such is Simone de Beauvoir’s grudging determination to denigrate the middle class, not simply for the present but for all time, that she prefers to steep it in that anonymous social porridge known as the “mass” in order to imbue the middle class with the suprabourgeois strength to reach up to the stars.
THIS virulent antibourgeois bias naturally predisposed her favorably toward Marxism; but the strange fact which emerges from the second volume of her memoirs is that she did not immediately take to it, any more than did Sartre, whom she met at the Sorbonne and to whose mercurial charm she soon succumbed. Part of the explanation is that they were both from middleclass families and had no contacts with workers — a social gulf they made no attempt to bridge. Both were strongly apolitical and avowedly anarchistic at the time, a biographical detail of considerable irony, since it means that they were then the very opposite of what they have since so aggressively become: engagés — that is, committed to a political and social cause. It was Simone Weil who nosed out Simone de Beauvoir to take first place in their philosophy class, who went out to swing a pick with the railroad workers in order to be able to head a delegation of strikers, who took part in demonstrations against the monarchists and crypto-fascists who wanted to overthrow the republic, and who finally went off to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Sartre, on the other hand, held himself aloof from all demonstrations, and in the important elections of 1932 he did not even bother to vote.
Indeed, tine picture we get of Sartre in The Prime of Life is not altogether flattering, and we can be grateful to the author for having had the courage to depict the shadows as well as the light. What emerges is the portrait of an enfant terrible, a twentieth-century Jean Jacques Rousseau with a nihilist twist, a man less interested in the quiet pursuit of truth than in demolishing all established idols, a professional iconoclast laying about him wildly with a hammer at any consecrated ideal or notion within range — and always, of course, with the underlying intention d’épaler le bourgeois, “of astounding the bourgeois,” as the French so colorfully put it; the bourgeois being in this case himself and his little circle of university friends.
The inventory of resulting damage is pretty impressive. Nothing seems to have been too exalted or well established to escape assault from Sartre’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s passion for negation. At times, though, she was hard put to keep up with him. “On many points I remained the dupe of bourgeois sublimations, but they,” she writes of Sartre and a couple of his friends, “they mercilessly deflated all idealisms.” The scene of these garage-mechanic executions was the Café de Flore, chosen less out of any love for its somewhat drab exterior than “to play a good joke” on the livelier and more fashionable Café des Deux Magots next door.
The same negative impulse motivated the “sympathy of principle” both felt for the workers, “because they were free of bourgeois blemishes.” “Together,” she recalls with relish, “we hated Sunday crowds, respectable ladies and gentlemen, the provinces, families, children and all humanisms. . . . We actually stigmatized this beau monde“ — the world of posh hotels and millionaires in gleaming Hispano-Suizas — “as the very dregs of the earth. . . . We despised the meanderings of Keyserling,” she notes, doubtless because this German thinker had the unpardonable misfortune to be born a count. Lytton Strachey, on the other hand, found favor with them because his Eminent Victorians “cut several pompous bigwigs down to their proper size.”
During a visit to Oxford, Sartre refused, notwithstanding Simone de Beauvoir’s entreaties, to go inside any of the colleges, so irritated was he by the traditions and snobbery of the English undergraduates. When Jean Renoir’s great film, La Grande Illusion, appeared, they refused to see it, under the impression that a movie dealing with World War I could only be militaristic. They were aggressively antimilitaristic throughout these years, and when Sartre was called up for his normal term of compulsory service, she considered it a scandal that he should have to take orders from “bastards” — that is, from officers.
Perhaps the most incredible antic in this campaign of systematic negation was staged by Sartre during a trip they made together to Saint-Malo. Beyond the seventeenth-century ramparts of the old corsair port is a gaunt promontory of grasscovered rock which stands proudly out against the stormy waves of the Channel. Here the great Romantic poet, René de Chateaubriand, asked to be buried, with nothing but a bare slab of stone to commemorate his mortuary marriage with the elements. This was too much of a challenge, and as she records: “Chateaubriand’s tomb struck us as so absurdly pompous in its fake simplicity that Sartre urinated on it as a mark of his contempt.”
FORMIDABLE as this inventory of negations is, it should not leave one with the impression that The Prime of Life is no more than a catalogue of postadolescent aberrations, even though the author had the candor to remark (in the preceding tome): “We were wrong in just about everything.” Its 479 dense pages span that crucial period which goes from the late 1920s to the liberation of Paris in 1944, and what emerges is an almost definitive portrait of an age, if we begin by admitting that any such “portrait” — as opposed to the panoramic landscapes which the historians give us — is bound to be limited to one person’s restricted field of vision, within his particular country and class.
We are shown the author living in a picturesque hotel brothel in Rouen, where she taught for some years and where Sartre (then teaching in Le Havre) would visit her regularly. We see her legging it over all the hills of central and southern France with a pack on her back — for she reveals herself here as a formidable hiker whom Sartre, of less robust and of smaller build, could often not keep up with — and riding on a bicycle through German-occupied Paris to meet her anti-Nazi friends in the heavily blackout-curtained Café de Flore. We are shown Sartre doing crossword puzzles in the train, walking around the streets of Paris with a yo-yo — one of his sudden passions — and constantly inventing skits and playing jokes on his friends.
