TWO YEARS AGO, Sarah Bakewell, the bookseller turned biographer and literary essayist, published At the Existentialist Café, an erudite page-turner about the “aha” moment (and what followed) when Raymond Aron introduced phenomenology to his friends Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at a cafe in Paris near the end of 1932. Raising a glass of the Left Bank bar’s storied drink, an apricot cocktail, Aron reportedly commented, “You see — with phenomenology you can make philosophy out of this cocktail!”
Bakewell’s book brought to life, warts and all, the characters who shaped the new philosophy of existentialism, a way of thinking about everyday life that aims at describing human experience as fully and vividly as possible. Narrating the story of existentialism in its historical context and in richly evocative detail, Bakewell charted the intellectual and personal encounters among the ever-evolving, frequently fractious circle of philosophers and social critics centered around Sartre and de Beauvoir. Through Bakewell’s engaging prose, we came to know the shifting group of interdisciplinary writers and thinkers who formulated and contentiously refashioned a new philosophy for the dark times in which they lived. What’s more, Bakewell excelled at what Monty Python once called the “summarize Proust contest” — except, in this case, she managed to “summarize” Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943), Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) without sacrificing the complexity of their arguments.
Throughout its history, this circle of writers maintained one key concept as the core of existentialism: the idea that humans possess the freedom to act within situations that both precede and exceed us. To use Heidegger’s terminology, we are both bounded and enabled by the world into which we are thrown. Our bodies, our psychologies, and our social and historical milieux unavoidably condition us — although, as Hannah Arendt once wrote, not absolutely. We remain free within the confines of our lives.
A strikingly frequent occurrence in Bakewell’s account featured an individual picking up a book at a specific, retrospectively significant moment (Sartre reading Levinas, Levinas reading Husserl, Iris Murdoch reading Sartre, or countless women from the 1950s reading de Beauvoir), and having his or her life dramatically altered. This is an experience that Lori Jo Marso, author of Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter, deeply understands. Marso relates how, after purchasing a copy of de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins in London in 1986, she
devoured it, and from there started Memoirs of A Dutiful Daughter and breathlessly read through her four-volume autobiography. […] I have been reading and learning from Beauvoir for over thirty years. […] But I have always wanted to take the time and space to say just what […] I find so compelling about Beauvoir’s unique political vision.
What Marso finds so unique about de Beauvoir’s political thinking is the centrality of encounters — both agonistic and affective — in its formulation. “Theorizing politics as the process and result of encounters foregrounds the primacy of relationships,” Marso writes, in which “there is never direct, unmediated, transparent communication.” Interpreting her subject as a “theorist of encounter,” Marso reads de Beauvoir’s feminist politics as illustrative of her broader political theory — that is, as a commitment not only to feminist but also to “antiracist, anticolonialist, and anti-imperialist projects and movements.”
Marso’s key aim is to install de Beauvoir more securely within the canon of political theory than narrower readings of her as a feminist have so far done. Marso isn’t suggesting that feminist theory is not political; on the contrary, her work on de Beauvoir demonstrates convincingly the inaccuracy of reading feminist theory as a species of thinking separated from politics.
Politics with Beauvoir goes a long way toward establishing The Second Sex as what Bakewell called “one of the great cultural re-evaluations of modern times, a book [to be] set alongside the works of Charles Darwin […], Karl Marx […], and Sigmund Freud.” Marso does this not by concentrating on the content of de Beauvoir’s most famous and monumental tome but by foregrounding its “literary strategy of staging encounters within texts, and between texts and readers.” This strategy, Marso argues, is “more radical and potentially transformative” than simply adding voices to the mix. Making “conversation […] a political technique” involves “an appeal to realign our senses, recognize new languages and topics, and open up new spaces for politics.”
Bakewell’s book explored historical encounters the major existentialists staged themselves. Marso complicates this story by also considering an eclectic and surprising set of iconoclastic voices, including Arendt, Lars von Trier, Frantz Fanon, Richard Wright, Chantal Akerman, Violette Leduc, Rahel Varnhagen, and Margarethe von Trotta. By staging encounters (even imagined conversations) among this diverse group of thinkers, writers, and artists — figures not only within but also beyond de Beauvoir’s immediate circle — Marso adopts de Beauvoir’s own literary strategy, using it to accomplish more than simply tracing the influence of the existentialists on latter-day free thinkers (as Bakewell had done). Marso deploys this cacophony of voices to explore a range of contemporary issues, from identity politics to sexual nonconformity to the practice of individual and collective resistance to oppressive social and political regimes.
This temporal widening of the situation of de Beauvoir’s thought produces a series of chapters divided among categories of “encounters” with various interlocutors, actual and imagined. Following de Beauvoir’s strategy of seeking “the company of diverse others,” both those she praised and those she loathed, Marso divides her book into sections tracking conversations de Beauvoir had — or could be imagined to have had — with a series of “enemies, allies, and friends.” This expansion of the terrain of de Beauvoir’s thinking is both provocative and unnerving, including as it does several “severely discomfiting encounters” involving graphically violent images of “the aberrant, the grotesque, and the excessive.” I should confess that I sometimes experienced Marso’s glosses on imagined conversations and cases such as a “close encounter with the devil” as being innovative to the point of intellectual overreach.
