La Grande Sartreuse

Douglas Johnson

  • Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment by Anne Whitmarsh
    Cambridge, 212 pp, £14.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 23669 X
  • Un Fils Rebelle by Olivier Todd
    Grasset, 293 pp, £5.50, June 1981, ISBN 2 246 21231 6
  • The Intellectual Resistance in Europe by James Wilkinson
    Harvard, 358 pp, £14.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 674 45775 7

There will be many who will find it significant that Anne Whitmarsh, beginning a careful and detailed study of Simone de Beauvoir with a section called ‘Biographical Notes’, should make the first entry read, ‘1905 21 June: Jean-Paul Sartre born in Paris’, and the last: ‘1980: Death of Sartre’. There are those for whom Simone de Beauvoir is important only because of her association with Sartre. Her four volumes of autobiography are sometimes seen merely as useful source material for the life of Sartre. A film about her, shot in 1978, was said to show that, even in old age, she remained Sartre’s disciple as well as his companion, since in his presence she continued to behave like a good pupil, looking for approval, not allowing herself to smile at the jokes and replying to questions diligently and awkwardly. She has herself repeatedly emphasised that it was Sartre who was creative and original, who took the initiatives and who dominated the relationship. ‘I must talk about him,’ she once wrote, ‘in order to be able to talk about us.’ There are so many references to Sartre in this book that he does not even figure in the index.

Must we then consider Simone de Beauvoir simply as an appendage to Sartre, someone whose life has been endowed with special value and importance because of her propinquity to a great man and whose writings have drawn weight and meaning from the creative energy of her companion? It is as if the mocking names by which she was known in the first days of fame, names such as Notre Dame de Sartre and La Grande Sartreuse, contained an essential truth.

Curiously enough, it is not Anne Whitmarsh who rescues her from these charges so much as Olivier Todd, whose severe yet affectionate memoir, Un Fils Rebelle, describes his relations with Sartre without proposing any assessment of either Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir. Todd, who did not discover his own father’s identity until well on in life, found in Sartre something approaching a substitute father. For more than thirty years he associated with Sartre and his ‘famille’, in which Simone de Beauvoir (‘le Castor’) occupied the most privileged place. In Todd’s view, it is necessary to reverse the inevitable question. Instead of asking, ‘non sans une pointe de machisme modéré et un peu de mauvais snobisme’, what would have happened to Simone de Beauvoir had it not been for Sartre, one should ask what would Sartre have become without Simone de Beauvoir. The answer is that he would always have been Sartre, but another, quite different Sartre. De Beauvoir was for him ‘la référence, l’axe, la permanence’. Todd describes his first visit to Sartre, in 1948, when he was still living with his mother, Madame Mancy. She had apparently realised that le Castor, ‘cette céleste épouse’, was to be ‘l’ancre durable’, that she represented stability for everyone. Todd is enthusiastic about this couple who never said tu to each other in public and who were so totally in harmony that they complemented each other’s thoughts as naturally as they completed each other’s sentences.

The main point of his book, however, is to describe how he broke away from Sartre’s spell and how, as a result both of his experience as a journalist, especially in Vietnam, and of his Anglo-Saxon education and background, he was able to preserve a critical detachment, to see Sartre’s weaknesses and failures. He deliberately contrasts himself with those, such as Jacques-Laurent Bost, who were ‘des petites ou des moyennes planètes qui se sont écrasées sur le soleil de Sartre’. He does not for a moment consider Simone de Beauvoir as one of these planets. Not only did she point out the errors in Sartre’s logic and contribute the practical good sense which enabled Les Temps Modernes to be regularly published, she also corrected the rigidity of Sartre’s reactions. When Todd, a young conscript under orders to join his unit in North Africa, contemplated desertion rather than share in the repression of nationalist movements, Sartre automatically advised him to obey orders but to carry out ‘de l’agit-prop’ in the ranks. De Beauvoir was more ready to understand Todd’s dilemma. She was always, he rightly says, more interested in people than Sartre was.

In some ways Sartre was a fugitive personality. He lost manuscripts, mislaid letters, started works which he never finished, failed to correct texts which bore his signature, studiously refused to admit to the mistakes of the past, was magisterially uninterested in reading what had been written about him (the reported comment, ‘Ayer est un con’, was made in ignorance of the article in which Ayer discussed his philosophy), and wherever he lived, gave the impression of being perpetually ‘in transit’. It was typical that he should have encouraged Simone de Beauvoir to write an autobiography which would necessarily describe many details of his own life at a time when he himself, in Les Mots, was embarked upon a highly literary, rhetorical and non-historical account of his childhood. Although Simone de Beauvoir has written about the pact which she and Sartre had made together, whereby the one would never lie to the other, Todd recounts that once, when he asked Sartre how he managed to navigate amongst his many affairs with women, his ‘amours contingentes’, the reply was that he lied to them. It was, Sartre explained, simpler and more honest. ‘You lie to them all?’ queried Todd. ‘To them all,’ replied Sartre, with a smile. ‘Même au Castor?’ ‘Surtout au Castor’.

