Philosophy & Ideas

Simone de Beauvoir and the Meaning of Life

The encounter was very brief, and definitive. Simone de Beauvoir (above in 1952) was anxious to meet the perpetually dishevelled Simone Weil, the other brilliant young female student at the elite École Normale Supérieure, known semi-affectionately as the “Red Virgin” for her adamant communist views and phobia of physical contact:

I had long wanted to meet her because I had heard that she had broken into sobs at the news of a famine in China. I envied a heart able to beat across the world. I managed to get near her one day … She said in a shrill voice that only one thing mattered these days: the revolution that would feed all the starving people on the earth. I retorted, no less adamantly, that the problem was not to make people happy, but to help them find a meaning in their existence. She glared at me and said, “It’s clear you’ve never gone hungry.” Our relations ended right there. I realised that she had classified me as a high-minded little bourgeois, and I was angry. (Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1959)

Two things may be noted about this exchange between these young women, almost identical in age, who would go on to be two of the most significant intellectuals of the twentieth century. First, Simone de Beauvoir had every right to be angry. Her once haute bourgeois family had fallen precipitously onto hard times, both economically and socially, and in fact she was often hungry, bringing crusts from her mother’s kitchen to nibble on during the day in lieu of lunch. On the other hand, Simone Weil was the daughter of very prosperous parents, an over-indulged youngest child who wanted for nothing, but had long made a point of ostentatiously refusing food that she judged excessive to the needs of Indo-Chinese peasants, with whom she identified as victims of French colonial oppression.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The second matter of note is that the two Simones professed very different visions of what is essential in life. Is it one’s physical existence with all its appetites, an obviously vital concern that humans share with the animal kingdom; or is it one’s existential status as a being concerned with one’s place in the universe? Both young women went on to consecrate their lives to their respective visions: for Weil (right) it was revolutionary action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed, elevated ultimately to a transcendent level; for Beauvoir, it was the pursuit of meaning in the realm of perfect freedom.

But these respective destinies lay well in the future and the twenty-year-old Simone de Beauvoir was quite hurt by the taunt about her class origins, and she determined to shed her image as a dull middle-class academic swot. Consequently, on one notable occasion she finally succumbed to the blandishments of her cousin, Jacques Champigneulle, to whom it had long been thought she would be betrothed. They had gone to a nightclub against her mother’s express wishes, with disturbing results. Something of a dilettante with intellectual pretensions, Jacques had embraced Surrealism, had lent Simone the Surrealist Manifesto, and had then entranced her with the possibilities of l’acte gratuit—an otherwise motiveless act committed purely to assert one’s absolute freedom to act.

“Don’t you ever feel like tossing those books out of a window?” he had asked. “It’s not by methodically searching for freedom like you’re doing now that you will find it. Why shouldn’t everything be absurd?” He went on: “Dying is as absurd as living and one can just as well twiddle one’s thumbs as fire a revolver in the street. You can do anything at all once you don’t hope for anything. And sometimes you come upon the miracle.” “The miracle?” she asked. “Yes,” he explained, “a genuinely gratuitous action, an unlikely combination of words and colours, a two-headed woman, anything at all. Sometimes the absurd makes its appearance!”

Suddenly it seemed a new world opened up before Simone, and she resolved to be “no longer a dreary little bourgeois and to [now] look at prostitutes not with repulsion but with admiration and envy”. And henceforth, when she read novels about obscene or sadistic acts, she would recognise violence “as a way of filling the emptiness of the soul, as part of man’s eternal drama in search of the Absolute”. (Carole Seymour-Jones, A Dangerous Liaison, 2008)

It seems Simone brought to this act of rebellion the same intensity she applied to her studies, and once inside the nightclub she didn’t have long to wait for her acte gratuit to have its predictable result. After several dry martinis and gin fizzes, glasses were smashing on the floor and “miracles exploded. It was a perfect Surrealist happening.” And by three in the morning her mother was leaning on the doorbell of her sister’s apartment “screaming like a banshee” that her nephew had dishonoured her daughter. Not long after, Jacques abandoned Simone and married someone offering a substantial dowry, something Simone’s family could no longer match.

