Book Notes: Simone Beauvoir – Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Simone Beauvoir’s autobiography Memoirs of a dutiful daughter describes in detail how she struggles with despair and loneliness on her quest to shape her life and free herself from the confines of her friends, family, religion and society.

Events

Several important events mark her journey – witnessing her parents arguing for the first time, her rejection of god, going out to bars and finally, meeting her dream companion in Sartre.

As a child, she divides the universe into 2 simple categories, Good and Evil. When she first sees her parents arguing, she is faced with the impossibility that her parents can be enemies. This ‘chaos which preceded creation’ troubles her. Instead of dealing with this incident, she chooses to ignore and forget:

Every real experience had to be fitted somehow or other into a rigid category … I could conceive of no gap into which error might fall between the word and its object.

Simone does not remark on the implications of this event, but the roots of her later love of Philosophy, a love she explains is because ‘it went straight to essentials’, can perhaps be found here.

Simone has a devout mother and also attends a school which places the purity of her soul above academic achievements. In such surroundings, she grows up as a pious girl. Her faith is tested when she is making confession and the priest replaces his usual elevated tone with more familiar words – ‘It has come to my attention that my little Simone has changed … that she is disobedient, noisy and answers back when she is reprimanded … ‘ This offends Simone because the representative of God on Earth is acting like a common ‘tittle tattle’. She decides not to attend confession again. Later, while reading forbidden books and eating forbidden apples she decides that she no longer believes in God as it would be bad faith to profess belief yet indulge in sins, however little. As an extremist, she cannot compromise – ‘Quibbling with one’s conscience, haggling over one’s pleasures – such petty bargaining disgusted me’. Simone’s clean break with god is significant for indicating her growing desire to live for herself, even if she must turn away from the circumstances she finds herself in.

Simone begins to frequent bars after Jacques first takes her to a bar. Spending nine to ten hours at her books everyday have turned her into a ‘disembodied spirit’, she craves the violence and crudity of the flesh that will save her from the ethereal insipidity of her life.  Sipping gin fizzes in the bars on Montparnasse, inhaling the smell of tobacco and alcohol, listening to women arguing with men over their rates for the night and the refinements of pleasure they offer, the bars give her what her books cannot, a sense that anything can happen, an opportunity to react against the authority of her parents, and acquaint herself with her ‘baser instincts’. She grows bolder, allows men to pick her up from the streets, drinks with strangers in bars.

… there is within me I know not what yearning – maybe a monstrous lust – ever-present, for noise, fighting, savage violence, and above all for the gutter.

She eventually gives up her life of debauchery and acknowledges to herself what she has been whispering all along, ‘what am I doing here?’ For Simone, this is not so much wasted time as a necessary exploration of the hidden and forbidden, putting aside the tedious rituals and conventions of society to seize an existence that obeys ‘no other will but her own’. A turning point has been reached, after which Simone will return to her books and leave the bars on Montparnasse behind.

Sartre is someone who personifies Simone’s aspirations. Unlike Garric who is a remote figure,  Simone is able to measure herself against Sartre in their day to day life. She concludes she is ‘simply not in his class’. For the first time in her life, she feels intellectually inferior. After being rejected by her family, not finding solace in Jacques, the bars nor in libraries, she has finally found the ‘dream companion’ she has longed for since she was fifteen.

People

The people we meet shape our self-images. Simone’s parents, Jacques and Sartre all played important roles in her intellectual growth, whether as role models or cautionary examples of what not to become.

Simone’s father is born between the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. He is a charmer, loves refinement and elegance, and disdains the tedious virtues of patience and application. His charm only relegates him to the lower ranks of the aristocracy where heritage counts above all else. When Simone grows to be a teenager, her father is disappointed in her as she is not pretty and elegant. Simone no longer believes in her father’s absolute infallibility. When she realizes that she has been thoughtlessly copying his attitude, she is no longer sure what the truth is anymore. Conversations with her parents become dangerous, they do not understand Simone and turn her words against her. She decides to become secretive to protect herself

Simone finds recognition of her struggles in the novels of a new generation of writers, who are revolting against parents, family and tradition, have no intention of overthrowing society, and are satisfied just to study their souls. These writers represent a Disquiet which she also finds in Jacques, and is attracted to. But she also has to admit to herself that they are different. He likes beautiful things and a life of ease. Simone needs to overcome difficulties and write a book, not live a life of luxury. She is still attracted to him because ‘apart from this love my life seemed desolately empty and futile’ and he is the only man she can have a serious conversation with, but he is alternately warm and cold to her. She will struggle with her feelings for him before deciding that she does not like him.

