Is The Second Sex Beauvoir's Application of Sartrean Existentialism?
Margaret A. Simons
Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex, has traditionally been read as Beauvoir's application of the existential philosophy of her companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, to the situation of women. Diane Raymond, in Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition (1991), for example, characterizes Beauvoir's central thesis, that under patriarchy woman is the Other, as an application of Sartre's "phenomenology of interpersonal relationships," and its "dynamic of consciousness struggling against consciousness" (Raymond 386,389). The political philosopher, Sonia Kruks, in a 1995 essay, writes that: "The central claim of The Second Sex -- 'one is not born a woman but becomes one'--presupposes Sartre's argument that 'existence precedes essence': that human beings become what they are on the basis of no pre-given necessity or 'nature' (Kruks 1). I've argued myself, in a early essay, that this voluntarism reflects a Sartrean influence.
Kate and Edward Fullbrook (1994) have challenged these interpretations of Beauvoir as a Sartrean, arguing that Beauvoir's metaphysical novel, She Came to Stay (1943), traditionally assumed to be an application of Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943), was actually its philosophical source. Another challenge to the traditional interpretation of Beauvoir as a Sartrean is found in Beauvoir's 1927 diary. Discovered by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Beauvoir's adopted daughter and literary executor, after Beauvoir's death, and deposited in the Bibliothque Nationale in 1990, Beauvoir's handwritten diary has been transcribed by Barbara Klaw, with the assistance of Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, and myself. In the 1927 diary, written while Beauvoir was a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, two years before her first meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre in 1929, she lays out the foundations of her later philosophy in The Second Sex, including the conflict of the self and other, and the interaction of choice and childhood socialization in shaping ones life.
The 1927 diary traces Beauvoir's discovery of and commitment to doing philosophy: "Oh! I see my life clearly now: ... a passionate, frantic search.... I didn't know that that one could dream of death by metaphysical despair; sacrifice everything to the desire to know; live only to be saved. I didn't know that every system is an ardent, tormented thing, an effort of life, of being, a drama in the full sense of the word, and that it does not engage only the abstract intelligence. But I know it now, and that I can no longer do anything else" (July 28; pp. 133, 134; my trans.). Rereading the diary, and examining her own experience, Beauvoir defines her central philosophical theme, one that will recur throughout her later work: the problem of the other: "I must rework my philosophical ideas ... go deeper into the problems that have appealed to me ... The theme is almost always this opposition of self and other that I felt at beginning to live" (July 10; p. 95). The conflict of self and other arises, in part, when the search for meaning conflicts with the search for love, a conflict heightened by Beauvoir's definition of love as "feeling oneself dominated" (August, 1927; p.136). In identifying the theme of the opposition of self and other, and the problem of love and domination, as central themes in her philosophy, Beauvoir defines, two years before her first meeting with Sartre, themes definitional of the Sartrean existentialism of Being and Nothingness as well as Beauvoir's The Second Sex and its description of woman as Other. Whether Sartre had, by 1927, also defined these themes of the opposition of self and other, and the problem of love and domination, remains to be seen. But if not, the discovery of Beauvoir's definition of these central themes of Being and Nothingness in 1927 supports the view that Beauvoir originated key elements of the philosophy later to become known as Sartrean existentialism.
So, Beauvoir's 1927 diary contains the concept of the conflict of self and other that is foundational to the concept in The Second Sex of woman as the Other. But what about Beauvoir's concept that "one is not born a woman, but becomes one"? Can we trace this concept to the 1927 diary as well? There are two elements to this concept. The first is that gender is socially constructed, a result of childhood socialization. As Beauvoir explains in The Second Sex, "no biological, psychological, economic destiny defines the face that the human female assumes in the heart of society. It is civilization as a whole that elaborates this product, half-way between the male and the eunuch, that one qualifies as feminine. Only the mediation of the other can constitute an individual as an Other" (DS II, 13). The second element, which Judith Butler calls Beauvoir's existentialism, is its voluntarism: gender is a matter of becoming and thus subject to choice and change (See Butler 1990, 111-112). Gender is a process (however limited) open to social action and individual choice.
