de Beauvoir "ruthlessly self-absorbed ... she was not a good person
October 25, 2020 7:37 AM   Subscribe

“Nothing prepared me for the drama I found... the first time I opened a folder of readers’ letters to Simone de Beauvoir. . . . an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.”
posted by Schroder (25 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

this is like when women post the DMs they get on twitter except with more "milady"s and less (but probably not zero) feet guys
posted by JauntyFedora at 8:11 AM on October 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wait, I'm confused.

This article begins by describing how de Beauvoir was going to jump in and defend Sartre against complaints about his actions, but then had the humility, listening, and self-reflection skills to realize that there was a whole lot that she hadn't been noticing or had been ignoring about the situation, and after lots more thinking she ended up writing "The Second Sex".

Next, it goes into detail about how de Beauvoir's readers expected a greater intimacy and compassion from the woman writer, especially once she started writing about sexism, and mentions that she was ambivalent/frustrated by this. But doesn't mention the obvious connections to all sorts of modern day research and writing on the different expectations in this respect put on women in teaching professions, or medical professions, or etc. as compared to men in these professions, that many, many women beyond de Beauvoir have found equally frustrating.

Then it describes how de Beauvoir was passionately anti-colonialist, and (rightly) appalled by her country's actions in Algeria, and appalled by people displaying the sort of behavior that Martin Luther King, Jr. would also express strong frustration with of white liberals who will totally agree that something is wrong, but get all upset about any attempt to actually do something to right the wrong. As an illustration of this,
Then one day she wrote a vividly detailed column about an Algerian woman who had been tortured and raped multiple times by French soldiers. To her amazement, the whole country turned on her. Otherwise devoted readers attacked her for her graphic description of the rapes. Beauvoir, it was said, lacked pudeur; that is, discretion, restraint, decency.
Finally, without any additional background or segue, it jumps to,
Ruthlessly self-absorbed, obsessed with exerting power over everyone within her orbit, a sexual predator extraordinaire—she was not a good person.
... What? Admittedly I don't know a lot about de Beauvoir's personal life; are there other details not mentioned in this piece that support this rather strong statement? I mean, that's possible - women, especially those in positions of power, can be sexual predators too. But the way the article is written, it kind of sounds like the earlier anecdotes are supposed to provide the examples of this claim? Which would be incredibly obtuse and sexist, of so.

Summary: the subject matter is certainly interesting and worthwhile, but this was not a well-written nor well-reasoned article.
posted by eviemath at 8:33 AM on October 25, 2020 [43 favorites]

Also, I thought the very '90s use of "drama" to trivialize interpersonal or social conflict stemming from real injustices had slunk off to a well-deserved death. But apparently not. How have it's vestiges not yet been burned up in the dumpster fire that is the US in 2020?
posted by eviemath at 8:40 AM on October 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

But to answer my own question: here's some of the relevant background on the sexual predator description that is missing from the fpp.
posted by eviemath at 8:51 AM on October 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

Finally, without any additional background or segue, it jumps to,

Ruthlessly self-absorbed, obsessed with exerting power over everyone within her orbit, a sexual predator extraordinaire—she was not a good person.

... What? Admittedly I don't know a lot about de Beauvoir's personal life; are there other details not mentioned in this piece that support this rather strong statement?

It being a review of a book about de Beauvoir rather than a freestanding article on the same topic, I think the author's occasional broad statement is meant to summarize conclusions reached at greater length within the book.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:08 AM on October 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

Riiiight, I had kind of forgotten that since the book being reviewed hadn't been mentioned in a few paragraphs, or really anywhere outside of the header and the one middle section/topic of the review.

I guess that's the type of review that is in style now, and it wouldn't be relevant for me to impose my standards on academic integrity, such as refering back to the text or otherwise providing sources to avoid plagiarism, or the sort of structure expectations we might expect in an academic essay, since this is a different context.
posted by eviemath at 9:47 AM on October 25, 2020 [24 favorites]

(^ this is supremely divine shade, well thrown.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:12 AM on October 25, 2020 [10 favorites]

I still have no idea what the appalling behavior was supposed to be, like there's review and synopsizing, and then there's "you have to buy the book to know what I am even arguing about in my review".

