Academic journal article French Forum

Beauvoir Speaks for Sartre: Ambiguous Ethics in la Ceremonie Des Adieux

Academic journal article French Forum

Beauvoir Speaks for Sartre: Ambiguous Ethics in la Ceremonie Des Adieux

Article excerpt

Within a few weeks of its publication late in 1981, La Ceremonie des adieux, Simone de Beauvoir's final tribute to her long-time companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, generated a flurry of reviews, many of which were negative or at least ambivalent in their judgments. No doubt her evocative title suggesting social ritual, veneration, and Romantic tragedy all rolled in one set readers' expectations as to how a famous intellectual would speak about her equally famous familiar. Not surprisingly, some reviewers could only be disappointed by the book's pedestrian accounts that relentlessly detailed, among other things, an old man's slips into senile dementia and his bouts of incontinence. But even as some commentators found "excessive" and "exhibitionist" Beauvoir's attempts to be faithful to life experience, others found her writing to reveal great tenderness and understated emotion toward Sartre. (1) Literary judgments rested on, for lack of a better term, moral judgments; the perception of Beauvoir's literary treatment of this "significant" other was oddly linked to the perception of her ethical conduct toward this other.

Close to the time of La Ceremonie's publication and the moral outrage it stirred up, Genevieve Idt and Elaine Marks, two among several scholars, chose to defend Beauvoir against these charges of inappropriate conduct. For instance, Idt traces the negative reactions to a misunderstanding of what she holds to be Beauvoir's intentions. Using considerable textual evidence to support her argument, Idt teases out two main motivations. First, Beauvoir writes the book as a personal means for public mourning and, second, she does so as a "truthful" testimonial designed to undercut misrepresentation of Sartre. To put it differently, Beauvoir responds to Sartre's death in what Idt deems socially conventional and psychologically justifiable ways.

Somewhat differently, Marks reads Beauvoir's works as appropriately transgressive of social and literary norms. She notes that the Beauvoirian discourse has often been accused of being excessive--or in the poetically resonant term that Marks so skillfully uses to describe Beauvoir's frank prose, "incontinent" (187). Beauvoir is unrepentantly talkative about things that are not to be revealed and most certainly not discussed in polite society especially as defined by Western, bourgeois culture, i.e., old age, infirmity, death, etc. Marks ultimately charges Beauvoir with balking at the more radical transgressions across the boundaries of female sexuality, especially when expressed as lesbianism, but on the whole, this commentator considers with approbation Beauvoir's challenges to a cultural status quo. Despite the differences in their commentary, Marks' and Idt's analyses align on this point: Beauvoir has braved some of the outdated codes of so-called moral conduct and has ultimately done the right thing by speaking up and speaking out about what it means to be human.

We should keep in mind that Beauvoir and her two apologists are all writing in the early to mid-eighties, that is, not so terribly far off from the grand era of May '68 and the questioning of authority, when speaking out is frequently understood as speaking up for those disenfranchised and power-bereft others. Significantly, it is Beauvoir herself who some thirty years before La Ceremonie helped to popularize the idea of the weakened "other" as a conceptual necessity for the consolidation of those in power:

[La femme] se determine et se differencie par rapport a l'homme et non celui-ci par rapport a elle; elle est l'inessentiel en face de l'essentiel II est le Sujet, il est l'Absolu elle est l'Autre. (DS, 16)

Elle est l'Autre au coeur d'une totalite dont les deux termes sont necessaires l'un a Pautre. (DS, 21)

These quotes come, of course, from Beauvoir's groundbreaking Deuxieme Sexe (1949), the book that gave many a second wave feminist a useful theoretical paradigm not to mention a new social history that could serve a political movement. …

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