What Can Literature Do?


In this article de Beauvoir defends a conception of literature as a kind of unveiling of something that exists outside itself, a mode of action which reveals certain truths about the world. What we call “literature” is eminently capable of grasping the world—a world which de Beauvoir, following Jean-Paul Sartre, conceives of as a “detotalized totality”; one that is real and independent of us, which exists for all, but is only graspable through our own projects and our perspectives. Yet far from keeping us stranded within our unique subjectivities, literature restores to subjective experience its generality; it allows other to “taste” the world as it exists for others. We can communicate through literature because in it our world, our languages, and our projects overlap. Ultimately, for de Beauvoir, literature is what allows us to see the world as others see it—all the while remaining, irreducibly, ourselves.

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