A few years ago I heard rumors of a new and exciting French philosopher inheriting the existentialist mantle—a woman named Chloé Beauvoir. She carried the usual aura of fashionable Gallic fame—occupying a professorship at a legendary Paris university, providing public lectures, holding forth at cafés in le Quartier Latin and in Montparnasse with students and European intellectuals, intensely debating on television, writing extensive essays in literary journals, as well as penning a series of small, passionately-argued and poetically-expressed philosophy books with bland, intimidating covers produced by obscure European publishers.
So, when a friend of mine, attached to the behavioral unit of the diplomatic station in Paris, mentioned he could set up an interview with Professeur Chloé Beauvoir, I readily agreed. If nothing else, it might be useful to share her popular views with the English-speaking world.
We met near her school, in Montparnasse, at the famed Café Le Select, the legendary haunt of Hemingway and that 1920s literary circle. I arrived at Le Select a bit early, but she was already waiting for me at an outside table, sipping white wine and making notes with a gold and black-lacquered pen in a cream-colored, leather-covered journal. As I approached and introduced myself, she stood up, smiled pleasantly, greeted me, offered her hand, then gestured gracefully to a chair.
Professeur Chloé (as everyone calls her) looks like that famous blonde French movie star from the south of France, except that the professeur’s hair is short, almost pixie-like, yet somehow manages to touch her shoulders. She was wearing black ballet flats, black tights, a black, long-sleeved t-shirt, and had a red and gold Hermès scarf tied carelessly around her neck. A bracelet of gold and lapis lazuli dragonflies circled her left wrist, and a rose gold watch enclosed her right. She was lightly made up, with red lips and dark eyes, and she faintly wafted a compelling perfume. The professeur is slim and radiates acrobatic poise. She has a bright, pleasant expression, pearl-like teeth, a quick and reassuring smile, and a light, droll, infectious laugh—a good raconteur as well as a good listener. I ordered a roast beef sandwich and a Cabernet, and Chloé ordered a salade César. As we ate, we conversed.
I: Many people have noted over the years your strong connection to the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Would you be willing to say something about that?
PC: Sartre, yes. I very much consider myself a child of Sartre. Not too many people do understand him, and that likely included Jean-Paul himself. He wasn’t truly concerned about being and nothingness—that was an Aristotelian concern, not French. We French know who we are. No, no. Starting with un café at the Café de Flore or Le Select—an essential beginning to all great thought—Sartre really had three proposals.
I: And those three were?
PC: First, the essence of life is passion—love and energy. So French! This is why the French take seriously phenomena everyone else overlooks—beauty, architecture, fountains and parks, places to walk and sit, and for children to play, design, couturier, perfume, literature, opera, poetry, painting and sculpture, marvelous museums, splendid food and wine, the café life, and, above all, a love of romance, and a deep affection for children. Life itself, as it were.
This is the seduction of the French, as the New York Times editor, Sciolino, pointed out. This is why millions of visitors are drawn to France, why people all over the world want their cities to be thought of as “The Paris of Here-or-There”.
There is a beauty and perfection and depth in the French view of life that is not only passionately artistic, but eternally attractive. Chic, panache, joie de vivre, bonhomie, élan vital—these well-known terms expressing the heart of living are all French.
I: Anything else?
PC: Yes, second, there must be progressive dreams, pure ideals—of a better world, of a better humanity, of a better life and identity for any given human being, of a better today, a better tomorrow. That marvelous eidetic image—that vision—of wish and hope must come shining across the sky if we are to endure.
I: And finally?
PC: Yes, yes, third, our lives, if we are to live them truly and well, must have factitiousness—realization. Ideas alone are not enough. Words alone are not enough. By themselves, they are merely flies seeking to exit a situation, as Sartre remarked. Ideas and words must be grounded in reality—they must be realized. The Tour Eiffel, the Champs-Élysées, the Jardin du Luxembourg, as beautiful as they are, must be built, must be maintained, and must be paid for. It is ever so.
These three Sartrean notions—passion, vision, and realization—I believe, offer a foundation for a beautiful life, a sane and safe monde merveilleux.
I: And then . . . Simone de Beauvoir? Is there anything you would like to say about her?
PC: Ahhhhh . . . sweet Simone. The mother of us all! Her Sorbonne brilliance has been sadly, unjustly neglected. She truly draws on a long line of feminist thinkers all the way back to Anatolia thousands of years ago, perhaps to women of Amyzon, in Caria. Women are perfectly capable of being magistrates and captains of trade and do so excellently. The marvelous Queens Artémise, from Caria, and Hatchepsout, from Egypt—such formidable women glow across time.