It is relatively easy to separate Sartre from his works, but it is impossible to distinguish the person of Simone de Beauvoir from her writings. She has often been reproached both for being too autobiographical and, paradoxically, for writing novels which are not sufficiently straight forward as romans à clef. Even Todd cannot refrain from asking Sartre which of two characters in Les Mandarins is him (‘un roman c’est un roman’ was the somewhat ambiguous answer). When she has written about worlds which are clearly not her own, as with the smart, shallow characters of Les Belles Images, she has been criticised for stepping out of the intellectual society that she knows best (‘c’est du Françoise Sagan’). More than once she has brought together reflections and comments on her own life: perhaps most effectively in the last volume of her memoirs, Tout compte fait, where she abandons chronology in order to write more freely about her friendships, her likes and dislikes, her dreams and her travels, and where she once again examines those themes which have dominated her thinking. Anne Whitmarsh, in the most successful section of her book, takes two of these, the question of women and the situation of old people, for special consideration. Both involved Simone de Beauvoir personally. In order to write about herself she found it necessary to write about the condition of women in general and about the position of old people in the contemporary world. The drama of growing old had haunted her for many years. Even in her childhood, she tells us, she was conscious of ‘le scandale de la mort’, and although she has claimed that it was only when she reached the age of 50 that she realised she had passed a vital stage in her existence, she had often – in her fiction, most strikingly – expressed a sad awareness of the passing of time. On the other hand, she has not been particularly conscious of being in a position of inferiority because she is a woman. A typical product of the French educational system, she had assumed that, as an agrégée de l‘Université, she had established her position as an equal to those men who had also succeeded in getting through this very competitive examination. After the Liberation, she gave up the teaching profession and, though a lecturer and writer, lived and travelled as Sartre’s dependent. It was only when she began to reflect on her new situation – ‘mon rôle comme grande Sartreuse’, as she herself put it – that she came to study the female condition and write Le Deuxième Sexe.

The starting-point is therefore personal. The basis is, at first, existential: she refuses to believe that there is an innate feminine nature. ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Then the basis becomes what can loosely be called Marxist: ‘feminism’ is seen as a condition produced by society, and arising from the important fact that women are traditionally treated by men as a form of property. Similarly, the poverty and the humiliations of old age exist because the ruling classes have no interest in people once they have passed that period in their lives when they can be economically useful. Thus the problems which affect Simone de Beauvoir personally and emotionally, and which she examines in a series of individual case-studies, are nevertheless to be understood only in terms of the class struggle within society as a whole, and can only be treated effectively by far-reaching changes which will be part of a general social revolution.

Apparent items of progress – a few women attaining positions of power or influence, increases in old-age pensions or better housing for the old – are without real significance. The working-class woman is condemned to suffering subservience, and, within the existing capitalist system, neither marriage nor motherhood will give her emotional fulfilment any more than employment will bring economic emancipation. Just as the working-class child feared adulthood, because his life could only be a repetition of the life of his own parents, so the working-class adult dreaded old age because his whole life had been filled by his labour and without it there was nothing left to live for. For Simone de Beauvoir there was no remedy other than a total recasting of the social organisation.

This mixture of individual experience and belief in an absolute social truth has its advantages. Simone de Beauvoir was able to write compassionately when she described individual suffering, sternly when she denounced scandals, perceptively when she invoked a history of behaviour patterns, militantly when she called for a vast transformation. She successfully challenged the clichés of the post- and pseudo-Freudians and she ridiculed the inadequacies of a reformism which believed that old age could be made acceptable by mere physical cushioning. She has since discovered that the old are even worse off than she had realised when she wrote La Vieillesse (it was published in 1970). The question of women has continued to preoccupy her as she has seen that in countries which have experienced social revolutions or undergone upheavals of other kinds, the condition of women has not changed. She has been disappointed by the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. In Nasser’s Egypt, she was confronted by Islamic laws enshrining the inferiority of women. In Japan, she was told that a woman could not enter heaven until she had succeeded in taking on a man’s form (was this a joke? she was not sure). She has therefore joined up with militant feminist movements and with those so-called Maoist groupuscules which seek to destroy the élitist and technocratic society which can be blamed for so much injustice and inhumanity. Both Le Deuxième Sexe and La Vieillesse are important in Simone de Beauvoir’s own story and both are in some sense pioneering works in French social history.

