Reading progress update: I've read 228 out of 440 pages.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell

You know, I have never thought about how much the odds must have been stacked against Simone de Beauvoir being recognised in her own right and for her own thoughts rather than just as Sarte's companion. 

By the time I had first read her work, several decades of feminist efforts had taken place and I didn't at the time of my reading The Second Sex appreciate how novel and how daring her book had been at the time of publication (and no I had not read A Room of One's Own by then either). 

The Second Sex draws on years of reading and thinking, as well as on conversations with Sartre, and is by no means the mere adjunct to Sartrean philosophy that it was once taken to be. True, she successfully shocked one feminist interviewer in 1972 by insisting that her main influence in writing it was Being and Nothingness. But seven years later, in another interview, she was adamant that Sartre had nothing to do with working out Hegelian ideas of the Other and the alienated gaze: ‘It was I who thought about that! It was absolutely not Sartre!’

It must have been difficult to be so closely connected to Sartre and have your own work not just disregarded but questioned as to your authorship not just because of the connection but because of your gender.


And the presentation of her work in publishing is infuriating.

The Second Sex could have become established in the canon as one of the great cultural re-evaluations of modern times, a book to set alongside the works of Charles Darwin (who re-situated humans in relation to other animals), Karl Marx (who re-situated high culture in relation to economics) and Sigmund Freud (who re-situated the conscious mind in relation to the unconscious). Beauvoir evaluated human lives afresh by showing that we are profoundly gendered beings: she re-situated men in relation to women. Like the other books, The Second Sex exposed myths. Like the others, its argument was controversial and open to criticism in its specifics – as inevitably happens when one makes major claims. Yet it was never elevated into the pantheon.

   Is this further proof of sexism? Or is it because her existentialist terminology gets in the way? English-speaking readers never even saw most of the latter. It was cut by its first translator in 1953, the zoology professor Howard M. Parshley, largely on the urging of his publisher. Only later, reading the work, did his editor ask him to go easy with the scissors, saying, ‘I am now quite persuaded that this is one of the handful of greatest books on sex ever written.’ It was not just omissions that were the problem; Parshley rendered Beauvoir’s pour-soi (for-itself) as ‘her true nature in itself’, which precisely reverses the existentialist meaning. He turned the title of the second part, ‘L’expérience vécue’ (‘lived experience’), into ‘Woman’s Life Today’ – which, as Toril Moi has observed, makes it sound like the title of a ladies’ magazine. To make matters more confusing and further demean the book, English-language paperback editions through the 1960s and 1970s tended to feature misty-focus naked women on the cover, making it look like a work of soft porn. Her novels got similar treatment. Strangely, this never happened with Sartre’s books. No edition of Being and Nothingness ever featured a muscle-man on the cover wearing only a waiter’s apron. Nor did Sartre’s translator Hazel Barnes simplify his terminology – although she notes in her memoirs that at least one reviewer thought she should have.

The application of dubious covers also happened to Iris Murdoch's books. There is a whole range of Penguin editions that look like erotica. While there are some interesting turns in Murdoch's books, this is a gross misrepresentation of her messages and work. 


It feels even worse with de Beauvoir's book as this is exactly the type of stylised view that she is writing to dispel. 


I really want to re-read The Second Sex....and A Room of One's Own.