Simone was now approaching a critical time in her life, as she would soon make a choice about the direction in which she would apply her very considerable intellect, with the outcome determining the ultimate meaning of her life.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was the pre-eminent female existentialist author, a pioneering contemporary feminist, and “the emblematic intellectual woman of the twentieth century” (Kate Kirkpatrick, Becoming Beauvoir, 2019). Her life together with Jean-Paul Sartre (below), the master existentialist, became iconic, “a model to emulate” for writers of intellectual and romantic inclinations. It was “a dream of lasting complicity, an extraordinary success … reconciling the irreconcilable: the two partners remaining free, equal, and honest with each other” (Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre: A Life, 1987). They were even given an entire chapter to themselves in a history of How the French Invented Love (Marilyn Yalom, 2012), alongside Abelard and Heloise and other great martyrs to romance and intellect.


Much of this was myth. Beauvoir and Sartre have been the subject of scholarly biographies and many other studies, and it was assumed that the substance of their personal lives and careers as writers was well established. However, this began to change after Beauvoir’s death, and various diaries, journals, letters and other material progressively came to light. To begin with, Sartre was dislodged romantically from centre stage in her life. It seems their relationship, once consummated, devolved very quickly to a close friendship, as the young Simone had found him entirely inadequate in bed: “I soon felt it … it seemed useless, and even indecent, to go on being lovers.” While he was to remain “the incomparable friend of my thought”, there was no special place for him in “my heart or in my body” while “in my heart and my body many others could be” (Kirkpatrick, Becoming Beauvoir). Indeed, it transpires that Beauvoir maintained a variety of long-term sexual relationships, not only with other men but with women, including students and ex-students at the schools where she taught, activity that led to scandal and suspension.

However, there is another dimension to these somewhat salacious revelations that is of most concern to us. Amongst the new material is copious evidence of the young Simone’s philosophical élan and of the tortuous and insightful inquiries into the nature of love and of God in which she engaged at the critical stage in her emotional maturation and intellectual development, that is, at the time she met Sartre. It is this stage with which we will be concerned here, as it illuminates the choice Simone made to shift her focus from seeking the meaning of life at the transcendent level in the realm of “the noumenal” as she put it, to settling for finding meaning in life, a meaning constructed at the mundane level of personal and political interactions in “the phenomenal” world, activities of ultimately passing significance and of an often sordid and exploitative nature unworthy of the brilliant philosophical promise the young Simone had once demonstrated.

Simone was an intellectual prodigy, encouraged academically from an early age by her parents, who had been able to enjoy a comfortable life for themselves and their two daughters until a series of bad business decisions delivered them into humiliating poverty. This shaped Simone’s life, for while it did not deny her an excellent education, it did ruin her prospects of a suitable marriage within her class, and required her to seek a career. Deciding to become a teacher, she met Sartre, with whom her life would become inextricably entwined.

Unlike Sartre, who was comfortable being a committed atheist, Simone had an extended period during which she agonised about God and the Church, the cornerstone of her devout mother’s life. As a girl, she’d been possessed by a passionate faith in God, attended mass three times a week, confessed twice a week, read a chapter from The Imitation of Christ every morning, meditated, prayed, kept a spiritual journal and frequently went on religious retreats. She was particularly fascinated by accounts of the female mystics who diligently pursued the unio mystica, the mystical union or “spiritual marriage” with Christ that brought ecstasy and rapture to the supplicant: kneeling before her Saviour, she gazed “with the eyes of a lover … at his grave, tender, handsome face” (Beauvoir, Memoirs). She made a pilgrimage to Lourdes where she was overwhelmed by the suffering of the souls there seeking healing. For a time she embraced self-mortification, scrubbing herself with a pumice stone until her skin bled and whipping herself with the gold chain of her rosary, all meant to conform with the ideals of extreme asceticism. She desired ardently to “grow closer to God”, and for a time she considered becoming a Carmelite nun. Life under the gaze of a benevolent God had a rich and enveloping spiritual meaning for the youthful Simone.

