Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Become a Writer: Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986)

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at Bal...Image via Wikipedia
Written in the absence of an organized feminist movement, classic manifesto of Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949), provided the theoretical basis for the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although her major contributions to existentialist philosophy is often overshadowed by the fame of her lifelong associate and lover, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir's importance to the feminist theory is indisputable. Her famous remark that "One isn't born a woman, but rather becomes a woman," opens the second volume of her seminal book The Second Sex.

Among the first generation of women to be educated in elite universities, who had once been all-male preserves, Beauvoir graduated in 1929 from the Sorbonne. While a student she met Sartre and began a life-lasting friendship. Other classmates included phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the Jewish theologian and mystic Simone Weil.

In 1945 she and Sartre, along with Merleau-Ponty, who founded Les Temps Modernes, a monthly magazine devoted to politics & literature. Between 1943 and 1968, Beauvoir wrote 6 novels. The novel Les Mandarins (1954), is a fictionalized account of the postwar leftist intellectuals and their attempts to give up their "mandarin" (educated elite) status to engage in political activism. This novel has characters resembling Beauvoir, Sartre, the French writer Albert Camus, and the American writer Nelson Algren, with whom Beauvoir had an affair for almost 15 years.

During this time, she also wrote 4 books on philosophy, including The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), which articulates an ethic of Sartrean existentialism. In addition to novels, philosophy and feminist criticism, Beauvoir chronicled the French intellectual life from 1930 to the year 1970.

She also addressed the issue of aging in A Very Easy Death (1964) and in Old Age (970), which criticizes society's indifference to the elderly. In Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, she gives an account of Sartre’s last years. During the decade of the 1970s and to her death, Beauvoir was very active in feminist politics.

Beauvoir's debt to Sartre has been grossly exaggerated and her own philosophical contributions to existentialism obscured. Her entire work is unimpeachable testimony to a lifetime dedication to philosophy, literature, and cultural studies—a true intellectual in her own right.

The only writing guide I consult is Toolbox for Writers.

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