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Feminist Writings$

Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, and Marybeth Timmermann

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780252039003

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.001.0001

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Problems for Women’s Literature

Problems for Women’s Literature

Chapter:
(p.24) Problems for Women’s Literature
Source:
Feminist Writings
Author(s):
Véronique Zaytzeff, Frederick Morrison
Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

Critiquing a novel written by a woman, Thierry Maulnier1 one day remarked that literature by women has put the problem of happiness in the foreground of its concerns. As a matter of fact, in their works as well as in their lives, women have long been particularly interested in the construction of their own existence and have usually sought to tell the story of individual successes or failures. It is easy to understand the reason for this....

Critiquing a novel written by a woman, Thierry Maulnier1 one day remarked that literature by women has put the problem of happiness in the foreground of its concerns. As a matter of fact, in their works as well as in their lives, women have long been particularly interested in the construction of their own existence and have usually sought to tell the story of individual successes or failures. It is easy to understand the reason for this.

For centuries it has been men and men alone who have fashioned the world in which we live. That is to say that this world belongs to them. Women have their place in it, but are not at home there. It is natural that a man seeks to explore the domain of which he feels himself the master; that he searches with curiosity to know it, strives to dominate it with his thought, and even claims, through the medium of art, to create it anew. Nothing stops him, nothing limits him. But, up until these last few years, women’s situation was completely different.

Women were neither theoretically nor concretely accepted as men’s equals. A woman could not attempt to surpass the given world; she did not yet have a true hold on it, and this hold was what she had to conquer first. Two paths were open to her: either she could fight to have her rights acknowledged (p.25) or she could put to their best use the means she already had available to her in order to gain access to the richest possible existence. In both cases, her drama was entirely personal. She had to reach a man’s level or accept living in his shadow. The second solution was the most conducive to the blossoming of a literary oeuvre, since a propagandist agenda and the stubborn defense of a thesis pose obvious dangers in the domain of art. The strictly feminist novels of the preceding generation have hardly left any trace at all. If, on the contrary, a woman were to endeavor to describe the domains that were reserved for her, she could, within her limits, demonstrate the gifts of invention and expression that make the true writer. Colette’s success proves this in a resounding way.2 However, Colette’s oeuvre is precisely centered in its entirety on the search for happiness. Thrown into a world that goes beyond her and upon which she does not claim to act, a woman must create for herself the coziest possible nest. She explores her riches, gathers her treasures: her childhood memories; the earth with its flowers, pets, springs, and seasons; love and affection; and home, which embodies the harmonious unity of a life.

However, over the course of the last few years, women’s situation has been profoundly changed. Their demands have been heard. They have been granted a direct hold on the world. It is interesting to consider the consequences of this evolution in women’s literature today.

There are two different but not irreconcilable tendencies dominating contemporary French literature. Young writers try to increase their external knowledge of the world; they want to integrate the vastest possible experience into literature. This leads to the current importance and success of all forms of news reporting, and the development of this complex genre that could be called the journalistic novel. On the other hand, they also seek a deepening of their internal knowledge of themselves. They turn toward philosophy; they want to integrate into literature the most mysterious regions of their being.

Women too are carried along by these two currents. Some women have been war correspondents; some passionately devote themselves to journalism; they travel, they tell what they have seen, and they succeed as well as men in observing and communicating the fruits of their observation. Others take up theoretical studies; they write critical, philosophical, and psychological essays, and in this field of pure abstraction they show themselves no different from men. However, when they try to express their concrete vision of existence in the strictly literary field, then their condition as women reveals itself. This condition is very ambiguous.

(p.26) In fact, theoretically, the quarrel over feminism has just been concluded in women’s favor. Women are invited to participate in the edification of the world; they no longer have to fight to conquer their rights. They have conquered them. Their work no longer needs to be negative, but positive. They know that, and they also know that the curious are waiting to see what profit they will be able to derive from their victory. They are thus doubly incited to turn away from their own problems and apply themselves, as men do, to subjects of universal interest. Now that they have a role to play in political and social life, this life has truly become their life; they feel an authentic need to talk about it in their books. Still, an external obligation weighs them down. They must show men that they are capable of exploiting the fields that have just been opened to them. Thus, women today write like men: about resistance, war, and social conflicts.

