Simone de Beauvoir
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Simone de Beauvoir
|Full name||Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir|
|Born||January 9, 1908
|Died||April 14, 1986 (aged 78)
|Main interests||Politics, Feminism, Ethics|
|Notable ideas||ethics of ambiguity, feminist ethics, existential feminism|
Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, called Simone de Beauvoir (French pronunciation: [simÉn dÉ bovwaÊ]; January 9, 1908 – April 14, 1986), was a French writer, existentialist philosopher, feminist, Marxist, and social theorist. She wrote novels, monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues, essays, biographies, and an autobiography in several volumes. She is now best known for her metaphysical novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins, and for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. She is also noted for her lifelong polyamorous relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.
Simone de Beauvoir was the oldest daughter of Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir, a one-time lawyer and amateur actor, and Franoise Brasseur, a young woman from Verdun. She was born in Paris as Simone (a then-chic name her father liked)-Lucie (for her mother's mother)-Ernestine (for her father's father, Ernest-Narcisse)-Marie (for the Virgin Mary) Bertrand de Beauvoir (she was taught as a child to give her name as simply "Simone de Beauvoir"). She was an attractive but spoiled child who had tantrums to get her way, and who was the center of attention in her family. Her mother wasn't a great seamstress, and the clothes she sewed unfortunately were ill-fitting. Growing up, Beauvoir had no friends except her sister Hlne, who was two and a half years younger and with whom she was close.
Her family had been middle-class. In 1909, Beauvoir's maternal grandfather Gustave Brasseur, president of the Meuse Bank, went bankrupt, throwing his entire family into dishonor and poverty. Georges and Franoise were not paid her dowry. The family eventually had to move into a smaller apartment. Georges de Beauvoir had to go back to work although work didn't suit him. The family struggled throughout the girls' childhood to keep their place in the bourgeoisie, and Georges said often, "You girls will never marry, because you will have no dowry".
Beauvoir was always aware that her father had hoped to have a son, instead of two daughters. He would say, "Simone thinks like a man!" which pleased her greatly, and from a young age Beauvoir was a distinguished student. Georges de Beauvoir passed his love of theater and literature to his daughter. He became convinced that only scholarly success could lift his daughters out of poverty. (Hlne became a painter.)
She became an awkward adolescent and attached herself completely to books and learning, and chose to ignore sports because she was unathletic. She and her sister were educated at the Institut Adeline Dsir, or Cours Dsir, a Catholic school for girls, something that was looked down on by the intellectuals at the time. The Catholic schools for girls were seen as places where the young were taught one of the two alternatives open to women: marriage or a convent. Her mother, whom Beauvoir considered an intruder spying on her every move, attended classes with them, sitting behind them, as most mothers were expected to do. There Beauvoir met her best friend, Elisabeth Le Coin (ZaZa in Beauvoir's memoirs). Simone loved school and she graduated in 1924 with "distinction".
At 15, Beauvoir had already decided she would be a writer. Jacques Champigneulle became her intellectual mentor and friend, one whom her mother had hoped she would marry. Geraldine Paro (GG) and Estepha Awdykovicz (Stpha) became her girlfriends.
After passing the baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature/languages at the Institut Sainte-Marie, then philosophy at the University of Paris (Sorbonne). In 1929, while at the Sorbonne, Beauvoir gave a presentation on Leibniz. There she met many other young intellectuals, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ren Maheu and Jean-Paul Sartre. While at the Sorbonne, Maheu gave Beauvoir her lifelong nickname, Castor, the French word for "beaver", given to her because of the animal's strong work ethic. In 1929, at the age of 21, Beauvoir became the youngest person ever to obtain the agrgation in philosophy, and the 9th woman to obtain this degree. On the final examination she received second place; Sartre, age 24, was first (he'd failed his first exam). The jury for the agrgation argued over whether to give Sartre or Beauvoir first place in the competition. In the end they awarded it to Sartre.
Beauvoir, whose private life came to be admired nearly as much as her work, chose to never marry and did not set up a joint household with Sartre. She never had children. This gave her time to earn an advanced academic degree, to join political causes and to travel, write, teach, and to have (male and female - the latter often shared) lovers.
Sartre was dazzlingly intelligent and was just under 5 feet (1.5 m) tall (Beauvoir was an inch taller). He allowed Beauvoir to talk about herself. During October 1929, the two became a couple. Sartre asked her to marry him at least four times. One day while they were sitting on a bench outside the Louvre, he said, "Let's sign a two-year lease". Near the end of her life, Beauvoir said, "Marriage was impossible. I had no dowry." So they became an imaginary married couple and for more than fifty years, continually renewed their pact made in 1929.
