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Simone de Beauvoir and the Writing Self Susan Rubin Suleiman H OW DID BEAUVOIR CONCEIVE OF HERSELF—or, putting it more strongly, conceive her self—as a writer? To conceive has multiple meanings, all of which are relevant: to form in the mind, to imagine; to understand; to express in particular words; to think; to become pregnant with. An autobiographer, we could say, is one who imagines, understands, expresses, becomes pregnant with, and conse­ quently gives birth to the self in writing. If the autobiographer is a writer par ailleurs—which means, in this instance, not on the side but centrally —the self she or he conceives and gives birth to in the process of auto­ biography is the writing self: How did I become a writer? What does it mean, for me, to write? These questions are not always asked explicitly, although they often are in a writer’s autobiography—in Les Mots, for example, or in Mémoires d ’une jeune fille rangée. But explicitly formu­ lated or not, I believe they are always present when a writer sets out to write his or her life. One important insight of contemporary critical theory has been that the very meaning of those questions, as well as the answers one might find for them, will differ not only according to individuals, but also, per­ haps primarily, according to the situation—the race, class, gender, and historical moment—of the person who is asking them or about whom they are asked. This may sound too much like a dubious pop psycho­ sociology (“ Who is the German-speaking Jew living in Prague in 1910, and how will his writing differ from that of the French homosexual thief living in a prison outside Paris in 1930?” ). What is at stake, however, is not a categorization or pigeon-holing, but rather, the recognition that the subject of writing is not a disembodied, transcendental ego. Hélène Cixous has written about the coming to writing, “la venue à l’écriture” —a process in which the place where one feels oneself to be starting from is of crucial importance. “ Everything about me joined together to forbid me to write: History, my story, my origin, my gender. Everything that constituted my social and cultural self—beginning with the essential, which I was lacking. . . : the language . . . I learned to speak French in a garden from which I was about to be expelled because I was Jewish. I was of the race of paradise-losers.” 1 42 W in t e r 1989 S u leim a n Feminist critics, including Cixous herself, have laid particular empha­ sis on the role of gender in the coming to writing. And indeed, one need not subscribe to a biologically deterministic view of femininity (or masculinity) to understand that a woman who writes will not have the same relation to language, and to that sacralized form of language we call literature, as a man, even a man of the same race and class. Here is Cixous again: “ Writing was reserved for the elect. It had to take place in a space inaccessible to the lowly, to the humble, to woman. . . . Writing spoke to its prophets from a burning bush. But it must have been decided that bushes would not converse with women” (21). As Cixous’ play with biblical allusions makes clear, one has but to look back with a certain ironic detachment at two thousand years of Western culture and at the discourses through which that culture has sought to define itself, to realize that sexual difference is not irrelevant to the writing self. But where is one to locate the difference? Does it reside in the body, male ver­ sus female, or in the places that have traditionally been assigned to the body by the culture and its discourses? Most feminists, I think, would argue the latter. Beauvoir certainly did. And yet, the body keeps intruding. We all have one; it is difficult to do without one. Our sense of who we are, and where we are in the world, necessarily passes through an awareness of ourselves as embodied beings. Even the language we use, no matter how abstract or...


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