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)


“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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