Rereading de Beauvoir 26: The Narcissist

Volume II: Justifications. Part Three. Chapter 11. The Narcissist. (683-98)

[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.]

Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror 1515. Giovanni Bellini

Naked Young Woman in Front of the Mirror 1515. Giovanni Bellini

This chapter marks the start of Part Three and just by way of a brief re-cap, at the end of Part Two, SdB set up the next three chapters by noting that women can only seek liberation collectively and that those who try to do so individually ultimately wind up as “narcissists”, “women in love” or “mystics”. So let’s explore this “narcissist”.

She defines narcissism as a “well-defined process of alienation: the self is posited as an absolute end and the subject escapes itself in it”. (683)

How does woman become a narcissist. The pathway is, naturally, a bit complicated (and not one I quite understand, tbh) but one key reason is that she is forbidden “virile activities”:

“She is busy but she does not do anything; in her functions as wife, mother and housewife, she is not recognised in her singularity. Man’s truth is in the houses he builds, the forests he clears, the patients he cures: not being able to accomplish herself in projects and aims, woman attempts to grasp herself in the immanence of her person.” (683)

Felling Trees vs. Motherhood?

So this raises a question that comes up fairly often for me in reading The Second Sex, and that is whether these things she “does” that don’t count as “doing anything” (motherhood, housewife, etc.) are such because they are inherently of little value or because women are of little value and it is women who do these things. You would think it had to be the latter, given how anti-essentialist SdB is (biology is not destiny, etc. etc.). And yet think back to what she wrote about the nature of housework in Post No. 20, and I quote, again:

“Few tasks are more similar to the torment of Sisyphus than those of the housewife; day after day, one must wash dishes, dust furniture, mend clothes that will be dirty, dusty and torn again. … It is a struggle that begins again every day.” (487)

But couldn’t building houses or clearing forests or whatever else man does that’s so fucking important be characterised also — depending on how you see it — as Sisyphean. (Or, now, as simply hopelessly destructive?) And what about being a mother? Surely it has a whole lot more value than cutting down trees (or its modern equivalent? running a hedge fund — in keeping with the tree/bushes/greenery theme, ha ha.)

I think it’s something of a flaw in the analysis that SdB seems to see some kind of essential worthwhileness in some acts, and not in others. It may well be true that this is valid in certain circumstances — for example, maybe you wouldn’t want to say that burning down forests for fun is inherently as worthy as planting trees for future housing or for forest parks. But the examples SdB talks about aren’t clear cut (no pun intended) in that kind of way, i.e. housework versus some of the arguably tedious stuff men do.

Anyway, back to the narcissist, who is not simply someone who is her own heroine, as SdB at first defined it:

“The narcissist cannot accept that others are not passionately interested in her; if she has the clear proof she is not adored, she immediately supposes she is hated.” (696)

Why SdB rules narcissism as a possibility for individual female liberation comes back to the Sartrean ontology…of being for-itself and for-others, whereby the narcissist must combine these two, that is be her own “being for others” at the same time as she is, of course, her “being for herself”.  If that were possible, everyone would be doing it…right! And instead of ‘Hell is other people’ it would have to be ‘Hell is myself’… A bit more on these ontological categories or whatever they are below.

Beauty, Brilliance, Happiness

I’m not sure what this means, to be honest:

“Without beauty, brilliance or happiness, woman will choose the character of a victim; she will obstinately embody the mater dolorosa, the misunderstood wife, she will be ‘the unhappiest woman in the world’.” (689)

What I mean by not knowing what this means is: True, we all know women like this — and being neither beautiful nor brilliant myself (often happy, sometimes not), I am confident I’ve wallowed in some victimhood at times. But don’t we all know men like this, too? Is this a ‘woman’ thing? If so, how so? I’m not sure. It’s surely a ‘human’ thing. And if it is, why is it so important here, in a book about the second sex? Simply because only women need liberating, only women try to use narcissism as a means of achieving their liberation?

But still, I just can’t stop thinking of all the male narcissists I know — being builders of houses and fellers of trees surely offers no protection from this condition. Soooo, they’re already authentically free because of their maleness, so narcissism for them is just a nasty add-on? (Put another way, what is narcissism in a man, if this is what it is in a woman?)

