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A-Z of Thought: Simone de Beauvoir

Elaine Storkey

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a striking French philosopher who, working in the areas of politics and ethics, addressed her generation of left-wing intellectuals with existentialist, Marxist and feminist ideas. As a thinker and literary writer, her work builds up a graphic picture of the French intellectual scene for almost 40 years.

Her long complex affair with Jean Paul Sartre, which began when she was 21 and lasted until his death, enormously influenced the way she thought and wrote. Their relationship is reflected both in her novels and in her gender analysis. In L'Invitee (1943) de Beauvoir produces a fictionalised account of their struggles and of Sartre's affair with Olga Kosakiewicz, one of her students. It points to one of the constant themes of classic existentialism - that ultimately one is alone, unable to share some of the deepest experiences of life. In her semi-autobiographical work, Les Mandarins (1954), which provided a rallying call for radical political involvement, the central characters are again easily identified.

It is ironic that almost any discussion of Simone de Beauvoir will point to the centrality of her relationship with Sartre in de Beauvoir's work, whereas the same will not be true for Sartre. Though his long affair with de Beauvoir is seen as significant, it is not regarded as the defining factor of his life and work. The irony is that this contrast validates the truth of her arguments. For her description of woman as 'other', as 'the second sex', became one which absorbed de Beauvoir and gave distinct shape to her feminism. Her book The Second Sex (1949) became a classic feminist text, releasing a wave of popular feminist writings a decade later, (like Germaine Greer's polemic book The Female Eunuch). It has remained influential with the next two generations of French feminists. Banned by the Catholic Church, The Second Sex identifies patriarchy as the fundamental structure against which woman is defined, referring to it as 'the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies'. For her, 'woman is not born but made', always seen in relation to what she is not. De Beauvoir did not call herself a feminist until 1972, yet her expose of the assumption of the 'male as norm' was to be a central feminist theme for more than 50 years and persists today. Her concept of 'the other' is carried into The Coming of Age, an indictment on cultural attitudes to ageing - now also a strong feminist theme.

De Beauvoir's sense of ultimate emptiness against life and death comes out in some late comments on Sartre: 'My death will not bring us together again. This is how things are.'