Yet, it is not true that their present condition is already that of a man. Precisely because their conquests are recent, this world into which they have been admitted remains a world of men, and it is abstract and theoretical to claim that the singularity of their situation has been abolished. Women know it; they are still conscious of their personal difficulties and wish to remedy them. This is why Thierry Maulnier’s remark remains true, even today. They are still preoccupied with what they call happiness, and one of the original aspects of their literature is their effort to reconcile this concern with the interest that they bring to the universe and history. What is striking about Edith Thomas and Elsa Triolet is that their novels borrow their materials from great events, such as the Spanish civil war, the Phony war, the exodus, and the Resistance, yet these topics are addressed through the singular story of a female heroine.3 What appears to be essential is not so much the great human drama in its general terms but the connections this heroine has with the circumstances into which she has been thrown. The true subject of these works is how, in today’s world, a woman’s singular destiny is accomplished or broken down. The common thesis of all the short stories in the recently published collection by Colette Audry, On joue perdant [Playing a losing game] [1946], is the failure of every attempt at individual happiness in today’s world: the failure of love, of domestic life, of motherhood, of dreams, and even of renunciation.4 In the majority of these books by women, the social and historical world, i.e., the real world, is present, but only on the horizon: it is not the very subject matter that the writer intends to handle and control.

This timidity should not surprise us and in no way does it foretell the future. I must reiterate that women will have the same opportunities as men (p.27) only when they are settled on this earth as solidly as men are. They are still novices and they hesitate. This hesitation is found again when they speak not of external events but of themselves. One would think that their individualism and their subjective sense of existence would bring them to profound inner discoveries. One must admit that they lack the audacity of a Proust, a James Joyce, or a Sartre. Colette was famous for having pushed back the limits that had been assigned to women until that time. She approached sexual themes with frankness. However, she treated them with such elegance and reserve that, to tell the truth, she barely touched the surface. Moreover, the sensuality she describes is close to greediness. The savor of a kiss seems to have for her the simplicity of savoring a piece of fruit. On this question other women could most certainly provide very different testimonies. After Colette’s books, almost everything still remains to be said. Yet, women scarcely do so. The short book L’asphyxie [In the Prison of Her Skin] [1945], by the newly published writer Violette Leduc, gave rise to a movement of keen interest because, perhaps for the first time in France, a woman strove, with a man’s audacity, to deliver an authentic sensuality.5 They were still no more than suggestions, but they were so cruel, so disturbing that they seemed rich with promise. And yet, this case is more or less unique. Clumsy at speaking about men, whom they know only from the outside, women hardly dare to talk aloud about themselves.

Here again their timidity is quite natural. Each time a man attempted to shed a new light on the darkness of his body or his heart, he provoked a scandal. One needs a great deal of proud certitude to dare focusing on oneself the malicious attention that any truly sincere disclosure arouses. The scandal and the malice are multiplied if it is a woman who incites them. And she is not as fully armed as a man to face them. Moreover, on this daring path men have behind them the help of a tradition stemming from Greece and Rome. Women have been lauded above all for their discretion and their decency. If one of them wishes to renounce this measure, she must invent everything, her technique and her very language. It is not an easy enterprise.

There is another reason that explains why women do not willingly take this risk. It is due to the fact, as I have already mentioned, that their victory is still only an appearance. Men only appear to consider women as equals, while to tell the truth, they think of themselves as superior to women. In regards to men, women still suffer an inferiority complex whose irritating reflection is sent back and forth among them. They are conscious that the struggle is not over, and while they no longer write feminist books, feminist concerns are nonetheless not absent from their work. They still need to (p.28) defend themselves in men’s eyes and exhort each other to have confidence in themselves. This leads to a moralistic aspect in their writings. And we know that ethics and psychology do not always get along. Psychology is all the more audacious and valid when it tries to be more sincere. The concern for what one ought to be prevents one from describing exactly what one is. When women portray some heroine, they are pursuing a moral goal rather than attempting to give a disinterested testimony. And this moral that emerges from their books is significant. For them, it is above all a question of exalting a type of woman who possesses the same qualities as a man, yet without losing her femininity. Contemporary heroines are neither enchantresses nor resigned women. They are women who accomplish their destiny with a man’s toughness, courage, and honesty, and especially with lucidity. This is a word that one encounters in women’s novels at each turn of the page. Since they cannot modify their condition overnight, women are determined to at least face it. Lucidity is the opposite of flight; it is a thoughtful acceptance of the situation and the first condition of a veritable independence.

