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Simone de Beauvoir on the Artist’s Task to Liberate the Present from the Past

“The artist … must first will freedom within himself and universally; he must try to conquer it.”

Simone de Beauvoir on the Artist’s Task to Liberate the Present from the Past

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin wrote in considering freedom and how we imprison ourselves. “We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted half a century later in her case for storytelling as a force of liberation. “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

Our individual part in that world-remaking collective imagination is what the great French existentialist philosopher and trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) examines in a portion of The Ethics of Ambiguity (public library) — the paradigm-shifting 1947 treatise that gave us Beauvoir on freedom, busyness, and why happiness is our moral obligation and vitality and the measure of intelligence.

Simone de Beauvoir, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Using the word “man” in the dated way which Ursula K. Le Guin so brilliantly unsexed, Beauvoir writes:

Every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings. It is a speaking world from which solicitations and appeals rise up. This means that, through this world, each individual can give his freedom a concrete content. He must disclose the world with the purpose of further disclosure and by the same movement try to free men, by means of whom the world takes on meaning.

But this liberation, Beauvoir argues, is bedeviled by a central paradox of our temporal bias: Instead of fully inhabiting our present, we are too often tempted to regard it as posterity’s past and observe it with the same “tranquil curiosity” of a tourist with which we observe yesteryear’s events and torments. She writes:

Such an attitude appears in moments of discouragement and confusion; in fact, it is a position of withdrawal, a way of fleeing the truth of the present… But the present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action; we can not avoid living it through a project; and there is no project which is purely contemplative since one always projects himself toward something, toward the future; to put oneself “outside” is still a way of living the inescapable fact that one is inside.

The present and the past, she notes, require of us not only different perceptual attitudes but different practical actions:

We must not confuse the present with the past. With regard to the past, no further action is possible. There have been war, plague, scandal, and treason, and there is no way of our preventing their having taken place; the executioner became an executioner and the victim underwent his fate as a victim without us; all that we can do is to reveal it, to integrate it into the human heritage, to raise it to the dignity of the aesthetic existence which bears within itself its finality; but first this history had to occur: it occurred as scandal, revolt, crime, or sacrifice, and we were able to try to save it only because it first offered us a form. Today must also exist before being confirmed in its existence: its destination in such a way that everything about it already seemed justified and that there was no more of it to reject, then there would also be nothing to say about it, for no form would take shape in it; it is revealed only through rejection, desire, hate and love.

Artists and writers, Beauvoir argues, experience this challenge of upholding the responsibility of the present most acutely, and it is they who must labor most fervently to liberate the present from the past:

In order for the artist to have a world to express he must first be situated in this world, oppressed or oppressing, resigned or rebellious, a man among men. But at the heart of his existence he finds the exigency which is common to all men; he must first will freedom within himself and universally; he must try to conquer it: in the light of this project situations are graded and reasons for acting are made manifest.

Complement the indispensable The Ethics of Ambiguity with Beauvoir on optimism, pessimism, and our ultimate frontier of hope and how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, then revisit Toni Morrison on the artist’s task in a troubled present.

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Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it.”

Simone de Beauvoir on Atheism, the Ultimate Frontier of Hope, and the Need to Move Beyond the Simplistic Divide of Optimism and Pessimism

“Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1972 as he made his elegant case for rational faith in the human spirit, adding: “To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible.”

That selfsame year, across the Atlantic, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) — another thinker of formidable foresight and abiding insight into the human experience — explored this osmotic relationship between optimism, pessimism, and hope in the fourth and final volume of her autobiography, All Said and Done (public library).

Simone de Beauvoir, 1952 (Photograph: Gisèle Freund)

Beauvoir, who lived through two World Wars, devoted much of her work to the notion that happiness is not only possible but our moral obligation — a notion rooted not in a rosy wishfulness but in an incisive intellect that used every tool of skepticism to probe untruth and dispel ignorance. A devout lifelong atheist, she reflected at the end of her life that while many of her philosophical ideas evolved over the decades, her atheism remained unflinching. She held a strong conviction that the dogmas of religion preclude the critical thinking and analytical reasoning necessary for philosophical inquiry and for the evolution of human thought itself — an interference particularly pronounced when it came to the question of whether one is to take an optimistic or pessimistic attitude toward life and human nature. Beauvoir writes:

Faith is often an appurtenance that is given in childhood as part of the middle-class equipment, and that is unquestionably retained together with the rest of it. If a doubt arises, it is often thrust aside for emotional reasons — a nostalgic loyalty to the past, affection for those around one, dread of the loneliness and banishment that threaten those who do not conform… Habits of mind, a system of reference and of values have been acquired, and one becomes their prisoner.

With an eye to the ultimate delusion of religion — that of personal immortality, to which the pious cling as a hedge against the terror of the void that death presents — Beauvoir adds:

Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly. And to crown all, the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.

But out of this courageous confrontation with difficulty arises an unexpected fountain of hope — that more lucid and muscular counterpart to blind optimism. Beauvoir writes:

In what colors do I see this Godless world in which I live? Many readers tell me that what they like in my books is my delight in happiness, my love of live — my optimism. But others, particularly when they write to me about my last book, Old Age, deplore my pessimism. Both these labels are oversimplified.

