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Posts Tagged ‘Jean-Paul Sartre’

by Julia

This evening, the French Embassy in Washington, DC, along with L’Alliance Française, hosted an event honoring the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s watershed feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex. The appearance of the translators, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, drew an incredibly well-dressed crowd. On the first real fall evening in DC (finally!!), the women wrapped themselves in scarves and belted long cardigans, all sporting incredibly simple but striking outfits. (I’m not sure myself whether some of us chose to channel Simone, or whether we all just showed up emulating her because her influence on our lives is so great that it subconsciously permeates our habitudes.)

It’s hard to believe with such a significant work that it has not been translated into English since Howard M. Parshley attempted it in 1953. Parshley’s version, for lack of a better word, butchered the original text. He eliminated over 100 pages of text, most of which centering on examples of women in literature or Marxist-feminism. Parshley also deconstructed de Beauvoir’s grammatical structure by splitting up her paragraphs and altering punctuation for the benefit of appealing to larger English-reading audiences. By cutting out the difficulty and glossing over the philosophical concepts, Parshley deprived the English-speaking world of a just treatment of Simone’s largely philosophical musings on the female condition.

The significance of The Second Sex is well documented elsewhere, so I’ll just spend a moment highlighting the parts most relevant to the new translation. The Second Sex centers on the idea of this dichotomy of human experiences, specifically pertaining to men and women. The book is at its core a deconstruction of the myriad myths that cause women to be seen and see themselves as “other,” secondary, and dominated. (A lot of these myths stem, no doubt, from their perpetuation in her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.) The Second Sex was originally published in two volumes, translated respectively by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier as “Facts and Myths” and “Lived Experiences.” Both of these volumes analyze the myths surrounding women’s lives from every perspective: biological, psychological, economic, literary, philosophical, anthropological, linguistic, etc. This characteristic is one of the many reasons why The Second Sex remains such a wonderful entry point into feminist consciousness for many women and men.

The overarching myth that the translators wanted to maintain and emphasize was that of economic monism – the idea that men are better-suited to economic prowess than women. This myth is perpetuated through the aforementioned fields of human experience such that women are subjugated to men in every social (and even biological) encounter. This myth – that men are the producers and women are reproducers – rings true even today, when we see women playing into the same system that subjugates them, thereby reproducing.

(Side note – one of my favorite quotations works well here: “I don’t want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new.”)

Borde said her most crucial task in this translation was putting the philosophy back in the text (M.A. Simons famously documented this silencing in her 1983 piece.) Simone was a student of Hegel and Heidegger, and her understanding of “subject” was much more nuanced than Parshley could recognize. His translation of “subject” bent toward the idea of “subjective” and “personal,” rather than that of the greater of the two states of being – the subject being the one with complete freedom of choice (rather than the object). This complete glossing-over of the philosophical significance of Simone’s etymology has ramifications for one’s overall impression of the text as a whole. After all, the modern feminist movement was largely built on this text – one wonders how the second wave feminists might have treated class difference and economics differently had the original intent of Simone been conveyed into the English translation (sigh).

The goal of the new translation was to discover the original intent of Simone de Beauvoir and convey her voice as written in 1949. The new version is completely unabridged – this means keeping Simone’s pages-long paragraphs and unconventional punctuation (mostly, the semicolon). (At the event tonight we all toasted, “Vive la point-virgule!”, a poke at Simone’s affinity for the oft-abused and misunderstood punctuation.) But this adherence to the original intent has extremely rewarding results, namely, conveying the logic of her grammatical choices, which have great philosophical significance.

