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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