One could not but approve this will manifested by today’s women: to see clearly, to not lie, and to not accept being told lies. But they must be alert to the fact that lucidity is not sufficient to win the game, and that understanding the ambiguity of a situation neither dispels it nor controls it. A woman who questions herself lucidly before yielding to her senses, like Clara Malraux’s Grisélidis, has not by that behavior eliminated the true problems of women’s sensuality.6 In this will to lucidity there is a rationalism that is, above all else, a combat weapon. One understands quite well that only people who feel secure in themselves would indulge in the luxury of anxiously questioning themselves. Women still feel themselves too lost in this world to attempt losing their way even more. They first need to try to put things together, to take stock. However, this is only a first stage. When it seems to them utterly natural to possess what they call, with still too much humility, men’s virtues, then they will be able to begin bringing truly new contributions to the knowledge of human reality, such as they find it in themselves.

Notes

The article entitled “Problèmes de la littérature féminine” in France-Amérique 14, February 23, 1947, 1, 5 (© Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir) was preceded by the following introduction:

“Philosopher, reporter, and novelist, Simone de Beauvoir is in the foreground of French literary life. Her novels and plays, Le sang des autres [The Blood of Others] [1944], Les (p.29) bouches inutiles [The Useless Mouths] [1945], and L’invitée [She Came to Stay] [1943] are read, commented upon, and discussed by a vast public.

Having arrived in the United States for a lecture tour, Simone de Beauvoir will give France-Amérique a series of articles. The following article is the first of the series.”

(1.) Thierry Maulnier (1909–88) was a French writer, essayist, and journalist. He was a member of the Académie Française.

(2.) Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873–1954) is considered not only a major twentieth-century woman writer but also a major literary figure of the first half of the century.

(3.) Edith Thomas (1909–70) was a French reporter and a writer. She wrote extensive articles on the Spanish Civil War and was a member of the Communist Party for seven years. From 1947 until her death, she was the curator of the National Archives in France. Elsa Triolet (née Kagan) (1896–1970) was a French novelist born in Moscow. She was a member of the Communist Party and companion of Louis Aragon (1897–1982), who was a Surrealist poet and leading figure in the French Resistance to the German Occupation of France; the Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939. The leftist government of the Spanish Republic was besieged by the Nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco, who was backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Many Spanish intellectuals either were killed or forced into exile; the Phony War (September 1939–Spring 1940) was the period marked by no Allied military operations in Continental Europe despite the attack by Germany on Poland; and the exodus refers to the flight of French civilians from the invading German army in 1940.

(4.) Colette Audry (1906–82) was a prolific French writer, a Resistance member, and a lifelong left-wing activist. She was a close friend of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

(5.) Violette Leduc (1907–72) was a French writer sometimes referred to as France’s greatest unknown writer. She was a contemporary of Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, and Cocteau.

(6.) Clara Malraux (1897–1982) was a French writer whose novel, Portrait de Grisélidis (Portrait of Grisélidis), was published in Paris in 1945 (Éditions Colbert). She was married to the French novelist and politician André Malraux.

Notes:

(1.) Thierry Maulnier (1909–88) was a French writer, essayist, and journalist. He was a member of the Académie Française.

(2.) Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873–1954) is considered not only a major twentieth-century woman writer but also a major literary figure of the first half of the century.

(3.) Edith Thomas (1909–70) was a French reporter and a writer. She wrote extensive articles on the Spanish Civil War and was a member of the Communist Party for seven years. From 1947 until her death, she was the curator of the National Archives in France. Elsa Triolet (née Kagan) (1896–1970) was a French novelist born in Moscow. She was a member of the Communist Party and companion of Louis Aragon (1897–1982), who was a Surrealist poet and leading figure in the French Resistance to the German Occupation of France; the Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939. The leftist government of the Spanish Republic was besieged by the Nationalist forces led by General Francisco Franco, who was backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Many Spanish intellectuals either were killed or forced into exile; the Phony War (September 1939–Spring 1940) was the period marked by no Allied military operations in Continental Europe despite the attack by Germany on Poland; and the exodus refers to the flight of French civilians from the invading German army in 1940.

(4.) Colette Audry (1906–82) was a prolific French writer, a Resistance member, and a lifelong left-wing activist. She was a close friend of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

(5.) Violette Leduc (1907–72) was a French writer sometimes referred to as France’s greatest unknown writer. She was a contemporary of Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, and Cocteau.

(6.) Clara Malraux (1897–1982) was a French writer whose novel, Portrait de Grisélidis (Portrait of Grisélidis), was published in Paris in 1945 (Éditions Colbert). She was married to the French novelist and politician André Malraux.