Simone: A Self-Portrait

Nonfiction / Anne K. Yoder

:: Simone: A Self-Portrait ::

We must tell each oth­er every­thing. Sto­ries lend our lives sig­nif­i­cance. What are our actions but small and ephemer­al unless we record and extend them? This unrav­el­ing is a form of repli­ca­tion, like DNA helix­es unwind­ing in order to be read. We take our chronol­o­gy and adorn and embell­ish as we whis­per into each other’s ears, and when we don’t whis­per, we write. We read each other’s jour­nals every night.

We must not live together.

We must not impinge on each other’s freedom.



She and Jean Paul work togeth­er even when they are not sleep­ing togeth­er. Simone does not want to play wife to anyone’s hus­band. Togeth­er they spread ideas about liv­ing and ways of being. They are mak­ing the most of trav­el­ing to far-off coun­tries and con­ti­nents. Caught up in their own mak­ing, it’s always one web or another.


In our thir­ties we are pro­lif­ic. Or you are, at least. You write The Sec­ond Sex, you tour the States and come to Chica­go, where you meet Nel­son, who sears you. He shows you his squalid city, his hov­el of a home sans bath­room but with a wood-burn­ing stove.

I have too many nov­els and essays to write, still. Let’s not talk about those. I too came to Chica­go by way of New York, and now I am look­ing with long­ing toward Paris. Steamy Chica­go, seedy Chica­go, so much flesh and land sprawl­ing in com­par­i­son to the steely heights of New York intel­lec­tu­als and archi­tec­ture always striv­ing to rise above. From my New York liv­ing room win­dow I could see the lights of the Empire State Build­ing, but now my gaze is grassy back­yard plots and bougainvil­lea and chil­dren jump­ing and scream­ing, “We don’t want a nap!”



If you removed God from the pic­ture, this could become one nation true to self-evi­dent tenets. Prag­ma­tists and intel­lec­tu­als, house­wives and bankers, politi­cians and cow­boys pulling up their boot­straps, don­ning wigs and suits and las­sos, forg­ing futures, mak­ing what they can of this. There is lit­tle dif­fer­ence between believ­ing in becom­ing and own­ing your choic­es except for pur­pose and belief in where it all ends.



Simone lives in rent­ed hotel rooms; Jean Paul gives away every book. Thought thrives in open spaces.


Paris was thread­bare and war-torn. Your men were sent off to ser­vice, and you remained in the city cen­ter filled with women. You taught and wrote nov­els and let­ters and kept com­pa­ny with female lovers. When Jean Paul told you to cross lines to vis­it him on the front, you dropped every­thing. You gath­ered your papers and books, faked ill­ness for leave, forged a pass and board­ed a train to meet him in a city whose name he’d spelled out cryp­ti­cal­ly. At the end of the war you wrote that you were old. Thir­ty-six and you’d seen the world in all of its impos­si­bil­i­ty, about to col­lapse into so many pieces: the Occu­pa­tion of France, the Holo­caust, the destruc­tion of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasaki.

With the end of the war comes fame for Jean Paul, and for you by asso­ci­a­tion. Exis­ten­tial­ism, as explained through his Being and Noth­ing­ness, is one way to make sense of this. Per­son­al free­dom and choice exist in spite of absur­di­ty and the awful­ness of orches­tra­tions beyond per­son­al con­trol. Jean Paul sug­gests that you write about what it means to be a woman. You ignore him at first, but then reconsider.


In a small work on the female orgasm, a Dr. Gremil­lon tak­ing issue with Stekel, declares that the nor­mal fer­tile woman has no orgasm. He goes on to say that ero­to­genic-zones are arti­fi­cial, not nat­ur­al, they are signs of degen­er­a­tion; to cre­ate them is unhy­genic and fool­ish, for women thus become insa­tiable, new and ter­ri­ble crea­tures, capa­ble of crime, and so on.”

Simone was nev­er nor­mal nor did she ever desire to be. Nor­mal was mar­ried with child, nor­mal was oblig­a­tory, con­trac­tu­al, mod­est, tedious. Nor­mal­ly, being nor­mal, a woman would not have a career. Nor­mal­ly, being nor­mal, a woman would not trav­el alone from coast to coast. Nel­son tempts her with con­tent­ment; with his embraces come sleep­less nights.



