By JC Holburn
Skye Cleary is the author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life (Vintage, 2020). She teaches at Columbia University and the City College of New York. I first met Skye back in 2015 at a reading for Existentialism and Romantic Love, and continue to be fascinated by her existentialist obsessions.
JC Holburn: We are in a moment of existential conflict and threat. Existentialism as a philosophical movement gained momentum out of the despair of World War II. There was an interesting footnote in your book regarding an essay on Hannah Arendt by Samantha Rose Hill. You write: ‘Loneliness clears the way for totalitarian leaders to offer tyrannical solutions and communities to ‘cure’ our loneliness.” How do you think Beauvoir would frame the current war in Ukraine and geopolitical dispute?
Skye Cleary: It’s hard to know what Beauvoir would think exactly, nor am I an expert on Arendt or Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. But as you say, having lived through two World Wars, Beauvoir thought a lot about conflict.
In How to Live a Good Life talks about the “serious” person that can give us some insights. Beauvoir classifies tyrants as serious people. Tyrants subordinate themselves to inhuman idols and force others to do so as well. Putin has said explicitly that he is pursuing a virtuous “noble” cause, citing vague and unsubstantiated justifications of demilitarization and neutrality.
Beauvoir was well aware of such strategies where tyrants claim that they are upholding and asserting virtues and causes, while at the same time ignoring the subjectivity and freedom of everyone around them. Tyrants reify the State as a divinity and shape themselves to that image. Beauvoir says, “The serious man wills himself to be a god; but he is not one and knows it.”
The only solution for people being invaded is to revolt against oppressors. Although Beauvoir originally leaned toward pacifism, when she saw the horrors of World War II, the Nazi occupation of Paris, her friends being arrested and disappearing, she realized that violence was needed to combat violence. Rebellion does involve denying oppressors’ subjectivity and freedom, but for Beauvoir, it’s a necessary paradox in some situations. To deny people’s freedom is so outrageous that it can justify using violence in return. Importantly, oppressed people have a right to claim their freedom, but not to go on and claim power over others. Ukrainian people have a right to defend themselves but not to oppress Russian people.
Holburn: What might Beauvoir say about a third sex?
Cleary: Beauvoir doesn’t technically mention gender in The Second Sex and her philosophy on this particular topic is ambiguous enough to lend itself to people arguing from many different perspectives.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir says that “We must end by abolishing all suppression” and I think this is the key point when it comes to gender expression. This means that we have to stop indoctrinating children into traditional gender expressions. Stop telling boys they’re better at STEM subjects than girls. Stop telling girls their highest destiny is to get married and have babies. (Banning abortion and contraception effectively does this by turning girls and women into baby-making machines). Stop punishing people for behaving in ways that aren’t consistent with their traditional gender roles. Maybe what I’m talking about sounds like it’s stuck in the 1940s but these ideas are still rampant now.
When we are able to present ourselves as we choose, without being punished, then we will be able to create ourselves in authentic ways. With that sort of freedom, transcending toxic power dynamics that railroad people into traditional life paths, we might ultimately see a boundlessness of gender emerge.
Holburn: Do you think philosophers like Beauvoir and other existentialists are more preoccupied with power than with weakness?
Cleary: If by “weakness” you mean lack of power, then no. The existential rhetoric tends to focus on freedom. But when we talk about freedom, there are two main dimensions: freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from is what we mean by liberty, such as freedom from oppression. Freedom to is about power: what do you have the power to do? So in order to talk about freedom, it is important to talk about power, and also about lack of power. Beauvoir was concerned with how power corrupts freedom, and how people exercising their power over others prevents them from living fully.
The Second Sex is primarily an analysis of women’s relative lack of power to men. Beauvoir’s argument is that men have taken on the role of sovereign subject and women have been relegated to the inessential other. Beauvoir writes: “Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being […] she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.” Beauvoir wanted to figure out why this has been the case in so many human societies. There are lots of reasons, but one of Beauvoir’s hypotheses is that men convinced women it was a good idea and women went along with it.
Of course, othering doesn’t only happen between the sexes but also between races, religions, abilities, classes, ages, sexual preferences, and so on. Comparing oneself with others is profoundly human. But where it becomes problematic is when one group uses their power to oppress others, making it much tougher for these others to flourish.
Holburn: How do you think can we talk about feminism without couching it in terms of victim narratives? Men can be just as oppressed by power structures as women, or oppressed in other ways, being drafted, for example.
