Swans Commentary » swans.com February 11, 2008  



Simone de Beauvoir: The Mother Of Us All


by Gilles d'Aymery





"Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being."
—Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)


(Swans - February 11, 2008)  The controversial publication of a 1952 picture of Simone de Beauvoir on the cover page of the (French weekly) Nouvel Observateur of January 3, 2008, (1) on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the renowned author's birth brought some old memories of my own. Going 40-plus-years back in time through perusing letters, pictures, school reports that had been left quiet -- out of sight, out of mind -- for so long, sleepily laying in a small 10½ x 17½ inch UAT (2) blue canvass suitcase, itself encased in a cardboard box in the company of six shoeboxes filled with more letters, has been slightly upsetting to say the least, but it was worth the emotional tremor. Here it was, on a tiny piece of paper, the short, almost sibylline annotation: "Nouvel Obs #334 - 5 April 1971 --> Manifeste des 343 - Pour l'avortement libre - Finalement! - Simone de Beauvoir???" ("Manifesto of the 343 - in favor of legal abortion - finally!" . . . . aka "the Manifesto of the 343 sluts," as its signatories were disparagingly called). Sibylline indeed, but highly meaningful to that young man, who instinctually, and experientially, understood the significance of this manifesto. What that young man did not know then was much. What this aging same man knows today may not be much more; but whatever learning he has gained through insatiable reading and living can somehow be traced to that historic text. That the Nouvel Observateur moved from principled positions (1971) to voyeurism and salesmanship (2008) in regard to Simone de Beauvoir is fairly representative of the current French cultural and political discourse. The France of Georges Pompidou, a culturally refined and dignified head of state, has long been replaced by a poor-taste, self-indulgent spectacle whose director, Nicolas Sarkozy, flaunts his macho-like marital affairs and love of money with a neoliberal flair that Simone de Beauvoir would have ridiculed.

I don't remember having ever heard of Simone de Beauvoir before that date. I had no excuse for this absence of erudition but for the mitigating circumstances of the time when I was being bounced back and forth among second-rate boarding schools in the western part of France (L'Aigle, Dreux, Verneuil) and ended up in a third-rate technical Lycée in Mazamet, a small mountainous city in the Haut Languedoc, about 80 km from Toulouse. I even missed the events of May 1968 altogether as I was locked up in Verneuil -- largely discarded by a violent and vindictive father who would in later years ask me to change my name and offer to pay me not to see him any more. The mission of these "educative" establishments was to produce compliant workers, not independent thinkers. Their tools to mold the youth for which they were responsible had little to do with books and much with coercion and physical abuse. I still occasionally wake up in the middle of the night with the image of this catholic priest and "teacher" who would school me on the proper way to suck his stick of barley sugar (sucre d'orge) as he would call what need not be further defined. If books existed, their authors did not carry the names of Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir -- and do not even think about Karl Marx and the plethora of authors, thinkers, and philosophers that did not conform to the established norm. It was more about the writings of the likes of Jean Giono, André Maurois, Tintin and Milou, and the politics was closer to Poujadism (the Le Penism of older mores) and the myth of Algérie française, which saturated the copies of Rivarol (a rabid right-wing weekly) that laid in my grandfather's study. As my grandfather kept reminding me in his letters: God, country (patriotism), hard work, and family were the core, the breast of civilization. Travail, famille, patrie encapsulated the world view that was instilled in me for some twenty years, beside le sucre d'orge and the constant beatings by my father. It was quite an education, indeed.

But when I held the Nouvel Obs in my hands on that spring day of 1971, rue de l'Echarpe, Toulouse, and read the text that Simone de Beauvoir had written (or is supposed to have written -- I do not know the facts), I immediately realized what I had always instinctually sensed: that another world was possible. That text spoke loud and clear to me. For cause:

A few months earlier, in the late summer of 1970, I had gone through an experience that I've never forgotten. When I was in Mazamet, in the dreary Lycée Polyvalent Mixte, preparing for the final exam, called the baccalauréat in French (no equivalent in the Saxon world -- an exam opening the door to college), the "authorities" gave us permission to leave the school during various afternoons in order to prepare for that exam in the company of non-boarders who had coalesced in a study group. That group was comprised of mostly young women who were in class with us, but rented rooms in town. Marie-Jo was one of them. She was a lively, feisty, and attractive country girl from the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), near Lacaune. Her parents ran a salt meat business, producing some of the utmost charcuterie I've ever eaten in my life (smoked ham, pâté terrine, and those famous saucissons de Lacaune). She had short auburn hair, high cheeks, deep eyes, and like me could never shut her fiery mouth. We studied together alright and more happened, of course. I was 19 years old, going on 20. She was a year or so younger. It was the first time.

We both graduated and the affair went on through the summer, until it got old. I wanted to move on to better places. She was homegrown and steady in her outlook on life. Saucissons it would be. The last encounter took place in August of 1970. We agreed to part, even though we did not talk about it. We knew. It was over.

