Simone de Beauvoir – Toril Moi’s ‘Master-mind’ lecture at The British Academy




On Thursday 20th March, I travelled up to London to meet my friend Rachel. We both wanted to attend the ‘Master-mind’ lecture on Simone de Beauvoir at The British Academy that evening.

As an English Literature Student, I have read a considerable amount of feminist theory; but I have never read Simone de Beauvoir’s work in depth. This is partly why I wanted to attend the lecture; to broaden my feminist horizons. The event was free of charge and the seats were unreserved, so it made the evening accessible to everyone. Rachel & I took our seats and waited patiently for the speaker, Professor Toril Moi.

The hand-outs on our seats informed us that Toril Moi is a Professor of Literature & Romance studies, and English & Theatre studies at Duke University, USA. She is also a leading critical voice on the works of Simone de Beauvoir. I felt a little out of my intellectual depth, but this anxiety was overruled by my enthusiasm to hear what Toril Moi had to say. I won’t repeat her lecture word-for-word (because my memory’s not the sharpest), but the evening was recorded, so anyone who is interested can watch the lecture here. (I can see the top of Rachel’s head in the third row, and my bobbed noggin too).

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. Members of the audience were keen to question the Professor, and the first question came from a male audience member. He admitted that Moi probably ‘wasn’t going to like’ the question, as it was about the influence of philosopher Jean-Paul Satre on de Beauvoir’s work. Whilst Toril Moi recognised the importance of Satre’s work, her lecture was about Beauvoir and her contribution to literature and philosophy, not about Satre. It is worth mentioning that this was only the second ‘Master-mind’ lecture about a woman since 1914 (the first being George Eliot), so after an hour of insightful criticism, it was disappointing to have the first question undermine this celebration of Beauvoir’s individuality. Toril Moi answered the question calmly and thoughtfully, but she voiced her disappointment also.

Then, a man sitting behind Rachel & I (who had been making dismissive remarks such as ‘ugh, just get on with it’ throughout the lecture) suddenly felt an urge to voice his discontent. He repeated much of the Professor’s speech back at her, and then concluded his parroting with ‘isn’t that just common sense?’ I couldn’t help but feel enraged. Internally, I asked; why come to a free lecture about a feminist subject, when you clearly aren’t in agreement with its key principles? If all of Simone de Beauvoir and Toril Moi’s work is just ‘common sense’, why has it taken this long for it to be recognised in a prestigious ‘Master-mind’ lecture? If it’s just ‘common sense’, what are you gaining from pointing that out? Do you want our gratitude? WHY ARE YOU HERE?! Fortunately, as I was internally debating this, Toril Moi responded with intellect, integrity and authority. She effectively silenced him with her closing line: ‘That’s all I want to say about that’.

Whilst I appreciate that everyone has their own opinion, and the right to voice that opinion, I feel like some members of the audience should’ve used their intellectual discretion before raising their hands. As I said previously, why attend a free lecture on a certain subject if you only wish to undermine that subject? I couldn’t work out if it was mild misogyny or bad manners (or both?). It’s a shame that Toril’s work was immediately challenged, rather than accepted and built upon. Fortunately, there were further questions from other members of the audience who praised Toril’s criticism, shared their own views on Beauvoir, and discussed issues of race and class in her work.

After the lecture, we were invited to stay and discuss our ideas with other members of the audience over a complimentary glass of wine. Rachel & I met a woman called Sue, who told us how she was rediscovering Beauvoir (she had read her in her youth) and how much she enjoyed Toril’s lecture. She was keen to know what we thought, and we both shared opinions (and I admitted I was new to Beauvoir’s work). Sue asked us where we had been to University and what we would like to do for a career. This was Rachel’s opportunity to shine and reveal her current employment status (quite rightly too, she’s had to work for nothing to get where she is today). Sue was thrilled and made a mental note of Rachel’s name, promising to look out for her articles in future. Sue then turned to me and asked the same questions. I told her I was a student at The Open University, and her eyes lit up. She revealed that she was a tutor and had written course material for Religious & Philosophy based courses at The O.U. and she was really proud of me for sticking with it. It was really humbling to have a complete stranger invest so much interest in you.

Sue left us to our own devices, and Rachel & I looked around the ornately decorated British Academy, at our free glass of wine, and agreed that we were definitely high on life. I will be investing in Beauvoir and Moi’s work in the very near future.

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