Simone de Beauvoir believed that, “The programme laid down in our childhood allows us to do, know, and love only a limited number of things; when the programme is fulfilled and when we have come to the end of our possibilities, then death is accepted with indifference or even as a merciful release – it delivers us from that extreme boredom that the ancients called satietas vitae.” The notion that our childhood defines us is sound. Our genes (character, behaviour) interact with our environment, we form a sense of how the world works, and we build a set of values. The development of this unique set of emotionally important ideas lays down the foundation of what will or will not motivate us as adults.
Simone de Beauvoir thought our lives are programmed in childhood with a limited set of possibilities. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The thing to remember is that our genes and these subjectively formed guiding principles are a steering mechanism, an inner guide, and as such, they are open ended. They are not a limited program that our lives follow stepwise from beginning to end. De Beauvoir indicates her understanding of this by her choice of the word “possibilities.”
However, beyond this point de Beauvoir takes too limited a view. For her, the possibilities are finite. That is, we may “do, know, and love” only so many things and once we have exhausted those things, interest is at an end. We can only descend into “satietas vitae,” an enervating boredom with, and loathing of, life. De Beauvoir imagines the condition becoming so acute that even death seems acceptable, preferable to what has become an empty existence.
This is the position of someone who has conceptualized herself into a corner. If we drop the specific idea of a limited number of things and substitute instead the general notion of themes we can see the horizons expand. We can spend a very long time living out the themes embodied by our emotionally important ideas.
Now add in the concepts of social, cultural, and technological progress. Life already provides endless variations on any and every theme. On top of that, there is always something new to love or be interested in within the sphere of your own personal interests and preoccupations. For example, as an intellectual, my primary identity (and overarching theme) is that of a thinking creating person. Intellectuals engage in careful thinking and deep creativity. Ideas fascinate me, and while a particular set shine more brightly than the rest, I never run out of new ones to explore. As it happens, my main areas of interest have proven inexhaustible.
De Beauvoir’s worldview was that of a self-alienated extremist obsessed with enjoying personal freedoms not attainable in life. Her unwillingness to accept life’s real limitations made her combative and needlessly negative about other things where room to maneuver was actually present. Her belief in overemphasizing the significance of the individual left her alienated from the greater society around her. The smallness of her world and the horrible limitations she experienced in it were largely the product of her own inner critic, as were her boredom and existential angst.
5 thoughts on “Simone de Beauvoir on Life’s Possibilities”
A lucid and thoght provoking post as ever, Thomas. To some extent I agree with you, Thomas, about that unnecessary negativity of de Beauvoir. Yet, taking into account that stifling bourgoise yet impoverished background portrayed with such humour in ‘Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter’ she achieved an astounding independence of mind and action, though she seems to have been influenced by a sort of innate pessimism. I particularly like her novel, ‘The Blood of Others’ because it does seem to emphasize, with it’s story of a girl ‘wild as a hare’ who is first a collaborator and then a member of the resistance, how much personal choice we do in fact have within the limits of our historical circumstances and our personal temperment.
I’m always interested in your literary opinions, Lucinda, if only because we so often end up on the opposite side of things! I am no respecter of Simone de Beauvoir and regard her as a nasty piece of work. Her so-called memoires contain so many lies some critics see them as semi-fictional. Knowing this, I formed my opinions from a pair of good biographies of de Beauvoir herself and a couple more about her longtime lover, Jean Paul Sartre.
Her diaries and letters contradict much of what de Beauvoir wrote about herself. She was dishonest, sexually lascivious, cruel, and far from being strikingly independent. (She could not abide being alone.) Her negative views and attitudes are the real Simone. Where freedom is concerned, the fiction presents her idealized vision of what life should be, rather than her sense of how it actually is. She is a prime example of the excessively conceptualized person. She was too caught up in ideology, some of it adopted (communism) and some self-generated (feminism). She lacked a firm and honest grasp of reality.
Harsh remarks indeed, Thomas! I wonder if our diaries and notebooks, though, revealing our least positive side as they so often do, don’t show us all as a disgusting lot, whereas in our fiction, we are shown to have the highest ideals…I haven’t read any biographies of her yet, but her views were such that I can imagine a lot might be quite negative in interpretation…
Lucinda, I know what I say seems rather hard and cold, but I believe it is important to understand the true nature of people as influential as Simone de Beauvoir. Many “casual” feminists are unaware of just how bad or screwed up some of the early proponents of feminist ideas were. Women in those days had legitimate complaints, but de Beauvoir’s characterization of male attitudes towards women had much to do with her own psychological issues, especially her self-alienation and her vehement rejection of a woman’s essential biological role in reproduction.
We must also examine the values of such influential people. Teaching young girls to skip having children, as de Beauvoir did, is indicative of a callous disregard for the future of the girls’ themselves, their families, and the society that sheltered them all.
Well, Thomas, one thing I do agree about is that it is tragic when women deprive themselves of the joy of having children.