[…]

My natural bent certainly does not lead me to suppose that the worst is always inevitable. Yet I am committed to looking reality in the face and speaking about it without pretense… It is just because I loathe unhappiness and because I am not given to foreseeing it that when I do come up against it I am deeply shocked or furiously indignant — I have to communicate my feelings. To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it. It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope — the hope that truth may be of use. And this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating All Said and Done, which also gave us Beauvoir’s reflections on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, with Rebecca Solnit’s manifesto for hope in the dark, Helen Keller on optimism, and Jonathan Lear on radical hope, then revisit Beauvoir on art, science, freedom, and busyness and the measure of intelligence.

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Simone de Beauvoir on How Chance and Choice Converge to Make Us Who We Are

“My life … runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.”

Simone de Beauvoir on How Chance and Choice Converge to Make Us Who We Are

To be alive is to marvel — at least occasionally, at least with glimmers of some deep intuitive wonderment — at the Rube Goldberg machine of chance and choice that makes us who we are as we half-stride, half-stumble down the improbable paths that lead us back to ourselves. My own life was shaped by one largely impulsive choice at age thirteen, and most of us can identify points at which we could’ve pivoted into a wholly different direction — to move across the continent or build a home here, to leave the tempestuous lover or to stay, to wait for another promotion or quit the corporate day job and make art. Even the seemingly trivial choices can butterfly enormous ripples of which we may remain wholly unwitting — we’ll never know the exact misfortunes we’ve avoided by going down this street and not that, nor the exact magnitude of our unbidden graces.

Perhaps our most acute awareness of the lacuna between the one life we do have and all the lives we could have had comes in the grips of our fear of missing out — those sudden and disorienting illuminations in which we recognize that parallel possibilities exists alongside our present choices. “Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live,” wrote the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his elegant case for the value of our unlived lives. “But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

The garland of those exemptions strews our sense of self — our constellating experience of personal identity which, as the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue so incisively observed, “is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life.”

No one has captured that ultimate existential awareness more beautifully, nor with greater nuance, than the trailblazing French existentialist philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) in her autobiography, All Said and Done (public library).

Simone de Beauvoir, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson)

From the fortunate rostrum of her own long life, Beauvoir reflects on this constellation of chance and choice:

Every morning, even before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed. But if I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement — why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?

With an eye to the element of chance and its myriad manifestations, she adds:

The penetration of that particular ovum by that particular spermatozoon, with its implications of the meeting of my parents and before that of their birth and the births of all their forebears, had not one chance in hundreds of millions of coming about. And it was chance, a chance quite unpredictable in the present state of science, that caused me to be born a woman. From that point on, it seems to me that a thousand different futures might have stemmed from every single movement of my past: I might have fallen ill and broken off my studies; I might not have met Sartre; anything at all might have happened.

But the most curious part of this perplexity,Beauvoir notes, is that despite the larger cosmic accident of all life and the chance nature of our particular lives within it, we experience ourselves and our existence as non-accidental — a disconnect that fringes on the free will paradox. She writes:

Tossed into the world, I have been subjected to its laws and its contingencies, ruled by wills other than my own, by circumstance and by history: it is therefore reasonable for me to feel that I am myself contingent. What staggers me is that at the same time I am not contingent. If I had not been born no question would have arisen: I have to take the fact that I do exist as my starting point. To be sure, the future of the woman I have been may turn me into someone other than myself. But in that case it would be this other woman who would be asking herself who she was. For the person who says “Here am I” there is no other coexisting possibility. Yet this necessary coincidence of the subject and his history is not enough to do away with my perplexity. My life: it is both intimately known and remote; it defines me and yet I stand outside it.

Considering the precise nature of this “curious object,” Beauvoir draws on the physics that revolutionized the human understanding of life and reality in her lifetime, and writes:

Like Einstein’s universe, it is both boundless and finite. Boundless: it runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.

[…]

And yet life is also a finite reality. It possesses an inner heart, a centre of interiorization, a me which asserts that it is always the same throughout the whole course. A life is set within a given space of time; it has a beginning and an end; it evolves in given places, always retaining the same roots and spinning itself an unchangeable past whose opening toward the future is limited. It is impossible to grasp and define a life as one can grasp and define a thing, since a life is “an unsummed whole,” as Sartre puts it, a detotalized totality, and therefore it has no being. But one can ask certain questions about it.

Of course, as De Beauvoir’s American peer and contemporary Susanne Langer has memorably pointed out, our questions invariably shape our answers. But to this central question of whether and to what degree we are contingent upon chance, De Beauvoir offers an answer that radiates the ultimate antidote to regret:

Chance … has a distinct meaning for me. I do not know where I might have been led by the paths that, as I look back, I think I might have taken but that in fact I did not take. What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.

Simone de Beauvoir, 1952 (Photograph: Gisèle Freund)

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent All Said and Done with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Beauvoir on freedom, busyness, and why happiness is our moral obligation, vitality and the measure of intelligence, and her daily routine.

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