One woman pos­sess­es two loves, many lovers, and mul­ti­ple desires. She like any woman has oblig­a­tions pit­ted between desires. In France a woman is a woman with­out tak­ing a hus­band to prove that she is. In Amer­i­ca, a woman isn’t a woman until she has a hus­band. But a man is a man, and once a man always a man.

Mar­riage is a con­tract, an agree­ment, an act of diplo­ma­cy, an absur­di­ty, a com­mit­ment that’s near­ly impos­si­ble to annul. Every­one who is mar­ried mar­ries for a rea­son. But how is this advan­ta­geous now, to us?


The inde­pen­dent woman “must have access to the oth­er,” you write. At this age we know too well what it means to be a woman. You’ve lived as a woman and have made some­thing of your­self in spite of your fem­i­nin­i­ty and the expec­ta­tions that come with this. In writ­ing about women you grap­ple with the oth­er as well as the self. A woman is not born a woman but instead becomes one. You strike mas­cu­line pos­es by dis­parag­ing lady lovers in let­ters to Jean Paul. Such a both­er they are, with their demands, their snor­ing that keeps you from sleep, and yet you indulge them with kiss­es before leav­ing to work.

Writ­ing, I am con­stant­ly writ­ing. I work wher­ev­er I go.

We were raised to take care of our­selves. From the out­set we were groomed to be our own grooms, to become bread­win­ners, self-suf­fi­cient. Not ready to take up an iron and oven mitt and yet we still had appetites. We pur­sued the inti­ma­cy of ideas, we and Jean Paul. Trysts were heat­ed argu­ments that impelled us to think further.

Our fathers, our Georges, thought lit­tle of what we’d made of our­selves, our lack of offi­cial papers, decrees and degrees, the ways we flout­ed the church and “careers,” the ways we made so much of our bod­ies with­out sign­ing on dot­ted lines.



In Swe­den, she sees the cam­eras first. Pho­tog­ra­phers stand in line and click click click when Jean Paul and Simone descend from the plane. France spits while Swe­den beck­ons and embraces and brings with it exquis­ite days of announce­ments and “impor­tant” peo­ple, din­ner invi­ta­tions, and radio con­ver­sa­tions. Jean Paul intro­duces: this is the king’s son, this is the cas­tle, here in the news­pa­per, look at our faces. Flash­bulbs and bright futures leave lumi­nes­cent traces. Jean Paul is known for think­ing and writ­ing and his many mis­tress­es; so is Simone. Simone’s work is her work, and his work is also her work. But her work is nev­er his.



Engines shud­der at the whirl of the world left in the wake. Noth­ing is as exhil­a­rat­ing as accel­er­at­ing over Paris at night, aim­ing blind­ly into the sky. They angle toward New­found­land, New York, Chica­go. One day sus­pend­ed between Paris and Chica­go, one day waits between Frog and Nel­son, her Croc­o­dile. In the air, drinks bring a sem­blance of san­i­ty and social mores. Simone takes whiskey while trav­el­ing. Whiskey calms, buries, soothes.



Oh dear, I spilt the sug­ar, but you don’t mind. My aim has been off late­ly, miss­ing either bag or bowl or both; I blame dis­tract­ed kiss­es, although this is prefer­able to rep­e­ti­tion and old recipes. You lick the bat­ter from the bowl with no thought to sal­mo­nel­la. I mix and mea­sure and bake and we dance before I begin to won­der and wor­ry what hap­pened to the quick-think­ing girl?


We dis­par­age our­selves, too. Simone calls us ancil­lary and intel­lec­tu­al par­a­sites, as if a woman could become her­self by her­self, ges­tat­ing with­in her own womb. What­ev­er she does in becom­ing her­self, she should refuse man’s rib, his thoughts, his story.

But no, not real­ly. Would Simone be Simone with­out Sartre, I mean Jean Paul? Why do I write Sartre to Simone? Why does a woman’s suc­cess still so often depend on a man’s achieve­ments? Why bake cook­ies to sat­is­fy the pub­lic appetite, to prove that a husband’s shirts will be ironed, his desk dust­ed, and his daugh­ter fed?

A First Lady always comes sec­ond, if not third or fourth. Simone was always sec­ond in her mind, even in agre­ga­tion, even though her qual­i­ty of mind was matched if not bet­ter than. The press only con­firmed Simone as the acolyte to Jean Paul’s master.



