Rereading de Beauvoir 18: Sexual Initiation

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 3. Sexual Initiation. (354-428)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

So apparently “all psychiatrists agree” on the extreme importance a woman’s “erotic beginnings” have for her: “their repercussions will be felt for the rest of her life”.

A perhaps predictable illustration: Georgia O'Keeffe's "Blue Flowers"

A perhaps predictable illustration: Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Blue Flowers”

What’s more, to SdB, the male’s passage from childhood sexuality to maturity is “relatively simple” (compared with ours). For him, erotic pleasure is objectified, “with penis, hands, mouth, with his whole body, the man reaches out to his partner but he remains at the heart of this activity, as the subject generally does before the objects” (394).

And, how depressing, but you just knew this was coming: “Woman’s eroticism is far more complex and reflects the complexity of her situation” (395). Why do we have to always be so much more complicated? What’s more, it feels like a lot of this is coming close to the kind of essentialism the Existentialists disavow, that is, that something ‘essential’ about her character or being flows from the fact that the female is penetrated and the male penetrates. We shall see. (Be warned, I may be forced at some point, though not in this post, into a wee digression to take in Andrea Dworkin’s classic, Intercourse…)

Because I’m not sure what SdB means by the following quote, which comes in the context of a discussion of the “opposition of two organs: the clitoris and the vagina”, where the former has nothing whatsoever to do with procreation:

“The woman is penetrated and impregnated through the vagina; it becomes an erotic centre uniquely through the intervention of the male, and this always constitutes a kind of rape.” (395)

See what I mean about the (possible) relevance of Dworkin. Anyway, there’s a bit of a discussion about whether there are any erotic zones in the vagina. SdB seems to reject this idea, but does say that “it is beyond doubt that vaginal pleasure exists” and in a footnote she lists the objects that physicians have found in vaginas or bladders, and surgically removed: “pencils, pieces of sealing wax, hairpins, spools, bone hairpins, curling irons, knitting and sewing needles, needle cases, compasses, crystal stoppers, candles, corks, goblets, forks, toothpicks, tooth brushes, pomade jars…hens eggs, etc.” (fn396). Quite a big part of that list is a whole lot like the lists of items women use to try to self-induce abortion, so who’s to say they were in there for erotic pleasure?!

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Rereading de Beauvoir 17: The Girl

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 2. The Girl. (352-93)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

Given what went on in the previous chapter, ‘Childhood’, it’s obvious this is not going to be pretty (so to speak). Girlhood is where “the future not only moves closer: it settles into her body; it becomes the most concrete reality”. (352)

boys-vs-girlsGiven (again) the socialization (indoctrination?) during childhood around the idea that “all important events happen because of men”, it’s not surprising that as SdB sees it, by the time The Girl is an adolescent, she’s convinced that it’s in her interest “to be their vassal”. Adding to the weight of all that societal muck, is the weight of her developing physical self: fragility/weakness (relative to…); periods; breasts; hormones; risk of pregnancy. There’s some discussion of reasoning and logic becoming subsumed by the passions (353-4), which felt rather stereotyped here. But maybe that’s the point. (That is, I’m not sure if SdB is seeing these tendencies as somehow objective… and I’m hoping not. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this.)

She contrasts this emotional girl with the violence prone boy: him entering his “apprenticeship in violence” as he affirms “his sovereignty over the world” at the same time as she is giving up her “rough games”, since violence is not permitted to her. (354)

I have to segue briefly here because as I read these chapters I keep thinking about the 6-volume memoir called My Struggle by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard that I’m reading (currently in volume 5). First, I was wondering if I would read such an epic if it was by and about a woman, and then I remembered that I just did, i.e. Simone’s 4-volume autobiography. But second, volume 4, which is called “Boyhood Island”, is all about this childhood period from (obviously) a boy’s perspective. I found it fascinating, mildly enlightening and depressing. That is, their (boys) attitudes toward girls and obsession with girls. I think I knew deep in my heart boys were this awful, but his account is so raw and detailed it’s not easy reading having my suspicions confirmed so brutally.

