Thursday, December 08, 2011

Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex"

Finally finished reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex last Monday. "One is not born, but rather becomes, woman," so translate Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier that resounding challenge. So many terrific things in de Beauvoir's analysis of how one becomes woman. Nietzsche is transmuted into the existentialist project of self-transcendence. Part One rejects the idea of female destiny, as promoted by biological, psychoanalytical or historical materialist views. Part Two recounts the history of women from the hunters-gatherers to the twentieth century, highlighting the theme of patriarchy and its need for woman to be the Other. Part Three tackles the sexist myths about women, elaborated by Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Paul Claudel and Breton, before looking at how Stendhal romances real women. All that in Volume I.

In Volume II Parts One and Two, de Beauvoir describes the lived experience of contemporary Western woman, from her childhood, through sexual initiation and marriage, to old age. The description cites psychiatric studies, literature, gossip and history, and integrates these citations in the heat of imagination. Every man should read at least the three central chapters: "The Married Woman," "The Mother" and "Social Life" to try to grasp the world from women's eyes. de Beauvoir contends that if women can be said to own a Character, that Character is entirely shaped by her historical subordination to men. Part Three examines three justifications that woman has employed to deny her powerlessness. She has been the Narcissist, the Woman in Love and the Mystic. In Part Four, the last part of the volume and book, de Beauvoir reflects on the growing economic independence of women in the twentieth century. She finds that encouraging but insufficient for true independence. The old myths, the old models for womanhood, and the old system have tenacious roots, and will not be removed easily. Contemporary women find themselves trying to be both independent (as defined by herself) and feminine (as defined by men). de Beauvoir's analysis still challenges, I think, women who think that they can be both, and men who think that they can have everything.

Some favorite passages:

Of D. H. Lawrence's belief in monogamous marriage: "There is only a quest for variety if one is interested in the uniqueness of beings: but phallic marriage is founded on generality."

Of Stendhal's love of women: "...while he is walking around Rome, a woman emerges at every turn of the page, by the regrets, desires, sadnesses, and joys women awakened in him, he came to know the nature of his own heart..."

Of the lack of a penis: "It is sure that the absence of a penis will play an important role in the little girl's destiny, even if she does not really envy those who possess one. The great privilege that the boy gets from it is that as he is bestowed with an organ that can be seen and held, he can at least partially alienate himself in it. He projects the mystery of his body and its dangers outside himself, which permits him to keep them at a distance: of course, he feels endangered through his penis, he fears castration, but this fear is easier to dominate than the pervasive overall fear the girl feels concerning her "insides," a fear that will often be perpetuated throughout her whole life as a woman. She has a deep concern about everything happening inside her, from the start, she is far more opaque to herself and more profoundly inhabited by the worrying mystery of life than the male. Because he recognizes himself in an alter ego, the little boy can boldly assume his subjectivity, the very object in which he alienates himself becomes a symbol of autonomy, transcendence, and power: he measures the size of his penis; he compares his urinary stream with that of his friends; later, erection and ejaculation will be sources of satisfaction and challenge. But a little girl cannot incarnate herself in any part of her own body....

Of the need for action: "Violence is the authentic test of every person's attachment to himself, his passions, and his own will; to radically reject it is to reject all objective truth, it is to isolate one's self in an abstract subjectivity; an anger or a revolt that does not exert itself in muscles remains imaginary."

Of the attitude of straights to gays: "The homosexual man inspires hostility from male and female heterosexuals as they both demand that man be a dominating subject; by contrast, both sexes spontaneously view lesbians with indulgence."

Of marriage: "But the principle of marriage is obscene because it transforms an exchange that should be founded on a spontaneous impulse into rights and duties; it gives bodies an instrumental, thus degrading, side by dooming them to grasp themselves in their generality; the husband is often frozen by the idea that he is accomplishing a duty, and the wife is ashamed to feel delivered to someone who exercises a right over her." and "Eroticism is a movement toward the Other, and this is its essential character; but within the couple, spouses become, for each other, the Same; no exchange is possible between them anymore, no giving, no conquest. If they remain lovers, it is often in embarrassment: they fee; the sexual act is no longer an intersubjective experience where each one goes beyond himself, but rather a kind of mutual masturbation."

Of the link between marriage and colonialism: "Marriage incites man to a capricious imperialism: the temptation to dominate is the most universal and the most irresistible there is; to turn over a child to his mother or to turn over a wife to her husband is to cultivate tyranny in the world; it is often not enough for the husband to be supported and admired, to give counsel and guidance; he gives orders, he plays the sovereign; all the resentments accumulated in his childhood, throughout his life, accumulated daily among other men whose existence vexes and wounds him, he unloads at home by unleashing his authority over his wife..."

Of the lack of genius: "How could women even have had genius when all possibility of accomplishing a work of genius--or just a work--was refused them? Old Europe formerly heaped its contempt on barbarian Americans for possessing neither artists nor writers. "Let us live before asking us to justify our existence," Jefferson wrote, in essence. Blacks give the same answers to racists who reproach them for not having produced a Whitman or Melville. Neither can the French proletariat invoke a name like Racine or Mallarme. The free woman is just being born; when she conquers herself, she will perhaps justify Rimbaud's prophecy: "Poets will be. When woman's infinite servitude is broken, when she lives for herself and by herself, man--abominable until now--giving her her freedom, she too will be a poet! Woman will find the unknown! Will her worlds of ideas differ from ours? She will find strange, unfathomable, repugnant, delicious things, we will take them, we will understand them."


Ms. ∆×∆p×≥h/4π said...

Great - your summery, and examples just as clear as can be. how I love seeing someone as astute as you are, discussing this book again. It meant much to me, and though it did not offer me the way out of the facts of history, it made a political analysis possible. We have not come so far that this text has become irrelevant. The culture has been in backlash for many decades. Thanks Jee.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Backlash is the right word for it. In analyzing woman, de Beauvoir is also speaking of man.