Actor as Narcissist

Here, I concur. Yes, I can go along with SdB’s linking of narcissism and the stage. Oy, actors!! I’ve even known some personally. “Minor” ones, of course. (And what of us and our apparently endless appetite for details about them and their lives? What is that?) SdB cites frequently from Isadora Duncan’s autobiography My Life, seeing her apparently as a bit of an exemplar of the narcissistic personality.

Now, to conclude by returning to the ontology… and why narcissism can’t work — or is perhaps impossible…:

“There cannot be a real relationship between an individual and his double because this double does not exist. The woman narcissist suffers a radical failure. She cannot grasp herself as a totality, as plenitude, she cannot maintain the illusion of being in itself — for itself.” (697)

And

“If she [the narcissist] escapes an individual man’s domination, it is by accepting the tyranny of public opinion. … The paradox of her attitude is that she demands to be valued by a world to which she denies all value, since she alone counts in her own eyes.” (698)

This is an unsatisfying chapter, that feels heavily influenced by psycho-analysis again, and a psycho-analysis that need not apply uniquely to women such that I find it difficult to understand the point being made specifically about us as ‘the second sex’.

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Rereading de Beauvoir 25: Woman’s Situation and Character

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 10. Woman’s Situation and Character. (653-80)

[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.]

Just by way of orientation, this chapter will bring to an end Part Two (“Situation”) and next up will be Part Three (“Justifications”).

SdB opens this chapter by listing some of the ‘negative’ characteristics attributed to woman (selfish, self-serving, actress, liar…) and noting that these are not predestined or dictated by nature, but are suggested by her situation. Here, she says, she wants to try to “grasp the ‘eternal feminine’ in her economic, social and historical conditioning as a whole” (653). [She puts this another way a few pages later, and I’ll include that quote here:

“Many of the faults for which they [women] are reproached — mediocrity, meanness, shyness, pettiness, laziness, frivolity and servility — simply express the fact that the horizon is blocked for them.” (658)]

Although the ‘feminine’ world can be contrasted with the ‘masculine’, she writes, it must be said that women “have never formed an autonomous and closed society; they are integrated into the group governed by males where they occupy a subordinate position” (653).

“The woman herself recognizes that the universe as a whole is masculine; it is men who have shaped it, ruled it and who still today dominate it; as for her, she does not consider herself responsible for it; it is understood that she is inferior and dependent.” (654)

“A syllogism is not useful in making mayonnaise or calming a child’s tears; masculine reasoning is not relevant to the reality she experiences.” (655)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 24: From Maturity to Old Age

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 9. From Maturity to Old Age. (633-52)

[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 did a Google image search on "older women" and there was nothing interesting. But it's hard not to notice one important thing about what came up: they're 99.999% WHITE. This isn't actually relevant to what Beauvoir writes about in this chapter.

I did a Google image search on “older women” and there was nothing interesting. But it’s hard not to notice one important thing about what came up: they’re 99.999% WHITE. This isn’t actually relevant to what Beauvoir writes about in this chapter, but has to be remarked upon. I’ve read discussions elsewhere about Google searches and race. It’s pretty nasty! I’d love to read an in-depth analysis about “why” this happens, specifically. (Since, the obvious big picture answer is: racism.)

This chapter should be interesting, I thought, as I cracked open the book. As regular readers (ha ha) will know, I’m a bit fascinated by Beauvoir’s attitude toward ageing, and actually read and wrote about this chapter earlier, so it wasn’t wildly new material to me. She opens by noting that the history of woman depends much more than man’s on her “physiological destiny”, and the stages of her life are “dangerously abrupt”: puberty, sexual initiation, menopause. (And then there are the socially contingent stages: marriage (or not), motherhood, middle age, grand-motherhood, says me.)

“While the male growers older continuously, the woman is brusquely stripped of her femininity; still young, she loses sexual attraction and fertility from which, in society’s and her own eyes, she derives the justification of her existence and her chances of happiness: bereft of all future, she has approximately half of her adult life still to live.” (633)

So there you go. We’re fucked!

‘The Definitive Mutilation’

But, oh, SdB has some truly awful ways of describing ‘old age’. Like “the definitive mutilation”:

“Well before the definitive mutilation, woman is haunted by the horror of ageing.” (633)

And elsewhere as being “deformed” and “ugly” (640). Which certainly sounds like how SdB felt about ageing in her own life, going by what she wrote in her autobiographies.

She writes, and it seems to me this is (still!) indisputably true: for man, “the alteration of his face and body do not spoil his possibilities of seduction.”