On the other hand, there is that sense that the boys are at the girls’ mercy, though not for anything important (like a friendship, say) only to the extent to which the girls will ‘let’ the boys touch them, look at them, and later fuck them. And that’s assuming there’s consent in any of this. In addition — and this is in keeping with the other side of sex-role stereotyping — Karl Ove endured a brutal and cruel father who insisted that his son, who was wont to cry at the drop of a hat, try harder to be a real man and subsequently beat him for not doing so.  Reading the Knausgaard has reminded me, too, of what a nightmare childhood can be no matter what sex you are: how easily you are humiliated and shamed over things you only realize much later were petty and trifling but which at the time are overwhelmingly important. (So much energy and emotion wasted on so little!) And, as a result, how much of one’s childhood life is organised around trying to avoid shame and humiliation. End of digression.

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Rereading de Beauvoir 16: Childhood

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 1. Childhood. (294-351)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

One of my readers (and there aren’t many, so you probably know who you are!) has had some trouble with the naming/numbering convention with these posts. I admit, it’s a mess. So the best thing to do is stick with the numbers, i.e. this is post no. 16, and it’s these numbers that follow the order of the book. At this point, it would probably muck with links and stuff if I changed the names. Yeah, I should have thought this through a bit better from the outset. Maybe a naming convention that was a bit more descriptive.

Anyway, with this post we begin Volume II of The Second Sex. As you likely know by now, the book comprises just two volumes, and this one, the second, is titled “Lived Experience”. (Volume I was “Facts and Myths”). And this is Part 1, Chapter 1, “Childhood”.

Oh, and be warned, this is a long chapter, so this post is correspondingly somewhat epic.

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.

Yes, this volume, part, chapter opens with undoubtedly the most famous line of the entire work: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” (294)

An oldie, but a goodie.

An oldie, but a goodie.

I realised as I read that, that it perhaps contradicts what I wrote in Post No. 15 (the immediately previous post) about how one is actually ‘born a woman’, and all that ‘femininity’ etc. stuff comes later. But, actually, I kind of think I’m saying the same thing, because by ‘woman’ in this quote, SdB means the lived experience of a woman in society. (She restates this elsewhere (319) as “she is a human being before becoming a woman”.) By ‘woman’, I meant, back then, being born a human with female sex organs. So, I probably should just have said that. (Or simply, just being born a human being.)  Either way, I intended to reinforce her ‘existence precede essence’ foundation, even if my terminology wasn’t quite in keeping with the book. Anyway, moving right along…

I think it’s worth including what immediately follows the famous “One is not born…” quote, since it is so rarely cited and makes clear(er) just what she means by it:

“No biological, psychical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine. Only the mediation of another can constitute an individual as an Other.” (293)

That great start is followed by a (to me) less interesting account of child development, from birth to weaning to awareness of body (“the radiation of subjectivity”). I don’t know enough about psychology/psychological theory to know if any of SdB’s account here is still or was ever a viable account. (At least some of it is Lacanian, since she cites his “Family Complexes in the Formation of the Individual”; plus some Freud, Adler et al.) It revolves around the infant’s separation from the mother (birth, then weaning) as lying at the heart his/her lifelong drama — his/her flight from freedom in an effort to  “lose himself within the whole” (294); “his desire for oblivion, sleep, ecstasy and death”; his desire to be whole or to get rid of the separated self (I think), which seems to be at the core of “the drama of one’s relation to the Other”. (294)

The child, who starts out as a subject, slowly — under the gaze of his parents — releases he is also an Other. He can only encounter himself in the world as this “Other”, this now alienated self.

Again, I’m not sure I fully understand her (and Sartre) here (since this is surely Sartre’s breakdown of being-for-itself vs. being-for-Other), but sometimes it’s useful to compare this ‘psychology’ with that of a non-human animal, which is never ‘alienated from itself’, is always purely its own subject (always being-for-itself, never being-for-Other), never has to encounter itself in an “alienated form”. (That said, most non-human animals also suffer the additional category of “being-dinner-for-Other”.)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 15: Myths, Ch. 3

Part Three: Myths. Chapter 3, (274- 84)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

Wondering what all this literary myth stuff has to do with everyday life? Look no further. In this, the last chapter of Volume I (Facts and Myths) of The Second Sex, SdB sets out “to specify the relation of this myth to reality”. So one important point, which applies to all magical thinking (I’m looking at you religious belief), is that “Experiential denials cannot do anything against myth” (275). So when the mythmakers put the ‘Eternal Feminine’ (“unique and fixed”) up against “the dispersed, contingent and multiple existence of women”, it’s not the mythmakers who think they are wrong, but the actual, living woman. They’re just not ‘feminine’. Apparently.

