Simone de Beauvoir –– A Humanist Thinker
- Publication Date:
- 14 July 2015
Table of contents
My first encounter with Simone de Beauvoir took place in the late 1960s, amidst student anti-war strikes, blazing ROTC buildings, and the mind-blowing challenges that feminism, black power, and the counterculture posed to my Midwestern rural beginnings. I was one of those young women Toril Moi describes in her review of the new translation of The Second Sex, eagerly devouring the book, awakened by something new. My sense of discovery was so transformative that, forty years later, some of those striking passages retrieve it vividly: “the body is not a thing, it is a situation”(p. 46); “one is not born, but rather becomes, [a] woman” (p. 283).1 I did not know it was possible to think like that. It was world-making.
I am pleased to return to Beauvoir through the productive lens of these essays. While the new translation of The Second Sex occasioned this symposium, it does not limit the authors, who both focus on this text and range beyond it. These essays raise questions that we, as contemporary feminist and other critical theorists, need to ask: what tools does Beauvoir give us to work with? Where did she go wrong? Which of her struggles are also ours? Beauvoir’s determination to honor ambiguity rather than iron it out, her focus on process rather than static essence, her insistence that we are always already embodied and located actors– these and other insights point us toward a Beauvoir that we can use. Yet these key feminist insights are not uniformly utilized in Beauvoir’s own work, pointing to limitations that Beauvoir herself, these essays suggest, may help us address.
These essays also reflect, from different angles, on the political implications of Beauvoir’s authorial voice. The voice of Beauvoir’s texts shifts frequently, moving among her own point of view, the perspectives of other writers, and the implicit gaze of hegemonic masculinity that she articulates in order to contest. These shifts are often unannounced, causing confusion that can, these authors argue, be productive, enacting rather than merely describing the utter resistance of her subject matter to a quick summing up. Beauvoir’s prose is often characterized by a relentless listing of particular examples, urgently summoning a series of specific instances; this aesthetic practice, these essays indicate, can also be a political opportunity. Indicating Beauvoir’s significance as an interlocutor, these essays find resources within Beauvoir’s arguments to address their limitations.
Lori Marso’s opening essay uses Beauvoir to bring embodiment into theory, undermining any pretense to a “god’s eye” view because thinking is always already in the flesh. Beauvoir’s critique of the “Eternal Feminine” targets longstanding efforts by some male political thinkers to uncouple themselves from the messy facticity of bodies by attributing them ontologically to women, while mind or soul is claimed at an equally abstract level for men. Beauvoir, Marso argues, not only critiques old dualisms of mind vs. body, biology vs. society; she enacts a thinking that crosses categories, vigorously mixing philosophy, history, biology, and autobiography, examining her own sexed and gendered life world for data just as she examines texts and arguments. Marso’s essay pulls the concept of ambiguity to center stage, and follows its implications: efforts to impose single meanings or resolve tensions within complex relations are bound to fail; far better, Marso suggests, to embrace ambiguity and make productive use of its fractures. Hegemonic femininity, both Beauvoir and Marso insist, entails contradictions with which women must struggle, and they do so in many different ways. Finding Beauvoir lacking in her discussion of “women” and “blacks” as if they were mutually exclusive categories, Marso nonetheless finds resources within the concept of ambiguity to address Beauvoir’s lack of intersectional thinking.
Linda Zerilli’s essay takes up the way that subsequent feminists have inherited Beauvoir’s legacy. Refusing to lionize or demonize Beauvoir, Zerilli asks why so many feminist readers have evidently felt the need to do one or the other (while pointing out how the one generates the other). Many feminists, Zerrilli finds, keep trying to settle what Beauvoir keeps unsettled in subjectivity and politics; these feminists are looking for solace in all the wrong places, and fail to appreciate Beauvoir’s insistence that confusion and uncertitude are vital conditions of productive feminist thinking. Contrary to those who still cast Beauvoir as Sartre in a skirt, Zerilli sees Beauvoir moving away from Sartre’s ontology of battling consciousnesses and recognizing relationality, based on concrete circumstances and subject to renegotiation. For Zerrilli, the proliferation of examples is a strategy to de-essentialize; Beauvoir’s achievement is to use so many competing examples that she shows us, rather than simply tells us, that it is impossible to simply define women. Through Zerilli’s interventions, we find a Beauvoir who helps us look usefully at women as political subjects in complex circumstances.
