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Sartre and de Beauvoir at Balzac Memorial

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre wanted more from life than it could give. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Like all those who place the ego’s false persona before all else, Simone De Beauvoir struggled mightily with the reality of death. She writes of “the scandal of finiteness,” referring to our inescapable mortality. When you insist on emphasizing your separateness and see yourself as merely an isolated conscious ego, it becomes inevitable that fear of the permanent extinction of consciousness – occasioned by physical death – will threaten your peace of mind. Death can become something of a preoccupation.

The real scandal here is de Beauvoir’s way of ignoring the bigger picture – the immortality of the human race, which transcends individual mortality. Unfortunately, for those locked into believing they are merely a self-made false persona, only the individual counts. They never look beyond the boundaries of self-absorption and never seem to learn that such selfishness comes at a terrible price. Placing too much emphasis on maintaining a false image is a massive source of anxiety. The chronic angst generated by the necessity of maintaining and defending an idealized false persona is confused with fear of death and labelled existential angst. However, it is the dread of humiliation and exposure as a fraud that really drives this kind of continuing anxiety. The more-immediate fear is the death of the false persona.

Choosing a false self over the authentic one is indicative of self-alienation. In de Beauvoir’s case, the clues are abundant. De Beauvoir writes, “solitude is a form of death.” Fear of being alone is a classic symptom of self-alienation, the inability to tolerate one’s own company due to self-loathing or the lack of a well-defined sense of self. She also came at this idea from the other direction saying that death is the ultimate aloneness. The notion is another sign of self-alienation. Those who are self-alienated have an exaggerated need to be with people so they can ease their pain with the regard and affection of others.

De Beauvoir inevitably took up the usual fallback position of those who cannot see past their own mortality. She chose to believe that death gave life its meaning. The idea is that the inevitability of death makes life more precious, more poignant, and therefore of heightened significance. We must reaffirm our commitment to ourselves and squeeze every drop of pleasure or satisfaction from life that we possibly can. This view is completely self-centred and utterly unacceptable. Worse, it exacerbates the problem of existential angst thereby nullifying any benefits. The proper approach is to have life derive its meaning from sharing the interests of something that is greater than the individual. Examples would be the future of your people, your nation, or a great social institution. There are many others. Larger entities have something that an individual can never acquire: a lengthy past, traditions, and an indefinite future.

When we participate in, and identify with, something greater than ourselves, we know that the larger entity will go on after our demise. Thus, death is no longer the end of everything. Simone de Beauvoir, like her lover, the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, wanted something from life that it could not give. They demanded the complete untrammelled freedom to function as unattached individuals with the right to define themselves arbitrarily as they saw fit. Not surprisingly, the pair then spent a great deal of time complaining about how bad they felt. To this very day, many people try to live in just this fashion, and with similar results.