Eschewing linear patterns and other conventional ways of writing lives, feminist critic Toril Moi has undertaken instead to construct a “personal genealogy” of Beauvoir, using notions derived partly from Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu (Jacques Lacan and Freud are cited likewise). This manner of understanding what the French existentialists called the human project seeks “to achieve a sense of emergence or production and to understand the complex play of different kinds of power involved in social phenomena” (p. 7). The human subject is viewed as a product of forces; individual choice—emphasized continually, and probably excessively, by existentialists—is secondary. All types of evidence, not only writing, are considered germane: social institutions and the subject herself are “text,” part of a “discursive network” (p. 5). The point is to illuminate Beauvoir’s “speaking position” (p. 9) and what it means, for herself and others, and concurrently to explain the rather low disregard in which she appears to be held in France presently.
The chief social factor identified is, not surprisingly, what is called the patriarchal order, which Moi sees even today as powerful enough to threaten thinking women’s chances for fulfillment. “Displaying a pernicious imagery of ugly bluestockings and dried-up spinsters, patriarchal ideology seeks to enforce the split between body and mind with particular rigor in the case of intellectual women” (p. 256). Cited in this connection are novels by Germaine de Staël and George Eliot; but, although Eliot influenced the young Beauvoir, these nineteenth-century models pertain little to today’s situation in America and England, for instance (where Moi, a Norwegian, has resided). But Moi needs to believe that such strictures still operate, in order to argue for Beauvoir’s unique position as “a mythological figure, an imago that has made its presence felt in the thoughts and dreams of every intellectual woman in the Western world since the early 1950s” (p. 5)—a claim no less absurd for being unoriginal.
The study investigates three “moments” or crucial questions. The first is Beauvoir’s discovery in 1929 (justified or not, and made chiefly perhaps through sexual desire) that she was intellectually inferior to Sartre, despite her stellar academic performance; this led to her positioning herself as second among equals. Moi explores this momentous choice in personal and sociological terms, examining the French academic establishment that formed her and asking what it meant to be a woman agrégée in philosophy, in love with a brilliant man.
The second major topic is Beauvoir’s writing itself, as it springs from and refers to her self-image, especially in She Came to Stay and The Second Sex. The former provides telling evidence of what happens when an intelligent woman persuades herself that her lover considers her an equal, whereas actually the [End Page 417] authority remains his. Moi views this novel as more revealing, although oblique, because it is more affectively nuanced and apparently genuine, than direct accounts in Beauvoir’s memoirs of the triangle involving her, Olga Kosakiewicz, and Sartre. The Second Sex—said to be unrivaled in any field in this century, in terms of influence—is examined in light of Beauvoir’s tardy revelation in the 1940s (if one believes her) that being a woman meant something different from being a man. Beauvoir’s understanding of woman’s position is compared to Sartre’s (expressed in fiction and essays, and deduced from his behavior) and to Frantz Fanon’s concept of racial oppression.
Lastly, Moi focuses on the bitter conclusion to Force of Circumstance, in which Beauvoir confesses, in her fifties, feeling cheated by life. The problematic quality of this admission can escape no one, in light of her repeated assertions elsewhere that her relationship with Sartre—central to her self-image—constituted an unreserved success, involving utter transparency and union of thought. Moi studies this in terms of other statements—some by Sartre—and Beauvoir’s true accomplishments, and shows how Beauvoir’s unceasing need for ratification, attributed in her novels to...