They can, however, be criticised, as Mrs Whitmarsh shows. They are far from being scientific investigations; much of the reading on which they are based would seem to be haphazard; in spite of their length (their inordinate length, Mrs Whitmarsh would say), both books are incomplete. An accumulation of examples and quotations, taken from a wide variety of sources, is excellent when the writer wishes to stiffen an argument and sustain a viewpoint: but it is very different from the sort of inquiry carried out, say, by Maggie Scarf, seeking to prove that there is an essentially feminine persona, irrespective of social conditions. Simone de Beauvoir is not so much trying to discover a truth as to present a case. This is not literature as social science, it is literature as indignation, as denunciation, as revolt. It is literature produced in response to a perceived situation and in this sense it is limited. To adapt a phrase of Anne Whitmarsh’s, it is literature as philanthropy.

It is of course misleading to isolate Sartre and Beauvoir as a couple and to forget that their crucial work was part of the general reaction of European intellectuals to war, to Fascism and to the responsibilities of victory. James Wilkinson gives the two of them a large role in his informative survey of this period of cultural history, and it is salutary to be reminded that confrontation with the reality which had shattered their much-enjoyed freedom of the 1930s was an experience they had in common with many French, Italian and German writers. Beauvoir, listening to the BBC, sharing in the adventures of one of the many small Resistance groups characterised, as she put it, by their tiny membership and their lack of prudence, was planning for a better future and envisaging her role in bringing it about. The transition from the idea of an aristocracy of intellect to the idea of a politically and ethically-committed élite was analogous, Wilkinson suggests, to a religious conversion. The works of Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Richter, Silone and Vittorini, all revolve around the theme of personal choice and responsibility. In particular, he compares Beauvoir’s Le Sang des Autres to Vittorini’s Uomine e No, with their considerations of violence, guilt and martyrdom in the Resistance movements.

In what Vercors called the strange era of being neither at peace nor at war, questions of morality, justice and purpose were forced upon such people as Beauvoir. When Robert Brasillach was tried for his Fascism, she admired his courage and his dignity: she would have wished to despise him and was compelled to respect him. But when he was condemned to death, she refused to join with Mauriac and Camus in petitioning de Gaulle for clemency. Her loyalty to the Resistance movement outweighed everything else. It was to friends, dead or dying, that she was bound: ‘lf I had lifted a finger in favour of Brasillach, I would have deserved that they spit in my face.’

Was this loyalty, in effect, loyalty to a principle which limited her freedom or to an authority which transcended humanity? She often quoted the character in Claudel’s Le Soulier de Satin who said that every plant needed to have its gardener and that it was he whom heaven had chosen for his young wife. She rejected the masculine arrogance of the claim, but she also rejected all the inquisitions, fascisms and paternalisms which prevented individuals from developing according to their own internal values by forcing some external model upon them. It was necessary to define an ethic based upon the nobility of man and upon the primacy of the individual’s needs and aspirations. Dr Wilkinson notes that Sartre failed to define such an ethic and suggests that it was Simone de Beauvoir, in four consecutive articles, first published in Les Temps Modernes a year after the Liberation and then, in 1947, as Pour une Morale de l’Ambiguité, who made the most precise attempt to establish how freedom of choice could be reconciled with ethical standards. The determining factor in her thinking, which may be compared with that of Jaspers in Germany, was the need for reciprocal freedom: if one wishes for one’s own freedom, then one finds it in the freedom of all. No type conduct is invariably right or wrong, and there are no fixed rules which free the individual from the responsibility of choice. If the absolute goal of all action is the welfare of an individual or of a group of individuals, it is imperative that the means chosen for attaining this goal should be constantly revised and reassessed. Should a friend intervene in order to prevent the suicide of another? Since there was no moral system which determined conduct, it was impossible to answer.

This is a more determined and direct attempt to establish some sort of existentialist ethic than Sartre ever published: for some it will represent humanism at its best, for others it shows the limitations of Resistance thinking. It is dated. As Dr Wilkinson suggests, it represents the tendency of Resistance thinkers to reduce political questions to the level of personal conduct, which was understandable at a time when a small Resistance group could provide a focus for common action whilst respecting the independence and freedom of individual members. Without much in the way of coercive powers, without bureaucracy, traditions or innate conservatism, such groups could remain flexible, even spontaneous. And although Simone de Beauvoir has recognised the inadequacies of this approach in the modern world, and now regards Pour une Morale de l’Ambiguité as the most detestable of all her writings, there remains an overriding concern for issues that affect the individual in her social and political commitment as it developed in the Algerian War and later.

