Reading across the Atlantic: Simone de Beauvoir in France and America

13 March 2021

Review of Judith G. Coffin, Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir (Cornell University Press, 2020)


“What today, in our society, endangers our Republic, our ability to live together?” asked President Emmanuel Macron in a recent speech. Many things, he argued, but most notable was the pervasiveness of “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States.” Purveyors of said social science did not take this well. Many pointed to the irony of France criticizing an American intellectual tradition which has been heavily shaped by French thought. Parodied one Twitter user: “BREAKING: French intellectuals blame American universities for corrosive influence of Sartre, Foucault, and especially Fanon.” 


Of course, French fears of becoming perversely Americanized are not new, and questions of race, sex, and nationality have always been fraught, as is made abundantly clear in the new book by Judith G. Coffin, Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir.


The text is an analysis of the newly opened archives of letters written to Simone de Beauvoir from the 1950s until her death in 1986. The book analyzes Beauvoir’s work through time, using the perspectives of her diverse readers – men and women, gay and straight, domestic and international – to illuminate how Beauvoir spoke (and sometimes failed to speak) to important historical moments. One of the more interesting chapters explores the reception of her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949) alongside American sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published only the year before. Reading it, once experiences the present with a sense of déjà vu: it seems that we’ve been here before. American social science has always been a little bit dangerous. But, Coffin shows, the relationship goes both ways. 


Coffin illuminates in a striking manner how the first Kinsey report paved the way for, and shaped the realm of possible interpretations for, The Second Sex. The Second Sex, in turn, was published in translation in the United States immediately before Kinsey’s second report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). The works were thus read together, and as a result, conservative – and surprisingly, sometimes even progressive – members of each country’s respective elites had plenty of room to blame the other for exporting pernicious influences. 


To the French, the Kinsey report was an example of all things horrifically American: “social science’s infatuation with aggregates; the quantification of everyday life; a conception of sex that was severed from reproduction, population, family, love, marriage, children, or sociality; and the media’s prurient fascination with sex” (76). To the Americans, de Beauvoir was equally horrifically French: “Beauvoir’s ‘exact sensory imagery’ was French. Her philosophy—what one reviewer called ‘the repulsive lingo of Existentialism’—was French. Beauvoir’s feminism was deemed French: women might be second-class citizens on the old continent, but not in the United States; Beauvoir ‘painted a world that had vanished from the American scene’” (78).


Though each side faulted the other, Coffin notes that this was a movement which transcended national differences. Questions of sex in the 20th mid-century context were ubiquitous and omnipresent, and the conversation could not be avoided by simply blaming foreign influence. Her discussion of Kinsey and de Beauvoir is richer than what can be described here, and is one of the highlights of the book.


But it’s worth drawing out exactly what the 1950s hand-wringing over sex can tell us about the world today – in particular, about the international reckoning over race which has been growing in magnitude since 2016. Sex in the 1950s had much of the same power that race has today, a locus point for national anxieties and fears about discord and cultural division. To be able to locate external points of reference, outsiders to blame, is psychologically soothing, for those on the left as well as those on the right. Consider the fear that postmodernism, considered by Americans to be an imported French tradition, played a leading role in creating the post-Truth era which Trump so deftly exploited. Macron is not alone in desperately searching for a scapegoat; blaming the Other – as Beauvoir herself well knew – is too convenient a mechanism to pass up lightly.  


Of course, it is not only on the national stage that we see this desire to avoid reckoning with the difficulties of social difference. Beauvoir is famous for having something of a tortured relationship to the movement which she in some sense grounded. On the one hand, there is no doubt that The Second Sex played a critical role in the advent of feminist studies, opening discussion on topics beyond the range of “decency,” thereby framing “a new politics of sexuality” (16). On the other, Beauvoir spent most of her life declining to consider herself a part of the movement which she helped spark. And for all the rich analysis she brought to the plight of women, she did tend to hold them rather in disdain. Like perhaps every woman, Beauvoir desperately wanted to be seen as “human” rather than female. 


But Beauvoir’s readers never transcended that element of her facticity, much to her chagrin. Even worse, Beauvoir found readers empathizing with her, seeing her work as a model for their own lives. Most illuminative of this phenomenon is the reception of Beauvoir’s short story, “La femme rompue,” or “The Woman Destroyed.” Using inspiration garnered from the many letters written to her, “The Woman Destroyed” was meant to be a biting critique of the readers who had failed to grasp Beauvoir’s message: the problem was not that marriage made women unhappy; it was that women pursued happiness – rather than liberation – in the first place. 


But readers’ letters show that it wasn’t the case that her audience was too blinded or naive to catch the core lesson of existentialism. They just didn’t find it all that valuable. Some pointed to the fact that Beauvoir’s contempt shone through her writing, depriving her female characters of the humanity and agency they deserved. Others saw Beavuoir’s methodology as stripping away “any material dimensions of the marriage, sealing off its psychological and existential aspects in a separate, privileged zone” (245). Seeking personal freedom, they noted, could only come second to finding a place to live, feeding one’s children, or avoiding male violence. Even the most “distressingly conventional” readers, the ones for whom Beauvoir’s exhortations were most intended, rejected her goal of existential liberation in favor of other, more traditional feminist aims: seeking solidarity in shared voices, the search for a collective, understanding the personal as universal – and therefore, political. 


It was always Beauvoir’s goal to avoid the condition that Satre dismissively called the femme d’intérieur. Writing “The Woman Destroyed,” she intended to show to women caught in that condition the smallness of their world, the necessity of escape. The protagonist, Monique, was an example of what not to be. Yet her readers saw beyond the text to the author: “They sensed—rightly—that there was more of Beauvoir in Monique than she acknowledged to herself, and also that Beauvoir shared the same troubles they reported to her” (249). Beauvoir may have been a famous philosopher, but she was also a woman. 


What Coffin so aptly demonstrates by articulating perspectives of mid-century readers is the perennial problem facing the woman writer. She may see herself engaged in a transcendent quest for authenticity, but the world will never forget her most basic condition. This is both the trap and the strength of feminism. Although it is a movement that often focuses on choice, in a more meta-sense, it is a movement built on choice’s absence. As Beauvoir herself writes in The Second Sex, “no woman can claim without bad faith to be situated beyond her sex”. She might try to escape her shared condition, but her reception, her public self, is beyond her control. As Adriana Cavarero has argued, “the expositive and the relational character of identity are thus indistinguishable. One always appears to someone. One cannot appear if there is no one else there”. For Simone de Beauvoir, her readers were always there.


Photo Credit: Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir [cover], Cornell University Press (2020), Fair Use.


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