SdB argues that woman “is more enslaved to the species than the male is” (277) by which I assume she means through her reproductive role. But, and it’s an important but, this is not the same as assimilating her with Nature, which is precisely what man tends to do. That, she says, “is simply a prejudice”. Assimilating woman with Nature (where man is above it, apart from it, in control of it — or so he thinks!) is one of those myths that is extremely advantageous to the “ruling master caste”:

“It justifies all its privileges and even authorizes taking advantage of them. Men do not have to care about alleviating the suffering and burdens that are physiologically women’s lost since they are ‘intended by Nature’; they take this as a pretext to increase the misery of the woman’s condition, for example by denying woman the right to sexual pleasure, or making her work like a beast of burden.” (277)

She makes another lovely point about how useful the myth of feminine ‘mystery’ is to man. If he doesn’t ‘understand’ her, instead of admitting his ignorance, he can just appeal to the apparently objective ‘mystery’ that is woman, an excuse, SdB says, “flatters his laziness and vanity at the same time”. (278)


In this chapter, SdB uses a version of that well-known catch phrase that is supposed to encapsulate the ‘philosophy’ known as Existentialism: “Essence does not precede existence”. In this context, hopefully its meaning is a wee bit clear, i.e. there is no female/feminine ‘essence’ that you have simply by virtue of having female sex organs. Rather, it’s how you exist, what you do, that establishes things like the ‘feminine’. Or, put more prosaically, ‘you are what you do’. There is no essential ‘you’ that is buried somewhere in there, if only you could find it. You’ll never find it, though lots of people undoubtedly go mad, or die, trying.

Slight digression, but this has some bearing on the contemporary debate around trans issues, and the ‘gender-critical’ criticism that the trans narrative is based on sex-role stereotyping, because there is and can be no feminine ‘essence’. Yes, there’s ‘woman’, but ‘femininity’ comes later, with ‘existence’. It is not essential. A k a ‘existence precedes essence’. Surprisingly to me, that’s a controversial view to hold. Or at least a controversial view to state out loud. Damn lucky (almost) no one reads this blog!

Back to myths, and this:

“Thus we see that myths are explained in large part by the use man makes of them”. (281)

SdB ends this chapter and this volume, quoting a couple of male authors (see, they’re not all bad), including Rimbaud (inside the single quote marks):

“Then will she fully be a human being, ‘when woman’s infinite bondage is broken, when she lives for herself and through herself, man — abominable until then — having dismissed her.’”

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Rereading de Beauvoir 14: Myths, Ch. 2, pt iv-vi

Part Three: Myths. Chapter 2, Part IV-VI. Breton or poetry and Stendhal or Romancing the Real (254-74)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

I’m combining the next two authors (iv and v, André Breton and Stendhal) plus the concluding section (vi) of this chapter because, well, they’re relatively short and the posts were getting a bit…numerous. I probably shouldn’t, because for SdB, Breton and Stendhal are as unalike as it’s possible to be, with Breton continuing the Othering tradition of the previous authors and Stendhal charting a new and, for SdB, impressive path in treating woman as her own subject.

I confess (yes, another confession) I’ve never read Breton, and can’t remember too much about Stendhal (I did read The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, many moons ago, but didn’t even know Stendhal was a penname for Marie-Henri Beyle.) So, anyway, André Breton, (1896 — 1966), Britcannica says, was a poet, essayist, critic, “and editor, chief promoter and one of the founders of the Surrealist movement” — more about him here — while Stendhal, (1783-1842) was “one of the most original and complex French writers of the first half of the 19th century, chiefly known for his works of fiction” — and he’s here.


breton_mugAs with her previous literary dissections, or takedowns, or whatever, SdB spends time quoting from various of the authors’ works to make her points. So what are her points with these two? Breton follows hard on the heels of that raging Catholic Claudel and between them, she notes, there is certainly a pretty wide gulf. Despite that, she finds some similarities in the role they assign women: wresting man from the sleep of immanence, acting as “an element that perturbs”. (254)

Yeah, you do get the impression from all this myth/literary analysis that woman’s worth always comes back to what she does for man, and the only difference among all the Great Men is how they envisage that role: is she slave, mother, helpmeet, muse, sex object, virgin goddess, delicate flower, whore, temptress, etc. etc.? She’s never anything in her own right, for-herself. Heck, what would the point of existing be if you aren’t something for a man? But, I guess that’s precisely what it means to be the Other with respect to the Subject (man).

