This site’s readers translate Beauvoir interview

One of the delights of this website, and one of the things that continues to surprise me even now, after nearly seven years of blogging, is the email from readers far more knowledgeable than I am.

Very late Tuesday night I posted a clip of an old Simone de Beauvoir interview about The Coming of Age, and wished aloud (okay, in type) that I understood even enough French to comprehend the jist of what she was saying.

By the time I woke up, there was an enlightening note from my friend Laila Lalami — a writer whose gripping first novel, Secret Son, appears in April — waiting in my inbox.

Lalami grew up in Morocco. A linguist by training, she is fluent in several languages and took pity on me, offering to summarize the whole interview when she had the time, and tiding me over with this preview:

The first question is: “What does it mean to grow old?” And [Beauvoir] answers: “It can’t be explained quickly, that’s why I wrote 600-page book to answer this question. But in any case I shall try.”

“I was amused,” Lalami writes, “by how dismissive she was of the interviewer, though she still tried to answer her question!”

By mid-afternoon, the generous and delightful Alexandra Yarrow of the Rideau Branch of the Ottawa Public Library had sent along a full summary.

And this morning I received a translation from Lauren Elkin, of the excellent blog Maîtresse, who reports that the new (ideally more accurate) translation of The Second Sex is due out from Jonathan Cape in the UK this November, and from Knopf in the U.S. next January.

I present both Elkin’s and Yarrow’s translations here, in case you, too, were frustrated to see the great Beauvoir opening her mouth and saying things you couldn’t understand.

Elkin translates as follows:

Q. Simone de Beauvoir, what does “aging” mean to you?

SdB: Many things at once. I wrote a 600 page book to explain, I can’t answer you in 60 seconds. Ok, we can say first of all that to age is an organic phenomenon. The organs evolve, which leads to a slowing down and even the disappearance of the principal biological functions. This is connected to social and economic conditions. Because an older man no longer has the same ability to [deal with] fatigue and work, he is retired or he retires, he stops working. Which is good for some people, because it allows them to have some more free time, but which is a [terrible?] thing for most people, because not having a job generally signifies a large decline in the quality of life, which is terrifying, and the pensions they receive are insufficient.

Q You wrote this essay on aging, Simone de Beauvoir, to fight against a society that sees the elderly as pariahs, is that the case?

SdB: Yes. For the most part, we don’t say it, but we treat them as pariahs. Unlike in myths and stories where they appear as wise, full of experience, someone venerable and respectable, but when we retire them we prevent them from working, it would be good to give them a decent amount of money on which to live. But we give them nothing, and there is a considerable number of eldery people who are paupers in France and the US.


Q You say that Western society treats the elderly as pariahs, but is this not the case in Socialist nations, like Soviety Russia?

SdB: IT’s not exactly the same thing. In Soviet Russia there is the slightest difference between the salary of a worker and the pension he receives after he has been retired [sa mise à la retraite]. There are also retirement homes, which are, if not more comfortable, more enjoyable, because the residents have the chance to get together, play games, take part in discussions. We do this too, but there is a much smaller quantity of hospices and retirement homes in which the residents can enjoy their free time. [truncated, she gets repetitive]

Q: Do you consider that intellectuals like yourself, like most writers, grow older in a privileged fashion?

SdB: Absolutely. On one hand, we generally belong to a privileged social and economic class, which means we have more money, we don’t suffer from the same privations. But on the other hand, as has remarked [many a?] gerontologist, the more engaged intellectually the aging person is, the more slowly their faculties decline. If you have a good memory, if you exercise your memory, you will continue to keep it. And then you are someone who is curious, you know how to keep your mind occupied, which is very important, because, sadly, many elderly people, it’s tragic for them, they literally die of boredom.

Q: But for you personally, Simone de Beauvoir, does it seem terrible to you to age?

SdB: No; it seemed terrible to me at one time, I said to myself “I’m going to get older,” and there is a stage in my life, which is now, to get over. This happened around age 50-55. I think we think of it as a kind of obstacle you have to get past [ligne à franchir]; everyone feels it, male or female, at a certain point in their life.It can come very late, at 70 or 75 years old, or very early, there are people who are old by around 40 years old, it depends on one’s health, economic conditions, their job status, on their circumstances. At this time, I feel there is a line I have just passed, there are some things I can no longer do, or no longer want to, like walking [around the city], which I did a lot in my youth. But that’s it, I’m not going to spend my time saying this line has been passed, I’m alive and I do my work and I look around me and don’t think about what’s over, I think I have this time to live, and I prefer to put it to the best possible use.

