Rereading de Beauvoir 28: Liberation & Conclusion

 

Volume II. Part Four. Towards Liberation. Chapter 14: The Independent Woman; Conclusion pp 737-82

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

This is it. After nearly six years (bloody hell, I was still in my 40s when I started this!), here is The Last Post. This took way too long. And may have deteriorated in quality as it went. But…

Chapter 14. The Independent Woman

“French law no longer includes obedience among a wife’s duties…” (737). So just in case you didn’t know that French law (and no doubt the laws of most/many Western countries) at one time did include obedience among a wife’s duties. Striking! SdB opens the chapter by pointing to all the ways thing have improved for women in recent times (that is, up until the late 1940s, when this was written), like no longer being legally obliged to be ‘obedient’, and she contends that

“It is through work that woman has been able, to a large extent, to close the gap separating her from the male; work alone can guarantee her concrete freedom.” (737)

It is through work, which breaks her dependence on the male, that woman “regains her transcendence”, affirms herself as a “subject”. But, SdB goes on to add that a job is not enough, that “work today is not freedom” and “only in a socialist world would the woman who has one be sure of the other” (work->freedom, that is).

“This world has always belonged to men and still retains the form they have imprinted on it.” (737)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 27: Love & Mysticism

Volume II: Justifications. Part Three. Chapters 12-13. The Woman in Love; The Mystic. (698-737)

[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, finally, this is almost the end. This is the penultimate entry in a series I promised to finish…on several occasions. And it’s finishing this weekend with this entry, completing “Part Three: Jusifications” and followed tomorrow by the final part, “Part Four: Towards Liberation”. Then we can move on to some more regular, and recent, programming.

Anyway, as noted in the previous post, these chapters offer a critique of women who seek liberation individually rather than collectively. Being a ‘woman in love’ and a ‘mystic’ are two of those ‘individualistic’ efforts.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa: Bernini

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Exclusive: Book Launch ‘Underground Women’

Book Launch: Underground Women

This is the formal official (and only) launch of my first (and so far only) novel, Underground Women (link takes you to its page on Amazon.com). So you, the massive and discerning and etc. readership of Three Wise Women, are getting an exclusive here!  And a break from endless Beauvoir (I promise, I’m nearly finished the book…I just can’t stop now…)

underground-woman_cover_webMy friend and graphic designer / artist / feminist extraordinaire, Zenaida, made the cover, which I seriously love. (Am thinking of getting a Tee, which is what I often do with her designs.)

So about the novel: “Underground Women” is intended as a bit of a romp — with a small slice of philosophy on the side — through 1970s Women’s Liberation politics in New Zealand, in particular, the pro-choice movement. There’s sex (OK, not a lot I’m afraid), espionage (a fair amount of that), betrayal, lots of political intrigue and even a suspicious death or two… Wilma Valentine, the author, me, is a pseudonym, and not really because I care if people know who wrote it (I’ll answer inquiries! Click on the about page) but just because I kind of assume, as a first novel, it may belong in a bottom drawer. Which is where I would have left it but, yeah, e-publication and all that, so I thought, ahhhh why the heck not. Naturally, when my second novel is a global best-seller and/or winner of the Mann Booker Prize I may be glad I didn’t attach my real name to this one… But I’m definitely no secretive Elena Ferrante character.

I spent quite a few years on and off (a lot of off) writing the book, and enjoyed the process for the most part. The title is taken from the nameless character in Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground”, a book I just love and have read many times. The philosophical slice in the novel addresses the question of whether or not there could be such a persona as an “Underground Woman” — a female version of “Underground Man”. Imagining such a person (or persona) threw up some interesting issues for me around the kinds of literary personae women are “allowed” to be: lovers, mothers, wives, sisters, sluts, whores, virgins, heroines, martyrs… etc. But can she be an eccentric misanthrope of the Underground Man type? If not, why not? I had to conclude that such a character would not be treated with the same gravitas as the “Underground Man” character, and would instead probably written off as a madwoman, an hysteric etc. This is interesting because it really did expose to me the limited kinds of characters (or personae) women can respectably/reliably/successfully adopt in literature. And elsewhere. So anyway, there’s that, and I won’t go on. Don’t worry, the feminist philosophy is actually a very small part of the book, just in case you find it off-putting.

So, if you do buy it (it’s $NZ3.52 — because of amazon pricing, the minimum I could charge was US$2.99 so I made it US$3.00) and if you then go on to read it, please add a review on the Amazon page. I can’t say I’m planning on doing much more “promotion” than this, which can hardly be called promotion since it’s on a website I appreciate not that many people read. (As for the low numbers, I should apologise to my fellow “wise women” for clogging the blog up with bloody Simone de Beauvoir for months — make that years. Sorry sisters!!)

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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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