Sadly, in her late teens Simone’s sense of the comforting presence of a personal God began to fade as the stresses of family life and the challenges of her teenage years mounted up. Whereas once she’d gazed adoringly at her Saviour and the beauties of the nature, now “the earth was nothing to me anymore; I was outside life … the horrible vanity of all things had me by the throat”. However, it seems the stricken young woman didn’t plunge directly into atheism, rather she discerned a form of mysticism along the path of negation:

In moments of perfect detachment when the universe seems to be reduced to a set of illusions and in which my own ego was abolished, something took their place: something indestructible, eternal; it seemed to me that my indifference was a negative manifestation of a presence with which it was perhaps not impossible to get in touch.

Unsurprisingly for Simone, being who she was, she set out to comprehend this increasingly attenuated version of the divine. Aged only nineteen she was studying Plato, Thomism, Leibniz, Kant, Bergson and others:

I read Plotinus and books about mystical psychology; I began to wonder if, beyond the limitations of reason, certain experiences were not susceptible to revealing the Absolute to me; I was seeking fulfilment in this desert of abstraction in which I was reducing the inhospitable world to sand. Why shouldn’t a mystical theology be possible? “I want to touch God or become God”, I declared in my journal.

She recorded how she wanted to believe in God as the Absolute that would “justify her life”, noting specifically that she “wanted God” and that it was “God or nothing”. Here she was making the point that she was approaching the existence of God not as a matter of reason, but of desire, and she turned for confirmation of this stance to the philosopher Jules Lagneau, whose book, De l’existence de Dieu (1925), had just become available. He argued that rational proofs for God’s existence were bound to be less successful than an appeal to the moral sense and especially to the human desire for a sense of necessity over contingency. She was particularly taken by Lagneau’s proclamation that, “I have no support [for faith] but my absolute despair”, lamenting in her diary:

Oh! My God, my God, is this being whom we would like to love and to whom we would give all, does this being truly not exist? I know nothing, and I am weary, weary. Why, if he is, does he make seeking him so difficult?

Even as she felt her sense of a personal God slip away, Simone recorded in her diary how fervently she wanted God to be there as the Absolute that bestowed necessity upon her existence and gave meaning to her life. Desperately, she wanted “to meet with total exigency”, and “to believe in something [that would] justify my life”, but she sensed also that she would be disappointed and denied access to such certainty. Applying the noumenal/phenomenal distinction that lies at the base of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, she confronted the stark reality “that this noumenal world exists … in which alone it can be explained to me why I live”, but that nevertheless, “I cannot attain it.”

And it was at this point that Simone took the decisive step. Given that she was denied entry to the noumenal realm in which lies the source of all meaning, she decided that she would retreat, and would instead “build my life in the phenomenal world”, which she hurried to insist “is nevertheless not negligible”. Denied access to the realm of final ends, she declared, “I will take myself as an end.” Philosophically, at this crucial moment, she shifted mentally and emotionally from seeking the permanent, transcendent meaning of life, to seeking transient, immanent meanings in life.

This shift corresponded to some profound events in Simone’s personal and family life. The misery and discord at home converged with an increasingly imperative need to rebel against her parents, and particularly against the seemingly irrational and hypocritical moral constraints that her devout mother was imposing on Simone and her younger sister. This came to a head as she witnessed, aghast, the tragic fate of Zaza, her best friend and confidant.

