CERTAIN BOOKS leave one with the impression of having written themselves; somewhere in the course of investigation, momentum of discovery has seized control and to make this claim for a polemic of such impressive dimensions as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1,000 pages in the original French edition, drawing widely from the disciplines of biology, sociology, psychology, literary criticism, economics and others), but perhaps it is precisely that authenticity of discovery which explains the book's extaordinary power to influence.
Carol Ascher's Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom gives us an account of the forces of circumstance that brought de Beauvoir to the conclusions of The Second Sex. When, at the age of 38, she began work on what was to be her most famous book, she had not in the least considered herself a feminist. In fact, up until that time she had firmly believed that the fact of her sex made little difference to her life: "I did not deny my femininity, I simply ignored it. I had the same freedoms and responsibilities as men did." It was Sartre who objected that, whatever equal status and common experience she might presently enjoy as a woman intellectual, her upbringing and past experience were necessarily different from those of her male colleagues.
The idea of writing about what it had meant to her to be a woman came to de Beauvoir when, inspired by Michel Leiris' autobiographical essay Manhood, she formed the project of writing her own memoirs. "Wanting to think about myself," she later explained, "I became aware that to do so I should first have to describe the condition of women in general." In so doing, Simone de Beauvoir converted herself to feminism and laid the foundation for a "new wave" of thinking and writing about women. Echoing other feminists of the second generation, Juliet Mitchell, in her Psychoanlysis and Feminism, acknowledged The Second Sex as "the base-line from which other works either explicitly . . . or implicitly (in that all feminist writers must have read it) take off." As Carol Ascher quite correctly points out, examination of that debt provides a number of useful insights into the evolution of the women's movement since 1960.
That Simone de Beauvoir should have had to write a theoretical tract on women in order to find out that her sex had, after all, been a determining factor in her existence is ironic testimony to the isolation in which she worked. On rereading the first lines of The Second Sex, I noticed a further historical irony: "For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women," it begins. "The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarreling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more about it." The uncomfortable immediacy of these liminal sentences, written in 1948, makes a reevaluation of Simone de Veauvoir's life, work and influence a particularly interesting project to undertake at a time when many assumptions and rights gained by the "new" feminists are being questioned or attacked.
Such a reexamination involves an enormous challenge: Simone de Beauvoir has left a dazzlingly articulate and detailed record of her very earliest impressions, sentimental education, intellectual development and daily experience. For more than 50 years of constant literary activity, she habitually reconsidered, refined, framed objective distance. The writer who takes her on must either add significant new information or provide an original point of view. Carol Ascher claims to have done the latter in the form of what she calls a "personal" narrative that is neither "a biography, a philosophical critique, or a work of literary criticism."
When Ascher does permit herself the objectivity of biographical, philosophical or literary discourse, she produces some interesting observations, but the rest of the book suffers from an over-literal interpretation of the idea that "the personal is political." The startling subjectivity that once seemed so fresh when it first appeared in earlier feminist writings is here reduced to an insistent insertion fo self that only serves to undermine the text. In an imaginary letter to Simone de Beauvoir that Ascher has dropped into the middle of the book, the author confesses to her subject:
"Often in the morning as I go to my desk, I feel resentful, begrudging, sick of the lack of reciprocity between us. . . . I must tell you that the novel on which I spent three years has not found a publisher, and the past months while I have worked on 'your book' (that's actually how I sometimes think of it) have been punctuated by periodic rejection slips for my novel. So at moments, I have felt a rancor whose expression is: Why should I be devoting myself to you when you never did anything for me?"
I Must admit to entertaining a certain resentment at having my interest in Simone de Beauvoir interrupted by information which contributes nothing to my understanding of the subject. Another confession: I own I was disappointed to find that Ascher's book didn't really tell me much more than I already knew from de Beauvoir's novels and memoirs and essays. A more ambitious attempt to come to terms with this "life of freedom" would be welcome.