The Beauvoir Series Q&A

Cover for beauvoir: Political Writings. Click for larger imageOn August 6, 2012, we published Political Writings, the fifth volume in The Beauvoir Series.  Co-editor Margaret Simons answered our questions about the new book.

Q:  The previous books in The Beauvoir Series cover Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical writings, student & wartime diaries, and literary writings. How did you decide to place her political writings at this point in the series?

Simons:  The volumes, while organized thematically, also reflect a certain chronological development in Beauvoir’s work. Her most explicitly philosophical writings come earliest in her body of work. So the volume of philosophical writings reflects her early intense focus on philosophy beginning in the 1920s during her years as a philosophy student and extending through her post-World War II articles in existential ethics.

Although Beauvoir continued to work in philosophy, as is evident, for example, in her life-long interest in the problem of writing philosophy in literature, that interest is not as explicit in her later writings. Indeed, beginning in 1958 she paradoxically sought to
erase all references to her work in philosophy from her autobiography–an erasure that only became apparent with the publication of our volume of her 1926-27 student diaries. As primary sources the texts in these volumes are providing invaluable for dismantling the autobiographical narrative that has long dominated Beauvoir scholarship.

Beauvoir’s work in literature, unlike her contributions to philosophy, is well known and our volume of her literary writings includes texts from throughout her life, including a new translation of her 1944 play, “The Useless Mouths;” a beautiful, recently discovered novella from the 1960s, “Misunderstanding in Moscow;” and a set of handwritten “Notes for a Novel,” tentatively dated 1928, which we found housed in the archives of the University of Wisconsin library. A manuscript of the 1928 novel, itself, by the way, was recently found and is now being edited for publication by my co-editor of the Beauvoir Series, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. It will be very interesting to write the novel in the light of the brilliant analysis of the “Notes” that Meryl Altman wrote for our volume.

The texts included in our volume of Beauvoir’s political writings, on the other hand, date primarily from the 1950s-1970s, reflecting the dramatic transformation in her thought brought on by her experiences of the Nazi Occupation–and recounted in her Wartime

The Occupation revealed to her the depth of both her emotional and political dependence on others, demonstrating the political basis of an individual freedom that she had taken for granted. The political writings in our volume show Beauvoir drawing out the consequences of this dramatic philosophical transformation.

Q:  How did Simone de Beauvoir’s political ideas change over the course of her lifetime?

Simons:  As a young woman, Beauvoir was resolutely apolitical, rejecting any concern with “the earthly kingdom,” a consequence of both her deeply religious upbringing and her rebellion against her politically conservative parents. The defiant individualism she embraced in the 1930s–following a long tradition in French philosophy–culminated in her pre-war masterpiece, the metaphysical novel, She Came to Stay, in which the female protagonist, a solipsist, resorts to murder to solve “the problem of the Other.”

In the first articles in Political Writings–reports from 1945 of the plight of the poor among the wealthy classes of fascist Spain and Portugal–we see Beauvoir defining a leftist political engagement that would endure throughout the rest of her life.

The Second Sex (1949), which laid the philosophical foundations for the 1960s radical feminism of the women’s liberation movement, reflects this leftist political engagement and Beauvoir was shocked that it was attacked not only by the political right but also by
the left.

During the 1950s, as a resurgent political right led France in futile battles to retain control of its colonies, and French intellectuals struggled for political relevance in a world defined by the Cold War between the US and the USSR, Beauvoir moved further to the left
politically. By the 1970s, when Beauvoir became actively involved in the French women’s liberation movement, she had moved, philosophically, from radical feminism to a socialist-feminist position.

Q:  Are there any essays in the book that substantially challenge what we know about Simone de Beauvoir?

Simons:  The essays as a whole–revealing the depths of Beauvoir’s political commitment–challenge the traditional view that she simply followed Sartre politically. Also I hadn’t realized until editing this volume how far left she had moved politically during the Cold War or how deeply rooted her feminism was in progressive politics.

Beauvoir’s lengthy articles from the 1950s analyzing conservative thought were another surprise for me, challenging my reading of her autobiographies. “Must We Burn Sade?” for example, in which she defends the Marquis de Sade, a misogynist 18th century pornographer, as a ‘great moralist,’ still shocks me. But, read in the context of her analysis of right-wing thinkers, it suggests a critical reflection on her own earlier ethical egoism celebrated in She Came to Stay.

And “Right-Wing Thought Today,” often criticized for the stridency of Beauvoir’s political critique, now (given US politics in 2012) seems insightful and politically relevant in its close reading of conservatism. But her analysis also reveals striking similarities with Beauvoir’s own thought, i.e. her early idealism, ethical egoism, and preoccupation with death, which might explain the harshness of her attack and provide a new political context for reading her autobiographical writings that followed (1958-1963).

Finally, the volume confirms the importance of Beauvoir’s work on the concept of ‘situation’ as grounding embodied consciousness in a world shaped by politics and economics. The volume concludes with an amazing 1974 documentary film script, “A Walk through the Land of Old Age,” that contrasts Beauvoir’s own privileged situation of aging to expose of the treatment of the aged poor in France.

Q:  What is coming next in the series?

Simons:  Two of the most anticipated volumes in the series are coming next. The volume of Beauvoir’s feminist writings, which reveals a feminist political engagement that stretched unbroken from The Second Sex through the 1950s and 1960s, challenges the view that Beauvoir only became a feminist with the arrival of the women’s liberation movement in France in 1972.

Then we’re publishing the much anticipated second volume of Beauvoir’s student diary, from 1928-1930, with accounts of meeting Sartre in 1929 and their famous argument in the Luxembourg Garden, which has been read (based on the autobiography) as explaining Beauvoir’s subsequent withdrawal from philosophy. But, in fact, the diary suggests that the argument instead ignited Beauvoir’s intellectual aggression and spurred her to success in the oral exams for her graduate degree in philosophy.  Great fun!

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