Not long after abandoning her life as a “dutiful daughter” and fleeing to the unfettered freedoms of Paris, Simone de Beauvoir met, in 1929, the man who was to be friend, mentor and lover for the rest of her life, the philos0pher, Jean Paul Sartre. They were both in their early twenties, he slightly older than she. In many ways, her quick and solid attachment to this man allowed her to give up her ties to the family that had so constrained her during adolescence.
It was a flight into the most exotic intellectual terrain. From the first, the two lovers spent virtually all their time together, read the same books, sought out the same friends, and in general developed their ideas so symbiotically that Simone would use such phrases in her memoir as “we thought” and “our idea”.
When I began reading The Prime of Life (which picks up de Beauvoir’s life where Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter leaves off) I was astonished by the amount of fusion she described in her relationship with Sartre. She seemed so entirely enmeshed in his sensibility it was hard to imagine how she would ever extricate herself sufficiently to pursue the fine intellectual and creative work she would one day accomplish. True, Sartre was a genius; still, this bright, zestful woman was virtually in his thrall. “I admired him for holding his destiny in his own hands, unaided,” she wrote. “Far from feeling embarrassed at the thought of his superiority, I derived comfort from it.”
She was only twenty-one, and apparently as romantic as anyone that age. Still, it seemed that if she were going to disengage from the destructive pattern that was so clearly establishing itself in her relationship with Sartre, she was going to have to do something–something radical. “My trust in him was so complete,” she wrote, “that he supplied me with the sort of absolute, unfailing security that I had once had from my parents, or from God.”
Simone and Jean Paul walked the streets of Paris together, talked endlessly, drank aquavit in the bars until two o’clock in the morning. She experienced herself as almost levitating in a delirium of happiness. “My most deep-felt longings were now fulfilled,” she wrote. “There was nothing left for me to wish–except that this state of triumphant bliss might continue unwaveringly forever.”
The euphoria lasted for over a year–until something disquieting crept in to mar her perfect happiness. She came to suspect that she had relinquished some essential part of herself. Her abandoned response to the onslaught of sensual and intellectual distraction that Paris had to offer was beginning to have a fragmenting effect on her. Her stabs at writing fiction were half-hearted, lacking conviction. “Sometimes I felt I was doing a school assignment, sometimes that I had lapsed into parody,” she wrote.
For eighteen months de Beauvoir lived in an acute state of conflict. “though I still enthusiastically ran after all the good things of this world, I was beginning to think that they kept me from my real vocation: I was well on the road to self-betrayal and self-destruction.” The books she had always read so obsessively she now perceived she was reading in a scattered, unfocused way, with no real intellectual goal. She was writing in her journal only sporadically. Conflict, the desire to have it all ways, held her in its paralyzing web. “I could not bring myself to give up anything,” she wrote, “and hence I was incapable of making my choice.”
Simone began to be plagued by self-doubt. The longer she remained inactive–intellectually and emotionally enthralled to Sartre–the more convinced she became of her mediocrity. “I was, beyond any doubt, abdicating,” she wrote, later. Existing in an ancillary relationship to Sartre had given her false peace of mind, a kind of blissful, anxiety-free state in which nothing much was expected of her except that she be a sprightly companion.
Inevitably, even her sprightliness began to deteriorate. “You used to be so full of little ideas, Beaver,” Sartre said, using the nickname he had for her. (He went on to warn her against becoming “one of those female introverts.”)
From the perspective of her mature years, de Beauvoir recognized how perilously easy it had been for her to exist, as a young woman, in subjugation to another. Someone “more fascinating” than she. Someone she could look up to, idolize, and in whose shadow she could feel small and secure.
There was, of course, a price. A small, self-effacing voice began to filter through to the young woman’s consciousness. “I am nothing,” it said.
She realized, “I had ceased to exist on my own terms and was now a mere parasite.”
Though feminists think of her as one of the founding voices of modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir did not view the solution to her predicament as merely cultural. Though she realized that her very way of thinking about the problem had to do with the fact that she was a woman, “it was as an individual,” she says, “that I attempted to resolve it.”
Abruptly, determinedly, Simone decided to take a year’s teaching job–away from Sartre, away from Paris–in the city of Marseilles. The solitude, she hoped, would strengthen her “against the temptation I had been dodging for two years: that of giving up.”
