This Day In Literary History
On January 9th, 1908, the legendary French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, France. Her father was a legal secretary and aspiring actor. Her mother, the daughter of a wealthy banker, raised her children to be devout Catholics like herself.
Simone was devoutly religious as a child, but at the age of fourteen, she lost her faith and would remain an atheist for the rest of her life. An intellectually gifted child, she passed advanced exams in mathematics and philosophy at the age of seventeen.
After studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, she studied for her teacher's exams at the Institut Catholique and Institut Sainte-Marie. She also sat in on courses at the École Normale Supérieure, though she wasn't enrolled there.
At the École Normale Supérieure, Simone struck up friendships with fellow students Paul Nizan and René Maheu, who would become noted writers and philosophers. Another student she met would become her lifelong lover. His name was Jean-Paul Sartre.
Although Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre became lifelong lovers and soul mates who influenced each other as writers and existentialist philosophers, they never married nor lived together as a couple.
Theirs was a very complex relationship. They both had separate lovers. Simone was openly bisexual and often shared her female lovers with Sartre. Her first novel, She Came to Stay (1943), was a fictionalized chronicle of her and Sartre's romantic entanglements with two sisters, one of whom was her student.
Simone's second novel, The Blood of Others (1945) was an existentialist classic set in Nazi-occupied France. As his lover Hélène lies dying, the protagonist Jean Blomart looks back on his own life. Guilty over his comfortable upper middle class upbringing, Blomart breaks ties with his family.
He joins the Communist Party, then leaves it when his friend is killed in a political protest. While he devotes himself to trade union activities, he meets Hélène, but initially rejects her advances.
After she has a reckless affair with another man, gets pregnant, and has an abortion, Blomart tells her that he loves her and proposes marriage, though deep inside, he doubts that he really loves her. But he wants her to be happy.
When France enters World War II, Blomart enlists and becomes a soldier. Against his will, Hélène arranges for him to be posted away from the combat zone. Furious, he breaks up with her. After the defeat of France, the couple is reunited when Hélène seeks to join the French Resistance.
Blomart has become the leader of a Resistance group. Hélène joins the group and is shot during a mission. As he maintains a deathbed vigil, Blomart must come to terms with his guilt, the consequences of his actions, and his feelings for Hélène. He decides to continue with his Resistance work.
In 1944, Simone published her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, a discussion of existentialist ethics, concepts she would expand on in her second essay, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947).
The Ethics of Ambiguity was perhaps the most accessible writing on existentialism during that time, far more accessible than Jean-Paul Sartre's brooding, abstruse classic, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943).
In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, her classic 800-page epic work of feminist philosophy. After debunking the theories of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, she looks at the misogynistic philosophies of St. Paul, St. Ambrose, and John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople.
The misogyny that forms the foundation of Christianity is in direct contrast to the goddess worship that preceded it. The subordination of women in the name of God is nothing more than a way to maintain patriarchal power for Pope and common man alike.
This need to control women's sexuality to maintain the patriarchy reflects the deep seated fear of the power of a woman's body - her ability to create life within her, her ability to receive sexual pleasure without having intercourse with a man, etc.
After centuries of male domination, Woman still yearns for her freedom from reproductive slavery. Abortion, Simone argues, is one means of achieving that freedom. It is not an issue of morality, and making it illegal is an act of "masculine sadism" against women.
The Second Sex became a hugely influential work of feminist philosophy that laid the groundwork for the 1970s women's liberation movement. Simone would join France's women's liberation movement.
In 1971, she signed the Manifest of the 343, a list of famous women who had abortions even though it was illegal in France at the time. Other signers included actress Catherine Deneuve and actress-director Delphine Seyrig. Three years later, abortion was legalized in France.
After Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, Simone wrote A Farewell to Sartre (1981), an account of his final years. It was the only major published work of hers that he didn't read prior to publication. She also published a collection of his letters to her.
Simone de Beauvoir died in 1986 at the age of 78.
Quote Of The Day
"The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels." - Simone de Beauvoir
Today's video features a 1959 interview with Simone de Beauvoir, in French with English subtitles. Enjoy!