One of the upsides of visiting the graves of thinkers I admire (or grudgingly respect) is that you see towns and cities, or parts of towns and cities, that you would never see otherwise. Paris has two major cemeteries: Père Lachaise (largest) and Montparnasse (second largest). In today's instalment of my series, Philosophers' Stones
, I'm taking you to Montparnasse Cemetery in the city's 14th arrondissement, on the left bank of the Seine in the shadow of that ugly brown skyscraper which doesn't get any prettier up close. Still, it didn't spoil our wonderful visit there on a lovely spring morning in Paris. As the name suggests, this necropolis, a beautifully designed one at that, sits on a hill offering magnificent views of the capital city. Many of the stunning tombstones are listed as historic monuments.
Since the 19th century, over 300,000 people have been buried here, including artists, intellectuals, composers, musicians, poets, politicians and scientists, including the painter Soutine, the Jewish French officer at the centre of J'accuse
political drama Alfred Dreyfus, poet and essayist Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, singer Paul Gainsbourg, Susan Sontag, Samuel Beckett and the feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir. It was de Beauvoir I had come to visit.
Parisian couples walking their pooches mingle with tombstone tourists like me and my husband. As we weaved our way around simple tombstones, monumental graves and family mausoleums, we were struck by the wide range of funerary styles: Egyptian, Gothic, Renaissance and Art Nouveau. It really is a beautiful, airy, bright and restful place to stroll while catching the vista of central Paris. As soon as you enter the northern gate of the cemetery, where we by chance entered, just to the right is the shared tomb of de Beauvoir and Sartre, her companion and lover for 50 years. Unlike these giants of existentialism and European intellectual life, their faded tombstone is simple, plain and unremarkable. But the tombstone tourists had left their mark: dozens of red lipstick stains covered the small stone where pilgrims of de Beauvoir and Sartre left their romantic imprint.
Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher, political activist and feminist will always be – perhaps unfortunately – associated with Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading French existentialist between the wars and into the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, because her output is always read in the light of his, when it is probably the case that she had as much influence on him as he did on her.
The best example of this is Sartre's most widely read philosophical work, a short essay called Existentialism is a Humanism
. This essay, in which Sartre provides a short summary of existentialism, departs in many important ways from the views set out in his chef-d'oeuvre Being and Nothingness.
And those departures are due to de Beauvoir's criticisms of the latter. In effect, Sartre's most widely read piece is as much her work as his. Voila. C'est la vie de la femme.
De Beauvoir's most famous non-fiction work, The Second Sex
, sets out in painful detail how the freedom of women to become their chosen 'possible', that is, to become the woman they want to be, is perpetually threatened by the expectations of French society, including the expectations of other women. Although it was intended as a contribution to existentialist philosophy, the main theme being the challenge of leading an 'authentic' life by the standards of atheistic existentialism, it has since been adopted as a major work of the feminist movement.
Interestingly enough, although the book was well received generally, many French women wrote to de Beauvoir saying they felt alienated by the work's forbidding technical terminology. Anyone who has had the 'pleasure' of reading a French existentialist of any description will no doubt sympathise. She tried to deal with this criticism by writing in other forms, including biography and fiction. In this, she was following good French practice. Ever since Voltaire, French intellectuals seem to think they are required to write fiction as well as philosophical treatises.
Last time in Philosophers' Stones,
writing about Marx, I mentioned that many are unsure as to whether he should be categorised as a philosopher. The same might well be said of de Beauvoir and Sartre. There is no pretence to theoretical consistency in either of them. This is part and parcel of existentialism's revolt against societal norms, and its embrace of the 'absurdity' of the human predicament. Why have a consistent philosophy if the main message is that everything is pointless and absurd? Although it feels very dated now, and very French, it is best to keep in mind that de Beauvoir was an activist as much as a philosopher. And she had some pretty effective slogans to inspire her followers. Perhaps the most famous was: 'Existence precedes essence'. It's a neat slogan. Short, sharp, memorable. Just don't think about it too much.
De Beauvoir died in 1986. It was her wish for her body to be placed in the same tomb as Sartre. Her burial followed a 2,000-strong funeral procession led by women. At the cemetery, film director Claude Lanzmann read the eulogy, and said that although de Beauvoir will rest eternally beside Sartre, who died six years earlier, she said: 'My death will not reunite us'. You were an existentialist to the end, sister.
We left the cemetery and walked back to central Paris, fittingly to de Beauvoir and Sartre's old stomping ground in St-Germain-des-Prés and, of course, had a (bloody expensive) glass of champagne – the lover's tipple – in their local, Café de Flore. I experienced a strange feeling of nostalgia sitting exactly where they sat: strange, because I hadn't been part of Rive Gauche intellectual life, but wish I had at least been a witness of it.