Review by Susan Flockhart
Is existentialism ripe for a comeback? Young people today have been described as “the most fluid generation in history”, so perhaps GenZ is in tune with French philosophers flouting convention and inflating Gauloises who argued that humans must remain free to create their own “essence” through their actions. , rather than being limited by an imaginary inner nature or societal mores.
If so, good luck to them. After all, they were born in a time that seems obsessed with personal identity. Even the last census felt like a state-sanctioned navel-gazing exercise, inviting us all to categorize ourselves by ethnicity, religion, sexuality and nationality.
What would Simone de Beauvoir have thought of the state we are in? At first glance, How To Be You looks like the kind of book that the great lady of existentialism would have railed against. But author Skye Cleary insists it’s not a self-help guide, but rather to illuminate “the tyrannies of others’ demands on us and the chains we impose on ourselves in the name of love, duty or any other series of excuses”. we offer to avoid the responsibility of our freedom”.
Cleary is a New York-based scholar who came to philosophy through an unusual route, having started out as a trader on Wall Street and then came across Beauvoir’s ideas while studying for the MBA she hoped she would would offer an escape from “financial vampirism” and a future spent running on the treadmill of other people’s expectations. She quickly became an enthusiastic – though not uncritical – admirer of Beauvoir’s work, and her book offers an entertaining introduction to the life and work of the prominent author, resistance fighter and pioneer of feminism.
Born in Paris in 1908, Beauvoir studied philosophy at the Sorbonne where she met Jean-Paul Sartre: the intellectual sparring partner with whom she had a long – but notoriously open – relationship (they never lived together and each had what they jokingly called “business with other people”. what she meant was that so-called feminine traits such as fragility, motherhood, or submission are products of socialization rather than biology.
Does that make her a “trans-inclusion feminist”? Cleary believes so, considering this well-known quote to imply that “not all people born male become male, and those born without female (or male) organs can potentially become female.” For good measure, she cites Beauvoir’s authoritatively sympathetic treatment of a hermaphroditic character in her 1943 novel, She Came To Stay.
Cleary is probably correct that Beauvoir would have embraced the notion of gender fluidity, though her position on controversial issues such as female-only spaces is less clear. The potential implications for hard-won gender-based rights mean that competing freedoms are no doubt at stake, and my hunch is that Beauvoir would have approached this thorny subject with analytical enthusiasm.
In his time, of course, intellectual debate was less dangerous. Beauvoir came to conclusions that now seem ridiculous (she thought morning sickness was the result of existential alienation rather than hormones) or outrageous (by signing a petition against age of consent laws she was widely interpreted as sanctioning paedophilia). Had she written in the age of social media, I suspect Beauvoir would have been summarily canceled.
Fortunately, she wrote bravely and freely until her death at the age of 78 in 1986, authoring dozens of books that Cleary deftly distills into clear, engaging prose. Simone de Beauvoir also lived her own philosophy. She never married and once argued that “any institution that welds one person to another, forcing people to sleep together who no longer want to, is a bad one”. She also had no children, which she considered a form of slavery. (Cleary, who seems excruciatingly wary of upsetting the “intersectional” apple cart, describes this analogy as “insensitive” because she “is unaware that the plight of women of color has been far more dire than that of white women.” .)
Cleary herself opted for both marriage and motherhood and her viscerally honest account of the isolation she endured from a screaming baby reads like a howl of despair. She also criticizes her husband for taking it out on her husband for going to the sports field often during those first months on the pretext that since he could not breastfeed, he could not help her. . You don’t need a degree in philosophy to spot the holes in this argument.
Beauvoir envisioned “a society that supports mothers and shares childcare with a wider group” and Cleary agrees, citing Scandinavian shared parental leave policies as examples of good practice. In doing so, she reminds us that while the battle for equality is far from over, significant progress has been made since The Second Sex was published in 1949.
Yet although Cleary pays homage to Beauvoir’s impact as a catalyst for the feminist movement, her book sometimes reads as if societal attitudes were still stuck in the 1940s. Supposedly, tropes such as “boys don’t cry” went unchallenged. “Society tends to group mothers into binary categories of good and bad,” she writes. Well, maybe, but the popularity of books such as Kate Kirby’s imperfect parenting bible, Hurray For Gin, suggests that many moms are fighting hard against bites.
I also think that it sometimes risks “altering” men (existentialist jargon to perceive all their choices according to their assumed masculinity). “It was easy for [Jean-Paul Sartre] drink your whiskey and sit in cafes without discrimination, walk down the street without being treated and exist without fear or hate”. Oh good? He may never have been dubbed, but Sartre – who was bullied ruthlessly as a child due to his blind, wandering eye – may have seen things differently.
Yet it is a courageous and important book. Beauvoir, who has written four volumes of memoirs, has at times been accused of narcissism and Cleary admits she worries that by writing about her own life she will be viewed as “trustworthy” or philosophically irrelevant. She shouldn’t have such fears. Like Beauvoir, his personal experience admirably serves as a conduit for exploring universal questions.
Its chapter on mortality includes a poignant reflection on a friendship with a depressed man who ultimately committed suicide. Could she have done more to prevent it? did he place him in an institution, thus depriving him of his freedom in order to maintain his life? Cleary’s torment is palpable, but the dilemma offers a profound exposition of the complexities she and de Beauvoir grappled with.
His observations on the craft of aging are wise and rather edifying; his call for insubordination as an antidote to discouragement and bad faith is unnerving. How To Be You should appeal to thoughtful people of all generations.