Bianca Bienenfeld said in a 2004 interview that Sartre "took little pleasure in love-making...He didn't want your body... he only wanted to conquer women". Near his death in 1980, he said, "Do you realize, child, that not counting Castor and Sylvie, there are nine women in my life at the moment!"
Bienenfeld added in 2005 that Beauvoir was not a lesbian and that her "great love affairs were with men". A former student of Sartre, the young Jacques-Laurent Bost was important to her. American author Nelson Algren, with whom Beauvoir had an affair, was the most passionate relationship of her life. She wore on her wedding ring finger, until she died, an inexpensive silver ring he had given her. Claude Lanzmann, a journalist who was seventeen years younger than Beauvoir, gave her back her youth during their six year relationship which ended when he left in 1958.
A number of de Beauvoir's young female lovers were underage, and the nature of some of these relationships, some of which she instigated while working as a school teacher, has led to biographical controversy and debate over whether de Beauvoir had inclinations towards pedophilia.
During World War II, the mother of Nathalie Sorokine formally accused Beauvoir of "corrupting a minor", and although her whole circle lied to defend Beauvoir, she was dismissed from her job school teaching in 1943. Beauvoir would, along with other French intellectuals, later petition for abolishment of age of consent laws in France.
In 1943, Beauvoir published She Came to Stay, a fictionalized chronicle of her and Sartre's relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Olga was one of her students in the Rouen secondary school where Beauvoir taught during the early 30s. She grew fond of Olga. Sartre tried to pursue Olga but she denied him; he began a relationship with her sister Wanda instead. Sartre supported Olga for years until she met and married her husband, Beauvoir's lover Jacques-Laurent Bost. At Sartre's death, he was still supporting Wanda. In the novel, set just before the outbreak of World War II, Beauvoir makes one character from the complex relationships of Olga and Wanda. The fictionalized versions of Beauvoir and Sartre have a mnage trois with the young woman. The novel also delves into Beauvoir and Sartre's complex relationship and how it was affected by the mnage trois.
Beauvoir's metaphysical novel She Came to Stay was followed by many others, including The Blood of Others which explores the nature of individual responsibility, and The Mandarins, which won her the Prix Goncourt, France's highest literary prize. The Mandarins is set just after the end of World War II. The Mandarins depicted Sartre, Nelson Algren, and many philosophers and friends among Sartre and Beauvoir's intimate circle.
In 1944 Beauvoir wrote Pyrrhus et Cinas, a discussion of an existentialist ethics, which inspired her to write more on the subject. This book, Pour Une Morale de L'ambigut (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1947) is perhaps the most accessible entry into French existentialism. Its simplicity keeps it understandable, in contrast to the abstruse character of Sartre's Being and Nothingness. The ambiguity about which Beauvoir writes clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre included, have found in major existentialist works such as Being and Nothingness.
At the end of World War II, Beauvoir and Sartre edited Les Temps Modernes, a political journal Sartre founded along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. Beauvoir used Les Temps Modernes to promote her own work and explore her ideas on a small scale before fashioning essays and books. Beauvoir remained an editor until her death.
Chapters of Le deuxime sexe (The Second Sex) were originally published in Les Temps modernes. The second volume came a few months after the first in France. It was very quickly published in America as The Second Sex, due to the quick translation by Howard Parshley, as prompted by Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Because Parshley had only a basic familiarity with the French language, and a minimal understanding of philosophy (he was a professor of biology at Smith College), much of Beauvoir's book was mistranslated or inappropriately cut, distorting her intended message. For years Knopf prevented the introduction of a more accurate retranslation of Beauvoir's work, declining all proposals despite the efforts of existentialist scholars. Only in 2009 was there a second translation, to mark the 60th anniversary of the original publication. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier produced the first integral translation, reinstating a third of the original work.
In her own way, Beauvoir anticipated the sexually charged feminism of Erica Jong and Germaine Greer. Algren, no example of restraint, was outraged by the frank way Beauvoir later described her American sexual experiences in The Mandarins (dedicated to Algren, on whom the character Lewis Brogan was based) and in her autobiographies. He vented his outrage when reviewing American translations of her work. Much material bearing on this episode in Beauvoir's life, including her love letters to Algren, entered the public domain only after her death.
In the chapter "Woman: Myth and Reality" of The Second Sex, Beauvoir argued that men had made women the "Other" in society by putting a false aura of "mystery" around them. She argued that men used this as an excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them, and that this stereotyping was always done in societies by the group higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy. She wrote that this also happened on the basis of other categories of identity, such as race, class, and religion. But she said that it was nowhere more true than with sex in which men stereotyped women and used it as an excuse to organize society into a patriarchy.