To try to systematise Beauvoir’s ideas on commitment is to treat her as if she were Sartre. Anne Whitmarsh is obliged to put together a series of observations and to make a construct of them, so that they can be presented as a coherent philosophy. She has a tendency to exaggerate de Beauvoir’s distaste for political action, to make too much of her boredom with the routine of committees, her dislike for party organisation. Malraux is disapproved of, not because he betrayed the role of the intellectual by becoming a political figure and even a Minister, but because he did so in a society which was materialist and technocratic, and in a government which was well-disposed to General Franco. No one who has read her memoirs can mistake the enthusiasm with which she writes about her days as an activist, whether she is describing the work on the Russell tribunal against American war crimes in Vietnam or how she coped with police harassment when she was distributing La Cause du Peuple on the streets of Paris. Perhaps Olivier Todd is right to say that Sartre was ill at ease speaking at factory-gate meetings or sitting in judgment on factory-owners, but no one who has seen Simone de Beauvoir at a public meeting, be-turbanned and be-tweeded, elegantly alert and coolly attentive, can doubt that she was effective at this type of activity. When she has befriended and helped some young girl, usually by chance, we learn from her own account that the girl had suffered ill-treatment by her family, or at school. The act of friendship is also an act of philanthropy, a social gesture.

Madame de Staël once described herself as being like a traveller stranded on a desert island. He carves on the cliff face the names of the edible plants he has found, the places where he has discovered springs of fresh water. He prepares the way for the next person who has been shipwrecked. So Simone de Beauvoir, combining creation and experience, seeks the attention of the reader in order to convey the truths that she has discovered.

The predicament of the writer who believes passionately that the world must change is that it is not through writing that the change will take place. In Les Mandarins, the writer Robert Dubreuilh takes his wife on a pilgrimage to Bruay, where he was born, where his father was the schoolteacher, where he heard Jaurès speak and where he had first learned about socialism and the aspirations of the revolution. He sees that nothing has changed. What had he been doing when the revolution was stillborn? He had been writing novels.

Another danger was ignorance. Simone de Beauvoir has never concealed the fact that she has often been ignorant. This applies not only to the period before the war, when she had no interest in politics, but afterwards too, when she was slow to realise the truth about Algeria and Vietnam, for example, or when she neglected to follow what was happening in France before 1968. All the more reason, therefore, when she had caught up with the issues, for her reaction to be vigorous and violent. When this led to mistakes she was prepared to admit them (in contrast to Sartre), but not to regret them. It was always necessary to be positive.

The enemy was the bourgeoisie. In her novels, where groups tend to be more important than the individuals who compose them, and where violence seems always to be imminent or apprehended, it is the bourgeoisie which is the constant target. Olivier Todd claims that neither Sartre nor Simone de Beauvoir understood what the bourgeoisie was and that they confused it with the société mondaine of Paris. But whether by ‘bourgeois’ one means the pretensions of someone who calls his pipe ma vieille bouffarde, or the world of those who tolerate injustice with a patient shrug of the shoulders, this is the group that is to be identified and attacked. And when the writer is discouraged and feels that he has been tricked and cheated, this too is the fault of the bourgeoisie. It was all very well for Alain to write, ‘On ne nous a rien promis’: for Simone de Beauvoir, bourgeois culture was all promise.

Perhaps this is the nearest she gets to an overall, systematic philosophy, but there is a uniformity in all her work. It is curious that neither Anne Whitmarsh nor Olivier Todd is prepared to explain what they think about this considerable body of writing. The one, who has many valuable things to say, avoids judgment by commenting that Simone de Beauvoir’s influence has never been as great as she would have wished; the other, whose main preoccupation is with himself, only admits to a certain jealousy in relation to a woman who was a barrier between him and Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir herself is modest about her achievement. She accepts that she is not a dominant figure in literature. But there is her style: one has to admire its ease and directness. There is her resilience: does not Dubreuilh, at the end of Les Mandarins, conclude that one has always to begin all over again, ‘on ne peut pas faire autrement’? There is the determination with which she has continuously reacted to events. She has succeeded in what for many is the main purpose of writing – as someone put it, ‘j’écris pour qu’on m’aime.’ These qualities are not exclusive to any particular category of writer. But it is noticeable that they are often considered to be especially feminine.