Women are highly attuned to holisme, to the necessity of considering the benefits of all parties at once. And they are highly attuned to the necessity of développement of all parties, the necessity of nurturing talents and hopes.
I: Well put, I should say. To return to the more recent intellectual scene, would you consider yourself a post-modernist thinker, in the tradition of Foucault and Althusser?
PC: No, no—I have moved beyond post-modernism, and post-structuralism, and have come full circle. I am an existentialist, like Simone and Jean-Paul. Thinkers who have drifted past structure, yet not seen the error of their ways, are simply a mess, making messes—chaos. There must be structure. There must be coherence. It is obvious. Without structure there is no direction. Without direction there is no meaningful movement, no sense of agency, choice, and responsibility. Without meaning, movement, or responsibility we are finished. Adieu, mes amis.
I: How would you define “existentialism”?
PC: Life is opportunities, options. And so—life is choices. We must choose wisely and, finally, authentically, or, what do we have? Tissue. Illusions. Wishes without grounds. Enterprises without satisfaction.
I: How are choices a “structure”?
PC: Choices come to us as branches, analogically. The branches are of a tree—a decision tree. A tree is a structure.
First, the trunk is you, thinking, considering options. Second, the branches are the choices you face. One of those branches is the choice you make. Third, the leaves at the end of that branch are the results of that decision. One-two-three. Everything is structured that way. This tree grows in the garden planted and nurtured by Jean-Paul and Simone. Choices grow from authenticity, and from beauty in a universal sense.
Choosing wisely and enjoying deeply. Shopping and dining, walking and talking, gardening and eating, working, dreaming and seeking, reading and writing, bathing and loving. That is life. We give it organization and meaning, power and purpose. Isn’t it so?
I: Would you consider yourself a “phenomenologist”, then?
PC: [Laughter.] Hardly! Phenomenology had its day, but that day has passed. The abandoned offspring of Emmanuel Kant. More people floating on a sea of private perceptions and secret, obscure languages. The Triangle des Bermudes of the mind! No, no.
I: You are dismissing decades of Continental thought. You don’t mind the criticisms that follow?
PC: [Laughter.] “Tant pis pour eux”, I say to them! As Nietzsche pointed out, criticism makes us stronger. With sound reasoning and skillful debating, we become smarter and bolder.
I: To shift views, somewhat—do you consider yourself religious?
PC: I would not say so, not formally—no. But spiritual—yes. I go frequently to Notre-Dame, and I thank Our Lady for the splendor of the world and of life, and for the kindness of strangers, as well as, from time to time, for the kindness of political leaders!
I: You speak often in your writings and lectures of compassion, and economic justice. Would you consider yourself a Marxist, then?
PC: Oh! Pitié! Our good friend Marx spent far too much time in the British Museum, and not enough time on the street. Another victim of the dialectic, of the sensational ideology of conflict. Another self-sabotaging provocateur. Another méprise. If he had ever tried to actually construct anything—synthesis, rather than destroy what exists—antithesis, then he would have discovered that the true mise-en-scène of economic success, and of economic justice, is shared vision, cooperation. That is the Open Hand, the Main Ouverte, of Le Corbusier. If M. Karl had ever tried to start up a small bistro, we would all have been better off!
I: Interesting. Well, now, would you care to say anything about how you see the history, and future, of your country, of France?
PC: Euh . . . such a difficult question, but so important. Every nation, every people, evolves, progressively, à tâtons, feeling their way. Then eventually everything comes together, becomes crystal, and the people say, “Voila qui nous sommes!”— “We are us!”, as they become conscious of their cultural type.
As it happened, alors, under our leaders, such as Hugues Capet, Henry IV, Louis XIV, Napoléon and Joséphine, Haussmann, Eiffel, Debussy, Degas, Colette, and Chanel there came to be a particular definition of the French self—sophisticated, artistic, sensitive, affectionate, ambitious, and wealthy.
The British have their ways, and have had their stars, such as Boudicca, Elizabeth and her Age, Shakespeare, Newton, Hume, Lady Hamilton, John Stuart Mill, and William Morris, proving that even shopkeepers can have their moments! And the Germans have, without doubt, had their highpoints—Brahms, Beethoven, Paul Klee, possibly, Mies van der Rohe, Heisenberg, and the institution that is Daimler-Benz, among them. But they are not us. Morocco, Algeria, and territories to the south, they have their charms—sunshine, date trees, bazaars, the danse orientale and the music of the oud, the flavors of cardamon and honey, but, again, these are not the Champs-Elysées, not the Opéra Ballet, not the Cordon Bleu.
