The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt

By Amélie Oksenberg Rorty | Go to book overview

39
Writing a Life of Writing

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) studied philosophy at L'Ecole Normale Supér-
ieure and the Sorbonne. Like many other intellectuals of the time, she taught
in a lycée. Influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, she wrote a phenomenological
study of the experience of radical freedom (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1949). She
preferred to express her philosophical views in works of fiction: She Came to
Stay
(1943), All Men Are Mortal (1946), and The Mandarins (1954). Active in the
Resistance, she wrote political essays, increasingly turning her attention to fem-
inist theory. Her groundbreaking The Second Sex (1949) influenced feminist think-
ing around the world. She later turned to writing autobiography, using her life
as an example of the complex situation of politically active intellectual women
who are also fully engaged daughters and lovers (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,
1958; The Prime of Life, 1960; The Force of Circumstance, 1963). Reflecting on the
death of her mother, she began to write about ageing: The Coming of Age (1970)
and All Said and Done (1972). She continued to write political essays, many of
them severely critical of the United States (America Day by Day, 1948).


The Prime of Life in Living/Writing

To divide one's life up into sections is an arbitrary process. But the year 1929 obviously opened a new era for me: from it date the end of my formal education, my economic emancipation, my departure from home, the breaking up of old friendships, and my first meeting with Sartre. In 1939 my existence was upset in an equally radical fashion. History took hold of me, and never let go thereafter; and I threw myself totally and permanently into a life of literature. An epoch was ending. "I had been" dominated by two preoccupations: to live fully, and to achieve my still theoretical vocation as a writer—that is to say, to find the point at which literature could best enter my life.

A full life, above all. Whatever one does, naturally, one is alive; but there is more than one way of unifying the moments in time through which one passes: by subordinating them to some specific action, for instance, or projecting them into a work of art. My own particular enterprise was the development of my life, which I believed lay in my own hands. It had to satisfy two requirements, which in my optimism I treated as identical: it must make me happy, and put the whole world at my disposal. Unhappiness, I thought, would have given me a contaminated view of reality. Since my intimacy with Sartre guaranteed my happiness, I was mainly concerned to cram in as rich a harvest of experience as I could. My discoveries did not follow a straight, clear line, as they had done during my childhood, and I did not get that feeling of steady day-by-day progress; but in their muddled, disorderly way they quite overwhelmed me. I was facing up to real flesh-and-blood things, and found unsuspected qualities about them besides those I had anticipated while still shut away in my cage. We have seen how

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