Zaza had also been very devout, and she and Simone supported each other for a considerable time as they sought to nurture their faith in God. Zaza had a long-term boyfriend, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who went on to be a brilliant philosopher), who was also devout, and the young couple diligently observed all the moral proprieties in their courtship. This was not enough, however, as Zaza’s mother hired a private detective to investigate her daughter’s beau and he reported that Maurice had been born illegitimate, a socially fatal affliction.

That was it. The mother informed the devastated young man that he must break up with Zaza or she would announce this scandalous fact to the community, ruining his family’s reputation and the marriage prospects of his sister. Tragically, he wasn’t allowed to explain any of this to Zaza, who therefore experienced the loss of her beloved as an inexplicable betrayal that left her utterly bereft and robbed her of the will to live as she struggled with a serious illness. Zaza literally wasted away before their eyes.

This, concluded Simone, was what this God and his moralistic bourgeois devotees did to his most devout and loyal believers. And this disaffection culminated one night as she gazed out the window of her room at the starry night: “Suddenly [she] was aware of an absence in heaven and in her heart.” As she’d tried to make sense of her plight she found she’d “refined God into oblivion, and now, conscious of this, she was too much of an extremist to compromise [and so she] made a clean break.” (Lisa Appignanesi, Simone de Beauvoir, 1988)

From then on, as events unfolded in her life, and despite the intensity of her long-term spiritual concerns, Simone was led to share with Sartre the conviction that God was absent from the world, indeed, had never been there to start with. It had been futile to seek the meaning of life in a transcendent realm that now, clearly, didn’t exist. From then on, she positioned herself as a militant atheist who would make a meaningful life for herself in this world.

There was, however, much more to this disaffection and abandonment than outrage at a distant and unfeeling God. As she entered adulthood, Simone had discovered within herself an intense sensuality that attracted her to many of the young people, male and female, that she met and dallied with, and she recorded in her diary the power of her “tyrannical desires” that flared up in the prolonged absence of physical intimacy. How could this be reconciled with the strictures of Christian morality? As her surrender to the possibilities of l’acte gratuit at the nightclub demonstrated, she was possessed by sensual passions that were quite capable of trumping her spiritual aspirations.

But this new atheism came at a cost:

the young Simone was devastated by this new emptiness of heaven. She was desolate. Alone without a witness, without anyone to speak to, without refuge. Even more terrifying was the realisation that she was now condemned to death. Despair overwhelmed her—an annihilating fear that was to haunt her throughout her adult life and which she kept at bay by her optimistic dedication to energetic activity.”

Eventually, Simone invoked the concept of “projects” to provide a philosophical rationalisation for this dedication to bursts of “energetic activity” as the solution to her existential plight. Life, she explained in Pyrrhus and Cinéas (1944), is best understood not as a singular quest for its ultimate meaning, as she had once thought, but instead as a series of self-contained projects to each of which one commits oneself fully in a sequential manner; and it is through this succession of provisional commitments that one satisfies one’s need for meaning in life.

As their lives unfolded together, it became clear that the atheisms of Simone and Jean-Paul had quite different roots. Simone’s was the atheism of a spurned lover coupled with a rebellion against authority elevated to a cosmic level. Above all, she resented the idea that some other being, especially one whose presence had become increasingly faint, could nevertheless regulate her life at a time when she desired above all to be free of moral constraints so that she could pursue her sensual pleasures free of censure or guilt. Sartre’s atheism, on the other hand, had far deeper roots. It was an ontological atheism, based on the conviction that there was something fundamentally amiss with the world—that it was floating unanchored in a meaningless universe—and that this required not only a rejection of God, but a recognition that neither God nor anything like a god was present in the universe to give it order or to provide an ultimate meaning to human life. Confronted with this gaping abyss, Sartre adopted as a motto Jean Cocteau’s declaration: “I explore the void!”

