Political Writings


Political Writings offers an abundance of newly translated essays by Simone de Beauvoir that demonstrate a heretofore unknown side of her political philosophy. The volume traces nearly three decades of Beauvoir's leftist political engagement, from exposés of conditions in fascist Spain and Portugal in 1945 and hard-hitting attacks on right-wing French intellectuals in the 1950s, to the 1962 defense of an Algerian freedom fighter Djamila Boupacha and a 1975 article arguing for what is now called the "two-state ...

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Political Writings offers an abundance of newly translated essays by Simone de Beauvoir that demonstrate a heretofore unknown side of her political philosophy. The volume traces nearly three decades of Beauvoir's leftist political engagement, from exposés of conditions in fascist Spain and Portugal in 1945 and hard-hitting attacks on right-wing French intellectuals in the 1950s, to the 1962 defense of an Algerian freedom fighter Djamila Boupacha and a 1975 article arguing for what is now called the "two-state solution" in Israel. In addition, this collection includes provocative essays in which Beauvoir analyzes American politics in ways of particular interest to scholars today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rich and illuminating, this collection of essays, reportage, and prefaces by the seminal French philosopher and feminist (part of the Beauvoir series) tackles such disparate topics as the American West and the marquis de Sade, and traverses almost the entire length of de Beauvoir’s (The Second Sex) writing life. Although collected as political writings, the texts prove too varied and complex to sit comfortably within that category. The essay on de Sade, for example, provocatively melds aesthetic and moral concerns, while the final text, a revelatory transcription of an obscure documentary about old age, defies easy categorization. More straightforwardly political pieces on Salazar-era Portugal, right-wing thought, Algeria, and Israel reveal de Beauvoir’s stylistic range, from harshly polemic to tediously pedantic, and always wonderfully descriptive. Astutely edited by Simons (Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir) and translator Timmermann, each section begins with a series of incisive and clear-eyed introductions, of which William Wilkerson’s in particular stands out, while de Beauvoir’s daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, provides the foreword. Though it may arguably hold more interest for the scholar than the general reader, the collection provides a fascinating chart of a brilliant mind struggling to bridge the divide between rarified abstract thinking and concrete social engagement. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

"Rich and illuminating. . . . A fascinating chart of a brilliant mind struggling to bridge the divide between rarified abstract thinking and concrete social engagement."--Publishers Weekly

"Political Writings likely will shed new light on aspects of de Beauvoir's political thought for those who are familiar with her only through The Second Sex. . . . Recommended."--Choice

"This engaging volume ... is the result of painstaking research and meticulous translation by a team of international scholars. . . . Essential."--Choice

"This remarkable collection will be most surprising and provocative for thinkers yearning for a political philosophy to accompany Beauvoir's feminist and ethical philosophies. These essays, many of them appearing for the first time in English, make clear Beauvoir's turn away from the abstract philosophical thought and toward political engagement."
--Kelly Oliver, author of Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252036941
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 7/30/2012
  • Series: Beauvoir Series Series
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,214,371
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) was a French existentialist philosopher who employed a literary-philosophical method in her works, including Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) and The Second Sex (1949). Margaret A. Simons is Distinguished Research Professor Emerita at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the author of Beauvoir and The Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism. Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, adopted daughter and literary executor of Simone de Beauvoir, is the editor of Lettres à Sartre and many other works by Beauvoir. Marybeth Timmermann is a contributing translator and editor of Beauvoir's Philosophical Writings.
A volume in The Beauvoir Series, edited by Margaret A. Simons and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir

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Read an Excerpt

Simone de Beauvoir


University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03694-1


Margaret A. Simons

A volume chronicling almost three decades of Simone de Beauvoir's leftist political engagement may come as a surprise to readers more familiar with her multivolume autobiography, her writings in existentialist ethics, or her classic feminist essay, The Second Sex. But the texts collected here complement and enrich our understanding of Beauvoir's better known works, providing a new interpretive context for her autobiographical writing, prefiguring her later feminist activism (the subject of a forthcoming volume in the Beauvoir Series), and shedding new light on French intellectual history during the turbulent era of decolonization.

Among the many surprises in this volume are two newly discovered texts, translated here for the first time. "Poetry and Truth of the Far West" is a 1947 article written for the American francophone newspaper, France-Amérique, during Beauvoir's lecture tour of the States. Referring to Charlie Chaplin's film, "The Gold Rush," Beauvoir reflects on the French fascination with the Far West—both the historic lure of the gold fields and the glittering "modern reincarnation of these hopes, Hollywood." But, as Eleanore Holveck points out, Beauvoir's article, far from an apolitical travelogue, is a critique of the "illusion of abundance and free choice" presented in films and advertisements by which "the dominant economic class in the United States has convinced its poorer citizens that they, too, can strike it rich."

