Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999

Karen Vintges

Beauvoir's Autobiography:
'autofiction' or selftechnique?

        Why is it the case that the life and death of princess Diana, have had such an impact on people of our time? Numerous articles and papers have been published on this subject. Was she an icon: today’s archetype of the Madonna (as Camille Paglia stated)?; was she the ultimate woman-victim, object of trade between males?; was she only a boulevard-princess, a media-hype (one could also say a simulacrum in terms of Baudrillard) raising sentiments and pseudo-emotions ? But why, then, ‘was (she) such an inspiration’ as women said all over the world? And in which way was she such an inspiration to them?

This article on the status of the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir does only slightly deal with the subject Diana. But  it also slightly deals with the autobiography of Beauvoir itself. It mainly deals with philosophical theories on  subject and subjectivity, but  it thereby wants to say something about who we are, people of today, Simone de Beauvoir and princess Diana among them.


Who are we at the present moment in history?

The phrase is from Michel Foucault’s three times rewritten paper on Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’. In all of his works Foucault tried to find out about the way Western culture, since 1800, has produced us, people in the West. Foucault wants philosophy to be situated knowledge one could say: in his opinion qphilosophy should be a reflection on today as difference in history. It should not consist of eternal truths about mankind. It should deal with the present moment in history, with the question of contemporary reality and especially with the question of who we are today.

Many other philosophers nowadays ask the same question. To understand human beings of our time Charles Taylor wrote his impressive book Sources of the Self, in which he finds out that we in Western culture still live in the aftermath of  three main traditions: a theological one, a rationalist and a romanticist one. We can only understand ourselves if we go back to these sources of our subjectivity,  and we should value them as the sources we tap our moral judgements from.

Another important contemporary philosopher, Jürgen Habermas - working in the tradition of Critical Theory - sees us as the product of the still unfulfilled promise of  Enlightenment. We are persons who can,and in the end will, act reasonably with respect to all aspects of our life.

However, in my view, none of these philosophers tells us exactly who wé are, women of today. I shall argue here, that in order to understand the project of Simone de Beauvoir we should take Foucault’s theoretical tools very seriously, but that we should refine them with the theoretical tools given by Beauvoir herself, that is, with her philosophy on subject and subjectivity. In order to understand who wé are, women of today, we certainly need the theoretical perspective of Simone de Beauvoir and other feminist thinkers. I shall be very brief on Beauvoir’s own theory. But I will  point out its essence, with which we should refine the theories on subjectivity of the final Foucault.

Why Foucault? You might be surprised that my article will for a large part be on his theories on subject and subjectivity. From his biographies one gets the impression that Foucault was rather a misogynist, a woman-hater. And as we learn  from Macey’s biography The Lives of Michel Foucault he was especially a Beauvoir hater - treating her with icy politeness at most. Nonetheless I think Foucault’s last work offers some crucial clues to understand today's subjectivity, and I cannot refrain from going into his theories in order to explain how to read  Beauvoir's autobiography. Especially Foucault’s last two works on sexuality give us some crucial clues which enable us to understand Beauvoir's project. These works to my mind, also can shed a new light on the long tradition of diary writing that we find among girls and women, a question I ccan only allude to in the scope of this article.

I first want to make clear why Beauvoir’s autobiography should not be read as merely ‘autofíction’ The term 'autofiction' is borrowed from Nelson Algren, Beauvoir's American lover, who did not agree at all with her version of their relationship in her autobiography. This is autofiction he exclaimed, when he commented on it, and he meant that it was wishful thinking all along. I will go into the first work of Michel Foucault on sexuality, La volonté de savoir, to show why in my opinion we should not read Beauvoir's autobiography as 'autofiction' in the sense of wishful thinking.

Then, I will concentrate on Foucault's last two works on sexuality and explain the shift he made with respect to his earlier theories on subjectivity . This will be done in order to clarify the way we should read Beauvoir's autobiography: namely as a self-technique in the context of a moral project.
Finally I shall argue that Foucault’s last concepts need some crucial refining. Beauvoir’s own theory is necessary here to answer the question who we are, we women of today, Beauvoir and princess Diana among them.


Why Beauvoir’s autobiography is no ‘autofiction’

One of the most important themes in contemporary French thinking is the attack on the central notion of Man in our culture: a creature who is gifted with a will of his own, his own desires, his own consciousness - the so-called subject. Many French thinkers, among who Michel Foucault, argued that this subject does not exist. In Foucault opinion the subject does not exist prior to the roles in social practices and discourses which have a subject form. There is no original subject, no essential agency. We are addressed and articulated differently in different discourses. All that remains are different subject positions: the subject itself is fragmented. So, to understand who we are, people in the West today, we should look for the dominant discourses that construct our subjectivity. Foucault says that the discourse on sexuality is in this respect the most important one.

