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Cherchez la Femme?

Not in France’s Fortress Philosophy, says Jacqueline Swartz.

Philosophy shows no sign of losing it’s grip on the French mind and heart. It meets multiple needs – political, psychological, social – and has something to say about everything from loneliness to science. In a country where New Age thinking has hardly made a dent, philosophy fills a meaning gap left by disenchantment with politics and the church. It’s a counterweight to the worship of profit and pop culture. Books by philosophers – or rather interpreters of old masters like Plato and Schopenhauer – sell briskly, and philosophy cafés have become an entertainment option.

But there is something missing from this picture: the female point of view.

The media loves philosophers, featuring them on TV and radio, gossiping about them in magazines, but don’t look for the women’s view of the world as will and idea. Or for progress. In the l970’s, philosophy stars like Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray were known for their unique female perspective. But that’s all retro now, I was told by every man I interviewed for several articles on the popularity of philosophy in France.

When it comes to women, they said, the issue is Parity, the law that will require half of the candidates for public office to be female. But Parity is a political issue, and philosophy is a big-tent discipline: it has room for theories of language, history, politics, science, even money. In a country where there are so many women studying philosophy (required in high school), it’s hard to understand the blackout on the women’s perspective.

For enlightenment, I turned to four female sages. Catherine Clement, Julia Kristeva, Eleni Varikas and Michele LeDoeuff are women who have written about these questions – and lived them.

“There are women philosophers, but they aren’t listened to and they aren’t invited on the media. I have been shouting about this for 25 years – in vain”, remarked Catherine Clement with a robust, rueful laugh. A best-selling novelist, and at 62 considered something of a grand dame of letters, she offered me coffee in her living room filled with large, striking artifacts from her diplomatic sojourns in Africa and India.

“Philosophy is the last fortress of machismo in this country”, said Clement, who began her career as a philosophy professor and then became a noted journalist. Western philosophy, she continued, has had its day. “I would not be sad to see it disappear, at least the way it is transmitted. There are enough commentaries from Plato to Heidegger – it has become boring, and useless.” Women, she said, have better things to do than formulate abstract philosophical systems. And the men who created those systems weren’t so abstract themselves. “They started with feelings, which they didn’t admit, and were hardly even conscious of.” She has begun a project to trace these feelings in Kant, Hegel, Descartes and others.

Clement might dismiss Western philosophy, but it has not lost it’s hold on her, even though she has turned to fiction. Her novel, Martin and Hannah, (Prometheus Books, 2001) is about an imaginary l975 meeting between the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, his former student and lover who fled Nazi Germany, and his wife Elfriede. Theo’s Odyssey (Arcade Publishing, 1999), is the journey of a l4 yearold French boy who is taken by his aunt on a journey of the world’s religious power-spots.

Religion, the way it has been developed by men, said Clement, is about power, hierarchies and obedience; women feel more comfortable with the spiritual – the opening of the self to the other, to the ecstatic. Her new book, The Feminine and the Sacred, is a searching correspondence between Clement and another superaccomplished woman of letters, Julia Kristeva. “We wrote the book because we felt a feminine dimension was missing from collective thought.” The book is a sometimes anguished search for connections between sexuality and thought, body and meaning.

I interviewed Julia Kristeva in her busy hub-like office at the University of Paris at the charmless high-rise Jussieu campus, where she heads the doctoral program in languages and literature. An academic celebrity in North America for several decades, her topics have ranged from linguistics to philosophy, literature to psychoanalysis, which she practices several days a week. Yet although her name is well known in France, her views on women are not discussed or featured in the media.

Having taught at Columbia University and the University of Toronto, Kristeva appreciates what she calls “the vast communication with the public that French thinkers have through the media.” But, she adds, the media simplifies, so a nuanced female perspective is often too complex to deal with. What viewers do get are endless, repetitive discussions of Parity, a topic that female intellectuals now think has been discussed to death. But, there’s something else that accounts for the media blackout.

“There is a suspicion in France of the work that women have done since the feminist movement,” Kristeva remarked. “This might be justified when it comes to dogmatic feminism. But as a whole, this suspicion is a kind of defense against the originality of female thought. Women are being promoted in politics – in parliament, government. But there’s is a mistrust of the notion that women have something new to offer the culture.”

