January 9 2008: A day to recount the priceless contributions of Simone De Beauvoir Print E-mail

London ~~ Wednesday January 9 2008

 

Source of inspiration

Simone et moi: De Beauvoir was a celebrity, not because of her love life but because she belonged to an intelligentsia which no longer exists
By  Beatrix Campbell


Simone de Beauvoir. Photographer: Jerry Bauer/Getty Images

It would be a cruel quirk of history if Simone de Beauvoir's centenary became a celebrity pageant fascinated by her panty size, her paramours and the shadow of Sartre. But then our time is a cruel quirk of history. This ought to be a celebration of De Beauvoir and her coterie as radical exemplars of a thinking society. But it is at risk of being compromised by the prevailing winds of a culture that knows how to do envy but is losing the habit of thinking.

Why is this woman important? Why is she worth the razzmatazz of a centenary?

De Beauvoir exemplifies the emergence of a revolutionary idea: that women's subjectivity and their subordination was neither natural nor fixed but the creation of social structures in which gender was invented, re-invented and polarised. She mapped the personal and the political landscape of that polarisation, in which femininity is organised as the Other, defined always by reference to masculinity, and masculinity is defined always as dominion. De Beauvoir gives to our political thinking the idea that woman is not born, she is made, as a relationship of service and subordination.

She may now be re-interpreted by a new piety, a sense that her life was a shade sordid, that she, too, was subordinate to Sartre, that she didn't understand her own economic and social power over young lovers. The critique has force, but the point is that De Beauvoir was trying something; she was quarrying for a way to have a sexual life that wasn't regulated by the state, church, men, or children.

Read from this distance her pioneering text, The Second Sex, seems less the reflection of a movement than a manifesto for a movement not yet born. When the Women's liberation movement emerged she lent it her endorsement and her curiosity. She was more generous and inquisitive than, for example, our own Doris Lessing, whose novels were consumed voraciously by feminists, while the relationship was not reciprocated.

Like all the great feminist texts, the novelty of The Second Sex lies in its transgression of political boundaries between the private and the public - it surveys the landscape of the body and the economies and cultures in which it breathes. That makes the text vulnerable, of course; it is a European text of its time. But it is still a great read, and in the 1960s and 70s it was a thrilling read, it was germinal: I remember being young, blessed by the swirl of women's liberation, eating this book; its brittle yellow pages are littered with underlinings from a time when many in my generation devoured and created great writing and political theory as a way of making ourselves. Whenever I delve again, I am surprised by De Beauvoir's elegance and intellectual courage.

The aura around her also belonged to her community of friends, the creators of an activist intelligentsia that flourished was in a France that was thoroughly politicised by the legacy of fascist occupation, then by the cold war and the cleavage between Gaullism and Marxism. We, here, don't know what this feels like - Britain was stressed by war, but it was not traumatised by occupation; politics was pragmatic, it didn't nurture or profit from an activist scholarship.

De Beauvoir was a celebrity - because of, not despite, being a pioneer in an activist intelligentsia devoted to busy, sometimes rowdy, collective thinking that was envied worldwide.

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Beatrix Campbell has been a journalist, both in print and broadcasting, for many years. She has contributed to a wide range of titles, from The Independent to Marxism Today, and her award-winning books and documentaries include Wigan Pier Revisited (winner of the Cheltenham Festival Literary Prize); Listen to the Children, a documentary about the watershed Nottingham child abuse case; and Dangerous Places, Diana Princess of Wales - How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy,

Her documentaries include the first live coverage from a US court for a documentary on women who kill: I shot My Husband and No One Asked Me Why. She is deemed one of the most influential gay Brits in an annual P{ink List.She is currently finishing a book on Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement.


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 London ~~ Wednesday January 9 2008

 

100 years young

Simone et moi: The lady in a turban is still revered in France and respected as an intellectual above all else

By  Agnes Poirier

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" is the first sentence of The Second Sex, written in 1949 by a 41-year-old French philosopher called Simone de Beauvoir. Did she realise then that those very words would pave the way to a new revolution, that of feminism and gender studies?

Today, on the centenary of her birth, France looks back at an intellectual who, at the age of 21, made a pact with herself and her lifelong companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, to live free from the conventions of her time and milieu. A pact she fully succeeded in accomplishing.