Thinking about it a bit more, it’s actually a lot like the way we (man + woman = humanity) treat the non-human world: its only relevance or worth is its use relative to us. None of the non-human world has value in its own right, which makes sense in a strange way, that is, in the sense that it’s humans that imbue the world with (human) meaning, so of course that meaning will tend to be (or unavoidably be) relative to ourselves. Nature is ultimately going to bite us in the ass (think climate change) even as we continue to mistreat it as existing only for us. (Religion has a lot to answer for in that regard.) So, anyway, woman, to man, is just another aspect of the non-human world. OK, not “just another aspect”, definitely a special kind of aspect.

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Rereading de Beauvoir 13: Myths, Ch. 2, pt. iii

Part Three: Myths. Chapter 2, Part III. Claudel or the Handmaiden of the Lord (245-54)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

claudelGoogle ‘Paul Claudel’ and you find lots of content from Catholic media outlets, as well as the usual Wikipedia and Wikipedia-type entries. But this 2004 article, ‘Evil Genius’, from The Guardian is probably just as useful if you want a readable introduction to the man and his work and reputation (briefly: French poet, playwright, diplomat, raging Catholic, born 1868, died 1955, brother of sculptor Camille Claudel. Here’s the online Britannica bio.)

Not that it’s terribly relevant, but I’ve never read a word of Claudel. And this is a short chapter, so a short post, extracting what might be of interest that’s not tied specifically to Claudel.

It seems Claudel’s Catholicism was so all-encompassing, God so all-encompassing that even evil “abides its own share of good” — for nothing that comes from God can be in itself bad. Thus, even woman (you know, despite her key role in the Fall) has her place. Her role as temptress into evil is useful because, quoting SdB quoting Claudel “It is this enemy within us that gives our lives their dramatic element, their poignant salt.” (246)

Several pages follow of something like line by line analyses of excerpts from Claudel’s poetry. Not so easy for me to understand (I’m not too flash with poetry) and therefore difficult to summarise. There is praise of love, which on its face seems to bode well, as “the consent that two free people grant each other” which “seemed to God so great a thing that he made it a sacrament.” (Claudel, Positions and Propositions) According to SdB, Claudel would actually see as sacrilegious Montherlant and Lawrence’s  arrogance about man’s superiority with respect to women (250-1). But while woman might be as an autonomous a being in God’s eyes as man is, woman has a specific place in this creation, and no surprises what kind of place that is:

“In a way, there is a new principle of subordination here: by the communion of saints each individual is an instrument for all others; but woman is more precisely the instrument of salvation for man, without any reciprocity.” (SdB, 253)

Saying something similar, but via reference to SdB’s positioning of woman as always the Other, there’s this:

“Because men and women are equally God’s creatures, he [Claudel] … attributed an autonomous destiny to her. So that for him it is in becoming other — I am the Servant of the Lord — that woman realizes herself as subject; and it is in her for-itself that she appears as the Other.” (253)

So while in one way it seems Claudel exalts woman, it is very definitely within the Catholic tradition through which her road to salvation, her “lot” in life, is, as SdB writes, “to devote herself to her children, her husband, her home, her realm, to country and to church”, and all this according to the hierarchy in which God the Father and Man the Head of the Household must be maintained. (254)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 12: Myths, Ch. 2, pt. ii

Part Three: Myths. Chapter 2, Part II. D.H. Lawrence or Phallic Pride (236-44)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

This is a pretty short sub-chapter, but like the others in this section, it gets it’s own post. First up, though, here are some bio pages about D.H. (David Herbert) from the University of Nottingham.