It was clearly this madcap, imaginative, irrepressibly irreverent side to Sartre’s character which permitted him to exercise as powerful a sway over her as her father and her cousin Jacques once had. Sartre, however, seems to have been a God who didn’t fail, and there is an almost childlike trust in her remark that she knew that no matter what might happen “no harm to me could ever come from him.” “It’s a morganatic marriage,” he used to say of their relationship, and there was a time, indeed, when they both contemplated marriage, only to renounce it as too bourgeois a convention. particularly since they had decided not to have children. It was also Sartre who dubbed her “Le Castor” (“The Beaver”), an appropriate nickname for someone who has always been a formidable intellectual workhorse, and one of the most incisive descriptions of her which exist. “Sartre decided I had a double personality. Normally I was the Beaver; but occasionally this animal would be replaced by a rather irksome young lady called Mademoiselle de Beauvoir.”
Such hardly flattering judgments, which she could easily have glossed over, do credit to Simone de Beauvoir’s meticulous honesty in recording the often somnambulistic illusions which Sartre and she shared on many subjects — as, for example, on what they thought was the passing nuisance of the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Nor has any attempt been made to conceal the generous dose of complacent egocentricity and bourgeois anarchism that went into the concoction of their personal philosophies. Indeed, with the possible exception of Kafka, the author who seems to have influenced them most in these formative years was neither Husserl nor Heidegger but Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose Journey to the End of the E ight is one of the blackest and most nihilist books to have been written in this century. It was Céline who opened their eyes to this useful rule of thumb: when in doubt, resort to abuse. True to the prescription, Sartre in his first major work, La Nausée (Nausea), pasted the complacent bourgeois of Bouville (“Mudville”) with the word salauds ("stinkers"’) — a term he has since elevated to the status of a philosophical category.
It may well be wondered if anything truly resembling rational thought is any longer possible when it reaches this level of debasement and proletarian abuse. In Simone de Beauvoir’s books this proletarian tendency is less obvious, though there are traces of it in her occasional use of bistro vulgarisms like types (“guys”), trucs (“thingamajigs”), des tas de (“heaps of” — everything from stories to people), s’engueuler (“to bawl each other out”), and so on; and this not simply in the dialogue of her novels, where such usages are justified, but in the very body of her narration. So, too, the occasional sloppiness and laisser-aller of her style clearly stem from a desire to avoid an excess of elegance which might be mistaken for an aristocratic or bourgeois effort at refinement.
This aggressive desire to counteract the elegance of the French language should not deceive us; less offensive than defensive in inspiration, it stems from that same underlying timidity which used to cause her to smash glasses and carry on raucously in the bars of Montparnasse in order to prove to the world that she was no longer a “jeune fille rangée” but an emancipated young lady. In her memoirs this ingrained defense mechanism is perhaps most evident in her often pathetic determination “de ne pas être dupé” — not to be taken in by what she repeatedly refers to as “myths” (covering everything from religious beliefs to fairy tales). This fear seems to pursue her everywhere and to fill her universe with threatening phantoms; yet, by a curious irony, it is precisely this fearful vigilance on her part which seems more than once to have led her most astray.
The reason is not hard to find: the Cartesian appeal to personal evidence, to “things seen with one’s own eyes,” is, alas, no more foolproof a way of thwarting the eternal trompe l’oeil, the sleights and delusions of the phenomenal world, than any other. Catherine the Great proved it when she rode in her carriage through the stage-prop villages of the Ukraine. A good deal of modern tourism consists of little more than Potemkin villages, of glittering facades obscuring the swarming poverty behind, as Simone de Beauvoir knows as well as anyone else; this is precisely the feeling which she has well described Henri and Nadine experiencing in The Mandarins when they leave the baroque splendors of Lisbon’s main streets for the piteous back alleys behind. But the strange thing is that she did not realize that she herself could fall victim to the same kind of visual deception during the two trips to foreign countries — to the United States in 1947, to China in 1955 — which have been recorded in book form. The America she saw — or, to be more exact, the America she did not blind herself to — the America of Harlems and Tobacco Roads, was as much a Potemkin village (but one sullied and blackened) as was the Red China site visited, with its hosts of contented workers and emancipated women.
Yes, emancipated women! And here we touch the second key to this self-inflicted astigmatism. For if Simone de Beauvoir — “Mademoiselle Gulliver en Amérique,” as Mary McCarthy once aptly dubbed her — chose to find everything she possibly could wrong with the United States and everything she possibly could right with the China of Mao Tse-tung, it was not only because in Red China the proletariat had triumphed while America was still in the grip of Wall Street bankers and automobile magnates (the new barons of the “Pullman class”), but also because the old China, the China of the soft-spoken mandarins, was a land of boundless iniquity where women were slaves and had their feet tenderized by compressing them into tiny slippers. Today they no longer wear such slippers, and it should therefore follow, with the simplicity of a Euclidean theorem, that the women of China are now free.
This form of argument belongs to what might be called the “Cosmetic Theory of History.” It is one which Simone de Beauvoir herself patented in The Second Sex, the subtitle or motto of which could well have been: “Women of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your bracelets.” For it is one of the theses of this astonishing work that jewelry, long, polished fingernails, corsets, high heels, lipstick, rouge, and so on are all part of the elaborate paraphernalia which the male overdogs have encouraged throughout the centuries in order to enslave and subject the women underdogs. They are part and parcel of the perennial masculine plot to render women powerless by reducing them to a subject status of passive idols, doll-like creatures, painted toys at the mercy of men’s eternally capricious beck and call.