"The Useless Mouths" and Other Literary Writingsby Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons (Editor), Marybeth Timmermann (Editor), Sylvie Le Bon Beauvoir (Foreword by)
"The Useless Mouths" and Other Literary Writings brings to English-language readers literary writingsseveral previously unknownby Simone de Beauvoir. Culled from sources including various American university collections, the works span decades of Beauvoir's career. Ranging from dramatic works and literary theory to radio broadcasts,/i>
"The Useless Mouths" and Other Literary Writings brings to English-language readers literary writingsseveral previously unknownby Simone de Beauvoir. Culled from sources including various American university collections, the works span decades of Beauvoir's career. Ranging from dramatic works and literary theory to radio broadcasts, they collectively reveal fresh insights into Beauvoir's writing process, personal life, and the honing of her philosophy.
The volume begins with a new translation of the 1945 play "The Useless Mouths," written in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Other pieces were discovered after Beauvoir's death in 1986, such as the 1965 short novel Misunderstanding in Moscow, involving an elderly French couple who confront their fears of aging. Two additional previously unknown texts include the fragmentary "Notes for a Novel," which contains the seed of what she later would call "the problem of the Other," and a lecture on postwar French theater titled "Existential Theater." The collection notably includes the eagerly awaited translation of Beauvoir's contribution to a 1965 debate among Jean-Paul Sartre and other French writers and intellectuals, "What Can Literature Do?"
Prefaces to well-known works such as Bluebeard and Other Fairy Tales,La Bâtarde, and James Joyce in Paris: His Final Years are also available in English for the first time, alongside essays and other short articles. A landmark contribution to Beauvoir studies and French literary studies, the volume includes informative and engaging introductory essays by prominent and rising scholars.
Contributors are Meryl Altman, Elizabeth Fallaize, Alison S. Fell, Sarah Gendron, Dennis A. Gilbert, Laura Hengehold, Eleanore Holveck, Terry Keefe, J. Debbie Mann, Frederick M. Morrison, Catherine Naji, Justine Sarrot, Liz Stanley, Ursula Tidd, and Veronique Zaytzeff.
"An impressive team of experts introduces the book's 10 pieces and thoroughly annotates them. . . . This book nicely puts the philosopher's work into an expanded context for nonspecialists."Publishers Weekly
"This collection of previously untranslated pieces by Simone de Beauvoir makes available for the first time in English a variety of literary writings that are also of philosophical interest. As with previous volumes in the Beauvoir Series, "The Useless Mouths" and Other Literary Writings breaks new ground, and it will become indispensible to Beauvoir scholars."
Claudia Card, author of Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide
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"THE USELESS MOUTHS" AND OTHER LITERARY WRITINGS
By Simone de Beauvoir
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Useless Mouths (A Play)
INTRODUCTION by Liz Stanley and Catherine Naji
"I finished a play. It had been begun three months earlier, and the title I gave it was Les bouches inutiles. Ever since I had attended the rehearsals of The Flies I had been thinking of writing a play."
Les bouches inutiles (The Useless Mouths), Simone de Beauvoir's only play, opened with a benefit performance on October 29, 1944, at the Théâtre des Carrefours. It has considerable importance for understanding Beauvoir's writing, the development of her philosophical ideas particularly. However, as Virginia Fichera has pointed out, "Although it is a major work exploring the relationship between sex and gender predating The Second Sex by about four years, unfortunately it has been neglected by critics and scholars of her work." The play deals with the ethical consequences of treating some people as worthless and useless, something still of considerable social relevance, and it also reveals much about changes occurring in Beauvoir's philosophical thinking. Around the time it was written, her ideas shifted from a pre–World War II solipsism, toward a postwar moral and political engagement, something usually not seen as happening before publication of The Second Sex. However, in The Useless Mouths Beauvoir is thinking aloud about such matters, particularly concerning her developing ideas about self-and-other and a relational view of social relationships.
The plot of The Useless Mouths concerns the breakdown of social bonds in an in extremis situation and is set in medieval Flanders in the fictional city-state of Vaucelles, which had revolted against the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy. As it opens, there has been a long siege and the townspeople are facing starvation unless the King of France helps them. There are three leading Aldermen, Louis, Jacques, and François, who lead the town Council. Louis is married to Catherine, herself a significant figure in the revolt. They have two wards, Jean-Pierre and his sister Jeanne. Catherine wants Jeanne to marry Jacques, although Jeanne is unhappy about this. Their daughter Clarice is in love with Jean-Pierre, but rather childishly hides it; and although Jean-Pierre is in love with her, he cannot cope with emotional commitment. Their son Georges is a disaffected tough who wants power without responsibility, and he also has inappropriate feelings for Clarice. These characters represent different varieties of dictatorship and tyranny (Louis, and very differently François), of nihilism (Georges, and in another sense François), of solipsism (Jean-Pierre, and also Clarice), of bad faith (Jean-Pierre's sister Jeanne, but also Catherine and Clarice), and of inauthenticity (Jean-Pierre, also Catherine). The play's action is propelled by four events that occur in rapid succession: Jean-Pierre's return from secretly visiting the French court, the Council's decision to expel "the useless mouths" from Vaucelles, Georges forcing his attentions on Clarice and then killing Jeanne when she overhears this, and François attempting to usurp power and become dictator of Vaucelles. "The useless mouths" include all the women. The men defend their decision to expel them because the women's deaths will enable Vaucelles to live, while the terrible ironies involved are pointed up by the town's name: when this is said it is heard as "vaut-elle," which in a play on words implies the question "does she have worth?"