Kristeva has long belonged to the ‘difference’ camp, which holds that sexual differences condition thought in the social sciences and in literature. (Such ideas, she noted, are not in synch with those of Simone de Beauvoir.) In her trilogy of books on female genius , published by Columbia University Press (Helen Deutch and Hannah Arendt will be be followed by a translation of her book on Colette), she writes that women are different from men – but they are also different from each other. “I titled the work female genius to call attention to the singularity of each woman.”

Pluralism, she writes, in The Crisis of the European Subject (Columbia University Press), can be an antidote to the mass standardization that threatens the psychic life of the individual. Kristeva has said that for better or worse, this is the century of women. “It will be worse if women become the governesses of globalization, if they are promoted in sectors like politics and banking and they become macho accomplices.” Society, she added, “favors those of us who are the most masculine.” This could lead to more standardization and less individuality.

But women shouldn’t settle for being the best among men. “We are more complex; we have more to offer.” Acceptance and investigation of differences could lead to a world that is “plural, more attentive, more spiritual.”

Is it worthwhile for women to be interested in philosophy? Kristeva’s yes is emphatic. “Philosophy says that all meaning can be questioned. We are inundated with pop culture – makeup, beauty – and we should question it.” The great philosophers, she noted, don’t necessarily ask the greatest questions, but give us the sense that questions exist. “They shouldn’t be regarded as masters of thought but as subjects to question.”

Some female scholars are doing just that. A recent critical anthology documents the views of sixty philosophers on the topic of women. Les Femmes, de Platon a Derrida, Anthologie Critique, by authors Francoise Collin, Evelyn Pisier and Eleni Varikas, proves that philosophers through the ages haven’t ignored the second sex. “We wanted to show that philosophers have written things about women, but that these parts are skipped because they are considered irrelevant,” Ms Varikas told me in her book-lined living room. What is more, she said, some of these neglected writings “illuminate the thought of the philosophers themselves.”

Montesquieu, for instance,wrote that women can be excused for not following society’s rules – after all, they didn’t make them.

The book has sold well, proof that the intelligent reading public is alive and well in France, and that philosophy is not imprisoned in the academy. It proves something else, too, grinned Varikas: the old adage that any publicity is a good thing, even if it’s negative.

Take a certain review in the influential daily paper, Le Monde. The reviewer, after admitting grudgingly that the book is the first of its kind, useful in showing the important but neglected place of women in the thinking of Western philosophers, devoted most of his space to what he called the work’s serious flaws. Great philosophers like Spinoza were put next to feminists like Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, he snickered, suggesting that theorizing about the rights of women is somehow biased politicking, not pure philosophy. Most offensive, according to Varikas, was his weary condescending tone, which yawned that people were bored by hearing about those nasty, womanhating philosophers. He smelled a “certain retro perfume of the 70’s”. In other words, the dreaded American-style feminism.

“The accusation of being like American feminists is a way to avoid speaking about gender conflict here in France,” said Varikas. When people bring up stereotypes of ugly, man-hating feminists, she explained, it is not because they have read American feminists and disagree with them; it’s a way to put down feminist ideas. Political correctness is not an issue in France, where PC stands for Communist Party, and no one objects to nude women in subway ads. But the ‘American import’ label remains a potent putdown, representing a range of evils from puritanism to Macdonalds. Explained Varikas, “We speak negatively about the others to differentiate ourselves – national identity is very important in France.”

The Le Monde review raised such hackles that she and her co-authors were given time to rebut it on the newspaper’s radio show. They explained that the book wasn’t about philosopher-bashing. “We would hardly write 800 pages just to prove that philosophers are misogynists,” she emphasized. “We wrote the book because we teach, and we felt we were pushed to continue a tradition that’s problematic.”

The anthology – not an easy read, admits Varikas – is doing better than expected, especially among women. For despite minimal media coverage, women are finding their way to philosophy books that have something to say to the female reader.

“I have new audiences, which I find delicious,” said Michele LeDoeuff, a philosopher and director of France’s prestigious National Research Center (CNRS).

Her last two books have garnered a strong female readership, including women in their mid-thirties who have made the “stupefying discovery” that there is sexism out there. “They have developed a great sympathy for the women of my generation. All of a sudden they understand that my generation of baby boomers fought for the right of a woman to think critically; we fought for contraception – and it seems we were right.” Recently, the very middlebrow women’s magazine Marie France focused on LeDoeuff’s work in an article on how history sees women.