“Man is engaged in more important enterprises than those of love”, meanwhile she “has to please” and “has not been allowed a hold on the world except through man’s mediation”. (634)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 23: Prostitutes and Hetaeras

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 8. Prostitutes and Hetaeras. (613- 32)

[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.]

girlsgirlsgirlsFirst, a definition, from the New Oxford American Dictionary, of “hetaera/s”: “a courtesan or mistress, especially one in ancient Greece akin to the modern geisha.” (And, surprisingly late in the chapter (626) SdB explains her usage: “I will use the word hetaera to designate women who use not only their bodies but their entire person as exploitable capital.” For SdB, this is not the same as prostitution, a (little) bit more on that later.)

SdB starts out this chapter focusing on ‘prostitution’, which she says is the corollary to marriage. “Man, out of prudence, destines his wife to chastity but he does not derive satisfaction from the regime he imposes on her.” (613) Prostitutes are treated as akin to the sewers necessary to keep the palaces sanitary (paraphrasing SdB paraphrasing the Church Fathers) or, as the Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville argued, “some women must be sacrificed to save others and to prevent an even more abject filth.” Aww, nice of them to be so concerned about keeping society clean and sanitary by sacrificing women.

And not just a corollary of prostitution? It is often said that marriage is actually a kind of prostitution:

“From the economic point of view, her situation is symmetrical to the married woman’s. ‘Between those who sell themselves through prostitution and those who sell themselves through marriage, the only difference resides in the price and length of the contract,’ says Marro.” (613-4)

And “Marro” would be an A. Marro writing on puberty in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 1901. (Wonders to herself if there was a Madame Marro and what she thought about this idea.)  The main difference between them, SdB writes, is that the married woman is oppressed as a woman but respected as a human being, but the prostitute “does not have the rights of a person, she is the sum of all types of feminine slavery at once.” (614)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 22: Social Life

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 7. Social Life. (585-612)

[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.]

1870_fashionIt is the woman who will organise the social life that is called ‘the family’, and it is through the family she is connected to the community. The man, meanwhile, is connected “as producer and citizen”. (In the 21st-century West, we would instead be connected to the world as “consumers”. Ugh!)

The opening pages of this chapter feel dated and pretty narrowly focused, though may well apply to some woman somewhere. They’re about what we’d call a stay-at-home mother, and a middle class one, who tries to express her social standing to the world by entertaining, and dressing up to go out, etc. It is his work/profession through which the man has standing; it is through the family and the family’s status/place that woman has hers. It’s not as though societies are no longer status conscious, but the roles have changed, and what woman gets to stay at home anymore?: either a poor woman trying to live of a state benefit or a wealth woman (?)  So it’s not too clear how this status-giving family applies anymore.

That said, there’s some great discussion of issues that transcend the economic/social organisation of the day, like how man “does not usually consider his appearance as a reflection of his being” (586), as does a woman. Editorial and unscientific observation: It strikes me that parity may be approaching in this regard, but not through any lessening of women’s focus on appearance, but through an intensifying focus on male appearance.

SdB goes on to talk about skirts and high-heels being so much less convenient and practical than, say, trousers and flat shoes. Yup. We knew that.

There’s some curious content about the relations that “lesbians” and “homosexuals” and “dandies” and “American blacks” have to clothes. But I’m not going there and/or I don’t quite follow SdB here. Also, what she says about lesbians dressing in a “masculine way” (assume that means “not-necessarily-feminine” way) applies to me and I’m straight, so: stereotyping much. Anyway, like I said, dated. Yet even though dress codes may have been a whole lot more rigid in 1940s-50s France than they are now, it may only be that they are rigid in different ways. So I need to correct myself here. Not dated in the sense that we’re all liberated now; dated in the sense that many of the rigidities and constraints have changed. (Just watch a crowd of young women on their way, e.g., to a New Year’s Eve concert… we’re talking big-time uniformity. And let’s not start in on mandatory pink-wear for young girls. Sigh.)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 21: The Mother

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 6. The Mother. (537-584)

[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.]

As noted in the previous post (“The Married Woman”), SdB opens this chapter noting that it is through motherhood “that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation … But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature.” Or, I guess one could say, who gives a crap about one’s “physiological destiny”. That’s for the birds — and other non-human animals…isn’t it?

If a Google image search for "motherhood" is anything to go by, mythologising mothers is not going away anytime soon. Ugh!