The second forgotten text may be even more of a surprise. A Walk through the Land of Old Age, the transcription of a 1974 documentary film directed by the Swedish filmmaker Marianne Ahrne for Swedish television and written by Ahrne with Simone de Beauvoir and others, is one of Beauvoir's few collaborative works. The film draws on Beauvoir's analysis of the situation of the elderly in postwar France from her 1970 essay, Old Age (euphemistically titled The Coming of Age in the 1972 American edition). Beauvoir, who appears throughout the film, was closely involved in the production of the film, which, as Oliver Davis explains "revisits many of the key locations of Beauvoir's treatise" and offers a critique of the state-run "nursing home as institution by drawing attention to the way in which 'care' is bound up with repressive treatment." The film continues Beauvoir's critical reflections on the ways in which apparently biological differences of gender, race, and, in this case age, are shaped by one's socioeconomic situation. But here, unlike The Second Sex, Beauvoir herself is presented as an example of socioeconomic privilege, with her fluent narrative and scenes of her souvenir-filled apartment intercut with the barely articulate ramblings of people scarcely older than herself and confined to impersonal institutions.

Beauvoir's essay, "Must We Burn Sade?" first published in 1951–52, reprinted in her 1955 volume, Privilèges (Privileges), and presented here in a new, philosophically accurate translation, is widely known. But her defense of the Marquis de Sade, a misogynist eighteenth-century pornographer, as a "great moralist" can still be a surprise. Beauvoir hails Sade as a precursor of psychoanalysis and admires the defiant authenticity of his defense of an eroticism that proved irreconcilable with "his social existence," but—making a point that his thought was shaped by his privileged situation—she argues that Sade's claim of universality for his libertine ethics fails to recognize the extent to which his ethics reflects his situation as an aristocrat: "He was socially on the side of the privileged, and he did not understand that social inequality affects the individual even in his ethical possibilities." Yet Beauvoir shares some of Sade's metaphysical assumptions and in this study returns to her prewar interest in the problem of solipsism. Debra Bergoffen describes Sade as "Beauvoir's Janus-faced ally" who, like Beauvoir, "begins with the fact of our basic separateness and confronts the realities of our selfishness and injustice." But, Bergoffen explains, Beauvoir rejects Sade's conclusions, arguing that he "mistook power for freedom and misunderstood the meanings of the erotic desires of the flesh."

The biggest surprise of this volume of political writings for fans of Beauvoir's prewar texts might be that it exists at all—given her defiant rejection of politics in the May 24, 1927, entry in her student diary: "[W]hat value could I put on the search for humanity's happiness when the much more serious problem of its reason for being haunts me? I will not make one move for this earthly kingdom; only the inner world counts." Beauvoir's leftist political sympathies in the late 1930s are apparent in her attack on bourgeois society in her 1937–39 short story cycle, When Things of the Spirit Come First. But the depth of her postwar political engagement might still come as a surprise to fans of her egoistic 1939–41 novel, She Came to Stay, the story of an unconventional solipsist who resorts to murder as a solution to the problem of the Other.

The key to Beauvoir's post–World War II political engagement is, of course, her experience of the war itself, an experience recounted in her Wartime Diary and in The Blood of Others, a novel set in the French Resistance and written during the Nazi Occupation. Although Beauvoir escaped the worst horrors of the war—on the front lines or in the concentration camps—she lost friends murdered by the Nazis and found her own life profoundly changed. The Occupation that began in June 1940 confronted her with the realization that freedom, which she had assumed to be a metaphysical given, was contingent upon an economic and political situation that she had previously ignored. In her Wartime Diary, Beauvoir writes of joining the flood of refugees fleeing Paris and the invading army, with Sartre a prisoner or dead, and losing any sense of her self as author of her life story. Immersing herself in Hegel's Phenomenology, she tried to reconcile herself to being a passive witness to History. But her anguished concern for Sartre undermined her attempts to evade the realities of the war. Her life, she writes in a September 20, 1940, diary entry, was "nothing but a series of insomnia, nightmares, tears and headaches. [...] I vaguely see a map of Germany with a heavy barbed wire border [...], and then phrases I have heard, such as 'they are starving to death.'" A turning point comes six months into the Occupation while Sartre (whom she describes as "absent, gagged") was still a prisoner.

