Rereading de Beauvoir 3: Psychoanalysis

Part One: Destiny

Chapter 2: The Psychoanalytical Point of View

The first question that might spring to mind when one reaches Chapter 2 is: Why a chapter on psychoanalysis in a book investigating the situation of women? For one thing, when SdB  was writing The Second Sex, Freudian (and Adlerian, etc.) psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theory was still pretty new and revolutionary. For another, because it focused a lot of attention on gender, and on individuals as living subjects not objects to be observed. As SdB puts it in the opening lines of the chapter, psychoanalysis, “it is not the body–object described by scientists that exists concretely, but the body lived by the subject.” (50) Which I think is another way of saying “biology is not destiny” – or body parts are not destiny (or shouldn’t be anyway).

But despite the fact that psychoanalytic theory and practice opened up new ways of investigating women’s lives and experiences, SdB has some harsh criticism, some of which, according to scholars, anticipate some of the 1970s feminist criticism of Freudianism.

One of the first SdB raises is its inflexibility and rigid concepts. And part of that is Freud’s use of the male as the default against which female sexuality and destiny was to be measured. SdB quotes Freud: “The libido is constantly and regularly male in essence, whether in man or in woman.”  Hrumph! Freud’s complexes have become part of the lexicon: Oedipus, Electra, the castration complex. But they’re based on male sexuality. He assumes, SdB writes,  “that a woman feels like a mutilated man”. (53)

She then considers Alfred Adler, noting that it was Freud’s focus on desire/pleasure seeking as the driver of behaviour that prompted a break between the two. “[Aldler] means to reintegrate sexuality into the total personality.” (54)  In terms of woman, then, it is not the Freudian absence of a penis that drives her inferiority complex, but the total situation – the father’s place in the family, the predominance of males, etc.

Where’s the evidence for all this. SdB observes that psychoanalysts have no trouble finding it – indeed, any facts that contradict Freudianism can, she says, “be successfully integrated into it”. (55) But in the end, she argues, psychoanalysis cannot explain why woman is the other – it’s surely not because she lacks a penis. “For even Freud accepts that the prestige of the penis is explained by the father’s sovereignty, and he admits that he does not know the source of male supremacy.” (59)

So, while SdB sees psychoanalysis as an advance on previous psychologies, e.g. a mechanistic psychology (individuals as objects to be observed), she ultimately doesn’t accept the psychoanalytic method. First, because sexuality is not a “given”. But also, as indicated above, because the method cannot deal with the female, particularly the female libido, other than basing it on male libido. SdB wants to allow women more freedom than she believes psychoanalysis allows them. For the according to the method of the latter, woman is more the “plaything of contradictory drives” than a human being acting on freely chosen projects:

“When a girl climbs trees, it is, according to [Adler], to be the equal of boys: he does not imagine that she likes to climb trees.” (61)

Put another way:

“Psychoanalysts in particular define man as a human being and woman a a female: every time she acts like a human being, she is said to be imitating the male.” (61) 

By way of contrast, for SdB, woman is to be defined as a human being.

I must admit, this isn’t a very thorough or informed account of this chapter. For one thing, I haven’t really addressed the issues of alienation (female) and transcendence (male), mainly because I don’t think I have a handle on what SdB is saying here. But as she revisits some of this stuff later in the book, I hope to come back to this, and perhaps give a better accounting of SdB’s analysis of psychoanalysis.

 [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.]

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