Which of Simone de Beauvoir's works would you recommend to someone as of yet unfamiliar with her writings?
My devotion to de Beauvoir cannot be overstated enough, and so I barely contain myself in stopping short of responding « everything! ». De Beauvoir considered herself an author, first and foremost, and so her philosophical and political writings are – within the context of being termed a ‘philosopher’ – gratifyingly readable.
My first taste of de Beauvoir was Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) and I remain convinced that it is one of the finest pieces of nonfiction writing of the 20th century, in addition to being an ideal introduction to her work. It provides a fascinating exercise in witnessing de Beauvoir apply her philosophically-trained mind to her jeunesse, exploring questions in semiotics, ontology, and beyond. De Beauvoir’s philosophy of existentialist humanism is also most apparent and tangible, and will become even more apparent in her other works. Philosophy aside though, it is foremost a deeply intimate articulation of de Beauvoir’s own inner landscape. It is an epiphanic piece of writing, before which very few had evoked such a level of visceral sympathy; I imagine it is true too for any young woman of discerning mind who has ever been bound by decorum and social expectation. That is to say nothing of its Proustian consideration of memory and its persistence throughout one’s lifetime and its continuous colouring of the present.
For me, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) is essential literature. Terming it the « feminist Bible » is insensitively glib, and entirely undermines the essence of the work: a manifesto of the female condition and its social and political construction. It is not intended to be a comforting polemic, and yet it is – a verbalisation of the convert fears, fantasies, and desires regarding womanhood that suddenly empowered a generation of women who previously regarded such articulations as only possible in secret. Volumes upon volumes have extolled the brilliance of Sexe, and I need not belabour them, except to marvel at (and be bemused by) the fact that it is still considered a radical work. To reiterate: essential reading.
The Mandarins is, essentially, a nonfiction work thinly disguised as fiction. It tells of the intelligentsia of post-war France and their reconciliation of rhetoric, principle, and l’essence de vie in a mutable world. The work chiefly acts as a platform to expound de Beauvoir’s own views and document shrewd observations concerning her intellectual circle. The characters are veritably lifelike, the passages of dialogue sparkling, and the immediacy of the themes retain relevance. While the philosophy is beyond reproach, the writing, however, is not, and reveals de Beauvoir’s moderate weaknesses as a narrative author. Nevertheless, it is entirely worth perusing for further elucidations on de Beauvoir’s philosophies.
I would finally suggest The Ethics of Ambiguity as a bookend to de Beauvoir’s major philosophical output. It continues the tradition of individual responsibility in constructing personal meaning, as she did in Sexe, but here through the more general visage of essence (think Sartre’s existence precedes essence). She claims that the « ambiguity » is a function of the dissonance between the material tangibility of the world and the self-constructed reality of the inner self. De Beauvoir dwells considerably on this dualism, as well as the relationship between mind-body, spirit-matter, etc, and its implications for moral freedom. Ethics is the most technical of her philosophical output, closer to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness or Heidegger’s Being and Time than to her other works, but the philosophy essence remains the same, placed within the context of her feminist framework found elsewhere in Sexe. More interestingly, I think, is her consideration of personal dualism – not in the Cartesian sense, mind, but in the perpetual discord of acknowledging personal freedom of choice and action, and deciding when to deploy it, leading to ‘sub-man’ acts such as bigotry and violence as a rejection of such choice. Ethics is a complex work, but if you manage to get through it, will find it entirely rewarding in the degree to which it coalesces fragments of themes found de Beauvoir’s other works, producing a definitive philosophy of – ultimately – freedom.
For further reading, I would also highly suggest de Beauvoir’s interview with the Paris Review - http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4444/the-art-of-fiction-no-35-simone-de-beauvoir for extraordinary insights into the mind of this extraordinary woman.