While a three-day conference with internationally renowned academics, former colleagues, friends and lovers takes place in Paris, French television will broadcast a series of documentaries and archive films of the committed intellectual this week, showing her at work and at play. From the war in Algeria to her death in 1986, De Beauvoir was an active political figure, championing, among other things, workers' rights, Algerian independence and the legalisation of abortion.

Among the half-dozen books released for the centenary of the lady in a turban, a new biography by Daniéle Sallenave, Castor en guerre, astutely deciphers De Beauvoir's real persona through her memoirs, including the philosopher's novels, lectures, interviews and correspondence - with, among others, Sartre and Nelson Algren, her American lover. Sallenave says:

"I started my work with Memoirs, written in 1958 and Adieux, written in 1981. In both books, Beauvoir develops a rather seductive, powerful, almost domineering discourse. I decided to confront it with the events of the time and the rest of her work. I have, at times, showed the contradictions. I'd have never dared doing such a thing while she was still alive."

In addition, De Beauvoir's diaries, Cahiers de Jeunesse, written in 1927 and 1929, are soon to be published by Gallimard. These reveal her beautifully neat, concentrated and tilted handwriting and, more importantly, her absolute thirst for freedom and emancipation from a very early age (read some extracts here).

This week, almost every single magazine in France has prepared a special anniversary issue. The cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, showing De Beauvoir in the nude, triggered as much admiration as intense debating. "Simone de Beauvoir cannot be treated like Carla Bruni. It's her brains we're interested in, not her derriére, however magnificent it seems to be", screamed thousands of commenters on information websites. However, the fear ebbed away after reading whole issues awash with varied and outstanding international contributions such as in Le Magazine Littéraire. Of course, sex featured in all special issues. After all, Simone de Beauvoir was as passionate an intellectual as she was a lover and her pact with Sartre of not marrying, not procreating and sharing even the most trivial details of their separate gallivanting made her private life a political statement worthy of public scrutiny. However, the French press have chosen to treat De Beauvoir's sex life as an abstraction rather than feeding their readers with so-called exclusive salacious keyhole stories. Indeed, readers have on the whole been spared the recriminations of spurned lovers and their children, who would have liked to make commerce of their boudoir confidences.

De Beauvoir and Sartre were no angels; they were philosophers. With it comes a certain dose of complexity, especially in matters of love and thought, which today's French adolescents are still learning how to handle in their final year at school, where philosophy is compulsory. For them, grappling with the notion of existentialism, one thing is sure though, the names of De Beauvoir and Sartre are never far from that of Liberté.
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Agnès Poirier is a political commentator and film critic for the British, French, Italian and Polish press, and a regular contributor to the BBC on politics and films. She is also the author of Les Nouveaux Anglais (Alvik, 2005), Touché, A French woman's take on the English (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006) and Le Modèle anglais, une illusion française (Alvik, 2006).

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 London ~~ Wednesday January 9 2008


State of independence

Simone et moi: Her work still resonates with women because the struggle between autonomy and femininity De Beauvoir described continues

By   Elizabeth Fallaize

De Beauvoir's novel L'Invitée (She Came to Stay) made a great impression on me when I read it as a final year student, in 1972. Here was a heroine who spent her life discussing art and ideas in Parisian cafes, making up her own rules, living in cheap hotels, free of all domestic commitments and taking lovers as she pleased. I immediately set about reading all the rest of De Beauvoir's fiction and, when I eventually became a university lecturer myself, I put her novels on the syllabus. My students - mainly, but not all, women - shared my enthusiasm and have continued to respond to her writing over a period of more than 30 years, despite the changes that have taken place for women since De Beauvoir was writing.

The Second Sex is usually thought of as a much more daunting read, in which De Beauvoir the scholar and polemicist dominates. However, a very personal voice, closer to the fiction, comes through in one of my favourite chapters. Entitled The Independent Woman, it analyses with biting acuity the traps and dilemmas in which the independent woman of 1949 is caught. De Beauvoir's independent woman is lightyears ahead of her so-called "vassal" woman, who trades in her freedom to a husband in exchange for social and economic benefits.

