Becoming Beauvoir: A Life by Kate Kirkpatrick


Review by Walter Cummins

I decided to read Becoming Beauvoir when I came across this endorsement in a review excerpt: “Here we finally have a biography that makes Beauvoir’s philosophical ideas the focal point—not her love life.” But by the time I finished the first third of the book I thought that the biography was emphasizing her romantic relationships and intellectual friendships as a young woman, culminating in her bond with Jean-Paul Sartre. I wondered what Sartre’s coital deficiencies and the list of male acquaintances and female students Beauvoir bedded had to do with her philosophic ideas. Then I realized that these human connections, the love affairs that became lasting cerebral attachments, were inseparable from her version of existentialism.

One of the primary purposes of Kirkpatrick’s biography is to document Beauvoir’s original thinking and to demonstrate that she was not merely a secondary echo of Sartre. Yet for all the years they spent critiquing each other’s writing and debating theories, the public regarded her as a sidekick and bedmate who, at best, helped hone his thinking. When Sartre died, some obituaries gave just a sentence or two to Beauvoir’s role, while others completely ignored her. But when she died six years later, Sartre’s place in her life dominated the obituaries, as if she were one of his creations.

From the beginning of their relationship Beauvoir and Sartre agreed to be non-exclusive in their sexual lives, and they both had numerous affairs, occasionally with the same people, even integrating certain partners into their joint entourage for conversations and travels. But they did not regard their lovers in the same way. According to Kirkpatrick, this fundamental disagreement about the correlation between Self and Other demonstrates how much their philosophies differed.

Even more than “existence precedes essence”—which Beauvoir agreed with—Sartre is probably best known for the “Hell is other people” that sums up the human misery of No Exit. That judgment Beauvoir would not accept. In fact, the same year as Sartre’s play was produced, Beauvoir published an essay with a totally opposite conclusion:

We are not alone in the world, and, contrary to Sartre, she thought that we would be miserable if we were, for it is only with others that our own projects can succeed. … Now Beauvoir wrote that everyone wants to feel at rest about the meaning of their lives. But the ‘rest’ that the devoted person claims for him—or—more commonly—herself is to live for another being. Some people claim to find that rest in God and some people find that rest in being devoted to other humans.

Although Beauvoir demonstrated such devotion through her regard for a number of people, including former lovers, it was her bond with Sartre that served as her basic human connection. Some have called it the most famous love of the twentieth century, but it was a sexual love for only a short time. Beyond that, they were intellectually inseparable as ongoing discussants of theories and initial readers for each other’s writings, offering advice for clarification and revision even when they disagreed about ideas.

Beauvoir, though much involved in the development of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, did not share his pessimistic conclusion about humanity in the same manner with which she disagreed with No Exit. While Sartre does not address ethical issues in Being and Nothingness, Kirkpatrick credits Beauvoir with being the source of a crucial theory of existentialist ethics:

It was crystal clear now: she needed a different understanding of freedom from the one Sartre offered. She couldn’t agree with him that freedom was limitless: our choices are constrained by the choices of others, and we constrain their choices too. Striving to be free, therefore, wasn’t good enough—any person who valued freedom without hypocrisy had to value it in other people, to act in such a way that they exercised their freedom ethically.

In addition to freedom, another concept that is inseparable from existentialist beliefs is that of mauvaise foi—bad faith—discussed at length in Being and Nothingness and generally considered one of Sartre’s most significant insights. Kirkpatrick, however, finds that Beauvoir early in her discussions with Sartre shared the discovery of the perception that people often submit to social pressure to adopt false identities and deny their essential freedom:

In The Prime of Life Beauvoir credits this concept to herself and Sartre. Beauvoir starts by saying that Sartre ‘worked out the notion of dishonesty (bad faith)’. But she continues using we. ‘We’ set out to expose bad faith. There was a particular teacher, a colleague of Beauvoir’s, whose behaviour led Beauvoir to a moment of clarity–‘I’ve got it,’ Beauvoir told Sartre, “‘Ginette Lumière is unreal, a sort of mirage’. Thenceforth we applied this term to anyone who feigned convictions or feelings that they did not in fact possess: we had discovered, under another name, the idea of ‘playing a part’.  

Becoming Beauvoir, while addressing Beauvoir’s difficulties and disappointments, accentuates her many successes as a writer, teacher, and source of ideas—the millions of readers of The Second Sex, the Prix Goncourt for her novel The Mandarins, and much more. Kirkpatrick demonstrates that Beauvoir was a major figure in twentieth century thought and literature in her own right. The “becoming” of Kirkpatrick’s title also alludes to a central belief of existentialist thought that humans lack a fixed identity and are in a continual process of change through the free choices they make. In Beauvoir’s words: “there is no divorce between philosophy and life. Every living step is a philosophical choice.”