Beauvoir's diary entry dated January 9, 1941, records her disgust at the growing evidence of French intellectual collaboration with the Nazis, evidence that initiates the transformation in her thought grounding her postwar political engagement:

"One idea that struck me so strongly in Hegel is the exigency of mutual recognition of consciousnesses—it can serve as a foundation for a social view of the world—the only absolute being this human consciousness, exigency of freedom of each consciousness in order for the recognition to be valid and free: recognition in love, artistic expression, action, etc. And at the same time, the existential idea that human reality is nothing other than what it makes itself be, that toward which it transcends itself. [...] And according to the other idea of Heidegger that the human species and I are the same thing, it's really I that am at stake. After reading a ridiculous and despicable issue of the NRF, I experienced this to the extent of feeling anguished. I am far from the Hegelian point of view that was so helpful to me in August. I have become conscious again of my individuality and of the metaphysical being that is opposed to this historical infinity where Hegel optimistically dilutes all things. Anguish. [...] To make oneself an ant among ants, or a free consciousness facing other consciousnesses. Metaphysical solidarity that I newly discovered, I, who was a solipsist. I cannot be consciousness, spirit, among ants. I understand what was wanting in our anti-humanism" (319–20).

The wartime transformation in Beauvoir's thought is evident in the two articles in this volume from 1945 reporting on conditions in Spain and Portugal, "Four Days in Madrid" and "Portugal under the Salazar Regime." Published in the Resistance newspaper, Combat, edited by Albert Camus, the articles reflect Beauvoir's political alignment with the postwar leftist coalition government of France—the Communists benefiting from having led the Resistance while the political right was discredited by their collaboration with the Nazis. In these two articles Beauvoir alludes to her experience of the near-starvation conditions of occupied France and exposes the "oppression and injustice" suffered by impoverished working people under fascist right-wing dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, surrounded by a wealth of food and luxury goods that they cannot afford. Eleanore Holveck writes that Beauvoir re-created the trip to Portugal in her 1954 novel, The Mandarins, through the eyes of her character Henri Perron. "Henri acknowledges that he had seen similar squalor before in his travels, but now it haunts him, and he can no longer ignore poverty." He promises himself to wage a campaign in the press to expose the political and economic exploitation, the terror, and the complicity of the clergy. "Like Perron," Holveck writes, "never again would Beauvoir devote herself to pure literature and ignore the misery of the majority of the human race."

During the 1950s, when the fighting in Korea signaled the beginning of the Cold War and a resurgent political right led France in futile battles to retain control of its colonies, Beauvoir produced a series of articles analyzing conservative thought (the essay on Sade is one of them). The title of the 1955 volume in which they were reprinted, Privilèges, highlights Beauvoir's focus on the ways in which conservative thought is shaped by the socioeconomic privilege of its thinkers. "Right-Wing Thought Today" (1955), the second of the three articles included in Privilèges, is an extension of Beauvoir's analysis in The Second Sex of the ways in which sexist thought is shaped by men trying—in bad faith—to justify their privileges in male-dominated societies. But her analysis here also surprisingly anticipates the three volumes of her autobiography published between 1958 and 1963 where she explores the ways in which her own thought was shaped by her privileged upbringing, perhaps explaining the harshness of her attacks in this article on thinkers whose penchant for idealism, justification of ethical egoism, and preoccupation with death characterize her own early work. Sonia Kruks points out that the article's "methodologically troubling" political "manichaeism," which "cuts uncomfortably across the grain of Beauvoir's less polemical essays on politics," also reflects the "increasingly polarized world of the Cold War" when Beauvoir became a "staunch fellow traveler" of the French Communist Party. But Kruks finds that the essay offers prescient insight into "the Eurocentric and masculinist tones of Western elite thought" with Beauvoir's "critique of meritocracy as a ruse that justifies privilege" and her critique of "the elitism of the cult of 'elegance'" that are still relevant today.

Readers may be surprised to find Beauvoir's 1955 defense of Sartre's philosophy, "Merleau-Ponty and Pseudo-Sartreanism," which is presented here in a revised translation, included in a volume of her political writings. But Beauvoir saw Maurice Merleau-Ponty's attack on Sartre's philosophy, to which her article is a response, as fundamentally political, a "bad faith" defense of bourgeois interests, as she explains in the foreword to Privilèges where this article was reprinted. As William Wilkerson explains in his introduction, Beauvoir's polemical article was written in response to a political confrontation between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. In 1952 Sartre published "a strident defense of both communism and the party's role in creating the society of the future" while Merleau-Ponty retreated from Marxism, resigned as political editor of Les temps modernes, and in 1955 published an article arguing that Sartre's ontology in Being and Nothingness is irreconcilable with communism. In her article, as Wilkerson explains, Beauvoir comes to Sartre's defense, arguing, with some justification, that Merleau-Ponty misreads Sartre and ignores his postwar development as a thinker. But Wilkerson calls our attention to the final pages of the essay, where he observes that Beauvoir drops the defense of Sartre and engages Merleau-Ponty's political thinking directly: "here we find a truly provocative dialogue, one that reveals Beauvoir's own political thinking at this critical moment in history."

