Simone de Beauvoir and La Vieillesse – A True Transitional Figure

When speaking of French intellectuals, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre are often discussed in tandem due to their close working and personal relationships and their shared existentialist philosophy. However, in terms of French media, both were key transitional figures in the progression from the written word to newly evolved mass media. In Qu’est-ce que la littérature?,  Sartre described the new media as ‘les nouveaux langages’ stating that ‘il faut apprendre à parler en images, à transposer les idées de nos livres dans ces nouveaux langages.’i Through the analysis of a television interview given by de Beauvoir (19th June 1970) on her book La Vieillesse, much can be said about this early period of transition and about her role in this progression which aided the development of her philosophy.

Context

In the newly formed Fifth Republic of Charles de Gaulle, media censorship prevented the dissemination of radical intellectual ideas such as the existentialist Marxism of de Beauvoir and Sartre.ii Their ideologies surrounding freedom, responsibility and authenticity presented a threat to the power of the fragile bourgeoise democracy because if the public embraced existentialist Marxism, this could lead to revolution and rejection of hierarchical power. The de Beauvoir interview at the centre of this discussion did not air on French television, but on the French-Canadian programme ‘Actualité au Féminin.’iii How did the use of intermediality display de Beauvoir as a transitional figure in the world of French intellectuals? In order to help highlight the importance of this progression in French media, the discussion will be split in two parts: (i) filming devices and (ii) de Beauvoir’s self-representation.

Filming devices

The start of the interview presents a new side to de Beauvoir which is inaccessible when reading a text. The new visual dimension transports you directly to her living room where she sits in an armchair like everyone else, immediately establishing a sense of personalisation and intimacy. This inclusivity bridges the gap between the intellectual and the public in the construction of a new relationship based on equality.

de-beauvoir.jpg

De Beauvoir presents herself in her natural surroundings

The camera techniques further develop this inclusivity as zooming into her face highlights signs of aging displaying immense courage and self-confidence. This is reflective of her ideology surrounding self-Other relations and reciprocity as she relates to her audience as both subject and object whilst displaying equal freedoms. Coexistence and formation of collective identities, such as the identity of old people as ‘paria’, is inevitable. However, disappearing into a collective identity is a rejection of responsibility so societal inequalities remain unchanged. De Beauvoir, on the other hand, displays herself as the object of her discussion by boldly presenting herself as an old woman with clear signs of aging. She isn’t afraid of intense situations and uses her potential vulnerability as a powerful tool to invite others to stand up for themselves. With the written word, it isn’t possible to appeal to the public on such a high level as de Beauvoir cannot herself become a visual object; she can only explain the subject matter under discussion. The images below show the zooming progression in the first half of the interview:

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Self-representation

As mentioned above, de Beauvoir certainly isn’t camera shy. She appears relaxed, but is very blunt and to the point. When the interviewer asks her what aging is exactly, she replies in an almost exasperated tone saying ‘c’est beaucoup de choses à la fois!’ She can’t be expected to summarise a 600 page book in one minute! This side to de Beauvoir would be indistinguishable through the written word as although La Vieillesse is matter of fact and less emotional than Une Mort Très Douce, this kind of immediate reaction cannot be perceived. She starts by expressing aging in physical terms as a ‘phénomène biologique’ and explains how this relates to economic and social conditions. Old people are prevented from working, striking fear in most individuals as quality of life diminishes due to finances. This is presented as a fact which embodies the notion of intellectuelle engagée as she openly criticised the government by playing an active role in society.

 

By hearing de Beauvoir’s voice in addition to the visuality of camera techniques, it becomes easier to understand her as a person. A key example displaying her confidence is her use of definitive answers. When asked if becoming old is a terrible thing, she simply replies no. She then openly states that although she can’t do the things she used to when she was younger, she is still living, working and participating in her hobbies. This public personal embracement of old age openly criticises bourgeois societal myths surrounding aging as a universalist and burdensome phenomenon.v

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In relation to De Beauvoir’s notion of the Other as reciprocally equal, change can’t be brought alone alone. She therefore also explains variations in aging in general terms by using the example of 55 year olds who are already ‘usés’ like 85 year olds and vice versa to maintain collective consciousness. However, de Beauvoir herself is reflective of aging being dependent on the individual as she is aware that physical deterioration induces ageist stereotypes, but she embraces these changes to display that actions and opinions don’t have to belong in this oppressed category.

De Beauvoir is insistent on changing perceptions of old people and, as Sartre stated, ‘an individual has to act as a moral conscience for his/her age.’ vi De Beauvoir embodies this perfectly by addressing the struggle of power relations between the ruling group and the oppressed (vii) and through openly stating that she doesn’t think her book can change society. However, she is not fazed by this and speaks with an equally strong conviction as she hoped La Vieillesse would change perceptions of the elderly as La Deuxième Sexe raised awareness of the feminine condition. It is this creation of understanding about economic power and control which can promote movements of thought even if it can’t overthrow economic power. Her words are inspiring as they are spoken with power and belief.

Despite censorship, de Beauvoir’s role as a transitional figure in French media is still undeniable: she was an intellectuelle engagée who was willing to actively make her ideologies widely accessible and not just for the highly educated. Visuality and sound unearths the real de Beauvoir not only changing perceptions of the elderly, but of intellectuals. This is perfectly reflected in the interview as she answers questions immediately and presents herself as a bold image of her own beliefs. She doesn’t hide from her privileges, but uses her own position as an elderly intellectual woman to highlight societal problems and speak out about political and economic inequalities.

Notes

i Jean-Paul Sartre, Qu’est-ce que la littérature ? (France : Gallimard, 1985)
ii Michael Scott Christopherson, French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Movement of the 1970’s (New York: Bergan Books, 2004), p. 65.
iii Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Des Parias’ (Interviewed by Actualié au Féminin) (19 June, 1970) <https://www.rts.ch/archives/tv/divers/actualite-au-feminin/7642345-des-parias.html&gt; (accessed 9 November, 2017)
iv Ursula Tidd, Simone de Beauvoir (New York: Routeledge, 2001), p. 34.
v Ibid. p.p. 103-112.
vi Michel Scriven, Sartre and the Media (London: The Macmillan Press, 1993), p. 119.
vii Tidd, p. 105.

Further Reading

Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe : Tome 1 (France : Gallimard, 1986)

Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxieme Sexe : Tome 2 (France : Gallimard, 1966)

Simone de Beauvoir, La Vieillesse (France : Gallimard, 1970)

Simone de Beauvoir, Une Mort Très Douce, (France : Gallimard, 1972)

Simone de Beauvoir, L’existentialisme et la Sagesse des Nations (Mayenne : Gallimard, 2007)

Elizabeth Fallaize, Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader (London / New York: Routledge, 1998)

Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; 2nd edition)

 

Delphine Nicolas-Pierre, Beauvoir au delà du Centenaire, Acta fabula, vol. 11, n° 2, Essais critiques (February, 2010) <http://www.fabula.org/acta/document5505.php&gt;

 

 

Image Credit: Radio-Télévision Suisse. Actualié au Féminin, 19 June, 1970. https://www.rts.ch/archives/tv/divers/actualite-au-feminin/7642345-des-parias.html

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