In French grammar, words are assigned a gender (masculine, feminine, or neutral). Simone recognized that assigning genders to the very language we use probably was not an accident, and the translators did not gloss over the significance. (I should mention here that I’ve studied French my entire life. My mom taught French to high schoolers and is fluent, and I went so far as to minor in French in college.) The gender of words in French (or other languages) is something foreign to English-speaking students of the language. I remember coming up with mnemonic devices for French grammar lessons in middle school, most of which centered on the idea that the words en féminine that didn’t follow normal patterns were usually the “sad” words: la mort, la guerre, la bataille – death, war, battle (also, interestingly, all of the words for sex organs are female). Of course, there’s the obvious that for the majority of French words, the masculine is the default, and to make something feminine, one must somehow modify the word (usually adding an “e” to the ending). This is one pattern that English-speakers can recognize: Waiter/Waitress, Host/Hostess, and the most obvious, Man/Woman.

Thus, the treatment of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quotation – On ne naît pas femme: on le devient – is critically altered in the new translation. The translation of this sentence hinges on the translation of the word “femme.” In French, “la femme” can mean “woman,” “the woman,” “wife,” or “maid.” Without the article, “femme” tends to convey more of the idea of “woman” as an institution – a construct of femininity as determined by society. Adhering to de Beauvoir’s intent is key to the significance of the phrase. H.M. Parshley’s translation reads:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate the phrase as follows:

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.”

This key treatment of the lack of an article is crucial. Clearly, Simone was not talking solely about the biological evolution into a physically mature woman. No, she was focused on the idea of “woman” as shaped by society.

After the English translation was published in late 2009 (in England, early 2010 in the United States), critics came out of the woodwork to jump to pick apart Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s effort (including this inane review from the New York Times Book Review). I’m sure some of the critiques are warranted. The translators had previously worked on cookbooks and textbooks – definitely nothing this philosophical. And Toril Moi has an excellent analysis in the London Review of Books. However, the bigger picture is significant to keep in mind. The translators told the story of an Iranian woman who approached them at one of their stops on this book tour. She thanked them for helping to share Simone’s words with a new generation of women, for, she said, “reading this book made me realize I wasn’t insane.” The Second Sex is applicable to all societies and all eras of women – la lutte continue (the struggle continues). If the most important thing is to be free, then to be free necessitates understanding one’s condition. No work better addresses women – as constructs, biological beings, mothers, wives, workers – than The Second Sex, and I have such great respect for these women for toiling to provide as authentic a translation as possible.

The last question of the evening came from one of the outnumbered men in the room who asked whether if, given the advances of women over the past sixty years, any parts of the original text perhaps felt dated or irrelevant. Malovany-Chevallier softly replied, after a long pause, “very little.” She then reminded us of the story included during one of Simone’s long biological analyses, that of the relationship between the ovum and the sperm. Both equal gametes, the ovum’s job is to lay in wait for the sperm, endeavoring to create the best home for the future union. Simone remarked, “It might be rash to say that a woman’s place is [from the very start] in the home, but some people are rash.”

Indeed, there are many many myths remaining regarding women and people working had to perpetuate them. The myth of a woman’s place in society as beneath a man is manifested in many of our daily interactions, and to have a new translation of The Second Sex available is wonderful. To have one that rightly emphasizes the nuanced ways in which sexual hierarchy dominates our interactions – particularly economic – is truly revolutionary.

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by Julia

I’ve been dealing a lot this summer with a not-uncommon state of conflict within myself (and with my elders) since graduation from college. A lot of me feels like the woman I write about on my résumé – a woman with a fabulously enriching college experience (in an academic and social sense) who is taking the next >2 months to relax in preparation for law school. A major part of this relaxation involves enjoying my independence. I’m grateful to have relative freedom in terms of how and with whom I spend my time during this transition.

Yet it would be disingenuous to paint this summer (and time in my life) as wholly independent of the opinions and pressures of those around me (in both a concrete and abstract sense). As a feminist in my early 20s, I have an indelible internal drive for achievement in every conceivable sense of the word. A major part of this quest centers on surrounding myself with the experiences, resources, people, and places who can both challenge and fulfill me. When I’m on this drive (which is almost always), I want little to stand in my way. I’m autonomous, god damn it!

This indignation, I’m sure, comes from a place of defense against attack. It is no surprise that woman today – even those of us standing in the wake of the second wave feminists – still face daily obstacles towards achieving autonomy. I’ve recently focused my feminism not so much on the idea of equality (with whom?…I don’t want to be like this), but on that of autonomy, which to me seems like I much more difficult, but ultimately more liberating, goal.

All of this is to say that,despite certainly sensing autonomous adulthood at times, I seem to crumble at the slightest sense of a challenge to my expression of choice. Am I aware that my emotional reaction might be a product of my youth? Sure. But I’m exasperated by constantly being told by those older than me (again, abstraction) that I’m incapable of making a choice – about my body, my relationships, my career – without outside input. At what point do young women cross over from being objects of others’s influence to subjects of our own choices?

As you can imagine, it was with great delight that I stumbled across Nancy Bauer’s new article on the New York Times’s feature, The Stone. This feature highlights modern day issues in a philosophical light, so clearly I’d be following it. But philosophy + feminism + dialectics + generational differences in understanding + Lady Gaga? Yea, I’m there, and then some.

I can’t think of a single category in modern society who wouldn’t benefit from reading this piece (maybe if you never interact with young women and never will…), so seriously, click through. Parents should read this. Partners and friends of young women should read this. Most of all, young women: read this.

In summary, Bauer uses the example of Lady Gaga to explain the phenomenon of post-second wave women. Lady Gaga is fabulously independent, seemingly impervious to outside criticism and speculation, and talented in her own right – not to mention progressive on issues of sexuality. At the same time, Gaga is often scantily dressed, pushing boundaries of “acceptable” entertainment, quite thin, and ultimately highly sexualized. What might seem like another analysis of a pop star’s antics quickly becomes entirely relevant to young women through political theory.

Bauer uses both Hegelian dialectics and Sartre’s philosophy on being-in-itself to explain that human beings at once experience themselves as subjects of their own desires and objects of society’s control. Explaining Sartre, Bauer writes:

On occasion we find ourselves pretending that we’re pure subjects, with no fixed nature, no past, no constraints, no limits.  And at other times we fool ourselves into believing that we’re pure objects, the helpless victims of others’ assessments, our own questionable proclivities, our material circumstances, our biology.

de Beauvoir takes this further by asserting that women experience this split more so than men, and often experience subjectivity in a sexual sense. Simone de Beauvoir also realized, however, that women are able to experience subjectivity without sexual objectification, but it is necessary to “re-describe how things are in a way that competes with the status quo story and leaves us craving social justice and the truly wide berth for self-expression that only it can provide.” This redefinition of the world in which we live requires struggle. Simone “warned that you can’t just will yourself to be free, that is, to abjure relentlessly the temptations to want only what the world wants you to want.”

Bauer stumbles when she asserts that Gaga’s autonomy centers solely on her sexuality. I disagree with Bauer (and others) that young women use solely sexual tactics to advance themselves – there are plenty of other choices that parents and elders do not understand that do not involve oral sex or fishnet stockings. What people of previous generations (and perhaps, all those outside of the experiences of young women) fail to realize is this: the choices that we make – even our mistakes – are self-interpreted as a type of power. Bauer admits:

What’s mind-boggling is how girls are able to understand engaging in it [read: deviance], especially when it’s unidirectional, as a form of power.

Until self-expression – sexual or not – is understood by others not as “mind-boggling” but rather natural behavior for female human beings, young women will continue to struggle against the divide between subjectivity and objectivity, until a separation no longer exists.

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by Julia

I spent the first week of winter break devouring Carole Seymour-Jones’s A Dangerous Liaison, a “revelatory new biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.” I ordered this book in September, but wanted the time to fully devote to its 540+ pages. Relative isolation in south Florida with my parents, iPod, and beach chair seemed an ideal setting for reading about the infamous 50-year polyamorous relationship between two of the most influential theorists of the 20th century. As a self-described theory nerd, though, I was most looking forward to accounts of Beauvoir and Sartre’s pillow talk discussions of philosophy and a comprehensive account of their individual development as existentialist thinkers. In this effort, the biography falls short. Instead, the detailed portrayal illuminates the complex arrangement of  ‘essential love’ that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre entered into in the fall of 1929 in the Tuilerie Gardens of Paris.