Vassal woman is beneath De Beauvoir's contempt, but her independent woman is also struggling, caught between her desire to live out a female destiny and her desire to function independently both at work and in her personal life. Perhaps independent woman should simply throw off the shackles of femininity? The double bind, however, as De Beauvoir stresses, is that there is no neutral gender. However hard a woman tries to distance herself from traditional femininity, she will never be treated as a man. And why should she want to be?

For De Beauvoir, independent woman is a mere historical moment. She declares that a new generation of free women is just being born as she writes, a generation for whom everything will be different. But wasn't that 1949? Shouldn't that be me? Why do I feel such solidarity with independent woman? Why do my students still respond to the fiction? The answer is that De Beauvoir provides a powerful analysis of the politics of women's lives, which continues to resonate strongly today.

This week, in Paris, Julia Kristeva, a French intellectual and feminist of an entirely different kind and generation from De Beauvoir, is hosting an international conference in honour of De Beauvoir's centenary. Scholars, writers, intellectuals, biographers and politicians are gathering in the sixième arrondissement to discuss De Beauvoir's legacy. There's a cocktail party in her honour at the Hotel de Ville. Now that she would have enjoyed.
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Elizabeth Fallaize is pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Oxford, and professor of Modern French literature. Her responsibilities as pro-vice-chancellor include the development of educational policy in respect of both undergraduates and graduates, the management of the university’s quality assurance and quality enhancement strategy, the development of policy on admissions and access and the professional development of academic staff. She chairs the university’s educational policy and standards committee, one of the four main sub-committees of council, as well as the undergraduate panel, the graduate panel and the examinations panel.

She received her undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Exeter, and went on to teaching posts at the universities of Wolverhampton and Birmingham, before being elected a fellow of St John’s College, Oxford in 1990. She is the author of seven books on French literature and was honoured by the French government in recognition of her services to French culture with the rank of Officier des palmes académiques in 2001.


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 London ~~ Wednesday January 9 2008


An experiment in living

Simone et moi: De Beauvoir's life was a project weighed with an intelligence that still speaks to us, louder even than today's celebrity gossip

By  Lisa Appignanesi

Simone de Beauvoir is 100 years old today. I use the present tense because although she died almost 21 years ago in 1986, the tongues still wag and gossip accrues, as if she were as alive as Amy Winehouse and a singing celebrity, rather than a writer of heavy tomes and a philosopher who set the agenda for the modern women's movement.

The gossip, of course, is less about drugs - though her life-long partner, Jean-Paul Sartre did plenty of those - than about sex, both homo and heterosexual, and the various triangulations on that theme she and Sartre engaged in, often enough hiding the matter from the public record.

But then, well before the age of celebrity, De Beauvoir and Sartre were already superstars - a rare feat for intellectuals. Even in the distant snowy vastness that was the Canada of the 60s where I grew up, I knew all about them well before I had read them. I knew they wore chic, existentialist black, that they whiled the days and nights away in cafes and clubs, pens and notebooks ever to hand, that they took to the streets to demonstrate and supported just causes volubly. But what I knew best of all was that they were engaged in an experiment in living: unmarried, they were both indissolubly linked and free, sworn to honesty but not fidelity. On the face of it, the project seemed both exciting and desirable.

Roll on the years, the project still looks bold for its time, despite the inevitable tarnishing that experience and greater knowledge of their lives brings. I was not altogether surprised to find - when I was researching my book on De Beauvoir - that the Archbishop of Quebec had censored a 1959 broadcast of an interview with her because of her scandalous views on religion, marriage, maternity and abortion.

What remains extraordinary about De Beauvoir is her clarity of mind, her judicious weighing of encyclopaedic evidence and the fearless way in which she put woman's body and experience into the very centre of the way we think the world. To read The Second Sex today, even in its truncated original translation, which needs redoing, is to shudder once more in recognition at its many insights about woman's condition - and therefore the relations between the sexes as a whole. Her great books, Old Age, The Mandarins, as well as her autobiography and various memoirs, broaden the picture. Like her more specifically philosophical writings, they underline the importance of self-invention in her understanding of the world. The odd, endlessly fascinating couple she and Sartre formed, were part of that experiment.