Cleary: You’re right that men can be oppressed, too. And Beauvoir did write more about women’s lack of freedom because it is the case that women are, on average, subject to more oppression and discrimination than men. Just a few examples: men’s reproductive organs aren’t regulated to the same extent that women’s are; in Beauvoir’s time as well as ours, women are paid less for the same work and are far less represented in leadership positions in government and corporate worlds. And of course, women of color face even greater challenges.
All of us as individuals should exercise our power to push back against discrimination and unfair practices. But it’s victim-blaming to say, for example, that women just have to ask for more money for a job when (a) they don’t always know what men are being paid, and (b) problems are structural. How is a woman in a financially precarious situation going to say no to a job that won’t pay her as much as a man doing the same work? For many people—not only women—survival is more important. For Beauvoir, the real task of feminism is the transformation of society to be based on freedom instead of domination.
Holburn: Beauvoir did not have children, and while certain freedoms came with that decision, she also had a lot more time to ruminate over the horrors of aging and question the purpose of life. Did she view motherhood as another form of oppression?
Cleary: Motherhood doesn’t have to be oppressive, but it often is because childcare responsibilities tend to fall mostly to mothers. Channeling women into caregivers and men into caretakers can manifest as oppression. And it’s hard to take on the gender-based destiny that society prescribes for us (such as by removing control over our own reproductive systems) and to be an autonomous being. Beauvoir was grateful that she chose not to have children. In France, she campaigned hard for legalizing birth control and abortion so that more women would have the choice.
Some women do have more rights than ever before in some ways, such as education, but sexism and misogyny are still alive and well. With Roe v. Wade being overturned in the U. S., many American women now have fewer rights over their own bodies than in Beauvoir’s time. Kate Manne’s Down Girl and Entitled, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, and Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism talk about how many women are still oppressed today—and often hoodwinked into thinking otherwise.
One of my favorite of Beauvoir’s quotes is about this: “To recognize a human being in a woman is not to impoverish man’s experience: that experience would lose none of its diversity, its richness, or its intensity if it was taken on in its intersubjectivity; to reject myths is not to destroy all dramatic relations between the sexes; it is not to deny the significations authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to eliminate poetry, love, adventure, happiness, and dreams: it is only to ask that behavior, feelings, and passion be grounded in truth.” Life will be richer and more exciting for everyone, when people are free to choose their own life paths.
Holburn: This is pure speculation, but while reading I started to suspect Beauvoir might have sided with Agamben’s recent argument about the over-medicalization of life and viewed the Covid vaccine mandates as a coercive and authoritarian measure. It seems our society is splintered between self-assertion and civic duty, and it can be difficult to discern where Beauvoir draws the line in terms of freedom, which for her, as you say, is always tethered to responsibility, though in your chapter on death she does support suicide as a freedom to face death if one chooses that.
Cleary: In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir explicitly talks about how humanity is like stones in an arch. If the stones are healthy, the arch is healthy; if humans are healthy, humanity is healthy. Our interconnectedness means that we have a responsibility toward others. Not by virtue of a law or commandment, but by virtue of the fact that we coexist and we share the same human condition. Beauvoir’s philosophical thinking supports the notion of bodily freedom: that people should be allowed to do whatever they like with their own bodies as long as they’re consenting adults.
However, we must also acknowledge that we always choose in a context: of the world and other people. Beauvoir warns of becoming so serious and fanatical about our own personal freedom that we oppress other people. Freedom which is based on denying other people’s freedom is morally flawed. Beauvoir’s idea of freedom isn’t about doing whatever you want. It means acknowledging how our lives are both personal and communal and that other people are the context of my own freedom. And it means acknowledging and respecting other people, including the vulnerability of their situations. Applying this kind of thinking to vaccines: vaccines support our own and other’s freedom because they help society become free from terrible diseases and free to socialize without risk of illnesses or death.
Holburn: The chapter on rebellion makes an important point about monuments and that instead of tearing them down, a more honest approach might be to inform passers-by with corresponding labels that describe the complexity of history. Mystification is a big theme in this final chapter, and I have begun to wonder, given our culture of distrust, should the aim instead of the relentless pursuit of facts—which don’t seem to penetrate staunch Trump supporters who seem to enjoy the disavowal of facts even as they pile up—be the articulation of irreconcilable contradiction?