Q: Do you not think it’s more difficult for a woman to age than for a man?

SdB: No–

Q: Because it’s terrible to no longer please.

SdB: That’s a widespread idea, but the moment a woman thinks her life as a woman is over actually comes much earlier, they experience a terrible crisis at the moment of their menopause. They can no longer have children, they imagine that they are no longer desirable– it’s very often at this particular moment [that the crisis takes place]. 50, 55 years old, that’s not really old age. But generally after this passes, they are more serene than they were, now that they no longer have to fight to stay in the category of ‘young women’, when they were disadvantaged in this category.

Q: So how old is “old age”?

SdB: I can’t give an exact number. Socially, we place it at 65 years old, because that’s the average age of retirement. It’s at that age that we think men should stop working. So we say that old age begins for everyone at 65 years old. But chronological old age is not the same things as biological old age, nor is it the same for everyone. You have some people who at 55 years old are terribly used-up, who have the body of an 85 year old, and you have 85 year olds who are extremely vigorous, who can keep up with someone aged 50. So there is an enormous difference, and we cannot say that old age arrives at one age or another.

Q: In fact, Simone de Beauvoir, this essay on aging is important because it is a comprehensive work, the consummate text on aging. Do you think it will do for the elderly what The Second Sex did for women?

SdB: Yes, that’s what I had envisioned. I wanted to think about [the subject of ] aging in all of its aspects the way I did [the subject of ] woman. From a biological, anthropological, historical, social perspective– that is, how it exists in our society today; and then on the other hand I wanted to treat the “being in the world” [l’etre dans le monde] of the elderly person, a little like what I did for women, the lived experience, that is to say, look at how he reacts in different situations, his relationship to his body, his self-image, his sexuality, his relationship to time, to what is past and what is to come, his activities, his plans, and his daily relationships with other people, his loved ones, everything that has to do with money…

Q: You say that society condemns the elderly. But according to your historical analysis, every society has always condemned them.

SdB: That is to say, there have been periods when there were only privileged old people, where we didn’t speak of old age; in France in the Middle Ages your life was over at 35 years old. So in this case we can’t say that the elderly were mistreated, since men didn’t live to see their old age. And the rare privileged ones, as in Greek and Roman times, since they were rich and had property, since they were at the head of the family, they were respected, not because of their age, but because of the role they played in society. Except in feudal times, because the vassals, when they had to defend their earnings, by the sword at times, the father would step aside [s’éffacer] in favor of his son. Which is what we see, for example, in [Corneille’s tragedy] Le Cid.

Q: Do you think your book could have an effect on the situation of elderly people in our society?

SdB: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Books are never enough. It can have echoes in revolts, in movements of public opinion, so it seems to be efficacious, but in itself The Second Sex didn’t change anything about the female condition. It only helped certain women to become aware of their condition. I know it helped them a lot because I’ve received many letters. So I think this book will help, on one hand, adults and young people, to see the elderly from a different perspective, to treat them in another way. And perhaps it will help the elderly as well to understand the reasons why they live the way they do. But for the mass of [elderly] people for whom this is a material and economic problem, who really have nothing to eat or to heat themselves with in the winter, it is obvious that this book won’t change anything.


Yarrow observes, “de Beauvoir talks reeeeaaallly fast! Also, that TV logo in the bottom corner (circle/rose thingy) is Canada’s own the CBC!” Here’s her translation:

Q: What is ageing?

A: A hilarious rant from de Beauvoir, who says that you can’t answer in one minute! She then says that ageing is many things. For one, it’s an organic process involving the evolution and deterioration of organs and related biological matters. This deterioration means that the process of ageing is tied to economic and social factors: ageing causes fatigue, which means people stop working and retire. This, in turn, makes some people quite happy and content (they can devote their time to hobbies), but is seen by others as a the beginning of a terrifying downward spiral in their lifestyle [she says, literally, niveau de vie = stage of life], because pensions are extremely insufficient.

Q: You wrote La veillesse to counter the idea that ageing people are pariahs, correct?

A: Yes, that is right, and that we don’t call them pariahs but we treat them that way. This is in contrast to [can’t hear the word] where they appear as sage, with much experience, respectable, venerated, but we treat them like pariahs. That is to say, we prevent them from working. It would be good to give them decent ways of life, but we don’t, and there are a number of homeless people who are older — a considerable number of them in France and the US.