So the most appalling thing I know remains trying to read Ethics of Ambiguity and finding it utterly unreadable. Then again I find a lot of philosophy unreadable, are philophers just bad writers or are the ideas actually that complex and deep now that we're in the 21st century.
posted by polymodus at 10:54 AM on October 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

bad writers

Now the interesting thing about Sartre is that he was a wonderful writer, a literary craftsman. His novels and his literary, I don't know what to call them, psychoanalytic biographies, are acclaimed as prose art. But when he cranked up the typewriter to do some serious philosophy, he is unrecognizable as that author. Page after page of cryptic neo-Hegelian murk. Every few hundred pages, though, something like his phenomenological description of smoking, or the skier gliding over snow, comes up and you weep with relief that there is something not only intelligible, but luminous and vivid, coming off the page .
posted by thelonius at 11:04 AM on October 25, 2020 [9 favorites]

It's a bit of both, but my view is that bad writing is definitely more common in academic philosophy than most disciplines (which is saying something). But it's worth remembering that, unless we have mastery of another language, our ability to assess the quality of writing in a highly complex work in a foreign language depends on a translator, and that translating philosophy, which requires immense precision and nuance, as well as deep understanding, is an exceptionally difficult and little possessed specialist skill.
posted by howfar at 11:23 AM on October 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

"are there other details not mentioned in this piece that support this rather strong statement" ~ eviemath

Spirited women late 1960s/early '70s throughout any campus in the western hemisphere referred endlessly to de Beauvoir's 'Le Deuxième Sexe'. It was a reflection of the times: the urgency to balance a new social norm was extreme, that I well remember. Couple that with knowing La Coupole and Cafe Clore in earlier years, the discovery of Vivian Gornick's review of Judith Coffin's book highlights hitherto unknowns.
posted by Schroder at 11:33 AM on October 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

a necessary acknowledgement of a very well-known aspect of an extraordinarily well-known figure's life is an unremarkable feature of reviews both in and out of "style." people who weren't already aware of such aspects might be pleased, rather than indignant, to be informed of them. it's been known to happen.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:09 PM on October 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

Right, but I would have liked to hear something else about the allegations, because she is not like, say, Picasso, whose use and abuse of women is visible and much better known. I looked her up in Wikipedia, and apparently she seduced young female students, at least one of whom was underage. That's certainly enough to merit the term "sexual predator," but an extra sentence to explain would not have hurt.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:34 PM on October 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

This review essay in the LRB is considerably better written and covers much the same ground and more. It also provides detail on her ethical... issues such as regularly seducing her students and not infrequently then passing them on to Sartre (which leads the author to ask rhetorically - and reasonably - "What would be said about her if she were a man in the age of #MeToo?").

I believe non-subscribers get access to one non-paywalled article per month so you should be able to access the link.
posted by deeker at 12:55 PM on October 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

thelonius: Sartre's literary merits are neither here nor there in relation to a discussion of an entirely different author's works.

Schroder: I'm not sure what that background info on "The Second Sex" has to do with the quote, where I was asking about allegations of sexual predation against de Beauvoir? Your coment does nothing to illuminate the specific passage from the fpp review that I asked about.

queenofbithynia: As noted, I had been unaware of the aspects of de Beauvoir's life alluded to. Given the cryptic and extremely vague nature of the comment, I remained unaware of those aspects after reading the fpp - in fact, as written, it was more misleading than informative, given that the reviewer seemed to be making the assertion on the basis of the earlier descriptions in the review, which would have been quite problematic. Fortunately, I looked up the details myself and became better informed, but this is no thanks to the fpp.

deeker and other readers: the links I gave in my third comment also describe de Beauvoir's predatory behavior, without the paywall disadvantage. Though it is always good to add additional sources.
posted by eviemath at 2:03 PM on October 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

hey eviemath, my aside was in response to polymodus' speculation about philosophical writing in general. I have read Sartre and not "Ethics of Ambiguity", which is why I talked about that. If I had carried on from this with a general Sartre derail in the thread, you gratuitously scolding me would perhaps be appropriate and inoffensive.
posted by thelonius at 2:27 PM on October 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