Diane Rubenstein’s reflections on Beauvoir’s book America Day by Day situates Beauvoir’s voice in the context of European travel narratives on the United States. Rubenstein shows us a profound Tocquevillian narrative, an account of a journey that is also a work of theory. Beauvoir’s America defamiliarizes; it jostles expectations through unexpected encounters. Just as Marso and Zerrilli found the multitude of examples in The Second Sex to dislocate the “Eternal Feminine,” Rubenstein takes the dense network of particular encounters in America to make familiar patterns hard to assume. Beauvoir’s self-understanding is woven into her encounters, and produced by them; she thinks the world by thinking herself and others in the world. Rubenstein notes the significance of Beauvoir’s friendship with Richard and Ellen Wright for her encounters with racial politics in the United States. Beauvoir grasped her friends’ situatedness, not as an abstract experience of Otherness but an historical and material encounter with their life worlds. Rubenstein shows us Beauvoir resubjectivizing herself, delighting in “the extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me” (America Day by Day, 3).
Sally Markowitz’s essay returns to the debates about Beauvoir’s understanding of human consciousness, this time through amplifying Beauvoir’s engagements with Marx. Markowitz concurs that Beauvoir does not essentialize women, but Markowitz worries about an even grander universalism ontologizing oppositional human consciousness itself. By closely tracking Beauvoir’s reading of Engels, Markowitz excavates and problematizes Beauvoir’s reliance on an ontology of immanence and transcendence. Markowitz’s direction of argument encourages us to further historicize and specify our analysis of subjectivity, and to be rightfully wary of the reemergence of universal claims when we thought we had put them to rest.
Markowitz’s investigation of Beauvoir’s relation to Marx poses urgent questions for feminist thinking, questions that the other authors in the symposium can help us to address. Imagine if Beauvoir had actually returned to The Second Sex and reframed it around Marx’s materialism rather than Hegel’s psychological universals. Beauvoir’s orientation toward the specifics of things, combined with attention to the material circumstances of bodies and identities and commitment to retaining complexity rather than resolving it – these orientations could have led Beauvoir to a rethinking of the unreflective orientalism that sometimes crops up in The Second Sex. While in Beauvoir’s later writing, she was an outspoken critic of French colonialism in Algeria, in The Second Sex she sometimes characterizes the nonwestern world as a timeless patriarchy, while France comes to stand for modernity itself.2 For example, a small footnote indicates that her study is confined to “the western world” because “the history of the woman in the east in India and in China was one long and immutable slavery. From the middle ages to today, we will center this study on France, where the situation is typical” (p. 89). Today, that is a jaw-dropping colonial presumption. If Beauvoir had returned to The Second Sex with stronger insistence on full historical and material investigations of all women’s lives, if she had brought her insistence that “it is never possible to close the books” (p. 46) to bear on the global study of women, we could have inherited a different Second Sex. While Beauvoir did not take up this challenge for us, the essays in this symposium assist us in following such leads ourselves.
In 1984, I met Simone de Beauvoir in Paris. I took with me my ragged copy of The Second Sex, highlighted in multiple colors and held together with a rubber band. She smiled graciously at the obvious love and desire revealed in those worn, marked pages, and autographed the book for me. Now I return to that book, and to Beauvoir’s larger corpus, still savoring the gratitude I felt for the world of possibility she opened for so many of us. The tools of feminist theory and critical theory more generally, tools Beauvoir helped to invent, let us rethink her. The work of this symposium both helps us to do our work and honors a longstanding debt.