Lit­tle man with the big brain, Beaver sends her love from the Unit­ed States. Beaver is Frog to Nel­son, her Croc­o­dile, who she sweet­ly takes in the dark night. Soon after, she sends a note to the lit­tle man she adores. She writes to him, and to him, and some­times to her. Does a heart ever belong to any one? Miss you dear­ly, kiss kiss. She writes now in reverse, this time to Croc­o­dile as she trav­els with Jean Paul. Absence is dear.



Oh, my Croc­o­dile, I will be your Waban­sia wife.

The stairs at the Palmer House are slick with rain. I almost slipped and fell after I ran past the old lady at the door who mon­i­tors com­ings and goings into the night. The hotel is a labyrinth, a lit­tle town. A stair­way going up does not nec­es­sar­i­ly come down. I could say the same about my affec­tions. I attempt­ed to descend the stairs only to find myself five floors above where I began. I am look­ing for an out, a way back to the street.

Not all walls are straight nor do halls lead where they seem.



Simone can­not for­get her­self when she tries, even when new love takes root. Paris is wait­ing, Paris is big­ger than, she has work to do. Paris at night is intel­lect, ener­gy, and out until 3 a.m. Too much cham­pagne is nev­er enough. Simone would stay in Chica­go, she would give up Paris and ele­gant toasts, if only. She enter­tains ideas of wife­ly habits, of scrub­bing floors and mak­ing rum cake. She knows, how­ev­er, that she would never.


I would like to erase Jean Paul, at least for a while.



We steep beneath the sheets, warm flesh, ten­der kiss­es, ket­tle warm. Pil­lows muti­lat­ed on a stiff mat­tress, and your voice from the kitchen as I wait. You place can­dles and light match­es and won­der how to make time last. Cake crum­bles when my fork stabs. I am a pile of crumbs.

Just now I do not see exact­ly why any­body should ever write again. Just now I do not see exact­ly why any­body should ever write anything.”

She is at a loss for words except for the ones she show­ers upon her lover. In Paris, she has stand­ing appoint­ments with impor­tant men. They plan actions and dis­cuss ideas; they dis­perse thoughts and intents. Amid all of this Simone sends caress­es via mes­sen­ger from one con­ti­nent to anoth­er. She is not con­tent. Chica­go and her Croc­o­dile make promis­es in spite of his indi­gence, her impos­si­bil­i­ty. He makes offers; she can’t com­mit. Her work is her life and her work is in Paris. Nel­son is a man and his work is his work and he is Chica­go through and through.


The ways that we fol­lowed, Simone. Your life­long attach­ment flouts con­ven­tion but also clings to it in spite of your­self. I would like to lib­er­ate you. I would like to remove Jean Paul from your pic­ture. You were so thank­ful for his role in your becom­ing. He chal­lenged you. Men­tal joust­ing kept your minds sharp; metic­u­lous think­ing prod­ded you to see your­self beyond your­self. With his inher­i­tance you quit teach­ing. But how could you see your­self as sep­a­rate when you depend­ed so much? Should I blame you?

I do.

You couldn’t see your­self beyond a world with a Jean-Paul center.

I imag­ine you would find fault with me, too, for friv­o­lous think­ing, for this con­fla­tion, for speak­ing so inti­mate­ly with you. You were always vous, nev­er tu, even to Jean Paul. Vous, for­mal and firey, engaged but removed. Per­haps you always knew that fideli­ty to phi­los­o­phy is more con­stant than fideli­ty to flesh. You wit­nessed your father’s late night home­com­ings and your mother’s con­stant cry­ing. Why demand promis­es that won’t be kept?



Nel­son doesn’t learn French, and he doesn’t think philo­soph­i­cal­ly even when Simone asks, even when she chides. He reads what he reads, and this means books writ­ten by friends. This means books writ­ten by men, Amer­i­can gam­blers and drinkers who stay out to see what hap­pens when dark­ness casts a strange light. Most of his friends are riffraff and wan­der­ing and sleep in halfway houses.



There’s a lull to the day, quiet­ness as the wind wash­es over the water and sends me into a deep malaise. My focus and fire are smol­der­ing in this molasses of water, silt, and slow-mov­ing cars. We are sleep­ing in sep­a­rate bed­rooms, and I won­der if there always must be an ocean between. Aren’t bod­ies dis­tance enough? We kiss by the counter, he lifts and undress­es me, and I want to crawl into his skin. How quick­ly we drift from work and mind­ful things to touch and skin, and I real­ize how flesh can assuage and appease.


