Beauvoir: the amplified and the forgotten

“Apart from the classical charm and angular face, the most striking thing about Beauvoir is her rose red complexion and clear blue eyes… You will think she knows everything and can see everything, which is kind of timid.”

-“Paris Review”

Beauvoir has been dead for 35 years. Even if she lives today, she will still be an eye-catching intellectual and even a cultural star with mixed reputation. She is the perfect little bourgeois elite, and like her lifelong partner and existential philosopher Sartre, her writing rebelled against her class-but as a woman.

Simone de Beauvoir’s charisma is not out of date—maybe even longer than Sartre’s. The latter’s existentialism may be a gust of wind blowing in the minds of the West after the war, and Beauvoir outlined the universal The plight of women still hits the world today firmly. Her masterpiece “Second Sex” gave her an absolute status in the history of feminism; her golden sentence is still widely quoted: “A woman is not born, but acquired.”

In the long history, there are not many female intellectuals to look up to. Like Hannah Arendt, who was about the same age, and Susan Sontag who was later, Beauvoir was also the kind of female literati who carried popular imagination and worship. With their extraordinary personal experiences, they have surpassed the general fate of women of their own time.

Like the cultural icons of that era, Beauvoir has strong media attributes. This is not only because she is an active media writer and editor-in-chief of magazines, writing articles for fashionable publications such as “Vougue” and “Harpers Bazaar”-even some chapters in “Second Sex” First published in fashion magazines; also because Beauvoir talks to ordinary people about the topics they care about: marriage, love, sex, body, motherhood, aging… strange readers from all over the world want to talk to her about their troubles, one-third of them The letters are from men.

Beauvoir realized early on that his mind could attract men as much as his looks. The identity of a “professional woman” would detract from femininity, but she survived it. Sartre’s first impression summed up Beauvoir’s uniqueness: “She is beautiful. What is incredible is that she has both the intelligence of a man and the sensitivity of a woman.” Even Beauvoir was rated as the best in the history of literature. Dressed female writer-“I always dress like a painting”; her private life is rich enough to have a more prestigious lover than her, a strong, absolute and open love relationship, and several eager and passionate Heartbroken entanglement.

At the end of the movie “Lovers in the Café Flora”, a magazine will take pictures of Sartre and Beauvoir, with the theme “The existential atmosphere of Paris”. People are still eager to consume her fascinating personalities today. This is reflected in the fact that we have a lot of quotes about Beauvoir’s poems and love legends, but we don’t know much about her overall thoughts. As scholar Dai Jinhua said, in contemporary China, Beauvoir’s image is more of a “fully romanticized French female intellectual.”

After the publication of “Second Sex”, Beauvoir was once called “the first female philosopher in history” by the “Paris Contest”. Before Beauvoir, there were not no female philosophers—Hypaxia was a follower of Plotinus of the Neo-Plato school, and Anne Conway was a follower of Descartes. Of course, Beauvoir is often described as a follower of Sartre. In media reports, Beauvoir is a “female Sartre”, a faithful believer of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and “the most beautiful existentialist”. In fact, her identity as an existential philosopher has never been universally recognized in the history of contemporary Western thought.

Like Arendt, Beauvoir never claimed that his writing was purely philosophical. She regarded herself as a writer throughout her life, but she had no idea about the “literary quality” of her works. In fact, she is a “philosophical brain” writer. Beauvoir’s philosophical core indeed originated from Sartre’s existentialism. However, she was the first to speak of women’s existence and social status in a philosophical way. She brought women from the philosophical barren land to an eye-catching place.

True philosophical girl
“I am both a sight and a gaze. I exist only by myself and for myself. I am thankful that my exile has driven me into such intense happiness.”


Undoubtedly, Beauvoir is a person with a strong philosophical tendency, and even her best-selling autobiography reflects a philosophical ambition.

She wrote a thick four-volume autobiography. This is not so much because of narcissism, it is better to say that she wants to philosophize her life. For existentialism, the center of the world is the individual, and man lives in a meaningless universe. Man’s existence itself is meaningless, but man’s choice is free, and man can shape himself on the basis of his original existence. Take the inescapable responsibility for your choice. Beauvoir regards existentialism as a way of life. She understands the relationship between herself and others through personal experience. In the process of writing her autobiography, she understands how she strives for freedom and how to “becoming” (becoming). Like today.

Beauvoir is very clever and very lucky. She was born in a wealthy family in a declining Paris, this family is the descendant of Burgundy nobles. She started reading at the age of 3, writing at the age of 7, and finished reading all the novels at home at the age of 8. At school, she is as good as her male classmates, and even stronger than the male classmates.

