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.

I digress because I had a bit of trouble extracting anything I could make much sense of out of the Breton section. Or, perhaps I don’t digress at all, since SdB here writes: “For all poets — or almost all — woman embodies nature.” (258) She continues: “but for Breton, she not only expresses it: she delivers it.” She is exalted by him, as the means of man’s salvation through love and as such, Breton insists everyone must be on woman’s side, against man.

So woman has this awesome destiny, responsibility even, and perhaps a kind of superiority. Then SdB has a question:

“One would like to know whether for her as well, love is the key to the world, the revelation of beauty; will she find this beauty in her lover? Or in her own image? … will she be limited to approving her male’s work?” (260)

I guess this sums up her analysis of Breton, who while he seems to turn the tables and place woman in some kind of superior or prime position, “does not speak of woman as subject”. (260)


stendhal_mugSdB opens her discussion of Stendhal noting that it is “reassuring to approach a man who lives among flesh and bloody women” (261) as opposed to all the preceding shrews, nymphs, morning stars and mermaids. She recounts his as a life often focused on women, from childhood to old age. He scorns the notion of feminine mystery, or ‘essence’ that defines woman, offering us this absolutely delightful similie illustrating how it is that the ‘essence’ of woman is mistakenly drawn from how she exists in the world:

“A Parisian passer-by walking around the Versailles gardens once concluded that from everything he saw, the trees are born pruned.” (Brilliant! 261)

Stendhal again, quoted by de Beauvoir, and almost sounding almost like her (for a while, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop…but of course it doesn’t):

‘All the geniuses who are born women are lost for the public good; when chance offers them the means to prove themselves, watch them attain the most difficult skills.’ (262)

For Stendhal, she writes, women are “neither angels nor demons nor sphinx: but human beings reduced to semi-slavery by idiotic customs.” (262) “By a curious reversal”, the traps man falls into — the spirit of seriousness — through pursuit of things like money, honours, rank and power (sad idols as far as Stendhal is concerned), woman has the opportunity to escape precisely because of her oppressed status. (262-3). What he appreciates in woman “is what we would call today their authenticity”, SdB writes, (263) and all he asks of her is that she not “fall prey to the traps of seriousness” that ensnare men.

Finally, SdB has found a writer for whom woman is subject, not merely an object relative to man, not other:

“Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something rarer and that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: He projected himself into a female character.” (269)

In a section on ‘myths’, it is Stendhal who, she writes, “rejects the false poetry of myths as much as the mystification of seriousness. Human reality is sufficient for him. Woman, according to him, is simply a human being: dreams could not invent anything more intoxicating.”

Section VI: Untitled, concluding

In this section, SdB sums up what she’s been doing in Chapter 2, which is showing “that the great collective myths are reflected in each singular writer”, myths that situate woman as akin to nature, and all the subsequent roles/personae engendered by that: “animal, little vale of blood, rose in bloom, siren…”; mediator between man and the world; gateway to the supernatural etc. Though if she refuses her role “she becomes praying mantis or ogress” (270).

Here SdB uses a phrase she hasn’t used before, “Privileged Other”

“In any case, she appears as the privileged Other through whom the subject accomplishes himself: one of the measures of man, his balance, his salvation, his adventure and his happiness.”

What she’s been trying to show is that the Other that is woman is not always constituted in the same way, but differently for each individual, depending on how the One, the subject, man, chooses to posit himself.

“For each of them [the authors discussed], the ideal woman will be she who embodies the most exactly the Other able to reveal himself to himself. … In defining woman, each writer defines his general ethic and the singular idea he has of himself.”(273)

I think in my previous readings of this book, I hadn’t quite appreciated these variations in the Other, so this feels like a bit of a light-bulb moment, though the wattage probably isn’t particularly high. Anyway, that ends Chapter 2 of the Myths section of the book. The next chapter, untitled, will be the last before Volume II (which is titled “Lived Experience’). Volume I, the volume we’re in now, is titled — in case you don’t remember back that far — “Facts and Myths”.

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