Upon meeting Sartre at the École Normale in Paris, Beauvoir established an immediate intellectual connection with the young student of Gide and Hegel. Simone de Beauvoir became the youngest woman (twenty-one) to ever pass her final oral examination in philosophy, and the ninth woman to ever pass. When the rankings came out, in fact, only one student ranked higher: Jean-Paul Sartre, three years her senior. The educational hierarchy between Beauvoir and Sartre foreshadowed the subordination Simone would experience in all facets of their relationship. Seymour-Jones writes that “for the rest of her life, Simone de Beauvoir would consider herself second to Sartre.”

From childhood observations of her mother’s monotonous routine, Beauvoir vowed to never sacrifice her freedom for bourgeois domesticity. Sartre, too, maintained that “‘he was not inclined to be monogamous by nature’” and condemned marriage as a “‘despicable bourgeois institution.’”  One can imagine how confused Beauvoir must have been, therefore, when Sartre proposed marriage to her three times in the span of a few weeks. She vehemently refused, and critiqued Sartre for going against their philosophical ideals of individuality and freedom – what would later be called Existentialism. “The balance of power at this point lay with Beauvoir,” yet it was actually Sartre who proposed the idea of a “pact of ‘essential love’ which allowed for secondary affairs and was intended to guarantee their ‘reciprocal liberty’” – a pact which would become the template for a polyamorous relationship enshrined in existential history.

In Beauvoir’s mind, entering into this pact of essential love with Sartre was the most realistic embodiment of the philosophies which they professed in academia. Yet the realities of the relationship (which I will not bore you with) left Simone as the clear victim of patriarchal domination at the hands of a power-hungry celebrity. Going into this biography, I had an idea of the types of affairs in which Beauvoir and Sartre engaged; I did not predict the sheer number of simultaneous affairs, nor the heartbreaking effects of these relationships on Beauvoir. Even though the couple maintained complete honesty with one another (in a far more detailed manner than any person I know could stomach), jealousy and manipulation reigned for over four decades.

I want to focus this post on the mind-blowing contradictions between Beauvoir’s brilliant feminist theory and her polyamorous relationship with Sartre. Essentially, Simone fully bought into the idea that “whoever wants the ends – equality between the sexes – must want the means,” and she let those ‘means’ be defined by Sartre’s incredibly patriarchal interpretation of their pact of essential love. In retrospect, there were abundant signs of Sartre’s misogyny – his theoretical assertions practically drip with it. Though Sartre later delved into praxis, most notably in his affinity for the USSR and the student demonstrations of Mai 1968 (to be discussed later), his existential theories epitomize the danger of the male gaze.

“Sartre gives the example of a woman who goes out with a man for the first time; halfway through the evening he takes her hand. To leave the hand there is to consent to flirt; to withdraw it is to break the harmony of the moment. Her intention is postpone a decision, and so she leaves her hand ‘between the warm  hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing. We shall say that this woman is in bad faith.'”

Sartre likens this female “deception” to the actions of the bourgeoisie, and in Beauvoir’s shared goal of exposing hypocrisy within capitalist society, she agreed with her partner. The complete denial of female agency is exemplified countless times in Sartre’s violation of desperate young women (many of whom were cultivated first by Beauvoir in lesbian relationships). What Beauvoir and Sartre failed to realize was that their observations on the comportment of the bourgeoisie stemmed solely from their privileged position as academics and products of the petit bourgeois.

The same perspective of privilege led Simone and Sartre to develop a flawed affinity for the Soviet Union. When questioned by fellow existentialist Albert Camus on how he could possibly reconcile the murder of millions in Soviet gulags, Sartre responded that the camps are no more inadmissible than French colonialism in Africa or the state violence towards French workers. Sartre claimed that “the Iron Curtain is only a mirror, in which half of the world reflects the other. Each turn of the screw here corresponds with a twist there, and finally, both here and there, we are both the screwers and the screwed.”

