Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

The Revolution is Eternal

June 18, 2010

Early light – photograph by Liz Mathews

Just as the proletariat makes its own use of the heritage of the past, so women must take over the tools forged by men and use them for their own interests… In the wealth that we take over from them we must very carefully distinguish between those things which have a universal nature and those which are marked with their masculinity… a revision, not a repudiation, of knowledge.

(Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done, trans. Patrick O’Brien)

Simone de Beauvoir did not intend to jettison the cultural past, even if women were virtually invisible in it; her approach was rather to reclaim her inheritance. The revolutionary way of thinking she recommends is not so extreme, after all; a ‘universal nature’ is what she seeks in the culture of the past, not an anti-masculine one. This desire for universality seems reasonable enough for those of any gender, especially as perceptions of gender have changed so radically in the forty years since Beauvoir wrote. The ‘masculinity’ of which she speaks is maleness of a particular kind; patriarchal, militaristic, industrial capitalist (or feudal), implicitly misogynist.

The comparison with the role of the proletariat is telling; in 1972, when the philosopher made it, perhaps there was still a lingering vision of worker-intellectuals listening to Shostakovich while they wrote avant-garde poetry about their lives in the factory, before going to the Bolshoi in their boiler-suits. But – although she might have liked to imagine these fabled creatures admiring Fabergé eggs for the workmanship, not the diamonds – perhaps her point was that it would be even more difficult for women to revise the knowledge of the past in their own image than it had been for the proletariat, who were once almost as culturally invisible.

This is a philosopher’s answer to a problem which has many variants; if knowledge is contaminated, rethink it. Of course, many people in the past have existed within an alien culture, and perforce become adept at extracting their own interests from it; for outsiders by reason of race or class, politics or religion or sexuality, for dissenters and independents of every sort, reading between the lines has been second nature. So there have always been subtexts, messages in code, infiltration of the mainstream, secret communications, as well as the blossoming of sub-cultures and alternative literatures. But in the revolutionary future, Beauvoir advocates moving beyond this, into the mental fight of revising what already exists, as an accepted cultural heritage, which she presents as a take-over of wealth.

Theoretically, the action she describes is entirely possible. In practice, even the whisper of it has often resulted in the entire heritage of knowledge (some of it unequivocably ‘marked with masculinity’ of the worst kind) being resolutely presented as absolutely universal – how not? Any further discussion has been confined, as much as possible, within the alternative academic disciplines of Women’s, Queer, or Gender Studies, where such stalwart efforts have been made to rethink so much of the past.

But what Simone de Beauvoir had in mind was, I think, something rather more drastic. When I re-read this calmly provocative challenge, I believe she intended it to be taken personally, not as part of a feminism which is merely one possible critical school, but as a complete way of perceiving knowledge for the individual. I remind myself of it frequently, as a way of reading, of considering history and culture, of discovering surprising areas of universality in the past, and of misogyny in the present. (It can be quite exhausting.)

Fortunately, Simone de Beauvoir isn’t the only such inspiration; there are other intellectual revolutionaries of a fervour we can only emulate as best we can. Although so different as a writer, in many ways Virginia Woolf’s view of the past – and indeed present – as unacceptably ‘marked by masculinity’ pre-visioned Beauvoir’s, and much of her critical writing could be interpreted as exactly the ‘revision, not repudiation’ which the philosopher hoped would become commonplace. Woolf’s unforgettable image of joyous destruction of the dead past (in the context of women’s education) is another such call to revolutionary thinking:

Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters… dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze!’