As with the work preceding it, The Useless Mouths evidences Beauvoir's interest in working in cross-genre forms so as to produce philosophy in ways additional to the conventional one. So as well as discussing the play as a contribution to her philosophy, we also indicate its part in her developing thinking more generally. As a young woman, Beauvoir was interested in puppet theater, and the background to its writing was a series of radio dramas she researched and wrote in 1943, two of which were set in the Middle Ages. However, the specific context was the German Occupation of France. When The Useless Mouths was performed in late 1944, the Occupation had just ended and a sea change in the military fortunes of the Allies versus the Nazis and their sympathizers was apparent. Alongside this, there was a sense of expectation among critics, readers, and audiences in Paris regarding the intellectual ideas named—and somewhat reluctantly adopted by Sartre and Beauvoir—as Existentialism. Beauvoir later commented that, "without having planned it, what we launched early that fall turned out to be an 'Existentialist offensive.' In the weeks following the publication of my novel, The Age of Reason and The Reprieve appeared, as well as the first numbers of Les temps modernes. Sartre gave a lecture—'Is Existentialism a Humanism?'—and I gave one at the Club Maintenant on the novel and metaphysics. Les bouches inutiles opened. We were astonished at the furor we caused ..."
Beauvoir enjoyed the theater and went to many productions, particularly those associated with the studio theater movement. In the late 1930s and the 1940s she moved in progressive theater circles, including her long-standing friendship with the actor-director Charles Dullin and his partner the actor-writer Simone Jollivet, and her close friendship with Olga Kosakievicz. Kosakievicz was training at the Atelier under Dullin; then, following her appearance in 1943 in Sartre's The Flies (Les mouches), she played the part of Clarice when The Useless Mouths was performed. During the Occupation, a number of studio theater plays, most importantly Anouilh's Antigone, had straddled the divide between entertainment and politics, writing and resistance, being and doing, and, like The Flies, had a palpable influence on audiences.
The Useless Mouths came near the end of a fertile period during which Beauvoir wrote a short story cycle (When Things of the Spirit Came First), two novels (She Came to Stay and The Blood of Others), an uncompleted play about a city, the longer philosophical essay Pyrrhus and Cineas, followed by The Useless Mouths, and the "Introduction to an Ethics of Ambiguity." And although she later returned to these other kinds of writing, she never wrote another play. This was largely because of her hindsight feelings about her "moral period" and its didacticism, which she characterized as treating moral or philosophical ideas abstractly and removed from grounded situations. However, The Useless Mouths in fact deals with a very grounded situation, and given this, it is surprising that she did not return to playwriting as a means of exploring "the situation" and how it imposes itself.
Philosophical context and Ideas
Beauvoir and Sartre mutually influenced each other, regularly reading and discussing each other's work in draft. In the 1940s, there were some interesting differences between the approaches to "the problem of the other" and "freedom" that each was developing. Beauvoir's work leading up to The Useless Mouths shows her increasingly positioning the relationship between self and the other in a relational way, which we use the term "self-and-other" to characterize. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre explores how one's being-for-others appears through the experience of shame, which demonstrates the existence of the other. In doing so, he sees freedom in terms of absolute freedom and then has to find ways around this to explain how in practice people do not perceive themselves "free" in this sense. Beauvoir takes a different tack by "socializing" freedom in three respects: by recognizing that some kinds or categories of people are systematically denied freedom in society; by insisting that the freedom of self is by definition interdependent with that of others; and as a consequence by developing what we think is usefully termed as an ontological ethics around what above we called "self-and-other." These ideas are foregrounded in The Useless Mouths, which provides an exposition of Beauvoir's refreshingly direct way of getting to grips with apparently insoluble philosophical issues.
Beauvoir thought such matters important, writing Pyrrhus and Cineas to provide the basis for an existentialist ethics as she interpreted this. Looking closely at characters and events in The Useless Mouths shows that its central concern too is a strongly ethical one, concerning the people seen as "the useless mouths" and their place in a just society, which is what Vaucelles finally becomes. In the play, Beauvoir explores the meaning and consequences of divergent ethical and philosophical ideas. She does this in part through characters who embody philosophical positions, in larger part through exploring how these characters react to a situation in which a cataclysmic decision is made and its terrible consequences are about to be enacted: the useless mouths will be forcibly expelled from Vaucelles and left to die or be killed by the besiegers, so as to enable its "useful" citizens to survive. The positions adopted by its characters change because of this decision—as one event follows another, so what look like static viewpoints begin to shift. This is because this decision overturns everything people had previously assumed about social bonds: it demolishes their beliefs about the nature of the social contract and forces them to realize the ethical consequences that will follow the decision. As their knowledge and understanding change, their sense of self changes as well. The crucial concern here is who is seen as useful or useless to society, and who should be accorded worth. What the play's unfolding events make clear is that this evaluation is not about who should die, but instead that some categories of people are seen as fundamentally useful or useless, not because of what they do, but because of who they are.