The 19-year-old Beauvoir realized that she wanted to be a philosopher. She wrote in her diary, “The deepest part of my life is my thought”, “I want a great life. I will have Yes.” This unquestionable tone is familiar-many people who have achieved fame have developed a strong sense of self and a sense of mission that can guide a lifetime when they were young. For this reason, she does not hesitate to fight a cold war with her parents-her father is tired of the useless and arrogant “female intellectuals”, and her mother hopes that she can marry a good family.

Beauvoir’s ambition comes at the right time. In the era in which she lived (1908-1986), women began to have more possibilities to receive university education like men, and they also began to obtain the rights to elections, divorce, and contraception. However, in France, where Beauvoir is located, the status of women is not improved. It was not until the interim government of Charles de Gaulle in 1944 that French women obtained the right to vote and to be elected-not only did they lag behind other European and American countries by a large margin, but even later than countries such as Sri Lanka in Asia. In contrast, as early as the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the feminist movement in the United States had begun vigorously. The French women’s movement is often limited to bourgeois women, staying at specific rights such as equality in education and equality in property inheritance. However, Beauvoir is from the class that has benefited from it.

At the age of 21, Beauvoir passed the secondary school teacher qualification examination with Sartre. Sartre was the first and she was second. This exam is known for its strictness. She is the youngest person ever to pass the exam in France, and Sartre failed the first exam. The examiner of the French National Philosophy Teacher Qualification Examination even felt that among Beauvoir and Sartre, she was the “true philosopher”.

Compared to seeing things, Beauvoir prefers to understand things. “Philosophy is particularly attractive to me because I think it reveals the essence directly. I am never interested in details. Most of my perception is the general feeling of things, not things. The particularity of Beauvoir.” Although Beauvoir advocates rationality, he is also an emotional person with passion and lingering distress. (As we have seen later, Sartre often finds it difficult to understand Beauvoir’s delicate and strong emotions. ). She worries about how to balance philosophical reason and surging emotions. Beauvoir’s teacher Jeanne Messier encouraged her to regard emotions as an integral part of her life. In the diary of July 1927, Beauvoir felt reconciled with her. She realized that she wanted to “continue to be a woman” but “want to have both the rationality of a man and the sensibility of a woman.”

The first photo of Beauvoir and Sartre in Paris in June 1929. Picture/Visual China

Sartre is a strong opponent of Beauvoir. In the memoir “The Power of Time”, Beauvoir mentioned that her “relationship with Sartre is an unspeakable connection”, a kind of profound intellectual friendship. Although Beauvoir and Sartre often disagree, their intellectual interests are extremely similar. They have the same knowledge background. This is not only academic training, but also the origin of the “right to the door”-sharing the specific culture of the bourgeois boy and girl: their childhood is indisputable in the world, and their parents are qualified petty bourgeoisie Intellectuals. In an interview with the Paris Review in 1956, Beauvoir mentioned that it was this similarity that made her relationship with Sartre particularly strong.

Time may spoil things, but Beauvoir has always clearly known his position. Her life has a very stable continuity. I have been living in Paris, basically living in the same neighborhood, working from 10 am to 1 pm, she meets friends, and then works from 5 pm to 9 pm. She loves hiking and travels abroad every year.

When studying at the Sorbonne University, her classmate Simone Weil (later a famous thinker) accused Beauvoir of petty bourgeois arrogance, which made her feel bad. However, Beauvoir is indeed very elite. Even when she is a teacher, she is only interested in smart (or smart and beautiful) students. Beauvoir had a bourgeois optimist outlook on life in her early years. She wrote books, learned the truth of things, and achieved social success-until she did everything she wanted to do.

However, the actual level of success has intensified Beauvoir’s existential distress. “When the desire is realized, the deeper meaning contained in the desire itself is not realized. There is a kind of emptiness in man, even if it is This kind of emptiness also exists in his achievements.” At the end of “The Power of Things”, she felt that her previous life was “deceived”: the world has not become better because of personal self-realization, war and social suffering. Still going on.

Is Beauvoir’s ideas original?
Beauvoir published five novels, a four-volume memoir, and three pure philosophical treatises. Perhaps because “literature does not exclude women”, people generally agree with Beauvoir’s identity as a writer. Most of Camus’s works are also novels or plays, but his identity as an existential philosopher has been widely recognized (although Camus himself opposes this identity).

In fact, philosopher may be one of the hardest titles for women to gain recognition. To be precise, in an era when the influence of philosophy is more prominent, the admission mechanism of philosophy excludes women. The Western philosophical tradition represented by Plato advocates a kind of “contemplation life”, but just as the political life of ancient Greece rejected women and slaves, contemplation belongs to men, while women are “constrained by day and night, kitchen and love.”

