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The Useless Mouths and Other Literary Writings$

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

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780252036347

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252036347.001.0001

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(p.277) Introduction
The Useless Mouths and Other Literary Writings

Elizabeth Fallaize

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

When Simone de Beauvoir undertook a lecture tour of Japan with Sartre in the autumn of 1966 she had long been a writer with a substantial international reputation. She had published four novels and three volumes of her autobiography, as well as Le deuxième sexe...

When Simone de Beauvoir undertook a lecture tour of Japan with Sartre in the autumn of 1966 she had long been a writer with a substantial international reputation. She had published four novels and three volumes of her autobiography, as well as Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) and a number of other philosophical essays. All her major work had been translated into Japanese, and the Japanese translation of Le deuxième sexe had been a best seller only the previous year. Beauvoir has described in her memoirs the warmth of the welcome that she received from her Japanese readers.1 The three lectures that she gave on her tour, of which this is the third, all reflect her confidence in her status as internationally successful writer.

Yet the mid-1960s were also a period in which the philosophical novel no longer held the same sway in France that it had done in the immediate postwar period. A new generation of writers had launched the nouveau roman (new novel) in the 1950s; both they and the supporters of the Tel Quel group favored formal experimentation and did not believe that the novel should seek to communicate a coherent and consistent meaning.2 Beauvoir was perceived as an opponent of these new tendencies and had taken part in a public debate in 1964 defending committed literature against its critics.3 (p.278) In her first two lectures in Japan she had taken Le deuxième sexe as a starting point and had focused on the situation of women and on the issue of women and creativity. By focusing in her third lecture on her own experience as a writer of fiction and autobiography, Beauvoir was both speaking very personally and returning to the debate about literature in which she had recently been involved in France. It is not surprising that her lecture mounts a vigorous defense of her conception of the task of the writer. Taking up Sartre’s definition of the writer’s work as a “singular universal” from his earlier lecture, and returning to a central theme of her 1946 article, “Literature and Metaphysics,” Beauvoir argues that the writer’s task is to use an individual experience to reveal a universal dimension.4 Whether writing novels or autobiography, the writer has to convey the meaning of lived experience in the world, bringing together the sense of immediate experience and at the same time the universal dimension of that experience in a way that we cannot perceive simultaneously in life. She underlines the necessity of creating a degree of facticity in order to echo the resistance of everyday life to surrendering meaning—a theme that had preoccupied her from her earliest texts on the writing of fiction. The problem poses itself according to Beauvoir in an especially acute form in autobiography—whereas in the novel, the writer’s problem is to include sufficient facticity, in autobiography, the accumulation of brute experience could on the contrary overwhelm the construction of meaning. And Beauvoir is very clear here that the writing of autobiography is indeed a construction rather than a recording of meaning. She emphasizes the degree of research that she has to do in order to write her autobiographies and her reconstruction of truths, which she may not have been aware of at an earlier period.

This view of autobiography as a creative construction allows her to firmly reject the view of the Tel Quel school that autobiography is not an artistic form as such, belonging, according to the distinction made by Roland Barthes, to the domain of the écrivant rather than to the domain of the écrivain. Beauvoir describes this view as “absolutely absurd” and goes on to defend her view that autobiography is a form of witnessing (“un témoignage”), which precisely enables the universal to be attained via the individual.5 However, she does raise difficulties about one aspect of her autobiographical practice and that is her use of a chronological framework. She concedes that its principal disadvantage is the sense that every moment recounted is leading to a culminating point that never occurs. The synthesis of present and future that animates our projects in real life is missing when the past is recounted and yet Beauvoir is committed to a chronological framework (p.279) because it mirrors her conception of existence as both bound by time and history and as always moving forward into the future. The only means of palliating this disadvantage, she concludes, is to maintain her reader’s interest to a point where he or she will themselves take on the creative task and insert their own imagination into the present of the narrative. In order to do this, the writer needs to use all the resources of artistic creation that the critics of autobiography take to be irrelevant to the project. This emphasis on the crucial role of readers is another constant of Beauvoir’s writing on literature. In her memoirs she refers frequently to the effect of her readers’ letters on her, and her conception of literature as a communication with her readers reinforces their role.