SdB sets out by contrasting all the ways in which D.H. is not Montherlant: he wants to “situate [woman and man] in the truth of Life”; he’s an optimist; he rejects ‘sex versus brain’…” So, thinking back to the master-slave thing, according to SdB, D.H. realizes that man needs woman, not just as ‘Other’ to acknowledge him, but in order for him to fulfil himself, or his virility (which seem to amount to the same thing).  So, for D.H., woman “is thus neither diversion nor prey, she is not an object confronting a subject but a pole necessary for the existence of the pole of the opposite sign.” (236) Or, later, and more simply, ‘she is to him what he is to her’. (237)

dh-lawrenceMost/many of us will have read Lady Chatterley’s Lover (and perhaps partly because of its history as a banned book) about the upper class, and married Lady (Constance) Chatterley  and her love affair with the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. Come to think of it, maybe it was sex across the class divide that was really the ‘obscene’ part, not the actual sex bits. But, as usual, I digress…  SdB also discusses The Rainbow + Women in Love (about the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula, and their relationships — with Gudrun’s character said to be at least partly modeled on Katherine Mansfield); Sons and Lovers (about Gertrude Morel, née Coppard, who married ‘down’, and her sons: her relationships with them and their relationships with women and with her — or the relationships they fail at because of the hold their mother has over them); and The Plumed Serpent (more on that below).

I’m sure you can feel the big “but” coming that aims to sweep away any notions we might have had that among all the ‘great’ male writers, D.H. was the one who ‘got’ women — or at least, who treated them as the equals of men. (I, for one, thought that, at the urging of at least one smart man. Now I don’t know what to think, and I’m too lazy to go back and reread  him. For now, anyway.)

So, anyway, while it might look like there’s fair reciprocity going on, in which neither of the two sexes is privileged, that’s not at the case, according to SdB: “Lawrence passionately believes in male supremacy. The very expression ‘phallic marriage’ the equivalence he establishes between the sexual and the phallic, is proof enough.” (239-40)

I need to go back a little here. Earlier, SdB quotes D.H. from something called A propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, in which he wrote: “Marriage is no marriage that is not basically and permanently phallic. … Marriage is no marriage that is not a correspondence of blood … The phallus is a column of blood, that fills the valley of blood of a woman.” (237-8) etc. etc. In addition, these rivers of blood can apparently never be mingled.

I find I can’t make too much sense of precisely what D.H. means by ‘phallic marriage’, but SdB is convinced. “Of the two bloodstreams that mysteriously marry, the phallic stream is favoured,” she writes. (240) She also observes that D.H. “almost never shows a man excited by a woman: but over and over he shows woman secretly overwhelmed by the vibrant, subtle, insinuating appeal of the male.” (240)

SdB also seems pretty contemptuous of D.H.’s commitment to monogamous marriage, and to a monogamy in which the woman derives justification for her existence from her husband. An idle thought comes to mind here about how some feminist critics who rather dislike Sartre (SdB’s lifelong comrade / collaborator / lover / whatever?) have seen their relationship as unfair / exploitative (or something). I’ve always resisted that characterisation, and then given up thinking about it after concluding that you can never really know the essence of someone else’s relationship. But I also wonder if the critics haven’t unfairly applied traditional mores to Sartre-Beauvoir, mores which demand that the only good husband (for women) is a monogamous one, and that a wife who accepts a non-monogamous husband is a fool or a victim or both. Like I said, just an idle thought. Which I came to think because it does feel like SdB’s own distaste for monogamous marriage is apparent in her analysis of D.H.: “Lawrence was just as vituperative as Montherlant concerning the woman [like SdB?] who wants to reverse the roles.” (241) And of course she sees Monterlant in Gertrude Morel’s emasculation of her sons.

But it is The Plumed Serpent that SdB holds as “reflecting in its entirety Lawrence’s ideal”. (243). Set in Mexico during the revolution, it is about an Irish tourist and widow, Kate Leslie, who after meeting a Mexican general Don Cipriano, is drawn into his fascistic pagan cult. In SdB’s telling “little by little … she gives her body and soul to Cipriano … she adopts his goals, his values, his universe.” (244)

“We can see why Lawrence’s novels are first and foremost ‘guidebooks for women’. It is infinitely more difficult for the woman than for the man to submit to the cosmic order, because he submits in an autonomous fashion, whereas she needs the mediation of the male … Once again, it is the ideal of the ‘real woman’ that Lawrence offers us, that is, of the woman who unhesitatingly assents to defining herself as the Other.” (244)


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