Just wanted to point out that Katie Roiphe has a piece in Slate on the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
As I have said many times, there is no single writer or intellectual who has had a greater or deeper impact on my philosophical and ethical development than de Beauvoir. She has had the kind of presence in my evolution as a person and as a moral animal that makes my understanding of her an inextricable part of my self. A lot of this is bound up in The Ethics of Ambiguity, the most fully realized work of French existentialism and one of the most humane and generous books ever written. The Second Sex, certainly, is in there as well. De Beauvoir is one of the few topics I am willing to write on the web about that I will claim any limited expertise on. Not coincidentally, she is one of the very few writers who I have experience translating personally, although the actual scope of that translation is very limited, and the translations themselves pretty shoddy and incomplete. Still, this is someone who I have devoted a not inconsiderable amount of time and mental energy to.
I've been critical of Roiphe in the past, and I'm sure I will be again-- sometimes about her thoughts on feminism, more often because of her dismissive views on writers and novels I admire-- but I thought this review was smart and timely. There are a few moments that I would dispute, partly because I think they shear The Second Sex from the larger context of de Beauvoir's work. Roiphe writes, "In part because of her singular temperament, and in part because of the new and widespread interest in Freud, her interest is in exploring and understanding and analyzing, rather than slapping a facile political interpretation on the heat and passion of real life." In part, yes, those things are certainly true, but I would say that a larger part is her general philosophical schema of human limitation in a morally ambiguous world.
More, I am worried by Roiphe's understanding of the degree to which de Beauvoir did or did not care about the opinions of others, which is an extremely complicated question considering her larger ethical project. Indeed, the relationship between the overlapping freedoms of individual actors is the compelling dilemma of existentialism, and one of the primary reasons for existential incompleteness. Anyway, de Beauvoir goes into these questions in some detail in her Ethics. I don't want to dismiss Roiphe's larger point, which is de Beauvoir's studied indifference to the question of what is politically appropriate, at least compared to the question of what is ethically necessary in the subjective narrative of one's own life.
There's a point I want to make about The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity (and, indeed, the larger context of de Beauvoir's work generally) that has to be made with great care. While Roiphe does yeoman's work in trying to spread appreciation for The Second Sex, I have complicated feelings towards the preeminence of that book in popular understandings of de Beauvoir. While I think its a profound and necessary work, I don't think it is the equal of Ethics. There's a question in that, I think, about the tendency to define women's philosophy and writing in relationship to feminism, and whether that can represent a confinement of women to the feminist mode.
Like I said, this is a conversation that has to happen with some care: I certainly wouldn't ever want to do anything like suggest that The Second Sex is "mere feminism," while Ethics is some sort of superior universal. The association with the non-feminist with some sort of Platonic universal or apolitical is of a piece with the larger, subtle rhetorical move, often made by people like Harold Bloom and other keepers of the sacred canon, whereby what is universal is male, straight, and white. "Why does Beloved get taught so often, if not for political correctness? Give our college freshman apolitical, universal fiction to read!" And you can bet that what is "apolitical" or "universal" is written by someone who looks a lot more like Tom Wolfe than like Toni Morrison. Feminism is not some politicized ghetto that is only of interest to women or the political left, nor is it an exercise in "identity politics" (a term that, despite my great efforts, I can never quite understand). Feminism is a facet of the entirety of human experience.
At the same time, I do worry that there is a tendency to relegate women writers, and particularly women philosophers, to some cramped and reductive space called "Feminism." Search through many anthologies, of either literature or philosophy/criticism, and you will often find some sort of regimented (and thus segregated) division between non-feminist and feminist works. Feminism, in other words, becomes a chapter-- an important chapter to the anthologists and editors, I'm sure-- a discrete unit easily packaged and bundled separately from the rest of knowledge, echoing the movements that condemn women and women's interests into a narrow space defined by patriarchy.
Anyway, my point is merely that I think that it is strange that The Second Sex is the only work that many people know of de Beauvoir's at all, and I can't help but wonder if this isn't a product of a reductive view of feminism and women philosophers, one that confines each to the level of niche and segregated knowledge. I guess I want only to say again that this shows that in considering feminism, as in considering the entire project of human liberation, there are often situations where it is difficult to sort out what exactly is the fairest way to think. But then, I have been told recently that these situations are less complicated than I imagine them to be, and I do take that seriously.
PS Here's a screen grab I took of Slate's homepage with the link to Roiphe's article on the bottom right: