The unrelenting industry of Simone de Beauvoir is astounding, and it is almost as great as that of Sartre. Like her companion, she continues adding to an achievement and a career of a kind that new modes of education, communication, and illiteracy may soon render quaint, if not impossible. Beauvoir, among the earliest women to have haunted the libraries of the Sorbonne after World War I, may turn out to be the last of this formidable breed. Unless illness prevents her, however, she will probably keep on dutifully working and producing until she dies. What she can find as a subject to write about after The Coming of Age1 is not clear, for this book looks like a culmination; but she will doubtless find something to engage her energy.
The Coming of Age (in French, less poetically and ambiguously, La Vieillesse) is about old age, in approximately the same way The Second Sex was about women. Critics and readers who brought large and small complaints against Beauvoir’s feminist book will have the same ones to make against The Coming of Age, with equal justice. Beauvoir does not have a subtle or original mind, and her style—with fleeting exceptions—is plodding. She has apparently devoured whole libraries, but digested them incompletely. Her syntheses are a little too pat, and often betray the fact that she has swallowed the work of three men in particular (Marx, Freud, and Sartre) uncritically. She is still in the habit, as she was in The Second Sex, of giving the reader long plot summaries of classics he has probably read. She hardly ever fails to provide six illustrations when one or two would have been enough. She also, for all her thoroughness, often has a sloppy way about her. In The Coming of Age, for example, she says Lou Andreas-Salomé, the tormentor of Nietzsche, lover of Rilke, and student of Freud, was Jewish, which she wasn’t, and she makes Dr. Spock ten years older than he is.
Such complaints are well-founded, but they miss the point of Beauvoir’s virtues. These are doggedness, sincerity, courage, and a certain ameliorative intention that resists experience and refuses to surrender to pessimism. The complaints might also obscure the specific virtue and agony of this book on old age, which constitutes a long struggle on the writer’s part to hold on to her cheerfulness despite the worst that time can do. More interesting than the usual complaints is a question that is as unfair as it is inevitable, and one that need not necessarily be asked in bad faith, or due to a misunderstanding: would old age be as fear-some for the writer as it seems to be had she led a different life?
Even though she is French, and a woman, Beauvoir has had a fairly cheerful outlook for most of her life, so far as a reader can tell. This is reflected in the books which she has written about herself in the unsparing manner of Rousseau and Gide, as well as in such a presumably impersonal study as The Second Sex. The reader pictures her rebelling against her family joyfully, not morbidly; plunging into reading, writing, exam-taking, with zest; traveling, winning prizes, becoming famous, in stride. The Occupation didn’t disturb her life much, as she admits somewhat guiltily. From the time she leaves home until a certain moment around the age of fifty, the only important pain or hateful feeling she confesses experiencing is caused by romantic complications. She describes the difficulties of free companionship—especially the pangs of jealousy—in She Came to Stay and The Mandarins. But although these books are serious, they aren’t bleak or really troubled. They are the work of a creator enjoying the activity of her chosen vocation. Her second book of autobiography, The Prime of Life, bears out the impression that as far as she was concerned she was living a satisfactorily pleasurable and interesting life. It is only toward the middle of the following volume, Force of Circumstance, that for the first time genuinely unhappy notes begin to be struck. This is at roughly the same point that Beauvoir begins telling how it was for her to live through the years of the Algerian war. She says it disturbed her more than the Occupation did. The terrorist bombing of Sartre’s apartment, the sight of French soldiers in St.-Germain-des-Prés, the news of tortures, made her ashamed to be French, she says, and imbued her with a new, actually unprecedented hatred against her “class.” Her temper loses its evenness around the middle of Force of Circumstance. She begins to use a language, first when writing of political matters, that is almost strident.
In the midst of the Algerian troubles, she has an affair with a much younger man, an editor on the staff of Sartre’s magazine. According to her account, this both consoled and confused her. By the end of the book, both the affair and the war are over. The book closes with the writer ruminating on the approach of her “old age.” She curses the class from which she comes, not for what it did in Algeria, but for the false notions about life that it planted in her head when she was young, which in spite of rebellion she has carried through adulthood, and which she must now prepare to pay for. J’ai été ftouée—“I was had for a sucker!”—are the last words of the book, much quoted, and, according to Beauvoir, much misunderstood.
Not long after, Beauvoir’s mother died and the writer wrote a little book about her death, A Very Easy Death. This is a terrible book in the uncommon sense. Beauvoir never ideologized her parents in print, even when she said she was repelled by their lives and refused to be bound by their customs. She described both her mother and father always as particular human beings, never as types. If the reader is to believe her, her mother’s protracted, hopeless fight with cancer provoked the most painful crisis Beauvoir has ever had to face. She says that she was surprised that it was so shattering for her. Recounting it, she begins to try to deal, as if it were for the first time seriously (at the age of fifty-six) with her own mortality. Ever since this book, the themes of aging and death, and their meaning especially for women, have preoccupied her. Into the soliloquy of an aging woman character in a novella entitled The Woman Destroyed Beauvoir puts the cry, “I’m afraid.”
It is appropriate, then, that Beauvoir should have come to write The Coming of Age, which seems to be a study of the “situation” of aging and old people in the way The Second Sex was a study of the “situation” of women. It uses the same method. First the “biology” is presented (as if to admit a certain primacy), then the anthropology and history of the “problem,” the evidence from literature, present-day statistics, and finally, needs and prospects. All this is presented seriously, massively, faithful to the Existential terminology. But The Coming of Age, besides being shorter and somewhat less dense than The Second Sex, is essentially different from it. The Coming of Age is harsh, painful, far from optimistic, and it includes direct testimony—which the feminist book did not—of the writer’s own experience. “I’ve never met a woman, either in literature or in life,” she reports, “who had an untroubled feeling about old age.” The writer is no exception: she tries to convey the emotion she feels when she looks in the mirror and sees someone she doesn’t recognize, whom she refuses to recognize as the same person who rebelled, studied, delighted in nature, and took good health for granted, who enjoyed self-esteem. Despite this, she has no wish to give up the life she has led. Yet others are conspiring to force her. For the eyes of Others are mirrors, crueler even than her own, and she feels herself changed, diminished, twisted in the reflection there. Aging is a mutilation of her body, therefore of herself, that she rebels against, rejects, as she rejected the mutilation that the “bourgeosie” once proposed to inflict on her soul.
Aging signifies mutilation and diminution. The powers and senses are diminished, including a very important one for a writer, the power of remembering. Sartre mentions to her a significant event they witnessed together during the Occupation: Beauvoir searches her memory and finds—nothing. She is shocked. Age also means lowered resistance to disease, more sickness. Yet if Beauvoir is to be believed, the worst thing about getting old is not getting sick, or even losing strength and power—it is receiving the dehumanizing look of Others. This is an old established Existential formulation, and could be expected to get Beauvoir’s attention in a study of the “situation” of any group; in The Coming of Age it gets considerably more than that.
One of the grounds the Other has for refusing the old person his humanity is that the old person’s appearance is unattractively changed. Beauvoir is disgusted by such an excuse. Yet she is fascinated by the physical evidence. The examples of decline that she chooses from literature include the merciless self-portraits of men like Voltaire, but the most affecting are pictures of the decline of women.
Whatever they look like, old people are human beings with human appetites and needs, which they are hard put to satisfy. But again, maybe this is more painful and humiliating for a woman than for a man. The very few comparatively happy old people Beauvoir manages to turn up are rich and healthy male artists. There are no women Picassos. Beauvoir does not attempt a full-scale treatment of this difference. “Older men have no special disturbance of their spermatozoa; theoretically, their ‘senile’ sperm can go on fertilizing eggs indefinitely,” she has noted in her “biology” section, while “The reproductive capacity of women is brutally cut off at a relatively young age.” But though she is fascinated by what the mirror tells, Beauvoir does not do more than pass on this suggestive biological datum. She does not stay to try to draw out some possible consequences in social and cultural terms of this difference—if indeed the possibility of consequences has occurred to her—nor the connection between internal bodily differences and the unequal external signs of aging in men and women. Though biology comes first in her book on age, as it did in her book on women, she quickly proceeds to other “aspects.”
The arrangements various societies have made to deal with their older people provoke her curiosity, approval, and criticism. She is hard on capitalist societies, and impressed with socialist societies. Sometimes it is as if Beauvoir thinks that old age in a capitalist society is a qualitatively different experience from old age in a socialist society, although a fair and complete reading of her book would probably show she doesn’t think this. What she says she is horrified by in France is the “abandonment” of the old. She demands that the state provide them with necessities such as shelter, medicine, clothing, and food.
This demand is congruent with the humanistic component of Existentialism as worked out by Sartre. The author herself, however, in spite of the fact that she has the money to provide herself with the tangible necessities without anyone’s help, is still evidently in trouble. As she has said, aged or aging people are human—they have intangible needs too. One of these is to be looked at as human, looked at (the reader infers) with desire. The anguish in The Coming of Age is real, palpable, felt. It is not the “anguish” that is present merely as a philosophical formulation. And it is not just the anguish of an aging person, but specifically the anguish of an aging woman. The way Beauvoir confronts it is remarkable, not least because of her courage, but also because it is a confrontation she posited, agreed to, anticipated long ago, as a philosopher, a novelist, an autobiographer: yet for all that the confrontation is as if for the first time, and it is uniquely shocking.
Beauvoir once told an interviewer:
I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve. I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out. That’s horrible too, though I personally have never been troubled by it. There’s always been great continuity in my life. I’ve always lived in Paris, more or less in the same neighborhoods. My relationship with Sartre has lasted a very long time. I have very old friends whom I continue to see. So it’s not that I’ve felt that time breaks things up, but rather the fact that I always take my bearings.
It is true that even before A Very Easy Death, in much of Beauvoir’s writing, almost from the beginning, there was a preoccupation with time, aging, decrepitude, death. At the age of forty, she wrote a didactic novel (All Men Are Mortal) in which an “immortal” being illogically proves to an actress who is frightened of aging and death that Existential anguish would still be her lot, even if she could count on living forever. But these anticipations seem formal. In her classic feminist book, Beauvoir’s descriptions of the stages by which a woman enters old age, and of old age itself, are imagined, researched, observed, or wished for, rather than experienced, and they do not tally with the descriptions of the same phenomena that she presents twenty year later. In both The Second Sex and The Coming of Age, Beauvoir distinguishes among menopause, “maturity,” old age, and death. They are stations along the way in a woman’s life, different “situations” in a process, and only an extremely disturbed woman would believe that, having arrived at the first station, she has arrived at death. Apparently, such a woman would be the one who had led a life that would cause her to feel destroyed, rompue, once she lacks what menopause takes away from her. Or as Beauvoir said in The Second Sex, “The crisis of the ‘change of life’ is felt much less keenly by women who have not staked everything on their femininity.” Put archetypically, a movie actress ought to be more profoundly affected by the very thought of menopause (or even the loss of looks that begins for a woman at thirty-five), than a woman university professor. Yet this is not only crude but, according to the testimony in The Coming of Age, not true. It doesn’t matter very much (maybe someday it will) what life a woman has led mentally or how she earns her living: she will not necessarily be rewarded for having lived a “right” life by having an easier time when the stage of transition into “maturity” comes—when, in biological terms, she loses the ability to bear children, and her body loses the last of its power to excite desire. According to The Coming of Age, lifemanship, “savoir-vivre” in the old-fashioned sense that the French moralists have always been interested in, isn’t rewarded, because “mutilation” is both “gratuitous” and universal. It happens to everyone who does not die young, and it is as unjust and absurd for the university professor as for the movie actress. And if old age is a mutilation, it begins early for women—at the menopause, in fact, or earlier. Already in The Second Sex, having made distinctions among the stages in a woman’s life, Beauvoir blurred them:
From the day a woman consents to growing old, her situation changes. Up to that time she was still a young woman, intent on struggling against a misfortune that was mysteriously disfiguring and deforming her; now she becomes a different creature, un-sexed but complete: an old woman. . . . It is in the autumn and winter of life that woman is freed from her chains.
It is impossible to know whether Beauvoir wrote these lines believing them, or out of bravado; but it is certain, from the vocabulary and phrasing and context, that she was not being ironical. In The Coming of Age, however, these lines could serve as an example of exactly the sort of sickly, hypocritical, and malicious myth that Beauvoir wants to expose. “Un être asexue”—the unsexed, or desexed creature—is no longer “looked-at,” she is no longer the passive thing, the object that is said in The Second Sex to be viewed and used; and that should be all to the good. But in The Coming of Age that être asexué is not a slave set free from her chains. Instead, she is liable to be anguished, particularly when age has just begun to set in; she no longer feels herself a human being; she is turning into a corpse before her own eyes; she is undesired, unable any longer to be or hope to become that reciprocating, passionate, equal partner that Beauvoir urged women to become in The Second Sex. But for the suffering she experiences, this woman might be said to have died.
Now, instead of “consenting” to what ought to be her liberation, the writer, when it happens to her, “rebels” against it. She does not rebel, she says, against death. As a good Existentialist, she must perceive that the certain prospect of death gives life its valuable “dimension of the absolute.” She rebels, she says, not against death but against old age, and the means to this rebellion is an existence that continues to be active, presumably and not least of all, sexually. It is important to her that this fit in with the comprehensive philosophy that she has long subscribed to. An Existentialist sees that Man is alone, that he must die, and that there is no way even to pose questions about the existence of God. Human existence is therefore absurd. The only way a human being can give meaning to his existence is by his own actions which tend to realize some sort of human “essence” latent in him, which seems to have to do with an ethical or social impulse. Existentialism (especially as enunciated by Sartre and echoed by Beauvoir) is simultaneously a pessimistic and optimistic doctrine. It demands that we behave as if we were not alone, as if God existed, as if we weren’t going to be obliterated by death. These “as if’s” are themselves absurd. There is no way to prove that we are not alone, each one inside his (her) own skin, and no way to prove that God exists. But death is certainly in store for everyone—the man who has existed all his life “like a stone” (Sartre’s image), and also the man who has discovered and expressed his essential humanity. Both will die, and death will make their lives equal, and equally meaningless. This absurdity has vitiated all philosophies of action and change. It cannot be overcome, it can only be “rebelled against.”