When I had my own children, I was haunted by De Beauvoir's adamant insistence that babies chained women down and confined them to their biological role. Today, when post-modern self-invention is the name of the game and reproductive technologies abound, the force of her declaration that "women are made, not born" is worth revisiting. She brought to her project of a life, let alone her work, a weight and an intelligence which speaks down the years even more loudly than the continuing celebrity gossip.
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Writer and novelist Lisa Appignanesi is deputy president of English PEN and edited the book Free Expression is No Offence. She is also the author of an acclaimed family memoir, Losing the Dead, which charts the Holocaust history of her parents.
Her other books include, Freud’s Women (with John Forrester), Simone de Beauvoir, and the novels The Memory Man and Sanctuary. A former university lecturer, she was Deputy Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and has hosted BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves. Her new book, Sad, Mad, and Bad: Women and the Mind-Doctors from 1800, will be out early next year.


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 London ~~ Thursday January 10 2008

Une magnifique folie à deux

Simone et moi: High-minded tutting about the infamous Sartre-De Beauvoir relationship will never overshadow her work


By AC Grayling

Ginger Rogers captured the experience of most women, figuratively speaking, when she pointed out that she had done everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. For most of her adult life, and some time after her death, Simone de Beauvoir was Ginger to Jean-Paul Sartre's Fred. When Sartre died she was mobbed by PhD students and journalists in her studio in Montparnasse's Rue Schoelcher, most of them eager for insights or titbits - these are often the same thing - into her famous lover and her relationship with him.

But among those who came to see her, and this was increasingly so as time went by, were many who appreciated her literary merits in their own right, and her significant contribution to feminism. As to the former, it has become clear that she is one of France's outstanding 20th-century writers, for she left a body of work which is remarkable, even if her unkinder critics are right in describing it as a monument of self-reinventing, self-justifying autobiography, whether it is found in her five volumes of memoirs, her collected letters, her fiction or her non-fiction. Her best biographers, Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, scrupulously chronicled her relentless engineering of her life story and reputation, which goes far beyond the typical use that writers make of their own lives as a source of material. So De Beauvoir's fictionalising of her life cannot be denied. Yet grant that her oeuvre is an act of massive makeover, driven by vanity; it is impressive nonetheless, and an addition to literature.

Francis and Gontier also show (and such other biographers as Deidre Blair and Margaret Crosland cannot help showing) how excoriating the Sartre-De Beauvoir relationship could sometimes be, as evidenced by the correspondence between the two, revealing two huge egos entangled in complicities and mutual betrayals, narcissisms and exploitations of almost every sexual, philosophical and literary kind. Moralists gasp at the Faustian-seeming pact they made about their relationship, which included her seducing some of her female pupils then passing them on to Sartre for his pleasure, after which they clinically compared notes. All this is once again being aired and tutted over in France and elsewhere as one of the observances of the centenary of her birth this week.

When Gilbert Joseph published his Une si Douce Occupation, challenging the pair's claims about their activities in the Resistance, a tremendous controversy blew up, dividing the Parisian papers and cafe tables clean in half. The occupation touches nerves in France, as evidenced by the fact that everyone who lived through it claims to have been in the Maquis, and they all gratefully accept each others' claims at face value. But the likes of Sartre and De Beauvoir should have been pieces de resistance in the Resistance, given their principles; and Joseph's claims, or revelations, were a bombshell. For one thing, De Beauvoir hosted a Vichy radio show for a while. As a result several new biographies of mighty thickness appeared in rapid succession, making the period either side of 1990 a feast for Sartre-De Beauvoir fanatics.

None of this should matter now - neither the Resistance question, nor the vanity and falsehood in De Beauvoir's self-reinventions - because her writing is so good, and so interesting, and because De Beauvoir lived at a time which was, and among people who were, fascinating and significant, for that was the period in which France also reinvented itself, after the debacle of defeat, occupation, and the Vichy betrayal. And above all, whatever else one thinks about her, the publication in 1949 of The Second Sex and the consistency of both her view and her practice, expressed thereafter, that women can and should choose for themselves what happens to their bodies and in their lives, deserves applause and high admiration. Some of the moralistic tutting about her conduct is nothing but the age-old disapproval directed at women who behave as freely as men so often allow themselves to. Quite probably she would attract criticism for being clever and gifted even if she had not also been sexually polymorphic and manipulative. But it is the outcome of the cleverness and the gifts that remains, and which in the end is the important thing.

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AC Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. His latest books are Towards the Light: The Struggles for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West and The Choice of Hercules: Duty, Pleasure and the Good Life in the 21st Century.
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