PARIS (Agence France-Presse) - Simone de Beauvoir was an iconic figurehead of the 20th-century struggle for women’s liberation, but as France today marks the centenary of her birth, critics are taking a cold, hard look at her life and legacy.
Miss de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking 1949 work on the female condition, “The Second Sex,” her defiance of social taboos, and the legendary “open” relationship she formed with her lifelong companion, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, propelled her to near-mythical status in France and abroad.
As a sign of her enduring influence, half a dozen books and a tribute DVD series are being released in France this week, almost 22 years after her death, while dozens of scholars are gathering in Paris for a three-day symposium on her life and work.
“If we’re celebrating Simone de Beauvoir, it’s because she had the enormous courage to live in a free, open relationship in 1929, to talk about the female condition in ways that had never been done before,” says U.S. scholar Hazel Rowley, author of a study of the Beauvoir-Sartre relationship.
“She received an avalanche of hate mail for talking about the double standards involved in aging, about women’s bodies, lesbianism, abortion” in a rich body of novels, philosophical essays and memoirs.
For Daniele Sallenave, author of a new Beauvoir biography, “she showed that women are free to choose their destiny, as much as men, and don’t have to obey what is supposedly dictated to them by nature and convention.”
However, as scholars, including Miss Rowley and Miss Sallenave, have pieced together decades of correspondence between Mr. Sartre and Miss de Beauvoir, published after their deaths in 1981 and 1986, respectively, the myth of a couple guided by candor and noble ideals of equality has been eroded, revealing a darker underbelly.
“Did they lie to us? The answer is yes,” the right-wing French magazine Le Point said this week, while L’Express headlined: “What we don’t dare to see in Beauvoir” and the Nouvel Observateur ran a front-page picture of a nude Miss de Beauvoir under the headline “Scandalous Simone de Beauvoir.”
The controversy centers on a pact the couple famously sealed in 1929 — the basis of their half-century relationship — that left each free to pursue other love affairs, so long as it was in full transparency.
As well as Miss de Beauvoir’s well-known affairs, including liaisons with the Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler and U.S. writer Nelson Algren, her letters reveal she seduced a string of her young female philosophy students before introducing them to Mr. Sartre.
Both she and Mr. Sartre discuss these young female conquests in cold, detached terms in their letters, which suggest they frequently lied to the women and harshly dismissed them when no longer required.
Through Miss Sallenave’s reading of the letters, Le Point says, “we discover a Sartre who is sexually cold, macho, authoritarian and jealous,” while Miss de Beauvoir is depicted as cruel, calculating and manipulative toward her lovers.
It also has emerged that Miss de Beauvoir lied about having lesbian affairs, denying right up until her death that she had had relationships with other women.
How, critics ask, can we square such behavior with her status as feminist icon?
Other recent works have accused her of complacency toward the wartime Nazi occupation — she briefly was in charge of a cultural show on Radio Vichy — and faulted both her and Mr. Sartre for failing to denounce the crimes of Stalinism in later years.
However, both Miss Rowley and Miss Sallenave claim their scholarship has been twisted by hostile critics seeking to “slur” the couple, and they are heading to the Paris symposium this week determined to set the record straight.
Although she said she had been “disconcerted and a bit disappointed” by the letters’ contents, Miss Rowley said it would be a mistake to “reduce their lives, their great lives, to a few lies they told a few young women.”
“That is to forget the good things, that they were experimental, adventurous, courageous, amazingly generous toward their friends; they were full of passion, full of life, of humor and adventure.”