What was she thinking?
“Though de Beauvoir and Sartre never tied the knot, their relationship, with its jealousies and enmities and silent rages, looks like the worst kind of marriage”
Everybody knows who’d have played Albert Camus in “Existentialism—the Movie”. Humphrey Bogart not only looked the part, but his wartime personification of insolent isolationist integrity might have been modelled on Camus’s life under occupation. As for the slobber-lipped and glaucous-eyed Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Laughton could have pulled it off—especially in the make-up he wore for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But what about Sartre’s sometime lover, Simone de Beauvoir? Here she is on the front of Kate Kirkpatrick’s new biography, all tweeds and tugged-back hair under a demonic half-light. Who could do justice to that pinched, frosty beauty? It’s a tough call but I think Gale Sondergaard—the titular villainess in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman—might just have been a shoo-in.
A spider woman de Beauvoir was. Kirkpatrick is as fair-minded as any commentator could be, but no sane reader could come away from Becoming Beauvoir more admiring of its subject than they were hitherto. Yes, de Beauvoir wrote some good novels (though dissing Camus for what she saw as the arid programmatics of The Plague was a case of pot, kettle, noire). Yes her siding with the Algerians against French colonial rule was as practical and suasive as Sartre’s late-life revolutionary antics were posturing and silly. And, yes, for all its anti-foundationalist flights of fancy, de Beauvoir’s feminist primer The Second Sex undoubtedly “marked a revolutionary moment in the way women thought”. Still, there is no getting away from the fact that de Beauvoir was at the centre of a dark web of debauched lusts.
In The Second Sex de Beauvoir argues that Hegels’s master-slave dialectic is the model for too many marriages. She ought to know. Though de Beauvoir and Sartre never tied the knot, their relationship, with its jealousies and enmities and silent rages, looks like the worst kind of marriage. To read Kirkpatrick is to be astonished that “the mother of second-wave feminism” was ever taken as any kind of moral exemplar. One of Sartre’s earliest letters to her instructs her to go to his mother’s house and pick up his laundry. Soon she was picking up his women. Having lured a succession of female students into her own bed, she promptly handed them over to Sartre. Afterwards, the two would get together to compare mocking notes on the girls in question. “What,” Kirkpatrick asks, “was she thinking?”
What she was thinking is, thankfully, at the heart of Becoming Beauvoir. While relying heavily on the lineaments of Deirdre Bair’s authorised 1990 life, Simone de Beauvoir, Kirkpatrick offers a far more detailed and analytical account of de Beauvoir’s philosophy than any previous biography. Too many people, she says, still see de Beauvoir not as a thinker in her own right but as Sartre’s servile amanuensis. So they do, though it ought to be said that it was de Beauvoir who helped them to their conclusion. Nobody ran her down half as well as she did herself. On numerous occasions down the years she referred to Sartre as “the philosopher”, as if there could only be one and the only one it could be was him.
That said, Kirkpatrick is none too convinced by the recent academic research that suggests it wasn’t so much de Beauvoir who rode on Sartre’s coattails as he who rode on hers. What Kirkpatrick calls the “derivative double” theory boils down to the chronological fact that de Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, which was published a couple of months after Being and Nothingness, was actually written before Sartre’s thematically similar phenomenological doorstopper. Indeed it was, says Kirkpatrick, but with de Beauvoir and Sartre it’s impossible to work out who said or wrote what first because pretty much all they did outside the bedroom was talk philosophy at one another.
Whether talking or writing, Kirkpatrick argues, de Beauvoir was a subtler thinker than Sartre (just as one member of the three-man jury that examined them for the Sorbonne finals in 1928 had noted). Whether this is because de Beauvoir’s thought originated in life and not just in the library we can’t be sure. What we can be certain of is that while Sartre was immensely clever, de Beauvoir eventually attained a kind of wisdom. Among the many virtues of Kirkpatrick’s book is the way it teases out the ramifications of de Beauvoir’s burgeoning shame over her involvement in Sartre’s sexual gamesmanship. It led her to first doubt and then to debunk the straw-man libertarianism upon which his philosophy was premised.
To be sure, de Beauvoir says, in The Ethics of Ambiguity (a far more convincing account of secular rectitude than Sartre’s confused and confusing Existentialism is a Humanism), Sartre was right about freedom being the bedrock of morality. But morality tethers that freedom by insisting that we grant it to others too.
Becoming Beauvoir—which takes its title from the best known line in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, is a fine book, but it would be even better had it done more to show how so much of de Beauvoir’s work anticipates the lines of today’s culture wars. Though she only acknowledged that she was some kind of feminist in her later years, de Beauvoir laid out the basic tenets of contemporary women’s studies and foreshadowed today’s trans-sexualist arguments about the fluid nature of identity, with her suggestion that gender is a kind of “performance”.
But this is to cavil. Kate Kirkpatrick’s essential achievement here is to have related Simone de Beauvoir’s logic to her life. Given that new stashes of her diaries and letters keep turning up, it would be folly to call Becoming Beauvoir essential. Contingently speaking, though, this is the best Beauvoir biography yet.
Becoming Beauvoir: A Life
By Kate Kirkpatrick
Bloomsbury, 476pp, £20.00