Indeed, literature does not exclude women so much. For most of the 19th century, women even dominated the British literary market—both readers and writers. The Bronte Sisters of the United Kingdom, Mrs. Gaskell and George Sand of France are all women, while George Eliot is the male pseudonym of the female writer Mary Ann Evans. The novels at that time were still young, soft and malleable. “All the literary training that women get is in the observation of character and analysis of feelings.” As Woolf said, “When a middle-class woman began to write, she naturally writing a novel”.

On October 16, 1970, Beauvoir and Sartre peddled the banned newspaper “People’s Cause” on the street. Photo/IC photo

Beauvoir’s starting point is also a novel. Compared with philosophy, she prefers the expression of novels: “A good novel can inspire imaginary experiences, and these imaginary experiences are as complete and disturbing as practical experience.” By now, the readers of Beauvoir’s novels have been disturbed. too much. Although she tried to use literature to overcome the shortcomings of philosophy’s excessive abstraction, she did not seem to be successful-critics often accused Beauvoir of sacrificing literature for philosophy.

Compared with literary questioning, there is an extremely harsh evaluation: Beauvoir’s thought lacks true originality. Beauvoir’s autobiography talked about his ideological relationship with Sartre, always as humble as possible. This also reinforces people’s stereotype: Beauvoir’s thoughts are subordinate to Sartre. Kate Kirkpatrick, the author of the latest biography “Become Beauvoir” (published in China in 2021), tried his best to oppose this. She felt that Beauvoir had either underestimated herself or deliberately concealed her edge in her autobiography.

Kirkpatrick was a researcher of Sartre and was obviously also a fan of Beauvoir. She wanted to prove Beauvoir’s independent identity as a philosopher. For this reason, Kirkpatrick even moved Sartre from the center of Beauvoir’s world without mercy.

Among the newly discovered manuscripts of Beauvoir’s letters, the researchers found that the love letters that Beauvoir wrote to other lovers were a hundred times more enthusiastic than the love letters to Sartre—for example, in the American lover and writer Nelson Algren , And the young philosopher and director Claude Lanzman, she seems to have gained true love. On the contrary, the relationship between Beauvoir and Sartre is closer to friendship than love—they lack a true sex life. Compared with sex, Sartre is more obsessed with the process of flirting. Beauvoir is obviously not satisfied with this. At the same time, Beauvoir also has several female lovers.

Sartre’s influence on Beauvoir does not seem to be decisive. It should be said that their academic cooperation and exchange of ideas are in perfect harmony and benefit each other. In fact, Beauvoir had a very important influence on Sartre’s writing. Even experts who study Sartre have to admit, “There is no reason to suspect that Sartre actually borrowed ideas from Beauvoir… Sartre is a clever borrower (Richard Campbell, “Sutter” , Quoted from Qu Mingzhen “”Female Sartre”, or a female philosopher?”)”.

Beauvoir’s complicated and tangled emotional life made her interested in “moral freedom.” At the end of June 1946, Beauvoir completed the book “The Morality of Vagueness”. In her view, what mankind needs is a morality that can face the ambiguity of human nature, not a morality that can make excuses for people. Only when we wish to be free can we prove that we are moral. Like Sartre, Beauvoir believes that human existence is destined to be free. However, compared to ontology, Beauvoir’s interest is more in philosophy and ethics.

This philosophical quality is also reflected in her novels. Beauvoir’s first novel “Guest” tells about the triangular relationship between a man and two women. In fact, it discusses the issue of “self and the other”; “The Blood of Others” writes about the resistance movement in France during the occupation, but it really The proposition of concern is how people obtain “freedom” in conflict; “Everyone is going to die” attempts to explore the relationship between death and life and clarify the meaning of life. The tangled problems of these novels are also the core thesis of existentialism.

When writing “Second Sex”, Beauvoir’s inner troubles were: “What does it mean to me to be a woman?” She liked Michelle Leris’s “Manhood” very much, and decided Also write about yourself. One of the core points of “Second Sex” is that no woman can live her life “free of prejudice and prejudice”-Beauvoir apparently did not do it herself. Femininity also constitutes an internal constraint on women. Femininity is not a kind of nature or essence, but some labels that have been shaped and constructed in the long history of civilization.

Sartre said that as humans, we are destined to be free; but Beauvoir feels that as women, we are destined to feel divided and destined to become the subject of division. “Secondity” extends the concept of existentialism to the concept of equality between men and women. The views of contemporary American philosophy professor Gary Gutting appropriately illustrate the philosophical significance of “Secondity”.