I won­der how we put up with so much.

Slurs were leveraged:

You’ll nev­er amount to more than a worm’s whore.”

Do you want to live in a gar­ret for the rest of your life?” “You won’t become a Sartre overnight.”

You were always roy­al, a queen, but a queen at times gives more to her sub­jects than they deserve or will ever return. I was nev­er very good at chess, but I know that pawns move one square at a time in a for­ward direc­tion. They are inter­change­able, sub­servient, at the bot­tom of the chain of com­mand. Your pro­tégé lovers became your pawns; cer­tain­ly Jean Paul pos­sessed his own, and at times he treat­ed you as one, too. And all the while, you and Jean Paul sup­port­ed them like kept women, like inces­tu­ous chil­dren, like they were per­form­ing them­selves for you.



Simone los­es her voice, or she wor­ries she will. She half­heart­ed­ly resists as love tips the scales toward mount­ing stu­pid­i­ty. She mourns the words that do not come but for Nel­son, dear, lazy Nel­son who won’t learn. Simone writes New York and remem­bers Chica­go. She is always turn­ing back to, look­ing for­ward to, but is nev­er present except in Nelson’s pres­ence. She remem­bers while recount­ing and account­ing for. She fol­lows in the tra­di­tion of Toc­queville. She is anx­ious about mix­ing duty and desire. She finds mean­ing in work and work is her life and her life is in France where her work has mean­ing. Nel­son is a fan­ta­sy, a fix­er-upper, he is stol­id and strong in his filthy lit­tle room off a poor­ly lit street, but when unhinged ener­gy ignites, she is consumed.



Chicago’s sweet­ness is savory, putrid and kind­ly offen­sive, an acquired taste. Emp­ty lots over­grown con­ceal wounds and corpses and cas­ings. The side­walks beyond, where brawls tum­ble, where plain­clothes police­men lend a kind of sem­blance, lead to dim­ly lit rooms where drunks and dwarves and dice girls play. No one notices the poster blondes’ white teeth, freck­les, and full cheeks grown on Amer­i­can wheat; no one notices these wall(flower)s, their obscene smiles star­ing with raw won­der at the ful­some filth.


You set­tled for sec­onds. Your sec­onds sur­pass most firsts, but even so you trailed behind Jean-Paul. Was there flat­tery in this mim­ic­ry? Did he help clear the path for you? I must inter­ro­gate this fol­low­ing, your par­al­lel Amer­i­can trips and your par­al­lel Amer­i­can trysts.

Jean Paul trav­els to the States on a spon­sored trip, where he falls in love with Dolores, his New York guide, and extends his stay. There is dis­cus­sion of divorce (hers) and an offer of a pro­fes­sor­ship (his), but he returns to France, lovelorn, love torn. This is 1945.



There have been so many oth­er lovers, and there will be so many more, but Dolores is the only one who makes Jean Paul swoon. Blonde Dolores, Amer­i­can Dolores, with her world­ly ways, her haughty laugh, and pend­ing divorce, her New York. Dolores is a cen­tripetal force draw­ing Jean Paul in, with his satel­lite Simone mak­ing anx­ious rev­o­lu­tions around his absence. Jean Paul says he will stay for Dolores, he will promise Dolores, he would mar­ry Dolores. He leaves me strand­ed, search­ing, scram­bling, cut loose.



Simone would rather for­get about Jean Paul trav­el­ing in North Africa with Dolores; she would rather for­get his amorous else­where affec­tions. Wher­ev­er he goes, Simone fol­lows. She would like to for­get this, too. Jean Paul comes before and always. Simone trails after. He has already spo­ken where she speaks and has been lis­tened to where oth­ers now lis­ten to her, often because of him. She would like to for­get all of this know­ing that her after depends on his before.


Simone sets off on an Amer­i­can tour in Jan­u­ary, 1947. She arrives with a list of con­tacts from Jean Paul. She sees New York through Jean Paul’s eyes, and how could she not with him as her guide? Oceans apart and yet clos­er than ever, she writes. Chica­go is a whirl­wind with Nel­son; he dizzies her with affin­i­ty and affec­tion, and yet she leaves prompt­ly for points west and south, Cal­i­for­nia, New Orleans, and Flori­da. It isn’t until she returns to New York, en route to Paris, when she receives word from Jean Paul to stay put, to extend. He needs to smooth over Dolores. His thrust sends Simone back to Chica­go where she kin­dles an Amer­i­can affair of her own.