If a Google image search for “motherhood” is anything to go by, mythologising/idealising mothers is not going away anytime soon. Wow!

I’ll say from the get-go that this chapter is one of my favourites and is of much more interest to me than some others because as a non-mother by choice, I very much notice (what I think of as) the societal mandate/pressure to have kids and the (related) mass media mythologising of motherhood. Also, as a pro-choicer, I have spent some years trying to understand the myriad hyprocrisies that surround female reproduction. But I’ll save any personal rants for now…just note that SdB never had (not wanted, it seems) children either. She did sign her name to a famous newspaper ad “I had an abortion”, it’s not clear whether or not she did. An abortion isn’t mentioned in her autobiography, so far as I recall, and she might have signed as an ally. Anyway, moving on…

She begins by pointing out that for more than a century, give or take, contraceptive methods have meant reproduction hasn’t been entirely a chance affair. And, yes, I think, this about sums it up:

“There are few subjects on which bourgeois society exhibit more hypocrisy: abortion is a repugnant crime to which it is indecent to make an allusion. For an author to describe the joys and suffering of a woman giving birth is perfectly fine; if he talks about a woman who has had an abortion, he is accused of wallowing in filth and describing humanity in an abject light…” (537)

And despite our notions that we’ve moved on since then, nah. It’s still the same, just dressed in slightly more modern clothing. We’re still not able to talk about abortion in anything other than hushed tones lest we be considered callous, gauche, etc.; abortion is still wildly common, but treated as exceptional; as an outlier. Let’s see if SdB tries to get to the bottom of this curiosity. How much of hostility to abortion is about “life” as claimed by its opponents, and how much is a complicated soup of pro-natalism, control of women especially their sexuality, patriarchal resentment (over which sex gets to ‘create life’ or at least gestate it), the societal need to perpetuate motherhood mythology (or fewer women might want to do it, though I doubt that) …

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Rereading de Beauvoir 20: The Married Woman

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 5. The Married Woman. (451-536)

[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.]

Going by the length of this chapter (85 pages!) SdB has a lot to say about ‘The Married Woman’. Yes, I’m still hoping to get this all done by the end of the year (ahem!), at which time Three Wise Women can again offer up some contemporary commentary on contemporary shit. Meanwhile, sorry!  I’m pretty sure I’ve scared off the other two wise women from writing anything…drowning under a Beauvoirian tide.  Let alone scared off our zillions of readers. Oh well…

Sisyphus is a woman. Think "housework"!

Sisyphus is a woman. Think “housework”!

Anyway, here’s the first line: “The destiny that society traditionally offers women is marriage.” On reading that I thought, nah, it’s “motherhood” not “marriage”, so I skipped to the first line of the next chapter which is, yes, titled “Motherhood”, and in case you’re interested, here are the first lines of that chapter: “It is through motherhood that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation, since her whole organism is directed towards the perpetuation of the species. But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature.” (537)

I guess we can conclude from these two openings that as far as society’s “destiny” for us, it’s marriage and motherhood. But back to part one of that deadly combo: “marriage”.

At the time of writing, SdB saw that economic changes were upsetting the institution of marriage. “It is becoming a union freely entered into by two autonomous individuals; the commitments of the two parties are personal and reciprocal; adultery is a breach of contract for both parties; either of them can obtain a divorce on the same grounds.” (451)

All of which is a reminder that none of these things were previously true in the West. In New Zealand, grounds for divorce were different between men and women until the late 1800s. Men could divorce based on simple adultery committed by his wife, but for women, that was not enough, and further aggravating circumstances were required. Why? Because a man having a mistress was acceptable under the double standards that applied.  SdB notes that until recently (‘now’ being the late 1940s), a wife’s adultery was a crime, but (presumably) not so a man’s.

These double standards continue to be felt, even if some of the law protecting them has been stripped away: “Modern marriage can be understood only in light of the past it perpetuates”, and she points out that marriage “has always been presented in radically different ways for men and for women.” (451) The man may need her, as she needs him, but this mutual need has never translated into a reciprocity. Women are ‘given in marriage’ while men ‘take a wife’. And, of course, she takes his name.  SdB runs through all the differing roles of women and men within a marriage and notes that even if laws have rendered the pair more equal, marriage itself still retains its traditional form. And,

“it is still accepted that the love act is a service she renders to the man; he takes his pleasure and he owes compensation in return.” (456)

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