In her discussion of the books by Judith Okeley and myself on Simone de Beauvoir (nlr 156), Kate Soper raises many useful points and this brief reply is in no sense to quarrel with her interpretation of my work. Yet in writing about Simone de Beauvoir, there is always the appeal of adding one more thing, and that is precisely what I would like to do here. De Beauvoir remarked—as every commentator has pointed out—that if she could re-write her work she would give it a more ‘materialist’ emphasis. Quite what this would mean, in the context of her own remarks about Engels, materialism, Marx et al., must be a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, de Beauvoir did allow that she would like the opportunity to add at least a few footnotes to her interpretation of the world. So must anyone who has written about her. Here, I would like to suggest that what needs to be added to my interpretation is a recognition of de Beauvoir as myth, and as a mythical figure who has had a profound effect on several generations of women. It is not so much de Beauvoir’s ideas that have become the potent mythical force, but the image of her as the independent woman of ideas.
There is, of course, no doubt that de Beauvoir was both independent and an intellectual. But she was hardly the first woman to support herself economically, or to live in an unconventional sexual relationship (although ‘live in’, in the case of de Beauvoir and Sartre, suggests a degree of domesticity that hardly reflects the reality of much of their lives) or to take an active role in radical, left-wing politics. There are numerous women who meet all, or at least some, of these criteria and yet they have not become the kind of figures who lend themselves to identification for later women. It is interesting, therefore, to speculate on the reasons for the mythologization of de Beauvoir and to attempt to identify the reasons for her apparently universal appeal. The lasting vitality and range of The Second Sex must be a foremost reason; nobody before or since de Beauvoir had or has attempted such a comprehensive account of the subordination of women. Almost equally significant must be the apparent openness of de Beauvoir’s life: forestalling biographers, she has provided us with a full and richly documented account of both her life and those of Sartre and a generation of French intellectuals of the Left. For my own part, I would argue that Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is one of the finest accounts of an individual’s journey to the beginnings of self-hood and personal autonomy that has ever been written in the West.
But Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter emerges out of a highly specific social and emotional location: patriarchal, petit-bourgeois Paris in the years just before and after the First World War. Thus de Beauvoir tells us, very precisely and very vividly, much about a feature of her life that many of her most fervent admirers and mythologizers have tended to overlook: that her childhood, adolescence (and indeed maturity) were spent, like those of everyone else, in a socially definable and particular situation. De Beauvoir did not emerge out of nowhere, any more than George Eliot, Marie Stopes and Alexandra Kollontai did—to mention but three disparate, independent and powerful women. It would seem that in its search for universal explanations, and definitions, of women’s subordination, feminism is also deeply attracted by the idea of a universal, trans-historical feminist: a feminist for all cultures and all political systems. Yet an examination of de Beauvoir’s politics, and political responses, suggests a person who was deeply conditioned by the ideas of the West, and within the West of a highly literate, critical intelligentsia. What this amounts to is that de Beauvoir is a product of her culture and her class, and that much of her work reflects the values and aspirations of both. To praise and celebrate her within the context of Western European politics is one thing; to make her the universal sister is another.
Moreover, the danger of making de Beauvoir the universally relevant feminist is that the options she chose—both personally and politically—appear as generally available and credible. Such a reading overlooks, amongst other things, much of the emotional suffering that she had to accept as part of the relationship with Sartre: to rationalize the relationship, as she did, in terms of its intellectual rewards is a form of legitimation of masochism that deserves sympathetic consideration, not least in the general sense that women are frequently forced to tolerate what they recognize as intolerable. De Beauvoir’s writing is arguably at its most powerful when dealing with emotional loss (A Very Easy Death, The Woman Destroyed, La Cérémonie des adieux), and the sense of agonized desolation that she portrays in these works articulates very clearly the intensity of the relationships between men and women, parents and children that are both formed and positively encouraged within Western patriarchal culture. Thus in examining the way in which de Beauvoir discusses and portrays emotional life—its costs and complexities, the possible alternatives—we need to consider the nature of the emotional and moral culture of the West. Clearly, women have seen in de Beauvoir’s life a way of escaping from the costs of this culture (in particular, the creation of emotional dependence), but what remains as problematic is the universality of the culture and the belief that de Beauvoir’s own personal choices represent a universal panacea for patterns of sexual and social relationships that are structured by more than patriarchy. To mythologize de Beauvoir is, I would argue, to diminish her. As a life-long champion of the Left, and of civil rights and liberties for women and minorities, she is one of the most eminent and courageous figures of the twentieth century; as a champion of ‘freedom’ or ‘choice’ for women, she becomes a manipulable symbol for many of those beliefs and ideologies within the West that diminish human freedom.