Her latest book, Le Sexe de Savoir, to be published in English by Routledge in 2002, goes into philosophy’s closets and attics, discovers little-known women philosophers like the 17th century Burgundian, Gabrielle Suchon, wipes the dust off long-held assumptions (intuition did not originally refer to anything ‘feminine’) and holds them up to a searchlight.

Not without ruffling some feathers. The same Le Monde reviewer who complained of the ‘retro perfume’ smelling up Varikas’ anthology, gave this book a terse, angry and brief dismissal. But the review in the paper Liberation (which sells 10,000 extra copies in Paris on the day its book review section is included), was detailed and admiring.

Le Doeuff’s tone is one of droll irony rather than caustic resentment. Take her treatment of Spinoza, very à la mode right now in France. The philosopher wrote that if women were meant to rule we’d see them on the throne. LeDoeuff dates that passage to 1677, when the memory of Elizabeth I of England was surely still strong. “Poor Spinoza was old and near death when he wrote it,” comments LeDoeuff. “Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the world around him.” But those who came after? “Find me an edition of this work that says that Spinoza, no doubt tired, erred, or commentators who mention that from a factual point of view, this theory, which claims to be founded on the truth, is not tenable.”

In a previous book, Hipparchia’s Choice (Routledge), LeDoeuff wrote about philosophical couples, coming up with a new slant on Heloise and Abelard and on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The author of The Second Sex insisted that she had left philosophy to Sartre. Yet, as LeDoeuff points out, de Beauvoir was trained in philosophy; she taught it, and the introduction to The Second Sex is a work of conceptual analysis that is “much better than two thirds of what passed for philosophy in the 20th century.” So why did she think there was no room in their relationship for two philosophers? A clue is found in de Beauvoir’s diary entry, where she describes a conversation she had with Sartre when they were just starting out. Enthusiastically she tells him her ideas about a philosophy that would respect the point of view of others, even while disagreeing. Sartre demolishes her – to such an extent that de Beauvoir confesses, “I don’t even know if I can reason any more.” According to LeDoeuff, this exposes the biggest flaw in Sartre’s own philosophy: his megalomaniacal point of view that sees others not in relation but in opposition – hell is other people.

Even today, Simone de Beauvoir hovers over French women intellectuals like a phantom philosopher, an inspiration, a scold, a measure, a conscience. Always a force to contend with. Every woman I interviewed mentioned her, even if they had to digress to do so – Julia Kristeva interjecting a “de Beauvoir would not have agreed”, when she spoke about male/female difference.

‘Difference’ – the degree to which men and women’s biological differences affect their outlook and work and way of being – is not passionately argued about in France outside of academia. Even there, unlike in the US, it is not a big deal, and there is little in French universities in the way of Women’s Studies. And anyway, French women philosophers want their voice, their take on things, to be heard in the larger arena – just like their male counterparts. Who can blame them for wanting their ideas to be argued over in the media, and by the highly-literate book-buying public, not just cloistered inside the nunnery of university women’s studies departments?

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a feminist studies that addresses the real problems of women”, LeDoeuff reflected. Indeed, there is a trend towards materialism among philosophical women. They’re looking at issues like part-time work, which offers women little in the way of benefits but demands a lot in the way of time wasted between split shifts.

Is this philosophy? As LeDoeuff writes, “a philosophy without values cannot be valuable.” She calls for a ‘morality of sympathy’ which extends to the way philosophy is conducted. She’s looking beyond the turf-protecting scholars fighting over a small point of interpretation, and the flashy neo-Nietzscheans vamping on the trendy terrain beyond good and evil. She’s looking beyond what she calls the bill that comes due to women who speak out.

“What would happen if women were equally recognized?” LeDoeuff reflected. “I believe it would transform the field – it would make it much more interesting.” In philosophyobsessed France, women aren’t going to stop dancing with the great thinkers of history. But they may start calling some of the tunes.

Philosophy’s continued appeal, which shows no sign of waning, requires a steady supply of fresh angles. It’s not hard to imagine the same male-centred philosophical interpretations running out of steam. They already have, according to Catherine Clement. Perhaps the group that has been left out of the field – women – may be just the one to revitalize it.

© Jacqueline Swartz 2002

Jacqueline Swartz is a freelance writer from San Francisco, currently based in Toronto. Her work regularly appears in women’s magazines (Marie Claire, Chatelaine) and newspapers including The Globe and Mail, The Boston Globe, and The Chicago Tribune. In the 1980’s, she was a foreign correspondent in Greece.

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