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Simone de Beauvoir 1908–1986
French philosopher, nonfiction writer, novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, essayist, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Beauvoir's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 8, 14, 31, 44, 50, and 71.
Among the most prominent French intellectuals of the twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir is recognized as a pioneering feminist thinker and leading proponent of existentialist philosophy. Her groundbreaking sociological treatise La deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex), in which she delineates the historical and cultural structures of patriarchy, is often credited with establishing the theoretical underpinnings of modern feminist scholarship. Along with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, her lifetime companion, and Albert Camus, Beauvoir helped define and popularize the principles of existentialism in her novels and nonfiction works such as Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947; The Ethics of Ambiguity) and later writings on aging and death. Her best known novels, including the award-winning Les mandarins (1954; The Mandarins), are noted for their lively portrayal of Parisian social and intellectual milieus of the 1930s and 1940s. Eschewing marriage and motherhood, Beauvoir served as a living model of female liberation and artistic commitment. Her observations concerning the social construction of female inferiority and the primacy of self-determination are central to her series of autobiographic volumes, including Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), regarded as an important personal testament to the plight of women in a male-dominated world.
Born Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir in Paris, France, Beauvoir was raised by her watchful Catholic mother and agnostic father, a lawyer, in an upper-middle-class home. The pleasant security of Beauvoir's childhood ended, however, with the outbreak of the First World War, during which the family fortune dissipated. A precocious student and zealous reader of forbidden books, Beauvoir received a strict, limited education at a Catholic school for girls. As an adolescent she struggled against the strictures of religion and social expectations that discouraged intellectual pursuits among women. The 1929 death of her best friend Elizabeth (Zaza) Mabille, whose manipulative parents refused to allow her to marry a fellow student, later marked a turning point in Beauvoir's hostility toward bourgeois institutions. Defying her parents' wishes. Beauvoir announced her ambition to teach and enrolled at the Instit Saint-Marie in 1925, where she studied philosophy and literature. Continuing her education at the Sorbonne, she received the agrégation de philosophie in 1929. While at the Sorbonne. Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre, an intellectual equal and intimate whose existentialist philosophy influenced much of her own thought and writing. Dismissing conventional morality in favor of principles of honesty and freedom, Beauvoir and Sartre never married, although they maintained a lifelong open relationship that permitted "contingent" loves. After receiving her degree, graduating second only to Sartre, Beauvoir taught at several French lycées from 1931 to 1943 while writing fiction and associating with Left Bank intellectual circles habituated by Camus, André Malraux, Raymond Queneau, and Michel Leiris. Beauvoir's previously unpublished short stories from this period are contained in Quand prime le spirituel (1979; When Things of the Spirit Come First). Though notably apolitical during the 1930s, she and Sartre became involved in the French Resistance while living under Nazi Occupation in Paris during the Second World War. Beauvoir also published her first book, the novel L'invitée (1943; She Came to Stay), and the philosophical tract Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), during the war. In 1945 Beauvoir and Sartre founded Les Temps modernes, a literary and political journal devoted to existentialism. Beauvoir also produced her only play, Les bouches inutiles (1945; Who Shall Die?), and two additional novels, Le sang des autres (1945; The Blood of Others) and Tous les hommes sont mortels (1946; All Men Are Mortal). After a visit to the United States in 1947, Beauvoir published L'Amérique au jour le jour (1948; America Day by Day), a volume of anti-capitalist observations dedicated to Richard Wright and his wife. Her first full-length philosophical work appeared as The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1947, followed by The Second Sex in 1949. Among the leading figures of the French left-wing intelligentsia, Beauvoir was politically active during the 1950s as a supporter of Marxist causes in the Soviet Union and China—communist China is the subject of La longue march (1957; The Long March)—and as an outspoken critic of French military involvement in Algeria and Indo-China. She also produced The Mandarins, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1954, and the first of her autobiographic works, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, continued over the next two decades with La force de l'âge (1960; The Prime of Life), La force des choses (1963; Force of Circumstance), and Tout compte fait (1974; All Said and Done). Her reminiscences in Une morte trèd douce (1964; A Very Easy Death) relate her anguish over her mother's illness and death in 1963. Beauvoir published additional fiction in the 1960s with Les belles images (1966) and La femme rompue (1968; The Woman Destroyed). Though reluctant to assume a feminist label, during the 1970s Beauvoir became an important advocate of women's issues and reproductive rights as a member of the Mouvement de la Libération des femmes (MLF) and as president of the feminist groups Choisir and Ligue du droit des femmes. La vieillese (1970; The Coming of Age), regarded as a companion volume to The Second Sex, deals with the appalling treatment of the elderly. In her last published work, La céremonie des adieux (1981; Adieux), Beauvoir records her final conversations with Sartre and reflects upon her painful witness to his decline. Beauvoir died of pneumonia in Paris six years later at age seventy-eight.
