Wednesday, December 24, 2008

De Beauvoir's Disturbia

I've been looking at the politics of Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist who wrote an influential book The Second Sex.

De Beauvoir was a follower of liberal autonomy theory. She believed that a person was not fully human if they were restricted in any way by "given conditions". The aim was to be independent, autonomous and self-determining and to follow a life path uninfluenced by convention, tradition or a biological destiny.

De Beauvoir believed that women had been denied this kind of autonomous "freedom" by men and that she was acting as a champion of women to bring them liberty and equality.

But before women rush out to become Beauvoirists, they might like to consider what autonomy really looked like in de Beauvoir's own life.

De Beauvoir took the ideal of autonomy seriously in her personal life. She quite logically rejected marriage and motherhood, as these were conventional life outcomes for women, rather than a uniquely chosen individual life path; as motherhood tied women too closely to a biological destiny; and as marriage and motherhood represented a formal commitment to others and therefore a restriction on what the individual woman might choose at any time.

So when de Beauvoir met the love of her life, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, they agreed to an open relationship, one which did not compromise their individual autonomy, their "freedom".

There are some who still praise de Beauvoir for her open relationship with Sartre. Hazel Rowley, author of a study of the Beauvoir-Sartre story, has said that,

If we're celebrating Simone de Beauvoir, it's because she had the enormous courage to live in a free, open relationship in 1929 ...

Similarly, a biographer of de Beauvoir, Daniele Sallenave, continues to admire de Beauvoir for her commitment to personal autonomy:

... she showed that women are free to choose their destiny, as much as men, and don't have to obey what is supposedly dictated to them by nature and convention.

Another champion of the relationship was de Beauvoir herself. Later in life she described her relationship with Sartre as her "greatest achievement".

When Sartre first met de Beauvoir, he was upfront in explaining to her his sexual philosophy. He wanted to sleep with many women, with his ideal in relationships being "polygamy, transparency". Sartre was keen to "assert" his "freedom against women".

There was no double standard. Sartre was happy for de Beauvoir to act likewise. She accepted these conditions.

What happened? One biographer describes the results this way:

Yet in this lifelong relationship of supposed equals, he, it turned out, was far more equal than she was. It was he who engaged in countless affairs, to which she responded on only a few occasions with longer-lasting passions of her own ... it is also evident that De Beauvoir suffered deeply from jealousy. She wanted to keep the image of a model life intact. There were no children. They never shared a house and their sexual relations were more or less over by the end of the war ...

... What the letters express is not only De Beauvoir's overarching love for a man who is never sexually faithful to her, a man she addresses as her "dear little being" and whose work she loyally edits. They also underline the mundanity of De Beauvoir's early accommodation to his wishes ...

So the rejection of marriage in favour of autonomy did not bring de Beauvoir a greater degree of equality, but arguably the very opposite. She had to work much harder, and accept a lower position, in order to retain a place in his life.

And aspects of the relationship were more sordid than the above quote lets on. De Beauvoir began to act as a kind of procuress for Sartre, seducing her own school pupils and then handing them on to Sartre:

They hoped to devise new ways of living in a godless world, unrestricted by detested bourgeois institutions. But, in reality, Seymour-Jones demonstrates that their quest became a darker, more collusive joint enterprise through the 51 years of their partnership, with deeply unpleasant consequences ...

De Beauvoir became a glorified procuress, exploiting her profession as a teacher to seduce impressionable female pupils and then passing them on to Sartre ... One of them, Olga Kosakiewicz, was so unbalanced by the experience that she started to self-harm. In 1938, the 30-year-old de Beauvoir seduced her student Bianca Bienenfeld. A few months later, Sartre slept with the 16-year-old Bianca in a hotel room ...

In 1943 the parents of one of these girls brought charges against de Beauvoir for abducting a minor and she had her licence to teach anywhere in France revoked for the rest of her life.

(Isn't de Beauvoir here acting as an exploiter of young women rather than their saviour or liberator?)

After WWII, Sartre lost sexual interest in de Beauvoir, so her role was an unusual one of involving herself in Sartre's "family" of lovers:

From early on [de Beauvoir] organises the comings and goings of Sartre's "contingent" women; she encourages, consoles, manipulates, and continues to do so until the very end for that loose grouping of friends and exes they called their "family". With a few exceptions, she performs whatever Sartre at the Front asks of her, including finding money for him, or having an affair.

How did Sartre describe his relationship with de Beauvoir? He set out the consequence of having such an open, transparent relationship as follows:

"To have such freedom, we had to suppress or overcome any possessiveness, any tendency to be jealous," said Sartre. "In other words, passion. To be free, you cannot be passionate."

So here we have again a modernist rejection of the passions as being opposed to freedom. Little wonder that Sartre was often described as cold in his personality.

De Beauvoir seems to have found it harder to be dispassionate. She was a woman in love and stayed loyal to Sartre no matter how he treated her.

Her ability to love seems to have made it hard for her to think consistently in terms of autonomy. She preferred to see her relationship with Sartre as being ordained or fated rather than freely chosen:

It was as if everything had been preordained from the very beginning. My parents acted as if nothing in the universe could change the normal course of my life, which was to be a nice little bourgeois intellectual. Sartre’s grandfather, who raised him – you know his father died when he was still a baby – behaved the same way, absolutely convinced that Sartre would grow up to be a professor. And that’s the way it was.

... we were fundamentally in accord with our parents’ design for us. They wanted us to be intellectual, to read, to study, to teach, and we agreed and did so. Thus, when Sartre and I met not only did our backgrounds fuse, but also our solidity, our individual conviction that we were what we were made to be. In that framework we could not become rivals. Then, as the relationship between Sartre and me grew, I became convinced that I was irreplaceable in his life, and he in mine. In other words, we were totally secure in the knowledge that our relationship was also totally solid, again preordained, though, of course, we would have laughed at that word then.

So she accepts that her life was subject to fate, leading her to her great love. This doesn't gel with her political ideas - the commitment to autonomy - which so undermined her position as a woman in the relationship with Sartre.

The lesson is that freedom - defined in terms of personal autonomy - is inadequate as a sole, overriding good in society. Would you really wish to sacrifice love for autonomy? Passion? Children? Isn't it better, and more realistic, to define freedom in terms of our opportunity to enjoy and to live by a range of significant goods - rather than by an autonomous self-invention?


  1. "De Beauvoir became a glorified procuress, exploiting her profession as a teacher to seduce impressionable female pupils and then passing them on to Sartre"

    This reminds of how modern feminists, reaching the end of their child bearing years and realizing they have made a terrible mistake are loathe to share their wisdom with the younger generation. These girls had far more physical appeal to Sartre than she could at her age but the last thing she would do would be to warn them about the emptiness of her life choices (and indeed her active role in their exploitation is worse than just not warning them.)

    Someone once said that feminism is about empowering unattractive women over attractive ones. I do not think Beauvoir was unattractive(in her youth she was lovely.) But as she lost what drew Sartre to her, and with it her only chance for meaning and happiness, she took advantage of other women's beauty and used it against them to keep in his good graces (or so she thought.) Really, it shows incredible desperation that she needed to sink so low to keep any kind of relationship with him.

    It is almost as if for some women feminism is motivated by jealousy and hatred for more attractive women than against men.

  2. Well put. It's a pity that Google keeps bullshitting us with those made-up authorities.