While I enjoyed Joanna Biggs’s essay on Simone de Beauvoir – my book Becoming Beauvoir was among the titles reviewed – I objected to the inclusion of the nude photograph of her by Art Shay (LRB, 16 April). I cannot remember a single instance in which I have seen a comparable piece about a male philosopher accompanied by an image of him naked. It would be disappointing to see any woman treated this way, but in Beauvoir’s case it is grossly inapt given her philosophy and politics, the way publishers’ paratextual choices have affected her reception as a philosopher, and the story behind the image in question.
According to Shay himself, that photo was taken without Beauvoir’s consent. He openly acknowledged that he violated his subjects’ privacy to get his ‘best shots’. In his account, given after Beauvoir died, this one was no exception: he saw Beauvoir through the doorway and, in his own words, ‘just couldn’t help it’. The image didn’t appear in the press until January 2008, the centenary of Beauvoir’s birth, when Le Nouvel Observateur ran it on a cover with the headline ‘Simone la scandaleuse’, which itself caused a scandal. Why? Among other reasons, because Beauvoir presided over the Manifesto of the League of Women’s Rights: she objected to parts of women’s bodies being ‘displayed on the city streets for the glory of this profit-driven society’ and urged her contemporaries to ‘attack those who use our bodies as merchandise in their spoken or written words, on posters or billboards’. Her concern over the ‘psychological mutilation’ of girls who were raised with double standards and alienated from their own bodies by sexual objectification shaped her activism for decades after the publication of The Second Sex. The scandal today is not that Simone de Beauvoir got dressed with the bathroom door open. It is that an opportunistic cameraman felt entitled to click, and that in 2020 his nude should once again accompany an essay about her.
Regent’s Park College, Oxford
Joanna Biggs writes that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex ‘germinated in conversations with Sartre’, and also refers to the discussions she had with ‘Surrealist women’ in occupied Paris in 1943. She does not mention perhaps Beauvoir’s most important friendship in the 1930s, with Colette Audry, a remarkable political activist and member of the Gauche révolutionnaire of the Socialist Party. It was Audry who repeatedly told Beauvoir that it would be useful to write a book that would encourage women to reject their oppression. Beauvoir was sceptical, but some ten years later finally decided to write that book. When the book was published, in 1949, Audry defended it in the newspaper Combat against hostile tirades from the Communist Party and others.
David Runciman mentions that comparisons have been made between Donald Trump and Larry Vaughn, the negligent mayor of Amity Island in Jaws (LRB, 2 April). In what may or may not be a portent for November, it should be noted that Vaughn remained the incumbent in Jaws 2.
Rupert Thomson writes that both Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon were raised in the Deep South (LRB, 2 April). True of O’Connor, born and raised in Georgia, but not so of Gordon, who Thomson tells us was raised in Tennessee and Kentucky. Hereabouts we think of the Deep (or Lower) South as made up of the six states that initially formed the Confederacy: South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Some will argue for Texas, maybe even western Tennessee (where there was a cotton-based economy). But Tennessee joined the Rebellion only after Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861 and Kentucky never did.
In his discussion of the history of measurement, James Vincent makes no mention of the ‘collop’, which in the Irish tradition was a measurement of quality rather than quantity, usually referring to land and its ability to support farm animals, and hence families (LRB, 5 March). Ten collops of land would be of equal value anywhere, whereas ten acres of bog would be of less value than ten acres of prime agricultural (or building) land.
Kilmacanogue, County Wicklow
Rivka Galchen’s review of the latest two Clarice Lispector translations published by Penguin – The Chandelier (1946), which I am credited as co-translating with Benjamin Moser, and The Besieged City (1949) – contains an interesting mistake (LRB, 2 April). She writes that in The Chandelier, ‘Virginia, after marrying and moving to the city, goes back to her small town.’ But Virginia never marries, and this is one of the radical aspects of the novel. When she first moves to the city with her brother Daniel, she arranges a steady lover, Vicente, and has other experiences with men on her own terms, some possibly sexual and others not necessarily so. Later in the novel, Virginia goes back home, and during dinner with her family feels ‘a kind of resignation that was like a slow step forward, noting with a gentle surprise that she could marry, get pregnant, deal with the children, cheerfully fail, move around a house embroidering linen towels, repeat, yes, repeat her mother’s own destiny’.
In one of the few scenes in which Virginia’s mother speaks, she offers her two daughters her thoughts on marriage: ‘With a steady job a woman who has a brain manages to put off her husband, not live with him all the time, oh you can,’ and ‘I actually think you two are right not to marry.’ Virginia and her sister are shocked; no doubt the novel’s earliest readers were too.