How deep this nihilism went was brought home to Simone when she was admitted to Sartre’s small charmed circle of academic prodigies. At the time, Simone was nearing completion of an excellent education, and was sitting in on courses at the École Normale Supérieur, as this helped her preparation for the monumentally difficult agrégation, which opened the door to lifetime employment as a philosophy teacher in an education system that took philosophy very seriously. This involved a series of written exams, up to seven hours long, on subjects like “Freedom and Contingency”, and “Intuition and Reasoning in the Deductive Method”, followed by an oral test to judge the candidates’ debating ability and capacity to be an effective educator. Simone did extremely well, being ranked second, narrowly behind Sartre in first place. At just twenty-one, three years younger than Sartre, Simone was the youngest person ever to pass the agrégation. In addition, she completed the certificate of “General Philosophy and Logic”, placing second to the haughty Simone Weil, while Maurice Merleau-Ponty placed third, ahead of a field of hundreds.

It had been while studying for this ordeal that Simone had taken up an invitation to join with Sartre and other brilliant candidates, including René Maheu and Paul Nizan in Sartre’s room on the pretence of cramming together for the philosophy orals. Arriving, Simone had been shocked by the squalor and especially by the bedside lampshade pieced together out of bits of red underwear belonging to a prostitute with literary ambitions known to Sartre. Nevertheless, Simone delivered a forty-minute disquisition on the metaphysics of Leibniz that floored her demanding audience. Later, after she’d left, the comrades brainstormed a suitable nickname for their dazzling new friend. “Valkyrie” was considered because she seemed like the Nordic virgin goddess of war, but in the end they settled on le castor because she was like a beaver that gnaws away on the tree of knowledge to make a home for herself. “Castor” became the fond pet name Simone kept for the rest of her life.

Her knowledge of Leibniz reflected her current studies. At the time, she was still sympathetic to Catholicism, and she’d attended a lecture by Jean Baruzi (1881–1953), a noted philosopher and historian of religion. He was a specialist on Leibniz, as well as on St Paul, Angelus Silesius and St John of the Cross, and his talk was on the latter saint. So impressed was Simone that she wrote a thesis on the topic under Baruzi’s guidance, exploring issues of love, intimacy and ethics. He’d praised the effort, suggesting it could be the basis of a substantial work. But now, in Sartre’s room:

As she listened to the petit camarades’ mockery of Christian spirituality [she] began to feel a sense of shame about her own lingering attachment to “bourgeois humbug”. In Sartre’s masterclass, the soul had no place. There was no other dimension: man stood alone, adrift in the universe. (A Dangerous Liaison)

And even more conveniently for Simone, as she felt the increasingly irresistible allure of sensual delights amongst these attentive young men, was Sartre’s regular invocation of Dostoevsky’s famous maxim: “If God does not exist, everything is permissible!” And he went on to assure her that “one experience is as good as another; the important thing is simply to acquire as many as possible”. This had long been one of Sartre’s fail-safe lines in seduction, and it left Simone “exhilarated by Sartre’s invitation to join him in that ‘brutal adventure called life’”.

This posture towards life and the future encapsulates the nihilistic essence of the Existentialism that Sartre and Simone would come to profess, Sartre with sincerity, Simone likewise but with an unacknowledged reticence. They proclaimed that, in a godless universe, the individual is “a useless passion”, “thrown” into the world, condemned to be free, and solely responsible for achieving (or not achieving) an “authentic” existence. Freedom is therefore simultaneously the greatest gift and the heaviest burden for the individual, promising an utterly undetermined future while acknowledging or even embracing the void that underlies a wholly contingent world. Sartre later expounded this worldview in detail in his huge tome, Being and Nothingness (1943), while Simone offered her own analysis of its implications in Pyrrhus and Cineas the same year. As time went by and fame embraced them, this would prove to be a moral as well as an ontological void.