Two months later, more or less, as I was entering my first year at the University of Law and Economics in Toulouse and taking quarters in the apartment of another Simone -- a married, well-known doctor who enjoyed keeping company with me in the middle of the night or on the side of her weekender swimming pool -- Marie-Jo called me. She was pregnant. We talked. I did not want to get married. I offered to help raise the child, though I knew it was utterly unrealistic; the societal stigmas of an unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock were profound. (3) She'd have nothing of it. She wanted an abortion. What was required was money. She had everything arranged.

Please do not ever, ever accuse Marie-Jo of being a slut. I was as much, maybe more, a cold son of a bitch. It was, to think of Simone de Beauvoir, an existentialist dilemma. Two lives on different paths, trying to do what made sense at the time -- we'll never know what would have happened, had we chosen otherwise. Time was short. Money was needed. I did not have enough. Who could I talk to? This was 1970, and we were treading into deep illegal waters. Silence was the equivalent of the mafia's oath.

I turned to my grandmother. She always had been there for me. She also had had her own experience with being pregnant out of wedlock -- my grandfather left her cold in the foggy nights of the northern country before making good to her and marrying her some time after my mother was born. I could count on her. "Grandma, I need money for taking care of this situation..." Grandma did not say much. We walked to her bedroom where she kept jars of 5-franc coins (about $1 each), which she hoarded from the eggs and poultry she was selling to the bourgeoisie in Toulouse and the surroundings. "How much do you need?" she asked. I told her. We counted. It was a bundle. She only said: "Do as best you can, AND do not ever tell your grandfather." I never did.

With the money handy, I met Marie-Jo in Toulouse one evening. We walked to the main train station (Gare Matabiau). There stood a hotel where transient voyagers spent some time with ladies of the night. It was an in-and-out kind of a place that didn't draw the attention of the local constables that were on the take anyway. She went in. Did not want me to follow. I waited outside. The abortionist inserted a probe in her uterus. Marie-Jo got out and we parted, hating each other, walking toward our respective futures.

We were not supposed to meet again. It was a done deal. Coldness was to recede in the warmth of that Indian summer. It was not to be, though. A week or two later (my memory is failing me), I received a call from a girl who was in the same class. Marie-Jo was staying at her place. She had high temperature and was very, very sick. The probe was still in place. Nothing had come out. "Please help. She's dying."

I turned to Simone, the doctor. I was furious about the entire situation. "How can she, Marie-Jo, disrupt my first days at the University?" (No need to judge me on my brazenness. I know...). Simone directed me to a private clinic that would ask no questions but save life if we had money. (Grandma, I urgently need more money...) I fetched Marie-Jo, drove her there. They took the probe out of her uterus, performed a curettage, and saved her. Marie-Jo was as close to septicemia as one could get. Another few days and she would have been dead. (4)

"One million women get an abortion in France every year," wrote Simone de Beauvoir in 1971. "They're doing it in dangerous conditions because they're condemned to clandestineness, although medically controlled abortion is a simple thing." How dangerous? I suppose that most of the 343 signatories were women who could afford to travel to England, the Netherlands, Japan, or Israel where for a fee they could obtain a safe abortion, or to the countries of the Eastern Bloc where abortion was legal and free. But for the vast majority women resorted to the back alleys and all sorts of barbaric methods and instruments. According to a 1973 book, Abortion, Contraception, published by the Mutuelle Nationale des Etudiants de France (National Mutual of French Students) here are some of the "tools" that were used: knitting needles, coat hangers, elm's bark, ball-point pens, rubber tubes, brushes, phone wires, curtain rods, gauze, glue, alcohol, Lysol, pine oil, potassium permanganate, soap, etc. Not only were women stigmatized, but they had to put their bodies in terrible harm's way and risk their lives, all due to repressive and reprehensible laws passed by men ever so eager to make use of their sucre d'orge in abandon.

It took until January 1975 to make abortion legal and safe in France, and ever since we've had to fight this pitiful, retrograde, ignominious movement that deems itself "pro-life" -- a movement that has in all practicalities gutted the right to abortion in the U.S. Generation after generation we are forced into re-fighting fights that should never have been needed in the first place -- the right of a woman to her own body...a right that Marie-Jo's trauma made me never forget.

It was 1971 and for the first time ever, I was finally free from the locks that had kept me pinned down behind bars and fences metaphorically, politically, and physically. The atrophied brain that had stubbornly refused to be lobotomized became a sponge thriving to be imbibed with knowledge -- authors, philosophers, political figures, schools -- I did not even know existed. Simone de Beauvoir was a catalyst. Reading The Second Sex, or The Coming of Age was an exercise in discovery. Here was an author, a very fine writer (so much more refined than Jean-Paul Sartre) who out of sheer sexism was not considered a philosopher, (5) but whose philosophy even this Homo ignoramus could entertain while Sartre's was more obscure, if not obtuse. Beauvoir's roots were spread deep in the rich soil of people's lives. She challenged her readers -- at least this one -- to concretely assess the issues of her time...which are timeless. Commanding intellectuals of her caliber are hard to find nowadays as they've increasingly been replaced by caviar philosophers such as Bernard-Henri Lévy who symbolizes the putrefied hot air of the free-market values so dear to Nicolas Sarkozy and his plutocratic entourage.

