Rereading de Beauvoir 15: Myths, Ch. 3

Part Three: Myths. Chapter 3, (274- 84)

[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.]

Wondering what all this literary myth stuff has to do with everyday life? Look no further. In this, the last chapter of Volume I (Facts and Myths) of The Second Sex, SdB sets out “to specify the relation of this myth to reality”. So one important point, which applies to all magical thinking (I’m looking at you religious belief), is that “Experiential denials cannot do anything against myth” (275). So when the mythmakers put the ‘Eternal Feminine’ (“unique and fixed”) up against “the dispersed, contingent and multiple existence of women”, it’s not the mythmakers who think they are wrong, but the actual, living woman. They’re just not ‘feminine’. Apparently.

SdB argues that woman “is more enslaved to the species than the male is” (277) by which I assume she means through her reproductive role. But, and it’s an important but, this is not the same as assimilating her with Nature, which is precisely what man tends to do. That, she says, “is simply a prejudice”. Assimilating woman with Nature (where man is above it, apart from it, in control of it — or so he thinks!) is one of those myths that is extremely advantageous to the “ruling master caste”:

“It justifies all its privileges and even authorizes taking advantage of them. Men do not have to care about alleviating the suffering and burdens that are physiologically women’s lost since they are ‘intended by Nature’; they take this as a pretext to increase the misery of the woman’s condition, for example by denying woman the right to sexual pleasure, or making her work like a beast of burden.” (277)

She makes another lovely point about how useful the myth of feminine ‘mystery’ is to man. If he doesn’t ‘understand’ her, instead of admitting his ignorance, he can just appeal to the apparently objective ‘mystery’ that is woman, an excuse, SdB says, “flatters his laziness and vanity at the same time”. (278)

Existentialism!

In this chapter, SdB uses a version of that well-known catch phrase that is supposed to encapsulate the ‘philosophy’ known as Existentialism: “Essence does not precede existence”. In this context, hopefully its meaning is a wee bit clear, i.e. there is no female/feminine ‘essence’ that you have simply by virtue of having female sex organs. Rather, it’s how you exist, what you do, that establishes things like the ‘feminine’. Or, put more prosaically, ‘you are what you do’. There is no essential ‘you’ that is buried somewhere in there, if only you could find it. You’ll never find it, though lots of people undoubtedly go mad, or die, trying.

Slight digression, but this has some bearing on the contemporary debate around trans issues, and the ‘gender-critical’ criticism that the trans narrative is based on sex-role stereotyping, because there is and can be no feminine ‘essence’. Yes, there’s ‘woman’, but ‘femininity’ comes later, with ‘existence’. It is not essential. A k a ‘existence precedes essence’. Surprisingly to me, that’s a controversial view to hold. Or at least a controversial view to state out loud. Damn lucky (almost) no one reads this blog!

Back to myths, and this:

“Thus we see that myths are explained in large part by the use man makes of them”. (281)

SdB ends this chapter and this volume, quoting a couple of male authors (see, they’re not all bad), including Rimbaud (inside the single quote marks):

“Then will she fully be a human being, ‘when woman’s infinite bondage is broken, when she lives for herself and through herself, man — abominable until then — having dismissed her.’”

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