In Vaucelles, usefulness is apparently defined in relation to work—but in practice only some activities performed by specific categories of people are seen as useless. And so, although it might appear that the useless mouths are defined as such in relation to seemingly objective measures, it becomes clear that this evaluation is actually the product of gender and power divisions and is ontologically founded. That is, all females are defined in an a priori way as useless by virtue of their sex category membership, while only some kinds of males are seen as useless (boys, old men, and the sick) because they cannot work. And what is defined as work is only the activities that healthy adult men engage in, activities that no women can do.
In The Useless Mouths and other writing leading up to The Ethics of Ambiguity, published in 1947 with its introduction appearing initially in 1946, Beauvoir developed an ontological ethics that centers on concrete situations and their contingencies and how people as individuals and as members of social groups can best act as moral or ethical agents. The play pivots on the presupposition that self is actually self-and-other, and explores what happens in a particular situational reality when self is treated in an individualist and solipsist way. This is spelled out in the tableaux vivants—formal and stylized scenes that show characterization, meaning or an event in a condensed and usually rather static way—that structure it. Beauvoir's uses and reversals of didacticism and use of other writing genres to express her philosophical arguments suggest the influence of Kierkegaard at this time. In December 1940 and January 1941, Beauvoir's letters to Sartre indicate that she was closely reading Kierkegaard's work alongside Kant's, following her equally detailed reading of Hegel's work starting around July 1940.
Kierkegaard proposes that ethics has to recognize the situational nature of social life because the ethical subject requires a framework of social practices and institutions; and that while the universal does not lie outside the individual in an external absolute, it cannot be collapsed into solipsist moral intentions either. Consequently Kierkegaard sees a Hegelian sinking of self into the spirit or Geist of an age as evading recognizing people's moral responsibilities. Kierkegaard proposes instead that people are self-determining participants in the existential process, and his ethics foregrounds a resolute engagement in this process, recognizing both social forces and contingencies and the importance of individual moral responsibilities and taking a stand in extreme situations. The Kierkegaardian influence on Pyrrhus and Cineas is unmistakable. Beauvoir wrote this dialogue to indicate two opposing but plausible viewpoints. This is strikingly similar to the epistolary dialogue in Kierkegaard's Either/Or between A, the representative of a philosophical position on aesthetics, and B, an older person who reads and comments on A's work. The message of Pyrrhus and Cineas is more individualist concerning human action, subjectivity, and freedom than that of The Useless Mouths although completed only a short time earlier, suggesting the latter was something of a watershed.
The philosophical ideas in The Useless Mouths follow Kierkegaard in positing a self-directing individual capable of exercising free will and intentionality. They are also influenced by Hegel's concern that ethics should be rooted in civic life, in reciprocal social relations, thereby reconciling the claims of individual conscience with those inherent in a socially based conception of moral life. There is, however, a lonely and responsible "I" at the center of Kierkegaardian thinking, which positions self as a relation to its own self and an inner anxiety, with this influencing Heidegger and through him Sartre. But Beauvoir in The Useless Mouths departs from the Kierkegaardian notion of self, because solipsist boundaries between self-and-other are dissolved when the necessity of common humanity is finally realized by the men of Vaucelles. This is most tellingly played out in the changing relationship between Jean-Pierre and Clarice once the decision to expel the useless mouths becomes known. At this point they both reject their earlier, although rather different, solipsist positions and Jean-Pierre makes a key statement concerning the self-and-other relationship: rather than solipsism characterizing the human condition, there is an indissoluble interconnection.
Beauvoir's thinking about self-and-other and an ontological ethics changed rapidly at this time not least because of the particular concrete situation she was living in, Paris during the Nazi Occupation. The Useless Mouths deals with an in extremis situation that paralleled the terrifyingly real in extremis situation of regulation, deportations, and executions in occupied France. The play consequently focuses on something of direct practical and ethical significance for its author and her audiences: how to respond to a tyrannous regime, which accorded little value to people conceived as "other" and which engaged in brutal genocidal acts against the many categories of people seen as useless and worthless. Beauvoir's ontological ethics are developed around the circumstances of extremity in Vaucelles and whether it is possible to entirely avoid complicity with a tyrannous regime. The fundamental ambiguity and contingency of social life is central to the play because people's behaviors and intentions often have unclear or uncertain meaning, and the consequences of resistance can be lethal for third parties. Here Beauvoir addresses the crucial matter of what commitment actually entails, when the results may mean life and death, not only for the person who acts but other people too.
Excerpted from "THE USELESS MOUTHS" AND OTHER LITERARY WRITINGS by Simone de Beauvoir Copyright © 2011 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.
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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 (1946) 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.
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