In his first book on sexuality, La volonté de savoir,  he concentrates on the way in which sexuality in our culture has been talked about since roughly 1800, that is since the beginning of the nineteenth century. His reversion of the repression hypothesis is probably well known by now: sexuality is not repressed but produced! Since the beginning of the nineteenth century there is an incredible increase in talk and knowledge about sexuality in the form of the so-called scientia sexualis: discourses such as psychology, psychiatry, pedagogy, medicine, and all the practices and technologies surrounding them, force us to talk about our sexual desires. Everyone is required to speak out about his or her sexual nature, sexual preferences and desires.  And we are categorized according to our so called sexual identity. Foucault sees this as normalization and discipline: we are subjected to and judged by the power of the Norm (which determines what is normal, what is deviant), and held in check through the determination of our identity.

I have given now some reasons for my proposition that we should not read Beauvoir’s autobiography as 'autofiction'. Beauvoir’s Biographer Deirdre Bair has stated that Beauvoir in her  autobiography hides her true status as a grass widow, being totally oriented on  Sartre. Other feminist theoreticians, approaching Beauvoir from a feminist-psychoanalytical point of view,  read between the lines of her autobiography and conclude that she was a victim of culture, who was unable as a woman, to articulate her true inner feelings and desires. 

Yet others  - like for instance her American lover Nelson Algren - read her autobiography as the wishful thinking of the unhappy wife of an adulterous husband. But if we look only at the sexual life and desires of Simone de Beauvoir I am afraid we stick to the patterns of dominant culture. Or, in terms of Foucault: we then merely explain her project in terms of the scientia sexualis. We then risk to only repeat the sexual stereotypes for women that we find in our culture,  for instance the stereotype of the intellectual woman as an unhappy creature. We should be suspicious of this focus on Beauvoir’s sexual life and identity because this approach repeats the dominant ways women are looked upon in our culture. But how, then, should we think of Beauvoir's autobiography?


How should we interpret Beauvoir’s autobiography?

To answer this question we should focus our attention to a shift in Foucault's final works, a shift that boils down basically to a shift in his thinking on ethics.

In his first work on sexuality Foucault stated that we, people in the West today, have been produced by the scientia sexualis as subjects with desires, and that means as persons with an inner life. Through this dominant discourse we have become 'deep selves', constantly looking for our true inner feelings. Now Foucault hates the deep self.  And what's more, he in this phase, also hates ethics because it would be based on the deep self, on subjectivity as inner space, the type of subjectivity Foucault sees as the effect of discipline.

By contrast, in his last works on sexuality Foucault gives us a much broader view on today’s subjectivity, that is on the question of who we are at the present moment in history. We are not only subjugated people, our subjectivity is not only an effect of normalization and discipline, and, last but not least: ethics is not bad after all.

Foucault’s two last studies on sexuality, The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, comprise a revision of his earlier hypothesis that talking about sexuality dates from the nineteenth century. We find discourses which question sexual behaviour in Greek and Roman writings, and these are the topic of the two books just mentioned. In these books, Foucault brings to our attention the so-called prescriptive discourses on sexuality in Greek and Roman culture: ( I quote:) ‘that is, texts whose main object , whatever their form (speech, dialogue, treatise, collection of precepts, etc.) is to suggest rules of conduct... These texts thus served as functional devices that would enable individuals to question their own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it , and shape themselves as ethical subjects.’  (end of quote).

Foucault mentions ethics here, and he now in his work makes a distinction between ethics and moral rules. We nowadays only think of ethics as a set of moral rules that prescribe how we should behave, he says. But in antiquity there were hardly any rules. Ethics consisted of vocabularies that were aimed at the concrete shaping of one’s own existence. Foucault calls these Greek and Hellenist ethical discourse aesthetics of existence, or free self-practices. He describes them as follows: (I quote) ‘What I mean by the phrase are those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria.’ (end of quote).

Foucault goes on to demonstrate how extensive these vocabularies were in antiquity, who by the way were aimed solely at Greek - free - men and the extent to which techniques had been worked out in detail to control and style their sexual behaviour. Among those selftechniques are ways of testing oneself (for instance trying to pass a beautiful boy in the street and not get sexually aroused); there are the techniques of daily inventoring one’s actions, of constant care of the self by all kinds of pratices and strategies, and of extensive writing practices, the writing of so called hypomnemata, notebooks to remember things, and letters of course.  All these techniques were aimed at selfmastery, the mastery of one’s sexual life. Because only when we are master of ourselves we can relate to others without tyrannizing them. That’s why we deal here with ethics, with ethical vocabularies. The most important characteristic of these vocabularies was that they offered the tools to freely CREATE oneself as an ethical subject, something which in Foucault’s opinion  should inspire us again. Western culture has had a long tradition of these selfpractices, but they have become invisible, attached and overwhelmed as they are by the discourses of religion or human sciences, that submit people into docile objects and disciplined subjects (looking for- and confessing - the truth about their inner feelings). Foucault thus states that we Western people of today are in fact cocktails of on the one hand discipline AND on the other free discourses of subjectivity.  Not only has he broadened our view of our type of subjectivity nowadays, and not only has he done away with the taboo on ethics in postmodernism,  he also offers to my mind a new heuristic view on a lot of writing practices in history. We should try to find out about many writers if we really find traces of the type of selfpractices that go back to the Greek and Hellenist free ethical selfpractices, practices of free creation of an ethical self..
I can now extrapolate this thinking of the final Foucault to the question how we should interpret Beauvoir’s autobiographical work.