Both of these elements: the element of childhood socialization and the element of choice, are found in Beauvoir's 1927 diary. Consider the following passage from July 10, where Beauvoir reflects on the temptation of religious faith, a passage which, by the way, sets the stage for the theme of the opposition of self and other, later in the same entry: "Mademoiselle Mercier [her mentor in philosophy from the Institute Catholique in Neuilly] is trying to convert me; she speaks to me of Father Beaussard who would like to see me, and I'm thinking of the remark of Georgette Lévy [her friend and fellow philosophy student]: 'You will be tempted that way'. It's true. This morning ... I passionately desired to be the girl who takes communion at morning mass and walks in a serene certainty. The Catholicism of Mauriac, of Claudel, ... how it's marked me and what place there is in me for it! and yet I know that I will know it no longer; I do not desire to believe: an act of faith is the most despairing act there is and I want my despair to at least keep its lucidity, I do not want to lie to myself" (p. 94).
In this key passage Beauvoir describes how ones childhood shapes ones consciousness ("how it's marked me"), an awareness that marks an early difference between Beauvoirean and Sartrean existentialism. But despite the force of childhood influence, she rejects religious faith, thus affirming the power of choice. Religious faith is experienced not as a given, in the diary, but as a temptation, one that she vows to resist. Beauvoir's valuing of lucidity and her linking of faith with the temptation of self-deception provide key elements in the concept of bad faith that is central to Sartrean ethics.
The 1927 diary provides evidence that Beauvoir recognizes gender, as well as religious faith, as shaped by circumstances that present the possibility, even the necessity of change. But her experience of changing gender roles is marked by a profound ambiguity. Beauvoir experiences both an exhilarated sense of freedom in breaking free from the confines of woman's traditional role, and a despairing sense of dread as she imagines her lonely future: "Yesterday, how I envied M. de Wendel so pretty and simple! without pride as without envy, I cried in thinking of the lot which was reserved for me, and of all the force, and the tension required so that I could find it preferable to any other" (p. 57). Beauvoir experiences her future career outside woman's traditional role of wife and mother (a future that was necessitated by her family's impoverishment and loss of her dowry), as a given destiny ("the lot which is reserved for me"), that requires of her an exhausting effort to assume as her own future. Beauvoir seems determined to reconcile herself to a future that has been imposed on her.
When she actively plans her future writing projects, she can experience a joyous discovery of her individual power: "Friday I established with force a life's program; in such instants my solitude is an intoxication: I am, I dominate, I love myself and despise the rest." But there remains an underlying ambiguity to the experience, the loneliness that accompanies egoism, that leaves Beauvoir yearning, in despair, for woman's traditional feminine role: "But I would so like to have the right, me as well, of being simple and very weak, of being a woman; in what a 'desert world' I walk, so arid, with the only oases my intermittent estime for myself. I count on myself; I know that I can count on myself. But I would prefer to have no need to count on myself" (p.57). Planning for a career can be both an intoxicating experienceof individual empowerment and an experience of loss and denial of self. Prideful of her self reliance, she still yearns to escape the need for it. The depth of Beauvoir's despair as she faces an future bereft of womanly comfort is apparent in a marginal annotation to the above passage dated May 18, 1929: "Could I again bear to suffer as I suffered in writing these lines?" (p. 57). In this description of the conflict between the warmth and companionship in a woman's traditional role and the loneliness of her future, Beauvoir lays the groundwork for her analysis in The Second Sex of woman's temptation to complicity with her oppression as the Other.