Beauvoir's existentialist investigations, autobiographic writings, and fiction center largely upon her preoccupation with the nature of personal freedom, moral action, and, in particular, the alienation of women in a society defined by men and male attributes. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, her first major philosophical work, Beauvoir addresses the absurdity of the human condition and the possibility of self-definition and transcendence. Influenced by the existentialist theories of Sartre, Beauvoir describes human life as an inherently ambiguous process of becoming that depends upon relationships with others for meaning. Turning her attention to the particular situation of women in The Second Sex, Beauvoir asserts that female sexual identity is predominately a social construct built upon oppressive male definitions of femininity. As Beauvoir famously observed, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Drawing broadly upon existentialist philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, and historical research in this expansive two-volume study, Beauvoir exposes the modalities of female subordination embedded in myth, cultural practices, biological facts, and gender stereotypes that cast women as weak, alienated objects of masculine ideals and desires. According to Beauvoir, women are relegated to a secondary existence of dependency and passivity because they are defined in relation to men rather than as autonomous subjects themselves. Beauvoir's four volume autobiographic series chronicles her personal and intellectual development over six decades. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter recounts her happy childhood and disillusioning formative years, including her close relationship with her sister, intense friendship with Zaza, and introduction to Sartre. The Prime of Life documents her unconventional relationship with Sartre beginning in 1929 and their experiences during the Nazi Occupation of France. The Force of Circumstance covers events in her life from the Liberation of Paris to 1963, including somber reflection upon the French-Algerian War and the subjects of aging and death. In All Said and Done Beauvoir abandons the chronological presentation of the previous three volumes to contemplate alternate paths that her life may have taken and to discuss her dreams and international travels, leaving the reader with an open-ended summary of her life. Much of Beauvoir's fiction explores the existentialist tenets of freedom and contingency with heavy autobiographic overtones. Her first novel, She Came to Stay, examines destructive emotional dynamics in a love triangle consisting of a man and two women. Set in Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War, the story involves Pierre and Françoise, a committed though unmarried couple, and Xavière, a younger woman whom they invite to stay with them. Tension mounts as Pierre and Xavière grow closer, alienating Françoise until, consumed with hatred and jealousy, she finally murders Xavière. In The Blood of Others, one of the first novels ever written about the French Resistance, Beauvoir explores the individual's moral obligation to society through the guilt-wracked recollections of Jean Blomert, a member of the Resistance who abandons his bourgeois family for the Communist party, and his lover, Hélène Bertrand, a Resistance fighter who is killed in action against the Nazis. As Jean struggles to reconcile the deaths of several familiar people and friends, including Hélène, whom he feels responsible for, he realizes that a life untainted by social guilt is impossible, affirming the belief that the only moral response to injustice is personal engagement on the side of freedom. In All Men Are Mortal Beauvoir traces the peregrinations of Raymond Fosca, an immortal thirteenth century Italian prince who attempts to direct the course of European history through his interventions over several centuries. Juxtaposing Fosca's solitude and ennui with the political commitment and urgency of mortal actors, Beauvoir suggests that a meaningful human existence depends upon the prospect of death and its attendant joys and anguish, without which freedom and action have no value. Beauvoir's most acclaimed novel, The Mandarins, involves a coterie of disillusioned French intellectuals immediately after the Second World War. Once united in purpose and action in the Resistance movement, the small circle of friends soon find their grand hopes for the future shattered by divisive allegiances to the vying postwar ideologies of communism and capitalism. Though Beauvoir denied that the novel was a roman à clef, the four main characters—Anne Dubreuil, Henri Perron, Robert Dubreuil, and Lewis Brogan—bear strong resemblance to herself, Sartre, Camus, and American author Nelson Algren, with whom Beauvoir was romantically involved at the time. As in earlier works, in The Mandarins Beauvoir examines the competing interests of individualism and political commitment and the intellectual's responsibility to act. Beauvoir's last two volumes of fiction, Les Belles Images and The Woman Destroyed, feature modern professional women who struggle to find meaning and acceptance amid the decadent materialism and shifting political fortunes of the 1960s. Les Belles Images, translated as "advertisements," centers upon Laurence, a wife, mother, and advertising producer who maintains a façade of success and satisfaction to mask her own deep-seated metaphysical fears. She is eventually forced to confront reality and her feelings when her ten-year-old daughter expresses serious concerns about social injustice and human suffering. The Woman Destroyed consists of three novellas. The first, Age of Discretion, is narrated by an aging mother, wife, and left-wing intellectual who encounters changing contemporary values when her writing is dismissed by critics and her son abandons his political principles for a lucrative position with the government. In the second story, Monologue, the female narrator is a forty-three-year-old woman who angrily decries her martial misfortunes and the suicide of her daughter while alone in her apartment on New Year's Eve. The final story, The Woman Destroyed, is narrated by Monique, a middle-aged woman who discovers that her husband, a successful doctor, is having an affair with a younger, professional woman. Monique rues her decision to forgo her own medical studies to marry and have children, underscoring the consequences of female dependency and self-sacrifice in contrast to the independence of her husband's lover.