Sartre is Simone’s dream companion, her aspirations personified.

Confronted with an object, he would look it straight in the face instead of trying to explain it away with a myth, a word, an impression, or a preconceived idea: he wouldn’t let it go until he had grasped all its ins and outs and all its multiple significations. He didn’t ask himself what he ought to think about it, or what it would have been amusing or intelligent to think about it: he simply thought about it.

Apology

An apology is a psychological necessity. In our day to day interactions with others, we meet with constant approval and disapproval. We must necessarily create defenses to justify to ourselves why we are the way we are.

To Simone, the conventions of society are mindless and uninspiring. While others, even her closest friends, may by content to lead a mediocre existence, she must find an all consuming purpose. It is the intellectual life that draws her instead.

To have children, who in their turn would have more children, was simply to go on playing the same old tune ad infinitum; the scholar, the artist, the writer, and the thinker created other worlds, all sweetness and light, in which everything had purpose.

I found smiling difficult, I couldn’t turn on the charm, make cute remarks, or any kind of concession to polite chit-chat…. their way of life had nothing in common with mine: they were mere amateurs; I was a professional … I had set this heavy programme myself, for I found difficulties amusing … it was essential that my studies should not just represent an off-shoot of my life, but should be my entire life itself: the things people talked about did not interest me, I had no subversive ideas; in fact, I hardly had any ideas on anything; but all day long I would be training myself to think, to understand, to criticize, to know myself; I was seeking for the absolute truth: this preoccupation did not exactly encourage polite conversation.

Takeaway

In Simone’s autobiography, I found less of the feminist than a fellow human being going through the same universal struggle of self-expression.

I was inspired by the hard work she puts in – ‘nine to ten hours! every day at the library’, it is the kind of effort that again reminds me of the kind of work I have to put in if I aspire to mastery.

I also identified with the rich emotional life that she describes, especially her despair and loneliness while searching for meaning. It is comforting to know that I am not alone, surely that is one function of autobiography as well, to affirm as well as to inspire.

I had to be of service: to what? To whom? I had read, thought, and learnt much; I told myself that I was ready; I was rich; but nobody wanted anything from me. Life had appeared to me so full; I had sought with fanatical ardour to use my whole self in replying to its endless calls: it was empty; not one voice had asked for me.

I preferred literature to philosophy … I didn’t want to speak with that abstract voice which, whenever I heard it, failed to move me. What I dreamed of writing was a ‘novel of the inner life’; I wanted to communicate my experience.

I think Simone’s autobiography succeeds at this.

Highlights:

He appreciated elegant gestures, charming compliments, social graces, style, frivolity, irony, all the free-and-easy self-assurance of the rich and well-born. The more serious virtues esteemed by the bourgeoisie he found frankly boring

I couldn’t tolerate being bored: my boredom soon turned into real distress of mind; that is why … I detested idleness.

I thought it was wonderful that you could bring into the world something real, something new. There was only one region in the world in which I could venture my creative talent: literature… I knew how to use language, and as it expressed the essence of things, it illuminated them for me. I had a spontaneous urge to turn everything that happened to me into a story: I used to talk freely, and loved to write.

I had had the good fortune to find a friend … everything she had to say was either interesting or amusing.

In books, people make declarations of love and hate, they express their innermost feelings in fine phrases; but in life there are no significant speeches. What can be spoken is regulated by what can be done: if it isn’t done, it isn’t said.

I had always had a longing to communicate with others. In my friend’s album I cited as my favourite hobbies reading and conversation. I had also realized that novels, short stories, and tales are not divorced from life but that they are, in their own way, expressions of it.

I was delighted to escape from the ritual of family meals; by reducing food to its essential elements I felt I was taking another step in the direction of freedom.

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