Rereading de Beauvoir 27: Love & Mysticism

Volume II: Justifications. Part Three. Chapters 12-13. The Woman in Love; The Mystic. (698-737)

[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.]

So, finally, this is almost the end. This is the penultimate entry in a series I promised to finish…on several occasions. And it’s finishing this weekend with this entry, completing “Part Three: Jusifications” and followed tomorrow by the final part, “Part Four: Towards Liberation”. Then we can move on to some more regular, and recent, programming.

Anyway, as noted in the previous post, these chapters offer a critique of women who seek liberation individually rather than collectively. Being a ‘woman in love’ and a ‘mystic’ are two of those ‘individualistic’ efforts.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa: Bernini

Ch 12: The Woman in Love

SdB begins this chapter by noting that the word ‘love’ has not at all the same meaning for both sexes, and she approvingly quotes Byron who apparently said that love is merely an occupation in the life of the man, while it is life itself for the woman. (699) Nietzsche (in The Gay Science) has a similar interpretation. What they mean is that there can be no such thing as “a man in love” as there is “a woman in love”, with Nietzsche going so far as to say that if there was a man who wanted total devotion as women do “then they are simply not men”.

Interesting in that it’s telling us what men think of themselves and what they think of women. And in that regard, it’s hard to argue it’s not “true”? True! Whatever that means. And neither is SdB necessarily arguing this isn’t how it is/has been — the question for her is why? Is it “nature” as the menz would have it? Of course not. SdB returns to her previous analysis of woman-as-other, denied the opportunity to be her own subject:

“Since she is, in any case, condemned to dependence, she would rather serve a god than obey tyrants — parents, husband, protector; she chooses to want her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her to be the expression of her freedom.” (700)

As SdB points out, this only happens within race/class boundaries, that is, the woman will seek a man from her own race/class — or perhaps from a group “above” hers, societally speaking. She knocks down the psychoanalytic idea that woman is seeking her father in her lover, “it is because he is a man, not father, that he dazzles the child, and every many shares this magic”. (702)

Ooooh, and all that wanting to look like “a little girl” that women still engage in; the hairlessness, the ‘gamine’ look — part of the effort to return to the childhood of being sheltered in daddy’s/lover’s/god’s arms. SdB sees this ‘woman in love’ as a narcissist, akin to religious devotees’ desire for their own salvation, “by giving herself up entirely to the idol, the woman hopes he will give her possession both of herself and of the universe contained in him”. (703)

“The supreme happiness of the woman in love is to be recognised by the beloved as part of him; when he says ‘we’, she is associated and identified with him, she shares his prestige and reigns with him over the rest of the world…” (710)

But, SdB warns, whatever state of happiness she might achieve, it is rarely stable. Because, after all, it’s a man she’s in love with, not actually a god. Per above, if he is not reciprocating, then she faces little but more discontent. Don’t worry, there can be what SdB calls “authentic love”, but it’s not the kind this ‘woman in love’ engages in.

If you’re interested, here’s her description of ‘authentic love’:

“An authentic love should take on the other’s contingence, that is, his lacks, limitations and ordinary gratuitousness; it would not claim to be a salvation, but an inter-human relation.” (711)

Ultimately, it is heart rending for the ‘woman in love’ to discover her god is only a man, and “when he is no longer worshipped, he has to be trampled on”. (711) SdB discusses myriad ‘types’ of ‘women in love’, describing people I suspect we have all known, people we all are and have been (our devotion to some asshole whispered about as incomprehensible, ‘how the hell can X be so devoted to that asshole Y?’ sort of thing.) and these ‘types’ nearly always bring a spark of recognition as one reads. Besides being all around us (and us) they’re littered through movies, TV shows, novels, stereotypes, archetypes, ghastly magazine articles, fairy tales (think Cinder-effing-rella!!) — they’re everywhere.

And since ‘freedom’ is the issue for me in all this, just in passing, SdB writes that “if he is necessary to her, it is because she is fleeing her freedom”. (717) Which brings me back to what I very much liked about this book…the cold hard look SdB takes at our complicity in our own oppression, all the ways we run away from freedom. Oh, and without getting sidetracked, but I’m just rereading The Karamazov Brothers and, it so happens, the famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” earlier this week, which is all about freedom — the Inquisitor arguing that humanity was never able to handle the freedom handed it (in this case by Jesus), and so needed, well, inquisitors (daddies, lovers, husbands) under whose authority to shelter…  Same story!

Remember, too, that none of this is intended as letting men off the hook. Nooooo! That these chapters are about women who try to find some kind of liberation individually/individualistically, rather than through their sex or class as a collective. And the false promise of same, according to SdB.

There is quite a long discussion of jealousy and how it fits into all this. Naturally, it’s not pretty…but makes sense in light of above: the woman who is seeking fulfilment through the man is obviously going to be pretty alert to threats that might hinder this project; and these threats are perceived as existential threats, not just, ‘oh yeah, well there are plenty more fish in the sea’ type threats. Nuh uh!

I now see so many of the female characters in SdB’s novel The Mandarins as various incarnations of this ‘woman in love’, and some of them were pretty hard to read about…as I recall.

“There are few crimes that bring worse punishment than this generous mistake: to put one’s self entirely in another’s hands.” (723)

Ch 13: The Mystic

This chapter opens with a quick little account of how a woman might move from being ‘a woman in love’ to ‘a mystic’, which is worth recounting in full:

“Love has been assigned to woman as her supreme vocation, and when she addresses it to a man, she is seeking God in him: if circumstances deny her human love, if she is disappointed or demanding, she will choose to worship the divinity in God himself. It is true that there are also men who have burned with this flame; but they are rare and their fervour has been of a highly refined intellectual form”. (726)

The contrast between male and female ‘fervour’ for God is interesting, something I hadn’t thought of. I’m slightly suspicious in that it follows so terribly neatly from the previous account, and I wonder if the “refined intellectual form” thing doesn’t spring from the same source as “no great women artists, poets, writers, blah blah blah” line, i.e. would we know about women who expressed their religious fervour in a more “refined intellectual form”?

Anyway, minor digression. I still rather like SdB’s argument here…and who can not immediately think of Teresa of Avila (SdB does on p 729; and see Bernini’s rendition at the top of this post). And nuns vs. priests. Oh, and SdB backs some of this up with some super interesting data: “Out of the 321 people with stigmata recognised by the Catholic Church, only 47 are men.” (733) The remaining 274 women were, on average, past the age of menopause.  Hmmm.

“Mystical fervour, like love and even narcissism, can be integrated into active and independent lives. But in themselves these attempts at individual salvation can only result in failures; either the woman establishes a relation with an unreal: her double or God; or she creates an unreal relation with a real being; in any case she has no grasp on the world; she does not escape her subjectivity; her freedom remains mystified; there is only one way of accomplishing it authentically: it is project it by a positive action into human society.” (734)

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