Becoming Beauvoir: A Life, by Kate Kirkpatrick (Bloomsbury Academic), £20/$28
Kate Kirkpatrick’s new biography of Simone de Beauvoir, Becoming Beauvoir, reveals a side of the philosopher and novelist we haven’t seen before. Drawing on never before released diaries and letters, Kirkpatrick’s biography takes us behind the scenes of Beauvoir’s private life to explore how the careful cultivation of her public image influenced not just how she was seen by the world, but how the seeming necessities of those choices shaped how she saw herself.
To those with a passing familiarity with Simone de Beauvoir, she seems inseparable from her relationship with Jean Paul Sartre. Described throughout her life as Sartre’s disciple or even, at times, his concubine, Beauvoir has not often been considered a philosopher in her own right. During her life, Beauvoir’s philosophy and fiction were dismissed as derivative of Sartre’s or lacking in original thought. Beauvoir herself contributed to this notion by rejecting the label of philosopher for herself while insisting that it was Sartre who was “the philosopher”. And yet it was Simone de Beauvoir who was the youngest person to ever pass France’s oral agrégation in philosophy. And unlike Sartre, she passed it on her first try. That she placed second behind Sartre is well known; less so that the committee judging the exam favoured her at first but decided to give it to Sartre on account of his more prestigious education and, of course, his being a man. Even in death, many of her obituaries placed her second in her own story, her accomplishments overshadowed by her proximity to Sartre’s genius.
But before Sartre would go on to pen the ideas for which he would become famous, inspired by the books Beauvoir sent him and the criticism she provided, 19-year-old Simone was writing about how freedom entails responsibility, and that to make sense of ourselves we must account for the way the world tries to shape us. It was easy, Beauvoir realised, to mistake custom for necessity just because it was familiar. But it was Simone de Beauvoir’s insight, not Sartre’s, that adopting the roles the world would have us play leaves us in a state of child-like dependency, our freedom mutilated by bad faith.
Kirkpatrick’s biography makes it clear that Beauvoir played a public role that was very different from how she lived her private life; but was this an act of bad faith or what she believed was necessary to secure the freedom she most desired? As many know, who and what Beauvoir wanted to be was neither conventional nor common. Until Kirkpatrick’s biography, much of what’s been written about Simone de Beauvoir’s unconventional choices and the lifestyle it created has centred on “the pact” with Sartre– their 1929 agreement to remain “essential” to one another while also free to engage in “contingent” loves. This relationship, it has previously been thought, is central for understanding what made Simone de Beauvoir possible. Kirkpatrick’s biography makes clear, though, that the relationship is actually better understood in the other direction. It was not her relationship with Sartre that made Beauvoir possible. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s characteristic desire to not just live her life, nor merely think, but to think her life that made the relationship that has so far defined her possible.
Though it is true that Beauvoir often described Sartre as the incomparable friend of her thoughts, Kirkpatrick’s biography helps us see that it is impossible to get at who Simone de Beauvoir really was without paying attention to the other influential relationships in her life. This is perhaps most poignantly illustrated in Kirkpatrick’s biography when she highlights Beauvoir’s dissatisfaction with how both she and Sartre treated a lover they shared. Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre regarding Bianca Beinenfeld reveal a woman deeply troubled by the implications of the harm she inflicted on others. Juxtaposed with Beauvoir’s philosophical writing, it becomes clear that her investigation into how relationships and actions could be ethical were more than abstract intellectual inquiry. In her essay, Pyrrhus and Cineas, for example,Beauvoir would acknowledge the responsibility we have by declaring, “our actions shape the worlds of others in our lives, producing the conditions in which they live.”
My only regret with this biography is that it left me wanting so much more. Kirkpatrick’s prose is delightful and the biography avoids the doldrums of a history textbook. But while I devoured the pages that placed Beauvoir’s philosophy in the context of her personal life, I craved to read as many pages about the activism her relationships inspired. Securing an illegal abortion in occupied Paris for Olga Kosakiewicz undoubtedly led to her unequivocal support for abortion rights. But what of the courage and intrepidness it took to organise a march through Paris years later to demand the right to have an abortion? How did she do it? I am grateful to now know that Beauvoir took seriously Simone Weil’s criticism that her understanding of the world was limited because she had never known a day of hunger, but I want to know more about the days Beauvoir spent as activist advocating for Algerian independence, women’s reproductive rights, and recognition of the war crimes the world would prefer to overlook. It has been 33 years since the world said goodbye to Simone de Beauvoir, but it seems to me that this is still the piece of her we need most.