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Notes and Fragments SARTRE AND SEXISM by Hazel E. Barnes Insofar as is possible, I want to consider here not Sartre the man but Sartre the philosopher—or, more precisely, the philosophy of Sartre. To askwhether Sartre's long association with Simone de Beauvoir was a model of human relations at their best or an example ofbad faith on both sides is not to my present purpose. Nor are his numerous, sometimes rather unsavory affairs with other women. Of course, the man and his work cannot be separated entirely. Sartre himselfadmitted that despite his wholehearted support of women's liberation, there remained in him vestiges of ingrained male chauvinism which he found difficult to eradicate.1 We should expect to find echoes of these in his writing, and we do—not in the ideas but in the imagery and rhetoric, and these not only in the fiction but in the philosophical works. The grossest example is the well-known passage in which Sartre discusses the "existential meanings" ofslime and holes.2 Slime, the great "Antivalue," is "a moist and feminine sucking" and "a sickly-sweet feminine revenge." Moreover—and this is even worse—Sartre allows his meditation on holes to lead by a process of his own associations to the idea ofa woman's sex as "a voracious mouth" evoking the male castration complex. This is not the only place where Sartre links female with notions of a treacherous receptivity. Furthermore, such passages are complemented by others where Sartre employs male sexual imagery to describe the activity of consciousness. Knowledge is portrayed as penetration and conquest. He points out, without objecting, that banal metaphors of everyday language suggest that "knowing" has overtones of carnal knowing and sexual violation: "What is seen is possessed; to see is to deflower. . . . The unknown object is given as immaculate, as Philosophy and Literature, © 1990, 14: 340-347 Hazel E. Barnes341 virgin, comparable to a whiteness. . . . Man has not yet 'snatched' its secret away from it. . . . Figures of speech . . . like that of the 'unviolated depths of nature' suggest the idea ofsexual intercourse more plainly."3 There can be no doubt that a full investigation ofthe linguistic codes in Sartre's writing would reveal him to be a man comfortably ensconced in a world of male dominance. Yet Collins and Pierce in their excellent article, "Holes and Slime: Sexism in Sartre's Psychoanalysis," even as diey deplore Sartre's sexist language and his failure to depict any fictional female characters as embodiments of existential authenticity, admit that these weaknesses are at variance with the central philosophy ofBeing and Nothingness and not derived logically from it.4 I agree, and diat is why I hold that the sexism is there but is contingent, relevant to our appraisal of die writer but not essential to ourjudgment on the philosophy and its potential value as a support to feminism. In saying this I am partially making the sort of distinction employed by Jean Grimshaw, who points out that a philosophy built on male assumptions may exclude women essentially as with Kant, inconsistendy as with Aristode, or inadvertendy as with Descartes.5 The difference with Sartre is that in spite of the occasional lapse into traditional male linguistic tropes, the work, like its author, is notjust theoretically egalitarian but concerned explicidy with forms of oppression and the problems of disfavored groups. More than that of any other male writer, Sartre's philosophy seems to me to demand feminism as one of its natural consequences. That diis has been historically true is shown, ofcourse, by the fact that Simone de Beauvoir used Sartrean existentialism as the foundation for her own original analysis of women's situation in TL· Second Sex. The irony is diat this book, which played a key role in launching the movement for women's liberation throughout the world, has been adversely criticized by later feminists precisely on the grounds of its Sartrean orientation, along with Beauvoir's emphasis on women's right to share the things men value rather than to challenge those values. Beauvoir herself later recognized that the book did not go far enough, but she never renounced what she had written there. My claim...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 340-347
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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