Similarly, if I'd offered the LRB article primarily as a "source" for de Beauvoir's ethical transgressions, rather than making that explicitly secondary to it being a better written article that covers the same ground and more, your condescension towards me would make more sense. The whole thread isn't yours or all about you.
posted by deeker at 2:38 PM on October 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

But the LRB link is a review of three different books than the work reviewed in the fpp (eg. the works mentioned on the links I provided)? Please forgive me for thinking that the relevance and common ground was thus de Beauvoir's ethical failings. I was indeed focused on that and not looking for alternate commonalities. And frustration with having someone else seemingly ignoring my (gender: woman) contribution to raise the same topic themselves seems on point in a discussion of de Beauvoir, at least, no?
posted by eviemath at 3:17 PM on October 25, 2020

Ah, correction/retraction: some other things I read referenced the works in the LRB review, but not the review or other link that I ended up actually posting.
posted by eviemath at 3:23 PM on October 25, 2020

FWIW I'd recommend de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death as a very easy starting point for reading her work. Like The Stranger by Camus, it starts immediately with a message about the narrator's mother, and I suspect it's an intentional parallel, because the memoir as a whole implicitly reflects a similar concern with something like Stoic equanimity toward ethical questions, accidents, responsibility, etc. throughout--only it's waaaay more relatable and realistic, out-existentializing a key text of existentialism.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:37 PM on October 25, 2020

Her first mistake was to be female. Then she insisted on being in intellectual heavyweight, and then I never knew about her seductions. But giving her fans the intimacy they craved seems OK to me. I am a fan of her work, The Second Sex, it gave me a life. Sartre is also a fave of mine, his spare writing, "Like five sharp knocks on the doorway of unhappiness." Of course the French were snotty about her, she was not Bardot, not eye candy, not a pouting, petulant sex goddess, she was an anti sex goddess and messed with the national mood about the great treasure, French women, and everything else they enjoy as a nation. Of course she got bad press, excuse me, what? The kill environmentalists straight out, all over the place in this day, surely they hated feminists back then, especially if they dared to be contemporaries and equals of high philosophers, oh snap! Wait a minute, they still hate feminists, of any kind, a certain strata, comprised of many confluent strands of classic misogyny. This article is probably a subtle, or not even subtle political hit piece, saying that egotistic women or however she is characterised, or decharacterised, women with inner strength not derived from their relationships with even more powerful men, are undesirable, still. Warning off the next generation of young women who might stumble onto her books. Anyway.
posted by Oyéah at 5:08 PM on October 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm also interested in hearing more about why Arendt didn't like "The Second Sex", or about the intellectual relationship between these two philosophers in general. Arendt was also a mixed bag: with some exceptionally well-reasoned and important analyses in certain areas, but eg. a huge blind spot around race relations in the US. (Though I haven't (yet? :/ ) heard of Arendt acting as unethically or abusively toward others as it sounds like de Beauvoir did toward some of her students.)
posted by eviemath at 5:12 PM on October 25, 2020

I still have no idea what the appalling behavior was supposed to be
In 1994, writer Bianca Lamblin, who had been involved sexually with Sartre and Beauvoir when she was 16, wrote a memoir (titled A disgraceful affair in English) where she described how she had been the victim of what would be called today a predatory sexual behaviour from both writers (I discovered that Simone de Beauvoir would select ripe young flesh from among her female students and have a taste herself before palming them off, or should I say more vulgarly, thrusting them upon Sartre. (source). It made some waves at the time, in France at least. The story has been weaponized since by anti-feminists ("ha ha Beauvoir was a pedo"), but this doesn't make it less credible.
posted by elgilito at 6:38 AM on October 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

I absolutely adore de Beauvoir. Even my dog is named after her which I consider the highest compliment.

But, she undoubtedly engaged in problematic sexual relationships, particularly those with her students and quite likely some underage women. There's plenty to be unpacked about her views on sexuality and times and place etc etc., and there is no doubt a lot of nuances and complications and whatnot. But at the end of the day she used her power to have sex with minors and students, and that is unequivocally a bad thing. I still love her work and consider myself a major fanboy of that whole crew, but I can hold both opinions in my mind at once.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:59 AM on October 26, 2020

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