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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 7 · 8 April 2010

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Beauvoir Misrepresented?

Both Professor Toril Moi’s vengeful review of the new translation of The Second Sex (LRB, 11 February) and Professor Nancy Bauer’s misleading letter (Letters, 25 March) call for a response.

I do remember meeting Nancy Bauer (who, by the way, falsely presents me as the translators’ student, which I never was) at a Beauvoir conference in Paris two years ago. I was cornered during a coffee break by this American academic obsessively insistent on two matters. First, that the new translation should be published by a university press. This was impossible, since Cape and Knopf had no reason to abandon their exclusive rights to the book’s English publication. Second, that this new edition should be fully annotated (which would have transformed this 800-page book into a 1000-page one) under the supervision of an editorial committee independent of Knopf and Cape. This committee would be headed by such distinguished professors as herself, who would be compensated for this service that neither Knopf nor Cape were asking them to render. I answered that, first, this book was not published in France by a university press but by a trade publisher and, second, that it was preferable that the first edition of the new translation be similar to the one Beauvoir originally published and which was still successfully selling 60 years later. Annotated editions and companion books can follow later, I said, but let readers first discover this essay in English the way French readers discover it in French – and people around the world in their own un-annotated editions. Nancy Bauer was furious. She obviously still is.

As for Toril Moi’s review, it was written by a professor who has spent much time and energy denouncing the Parshley translation (‘mistakes and omissions on every page’, she wrote in a 2002 article), and now takes the same tack – using the same adjectives! – with the new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier while the old translation suddenly becomes ‘lively and readable’. True, Moi had already started making derogatory comments about the two translators long before the translation was finished. Publish or perish: having now exhausted all the arguments against the old translation, Moi has many fruitful academic years ahead of her to savage the new one.

Could Moi’s grievance stem from the fact that she was not part of the project? Her 1999 letter to Random House suggesting they publish a new translation of The Second Sex led nowhere. And her essays on this subject never reached the general public. It was Sarah Glazer’s widely read and brilliantly titled article in the New York Times (22 August 2004), ‘Lost in Translation’, which brought the issue at last into the public arena; it helped Gallimard to keep up the battle, indeed the mission, which I initiated ten years ago and pursued obstinately until the final, happy outcome of this new unabridged edition.

For sure, academic conferences and roundtables can be organised for decades to come to debate the subtleties of translating philosophical terms, but since few of the millions of readers (since 1949) of Beauvoir’s essay are philosophers or even university graduates, these debates will remain limited to restricted circles. What is surely more important is that this extraordinary book, though not an ‘easy’ read (even in the original French), has changed the lives of many women, and hopefully some men, despite, no doubt, mistakes in all 40 existing translations around the world.

This new unabridged English edition is, quite simply, a small miracle. Most had despaired, over the past decade, of ever seeing it happen, except a handful of determined women, not least the two translators, whose drive, faith and commitment never wavered. In 2002, Toril Moi wrote an article entitled ‘While We Wait’ (for the new translation of The Second Sex). Had things been left to Moi and Bauer, we’d still be waiting.

Anne-Solange Noble
Paris

Hot Air

In his review of Ian McEwan’s Solar, Thomas Jones mentions that the incident at the start of Enduring Love involves a hot-air balloon, although McEwan makes it clear that this is not the case: ‘It was an enormous balloon filled with helium, that elemental gas forged from the hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars’ (LRB, 25 March).

Hot air is the usual choice, since balloonists can simply let it cool to descend gradually, or let a bit out to descend more rapidly. After landing, they can empty the balloon completely and fold it up for easy transportation. If the balloon were filled with helium, it would be expensive to empty it partially (to descend) or fully (to allow transport). However, by filling the balloon with helium, McEwan not only gives the narrator the chance to make an in-character remark on the origins of helium: he also makes the unexpected and fateful rising of the balloon more plausible.

Paul Jenkinson
Zollikon, Switzerland

Opportunities to Orate

Chris Mullin’s obituary of Michael Foot was far more honest than the many other eulogies he received (LRB, 25 March). But its very honesty raised two disturbing questions. The first is whether Foot was interested in any sort of political achievement or principally in the sound of his own voice. It was Foot – and Enoch Powell – who provided the most strident opposition to reform of the Lords in 1968 and then over the creation of departmental committees ten years later. Foot advocated total abolition of the Lords, which he surely knew was not a starter; about the committees his excuse was that they would detract from the importance of the Commons. Yet, as Mullin points out, departmental committees have been ‘arguably one of the most successful reforms of recent years’, leading to the suspicion that Foot was less interested in the effectiveness of Parliament than in taking opportunities to orate.

The other question concerns Lord Beaverbrook, for half the 20th century one of the most evil characters in British public life. Yet Foot ‘loved him like a second father’ (his first being a model of ‘puritanical Methodism’). Beaverbrook allowed Foot, then one of the press lord’s stable of young radical journalists, three months off to write what turned out to be a popular book entitled Guilty Men, which pointed the finger at the appeasers who had allowed Britain to drift into war in September 1939. Needless to say, Beaverbrook’s name was not mentioned, although he was one of the most guilty (the headline in the Daily Express on 1 September 1939 was ‘There Will Be No War’).