We pass pago­das and a for­tune cook­ie fac­to­ry, smoke­stacks, a pow­er plant, the Chica­go Tri­bune press­es, the Wheat­field Tube Com­pa­ny ware­hous­es. Flat land dot­ted with flat hous­es, sprawl to a dis­tant sta­di­um. Down here it’s all pow­er lines, high­ways, through­ways, and thor­ough­fares, the con­duits for pass­ing through. The ener­gy and the oxy­gen of this city are deposit­ed here. This is the body, the true down town that pro­vides the ways and means that make the city run. We talk of South Side goat tacos. Marianna’s, a good place to go if you want to fight, the only true one-star dive bar we can find. We are faux grifters, vic­ar­i­ous tourists trav­el­ing where even the flo­ra falls clos­er to the land. Methane still bub­bles up in a creek where car­cass­es were dumped a hun­dred years ago.


Oh, I hate this coun­try, and like the peo­ple who suf­fer from it, and would be appalled if I had to stay here—yet leav­ing it is hav­ing a strange impres­sion on me. I’ve told you all this in a higged­ly pigged­ly way.”

What is more appalling is the desire to stay, visions of cart- push­ing and steak shop­ping at Pig­gly Wig­gly, of exchang­ing intel­lect for wife. Chica­go means no more din­ners with Jean Paul, Koestler, and Camus; Chica­go means los­ing influ­ence, los­ing myself. Chica­go is no Paris, it’s not even New York whose sec­ond-rate is over-inflat­ed, the self-impor­tant always search­ing for opportunity.



The alleys and offices, bath­rooms and bars prof­fer the same dis­gust. Scent of offal wafts from the ware­house where cows gath­er and low before mov­ing on to where the blades draw blood. I insist we vis­it the slaugh­ter­house before say­ing, good­bye, Nel­son, before, au revoir, Chica­go. Nelson’s pleas offer a mar­i­tal blow. I wan­der through stalls won­der­ing what we must sacrifice.


What did Jean Paul have to do with my suc­cess? Too much, I fear. Was it a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion? What is suc­cess if it depends on a hus­band or lover, and does this make our choice more impor­tant, the strate­gic ver­ti­cal climb made pos­si­ble through hor­i­zon­tal thrusts? How else do we make some­thing of our­selves? When will a woman be a woman and more than just a woman on her own terms? Has any­thing changed?

I am wor­ried that I am not Simone and that I can­not be Simone, even for a short peri­od of time. Simone pre­vails as my patron saint. I am falling short. I am also relieved.


From the writer

:: Account ::

I had moved to Chica­go from Brook­lyn six months before I start­ed “Simone: A Self-Por­trait.” I felt over­whelmed by the vast­ness of Chica­go, the way it expand­ed seem­ing­ly with no end, like so many small vil­lages set up one against anoth­er. I was struck by the Mid­west­ern flat­ness, the wide roads, the nov­el­ty of hav­ing a back porch.

Split between cities, I soon fell in love in Chica­go, but not with Chica­go. I was divid­ed, and it was won­der­ful­ly obscene. Simone de Beau­voir became my lodestar, my guru: author of the The Sec­ond Sex, advo­cate of open rela­tion­ships, torn between Chica­go and Paris, Algren and Sartre. And yet I became frus­trat­ed, too, that her recog­ni­tion as a female thinker seemed depen­dent on her men.

The lit­er­ary por­trait comes straight from Gertrude Stein. I was steeped in Ten­der But­tons and her essays and lec­tures and por­traits at the time of writ­ing. In line with Stein, I want­ed the por­trait to depict de Beauvoir’s essence and ener­gy as derived her books and essays and note­books and let­ters: the rhythm of her words, her life. And this then evolved into the desire to con­flate her ener­gy and mine, a trans­fer­ence of sorts. Much like Rimbaud’s “je suis un autre,” inspired by David David Wojnarowicz’s series of por­traits of friends and lovers wear­ing a mask of Rimbaud’s face, it’s at once a desire, mask, and revelation.


Anne K. Yoder’s writ­ing has appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She is a staff writer for The Mil­lions and a mem­ber of Meek­ling Press, a col­lec­tive micro­press based in Chica­go. Cur­rent­ly she is work­ing on a nov­el, The Enhancers, about com­ing of age in a in a tech­no-phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal society.