In 1960 Beauvoir emerged on the political stage for the first time as a public figure in the struggle against French colonialism, as recounted in her 1962 preface to Djamila Boupacha. Coauthored by Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi, Djamila Boupacha recounts the defense of a young, female Algerian freedom fighter imprisoned and tortured during the 1954–62 war of independence fought by Algeria. As Julien Murphy points out, Beauvoir, who "led the charge of marshalling public opinion" in support of Djamila Boupacha's case in 1960, "became a prominent force against the use of torture in the French internment camps in Algeria." Murphy reports that Beauvoir's active involvement in the case brought a dramatic change in Beauvoir's life, although one that, Murphy notes with surprise, is barely mentioned in her autobiography. Taking on a public role despite its dangers broke down Beauvoir's "rage and disillusionment" over the war, fueled by her shameful sense of unjustifiable privilege, and replaced them with a warmth of shared efforts and hopes that she found in the growing antiwar movement. Beauvoir's public involvement in the Boupacha case might thus be seen as laying the groundwork for her active political engagement in the women's movement in the 1970s.

Another surprise in this volume might be the wide range of political issues in which Beauvoir was engaged, as in her 1971 article, "In France Today, Killing Goes Unpunished," which exposes the injustice of a suspended sentence for a factory owner whose flagrant disregard for safety regulations led to the death and disfigurement of fifty-seven of his female workers in a factory fire. As Karen Shelby notes, when Beauvoir asserts of the factory inspectors that "[t]hey look the other way," "she is implicitly asking her readers if they too will look the other way" in such cases. The article ends with a militant call to workers to make their owners comply with safety measures: "do not let your exploiters play with your health and your life." Beauvoir's political focus on women in her defense of Djamila Boupacha and in her article calling for justice for the female factory workers is also evident in "Syria and Its Prisoners," her 1973 Le monde article calling on Syria to release the names of Israeli prisoners of war and agree to a prisoner exchange following the Yom Kippur War—an appeal addressed in part to the mothers of Syrian soldiers.

As a leftist Beauvoir's defense of Israel might be surprising, but arising from her memories of the Holocaust, her support was steadfast, if not uncritical, as evidenced by the four short texts in this volume. Susan Suleim man writes that these four texts, written over a twenty-year period, together "offer an excellent glimpse into the evolution of French public discourse about the Holocaust and about Israel." After the war, Suleiman explains, France "made no special effort to recognize the specific experience of Jewish deportees." Jean-François Steiner's 1966 "non-fiction novel," Treblinka, for which Beauvoir wrote the preface, included here, was "one of the first attempts, in France, to give a literary representation of Jewish suffering—as well as of Jewish heroism—during the Holocaust." Ten years later, in "Solidarity with Israel: A Critical Support," Beauvoir's May 1975 speech to a leftwing Jewish group, she takes what Suleiman describes as a courageous position at odds with the leftist orthodoxy. Arguing for what is now called the two-state solution, Beauvoir, according to Suleiman, provides insights into "the negative effects of isolation and fear of insecurity on Israeli politics" that may "prevent Israel from attending to social problems that demand attention," and "offers an extremely nuanced and still timely analysis" of the Left's "vehement condemnation of Israel and its unconditional sympathy for the Palestinians." Finally, in 1985, at a time, as Suleiman explains, when "Jewish memory" had become an established concept in French public discourse, Beauvoir wrote the preface to the transcription of Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, lauding as a major artistic achievement this effort to "make the Holocaust present to its viewers." Written only months before her death in 1986, the preface is also evidence of Beauvoir's own enduring political engagement.


Excerpted from Simone de Beauvoir Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword to the Beauvoir Series Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir....................ix
Introduction Margaret A. Simons....................1
1. Political reporting from Spain, Portugal, and the United States Introduction by Eleanore Holveck....................9
2. Must We Burn Sade? Introduction by Debra Bergoffen....................37
3. Right-Wing Thought Today Introduction by Sonia Kruks....................103
4. Merleau-Ponty and Pseudo-Sartreanism Introduction by William Wilkerson....................195
5. Preface to Djamila Boupacha Introduction by Julien S. Murphy....................259
6. In France Today, Killing Goes Unpunished Introduction by Karen L. Shelby....................283
7. Essays on Israel and the Holocaust Introduction by Susan Rubin Suleiman....................293
8. A Walk through the Land of Old Age Introduction by Oliver Davis....................329
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