In that line of thinking, the publication by the Nouvel Observateur of the 1952 Art Shay photo (6) of her naked in a Chicago bathroom saddened me. Here was a magazine that had dedicated its edition #334 of April 1971 to a fundamental issue and 37 years and 1,918 editions later (January 3, 2008, #2,252) fell into voyeurism and the commodification of feminism.

I did not mind the picture per se (though it should have been inserted within the issue and not plastered on the cover page) as much as I was offended that the editors felt the need to use Adobe Photoshop (or whatever graphical software they use) to lighten the original picture and trim her buttocks and calves. In so doing, they treated her as a commodity, more attuned to the anorexia that pervades the upper classes, and the publications that tend to their yearning for the "perfect body." They could not even let Beauvoir be herself after all -- men always deciding how women should look and be.

A Botticelli painting is worth millions of dollars. I happen to share my days with a living Botticelli, even though I cannot afford the tab. When I am in bed or otherwise, I enjoy those contours that make Jan, my companion, so physically appealing. I caress, I embrace, I fantasize. She's so beautiful that a picture could never give her enough credit. But Jan is much more than a beautiful body. She is a self-accomplished individual with a talented mind of her own -- my equal.

The folks at the Nouvel Observateur eschewed the mind of Simone de Beauvoir. They could have emphasized her unique and immense contributions to women's rights and the cause of the feminist movement; but they chose instead to sell her rearranged body. They reduced her to a "slut" with the caption Simone de Beauvoir, La Scandaleuse in order to sell their "bitches." Profits keep thwarting Botticelli and tastefulness after all. In July 1971 The New York Times Magazine published a long article about Beauvoir. On its cover was a drawing of her with the head of Jean-Paul Sartre atop her flagstaff, captioned "Simone de Beauvoir on the Barricades." (7) The barricades are direly missed.



1.  Cover page of the magazine with the picture and comments by Art Shay, the photographer (in French).  (back)

2.  UAT (Union Aéromaritime de Transport) was a French airlines where my father worked. Eventually, UAT merged with TIA (another French airlines) and became UTA, which in turn was taken over by Air France. UAT/UTA operations were focused on Africa and the Pacific. My father had risen to the post of "directeur de la logistique" before he was asked to retire.  (back)

3.  "A single mother was at that time condemned to public despise and poverty, banished by her parents, left homeless and hopeless," writes Marie Rennard. See her article.  (back)

4.  In 1978, after having graduated from Sciences Po, abandoned my Ph.D. program (could not handle econometrics), hitchhiked my way through the Americas for over one year, and before getting a job with the French oil company Total (one of the few mistakes I've made in my life), I once more drove these back roads in search of Marie-Jo. She was there all right with two kids, a husband, and a new house. She did not appreciate the disruption. But she was alive and well.  (back)

5.  "Some have found Beauvoir's exclusion from the domain of philosophy more than a matter of taking Beauvoir at her word. They attribute it to a narrow view of philosophy which, rejecting the method of the metaphysical novel, ignored the philosophical issues raised, explored and argued in Beauvoir's literary works. Between those who did not challenge Beauvoir's self portrait, those who did not accept her understanding of philosophy and thereby ignored the philosophical implications of her fiction, and those who missed the unique signature of her philosophical essays, Beauvoir the philosopher remained a lady in waiting.

"Some have argued that the belated admission of Beauvoir into the ranks of philosophers is a matter of sexism on two counts. The first concerns the fact that Beauvoir was a woman. Her philosophical writings were read as echoes of Sartre rather than explored for their own contributions because it was only 'natural' to think of a woman as a disciple of her male companion. The second concerns the fact that she wrote about women. The Second Sex, recognized as one of the hundred most important works of the twentieth century, would not be counted as philosophy because it dealt with sex, hardly a burning philosophical issue (so it was said)." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, August 17, 2004
See stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/  (back)

6.  The original Art Shay photo can be seen at stephendaitergallery.com  (back)

7.  Simone de Beauvoir, by Deirdre Bair, Summit Books, New York, NY, 1990, ISBN 0-671-60681-6, photo #30.  (back)


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About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Simone de Beauvoir One Hundred Years After Her Birth - Karen Moller

The Unfinished Business Of Simone de Beauvoir - Marie Rennard

Not Shutting Up For A Second: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) - Peter Byrne

Simone de Beauvoir's The Coming of Age - Book Review by Louis Proyect

Snared In The Devil's Stocking - Book Review by Peter Byrne

The Other Light - Carol Warner Christen

Pristine - Martin Murie

Obamania: Curb Your Enthusiasm - Charles Marowitz

Journey To The Sleep Doors n. 4: Foglie - Poem by Guido Monte & Francesca Saieva

Blips #65 - From the Martian Desk - Gilles d'Aymery

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/ga247.html
Published February 11, 2008