Amongst her new peer group, Simone eventually found herself drawn irresistibly towards Maheu for his physicality, and towards Sartre for his intellect: “I need Sartre and love Maheu. I love Sartre for what he gives me and Maheu for what he is.” It was with Maheu that she was first intimate and her diaries record her endless musings about his body and the effect its proximity had on her. However, he was married, failed to make the cut in the agrégation (although he did go on to be Director General of UNESCO!), and they drifted apart, even though they rented a room each time he returned to Paris. And so in the end she felt she’d found her soul mate in Sartre, agreeing to an open relationship and to living separately, with each free to pursue other affairs. This was an arrangement that suited their odd circumstances: she, a considerable beauty driven by powerful sensual passions; he, an ugly, diminutive, wall-eyed genius driven by an egoistic need to conquer women.

Being French intellectuals, they came to theorise all this quite carefully, creating the myth mentioned earlier, largely for the consumption of others, as their fame together grew after the war. According to this, each would be the other’s “necessary” love, with other lovers being merely “contingent”. As things unfolded, the pair indulged in many “contingent” affairs, which often placed their core “necessary” relationship under great strain, creating much emotional turmoil, perhaps destroying the lives of others not so resilient or cynical as themselves, but also inspiring several successful novels and plays, as they chronicled their times.

Having graduated into the elite of young agrégés (those brilliant few appointed to sixth-form colleges and universities), Simone started part-time work in Paris while trying to get a start as an author. Having reached her majority, she left home and began to live in residential hotels near where she taught. Finally released from family constraints and the stifling rules and regulations of bourgeois respectability, Simone abandoned herself to “the low life so loved by Bohemian Paris”. Suddenly, it was “the cinemas, the cafés frequented by the artistic avant-garde, dance clubs, even brothels [that] became Simone’s regular haunts”. Accompanied by a shop assistant she’d befriended, Simone took to powdering her face a deathly white, painting her lips blood red, and going dancing nightly. She was happy to go on dates with virtually anyone, but “her favourite partner was a young butcher’s assistant”. (Lisa Appignanesi, Simone de Beauvoir, 1988)

Engulfed so abruptly by such hedonism, Simone began to find that the sacred craft of writing, to which she had once consecrated her life, was threatening to become a chore, and even a form of drudgery that seemed increasingly pointless. She had reached the point where she had to decide if the pursuit of meaning really was the most important thing in life, as she’d assured Simone Weil, or whether it was in fact the increasingly imperative sensual and corporeal dimensions of her life that mattered most after all.

Several factors conspired to resolve her dilemma. One was Sartre’s laudable insistence that she focus on her writing and not waste her talent or betray her vocation. The second was her resolution of the problem of the relationship between meaning and life, to which we have already alluded. That is, she’d concluded (1) there is no meaning of life accessible to humans, anchored as we are in the phenomenal realm, while any meaning it might have lies in the noumenal realm that is inaccessible to us; but (2) it is possible to construct meaning in life, through the pursuit of projects to which one commits oneself fully.

The third factor was Beauvoir’s realisation of what such projects might be: she could chronicle the emotionally fraught and intellectually complex lives of herself, Sartre, their friends, and the Parisian intelligentsia as they passed through the 1930s, the years of the Nazi occupation of France in the Second World War, and the post-war aftermath, when the global fascination with French Existentialism took her and Sartre to intellectual super-stardom. Having alighted on the notion of “the project” as a philosophical rationale for the course she chose in life, Beauvoir became extremely prolific, pursuing many publishing projects: novels, non-fiction works, autobiographies, biographies, monographs and essays on a wide range of topics, all close to her own world and interests.

