Simone de Beauvoir: The Courage to Love Differently

Les mandarins

Les mandarins
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(Gallimard, 1954)

Beauvoir’s relationship with Nelson Algren inevitably found its way into print, first in Les Mandarins, her Goncourt-winning novel that was again based on the tangle of relationships that dominated this era of her life, and in her memoir, Force of Circumstance. Algren was furious at having his privacy transgressed in this way. When asked about the accuracy of the account in the memoir for Newsweek, he said “She’s fantasizing a relationship in the manner of a middle-aged spinster. It was mostly a friendship… It was casual.” He would review both her books, viciously. The affair had a more oblique but significant impact on what would be Beauvoir’s most famous book, The Second Sex (Le Deuxième sexe). It was, as ever, Sartre who suggested she look into the issue of gender inequality, an issue which Beauvoir declared never to have noticed. But as she set about her research, she became ever more enthralled by the topic. Joan Acocella argues that “the crucial research took place in Nelson Algren’s bed.” Beauvoir reserved her most biting criticisms, not for the men who expected women to be second class citizens, hand-holders and helpmates, but for women who went along with it all out of vanity and neuroticism. Her fiercest words concerned the masochism displayed by the “woman in love” who devotes herself tenderly, excessively to her man only to “gather up the crumbs that the male cares to toss her.” But does she care? Not a bit. For the woman in love will give away her individuality with pleasure in order to become identified entirely with her beloved:

The woman in love tries to see with his eyes… she is interested only in the landscapes she sees with him, in the ideas that come from him; she adopts his friendships, his enmities, his opinions; when she questions herself it is his reply she tries to hear… The supreme happiness of the woman in love is to be recognized by the loved man as a part of himself; when he says “we” she is associated and identified with him, she shares his prestige and reigns with him over the rest of the world.

Beauvoir was writing The Second Sex over the time of her affair with Algren, but it described a pattern she herself had adopted from the moment she fell in love with Sartre. The writing of the book had no cathartic effect on her behaviour; for the mystery is whether Beauvoir had any idea that she was talking about herself. She continued to pester Algren tenderly for a love he had no intention of giving her, and when that relationship finally petered out, and Sartre finally moved on from Vanetti, everything went right back to normal. Beauvoir got over the pain in the arms of a man seventeen years her junior, Claude Lanzmann, who was able to fit in with the program, being Paris-based and not particularly threatened by her relationship to Sartre. And what was there to be threatened by? Sartre would continue for the rest of his life to fall madly in love with other women; he would continue to draw them into his orbit as tightly as he could; he would continue to abhor jealousy whilst doing everything likely to provoke it; and he would concoct ever more outrageous lies to keep his many affairs separately in the dark. Beauvoir remained devoted to him, working alongside him, concerned for every part of his life. There was always love between them, though Sartre was able to conjure that out of words at any time, for whatever woman he was with. Beauvoir kept their pact of transparency right up to the end, although Sartre did not. When questioned by his biographer, Olivier Todd, whether he lied to all his women, even the Beaver (Sartre’s pet name for her), Sartre smiled and replied “Particularly to the Beaver.” When he died, Beauvoir went half mad with grief, throwing herself on his corpse and requiring hospitalisation for a month. For a woman who co-created the doctrine of Existentialism whose basic tenet was the need to respond to the relentless dynamism of life, its perpetual flux and variation, she could not have been a model of greater constancy.

In her old age, the international feminist movement caught up with Simone de Beauvoir, and she loved the new energy this brought into her life. In this Second Wave of feminism, the emphasis on positive role models would be marked, for the women’s movement would be concerned above all with creating a new kind of future for its members, a life of freedom and achievement that few women had ever previously lived. Of course, Beauvoir seemed to have lived that sort of life and for some years she was taken up as an icon, a mascot for female possibilities. How ironic then, that mentally and emotionally, she had been the “woman in love,” for whom, as she wrote poignantly in The Second Sex: “love represents in its most touching form the curse that lies heavily upon women confined in the feminine universe, woman mutilated, insufficient unto herself.”

La femme rompue

La femme rompue
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(Gallimard, 1968)

Beauvoir had bent herself out of shape for Sartre, so thoroughly that she could never undo the alterations. That admirable woman had become who she was by modelling herself on Sartre, following his ideas, his opinions, his philosophy. Looking back on her early life with him she would confess that her fascination led her to forget herself, to cease to exist on her own account. Beauvoir had a life of splendid achievement, but her core had been abdicated, just like the pitiful women she described in her fiction.

Her last fictional works were collected together in The Broken Woman (La femme rompue), three narratives each dealing with that troublesome figure, the “woman in love.” Published in 1968, they spoke to the spirit of the age with its fury against the established hierarchies of power. But it was not Beauvoir’s nature to tell other women what to do. Her characters were not good examples, but terrible warnings. Why would Beauvoir applaud the notion of the role model when she knew better than anyone how aping a model came at the expense of the genuine self? The whole thrust of her argument against the woman in love was that she had held up as an ideal some other being, and cast herself into permanent shadow because of it. Existentialism was about nothing if not the enormous courage it took to define oneself day after day, in ignorance and uncertainty. Beauvoir’s fictions showed the extent of what women were up against if they wanted to achieve anything like authenticity. But she did leave a broad catalogue of behaviours to avoid, most of which she had kindly road-tested first. Her refusal to give women the solutions they asked for was perhaps the best act of feminism she could have undertaken.

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