Academic journal article Hecate

Adventures of the Mind and Living Warmth: A New Encounter with Simone De Beauvoir

Academic journal article Hecate

Adventures of the Mind and Living Warmth: A New Encounter with Simone De Beauvoir

Article excerpt

Last year I read Simone de Beauvoir's letters to her American lover, Nelson Algren. I loved them. Many of them were written while researching and writing The Second Sex. I'd read the book in the mid 705 in Ireland, where it was still banned, but I decided that, it was time to revisit it, this time in full, in the original. It was full of surprises-and I decided that, fifty years after its publication, it was time to destroy it as a monument and restore it as a living work. [1]

In Force of Circumstance, Beauvoir suggested The Second Sex could be criticized for its style and composition. She could easily go back and cut it down to 'a more elegant work' but, discovering her ideas at the same time as she wrote, 'she couldn't do better. [2] I'm glad it wasn't written more elegantly. For if I found in her letters to her lover a turbulence and tenderness, humour and vulnerability, a kind of rough charm rendered more charming by her writing in English, I found in The Second Sex an intensity and lack of measure which were also appealing. Liking writers who are passionate enough to risk hyperbole, I discovered Beauvoir was no exception.

The Beauvoir I had imagined in the 705 was somewhat cold, stern and humourless. (Numerous misogynists helped fashion these imaginings.) Returning to Australia after studying in Paris, an affectionately satirical image from Boris Vian's L' Ecume des jours had stayed with me. It was of 'the duchess of Beauvoir' and her entourage, attending a lecture by Jean-Sol Partre (Vian 75). But the voice in these two volumes was not of 'the duchess of Beauvoir' speaking from her throne-it was that of an essayist, constantly finding 'a certain truth' in this or that phenomenon or clich6; presenting, along with her historical, scientific and ethnographic data, anecdotal evidence from women she met and spoke to here and there, even, as she reports it, in the rest rooms of Caf[acute{e}]s

Beauvoir's best French commentator, Michele Le Doeuff, had prepared me for what I would call a 'difficult feminism,' without guarantees, one that involved continuous struggle and courage rather than promises of bliss. [3] In The Second Sex I found that 'difficult feminism.' In plain-style Beauvoir discusses the sheer difficulty of a woman making a choice to be a full human being-a choice which can incur penalties. Rewards are more likely to go to those who abdicate and please. While a man is accorded a certain value by virtue of being a member of the first sex, a woman must win a respect which is not automatically accorded to her, and she must do it endlessly. She will, Beauvoir suggests, need a greater moral effort than a male to choose the road of independence.

Her portraits of women as vassals, who do not choose the difficult path, are harsh. Their habitual mode is complaint, they live 'in impotent anger' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 432), capable of great cruelty towards their husbands as members of a privileged caste. The husband is 'a favourite victim' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 433) since he incarnates the masculine universe. Since woman/the wife is nevertheless an agent, it is in her spoiling power, her 'powers of negation' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 435) that she comes into her own.

Beauvoir's woman lives 'a whole region of human experience that the male deliberately chooses to ignore because he cannot think' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 438). Rejecting Cartesianism, she knows that in men's hands 'reason becomes an underhand form of violence' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 438). She also knows that masculine morality is, as far as it concerns her, 'a vast mystification' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 439). 'Man pompously preaches his code of virtue and honour to her; but on the quiet he invites her to disobey' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 39). Officially, however, he disavows her-he has his weaknesses, but who hasn't? (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 440). (Is any of this sounding familiar!?) Cynically, too aware of all his faults, 'she sees man from the bottom up as the servant sees his masters' (Deuxi[grave{e}]me Sexe II 442). …

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