In fact, from his early philosophical works to The Second Sex, Beauvoir has been discussing freedom in different situations and the limits of freedom. Beauvoir’s understanding of freedom and personal relations is different from Sartre. Sartre often emphasizes the conflict between self and others, while Beauvoir is not so pessimistic. She values ​​the positive possibility between the two. Perhaps this has something to do with Beauvoir’s emotional intensity and delicacy, or perhaps this is where her originality lies.

In 1974, Beauvoir. Picture/Visual China

Contract love
“Love is a great special experience. Men and women who experience true love (extremely rare) will enrich their lives.”


The life energy of Beauvoir is amazing. She is extremely self-disciplined, and never spends her time without a day without work. Although the sense of mission made her go further and further away from the traditional female role, she did not spend less time in love. Feelings did not affect her ambition to make a difference in her career, but made her life “full and enriched”. Beauvoir’s philosophy and love are intertwined, with each other’s lips and teeth.

In the love letter, Beauvoir showed his innocent girlish side. She likes romantic elements, and she has had a “love brain” moment. Similarly, in Beauvoir’s novels, no female character is completely immune to love. Compared with men, women give more wholeheartedly in love-in real life, this is often the case. Most women do not have rich and difficult careers like men do. Beauvoir analyzed the differences between men and women’s views on love in “Second Sex.” Love “has completely different meanings for the two sexes.” Byron was right, “Love is just a pastime in a man’s life, but it is a woman’s life itself.”

“Only those madmen who can see the inexhaustible bleakness in a rose petal can inspire me to be so humble,” Beauvoir wrote of his emotions. The romance and pain in the relationship between Beauvoir and Sartre have long been legendary. The most famous love contract between the two is a life-long experiment: “We are indispensable love, but we also need to experience it. Accidental love.”

Their love philosophy has a strong existentialism, pursuing individual emotional freedom and sexual freedom, and emphasizing a love of equality and mutual feedback. For Beauvoir, ideal love allows her to maintain her own nature and do what she wants; it can “accompany” her life without completely “consuming her”.

Satellite-like lovers surround the contracted love between Beauvoir and Sartre. Beauvoir’s American lover writer Algren wrote slum stories in Chicago. He was “rude as a boxer” and took her to the notorious bars to meet thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes. Sartre’s young student, French journalist Bobst, young and energetic Cossack sisters Olga and Wanda, energetic Bourdain, 25-year-old director and philosopher Claude Lanzmann, and Sartre can hardly The counted third parties have brought youth and vitality to their lives, as well as exhaustion and torment.

Existential love believes in the power of transparency, which of course is the ideal situation. Under normal circumstances, deception in love always exists. “Incomplete sharing is perhaps the only worst kind of betrayal,” said Franz, the heroine of Beauvoir’s “The Female Guest”. In the 1950s, this kind of contractual love aroused social criticism and anger, but was also overly idealized.

As Beauvoir himself said, “It is ridiculous to regard us as a role model. People must find their own common hobbies and their own way of getting along.” Contracted love includes the revolutionary nature of fighting against the destruction of life, but it also has its essence. Violence and cruelty, “It is a wall, built to resist the pain of love and the destruction that passion may incur.” When you have such a sense of security, you will not be jealous. However, once the stability of the contract is destroyed, jealousy and hurt will appear.

The lover Algren, who has proposed to Beauvoir many times and then parted ways with her, is extremely ironic about this contractual love: “How can love be accidental?… Remove all philosophical terms, she actually means it. She and Sartre created a decent appearance of petty bourgeoisie, behind which she can continue to find her femininity.” “Ms. Beauvoir feels that she can trust Jean-Paul Sartre’s infidelity. How smart! “He denied the illusion of contractual love and believed that although Beauvoir was always ready to give everything to safeguard freedom, he was never willing to take any real risks.

A similar situation happened to Sartre’s “accidental lover”. Sartre once proposed to the Russian female translator Zuo Nina. But the balance of Zuo Nina’s world was later broken by the weightlessness of the contract: “The more I look at Beaver (Note: Sartre’s nickname for Beauvoir)’s “Memoirs”, the more I understand that I will never change those things.” When breaking up with Sartre, Zuo Nina wrote: “You and the beaver have created an amazing thing together, but it is so dangerous for people close to it.”