It was not until the 1960s and the Mai 1968 student revolutions that a marked division developed between Sartre and Beauvoir in terms of their acknowledgement of their privileged (and flawed) perspective. Both theorists realized that in order “to merit the right to influence men who are struggling, one must first participate in their struggle.” This realization led Sartre and Beauvoir to express their solidarity with the movements and occupations both through their writings and physical presence in the Latin Quarter.

Sartre: “‘These young people don’t want the future of our fathers – our future – a future which has proved we were cowardly, worn out, weary…Violence is the only thing that remains, whatever the regime, for students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system. The only relationship they can have to the university is to smash it.'”

Unlike Sartre, however, Simone de Beauvoir recognized much sooner the misogynistic realities of both the Soviet model that the worshipped and of the Mai 68 student occupations. “Beauvoir expected socialism to deliver sexual equality. It had not.  Even the gauchiste men of the 68 demonstrations did not treat women as equals.”  This crucial realization led to revisions of Beauvoir’s watershed work of feminist theory, The Second Sex. The basic tenet of The Second Sex is that all male ideologies are directed at justifying the oppression of women, and that women are so conditioned by society that they consent to this oppression. Instead of Sartre’s interpretation of this “consent” as “bad faith,” Simone removes blame from women and stands by her most famous statement: On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.

Regarding the 68 occupations, Simone remarked:

“’Men made the speeches, but women typed them. Men were on the soap boxes and on the podiums, but women were in the kitchens making coffee. So they got fed up with this because they were intelligent women…I finally understood that women could not expect their emancipation to come from the general revolution but would have to create their own. Men were always telling them that the needs of the revolution came first and their turn as women came later…'”

This quotation is heavily underlined and starred in my book not only because it was a turning point in Beauvoir’s feminist consciousness, but also because I can relate strongly to it. I know I’m not alone in having been encouraged to subordinate  female revolution “for the cause.” Once one realizes that the general revolution – be it state communism or campus activism – does not exist to serve the purposes of women, true liberation from the patriarchy is achievable.

Seymour-Jones correctly states that “there could be no more glaring contradiction than that between the principles enshrined in The Second Sex and her past practices with Sartre.” These contradictions frustrate me to no end. As a feminist and political theorist, I, too, struggle with the application of my academic passions to reality, particularly romantic relationships. Simone de Beauvoir undeniably maintained a relationship with Sartre which, with the exception of the first year, was driven completely by his desires. Though they experienced relatively equal acclaim in their professional lives, Beauvoir and Sartre’s personal life was clearly dominated by misogyny and overwhelmingly skewed power dynamics. Beauvoir had tried to avoid domesticity and patriarchy through her pact of essential love with Sartre, yet the reality of their relationship and the incredible despair that Simone experienced at times (she developed a collapsed lung from one particular incident of jealousy), makes it clear that she was no more liberated in her personal life then her stay-at-home mother was in the early 20th century. Misogyny – not equality – ruled in their relationship and in society.

My question to you, readers, is this: does this contradiction make Simone de Beauvoir any less important as the foremost Marxist-feminist? And, perhaps more relevant, can we, as women, ever truly escape the power of misogyny? Is there such a thing as a relationship with truly equal power dynamics? Even today in the 21st century, most women will argue that an open relationship benefits the man more than the woman. I will save the diatribe on polyamory vs. monogamy for another post, but suffice it say that what Simone de Beauvoir experienced in her relationship with Sartre did not result in the equality of the sexes which she strives for in her feminist texts. Can Beauvoir really be blamed for “talking the talk” of feminism and not “walking the walk” in her romantic encounters, given the underlying hegemony of misogyny in relationships?

I will leave you with our all-time favorite quotation of Beauvoir’s, from The Second Sex:

“The most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend women’s concrete situation. And there is no reason to put much trust in the men when they rush to the defense of privileges whose full extent they can hardly measure.”

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