Like Sartre, Beauvoir was strongly opposed to moral theory as such. Existential philosophy states that every human being is free and has to invent his or her own behaviour and there are no positive maximes or general rules that we can apply. But unlike the existentialist Sartre, Beauvoir kept a lifelong interest in ethics. In her philosophical essays, among them The Ethics of Ambiguity, she tried to work out a type of ethics that is not Kantian, that does not consist of general moral rules but that consists of an attitude. We constantly have to freely shape ourselves into a specific subject in the world. This is an ethical attitude because only if we dare to shape ourselves into a subject, we do not live through others, and we do not tyrannize them. Only if we accept our freedom in this way, we can endorse the freedom of others. With this aim in mind, the aim of shaping ourselves into a specific, responsible, subject in the world,  we constantly have to carefully style our daily behaviour.

Not only do we find here a lot of similarities with the selfpractices or the aesthetics of existence that Foucault detected in history. In The Mandarins (Beauvoir’s philosophical novel) Beauvoir explicitly launched a term for such a type of ethic: the term ‘art de vivre’, art of living - a term that shows much resemblance as well to the one Foucault has chosen.

Beauvoir’s autobiographical work thus should be seen in the framework of her ethical theory. It should be conceived of as a selftechnique in a moral sense. Beauvoir wrote diaries, letters, as well as five volumes autobiography, all as ways of inventorying and styling her daily behaviour, thereby trying to create herself as ethical subject that could strive for the  freedom of her fellow human beings. Her writing practices were a means of her to’question her own conduct, to watch over and give shape to it, and shape herself as ethical subject’ (to quote a line of Foucault that I quoted before).
Now, finally I will plea some refining of Foucault’s concepts by pointing out the essential point of Beauvoir’s ethics once more.

To win an ethical self Beauvoir was convinced that every person has to live his own life, and has not to live through others, because it is only in that way that we do not tyrannize other people, and not use them for our own ends. The consequence of this for her is that men should not oppress women and use them for their own ends. Another consequence is that women should strive for a status as ethical self themselves. Her project was, one could say, the winning of a moral self. Women had to fight their oppression and had to fight any tendency to cling on other persons. They in other words had to win an ethical self.

She saw her own inclination to cling on Sartre as something she had to combat. She wanted to create an identity of her own, her project being the winning of a moral autonomy towards the men in her life. And she used not only the selftechnique of writing but lots of other selftechniques as well. Many of you are probably familiar with the famous lines in her autobiography about her arrival in Marseille, where she started to work and live on her own, thereby training herself to thrust on her own again. She undertook long walks on her own, to test her capacity to be alone. Later on she created her own professional practice by introducing a serious working pattern, according to fixed rituals. She also travelled extensively on her own, to force herself to be someone by herself, to keep faithful to her philosophical project of the constant winning of an ethical self.

Beauvoir has added precisely this dimension to the history of the arts of existence: the coping with the immediate feelings that drive us to others. Thereby she emphasizes the importance of emotional life and of our feelings of symbiosis with other persons, something Foucault and his cold Greeks and Stoicists never really addressed. They were busy with selfmastery, in the sense of coping with their own sexual life. Beauvoir’s concern is not selfmastery but the winning of a self. If we want to find the ethical selfpractices of girls and women in history I think we need this dimension as a refinement of Foucault’s concepts.

The striving for moral autonomy, the project of the winning of a self, could for instance be at stake in the tradition of girls' and women’s diaries. It could well be the case that these writing practices in fact belong to the tradition of ethical selfpractices goes back to the ethical selfpractices that Foucault wants us to decipher in history, a tradition we have only enlarged by a concept of Beauvoir. We have to wait for the publication of the diaries of the princess of Wales, to see whether hers was really the project of winning a self in a moral sense.

To me it seems that it was the striving for moral autonomy that was - in the case of Beauvoir - and still is  - in the case of Diana - recognized by women all over the world and the reason why these women were ‘such an inspiration’ to a lot of them.

Martha Nussbaum in her The Fragility of Goodness demonstrated how the hero of Greek tragedy is the one that is fragile in his fight against destiny. It is this fragility that makes human beauty, something we do not find in the Gods. For the moment we can at least - with respect to Beauvoir - conclude that she fought with her destiny (being that of living as a dutiful daughter). We know that her fight was not succesfull in all respects but I think this is what made her life attractive to a lot of women. It makes her all the more sympathetic as the heroine in a Greek tragedy.



Deirdre Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit, 1990
S. de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.
S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
S. de Beauvoir, The Mandarins. Cleveland: World, 1956
M. Foucault. The Use of Pleasure. London: Penguin, 1986

M. Foucault. The Care of the Self.  London: Penguin, 1986
M. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986