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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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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.279) Introduction
Source:
Feminist Writings
Author(s):

Lillian S. Robinson

Julien Murphy

Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.003.0043

Abstract and Keywords

It begins with “love” and ends with “AIDS,” but, in between, Simone de Beauvoir’s last piece of writing, her preface to Mihloud, is only a brief summary of the book. By agreeing to place her name on the cover of this memoir, whose author’s name is conspicuously absent, Beauvoir called attention to two related issues that were still considered virtually unmentionable in 1980s France: same-sex relations between men and the disease that was decimating the gay community. (For example, the cause of Michel Foucault’s death in 1984 was initially listed as septicemia and only later revealed as AIDS.) If Beauvoir did not interpret “Alan’s” text or even situate it in its history, she nonetheless helped make it available to a general audience....

It begins with “love” and ends with “AIDS,” but, in between, Simone de Beauvoir’s last piece of writing, her preface to Mihloud, is only a brief summary of the book. By agreeing to place her name on the cover of this memoir, whose author’s name is conspicuously absent, Beauvoir called attention to two related issues that were still considered virtually unmentionable in 1980s France: same-sex relations between men and the disease that was decimating the gay community. (For example, the cause of Michel Foucault’s death in 1984 was initially listed as septicemia and only later revealed as AIDS.) If Beauvoir did not interpret “Alan’s” text or even situate it in its history, she nonetheless helped make it available to a general audience.

In her three-page preface, Beauvoir recapitulates the story the memoir tells, of the love affair, at once tragic and banal, that brought together a prosperous American businessman, living as an expatriate in Paris, and a devastatingly attractive Moroccan immigrant worker some thirty years younger. Alan, the narrator, is committed to telling his story as he experienced and remembers it, with his own feelings at the center. Larger questions about sexuality and power, about masculinity and patriarchy, about the social (p.280) meanings of class, cultural, and age differences between lovers are outside his scope. And Beauvoir keeps them outside hers, as well.

The books for which Beauvoir wrote prefaces during the last three decades of her life told stories that were difficult and often dangerous to make public: the Holocaust, the rape and torture of an Algerian woman militant by her French captors, the struggles of the emerging feminist movement, the radical alienation of a gifted lesbian. Her endorsement of Mihloud placed a homosexual love story touched by AIDS in this militant context. Alan’s narrative resonates with concerns in Beauvoir’s own writings—both fiction and nonfiction—and in her personal history. The critique of traditional family structures, the presence of death, the experience of love across national and generational boundaries mattered in both her work and her life. That the preface does not directly address these issues may be attributed to her sense of loss after Sartre’s death in 1980 and the waning of her intellectual and literary powers.

Yet this is the way all Beauvoir’s prefaces make their principal contribution. In her prime, as in her decline, she exercised her role as a public intellectual by calling attention to important works and, within them, to the key issues they raise, advocating for a cause by her advocacy on behalf of a book and its author. This is as true of her prefaces to Djamila Boupacha and La grand’peur d’aimer (The great fear of loving) or her testimony in Avortement: une loi en procès. L’affaire de Bobigny (Abortion: A law on trial. The Bobigny affair), in all of which she was personally and passionately involved as an activist for the human rights of women (against torture, for contraception and abortion), as it is of her preface to a work like Treblinka, where her involvement was less immediate.1 Only her penultimate preface, introducing the published version of Claude Lanzmann’s script for Shoah (1985),2 is colored by her longtime relationship with the author and his project, and even here her passion is directed to telling us that we knew nothing of the Holocaust hitherto and that we must look at this account now. Right now.

Even in her 1964 preface for Violette Leduc’s La bâtarde (The bastard), where there is no “cause” beyond sponsorship of a gifted writer whose career she had been championing for some twenty years, Beauvoir limits herself to pointing out the author’s powerful style and the themes it conveys.3 Many of these themes echo those she identifies in Mihloud: the same-sex relationships and the erotic frankness employed to describe them, the pain of family ties, the pervasiveness of money in a story about love and sex. Ironically, although she opens the preface to La bâtarde by telling us there are no longer any unrecognized writers, her preface supporting Leduc’s sixth book (p.281) gained it a much wider following. And, in a similar way, her sponsorship of “Alan’s” memoir won him the only recognition as a writer that he was ever to have.

According to the publisher’s note, Alan’s next of kin, espousing precisely those puritanical values that Alan moved to Paris to escape, tried very hard to keep his memoir from seeing the light of day and insisted that the book remain anonymous. From this perspective, Beauvoir’s preface allows her to strike one last blow against all the repressive, narrow-minded families she had encountered in her lifetime. And it was to be the last, for Mihloud, in some sense validated by her preface, was published in April 1986, within days of her death.

Notes

(1.) Beauvoir, “Preface to Djamilia Boupacha” and “Preface to Treblinka” in Political Writings (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 272–82 and 305–10, respectively. For translations of Beauvoir’s prefaces to La grand’peur d’aimer and L’avortement: une loi en procès—l’affaire de Bobigny, see chapters 4 and 9, respectively, in this current volume of her feminist writings.

(2.) Beauvoir, “Preface to Shoah” in Political Writings, 324–28.

(3.) Beauvoir, “Preface to La Bâtarde” in “The Useless Mouths” and Other Literary Writings (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 174–87.

Notes:

(1.) Beauvoir, “Preface to Djamilia Boupacha” and “Preface to Treblinka” in Political Writings (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 272–82 and 305–10, respectively. For translations of Beauvoir’s prefaces to La grand’peur d’aimer and L’avortement: une loi en procès—l’affaire de Bobigny, see chapters 4 and 9, respectively, in this current volume of her feminist writings.

(2.) Beauvoir, “Preface to Shoah” in Political Writings, 324–28.

(3.) Beauvoir, “Preface to La Bâtarde” in “The Useless Mouths” and Other Literary Writings (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 174–87.