Our challenge will be to enlarge the parabolic edge of our intellectual exploration while staying true to the core of our uniquely French, aesthetic, passionate philosophy of existence. Innovation within themes, experimentation within traditions.
Marianne may learn calculus, but she is still Marianne. She may travel the world, but her home is always la Republique française. In our heart of hearts, we are always Brigitte Bardot.
I: D’Alembert, Diderot, Voltaire—what is your view of these icons of French thought?
PC: J’adore! These are my boys! Les philosophes des Lumières! Diderot is even now on Boulevard Saint Germain, by his Café Procope—reminding us every day to join our words to what we can see and touch! C’est vrai, la France has had a long and brilliant history in fact-based philosophy, in scientific work and technology—Descartes, Pasteur, Daguerre, Curie.
These thinkers have their glamour and their chic, but what people too often miss is that these all were soldiers on the plains of wisdom, farmers in the fields of the mind. Developing these ideas is very hard work, but they soldiered bravely, they did the jobs, they ploughed the fields, and they harvested magnificently. Madame Curie died for her discoveries! France has much to be proud of.
I: I assume, if you are a fan of D’Alembert, you would have limited reverence for someone like Henri Bergson?
PC: Somewhat, yes. J’en ai bien peur. A deep and focused mind, able to see that no system of thought, no classification ever perfectly aligns with reality, partly because reality is always changing, always evolving, and is, in any case, imperfectly visualized. A student of Heraclitus, or Lao Tzu, I suppose.
But examining life as through a glass darkly, imagining that wisdom and triumph somehow will arrive, sui generis, in the absence of logic, order, method, and conscious intent? An intriguing, intuitive frame of mind. However, not likely, at all accounts, either quite true or useful.
On the other side, Bergson’s notion of élan vital, of the essential life spark, was perfectly wonderful. A lovely recapitulation of lively existence. The light of the world. Duende, as the Spanish put it.
I: Would you care to share your opinion, assuming you have one, of Camus?
PC: Ah, notre cher Albert. A good man, mostly. One day, on a highway to Paris, in an elegant, powerful Facel Vega, Albert Camus took a side-road to fame and immortality. Now, for all time, Camus will be angry, idealistic, youthful. Brooding, he will gaze eternally from that House above the World, among those red flowers against white walls under a bright blue Mediterranean sky, a stranger absent his mother, absent his people, a rebel Sisyphus waiting for that life of justice and good sense he vaguely envisioned but had no method for realizing. Perhaps we should leave him to himself, a stellar spirit haunting the halls of Le Panthéon.
I: What would you say is your position on the noted Parisian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan?”
PC: I am afraid I see Lacan as lost in Freud. And I am afraid I see Freud as lost in the intellectual woods. A shaft of light here and there, an illuminated clearing from time to time. But, in the end—a conceptual, symbolic, semiotic wilderness.
Now, if Freud had brought to France Viennese pastries, that would have been something real, something marvelous! It is one of the great mysteries of Paris—and I wish Lacan had addressed this, since he was so admired—why there is not a first-class Viennese pastry shop on Boulevard Saint-Germain near the Sorbonne!
But it is, when all is counted up, hard to see the true advantage of such exotic, colorful, mysterious, detached thinkers. Les connaisseurs du Symbolisme! D’Alembert would be a much better guide to sanity, I believe, should one go searching for that.
I: Finally—on a more personal note—I take it, from all that you have said, and are, here today, that you believe a woman, such as yourself, can be well-informed, free, in command of herself and other people, and still be an enchanting lady?
PC: Absolument! What profits an intelligent woman to gain her liberation and forfeit her womanhood?
Glancing at her Cartier panther watch she suddenly said, “I am enjoying this interview, but I must go. I have students to advise and lectures to prepare. My best wishes to you on your journey—bonne continuation, monsieur”.
With that, she slipped her journal and Waterman pen into her red Hermès Kelly bag, placed some money on the table, smiled at the waiter, and spirited away from the café in a wave of elegant scarf and entrancing perfume, toward her school, striding along the boulevard with supple grace and buoyant, leopard-like élan. She appeared, in her confident being, her broad knowledge, and her definitive precision a charismatic statement of enlightenment, freedom, and sexy authority.
Today, tomorrow . . . perhaps . . . forever.
Dr. Steve Davidson is a clinical psychologist in Laguna Beach, California, with many years of experience. He has developed a new theory of personality and psychotherapy called human operations. It conceives of people as goal-oriented systems aimed at surviving and thriving, as described in his book An Introduction to Human Operations Psychotherapy.