de Beauvoir and Iris Murdoch

I don’t often see the New York Review of Books, but I was trekking high up with a group of friends recently, with no access to papers, so we swapped our reading around. As a result I got to see a fascinating review by Elaine Blair of Kate Kirkpatrick’s biography of de Beauvoir (accompanied by an elegant cartoon by Karl Stevens of deB at a cafe table, fag hanging from lower lip).

I have always admired not just deB’s brilliance, but the fact that she opened up not just gender but old age as fields for politics as well as philosophy. That’s two pretty major strikes. The review argues that she probably had a greater influence on Sartre’s thinking than she’d taken – or been given – credit for, and offers two reasons for this. The first seems at first to be a classic Paula Principle factor 3 – lack of confidence:

Despite her early sense of vocation as a writer, she lacked confidence…The image of their relationship that had been passed down to posterity reflects Sartre’s self-confidence and her self-doubt.”

But a different explanation is possible. deB loved teaching philosophy, and was ‘dizzy with delight’ at having a teaching job, whereas Sartre took it for granted that he would pass the agr├ęgation and set his sights higher. So for her becoming a teacher was ‘the triumphant fulfilment of an improbably grand ambition’. In other words, it was for her a positive choice (PP factor 5). Probably a combination of both.

A further explanation comes from a different book, by Margaret Simon: deB deliberately downplayed her own influence on Sartre because she didn’t want people to think that she had written The Second Sex out of resentment – though in fact some critics did think exactly that. Damned if you do….

And so to another author who combined philosophy and fiction. Immediately on my return my book group read Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net (at my suggestion, as it happens), her first novel. We all (bar one) enjoyed it much more than we had expected; I had been a Murdoch fan in my youth, but got rather tired of her later output which became more and more formulaic. UtN is delightful – both witty and funny, and its philosophising is light compared with later works. Murdoch had already published a book on Sartre by the time she chose to branch out into fiction as well – presumably putting somewhat at risk her reputation as a professional philospher, as deB also did. I now have to go and find out what Murdoch thought of de Beauvoir.

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