The force of circumstances in shaping ones attitude towards religious faith and in transforming a woman's identity, is thus evident in Beauvoir's 1927 diary. The concept of choice, not as evident in the passages on gender as those on religious faith, is evident in the following passage from May 6, where Beauvoir describes her sudden attraction to Barbier, a fellow philosophy student: "Well! the past did not enchain me, a new passion blossomed in me, splendid; I loved him. How to render that? It was not at all speculation, reasoning; nor dream, imagination; one instant it was.... My life is no longer a ready-made path on which from the point where I have arrived I can already discover everything and on which I have only to place one foot after the next. It is a route not yet opened up that my steps alone will create" (p. 34-35). Freed from past attachments which had become burdensome, she discovers her freedom to shape her own future, through the experience of love. It is this experience that occasions her reflections on choice: "Yes, it's only by free decision, and thanks to the play of circumstances that the true self is revealed. I told Mlle Mercier, that, for me, a choice is never made, it is always being made; it's repeated each time that I'm conscious of it.... Well: this morning I chose Barbier. The horror of the definitive choice is that it engages not only the self of today, but that of tomorrow, which is why basically marriage is immoral..." (p. 35-6). This passage, which reflects Beauvoir's early methodological interest in describing lived experience, anticipates not only the voluntarism of The Second Sex, where Beauvoir describes woman's responsibility to resist the temptation to dependency and choose freedom and transcendence instead. It also defines two characteristics of consciousness defined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness: choice and temporality. The anguish of a definitive choice, as Beauvoir understands, is that it engages the future as well as the present in defining the self. Rather than Sartre's philosophical follower, the 1927 diary thus presents Beauvoir as a philosophical innovator whose descriptions of her own lived experience anticipate key features of later Sartrean existentialism.
If not Sartre, then who were the central philosophical influences on Beauvoir? The 1927 diary provides evidence of a wide range of influences on Beauvoir, one of the most important being Henri Bergson, who, in the 1920s, was still the dominant figure in French philosophy. The most prominent allusion to Bergson in The Second Sex might be in Beauvoir's use of the concept of " becoming" [devenir], in the famous opening line of Book II of The Second Sex: "one is not born a woman, but becomes one [le devient]." Bergson, in arguing against mechanistic determinism, describes free choice as springing spontaneously from ones whole personality, which is experienced as an indivisible process of becoming, united by the experience of duration and memory. In the diary entry for May 6, 1927, Beauvoir refers to Bergson's concept of "élan vital" in describing her encounter with Barbier cited above. The reference to Bergson comes as Beauvoir provides a metaphysical context for the experience of choice and freedom she has just described: "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. (p. 34-35, 37). Beauvoir's description, in The Second Sex, of becoming a woman as also encompassing this concept of choice and freedom, might reflect Bergson's concept of élan vital.
In Beauvoir's earliest philosophical text, her 1927 student diary, we thus find a description of the experience of choice (reflective of Bergson's influence), a recognition of the importance of childhood socialization, and an early interest in both the "opposition of self and other" and the relation of love and domination, which are central to her later writing, including The Second Sex. But in 1927 these concerns are apolitical: "what price could I attach to the search for humanity's happiness when the so much more serious problem of his reason for being haunts me? I will not make a gesture towards this terrestial realm; the interior world alone matters" (p.66). Only following the Nazi Occupation of France in 1940 will Beauvoir's texts reflect an interest in the politics of resistance and liberation.
But The Second Sex, with its theme of woman as the Other, marks a radical departure even from Beauvoir's other post-war texts. Personal relationships are center stage, but the personal has been reconceived as political. Women are not simply free individuals, but members of an oppressed caste, defined as inferior by religion and science; socialized to a psychological dependency on men; and restricted in their political and economic activities by laws and social convention. Employing a sophisticated critique of Freudian determinism and Marxist economic reductionism, Beauvoir defines a radical feminist position, arguing that women must unite in a political struggle to overcome their oppression.
How can we account for this radical shift in Beauvoir's philosophy, a shift which Sartre would later follow? What influences did she draw upon in laying the theoretical foundations of radical feminism? One clue to Beauvoir's innovation is her reliance in The Second Sex on an analogy with racism, which provided a model for oppression. One source of influence on Beauvoir's theory of racism in The Second Sex, is Gunnar Myrdal's massive sociological study of the American race relations, An American Dilemma (1944). But American Dilemma reflects a paternalistic liberalism, which Beauvoir condemns. Writing as an anti-Communist, and a social engineer, Myrdal largely ignores the Black community and its leaders, directing his text to the white American political leadership, while Beauvoir argues for a radical separatist struggle by the oppressed to win their own liberation. Furthermore African-American women receive barely a mention in Myrdal's text, and are represented in a chapter on population control as targets for a governmental eugenics program.