Cleary: Good point. While we can talk about empirical facts, judging people is a lot more difficult. It depends on who is doing the judging. And yes, I agree it’s important to honor the past in all its ambiguity and complexity. The problem with ignoring the past is that we’re setting a precedent that the present, each moment we’re living, doesn’t matter either. Beauvoir says that ignoring the past infects the present with death. When we let the present go unappreciated, we end up incessantly chasing new and novel moments, and forever leave “dry bones” of time in our wake.
Holburn: In a chapter on marriage, you write: ‘The traditional ‘till death do us part’ model that defines marriage in terms of submission, obedience, housework, and dutiful sex is a killer for authentic relationships. Yet traditional marriage remains such a closely cherished tradition that challenging it provokes people’s ire.” You also discuss the need for healthy skepticism of dogma when it comes to relationships and how contingent relationships are at any given moment. In your book, you detail how Sartre and Beauvoir never married but remained committed or connected to each other more than any of their other lovers, leaving a trail of heartbreak behind them. What key thing do you want your readers to take away about their unconventional relationship?
Cleary: What I admired about Beauvoir and Sartre was their courage in creating a relationship that worked for them. They pushed back against what they were expected to do and in doing so created a much more authentic relationship. And yet, as you say, their relationship agreement—to be primary to one another but have secondary relationships, too—hurt many people. Whatever the structure of relationship you choose, the real take-away is to consider how your choice affects others. That doesn’t mean letting other people dictate your actions, but it does mean others should be taken into consideration.
For example, if you marry, consider how your choice hurts people who choose not to marry and miss out on tax and health benefits. Support the right to choose alternative relationship structures, as long as they’re adult and consenting, without being punished. If you choose to pursue an open relationship, like Beauvoir and Sartre did, sometimes even good time management and transparency doesn’t prevent heartache. Beauvoir and Sartre’s agreement to be “primary” to one another—meaning that they would always prioritize each other over other “secondary” relationships—precluded authentic relationships with other lovers. A more flexible agreement that acknowledged that people grow and change could have opened up possibilities for authentic relationships with other people, too.
There’s no straightforward formula about how to be in a relationship. Marriage comes with a lot of baggage. And that baggage can crush people. Regardless of the shape of a relationship, what’s important is not to let the relationship devolve into stagnation, habits, and exploitation. Just as each of us is always growing and becoming, so too should our relationships be adaptable to support our relationships.
Holburn: Beauvoir made some unsavory choices that seemed self-serving at times, like signing a petition to allow children and adolescents to have sexual relationships with whomever they wanted…
Cleary: Beauvoir was one of the many intellectuals who signed that petition. Others included Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Rancière, Jean-François Lyotard, and others. Their reasoning was that they believed children should be free from their parents and the state. But what about the freedom to be a child? What about freedom from abuse of power by authority figures? Beauvoir was wrong to sign that petition. I would hope that now she would rethink that decision. Beauvoir did acknowledge when her opinions changed. It’s a sign of a good person and great philosopher to be able to admit when you misstep and change your mind in light of new information. I expect Beauvoir would have been up for the task.
Holburn: Edward Said wrote about how disappointed he was with his encounter with Beauvoir, Sartre, and Foucault, describing her as “vain and quite beyond arguing with at that moment…”
Cleary: Beauvoir was in her seventies at the time. The essay was published long after she died. As far as I know, Beauvoir never spoke about the incident. Said was clearly frustrated before the encounter even began. He was annoyed that the location of the meeting had been moved to Foucault’s apartment without him being told details about why. He said Beauvoir was talking about a protest with Kate Millet, which he dismissed as “silly.” Said doesn’t explain why he thought the protest was silly, nor why Beauvoir seemed vain to him. Beauvoir faced relentless misogyny all throughout her life. She was often told her ideas were silly—and much worse.
Holburn: If you had the opportunity to encounter Beauvoir yourself and could ask one question, even if it were a criticism or to initiate an argument, what would it be?
Cleary: First I’d like to ask Beauvoir what her impression of the encounter with Said was. But my most urgent question would be: given that human rights continue to be violated and threatened around the world, what do we do now? Where do we go from here given that the freedoms that she and other women fought so long and hard for are slipping away? Beauvoir wrote that every victory turns into a defeat if you live long enough. That’s depressing, but her point was that every generation faces fresh obstacles. Still, situations can and do improve. In an interview in the 1970s, Beauvoir shared an energizing message that I try to keep in mind when feeling overwhelmed: “Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future. Act now, without delay.”
(Photo: Rachael Warecki)