The iconic feminist Simone de Beauvoir finally enters the French canon

The publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs as part of the prestigious collection La Pléiade sheds new light on her intellectual heritage and the current state of identity politics in France. It also invites us to reflect on the politicization of first-person nonfiction.

Simone de Beauvoir is finally one of them. While Sartre, Camus and other male authors of the 1950–60s entered La Pléiade — the iconic collection of the French publishing house Gallimard reserved for the most prestigious French and international writers — decades ago, Simone de Beauvoir just joined the literary pantheon 30 years after her death.

“I’ve been waiting for this for years” said Emma Wilson, Professor of French at the University of Cambridge, when she found out Beauvoir is entering the collection in May this year. Beauvoir’s life-partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, entered La Pléiade in 1981. Beauvoir is only the 15th woman, out of 241 writers to date, to have her work printed on the iconic biblical paper of the collection. The growing awareness of the poor representation of women in France’s high cultural ranks has probably influenced Gallimard’s Editing Committee, just as it motivated François Hollande to bring two female resistance fighters into the French Pantheon in 2015, and, more recently, Emmanuel Macron, to announce the upcoming “pantheonization” of Simone Veil, the former French Minister who fought to legalize abortion in France.

Being buried in the Pantheon is highly symbolic in France. This monumental mausoleum in the middle of the Latin Quarter in Paris gathers exemplary citizens and founders of the French Republic such as Voltaire and Victor Hugo. France also has its Académie française whose members — called the Immortals — are the high priests of the French language in charge of reviewing the official dictionary. La Pléiade is one of these institutions France loves, as it has been reconstructing aristocratic structures through cultural distinctions since its 1789 Revolution. Founded in the 1930s, La Pléiade progressively became the French literary Pantheon, gathering masterpieces from Aristotle to André Malraux or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry more recently, the author of “The Little Prince”. La Pléiade usually combines several works of a writer with a critical contextualization by the best scholars. Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway are among the American authors whose work has been compiled into the supple leather binding typical of the collection. The two volumes of Beauvoir’s memoirs printed for the 110th anniversary of her birth therefore come as a supreme recognition.

I first loved her for herself: a free woman who chose to live and to love differently — Michelle Perrot

While female authors are underrepresented in La Pléiade, to understand the delayed publishing of Beauvoir’s work as part of the collection one might want to consider her as a public figure and look at her astounding media fame back in the 1950–60s. It looks as if her character had partly taken over her work. “I first loved her for herself: a free woman who chose to live and to love differently[1]” wrote the French historian Michelle Perrot in the literary and philosophical review founded by Sartre and Beauvoir themselves, Les Temps modernes. Our memories tend to idealize and smooth out activists’ claims while neglecting their work, especially if their fights progress and normalize. It sometimes looks as if Beauvoir — revolutionary writer of The Second Sex often regarded as the first extensive study of femininity as a social construct — turned into a rather consensual “grandmother” of second wave feminism in the West. Her charges against bourgeois’ conservatism or French colonialism during the Algerian war are rarely mentioned. If her bisexual experiences often draw attention, we nonetheless neglect the extent to which her personal life was charged with meaning, revealing of her own philosophy of the subject and its ties to freedom.

Rereading Beauvoir in the wake of the #MeToo movement and its French counterpart #BalanceTonPorc — “Out your pig” — might help shed a new light upon current feminist debates.

One can hope the rediscovery of Beauvoir in France will help enrich feminist agendas and strengthen an understanding of identity politics as a broader field of study. Her existentialist thinking also seems relevant to analyze the interactions between individual aspirations, social opportunities and political constraints. French politics has started dealing with the rights and representation of minorities at a larger scale only recently, namely because they challenge its universalistic and equalitarian republican dogma — “republican” being understood here in its French context as referring to the values of its Republic. The controversies and resistances surrounding the legalization of gay marriage in 2013 can be analyzed through the lens of this unawareness and delegitimization of minority issues. Dealing with them implies acknowledging differences and unequal opportunities among citizens and France is culturally reluctant to attribute “rights based on difference instead of sameness” as the historian Robert Zaretsky explains. “Beauvoir has always said the thesis [of The Second Sex] would have to be reviewed, but her argument remains valid and offers a weapon to women. She would have agreed with the fact that harassment must be tackled, that it needs to explode,” Beauvoir’s adoptive daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, told the French weekly L’Obs[2]. Rereading Beauvoir in the wake of the #MeToo movement and its French counterpart #BalanceTonPorc — “Out your pig” — might help shed a new light upon current feminist debates and issues such as consent or female visibility.

Since feminist studies are attached to the “study of the self” in the US and the UK, Beauvoir is more often considered a philosopher than in France where feminism mostly belongs to sociology. The French classifying obsession between disciplines is also foreign to Anglophone academia. This is helpful in understanding Beauvoir’s work since she was a writer before being a philosopher — her life experiences determining her philosophical interests — and a philosopher before being an activist — her vision of the subject determining her political commitments after World War II. The publication of Beauvoir’s Cahiers de jeunesse in 2008 might help to establish her more firmly as a philosopher in French academia. Her diaries contained “ideas Sartre goes on to use in Being and Nothingness […]. In this regard, Simone de Beauvoir’s silence on the enormous debt of Sartre to her would be a deliberate white lie”[3] said Eliane Lecarme-Tabone, who was in charge of editing Beauvoir for La Pléiade, to Les Temps modernes.

