French theory with polish

The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir

September 3, 2004

This distinguished volume of essays provides an incisive review of Simone de Beauvoir's legacy, ranging expertly over the historical, philosophical and literary dimensions of a complex and controversial figure, following the 50th anniversary of the publication of Le Deuxième Sexe in 1999 and in advance of the centenary of her birth in 2008.

The underlying problem for monoglot English-speaking scholars lies in the defective nature of the single translation of Le Deuxième Sexe , by H. M. Parshley (1952), guilty as it is of omissions and, more insidiously, of adjustments of nuance, resulting at worst in a deformation of Beauvoir's perspective in favour of a patriarchal world-view.

This is demonstrated in detail here in the first of two pieces by Toril Moi, who emphasises the publishers' alleged resistance to authorising any new translation while the original text remains in copyright (until 2056).

Moi also provides a substantial critical état présent , although it would have been better to include this as an independent prefatory chapter rather than in the form of expanded footnotes.

In the first of the historically informed chapters, Claude Imbert looks at Beauvoir in the context of the first generation of professionally trained women philosophers in France. She sees in her political lucidity, alongside that of Simone Weil, a readiness to "treat the present, real world philosophically" in a bolder idiom than her male counterparts, above all with respect to the existential situation of women. Mich le Le Doeuff takes this question further by exploring the extent to which any given philosophical framework is appropriate to the issue of women's liberation, and sees Beauvoir's dictum, to the effect that women only ever won what men felt like conceding to them, as central to such an inquiry.

She states that Le Deuxième Sexe has to be understood not as a call to action, but as an attempt to elucidate a situation, while acknowledging it as a text whose impact was to inform one of the most fundamental debates of the second half of the 20th century in France and in the US.

The second part is devoted to a philosophical re-evaluation, which Susan James inaugurates with an examination of the Hegelian concepts of complicity and slavery in Beauvoir's writing. While acknowledging Beauvoir's familiarity with Hegel, James argues that her interpretation of women's willing submissiveness is more fruitfully understood with reference to a French philosophical tradition based on hierarchies and on the admiration of grandeur , stretching back to Descartes, Malebranche and the school of Port-Royal in the 17th century. For these, as for Beauvoir, "slavery is defined by a range of psychological and social traits organized around the passions of esteem and contempt".

Catherine Wilson examines Beauvoir's contribution to moral philosophy in the context of human dignity. She explores the difficulties experienced by women in their attempt to participate in the perceived masculine equation between moral dignity and paid labour, and invites the question as to whether women have to become de facto men to do so. Dignity, she suggests in reply, is "an intrinsically relational concept", and she sees Beauvoir's contribution to the debate as carrying too much of a gender-essentialist ideology.

Finally, Nancy Bauer examines the canonicity of Beauvoir. She articulates the paradox that feminist academics in the 21st century remain unsure of how to interpret the "founding text of contemporary feminism". Bauer's own take is once again to stress the pragmatism of Le Deuxième Sexe  by virtue of its "robust normativity", and to argue that it was in thinking about herself as a woman that Beauvoir formulated her philosophical views and thereby distanced herself from Sartre. Beauvoir, Bauer convincingly asserts, taught her readers something about how to live quite simply because she understood what it was to be a sexed human being.

Moi begins the final trio of pieces with a further examination of the (in)capacity of philosophy to change the world, triggered by Sartre's notorious reminder that "when faced with a dying child, La Nausée does not tip the scales". Yet Beauvoir, as she shows, was more realistic and less melodramatic than her associate in recognising the limits of intellectual engagement. As Moi demonstrates, it is paradoxically due to the fact that she writes for those who shared her contingent circumstances that Beauvoir owes her universal appeal and, in so doing, that she affords an object lesson in the nature and impact of committed writing.

In a companion piece, the poet Anne Stevenson takes the argument the furthest away from a specifically Beauvoir-centred debate to explore the relationship between meaning and language as manifested in the work of committed creative artists.

The volume ends by shifting the emphasis away from Le Deuxième Sexe . The editor explores comparatively the depiction of adolescence and family in Beauvoir's Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée and Colette's Claudine novels.

The collection throws an often- unflattering light on the relative philosophical conservatism of Sartre, but is also frank in confronting the principal antagonistically critical positions adopted with respect to Beauvoir: at best that she was not a radical feminist other than by adoption, and at worst that she perceived the whole issue from a masculinist perspective. Yet it is not least because of this honesty of debate that the stature, originality, pragmatism and sheer intelligence of Beauvoir are outstandingly well brought into focus.

Richard Parish is professor of French, Oxford University.

The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir

Editor - Emily R. Grosholz
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Pages - 200
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 926535 6

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