Simone had given up her pursuit of the noumenal and had embraced instead the phenomenal as the source of all (accessible) meaning. And the type of thing she went on to produce was exemplified by her first novel, She Came to Stay, which she succeeded in getting published in 1943. The work was inspired by the irruption into the lives of Sartre and Simone of two of her students, the young Russian aristocratic sisters Olga and Wanda K, with both of whom Beauvoir and Sartre had sexual relationships, as did another of Simone’s lovers, as well as Albert Camus, who directed Wanda in a play. Revealingly, only Sartre and Beauvoir knew of all the intimacies, the details of which they enjoyed sharing with each other in often sordid detail. Simone wrote of how her shared feelings with Olga “quickly reached a burning intensity” that had to be consummated, with Olga then becoming a privileged part of a coterie of young female devotees called “the Family”, that served as a surrogate for the children Simone and Sartre had decided to forgo. (Seymour-Jones, A Dangerous Liaison)

In She Came to Stay, “Françoise” was based on Simone, and “Pierre” on Sartre, while “Xaviere” was a character combining elements of both Olga and Wanda. Françoise is a writer and Pierre a theatre director, and they have an open relationship into which Xaviere is introduced by Françoise, who fancies herself as the young woman’s mentor. Xaviere proves to be a self-centred, seductive and impetuous girl who begins to flirt with Pierre, much to Françoise’s growing jealousy and fury. Crucially, this is an agony that she cannot acknowledge, because to do so would betray the pact of personal freedom and autonomy that she and Pierre (that is, Simone and Sartre) have entered into; moreover, to deny or obstruct Pierre’s feelings for Xaviere would be to capitulate to the hated conventions of bourgeois marriage. Inevitably, this ideological stance collapses under the weight of the intense emotions that overwhelm Françoise. Trapped in a contradiction between how she thinks she should behave and what she actually feels, Françoise declines into a delirious fever, leaving the field free for Pierre and Xaviere to consummate their desires, but also signalling her need for sympathy. When this strategy fails, Françoise begins an affair with a young actor, but Xaviere sees this as just a petty act of revenge. Humiliated by the image of herself that she now sees in Xaviere’s eyes, Françoise realises she must escape the pitying and accusing gaze: “The shame is too great. ‘It is she or I’, she says to herself,” and so she turns on the gas and abandons the sleeping Xaviere to die. The book carried an epigraph from Hegel: “Each consciousness seeks the death of the other”, and was dedicated to Olga K.

After the war, Beauvoir followed Sartre’s lead towards the far Left, entertaining the fantasy that they could convert their literary fame into a powerful “non-aligned” socialist party. They and their friends were entranced by the idea that “History” was some sort of trans-human force in which they could immerse themselves and assume leadership roles. Beauvoir then went on to chronicle all this in The Mandarins (1954), which won Le prix Goncourt, the most famous and prestigious of all French literary awards. The novel is set in the immediate post-war period and follows the political aspirations and personal lives of a coterie of French intellectuals as they attempt to find a role for themselves in the turbulent early years of the Cold War, and French colonialism comes to a bloody end. Their great hope was that France will soon become a socialist state independent of both the USSR and the US, a visionary project led by Robert Dubreuilh (based on Sartre), a cultural icon and leader of a leftist non-communist political party. His wife Anne (Beauvoir) is depicted as a practising psychoanalyst with remarkable insights, and her first-person reflections on the lives of the other characters comprise a lot of the book; she also enjoys an affair with Lewis Brogan (Nelson Algren — above with his paramour — the American novelist and Simone’s long-term lover). Henri Perron (Albert Camus) is the editor of a leftist newspaper and a one-time hero of the Resistance who has an affair with Anne and Robert’s daughter, as his long-term relationship with Paula (based on Camus’s real-life partner) is falling apart, even as she hangs on desperately in the face of his growing antipathy towards her, eventually becoming delusional, paranoid, and needing psychiatric care. (Camus was urged to protest strongly, but replied: “One can’t argue with a sewer!”) As the story unfolds, the characters mismanage their lives and political projects, consider exile and suicide, commit and connive in the murder of collaborators, lie and commit perjury, slide into deep depression and madness, and so on, until the tale comes to an end with the characters forced to confront their status as “impotent intellectuals” in a “fifth-rate nation”. To their great shame, France has aligned itself with the hated capitalist West. It seems “History” had betrayed their dreams.


