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Simone de Beauvoir: should we worship her in the classroom or critically examine her hypocritical choices that hurt vulnerable young girls?
“To cancel or not to cancel”, can be a feminist equivalent of the Hamletian soliloquy when encountered with controversial feminist figures, or figures who have contributed immensely to the feminist discourse and movement while simultaneously doing much to damage their credentials by their sexist personal acts. A case in point is Simone de Beauvoir.
I do not claim to be an expert on Beauvoir’s philosophy and her writings; therefore, I want the liberty to talk about her from the vantage point of a feminist fan and not a feminist scholar who specializes in Beauvoir.
Her book The Second Sex was an instant favourite of mine. Being an emotional and avid reader, it was hard for me not to take the text too seriously. I immersed myself and tried to see the application of her philosophy in everyday life as a woman.
Naturally, when I read more about Beauvoir “the person” as opposed to “the philosopher”, I felt a bit betrayed.
Hannah Gadsby in her magnum opus “Nanette” discarded the flimsy separation people make between the art and the artist to escape the guilt they carry for enjoying the work of an offender. In her monologue, she chose Picasso to demonstrate the collective hypocrisy we all indulge in.
Picasso engaged in “Sex” (read statuary rape) with a 17-year-old girl and justify that with statements like “She was in her prime, I was in mine”, when his prime was in his 40s. It’s a fact that we all know, but we choose to ignore it while admiring Guernica or while wracking our brains to understand one of his pieces. We do so by separating the art from the artist. Very convenient indeed!
Roland Barthes wrote, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”. The statement highlights the “open and loose” nature of texts. It is saying that the meaning lies in the brains of the reader. Barthes in his essay also said that there are no original writing and every text is just a “tissue of quotations”.
His essay almost implores us to separate the text from the author and interpret it in our way, which is liberating. But can it be actually done?
Michael Foucault and Thomas Pogge are some of the figures that shone and still shine bright in the world of philosophy and academics. They are still widely read and taught in colleges and universities, sans the details of their personal lives.
But it begs the question: does this complete sanitization and decontextualization of these author’s works contribute to a collective hypocrisy where we offer young minds grand ideas but don’t tell them how difficult it is to implement them on your own or the fact that such general amnesia leads to a kind of society where it is acceptable to pay lip service to grand ideas while going on with our lives as usual.
The contrast seems especially harmful when practised by our political leaders, or even our parents for that matter. It’s a choice between seeing the thing as it is or offering oneself to be gaslit by the grandiosity of their ideas.
It is often argued that women’s lives and achievements are often overridden by their private life and personal affairs, but in the case of Beauvoir, the argument seems superfluous. Not only because, most of Simone de Beauvoir’s works are autobiographical and hence themselves invite us to interpret her philosophies with the help of her life, but also because it is not very much of an argument in this case, no matter how true.
It makes absolute philosophical and intellectual sense to question her comportment using her own concepts and political lens.
The subject needs an urgent analysis rather than quiet dismissal. What Beauvoir used to do cannot be regarded as mere follies and imperfection, especially when the victims of her and Sartre’s liaisons have openly spoken against it.
It is an open secret that Sartre and Beauvoir called their set-up “the family” where the recurring feature used to be a quasi-incestuous arrangement where they adopted young girls as their proteges, usually in their teens, and supported her financially and often slept with her.
This unconventional family was regarded as their damning indictment and mocking of traditional patriarchal families.
What is most striking, however, is not what they did, since we in 2022 know of similar such lunatic arrangements- a la Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffery Epstein- but the hypocrisy of two intellectuals and the astounding acrobatics with words to sanitize the whole scenario. Maxwell and Epstein were too boorish to do that.
Almost all their relationships involved young teen girls, whom Sartre regarded as “drowning women”, women whose lives were “damaged or insecure – which, of course, was why they offered the devotion he demanded”. There used to be huge asymmetry in most of the pairings, intellectually as well as materially.
Beauvoir fiercely wrote of how only economic self-sufficiency can release women from subordination, but one perfunctory look at all the young girls Sartre, and she took under their wings, shows how these girls essentially remained dependent on them financially and mentally.
These girls never had “independent careers, and were aware that they were allowed access to Sartre as long as they were “pretty” and never bored him by talking in the realm of ideas” (in Sartre’s own words in an interview given to one of his journals Les Temps Modernes).
What makes me more perturbed is that if I hear the same statements from a Jordan Peterson or Andrew Tate fan, I wouldn’t be surprised and dismiss the man wholly, however, coming from a foremost liberal existentialist philosopher of his time, we are forced by societal and peer pressure to find deeper meanings in these thoroughly hollow and sexist words.
I am not castigating Simone de Beauvoir by using Sartre’s words, which would be committing another sexist act of incriminating a woman for her partner’s follies, but it needs to be reminded that Beauvoir played a classic enabler to a thorough womanizer.
If nothing, the #Metoo era taught us that these great big men and women are not beyond right and wrong. Their great works do not hide their horrible acts; every woman counts. We must remember that these were very powerful people who had enough clout to shape public opinions, their rejection of society was often parasitic on society’s celebration of it.
When the French newspaper Le Monde published an open letter in 1977 in support of the decriminalization of sexual relations between adults and minors under the age of 15, the signatories included eminent intellectuals such as Roland Barthes, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir herself.
This wave of pro-pedophilia was defended as a challenge to the puritanical bourgeois social order, but was it?
So many young victims of such contrived thinking have voiced their thoughts and what they went through after growing up, and their story is chilling, to say the least. Vanessa Springora in Le Consentment translated as Consent: A Memoir, exposes one such intellectual writer, Gabriel Matzneff. It reveals what was actually going on behind all the highfalutin words that the writer used to justify his relationship with her.
By now, we are all aware of both the pros and cons of cancel culture. Though it weaponized the hitherto marginalized and oppressed sections with the power of vox populi, it proved to be not very impactful in the long run and failed to damage the wrongdoer.
Cancelling, thus, will be a fruitless exercise, especially when done to a long-dead author. Instead, it would be more useful to discuss the text along with the context, that is, the author as well as her writings at length.
Inside the classroom as well as outside of it, we will be doing a huge favour by discussing the dissonance between the art and the artist, the text and the context, it would make for a more nuanced understanding instead of a facial understanding of meaningful concepts.
Simone de Beauvoir can be better discussed and understood using her concepts and political lens.
She has done the world a huge favour by introducing us to concepts and words that could encapsulate the essence of almost everything that affects women, it is time to deploy the same to understand the collective hypocrisy that society indulges in without feeling guilty about it.
Image source: Britannica Dean Drobot and Adi Puranatama, free and edited on CanvaPro
First published here
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