Academic journal article Hecate

One Is Not Born, but Becomes, a Bestseller: The Publishing Politics of Simone De Beauvoir's the Second Sex

Academic journal article Hecate

One Is Not Born, but Becomes, a Bestseller: The Publishing Politics of Simone De Beauvoir's the Second Sex

Article excerpt

One Is Not Born, but Becomes, a Bestseller: The Publishing Politics of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

My essays reflect my practical choices and my intellectual certitudes; my novels, the astonishment into which I am thrown both by the whole and by the details of our human condition. They correspond to two different orders of experience which cannot be communicated in the same manner. Both sorts of experience are to me equal in importance and authenticity; I see myself reflected no less in The Second Sex than in The Mandarins, and vice versa. If I have used two different modes of self-expression, it was because such diversity was for me a necessity. (Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance 332)

Well, now I am going to work. I must begin again to write the book about women because I promised a bit of it to a New York magazine. They already gave me 250 dollars and they'll give me 250 more when the article is published. I'll keep the money in New York and it'll help us to live in New Orleans, dearest. So, writing it, I begin to work for our travel together, for our happiness and love: it is very stimulating.

(Beauvoir, Beloved Chicago Man 40-41)

In 1999, the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the original French publication of Simone de Beauvoir's classic text, The Second Sex,1 unleashed a wave of debate in intellectual feminist circles. Chiefly, discussion focused upon how The Second Sex was to be understood after fifty years and a revolution in the status of women. Was Beauvoir best criticised for her patrician intellectualism, tendency towards male (read: Sartrean) identification and repugnance for female corporeality? Was she recoverable (if at all) only as an icon of mid-century feminist revolt, inescapably dated in terms of contemporary feminist theory? Alternatively, was Beauvoir's fundamental commitment to rationalism and life-long insistence upon the material underpinnings of any authentic notion of freedom newly tantalising to an audience of western feminist academics grown jaded with the visionary but insistently non-pragmatic effusions of the latterly fashionable theorists of écriture féminine?

These ruminations by a current generation of feminist scholars were given added piquancy by the publication in late-1998 of the English-language edition of Beauvoir's collected letters to her lover, American writer Nelson Algren, as Beloved Chicago Man: Letters to Nelson Algren 1947-64. Here, in startling counterpoint to the insistently objective and formally philosophical tone of The Second Sex, was a Beauvoir gushingly, flirtatiously, self-abnegatingly declaring her passion in over 550 pages of intimate love letters. Most startlingly, her moving protestations of devotion to Algren were exactly contemporaneous with the research and writing of Beauvoir's classic exposition of romantic love as the chief myth perpetuating women's vicarious existence and contingent consciousness. The mainstream press was quick to leap upon this seemingly invincible evidence of women's -- and most of all this woman's -- feverish complicity in maintaining their secondary sexual status: the UK Guardian newspaper's `Pass Notes` column, a jocular bluffer's guide to popular culture, gleefully noted the archetypal feminist idol's apparent feet of clay, hypothesising Beauvoir's most likely comment at dinner with Algren to be, `Would beefy butchboy care for a little steak-frites made by little babykins bunny?' (`Pass Notes No 977'). It was as though the certain, rational, high-philosophical tone of Beauvoir's analysis in The Second Sex had been revealed as merely the reflection of the conscious mind, with her intensely romantic, declamatory, specifically sexual longing for her absent `Crocodile man' Algren as its countervailing id (Beloved Chicago Man, 40-41). The mainstream media's pat-Freudian interpretations along such lines were made all the more difficult for feminists to bear by Beauvoir's own spirited and incisive demolition of Freudian psychoanalysis as a pseudo-scientific postulation of essentially socio-economic realities -- an indictment articulated, ironically, in the pages of The Second Sex itself. …

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