On Tuesday, Deputy Editor Lillian Rountree made good on her recent French major declaration by attending “Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir,” an event hosted by the Maison Française.
I logged into Zoom at 12:57 pm last Tuesday, ready to attend “Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir,” a panel hosted by the Maison Française in conjunction with the NYC Consortium for Cultural and Intellectual History, and was met with confusion. Zoom had updated since the last time I had attended an event (also a Maison Française talk, because this is the requisite mention that I’m a French major), and I could no longer see the list of participants, or (mercifully) turn my video on. It seemed like the panelists and moderators were slightly confused, too: “I think we’ve already started the webinar,” Shanny Peer admitted when trying to see who was in the waiting room. It was a moment of unspoken camaraderie—the differing confusions of myself and the panelists—that set the tone for the panel, which saw Judith Coffin, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, introducing her new book, Sex, Love, and Letters, before turning the floor over to three colleagues, Susan Pedersen, Gisèle Sapiro, and Judith Surkis, who offered further insight into the world Coffin’s book explores.
We began with an exciting announcement: Sex, Love, and Letters had just won the David H. Pinkney Prize, a prize given the “most distinguished book in French history” of the year. We, the lucky attendees, were the first to know! The moderators, Camille Robcis and Stefanos Geroulanos, professors at Columbia and NYU, respectively, rushed through the introductions in the interest of time before passing it over to Judith Coffin.
Sex, Love, and Letters, Coffin stressed, is a book about a relationship: the relationship “between a writer, Simone de Beauvoir, and the people who wrote to her.” While Sex, Love, and Letters is about Beauvoir, it is also, well, not about Beauvoir: the archives Coffin used were not letters written by Beauvoir, but to her. They were letters written by readers; readers writing in French, in English, in Spanish, and Italian, to tell Beauvoir about their lives, their marriages, their own views on The Second Sex and other works of hers. It was a relationship that was intense, volatile, and immensely reciprocal; though there are no records of Beauvoir’s responses, there is evidence in some letters that she would indeed write back, and, as Coffin argued, she answered in her books. Equally as important, Coffin stressed, was the active nature of the relationship: it was a dialogue. To me, Coffin was proposing that Sex, Love, and Letters poses two central questions: What does this relationship tell us about the post-war world in France? What does reveal about the space an author’s work occupies in its readership?
After this introduction, the panelists gave their commentaries, answering these core questions. Gisèle Sapiro and Judith Surkis, professors at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and Rutgers University, respectively, identified two main French cultural and political crises of the post-war period that these letters elucidate: “mid-century sex” and the new reckoning of sexuality and feminism, and the Algerian War of Independence. Beauvoir herself, as Sapiro noted, drew lines between the Algerian War and women’s emancipation with an analogy comparing the treatment of women and colonized peoples. The predominant emotion, both Sapiro and Surkis noted, the letters reflect when discussing these topics is shame: shame in the complicity of French citizens in upholding Algerian colonial rule, lingering shame over the crimes of the Vichy government, shame by new feminists for the generation before them, shame for the way Beauvoir’s universalizing framework could and did gloss over these issues and the racism baked into French society (despite however much France likes to, both then and now, deny that truth). These letters serve as a way to “gauge public opinion,” Sapiro said, but all the panelists stressed how they cannot be treated as mere reflections of the society at the time due to the uniquely active nature of these texts as directed at a responsive, reciprocating figure. The question is not “What do these letters show?” but “What does this dialogue explain?”
Susan Pedersen, a history professor at Columbia, most directly dove into the question of what the significance of these letters was for Beauvoir and for the readers. Diaries and especially memoirs, intended to be read, are inherently “self-correcting,” she argued; letters are “tricky,” but also compelling, in their directness, in their immediacy, and at times extremely personal nature. Pedersen recounted an amusing anecdote from Sex, Love, and Letters: a couple who, as they explained in a letter to Beauvoir, ended up using The Second Sex as a sex manual to help themselves understand their sexual incompatibility—then promptly reported on the progress they were making. These letters were a chance to unload, without, necessarily, an expectation of a response, as one might get by sending in letters to an “agony aunt” or a friend. As for Beauvoir, as both Pedersen and Coffin, in her introduction, discussed, the letters delighted and disgusted her in turn. After all, does anyone really want to receive updates on how their philosophical treatise is helping out some rather random couple’s sex life? Pedersen discussed how the letters served as a tangible reminder of the impact of Beauvoir’s work. She compared Beauvoir’s response to Virginia Woolf, who was supposedly shocked at the way her readers took her work “personally,” sending her invitations to join the new “society of outsiders” Woolf called for in Three Guineas. Yet as much as the real, personal impact of her work on others disturbed her—an impact, as Coffin emphasized, that Beauvoir could not control—Beauvoir also leaned into it, responding when she wanted to, participating through her texts in this dialogue.
While some of the panelists’ comments felt disjointed or tangential, and some of the context and history would have certainly made more sense were I more familiar with Beauvoir, thinking through these questions was a fascinating and rewarding way to spend an hour of my Tuesday. What compels people to write to a public intellectual? How can we understand Beauvoir through them? How do we, the readers, take ownership of texts once they are released? How does that ownership contribute to the meaning of the works, to the author’s understanding of their own text? These questions feel worthy of a much lengthier discussion, and I’ll be ruminating on them in the days to come.
The panel finished with a lightning-fast Q&A session, where one audience member asked what the letters Beauvoir wrote back were like. Coffin smiled and replied that Beauvoir frequently responded with an admonishing tone, suggesting that her readers had not read her correctly—that they should instead be thinking about their own problems and lives in this way, not that one. Though it’s not the most supportive—no one suggested that this relationship was a happy one—it is a response, Coffin stressed, one that would encourage readers to continue the dialogue. Beauvoir was a complex, polarizing, passionate, and critical public intellectual, and she remained that way in her discourse with her readers. But “even when she’s scolding them, they love her,” Coffin said. “They feel that she is their champion.”
Image of event slide via Bwogger