The two volumes of Beauvoir’s memoirs published by Gallimard in La Pléiade. <http://www.la-pleiade.fr/Auteur/Simone-de-Beauvoir>

“I hope La Pléiade will help promote Beauvoir’s work as a memorialist, also because memoirs are often mistaken with other close genres such as autobiographies or auto fiction,” Jean-Louis Jeannelle, Professor in modern literature at the University of Rouen who also led the publishing effort for the volumes in La Pléiade, said in an interview. Beauvoir’s writings are testament to her intimate ties with her time and its politics, depicting her personal life in the broader context of French and European history. Because of her love story with Nelson Algren, several trips to the US or her encounter with American GIs after the Liberation of Paris, she also gives numerous accounts of the US. She produces relevant historical primary sources as well as a study of the connections between one’s time and everyday life. The specificity of memoirs is encapsulated in this dichotomy: the influence history has on someone as much as the influence someone can have on history. Numerous prominent thinkers or political figures therefore wrote memoirs to tell their stories from their perspective and to share inspiring lives. Beauvoir acknowledges this when saying in the 1960s: “To some extent, I only wrote my other books, the previous ones — the novels –, to be able one day to write this story [my memoirs], because naturally if I had been absolutely nobody, not famous at all, it would have been nonsense to recount this start in life”.[4]

These days, people want to read politically-charged work, often as a way to make sense of this world that we’re living in. — Morgan Jerkins

Beauvoir is an explorer of first person narrative genres and her memoirs constantly intertwine the individual and the political. They remind us of the innately political dimension of first-person-nonfiction when they are written by activists or members of minority groups. When they reveal how one opposes society or is affected by its institutions and mores, autobiographies, memoirs or diaries turn out to be very political. This is striking when we consider the boom in sales of non-fiction works written by members of minority groups in the US since President Trump is in office. The tremendous success of the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro based on James Baldwin’s “Remember This House” illustrates this phenomenon very well. While studying the recent evolutions of the American book sales’ market, “booksellers and publishers have noticed a burst in popularity for classic dystopias, and a renewed interest in political nonfiction or books by authors from marginalized groups — titles relevant, in other words, to the current political situation.” “These days, people want to read politically-charged work, often as a way to make sense of this world that we’re living in” says Morgan Jerkins, a young Harlem-based writer, in The New Republic. “In some cases, this means that nonfiction is on an upswing.”

We dream of absolutes, we want to be, but we really only end up existing. — Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir

If people “want to read politically-charged work”, the rediscovery of Beauvoir is an opportunity to grasp, and its entrance at La Pléiade might say something about French society and its growing awareness of the rights of minorities and of the situation of the self in collective political discourse. On a more intimate level, Beauvoir’s adopted daughter also sees these memoirs as an exploration of the author’s “almost tragic conscience of time”.[5] Thanks to her determination for happiness and demanding ethics, Beauvoir generally avoided melancholy, but she nonetheless reflected upon our condition. A burning desire to live was her way to face “the problem of time: we dream of absolutes, we want to be, but we really only end up existing”.[6]

Thank you to Elian Peltier (New York Times) and Tomasz Hollanek (PhD in Film studies, University of Cambridge) for their help editing this piece. I also want to thank prof. Emma Wilson (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages , University of Cambridge) and prof. Jean-Louis Jeannelle (University of Rouen, Normandy) for proof-reading and discussing this article with me.

Notes:

[1] Personal translation from the French : “je l’ai aimée d’abord pour elle-même : une femme libre qui avait choisi de vivre et d’aimer autrement.” in Michelle Perrot, “Simone de Beauvoir et l’histoire des femmes”, Les Temps modernes, n°647, 2008. <https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-temps-modernes-2008-1-page-162.html>

[2] Personal translation from the French : “Elle a toujours dit qu’il faudrait actualiser son essai, mais sa thèse demeure valable et fournit une arme aux femmes. Elle aurait été d’accord avec le fait qu’il faut parler du harcèlement, qu’il fallait que ça explose.” in Grégoire Leménager and Elisabeth Philippe,“ ‘Nous nous sommes choisies’: Simone de Beauvoir racontée par sa fille”, Nouvel Obs, 2018. <https://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/actualites/20180417.OBS5318/nous-nous-sommes-choisies-simone-de-beauvoir-racontee-par-sa-fille.html>

[3] Personal translation from the French : “idées que Sartre exploitera dans L’Etre et le Néant […]. Dans cette perspective, le silence de Simone de Beauvoir sur la dette énorme de Sartre à son égard relèverait du pieux mensonge délibéré.” in Eliane Lecarme-Tabone, “Le couple Beauvoir-Sartre devant la critique féministe”, Les Temps modernes, n°619, 2002. <https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-temps-modernes-2002-3-page-19.htm#pa20>

[4] Personal translation from the French : “En un sens, je n’ai écrit mes autres livres, ceux d’avant — les romans –, que pour avoir le droit un jour d’écrire cette histoire [les mémoires] parce que naturellement si j’avais été absolument personne, pas du tout connue, ça n’aurait pas eu de sens de raconter ces débuts.” in Dominique Gros, Simone de Beauvoir, une femme actuelle, Paris, Les Films d’ici, 2007. [5.min20sec. / 5min.34sec.] <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4Uur6zfvWg>

[5] Personal translation from the French: “Cette conscience presque tragique du temps l’a accompagnée toute sa vie.” in Grégoire Leménager and Elisabeth Philippe,“ ‘Nous nous sommes choisies’: Simone de Beauvoir racontée par sa fille”, Nouvel Obs, 2018. <https://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/actualites/20180417.OBS5318/nous-nous-sommes-choisies-simone-de-beauvoir-racontee-par-sa-fille.html>

[6] Personal translation from the French : “le problème du temps: on rêve d’absolu, on veut être, mais on ne fait jamais qu’exister.” in Grégoire Leménager and Elisabeth Philippe, Ibid.