How To Be You: Simone de Beauvoir and the Art of Authentic Living

Skye Cleary

Ebury, £14.99


Review by Susan Flockhart

Could existentialism be ripe for a comeback? Today’s young people have been described as “the most fluid generation in history”, so perhaps GenZ are in tune with the convention-flouting, Gauloises-puffing French philosophers who argued that humans must remain free to create their own “essences” through their actions, rather than being limited by some imagined inner nature or societal mores.

If so, good luck to them. They have, after all, been born into an age that seems obsessed with personal identity. Even the latest Census felt like an exercise in state-sanctioned navel-gazing, inviting us all to pigeonhole ourselves by ethnicity, religion, sexuality and nationality.

What would Simone de Beauvoir have made of the state we are in? At first glance, How To Be You looks like the sort of book the grande dame of existentialism would have railed against. But author Skye Cleary insists this isn’t a self-help guide but instead, aims to illuminate “the tyrannies of other people’s demands on us and the chains we impose on ourselves in the name of love, duty, or any other strings of excuses we offer up to avoid responsibility for our freedom”.

Cleary is a New York-based academic who came to philosophy by an unusual route, having started out as a Wall Street trader then stumbled upon Beauvoir’s ideas while studying for the MBA she hoped would offer an escape route from “financial vampirism” and a future spent jogging along the treadmill of other people’s expectations. She quickly became an enthusiastic – though not uncritical – admirer of Beauvoir’s oeuvre and her book offers an entertaining introduction to the life and work of the eminent author, resistance fighter and feminist pioneer.

Born in Paris in 1908, Beauvoir studied philosophy at the Sorbonne where she met Jean-Paul Sartre: the intellectual sparring partner with whom she enjoyed a lifelong – but famously open – relationship (they never lived together and each had what they jokingly called “contingent” affairs with other people). In her landmark feminist tome, The Second Sex, Beauvoir said that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” – by which she meant that so-called feminine traits such as fragility, motherliness or submissiveness are products of socialisation rather than biology.

Does this make her a “trans-inclusionary feminist”? Cleary believes so, seeing that well-known quote as implying that “not all people born male become male and that people born without female (or male) organs may potentially become women”. For good measure, she cites Beauvoir’s sympathetic authorial treatment of a hermaphrodite character in her 1943 novel, She Came To Stay.

Cleary is probably right that Beauvoir would have embraced the notion of gender fluidity, though where she’d have stood on contentious matters such as women-only spaces is less clear. The potential implications for hard-won sex-based rights mean competing freedoms are arguably at stake, and my hunch is Beauvoir would have approached this thorny topic with analytical gusto.

In her day, of course, intellectual debate was less dangerous. Beauvoir came to conclusions that now seem ludicrous (she thought morning sickness resulted from existential alienation rather than hormones) or outrageous (by signing a petition against age-of-consent laws, she was widely construed as sanctioning paedophilia). Had she been writing in the social media age, I suspect that Beauvoir would have been summarily cancelled.

Thankfully, she wrote bravely and freely until her death aged 78 in 1986, authoring dozens of books which Cleary skilfully distils in clear and engaging prose. Simone de Beauvoir also lived her own philosophy. She never married and once argued that “any institution which solders one person to another, obliging people to sleep together who no longer want to is a bad one”. Nor did she have children, which she saw as a form of enslavement. (Cleary, who seems excruciatingly wary of upsetting the “intersectional” apple cart, describes that analogy as “insensitive” because it “overlooks that the situation of women of colour has been much more dire than for white women”.)

Cleary herself opted for both marriage and motherhood and her viscerally honest account of the isolation she endured while coping with a bawling baby reads like a howl of despair. She also takes a veiled swipe at her husband for frequently skedaddling to the sports ground during those early months on the pretext that since he couldn’t breastfeed, he couldn’t help. You don’t need a philosophy degree to spot the holes in that argument.

Beauvoir envisioned “a society that supports mothers and shares children’s care with a larger group” and Cleary concurs, citing Scandinavian shared parental leave policies as exemplars of good practice. In doing so, she reminds us that while the battle for equality is far from won, significant progress has been made since The Second Sex was published in 1949.

Yet although Cleary pays tribute to Beauvoir’s impact as a catalyst for the feminist movement, her book sometimes reads as though societal attitudes were still stuck in the 1940s. Supposedly, tropes such as “boys don’t cry” have gone 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 parents’ bible, Hurrah For Gin, suggests plenty of mums are lustily kicking against the pricks.

I also think she occasionally risks “othering” men (existentialist jargon for perceiving all their choices in terms of their assumed maleness). “It was easy for [Jean-Paul Sartre] to drink his whisky and sit in cafes without discrimination, walk down the street without being catcalled and exist without fear or hate”. Really? He may never have been catcalled but Sartre – who was mercilessly bullied in childhood due to his wandering blind eye – may have seen things differently.

This is, however, a courageous and important book. Beauvoir, who wrote four volumes of memoir, was sometimes accused of narcissism and Cleary admits she worries that in writing about her own life, she’ll be considered “cringeworthy” or philosophically irrelevant. She should have no such fears. Like Beauvoir, her personal experience serves admirably as a conduit to exploring universal questions.

Her chapter on mortality includes a poignant reflection on a friendship with a depressive who eventually committed suicide. Could she have done more to prevent it; committed him to an institution thus robbing 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 with which she, and de Beauvoir, have grappled.

Her observations on the business of growing old are wise and rather uplifting; her call to rebelliousness as an antidote to despondency and bad faith is enervating. How To Be You should appeal to thinking people of all generations.