The vague sexual morality practiced by Beauvoir and Sartre is extremely dangerous according to the standards of today’s anti-sexual harassment movement, and will inevitably ruin them. “Beuveau is a hunter, looking for young fresh flesh among his female students, and after tasting it by himself, he gave it to Sartre to enjoy.” Beauvoir and Sartre’s young lover Bianca once wrote an autobiographical complaint, believing that The two of them are consuming their lives. The avant-garde love between Beauvoir and Sartre at that time no longer meets today’s demand for gender “political correctness”.

The book “The Philosopher and Love” summarizes the pattern of “Lovers in the Flower God Cafe”: the flow of derailment between each other, in the final analysis, is a bourgeois life, “like a comedy between the gods of Olympus , And Beauvoir played the play to the end.” Novelist Doris Lessing also said that he had never believed in the “revolutionary love union of Sartre and Beauvoir”, which is a mere illusion. . In her opinion, Beauvoir is just acting “like a woman”, and Sartre is just “like a man”. The fact is that the romance and pain of love still exist in eternal opposites, which is the ultimate truth in the relationship between men and women.

The funeral of Beauvoir, Paris, April 19, 1986. Picture/Visual China

Sociologist Anthony Giddens believes that open relationships may be the most suitable way to fall in love today. However, after Sartre and Beauvoir, love is still what it once was: a painful problem.

The belated feminist?
“I think people will read me for some time in the future. I have contributed a little to the discussion of women’s issues. I know this from the letter sent to me by readers.” Beauvoir actually knows himself very well. Ideological contribution.

After experiencing the bohemian trend in Paris in the 1930s and the sexual liberation movement in the 1960s, Beauvoir’s “Second Sex” came out in 1949 during this period. In the process of writing, she combed through a large number of historical, biological, psychoanalytic and other documents, and gradually realized that her “female” identity is both universal and special.

For Beauvoir, traveling alone is easy, writing in a cafe is easy, and it is no longer difficult to compare with any male writer. This strengthened her sense of independence and equality, and also made it easy for her to forget that a female secretary absolutely cannot enjoy the privileges she has-people who are accustomed to enjoying dividends often lack awareness of their dominant position.

Although many Americans regard “Second Sex” as the source of the contemporary feminist movement, in fact, the contemporary American feminist movement began five or six years ago when the book was published, dedicated to fighting for women’s rights in the political and social fields. Beauvoir is more like a later entry. She herself was initially closer to a philosopher who is constantly exploring herself than a feminist who is keen on social activities. The writing of “Second Sex” is also a gender enlightenment for her.

Beauvoir became a “feminist” in the sense of today, more precisely after being involved in the development of the movement. Her profound and profound thoughts provide powerful theoretical weapons for these realistic feminist movements.

In “The Power of Time”, she also claimed that she “avoided falling into the’feminist trap” when writing “Second Sex.” It was not until 1972 that Beauvoir claimed to be a “feminist” for the first time in an interview with the German journalist Alise Schwartzel.

After 1968, the May storm and the sexual liberation movement greatly changed social concepts in Europe and America. Compared to France, Beauvoir’s works seem to be more popular with Americans, and she also gets more inspiration from the actions of American women. In her opinion, American women seem to be more conscious than women in other countries in the world, because they were the first to realize the paradox between new technology and the traditional role of women in the kitchen. Of course, this is also because the United States has the most advanced social and technological development. Mental labor is replacing manual labor. The patriarchal consciousness of “women are inferior, so they are only worthy” has gradually lost practical support.

In France, there are also a large number of women’s organizations and women’s rights workshops. Through assembly speeches, they confided to each other those things that were difficult to express in front of men. “The content of their in-depth exchanges was something I never thought about and couldn’t understand when I was 25 years old at the time,” Beauvoir later recalled. When she was young, there were many girls around her, but they had never formally discussed women’s own plights like these people; just as she was immersed in the promise of a better future for the bourgeoisie when she was young, she did not even understand at all that “the world is made of Composed of pain and oppression”.

If Sartre’s political enthusiasm drove Beauvoir to understand the war situation and penetrate the real situation in the real world, then the rising female actions at that time also gave Beauvoir’s philosophical thinking a gendered body. Based on the awakening of the situation, the real friendship between women can be considered: “In the early days, women never really became friends with other women. They regarded each other as rivals, and said that they were competitors rather than politely. Said to be the enemy.”

In an interview in the “Paris Review”, the reporter asked Beauvoir: What do you think of your future life?

Beauvoir’s answer is quite the spirit of the 20th century’s revolution and love: “I only know that I will continue to be with women, with feminists and their organizations. I will continue to do something for women’s rights in some way. What is it, let’s call it a’revolutionary struggle. I know that I will always be with Sartre, unless one of us goes first.”

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