Like autobiography, the novel is presented by Beauvoir as a form of communication that works through a different channel from that of the essay in which a clear line is to be argued; in a work of art the ambiguity of lived experience in the world must be conveyed. She is particularly concerned in this lecture to reject two misapprehensions about her major Goncourt winning novel Les Mandarins (The Mandarins). The first is that it is a roman à clef, and the second that it is a thesis novel (roman à thèse). These are both criticisms that Beauvoir had already discussed in her memoirs but she comes back to them here because they go to the heart of the debate about the creation of meaning in the novel, and her conception of what a novel should be. A novel that set out to illustrate a thesis or that simply described reality would not meet her own criteria of recreating the ambiguity of lived experience and would not attain the universal. She therefore rejects these criticisms firmly. One might note, however, that she makes no mention in her lecture of her second novel, Le sang des autres (The Blood of Others), written during the German occupation, which she concedes in her memoirs to being much more of a thesis novel than she had intended.6

Nonetheless, the novel for Beauvoir is essentially a form of communication of meaning, even if that meaning is not conveyed in the same unambiguous way in which it would be in an essay, and she goes on to underline the difference between her own work and that of the leading nouveau romancier, Alain Robbe-Grillet, in which there is a deliberate rejection of a signifying fictional universe. Beauvoir’s rejection of the techniques of the new novel was nevertheless far from total. At the time of her lecture she had completed her fifth novel, Les belles images, which was to be published within a month of her return from Japan. Published twelve years after her previous novel, Les Mandarins, Les belles images displays quite a radical shift in technique on Beauvoir’s part, a shift which she readily agreed had been in (p.280) part inspired by the theories of the new novel and the criticisms it had made of the traditional novel.7 However, the technical innovations that Beauvoir introduces do not affect the fundamental purpose of fiction as Beauvoir sees it: through the crisis of a young woman, Laurence, the novel launches a double-pronged attack on the myths that permit both the traditional bourgeoisie and the new technocratic bourgeoisie in France to avoid facing uncomfortable problems such as poverty and starvation. In many ways it stands as one of her most radical fictions.

One can only speculate as to why Beauvoir made no mention of her new novel in this lecture. It is possible that she preferred not to complicate the picture by signaling her new techniques, or that she preferred to wait for the critical reaction to her novel before discussing it herself. A further omission is perhaps more striking: despite having talked at length about the difficulties for women writers in both of her previous lectures, Beauvoir makes no attempt to explain how she herself has managed to break through the barriers that she had described in such detail. Only two or three clues are offered: the first is her emphasis on her own strong sense of vocation as a child—an element she had insisted on in “La femme et la création”—and the second is her recognition that the female first person voice of her autobiography is quite exceptional. Finally, she repeats in this lecture a theme developed at length earlier, and that is the failure of many would-be women authors to rise above the particular and individual to attain the universal. Her own struggle to attain this goal in her writing takes on a particular significance in the light of her conviction that the universal dimension is the barrier at which many women fall.


(1.) See Tout compte fait (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 281–82.

(2.) The nouveaux romanciers included Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor and Claude Simon. The Tel Quel group founded in 1960 by Philippe Sollers was focused on the journal of the same name and argued for a purely poetic role for literature.

(3.) Beauvoir’s contribution, translated in this volume as “What Can Literature Do?” appeared in Que peut la littérature? ed. Yves Buin (Paris: Union Générale d’Editeurs, 1965), 73–92.

(4.) Sartre’s three lectures given in Tokyo and Kyoto in September of 1966 have been published as “Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels,” in Situations philosophiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1990; 219–81) and translated as “A Plea for Intellectuals,” in Between Existentialism and Marxism (London: Verson, 2008; 228–85). Note that Sartre’s 1966 lectures are mistakenly dated as 1965 in “Plea,” 226.

(p.281) (5.) See Ursula Tidd’s study of Beauvoir’s autobiographical writing as “témoignage,” Simone de Beauvoir Gender and Testimony (Cambridge: CUP, 1999).

(6.) See La force de l’âge, tome II (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 623.

(7.) See for example her interview with Francis Jeanson in his Simone de Beauvoir ou l’entreprise de vivre (Simone de Beauvoir or the Undertaking of Living) (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 294–95.