French writer and feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir was Jean Paul Sartre’s long-time lover and companion. She did not consider herself a philosopher, but nevertheless advanced some challenging ideas. One of these was her concept of the “useless passion,” the desire to be God. De Beauvoir posited two sides to this passion: violence and merging. Violence, the attempt to wound or destroy others is a bid for omnipotence. Merging with the world or cosmos, what we might call the “all-is-one” philosophy is a bid for omnipresence and omniscience. At the philosophical level, the useless passion stems from the truth of human existence; that is, that we are finite and that we will die. The useless passion is our desire to escape from our finiteness. It is important to realize that those who espouse violence and the all-is-one philosophy may be unaware of their true motives for doing so.
The useless passion arises from the inability to accept the reality of human separateness. This fear of being apart (from others, from the world) stems in turn from having a poorly defined sense of self. People who do not know themselves have an exaggerated need for the regard and affection of others and often intensely dislike being alone. Ironically, de Beauvoir herself suffered from this difficulty of a poorly defined sense of self. She was terrified of being alone and experienced intense loneliness when on her own.
A well-defined sense of self is essential before we can respect and take pleasure in differences. Someone with a strong sense of self enjoys the character of others and does not feel threatened by differences between themselves and other people. In the same way, a sturdy sense of self allows the enjoyment of the uniqueness of things in the world. Those with a poorly defined sense of self prefer the all-is-one way of looking at things. They like conformity, uniformity, and merging.
De Beauvoir was a self-hater – the classic symptom of self-alienation or a poorly defined sense of self. Having identified with the plight of the poor, she felt guilty and ashamed of her origins in a privileged class. (Virginia Woolf, another early and influential feminist, suffered from precisely the same problem. She too felt guilty about coming from a moneyed class.) For de Beauvoir warring with the self (self-hate, self-loathing) appears as the internal mirroring of the potential violence between the self and others. The violence has turned inward. Remember that potential violence is an aspect of the desire to be God. De Beauvoir must have derived her concept of the useless passion from her own experience.
- Simone de Beauvoir on Life’s Possibilities (thomascotterill.wordpress.com)
- Simone de Beauvoir on Death (thomascotterill.wordpress.com)