Révolte, révolter—rebellion, to rebel: these words are taking a long time to be consumed in France. For a person of Beauvoir’s generation, they probably have a more central, and permanent, significance than they have for the youngsters in the cafés of the Latin Quarter, who also use them in their speech and writings. Metaphysical révolte harks back to Gide, one of the writers whose books the young Beauvoir came of age with. Political révolte was epitomized in the Resistance, and during the Algerian war. When Beauvoir uses these words she’ uses them with sufficient awareness of the meanings they have had, and at the same time, with a certain helpless defiance. To rebel against old age—is this not excessive? Camus might have been thinking of this sort of defiance when he wrote in The Rebel:
It is difficult to return to the places of one’s early happiness. The young girls in the flower of their youth still laugh and chatter on the seashore, but he who watches them gradually loses the right to love them, just as those he has loved lose the power to be loved.
Beauvoir has elsewhere in her work made it abundantly plain that she agreed with Sartre that in The Rebel, Camus went over to preaching a warmed-over stoicism. To remain defiant, to grow ever more defiant with age—this is Sartre’s desire, and Beauvoir, here as in some other things, has seemed to try to do her best to follow his lead. She is both less and more than a cut-rate Sartre, however, and this program of permanent rebellion has entailed consequences that are peculiar to her and to what may be called, using Sartre’s terminology, her “situation” as a woman. As she perhaps inadvertently reveals, her anguish and rebellion against age are specifically the anguish and rebellion of a woman. This revelation can easily be misunderstood. Unfriendly readers who have kept up with Beauvoir’s work through the years to see how the “story” ends may wish to think that this anguish is of a woman who wrote certain books and advocated feminism. For them, her life-long révolte turns out to be pathetic in retrospect, not admirable; childish in the undesirable sense, not courageous. Beauvoir “pays” for having led the wrong life (especially for not marrying or having children) by experiencing a painful old age—no matter that she has described for the philistine reader the long agony of Freud, showing that the “right” life isn’t necessarily rewarded. The unfriendly or slow-witted reader is treated to the sight of the writer squirming instead of consenting to becoming old, as she had advised women to do when she was younger and wrote her feminist book. It is like the satisfaction a believer might get at seeing an atheist wavering on his death-bed. Some of Beauvoir’s readers may be happy to take The Coming of Age as the sign that she has lost her nerve, and they can quote her wistful sentence, “The warmest and happiest feelings that old people have are the ones which are aroused in them by their grandchildren.”
This is a prejudiced misreading. In The Coming of Age Beauvoir is not renouncing her life or the choices she made, any more than she did in Force of Circumstance, where she exclaimed that she had been swindled by her upbringing. Moreover, it is doubtful whether old age would hold no terrors for her had she bothered to go through the motions of having children and grandchildren: she is what she is. But to reject the malicious or dim-witted interpretations does not yet answer the question whether Beauvoir might have been able credibly to imagine aging as a different and possibly less fearsome experience for some people if her life had included the experience of child-rearing—an experience which, while not universal, is still wide-spread. Are some men and women able to “gain” from old age, as Beauvoir says she gained from each preceding stage of life, and is this sometimes thanks to an unexamined feeling that they are plugged into the continuity of generations? Beauvoir seems to have had only a glimmer of this possibility. Her remark about the consolation of grandchildren is by-the-way. The weighty message of her book is that old age is a misfortune, made absolutely disastrous by illness or poverty, and only alleviated somewhat by a relentlessly active and curious mind that keeps engaging itself in starting projects and bringing them to fruition. “If life does not transcend itself,” she writes, “moving toward given ends, and if it falls back, dull and motionless, upon itself, then it brings about that ‘nausea’ which Sartre has described.”
This reads like a truism, and it makes young Roquentin, the anti-hero of Nausea, sound like a drop-out from a course in Positive Thinking, which is probably not what Sartre intended. But more important than that, it rephrases an old exhortation that is valid for men and women of Beauvoir’s bourgeois temperament: work to stay alive!
1 Translated by Patrick O'Brian, Putnam, 585 pp., $10.00.