Q: You say that ageing people are treated badly in occidental society, but isn’t it the same in a socialist society, say, Soviet Russia?

A: Not exactly. In Soviet Russia there is a small (minimal) difference between working salaries and pensions. There are also seniors’ homes that are, if not more comfortable, at least more agreeable, because residents can have meetings, distractions, diverse discussions. Whereas we, except in dire cases, do nothing to permit seniors, once they are in hospitals or homes, to still occupy themselves, meet up, or engage in leisure activities. She then says something I can’t quite catch about how we make a gift of leisure activities but that this is a poisoned chalice, if you will. Not quite sure I got that right.

Q: Would you not say that intellectuals like you, like the majority of writers, age in a privileged way?

A: Absolutely. Firstly, many of us belong to a privileged class, simply in an economic sense, which is to say we have more money and don’t suffer the indignities others do. The other thing is, as many gerontologists have remarked, the more intellectual activity is important, less psychological deficiencies develop at a slower rate. If you have a better memory, you will continue to have one. And if you have a sense of curiosity, and leisure activities, because what is tragic is that most seniors die, literally, of boredom.

Q: Personally, does growing old seem terrible to you?

A: No. It did at one time, but I will soon grow old, and there are certainly parts of my life behind me now — this happened when I was 50-55. I think this impression of a line that is crossed, everyone crosses it at different points: early (in their 40s) or late (in their 70s). It depends a lot on different things: health, economic conditions, the possibility of work, and many other things. I had the impression of crossing the line, for instance I couldn’t walk a lot, which was important to me in my youth, but there was nothing I could do – once I crossed it, I didn’t waste time saying it has passed, I looked forward: to my work, in front of me, my friends, and I don’t think about time that has evolved. I now have a certain time left, I would rather employ in the best way, without losing it.

Q: Despite everything, do you not have the impression that it is more difficult for a woman to age than a man?

A: No!

Q [interrupting]: It is terrible to no longer be pleased, is it not?

A: No, that is a very common prejudice [I think that’s what she says.] I think that women think that their “life as a woman” is over sooner. They reach menopause, they cannot have children, they believe they cannot experience pleasure, that’s very common. But 50-55 is not old, so they are, in a way, more habituated, more serene [I hate that word, she adds!] after that.

Q: At what age does “oldness” arrive?

A: We cannot say precisely. Socially, it is fixed at age 65, because of the majority of retirements. So, for civilisation, we can say it’s 65! But chronological age is not biological age for everyone. You have 55 year olds who are really elderly, and who have the bodies of 85 year olds, and you have extremely vigorous 85 year olds, who can hold their own in competitions with 50 year olds. There is a big difference and you can’t say old age arrives at this age or that age.

Q: This is an important work. Perhaps I can say that La vieillesse does for ageing what The Second Sex did for the condition of women?

A: Yes, that is how I envisioned it. A comprehensive work, as with women, focusing on the anthropoligical, biological, historical/social aspects, the lives of seniors today. I also wanted to write, as with women, “in the conditions of an ageing person,” their experiences, how they react, how they see their physical selves, their self-image, their views of future, their activities. Also, their daily relations.

Q: You say our society condemns ageing people. But, in history, all societies have condemned them

A: There have been periods where some older people were privileged and others didn’t make it to old age. For example, in medieval France, you were already finished at 35! So we can’t really say they were badly treated. And the rare privileged ones, like in Ancient Greece or Rome, were not privileged for age but for their rank. Except in feudal societies.

Q: Do you think that your book can change something in the situation of older people today?

A: Unfortunately, I think not. I don’t think books are ever enough [I listened to this twice because I wanted to be sure she really said it! There goes my career!] It can trigger a revolt, and then it seems efficient, but in effect, I don’t think The Second Sex changed anything in the condition of women. [Interviewer tries to interrupt but is drowned out.] Some women became aware of their condition. I got a lot of letters! Perhaps this book will make young and old see older people in a new light, and treat them better. Maybe older people will take note of the reasons they live the way they do. But for the majority, for whom the problem is material, who have nothing to eat, this book will change nothing.

Say what you will about the decivilizing nature of the Internet, but I think you have to concede that this kind of information-sharing is wholly to the good of intellectual life. Or maybe you don’t. I’ve been surprised before.


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