Thus, while acknowledging Myrdal's influence in Beauvoir's making of The Second Sex, American Dilemma, cannot, alone, have provided Beauvoir with an adequate theory of racist oppression and liberation. What other sources did Beauvoir draw upon for her understanding of racism? My research suggests that the answer is Richard Wright, the African-American novelist, who guided Beauvoir's understanding of racism. In a 1970 interview with the French Wright scholar, Michel Fabre, Beauvoir credits Wright's 1940 masterpiece, Native Son, with giving her "a new version of predestination"( Fabre 253). She portrays Wright as her intellectual mentor to American racism in her account of her 1947 trip to the States, America Day by Day. The first public association of Wright and Beauvoir comes in 1945, when a French translation of Wright's story, "Fire and Cloud," appeared in the inaugural issue of Les Temps Modernes, a journal edited by Beauvoir with Sartre and others. TM published several other of Wright's, including a serial translation of Wright's entire autobiography, Black Boy (1945), which appeared alongside Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity and Sartre's What is Literature? both of which contain references to Wright's text. Beauvoir tells Fabre that: "We issued a special issue on the United States, with articles and extracts by black writers, and Wright was instrumental in having pieces by Horace Cayton and ... a Chicago anthropologist, St. Clair Drake, published in that issue. He told me to read Black Metropolis, if I remember correctly, long before it was translated. He would always indicate and suggest new titles" (Fabre 253). Thus Wright is an acknowledged influence on Beauvoir's understanding of racism.
I have been able to identify four areas of Wright's philosophical influence on Beauvoir's philosophy in The Second Sex: first, the concept of the political other (Wright, acting here as the intellectual heir to W.E.B. DuBois, in introducing Beauvoir to the concept of the "double consciousness" of Blacks under racism, which serves as a model for Beauvoir's concept of woman as the Other in The Second Sex); second, Wright's phenomenological descriptions of black experience of oppression provide a methodological alternative to the objectification inherent in Myrdal's social science methodology; third, a critical appropriation of Marxism with the phenomenological approach providing an alternative to economic class reductionism; and fourth, a rejection of white-defined essentialist views of racial difference allied with an affirmation of the salience of race in the lived experience of blacks under oppression, and its strategic usefulness when defined by blacks in the interests of liberation.
This brief survey of Beauvoir's 1927 diary, and of the evidence her relationship with Richard Wright, has challenged the traditional interpretation of The Second Sex as merely Beauvoir's application of Sartrean existentialism to the problem of women. In her 1927 diary, reflective of the influence of Bergson, among other philosophers, and written two years before her first meeting with Sartre, Beauvoir defines the philosophical theme of the problem of the other and lays the groundwork for her concepts of woman as the Other, and that "one is not born a woman, but becomes one." Further challenging the stereotype that philosophy is the creation of only white European men, I provide evidence that Richard Wright, provided Beauvoir with a model for understanding oppression, thus identifying a previously unrecognized historical moment of connection between the feminist movement and the African-American liberation struggle.
Beauvoir, Simone de. Beauvoir, Simone de. 1927. [Carnet]. Unpublished holograph manuscript. Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale.
______. 1943. L'Invitée [She Came to Stay]. Paris: Gallimard; my translation.
______. 1947. Pour une morale de l'ambiguite [Ethics of Ambiguity]. Paris: Gallimard.
______. 1947-8. [Holograph letters to Nelson Algren]. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Library, Manuscript Collection. See Delavars 1985, for a helpful guide to the correspondence collection. Beauvoir's letters to Algren have recently been published in French translation: Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, ed. Lettres a Nelson Algren: Un Amour transatlantique; 1947-1964. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.
______. 1948. L'Amerique au jour le jour [America Day by Day]. Paris: Morihien; Trans. 1953.
by Patrick Dudley. New York: Grove Press.
______. 1949. Le Deuxime Sexe [The Second Sex]. Paris: Gallimard. All translations from this text are my own unless otherwise indicated. For a discussion of the problems in the Parshley English translation, see Simons 1983.
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