Beauvoir eventually became best known for The Second Sex (1949), which contains quite unpleasant passages denouncing the “bourgeois” family, pregnancy and children, and became a foundational feminist tome (several manuscript pages above). Otherwise, her most enduring contributions to literature were her memoirs, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstance (1963), All Said and Done (1972) and Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981), all of which were augmented by other works that together chronicle the world of the French intelligentsia during the middle decades of the twentieth century. She and Sartre also spent a great deal of time being feted by and composing apologias for Fidel Castro, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Gamal Nasser, Joseph Stalin and other dictators, ideologues and luminaries of the extreme Left.

Currently, Beauvoir is being read out of the feminist canon as the evidence of her paedophilic activities can no longer be ignored, and despite the efforts of sympathetic biographers, such as those cited above, who are conducting a rearguard action by promoting Beauvoir as a philosopher of “the Other”, the catch-all concept of leftist polemics.

It’s no use, however. At one time, Simone de Beauvoir hovered on the edge of greatness as a young philosophy student capable of penetrating deeply into the meaning of life and the other ultimate questions that haunted her. But then she shrank back from confronting such a challenge, and sank instead into an endless preoccupation with the melodramatic and frequently sordid concerns of herself, her lovers, her friends and their peer group. Increasingly solipsistic and narcissistic, she presented these various “projects” as possessing significance when they were only commonplace and ephemeral. That she succeeded in taking her readers, critics and commentators with her on this futile journey is a reflection of the post-war zeitgeist and of her undoubted literary ability. But it all amounted to very little, apart from confirming that even the most brilliant minds searching for the meaning of life will fail if they succumb to transient and mundane enticements and lower their gaze from the ultimate horizon, however distant, where alone the answer might lie.

2 thoughts on “Simone de Beauvoir and the Meaning of Life

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “…. Increasingly solipsistic and narcissistic, she presented these various ‘projects’ as possessing significance when they were only commonplace and ephemeral. That she succeeded in taking her readers, critics and commentators with her on this futile journey is a reflection of the post-war zeitgeist and of her undoubted literary ability. But it all amounted to very little, apart from confirming that even the most brilliant minds searching for the meaning of life will fail if they succumb to transient and mundane enticements and lower their gaze from the ultimate horizon, however distant, where alone the answer might lie.
    The chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) before he was beheaded by the anti-liberal French revolutionaries in their Reign of Terror, announced to the world that life was by its very nature, a chemical process. Darwin and Wallace followed him by announcing that species are not immutable, but evolve and change from one into another. The ‘meaning of life’ is right there in the nature of matter and of the chemical behaviour of the elements and of the atoms and molecules making them up. Given the right conditions, matter will organise itself into simple life forms, and these will in turn evolve into ever more complex ones.
    The rise of human civilisation can be seen as a stage in this long journey.
    But we believe what it suits us to believe, and what we want to believe. For those who crave life after death and the immortality of the soul, there are a number of religions in turn divided into a multitude of sects who are in the business of promising the seekers that outcome, provided they observe and accept certain prior conditions. These tend to criticise, clash, and even go to war with one another: Judaism with Islam in Palestine, Catholicism with Protestantism in the Reformation, Buddhism with Maoism in Sinkiang and Tibet, Southern Protestants vs Northern Protestants in the US Civil War.
    As someone (I forget who) once said, “life wasn’t meant to be easy.”

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Mervyn, I’ve been reading this tired and quite late at night, a time when life’s manifold problems in the phenomenological world seem more substantial than they should be. All of this to be-ing and not to be-ing in that Parisian fuss about becoming a writer. I’m quite put off the idea altogether of ‘being a writer’ if that’s what it takes. Thankfully, everyone’s a writer now we have the internet, so all bets are off.
    Best wishes, and thanks for putting this all together for our musings on how things were for others, as we pursue our own meanings from wherever we can dredge them up,

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