Publication of a previously unseen novel (Les Inséparables, L'Herne), translation of a biographical burden (Becoming Beauvoir, by Kate Kirkpatrick): a wealth of editorial current topics surrounds Simone de Beauvoir. An interest that comes as much from the figure of the author – often misunderstood – as its founding notion on the questions of genre and feminism. The philosopher Manon Garcia, who looked to her work for her essay On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient (2018) (You are not born submissive, you become it), throws light on the work of the author of Second Sex and her influence on contemporary movements.
How do you explain the current interest in the figure and work of Simone de Beauvoir?
I think the question can be asked in another way: how can you understand that so little has been said and written about Simone de Beauvoir until now? Beauvoir is unquestionably one of the great figures of French literature and philosophy of the twentieth century. She wrote a huge amount, she was read around the world, she was an intellectual figure of unquestionable importance. The mystery – even if I have a few ideas to explain it – is rather to understand why she was left in the shadow of Sarte for so long, why was she made to be a slightly austere and strict figure of feminism from another age, why we no longer read her works.
For a long time, the work of de Beauvoir was analysed under the prism of her relationship with Sartre. Does her coming back to the limelight allow us to see her more clearly?
It is undeniable that, for the first time for several years, Beauvoir is starting to be read without Sartre. In this respect, the publishing work her heir, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, has undertaken has had a considerable impact: she published her letters and above all the diaries she wrote when she was young, which enabled a Beauvoir to be seen who was completely different to the prejudices we could have about her. We discovered that she was in love with several men, was passionate, far from the image we have of her as a woman with an austere banner. More than anything, from a philosophical perspective, her diaries showed that she had an original way of thinking, different to that of Sartre and from before they met, with themes that then ran through all of her work. The Beauvoir work thus enables us to consider the relationship between humans as well as how we relate to death, our love of life, or the relationships between women and men.
You have drawn on her work for On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient. What tools did you find to express your reflection?
My book is on the question of knowing why women accept to submit to men. However, I find that we can read Second Sex as an attempt to answer this question, even if this is not how the book has been read up to now. With On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient, I try to understand this highly complex problem and answer it by following the path she marked out. Even if is not my main aim, in this way I show the extent to which her analyses remain current, the point to which they can guide women today to consider their oppression but also – and I think this is maybe the most important – their emancipation.
You also develop the idea that becoming a woman, is first of all becoming aware that you are an object of desire for men. What are the processes through which we manage to regain our status of subject?
The particularity of what women experience is that at puberty they discover themselves to be objects of desire in the eyes of men before even being able to have made their body theirs, before being and having their own body. This is what happens the first times a young girl is harassed in the street or sexualised by things said in her family. Gradually, women can make their bodies theirs in various ways, through sport, masturbation, sexual pleasure in general, or even through diets. But this primitive alienation, this relationship with a body that doesn't seem to be me and that is me through masculine eyes, leaves marks in the very long term.
What is common between de Beauvoir feminism and the multiple forms it takes today?
This is a question that deserves pages! But on the whole, I don't think that there’s a contradiction between de Beauvoir feminism and contemporary feminisms. For example, people wanted to make de Beauvoir an upholder of universalism against intersectional feminism. However, I’m convinced that this interpretation is completely wrong. Beauvoir is a woman of her time but, unlike what many believe, one of her major sources of inspiration for understanding the oppression of women in Second Sex comes from American work on racism, and another is Marxist thinking. In several interviews, she also claimed to adhere to radical feminism. The diversity of feminisms is a source of progress and hope, so it is hard for me to understand why, recently, certain historic feminists find it necessary to award certificates for good and bad feminism!
You lecture in the United States. At international level, do different approaches to de Beauvoir’s work exist and, more broadly, feminist challenges?
Things are gradually starting to change in France, but when I started working on Beauvoir, ten or so years ago, it was very simple: she was not considered to be a philosopher and feminist theory saw her as being a bit old-fashioned. Basically, no one, in philosophy, was working on her work and that is why I went to the United States, to work with philosophers specialising in de Beauvoir. More broadly, feminist philosophy is recognised as being an entirely separate field of philosophy in the United States. It has its own scientific journals, almost all the philosophy departments have at least one philosopher specialising in this field in their team. It’s not – or not yet – the case in France. I have the impression that more and more students are taking an interest in these questions, but institutional recognition is taking a while. This is why I edited the collection Textes-clés de philosophie féministe (Key Texts of Feminist Philosophy) (Editor: Vrin, 2021). I hope to make very important texts accessible that are not often translated for French readers in order to reinforce the field in the academic landscape.
On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient by Manon Garcia has been translated into spanish with the support of the Institut français.
Through its publication support programmes, the Institut français participates in the dissemination of French language humanities worldwide. Learn more about the publication assistance programmes
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