Nicholas Faith
London N7

Agiotage etc

It is curious that John Lanchester should propose ‘bankocracy’ as the ‘name for the new economic system, which certainly isn’t capitalism’ (LRB, 5 November 2009). In a passage in chapter 31 of the first volume of Capital, Marx describes the emergence of ‘modern bankocracy’ (along with the international credit system, the modern system of taxation and ‘stock-exchange gambling’) from the creation of national debt. The national debt endowed ‘barren money with the power of breeding’, giving rise to agiotage and creating the ‘class of lazy annuitants’ – ‘this brood of bankocrats, financiers, rentiers, brokers, stock-jobbers etc’. Capitalism has always been one form or another of a modern bankocracy, at least since the founding of the Bank of England in 1694.

Mazen Labban
University of Miami, Florida

Fellow Traveller

Christopher de Bellaigue’s take on the reissue of Vita Sackville-West’s Twelve Days in Persia and its prequel, Passenger to Tehran, begins wonderfully: ‘1927 was a fine year to be Vita Sackville-West’ (LRB, 25 March). True enough, even if she wasn’t sure she liked the idea of travel: ‘Perhaps – and for the Nicolsons there are few greater sins – it is middle class, like saying “weekend" or getting a knighthood.’ Oof, and he continues and ends with the reference to her netting ‘the butterfly of the moment’. So the moment was propitious for her to grasp the colourfulness of the Bakhtiari tribe, to find her voice as a traveller and to laugh with her husband posted to Tehran – she is the fellow traveller – ‘at their own wretchedness’. Then, as her feet and travelling mind are toughened, she makes, as he points out, acute observations about the life of the Bakhtiari, the threat of modern civilisation to it, and the very unromantic truth about the spring migration of the flocks of sheep, her ‘affecting description … laconic and diminishing: “How stony the road is! How slow our progression! Come along, come along. Oh."’

As the editor of Vita’s Selected Writings, I want to agree with his remark about her acutely unromantic descriptions, and also as someone all primed to see the great beauty of spring migrations in the Vaucluse, as in Marie Mauron’s writings, then seeing how the sheep overturned my 2CV and were subsequently herded into a truck to cross the mountains. Which didn’t and doesn’t stand in the way of the local Provençal poets reading and reciting about the glories of the transhumance. It all fits what de Bellaigue points out as this ‘fortunate literary encounter, between a writer and a process, at a unique and poignant time’ and Vita’s engagement both with travel and with her return to her own world.

Mary Ann Caws
New York

Not Simply Not True

Jonathan Lear, in a review of my books, writes that I make ‘claims that simply aren’t true’ (LRB, 11 March). One of his instances is that I write: ‘Freud was never able to decide whether every dream was a wish-fulfilment.’ Lear omits my next sentence – ‘He found dreams that seemed to be beyond the human wish’ – and then quotes from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, having found dreams that are not wish-fulfilling. Thus I have said something that is simply not true because Lear has eliminated the qualifying sentence.

In fact Freud changes his mind again in Beyond the Pleasure Principle when he concludes that even traumatic dreams are wish-fulfilments. Why? Because even though no one would wish to have a bad dream, dreaming transforms shocking events into less disturbing thoughts through its novel way of restaging things. In the New Introductory Lectures, written towards the end of his life, Freud concludes that ‘the wish-fulfilling function of dreams is not contradicted by anxiety-dreams.’ Is the issue settled? I am not sure. And typically, Freud aimed to keep his intellectual options open.

My theory that dreams fulfil the wish to dream is for Lear a non sequitur: ‘Even if a dream is the sort of thing that would fulfil a wish to dream, it does not follow that every time there is a dream there is an antecedent wish to dream that it fulfils.’ It is my theory but Freud’s as well; traumatic dreams fulfil not the wish to revisit the dream’s disturbed contents for their own sake (a matter of content) but because the dream will transform them (a matter of form).

Lear disagrees with my point that Freud failed to distinguish adequately between form and content. I do not argue that Freud did not know the difference but that he did not create a sustained view of form, which led him now and then into unnecessary confusions in his theory of the mind. In The Evocative Object World I draw attention to a crisis created by such confusion. In The Ego and the Id Freud felt forced to conclude that his theory of the unconscious was invalid because the contents of the repressed and the agency that repressed them were both unconscious. ‘We must admit,’ he wrote, ‘that the characteristic of being unconscious begins to lose significance for us.’

Why is this important? Freudian psychoanalysis is therapeutically transformative not only because it unearths repressed mental contents, but because Freud created in the psychoanalytic relationship a new form of communication that changed people’s lives. But his failure to appreciate the formal effects of the analytic process on the analysand has left both psychoanalysts and the lay world inadequately aware of how psychoanalysis works.

Christopher Bollas
London NW3

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