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Posts Tagged ‘Simone de Beauvoir’

A Nice Soak in the Office Bathtub, and Other News

October 17, 2016 | by

Relax: bathe at work.

  • When one thinks of rugged outdoorspersons, one’s mind does not usually summon Simone de Beauvoir. But it turns out Beauvoir was an avid hiker, and her writing about the activity stands in powerful contrast to the “wilderness memoirs” of more recent years. Emily Witt writes, “Pages of her memoirs are taken up with descriptions of the hikes she took in her twenties and thirties: in the Maritime Alps, the Haute-Loire, in Brittany, in the Jura, in Auvergne, in the Midi. Since the publication of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or even Robyn Davidson’s Tracks, it has become commonplace to see the solo excursion in the wilderness as a possible experience of feminine catharsis. Beauvoir abhorred sentimentalism in her writing and seemed constitutionally incapable of contriving a sudden epiphany after cresting a peak, but it turns out that in addition to all of her philosophical contributions she is a forgotten pioneer of this genre of memoir … Beauvoir hiked alone … She saw her colleagues’ warnings that she would get raped as ‘a spinsterish obsession,’ and wrote, ‘I had no intention of making my life a bore with precautions of this sort.’ ”
  • Today in productivity concepts: your start-up office might have standing desks, exercise balls, a Ping-Pong table, and a formidable organic pantry, but none of it means shit without a bathtub. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., credits his imaginative success to Nintendo’s tub, and he makes a strong argument: “Thank goodness we had a company bathtub! … At that time, our office was in Tobakaido, which also housed the hanafuda [playing-card] factory … There was a water boiler that was used to make the hanafuda, and the water from this boiler was also used for a bathtub. The employees making the hanafuda could wash their sweat away in the bath after work, and at night when nobody was around, you could hang out there for a long time. It totally saved me … It was really effective at letting me put my ideas in order.” (Reader: if you’re interested in arranging for a claw-foot tub to be installed in the offices of The Paris Review, please be in touch.) 

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The State of the Political Novel: An Interview with Édouard Louis

May 3, 2016 | by

Édouard Louis

Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.  

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.

Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.

Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?

Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him. Read More »

Here’s to Hearing the Hum, and Other News

April 11, 2016 | by

A visualization of the Hum made by Louviere+Vanessa, who broadcast audio files through a digital spectrometer then print them onto handmade Japanese kozo paper Dibond-primed with gesso, covered in gold leaf, and coated with resin. Photo via New Republic.

  • Though his criticism can be acid, and though it sometimes deploys words like gassy, Michael Hofmann isn’t “a lit-crit Johnny Fartpants,” experts say: “As he sits in an incongruously rowdy Hamburg bar, all shy eyes and nervous hands, one is reminded that he is also a poet and translator: a humble servant of words, not just their sneering judge. In smooth RP tones that belie his German parentage, he explains that none of his hatchet jobs were written out of personal animosity … ‘I have a sense of the enterprise being ecological,’ he says. ‘There is so much excessive praise and excessive interest in the books world, and it’s all too focused on too few people. If you cut things down to scale, you do something good.’ ”
  • Tinnitus is more than a condition. It’s a worldview. Or so it is if you’re among the lucky 2 percent of the population who can hear the Hum, widely reported as “a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine, mostly audible at night, mostly noticeable indoors.” Colin Dickey looked into it: “Hum sufferers have been consistently written off as either delusional or simply suffering from tinnitus … It’s important to remember that there’s so much we still don’t know about how hearing works. We know low-frequency waves can cause pain, nausea, and other deleterious effects on humans—indeed, the United States and other governments have long experimented with using sound and vibration as nonlethal weapons … Add to this the fact that since the early twentieth century we’ve been bombarding the atmosphere with all manner of frequencies and waves. Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don’t more of us hear it?”
  • There’s an argument to be made that any and all instances of the Hum are in fact to be pinned on Tony Conrad, the experimental filmmaker and drone-music progenitor, who died last week at seventy-six: “After his graduation in 1962, Mr. Conrad briefly worked as a computer programmer and immersed himself in New York’s experimental music scene. As part of Mr. Young’s ensemble, he performed seemingly improvisational pieces that involved holding notes for what might have felt like hours at a time. Some audiences found the music maddening; others were exalted. ‘It appeared as if Schoenberg had destroyed music,’ Mr. Conrad said … ‘Then it appeared as if Cage had destroyed Schoenberg. Our project was to destroy Cage.’ ”
  • For aesthetes, the mug shot provides a great reason to avoid a life of crime—it’s so unforgiving, so permanent. A new exhibition at the Met, “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” looks at its history: “In the 1870s, a Parisian policeman named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as part of his ‘anthropometric’ system of criminal identification based on minute physical measurements. For no pay, he spent his free hours examining inmates at La Santé prison, using calipers and rulers to record the length and width of prisoners’ fingers, noses, foreheads, and mouths … If one measure of a photograph’s power is the extent to which it inspires us to fill in the circumstances around it, then the mug shot of a 1930s Baltimore shoplifter is a small masterpiece of portraitist art. A woman in her late forties, with whitening blonde hair, turns slightly away from the police photographer’s camera with a mix of melancholia and trapped defiance. The flesh around her left eye is badly bruised, a messy black puddle that spills along her cheek and temple. Who slugged her—the department store security guard, the arresting cop, the shopkeeper himself, or an intimate friend? Her lips are thin and subtly crooked, her jawline is just beginning to sag. The life before (and after) the picture rushes in on you in an imagined story of filled-in time.”
  • Violette Leduc was a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir, and yet she seldom appears on syllabi—why? “A journey through Leduc’s rejections, documented in her autobiographies La bâtarde (1964) and Mad in Pursuit (1970), lay bare the insidious gatekeeping that money and masculinity exert on literary inclusion, then and now. Leduc was born poor and illegitimate; her mother is the help, her father is the heir and she, the child of their furtive union, is unwanted … De Beauvoir spent her time earning the title ‘intellectual.’ Her story is one of early erudition, acing exams, stunning philosophical acuity and a romantic (if also conveniently strategic) alliance with Sartre. In Leduc, she sees the authenticity that she theorizes, and in playing midwife to her self-exposition she seeks the vindication of her philosophy. In existentialism, we are all free to choose, exercise our radical free will; the constraints of past experience can be shaken off, truth told and freedom achieved. Leduc’s life, told in her writing, has to be evidence of the truth of this. De Beauvoir’s feminism, unleavened by any literal struggles with the whims of men, needs Leduc’s literary liberation to prove its practical application.”