In Marseille Simone took up a remarkable, rigorous and obsessive activity in an attempt to exorcise her urge to be dependent. On her two days off a week she walked–not in a leisurely or casual fashion, but with the blindered perseverance of one who is out to overcome a severe handicap. She would put on an old dress and some espadrilles and take a small basket lunch with her; then she would proceed with her adventure into the unknown, climbing every peak, clambering down every gully, exploring “every valley, gorge and defile.”
As her strength and endurance increased, so did her mileage. At first she would walk only five or six hours, but soon she was able to take routes requiring nine or ten. In time she was doing more than twenty-five miles a day. “I visited towns large and small, villages, abbeys, and chateaux…. With tenacious perserverance I rediscovered my mission to rescue things from oblivion.”
Whereas once, she says, she had been “closely dependent upon other people,” relying on the them to provide her with rules and objectives, now she was having to make her own way, unaided, from one day to the next. She thumbed rides from truckdrivers to get her over the most boring stretches of road fast. She took an active, aggressive stance in relation to what she was about. “When I was clambering over rocks and mountains or sliding down screes, I would work out shortcuts, so that each expedition was a work of art.”
During that year three things happened that frightened her. Once a dog followed her on her solitary hike and became maddened by thirst as the day wore on. (Eventually he plunged himself into a brook.) Another time a truck driver with whom she’d hitched a ride suddenly pulled off the main road and headed for the only deserted spot in the entire area. When she recognized what was happening she devised a fast plan. As soon as the truck slowed down for a grade crossing, Simone opened the door and threatened to jump while the truck was still moving. The man, “rather shamefacedly,” she wrote, pulled up and let her out.
The third episode involved a series of steep gorges up which she struggled, one brilliantly sunlit afternoon. The path had become increasingly difficult, and she thought it would be impossible to go back the same way she had come, so she just kept on. “Finally,” she writes, “a sheer wall of rock blocked any further advance, and I had to retrace my steps, from one basin to the next. At last I came to a fault in the rock which I dared not jump across.”
Here, no doubt, was the real rite of passage–a situation into which few women would deliberately venture. “There was no sound except for the rustle of a snake slithering among the dry stones. No living soul would ever pass through this defile: suppose I broke a leg or twisted an ankle; what would become of me? I shouted, but got no reply. I went on calling for a quarter of an hour. The silence was appalling.”
Simone had created a situation in which she could not give up without running the risk of losing her life.What did she do? The only thing she could do. She plucked up her courage and, in the end, “got down safe and sound.”
De Beauvoir’s friends worried over her and advised her that these solitary treks were dangerous. Particularly they begged her to stop hitchhiking. But she was on a far fiercer mission than anyone realized. With passionate single-mindedness, she was retrieving her own soul.
What doe it mean to become one’s own person? It means to take on the responsibility for one’s own existence. To create one’s own life. To devise one’s own schedule. Simone de Beauvoir’s hikes became both the method and the metaphor of her rebirth as an individual. “Alone I walked the mists that hung over the summit of Sainte-Victoire, and trod along the ridge of the Pilon de Roi, bracing myself against a violent wind which sent my beret spinning down into the valley below. Alone again, I got lost in a mountain ravine on the Luberon range. Such moments, with all their warmth, tenderness, and fury, belong to me and no one else.”
By July 14, Bastille Day, when she was ready to return to Paris, she had become, in ways that are central, a different person. She had made friends and evaluated people solely on her own. She had found pleasure in solitude. Assessing the lessons she’d learned in that remarkable year, she wrote: “I hadn’t read much, and my novel was worthless. On the other hand I had worked at my chosen profession without losing heart, and had been enriched by new enthusiasm. I was emerging triumphant from the trials to which I had been subjected; separation and loneliness had not destroyed my peace of mind.”
And then the ultimate throwaway line, the line that seems so small, such a given, once one has been through the rigors needed to achieve this balanced state: I knew that I could now rely on myself.” With her new independence of spirit, Simone de Beauvoir would one day go on to write the brilliant book that to this day, over half a century later, is considered the bible of modern feminism: The Second Sex.