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A Woman In Full

Let us now pay homage to Simone de Beauvoir.

It is time that we pay tribute to Simone de Beauvoir.

Posterity being what it is--unjust, capricious, confusing and chaotic, making a great deal out of very little, force-feeding us May '68 nostalgia and treating the dead as if they have not lost any of their formidable, vibrant virulence (not that this is, in this case, such a terrible thing)--it is time we celebrate Simone de Beauvoir on a scale commensurate with the 100th anniversary of her birth, which passed nearly unnoticed on Jan. 9.

The French political magazine Les Temps Modernes, which she and Jean-Paul Sartre founded along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, recently released a special commemorative issue. For this double issue, titled "La Transmission Beauvoir," the editors created a collection of anecdotes, of unsanctimonious memories, of historical and sometimes learned analyses.

Of course we must pay homage to this woman who was both liberator and emancipator of the "second sex," as well as the instigator of the only successful revolution of the 20th century.

We must pay homage to this woman because it is due to her that women around the world, whether they're in burqas or irons, are a little more free and more powerful than they would have been without her and her book.

We must pay homage to the woman who, as Philippe Val noted in "La Transmission Beauvoir," buried the ghost of Madame Bovary, her hysteria, her "woman's illness," her suffering, which at the time people thought was innate, eternal--and this in in Freud's time, before modern thought appropriated his movement.

We must pay homage to this woman whose own coming of age, as Josyane Savigneau tells us, inspired so many young women in the '60s, '70s and even the '80s; women who dared to rebel and to think, thanks to another of de Beauvoir's books, "Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter," in which her prodigious insolence is evident even in its title and which transformed women's "situations" into "destinies."

We must pay homage to her role in the valiant Resistance against the Nazis: So much nonsense has been written about this subject, there has been so much confirmed mudslinging, that it is pleasing to read here the detailed account by Dominique Desanti, the last survivor of the movement, laying out its goals and methods, the risks taken by the group of anti-fascist intellectuals, first called "Sous la Botte" ("Under the Boot") and later "Socialisme et Liberte" ("Socialism and Freedom")--and of which Sartre and Beauvoir were the heart and soul.

We must pay homage to the lover, the charming mistress; homage to the woman who was curious about the ways of love, passionate, who called filmmaker Claude Lanzmann her "husband." In a beautiful opening paragraph, he hints at the contents of the memoir he's working on in his description of de Beauvoir's grace in her daily life.

It's necessary to look at the entire picture.

We would have to point out the cliches about de Beauvoir, which are here torn to shreds: the cliche of the celebrated intellectual whose prose was mediocre; of the author as an uneducated person who missed out on the advances of psychoanalysis; of the intellectual who, like Sartre, was always wrong, who ran headlong into the totalitarian trap. Above all, the cliche of the irresistible, necessary feminist insurrection that would have taken place in any case, the insurrection whose torch she would have been happy to reclaim (whereas what we see is the extraordinary solitude of this woman, the incomprehension with which she was greeted in the ranks of the so-called leftist parties and the supposedly feminist associations, her speculative heroism ...)

Oh, how this woman was hated!

How determined they were to wipe out the trail of light she left in her wake!

And the casualness with which, in the best of cases, she was transformed into a sort of stand-in for her companion, Sartre, whose genius I would be the last to doubt--but must we reduce her to the rank of humble servant to an adventure that overtook her?

De Beauvoir, in "La Transmission Beauvoir," is entirely herself.

De Beauvoir, properly written, returned to her true stature.

Conversely, the world, seen from the point of view, the "beau voir" of this intellectual, can be seen in its entirety, and is come of age.


French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy is the author, most recently, of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Ce Grand Cadavre a la Renverse. Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.