No Gate, No Lock, No Bolt

October 19, 2015 | by



These images are from the Dobkin Family Collection of Feminist History’s exhibition, on display through Saturday, October 24, at Glenn Horowitz Booksellers’ Rare Gallery, in New York. The show takes its title from a powerful passage in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own about the female novelists of the nineteenth century:

What genius, what integrity it must have required … in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë … They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue—write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them, like Sir Egerton Brydges, to be refined; dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable … It would have needed a very stalwart young woman in 1828 to disregard all those snubs and chidings and promises of prizes. One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, Oh, but they can’t buy literature too. Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

The Dobkin Family Collection, amassed over twenty-five years by the philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, spans five hundred years and comprises thousands of letters, papers, posters, and ephemera pertaining to women’s advancements in all walks of life. It’s intended to help research and writing on the history of feminism. Among the items on display at “No Gate” are Simone de Beauvoir’s working manuscript for The Second Sex; a lighthouse logbook signed by a young Virginia Woolf, who was apparently later moved to write To the Lighthouse by her experience there; Margaret Sanger’s manuscript notebook for Family Limitation; and a letter from Amelia Earhart on Cosmopolitan letterhead naming her as their aviation editor. Read More »

Simone de Beauvoir Would Have Been 106 Today

January 9, 2014 | by

Simone de Beauvoir arriving in Israel with Jean-Paul Sartre, 1967. Photo: Milner Moshe, via Wikimedia Commons.

Simone de Beauvoir arriving in Israel with Jean-Paul Sartre, 1967. Photo: Milner Moshe, via Wikimedia Commons.


Some critics and readers have felt that you spoke about old age in an unpleasant way.


A lot of people didn’t like what I said because they want to believe that all periods of life are delightful, that children are innocent, that all newlyweds are happy, that all old people are serene. I’ve rebelled against such notions all my life, and there’s no doubt about the fact that the moment, which for me is not old age but the beginning of old age, represents—even if one has all the resources one wants, affection, work to be done—represents a change in one’s existence, a change that is manifested by the loss of a great number of things. If one isn’t sorry to lose them it’s because one didn't love them. I think that people who glorify old age or death too readily are people who really don’t love life. Of course, in present-day France you have to say that everything’s fine, that everything’s lovely, including death.

—Simone de Beauvoir, the Art of Fiction No. 35



Night Class

January 10, 2013 | by

In the spring of 2002, I signed up for a night class in existentialism. The choice was an emotional one. College was off to a rocky start. My education had no clear purpose; my friends were more like acquaintances; the whole country was careening toward an abyss. Meaning, in other words, was elusive, and I wanted to hear from the people who’d explained its elusiveness best.

The instructor was Tom Meyer, only a lowly University of Pennsylvania graduate student, though I didn’t know it at the time. We arrived at the first class to find him sitting at a conference table, folding and unfolding a paperclip. To my immense satisfaction, he looked just like I thought an existentialist should: gaunt, pasty-faced. Black hair standing up from his skull. His clothing ratty at the collar and cuffs. For a first-day icebreaker, he had us go around the room and say our name, the name of an actor, and a type of deli meat.

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