Feminist witness to the century

Simone de Beauvoir

February 25, 2000

For three decades after the second world war, Simone de Beauvoir and her lifelong companion - her "significant Other" - Jean-Paul Sartre dominated French intellectual life. Since their deaths, Sartre's star has dimmed while Beauvoir's remains zenith-dazzling. She left a substantial oeuvre - novels, essays, memoirs, autobiography, several volumes of diaries and letters - but her reputation rests primarily on her seminal masterpiece, The Second Sex . Published in 1949, it ushered in the era of modern feminism and secured her leadership of the movement. "The most important feminist text of the century", to this day it is unsurpassed, despite the deluge of feminist literature since. An industry has grown around the "founding mother" cult, to which this book is a thoughtful contribution.

Ursula Tidd devotes a chapter to de Beauvoir's early philosophical work, Pyrrhus et Cinéas and Pour une Morale de Ambiguité , published before The Second Sex and at the time judged derivative of Sartre's Existentialism. But Tidd demonstrates de Beauvoir's distinctive ideas, in particular the notions of freedom and subjectivity, which differed from Sartre's and contributed to the development of existential phenomenology. It seems that thereafter de Beauvoir left theoretical philosophy to Sartre and, with The Second Sex , found an independent path, mainly in fiction and (auto) biography. Gender and Testimony focuses on her autobiographical and biographical work - four hefty volumes of memoirs/autobiography and two books about her mother and Sartre following their deaths - Une Mort Trés Douce and La Ceremonie des Adieux - which Tidd treats as "biography".

In a sense, Beauvoir never wrote anything but autobiography; her novels are thinly disguised romans à clef , charting her own and her entourage's love affairs. Even The Second Sex began as an autobiographical project, an exploration of women's condition through her own "case history". She willed herself into becoming a writer as "a way for a woman to make a name for herself" and, echoing Rimbaud's " Je est un autre ", she claimed: " Le je n'existe pas, on se construit " ("'I' doesn't exist, one constructs one's self"). One day in 1946 sitting in Les Deux Magots "at a loss for something to write", she asked Giacometti's advice. The sculptor suggested that she write " n'importe quoi " (this can mean both "anything" and "any nonsense"; the ambiguity could not have escaped de Beauvoir); she began to take notes and gradually the "autobiographical impulse developed into a theoretical inquiry into gender", says Tidd. The rest is feminist history.

De Beauvoir published the first volume of her autobiography, Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée , in 1956. It covers the first 22 years of her life, her passionate attachment to her school-friend Zaza and her encounter with Sartre. Her method is chronological, her narrative Proustian: "Time transcribed on paper seems less irremediably lost". In the second volume, La Force de l'Age , she privileges the Other and explores her relationships to others. While Sartre argued that relations with the Other are conflictual, that "Hell is other people", de Beauvoir's attitude was more compassionate and empathic, and she believed that human complicity and solidarity were possible. Tidd suggests that her attitude lies in her Christian upbringing. Could it not also be due simply to her femininity? This suggestion is borne out by her account of her mother's death and of Sartre's last years - the way she took care of them in the horror of physical decay.

During the Algerian war, de Beauvoir became "aware of her historicity", she said, and concern for the plight of Algerian women increased her involvement in politics. Perhaps as a result, her methodology changed - the final volume of her autobiography, Tout Compte Fait , is thematic and discursive; time as "something that passes... a continuous flux" becomes more a kaleidoscope of salient moments and impressions.

Tidd defends de Beauvoir against the charge of "relentless narcissism" and egocentricity, proposing instead that in speaking about herself de Beauvoir bears witness to her age, narrates her time. By "I" she means "We", in particular women. "All truth can be interesting and serve" (" Toute vérité peut intéresser et servir "), she echoes Kierkegaard. Yet her models were not other female autobiographical writers, but Montaigne, Rousseau, Kierkegaard - all male. True, de Beauvoir did not indulge in endless états d'âme and soul searing, her purpose was to "bear witness to the century as a whole", she said, and speak for " le genre humain ". For that reason she aimed, like Montaigne, at clarity, lucidité (self-awareness), truthfulness, not "stylistic niceties" - "I have never deliberately cheated", she says at the end of La Force de l'Age . This explains a refreshing pudeur - no prurience or explicit description of her own sexuality.

My only complaint about this conscientious and erudite book is that it bears the stigmata of a doctoral thesis: in practically every line, references are made to books by other authors and researchers. "Once you start talking about yourself, you never stop," de Beauvoir said. She has stopped, but others cannot - one-third of Gender and Testimony consists of extensive notes and a vast bibliography. When occasionally Tidd's voice is heard amid the welter of jargon-ridden "Foucauldian" gobbledygook, it is worthy of her subject - clear and sympathetic.

Shusha Guppy is London editor, Paris Review .

Simone de Beauvoir: Gender and Testimony

Author - Ursula Tidd
ISBN - 0 521 66130 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50
Pages - 250

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