Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Simone de Beauvoir was born on Boulevard Raspail, Paris, in 1908. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a strict Catholic from a bourgeois family. It is said that de Beauvoir was inspired to become an intellectual because she was caught between her father’s pagan morals and her mother’s rigid religious standards. She came to the realization that earthly joys are not to be given up (as her religion dictated) but instead, to be appreciated. This way of thinking changed her for life. She lived passionately and for the moment. In “giving up” religion she developed a deep sense of aloneness.

 

When Simone was 21 she lived with her grandmother and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. There she met other students and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre became her best friend and intellectual equal for life. “He would prove that he was the right one to spend time with, and he was,” she said. He was “the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence.” Simone de Beauvoir taught at the Lycee and she became a regular amongst friends who would frequent the cafes to write and discuss. Sartre was one of her favorite companions and they seemed to always be interested in each other. Their relationship became famous for the two commitments that they made to each other and the public. The first, was a promise to remain free to love other people. The second was to preserve their unity by practicing perfect honesty and total openness about everything. Together, they decided that nothing would ever be covert between them. It is said that one time, Sartre proposed to her, and even though she was scared of a possible separation she declined. She felt strongly that her relationship not be institutionalized. She may have had too high of expectations, but she maintained the courage to break concrete patterns and social conventions and taboos.

 

De Beauvoir went to study German philosophy in Berlin and remained in touch with Sartre. By 1943 Simone had completed several works, including:The Blood of Others, and All Men are Mortal. Simultaneously, Sartre had been writing No Exitfrom his jail cell during the war. The success of their work moved them into circles with Camus, Picasso, Bataille and other artists and intellectuals. In Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) (1949), de Beauvoir traced the development of male oppression through historical, literary, and mythical sources. It shows especially the influence of the philosopher Henri Bergson. De Beauvoir provides a metaphysical context for the experience of choice and freedom: “It’s very complicated. These possibles which are in me, it’s necessary that little by little I kill off all but one; it’s thus that I see life: a thousand possibles in childhood, which fall little by little until on the last day there is no longer more than one reality, one has lived one life; but it is the élan vital of Bergson that I’m thinking of here, which divides, allowing tendency after tendency to fall away until only one is realized.”

 

Simone de Beauvoir attributes the oppression of women to a systematic objectification of the male as “normal” and the female as “Other,” leading to the loss of social and personal identity. Her works of fiction focus on women who take responsibility for themselves by making life-altering decisions, and the many volumes of her own autobiography exhibit the application of similar principles in reflection on her own experiences. She explains that, “far from suffering from being a woman, I have on the contrary, from the age 21, accumulated the advantages of both sexes.” The Second Sex caused outrage across the world and launched feminism as a serious force. But shortly before writing it she met and fell in love with an American writer, Nelson Algren who was on the brink of success with his two most famous works, The Man with a Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side. He was to become one of America’s toughest realist writers of the 20th century, and both his best sellers were made into movies, launching the careers of Frank Sinatra and Jane Fonda.

 

Their influence on each other’s work was huge; Nelson Algren repeatedly rewrote his work until Simone de Beauvoir was satisfied, And The Second Sex would have been a very different book had de Beauvoir not met Algren. But de Beauvoir apparently went too far when she wrote The Mandarins, a thinly-masked account of their relationship. Even to the end of his life Algren savagely attacked her in interviews for what he saw as an unforgivable betrayal. Throughout all these upheavals Simone de Beauvoir maintained her close friendship with Jean Paul Sartre. She traveled and stayed with Sartre until he died in 1980. Their relationship has gone down in history, not only for being the unity of two brilliant thinkers, but also for its equal and genuine qualities, so uncommon for the day. Simone de Beauvoir wrote about her life with Sartre in Adieux: a Farewell to Sartre.