The Second Sex, published in French, sets out a feminist existentialism which prescribes a moral revolution. As an existentialist, Beauvoir believed that existence precedes essence; hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Her analysis focuses on the Hegelian concept of the Other. It is the (social) construction of Woman as the quintessential Other that Beauvoir identifies as fundamental to women's oppression. The capitalized 'O' in "other" indicates the wholly other.
Beauvoir argued that women have historically been considered deviant, abnormal. She said that even Mary Wollstonecraft considered men to be the ideal toward which women should aspire. Beauvoir said that this attitude limited women's success by maintaining the perception that they were a deviation from the normal, and were always outsiders attempting to emulate "normality". She believed that for feminism to move forward, this assumption must be set aside.
Beauvoir asserted that women are as capable of choice as men, and thus can choose to elevate themselves, moving beyond the 'immanence' to which they were previously resigned and reaching 'transcendence', a position in which one takes responsibility for oneself and the world, where one chooses one's freedom.
A critical essay, "Le Malentendu du Deuxime Sexe", was written by Suzanne Lilar in 1969.
A new translation of The Second Sex for the first time gives access to the entire text in English, as Irene Gammel writes in a Globe and Mail review: "The single most important advantage of this new translation is its completeness, combined with the translators' courage to transpose Beauvoir's existential language, thereby giving readers a sense of Beauvoir's channelling of Hegel, Marx and others."
Beauvoir wrote popular travel diaries about her travels in the United States and China, and published essays and fiction rigorously, especially throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She published several volumes of short stories, including The Woman Destroyed, which, like some of her other later work, deals with aging.
In 1979 she published When Things of the Spirit Come First, a set of short stories centered around and based upon women important to her earlier years. The stories were written well before the novel She Came to Stay, but Beauvoir did not think they were worthy of publication until about forty years later.
Sartre and Merleau-Ponty had a longstanding feud, which led Merleau-Ponty to leave Les Temps Modernes. Beauvoir sided with Sartre and ceased to associate with Merleau-Ponty. In Beauvoir's later years, she hosted the journal's editorial meetings in her flat and contributed more than Sartre, whom she often had to force to offer his opinions.
Beauvoir also notably wrote a four-volume autobiography, consisting of: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; The Prime of Life; Force of Circumstance (sometimes published in two volumes in English translation: After the War and Hard Times); and All Said and Done.
In the 1970s Beauvoir became active in France's women's liberation movement. She signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, a list of famous women who claimed to have had an abortion, then illegal in France. Some argue most of the women had not had abortions, including Beauvoir, but given the secrecy surrounding the issue, this cannot be known. Signatories were diverse as Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig, and Beauvoir's sister Poupette. In 1974, abortion was legalized in France.
Her 1970 long essay La Vieillesse (The Coming of Age) is a rare instance of an intellectual meditation on the decline and solitude all humans experience if they do not die before about age 60. In 1981 she wrote La Crmonie Des Adieux (A Farewell to Sartre), a painful account of Sartre's last years. In the opening of Adieux, Beauvoir notes that it is the only major published work of hers which Sartre did not read before its publication. She and Sartre always read one another's work.
After Sartre died, Beauvoir published his letters to her with edits to spare the feelings of people in their circle who were still living. After Beauvoir's death, Sartre's adopted daughter and literary heir Arlette Elkam would not let many of Sartre's letters be published in unedited form. Most of Sartre's letters available today have Beauvoir's edits, which include a few omissions but mostly the use of pseudonyms. Beauvoir's adopted daughter and literary heir Sylvie Le Bon, unlike Elkam, published Beauvoir's unedited letters to both Sartre and Algren.
Since her death, her reputation has grown. Especially in academia, she is considered the mother of post-1968 feminism. There has also been a growing awareness of her as a major French thinker and existentialist philosopher.
Contemporary discussion analyzes the influences of Beauvoir and Sartre on one another. She is seen as having influenced Sartre's masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, while also having written much on philosophy that is independent of Sartrean existentialism. Some scholars have explored the influences of her earlier philosophical essays and treatises upon Sartre's later thought. She is studied by many respected academics both within and outside philosophy circles, including Margaret A. Simons and Sally Scholtz. Beauvoir's life has also inspired numerous biographies.
In 2006, the city of Paris commissioned architect Dietmar Feichtinger to design a sophisticated footbridge across the Seine River. The bridge was named the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir in her honor. It leads to the new Bibliothque nationale de France.
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