Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why I'm not a philosophy professor

Once upon a time, I was going to be the next generation of Simone de Beauvoir scholar.  I double majored in philosophy and women's studies.  Early in my second year of college, I started studying de Beauvoir's philosophical writings in an independent research project that led to a conference presentation and the determination that I wanted to go on and get my PhD.

Then in the spring of my junior year, I went to Penn State for a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Second Sex, which turned out to revolve mostly around one quarrel and one consensus among the big guns (okay no one outside certain small circles of continental philosophers either knows or cares who these people are, but in those circles, they may as well be Madonna, Pat, Cyndi, and Tori).

The quarrel was over the extent and relevance of de Beauvoir's influence on the more widely read and respected philosophical work of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

I'll never forget overhearing an apology of sorts in the ladies room from one scholar to another, assuring no personal offense was intended in the heated discussion they'd just had in the conference room.  Ahhhh women.  The reply:  "Oh no, it's an honor to argue with you."  Ahhhh philosophers.  It was awesome.

The turning point came on day three of the conference.  The keynote speaker was a French woman, related (in some way I don't remember) to the Ecole Normale Superieure where Beauvoir and Sartre met as students.  The woman had a thick accent and bifocals worn all the way at the end of her nose, and she was so short that resting her hands on the podium put her elbows up by her ears.

She started to read her paper and I couldn't understand a word of it and the whole scene was just so hilarious to me that I could barely contain myself, so I distracted myself and doodled instead of taking notes, and the minutes ticked by.  When the words "so in conclusion" jutted out of the harsh jumble of sounds, I breathed a sigh of relief.

But then she kept going.  Fifteen, twenty more minutes and there it was again, "so in conclusion."  I held my breath.

But still she kept on.  Half an hour, forty-five minutes more.  After the third "so in conclusion," I started to get the giggles.  Quaking, uncontrollable giggles.  I glanced around, sure that I would at least catch someone's knowing eye roll, but every last one of those academics was sitting upright, straight faced, at attention.

I had to leave before I lost it.  I hustled  down the aisle and out into the lobby, released the laughter, and decided then and there that I could never, ever take philosophy - or myself - that seriously.

Furthermore, I scribbled in the margins of the doodle page, what GOOD did it do for all these people to sit in a conference room arguing amongst themselves about things that only actually matter to the extent that they affect or improve actual lives?

I wanted to find a way for the ideas I believed in to reach people.  And not just people in colleges.

So I sabotaged my philosophy applications.  Turned them all in way past the deadlines, much to the dismay of my college advisor, and thus began my winding journey into far reaches of the real world.  And here we are.  Heh.

Anyway.  The consensus among all those scholars was that a new English translation of The Second Sex was urgent.  The original translator was a zoologist, for eff's sake - an okay writer with absolutely no grasp of the philosophical definitions, contexts or implications of de Beauvoir's work.  Anything complicated that he didn't understand, he simply cut from the text (which turned out to be around 15% of the 900+ page book).  Everyone was on the rampage, but the book was still selling fine so the publishers saw no need for a new translation.

Well, apparently Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier were also in attendance at that conference.  And as of this spring, sixty years later, they have finally published an accurate (if much more difficult) translation of the text!  It's on its way to me in the mail now, and I might just have to start a spin-off blog as I make my way through that crazy book again.

'Cause, y'know.  Everyone else is as excited about this as I am, right?!

p.s. That talk I walked out of went on for three hours, all told.


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