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Simone Beauvoir - Biography


Simone Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Simone de Beauvoir was born in 1908 on Boulavard Raspail in Paris. She was the eldest daughter of a respected bourgeois family. Her younger sister, Poupette, and she remained close throughout their lives, and de Beauvoir makes positive reference to her early years. It is said that her work was inspired in part by the contrasting morals of her parents. Her father desired to work in the theatre, but succumbed to social pressures and became a lawyer, and her mother was a strict Roman Catholic. De Beauvoir was educated in private institutions and under the religious discretion of her mother. De Beauvoir declared herself an atheist while she was still an adolescent, later arguing that religion was only a method of avoiding truth. She committed herself early to a life of learning, studying, and writing. When de Beauvoir was 21 years old she went to live with her grandmother, and began to study philosophy at the Sorbonne.

In 1929 de Beauvoir passed her agrégation in philosophy with a thesis on Leibniz. This same year, she met a group of students including Paul Nizan, Andre Hermaid, and Jean-Paul Satre. Sartre and de Beauvoir began their lifelong partnership, becoming best friends and intellectual equals. The pair ranked as the top two students of their graduating class. The influence of the two philosophers on each other's work is remarkable. Their relationship would become famous for the unique commitment they made to each other which involved the freedom to love other people and the practice of complete openness and honesty between them. They would never marry, although it was spoken of at one point, for de Beauvoir in particular felt strongly that their relationship must not be institutionalized. This met with the disapproval of many of her friends and relatives.

In the years between 1931 and 1941 de Beauvoir continued living with her Grandmother while teaching at a number of Lycées in Marseille, Rouen and Paris. She was professor at the Sorbonne from 1941 to 1943. Her work allowed her to be financially independent. She gathered a number of friends around her, and spent time in the cafes of Paris writing and giving talks. She went to study German philosophy in Berlin for a while, remaining in touch with Sartre all the time. At one point they would form a kind of love triangle with a student at de Beauvoir's lycée named Olga Kosakievicz. De Beauvoir based her first book of fiction, L'Invitée (She Came To Stay, 1943), on the experience of living with the third party so close to her relationship with Sartre. The novel is influenced by the philosophy of Hegel, Heidegger, and Kojeve, which both she and Sartre were studying at the time. It examines the problem of choice in an absurd world, and the relationship of an individual conscience to "the other". Her writing is also viewed as influenced by existentialism, although she would persistently resist the title of "existentialist" despite her links to Sartre.

During the Nazi occupation of France, de Beauvoir was able to continue working without opposition from the Germans. By 1943 she had completed four more books including Les Bouches Inutiles (Useless Mouths), All Men are Mortal, Pyrrhus et Cineas, and The Blood of Others. Pyrrhus et Cinéas was published in 1944, another study of anxiety, individual choice, and the importance of free will. In 1945 she published Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others), a novel that explores the problems of political activism and dilemmas experienced by a French Resistance leader during the war. The reviews of the book were favorable, and it sold well in the environment of a confused post-war France, grappling with the moral issues left behind by the war. The success of both de Beauvoir's and Sartres work during this time moved them into a larger intellectual circle including Camus, Picasso, and Bataille. After World War II, de Beauvoir and Sartre edited the leftist journal Les Tempes modernes, named for the Chaplin film, Modern Times. The monthly review put the couple at the center of an active intellectual community.

De Beauvoir's interest in politics increased steadily after World War II. By the 1950s, de Beauvoir had become highly critical of Capitalism, and was defending the Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union. In 1947, she took a five-month trip in the United States, reinforcing many of her beliefs. In 1948 she published L'Amérique au jour de jour (America Day by Day), a critical work on the social problems, class inequalities and racism she witnessed during her visit to the United States. While she was in the U.S., de Beauvoir met and fell in love with the writer Nelson Algren. Her novel, The Mandarins, published in 1954, is loosely based on her relationships with both Algren and Sartre. It is also a chronicle of the movement of post-World War II intellectuals from their "mandarin" (educated elite) status towards active political engagement. For the novel she was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France's highest literary award. Her relationship with Algren continued for 15 years. The book The Works traces the course de Beauvoir's relationship with Algren through their correspondence, supported by accounts from friends, biographers and de Beauvoir's adopted daughter Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir.

In 1947 de Beauvoir published Pour une Morale de l'ambiguité (The Ethics of Ambiguity), her first strictly philosophical publication. She traveled to China, the USSR, Cuba, Japan, Egypt, Israel, and Brazil to continue her political research, and in 1957 she published La Longue Marche: essai sur la Chine (The Long March). This essay enthusiastically supports the Chinese Revolution. She was also vocal about supporting the Vietnamese Communists over the French.

In 1949 she published her classic treatise of feminist literature Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex). This seminal work established her as a great political and philosophical thinker. She works within the history of women's oppression, revealing woman as the "other" as defined by patriarchy, and claiming that "one is not born a woman; one becomes one." The text is a technically astute yet passionate plea for the abolition of what she calls the myth of the "eternal feminine," and is considered by some scholars to be among the definitive declarations of women's independence. Not everyone would approve of the text of course, and the Catholic writer François Mauriac led a campaign against The Second Sex, labeling it as pornography. Other critics labeled de Beauvoir a "nymphomaniac," while some complained that her work was dispassionate. Later in her life, de Beauvoir would dedicate herself to the feminist movement, and she spoke out against the institutionalization of impoverished and unwed mothers.

De Beauvoir devoted four volumes of work to her autobiography. These are titled Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1958), La Force de l'âge (The Prime of Life, 1960), La Force des choses (Force of Circumstance, 1963), and Tout compte fait (All Said and Done, 1972). This particular body of work paints a fascinating portrait of French intellectual life from the 1930s to the 1970s. In her second memoir, The Prime of Life, she analyzes the relationship between the 'I' and the 'we', and writes about autonomy, being alone and her evolving relationship with Sartre. Her ideas shift from her focus on her private life to external and more universal topics in her third volume, Force of Circumstance. In this work she discusses issues of the times, including the controversy and passionate conflict over human freedoms and the French/Algerian War. She took 18 years to write the third volume, and it is the most popular and dramatic work of the collection.

Later in life De Beauvoir concerned herself with the issue of aging, which she examines in Une Mort très douce (A Very Easy Death, 1964), which was written on the event of her mother's death in a hospital. In 1970 she wrote La Vieillesse (Old Age), which is a scathing critique of society's indifference to the elderly. In 1981 she wrote La Cérémonie des adieux (Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre), an account of Sartre's last years. She had stayed by Sartre's side until his death in 1980, and de Beauvoir spent her final years attempting to record their relationship. The book offended many people who saw it as a cold report rather than a factual testiment to a lifelong relationship. Sadly, among de Beauvoir's critics was Sartre's adopted daughter, Arlette El Kaïm-Sartre. In the last years of her life de Beauvoir became dependent on alcohol and amphetamines, and her health rapidly declined. Through her life she had gained the respect of her peers as a sharp intellectual, determined to live her life with the courage and integrity she aspired to in her writing. De Beauvoir died in Paris on April 14, 1986, and was buried in the same grave as Sartre.