Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Open Marriage of True Minds - The extraordinary life of Simone de Beauvoir

On the introduction to this massive book, Deirdre Bair says that her aim is to help future societies assess the real contribution of Simone de Beauvoir, determine why she matters. Beauvoir's personal fame still rests on her connection with Jean-Paul Sartre, although her international fame as a writer is based almost wholly on her prophetic work, The Second Sex, which was published in 1949, well before the current phase of feminism began. Besides that, she was the author of seven novels, a play, two books of philosophy, four volumes of memoirs, and about five other volumes of serious essays, apart from numerous introductions to the works of others, and many articles for periodicals. Her own view of the way she mattered was entirely as a writer, not as a lady-friend or as a feminist. She laid great stress on this, and disliked being remembered only as the author of a feminist documentthe book, she said, that "anyone could have written."

Significantly enough, Bair does not publish a list of Beauvoir's works anywhere in this big volume. She claims to be disappointed by the prevailing emphasis on Beauvoir's life, compared with the attention paid to Sartre's writing; and yet she has made clear, in the farm and the nature of her biographical study, where she really stands. Although Bair scrupulously describes every writing project that her subject undertook, she shows that in the case of Beauvoir, when all is really said and done, the life was the work. In fact, apart from the importance of The Second Sex to feminism, her other writings cannot compare to the great works of literature that lead vital lives apart from their authors'. Beauvoir's philosophical works have not endured, and her novels, using the same material as her memoirs, are ultimately unimaginative, limited by their confinement to her own milieu and her own kind of feminine philosophical perspective. Like the memoirs, they have mainly historical value. This book supports the reasonable view that despite her pride in her metier, Beauvoir's contribution to the future will not be as a creator, but as an example.


She is, indeed, a great example. Perhaps only the future will properly understand how great, since, as Bair points out, many of her youthful admirers even in France have no conception of the way of life into which she was born, or of the kind of social and intellectual training she had, and therefore no sense of the heroism in the life she undertook. It is now both respectable and easyand perhaps normalfor a middle-class European woman to get an excellent education, become a writer, form friendships and amorous liaisons with other writers, edit a magazine, engage in politics, teach, travel, lecture, and never marry, keep house, or have childrento feel free to pursue what used to be thought of as a man's life. It is now considered comme il faut, moreover, to cast such a life in the secular and godless mold.

For Simone de Beauvoir, born into the haute bourgeoisie in 1908, such a course was initially unimaginable. She began not only chained to ancient European ideals of female domestic and familial duty, but constrained by the rigidly Catholic upbringing that her mother imposed on her and by the limited education then provided for French upper-middle-class girls. Before she could lead her famous life, she had to imagine it; and French precedents were conspicuously lacking. American and English girls were already socially much freer at the time, and ideas about their education were much more advanced in those enterprising Protestant countries.

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