Perhaps Marso intended to evoke that precise response, in order to illustrate the lengths readers will go to avoid confronting “the jouissance of torture and the lure of evil.” Perhaps. I prefer (is that an aesthetic judgment or a turning away?) facing the all too human practices of torture, cruelty, and other, more bucolic adventures in sexual nonconformity without all the full-frontal genital violence and self-mutilation. Maybe that’s just me not wanting to sit too close to von Trier at the conversational table. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
How and when judgment fails were questions de Beauvoir took up in relation to the practice of violence she encountered at the trial of Robert Brasillach, the editor of a French fascist newspaper who was accused of treason for publishing the location of Jews in hiding. Marso juxtaposes de Beauvoir’s 1946 essay on Brasillach’s trial, “An Eye for an Eye,” with Hannah Arendt’s examination of Adolf Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness” in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), contrasting these two writers’ ideas about political freedom and its attendant call to judgment and personal responsibility. Marso considers de Beauvoir’s essay to be the richer account because it focused on the suffering of the victims of Nazi crimes. Because de Beauvoir called attention to the fact that “bodily attributes and their political interpretations bear on the conditions of political (collective) freedom,” Marso views her claims as “more tangible” than Arendt’s more abstract appeals to a common humanity. De Beauvoir recognized that people “are diminished by derogatory language, restrictive policies, and structural and physical violence […] sometimes adapt[ing] to the new material circumstances […] by […] thinking of their freedom and potential as limited.” In short, she sided with the oppressed — but does Marso mean to imply that Arendt didn’t?
It’s an interesting, if flawed, argument. After all, Arendt wrote extensively and controversially about (and against) the historical circumstances that led the Jewish people to think of their “freedom and potential as limited.” She defended the idea that political action remained possible even among “victims” — a crucial point about conditional freedom that Marso makes throughout her book. As she argues, “Beauvoir was emphatic that we can choose and that we can carve out a small space for movement even in the most narrow and constricted spaces,” while also being “emphatic in her condemnation of the narrowness and constriction of such spaces.” It is certainly possible to make this compelling argument without setting up a false dichotomy with Arendt.
Marso’s real purpose in this chapter is to lay the groundwork for the sections that follow, in which embodiment and its relationship to oppression and freedom take center stage. Following de Beauvoir’s lead in inviting the Marquis de Sade to join her in conversation, Marso extends the gesture to von Trier, the enfant terrible of contemporary cinema. And what a conversational meal we are then served! Marso insists that a “capacious feminist perspective,” such as de Beauvoir employed in relation to de Sade’s writing, enables us to see the aberrant, tormented women in von Trier’s films — Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), Nymphomaniac (2013) — not as “symbols of abnegation, sacrifice, or ultimate victimhood” but as generic types whose often pathological resistance to patriarchal expectations augurs the possibility of “feel[ing] our way beyond patriarchy.” Rather than reading von Trier as a misogynist whose visualization of women’s suffering can be “mistaken for patriarchal pleasure,” Marso insists that his films provide “a critique of patriarchy’s effects.” The unnamed female protagonist in Antichrist may be strangled and burned at the stake by her (until then) über-rational husband, yet rather than interpreting the film as just one more story of a woman punished for transgression, Marso recuperates von Trier’s images of violence and self-mutilation as “generative and creative.” Because they “stay with us,” she writes, they “press us to reconsider not only our values but also our usual forms and means of political association.”
All of which raises two questions. First, isn’t there a major difference between written and visual texts in terms of the affects they generate in their audiences? The second question, perhaps more telling, is implicit in Marso’s recognition that von Trier risks that his graphic imagery might actually promote scopophilia rather than subversion. So, what helps us decide which interpretive road to take? The turns Marso herself takes in subsequent chapters offer a kind of answer: allies and friends — as opposed to “enemies” like de Sade and von Trier — can help us distinguish between pathologies as individual ailments and as symptoms of oppressive political conditions.
In subsequent chapters, Marso explores more explicitly — via an interactive reading of de Beauvoir’s work with that of Fanon and Wright — the conditions that might lead to collective political action. The ways in which oppression marks and disfigures bodies, while also eliciting signs of resistance, figures centrally in this section on “allies,” returning as a point of analysis in the penultimate chapter. Marso’s staged encounter between Fanon and de Beauvoir exposes the former’s absence of attention to colonial women’s resistance while revealing the power of de Beauvoir’s own theory of political violence. And de Beauvoir’s conversations with Wright show the black novelist to be an invaluable ally for her refusal to ground a liberationist politics in oppressive identity categories; instead, Marso argues, both writers favored a construction of the collective political subject that is “produced rather than assumed.” These chapters are highly relevant to contemporary discussions about how to reach across the many ideological and social divides that currently block the project of solidarity politics.
In her final section, Marso returns to more explicitly feminist themes with her discussion of the “freedom-enhancing potential of feminist friendship.” Once again, she deploys films — Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012), Martin Provost’s Violette (2013), David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), and von Trier’s Nymphomaniac — along with Arendt’s biography of Rahel Varnhagen to illustrate how aesthetic choices shape what we see and how we read women’s stories. These chapters offer potent ways to imagine how conversations between women, in both form and content, can energize feminist politics. Surprisingly, despite the fact that it neatly completes de Beauvoir’s triptych of enemies, allies, and friends, I found this final section to be less engaged with the ideas of de Beauvoir than with those of feminist graphic artist Alison Bechdel, whose interpretive rule for how to read films as feminist Marso deploys (the “Bechdel test” examines whether there are two or more female characters whose conversations are about something other than a man).
Marso’s film analyses in these final chapters draw on de Beauvoir and Fanon to explore the ambiguity and subversive potential of repetitive actions (such as housework), the intertwining of the perverse and the pleasurable in sex, and the way pathological feelings and even acts of violence may be viewed as “signs of resistance.” But Marso’s earlier discussions of how de Beauvoir’s feminism illustrated her political theory of freedom — not only as a celebration of individual choice but also as a call to collective action against oppression — have rather faded from view. Still, the encounters this book invites us to explore are creative enough to be worth the risk that readers will struggle to connect all the dots.