Galchen notes the ‘equine imagery’ in The Besieged City – namely, Lucrécia’s ‘big horse face’ – and this is a helpful link to the two preceding novels. In The Chandelier, Virginia is compared to a horse after she visits a doctor to find out if she is pregnant (she isn’t): ‘Like a horse her legs gained a nervous, happy and lucid power.’ Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), features a young woman named Joana who discovers she doesn’t want to be married. ‘Marriage is the end,’ she says, ‘after marrying nothing else can happen to me.’ Joana ultimately decides to leave her husband, and in the final lines of the novel has a transformative equine moment: ‘All I have to do is comply with myself and then nothing will block my path until death-without-fear, from any struggle or rest I will rise up as strong and beautiful as a young horse.’
The connection between a woman, or person, bent on her freedom and a horse is further illuminated in Lispector’s ‘Dry Sketch of Horses’ (in her collection Where Were You at Night, 1974): ‘What is a horse? It is freedom so indomitable that it becomes useless to imprison it to serve man: it lets itself be domesticated but with a simple movement, a rebellious toss of the head … it shows that its innermost nature is forever wild and limpid and free.’ Later the narrator says: ‘I have a horse inside me.’ She also admits: ‘If it had been up to me I would have wanted to be born a horse.’ The equine moments in Lispector’s first three novels, which function as a kind of trio, are rebellious and radical tosses of the head. The ‘haziness’ noted by Galchen in both The Chandelier and The Besieged City may speak to the dangers of domestication and the challenges, of vision and action, involved in breaking free.
F.R. Leavis ‘would not have approved’ of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow-Line’, Fredric Jameson writes (LRB, 16 April). Yet in The Great Tradition (1948) Leavis refers to it as ‘one of Conrad’s masterpieces’ and as a touchstone of excellence in several late essays, including Two Cultures (1962). Leavis has me wondering too about Jameson’s statement that Conrad ‘thought in French’. In a panegyric devoted to the tale in the Sewanee Review in 1958, Leavis quotes Conrad’s letter to Walpole: ‘When I wrote Almayer’s Folly’ – his first novel – ‘I had been already for years and years thinking in English.’
Julian Bell agrees with the view that Jan Van Eyck’s focus ‘on nature in all its specificity and on illusionistic effects’ was partly inspired by his reading of ‘an ancient text that articulated those values’ (LRB, 16 April). He refers to the Italian humanist Bartolommeo Fazio’s comment in Of Famous Men (1456) that Van Eyck was ‘well acquainted’ with Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. But Fazio only says that he was thought to have been influenced by a reading of Pliny and other classical authors. In fact we have no direct evidence concerning his education or intellectual formation, or any knowledge of what he might have read.
Could Fazio have been imposing on Van Eyck his own assumptions about the sources of an artist’s discoveries and inventions? Renaissance humanists naturally looked to Greek and Roman antiquity as the inspiration for their own and others’ creative achievements. But in Van Eyck’s case, there may have been other sources, closer at hand. ‘Van Eyck’s art seems to breathe religion,’ Bell writes. Perhaps Ruysbroeck, Kempis and the exponents and followers of contemporary devotional tendencies that saw the divine in all material things, as well as the artistic legacy of Van Eyck’s Franco-Flemish precursors, may be better guides to the wellsprings of his art than Pliny and an Italian humanist.
‘The servant problem,’ Alison Light writes, ‘related to the “getting and controlling of servants”, as the OED of 1911 defined it’ (LRB, 5 March). However, the fascicle ‘Senatory – Several’ of the OED (then still officially the NED, the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles) was published only in September 1912, and contained neither the collocation ‘servant problem’ nor that definition for any collocation beginning with ‘servant’. The first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, published in 1911, did contain that definition for ‘servant question’, but it wasn’t even included in the 1933 supplement to the then completed OED.
Universität Greifswald, Germany
Craig Sams writes that acorns were the staple food in Arcadia (Letters, 16 April). If my local squirrels were in a position to explain, they would tell you that acorn production varies widely from year to year, from an average fall of five or six per square foot to a low of one or zero, and that, over time, this alteration of fat and lean makes for a hard rather than an idyllic life.
‘War is the metaphor of choice for the national effort against the pandemic,’ James Butler writes (LRB, 16 April). That brought to mind Mike Marqusee’s writings on living with cancer, and the use of the ‘martial metaphor’ for illness today: ‘Why must every concerted effort be likened to warfare? Is this the only way we are able to describe human co-operation in pursuit of a common goal? And who are the enemies in this war?’ The underlying purpose of the metaphor, in his view, was to make it ‘ripe for political and financial exploitation’, especially by the pharmaceutical industry. ‘What we need,’ he argued, ‘is not a war on cancer but a recognition that cancer is a social and environmental issue, requiring profound social and environmental changes.’ As for cancer, so for Covid-19.
Halifax, West Yorkshire
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