Beauvoir is highly regarded for her important contributions to the development of postwar existential philosophy and her systematic examination of women's issues and patriarchal institutions. Best known for The Second Sex, widely considered a classic of feminist literature, Beauvoir is praised as one of the earliest and most perceptive twentieth century feminist theorists. Since its original publication in 1949, The Second Sex has generated heated controversy and remains the focus of critical writing on Beauvoir to this day. Though once a revered staple of feminist reading, The Second Sex has fallen out of favor among many postmodern feminist writers over the last several decades, largely due to what critics consider Beauvoir's disdain for the female body and biological reductionism. As Sonia Kruks notes, "Beauvoir has been criticized, with considerable justification, for her horror of the female body and its functions. There are indeed many passages in The Second Sex where women's bodily functions are identified with animality, passivity, and lack of freedom and are denigrated from the masculinist standpoint of an apparently disembodied reason and freedom." Critics also note that Beauvoir's reliance on phallocentric concepts derived from Freudian psychology and Sartre's existentialism limit her ability to conceive of new forms of freedom outside of patriarchal language and ideologies. Despite such objections, Beauvoir is considered a formidable philosophical thinker and critics continue to laud the importance of her original insights into the socialization of gender and the alienation of women. Margaret A. Simons concludes, "Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, laid the theoretical foundations for a radical feminist movement of the future and defined a feminist political philosophy of lasting importance." While The Mandarins remains Beauvoir's most acclaimed work of fiction, she has received considerable praise and popularity for She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, Les Belles Images, and The Woman Destroyed. These works, and her four autobiographic volumes, continue to be regarded as important sources for the understanding of Beauvoir's existentialist theories, the historical context of her feminist perspective, and mid-century French intellectual activity.
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L'invitée [She Came to Stay] (novel) 1943
Pyrrhus et Cinéas (nonfiction) 1944
Le sang des autres [The Blood of Others] (novel) 1945
Les bouches inutiles [Who Shall Die?] (drama) 1945
Tous les hommes sont mortels [All Men Are Mortal] (novel) 1946
Pour une morale de l'ambiguité [The Ethics of Ambiguity] (nonfiction) 1947
L'Amérique au jour le jour [America Day by Day] (nonfiction) 1948
L'existentialisme et la sagesse des nations (nonfiction) 1948
La deuxième sexe [The Second Sex] 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1949
Faut-il brûler Sade? [Must We Burn Sade?] (essay) 1953
Les mandarins [The Mandarins] (novel) 1954
Privilèges (essays) 1955
La longue marche: Essai sur la Chine [The Long March] (nonfiction) 1957
Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée [Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter] (autobiography) 1958
Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome (essay) 1960
La force de l'âge [The Prime of Life] (autobiography) 1960
La force des choses [Force of Circumstance] (autobiography) 1963
Une morte très douce [A Very Easy Death] (reminiscences) 1964
Les belles images (novel) 1966
La femme rompue [The Woman Destroyed] (short stories) 1968
La vieillesse [The Coming of Age; also translated as Old Age] (nonfiction) 1970
Tout compte fait [All Said and Done] (autobiography) 1974
Quand prime le spirituel [When Things of the Spirit Come First: Five Early Tales] (short stories) 1979
La céremonie des adieux: Suivi de entretiens avec Jean-Paul Sartre [Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre] (reminiscences) 1981
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SOURCE: "Psychiatry in the Postwar Fiction of Simone de Beauvoir," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, 1979, pp. 123-33.
[In the following essay, Keefe examines Beauvoir's interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis in The Mandarins, Les Belles Images, and The Woman Destroyed. According to Keefe, "Beauvoir's broad view of the development of the individual and of family life has very obviously been much influenced by psychoanalytic theory and modern psychiatry in general."]
In a review recently published in Literature and Psychology, Dr. Simon Grolnick reminded us of some of the complexities of Jean-Paul Sartre's attitude towards psychoanalysis. As one of the contributors to the reviewed volume points out, 'One day the history of Sartre's thirty-year-long relationship with psychoanalysis, an ambiguous mixture of equally deep attraction and repulsion, will have to be written'. An interesting side-light is already thrown upon aspects of that history, however, by the postwar fiction of Sartre's life-long companion, Simone de Beauvoir. In this matter as in certain others, Beauvoir's writings, fascinating and valuable in their own right, constitute a most useful complement to those of Sartre, for whilst he has published no novels since the third volume of his wartime series, The Roads to Freedom, three fictional works by Beauvoir appeared in the fifties and sixties, each in part giving imaginative expression to her own intense and lasting interest in modern psychiatry.
Since the Second World War Beauvoir has written one long novel, The Mandarins (published and awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1954), a shorter novel, Les Belles Images (1966), and a collection of three stories, The Woman Destroyed (1967). The narrative of The Mandarins alternates systematically between the viewpoints of Henri Perron, a journalist and author, and Anne Dubreuilh, a successful psychiatrist. Through Anne, in one half of the book the profession of psychiatry regularly comes under scrutiny from the inside, and serious questions and doubts are raised about the underlying principles of all psychotherapy. One of the principal characters linking the two halves of the narrative, moreover, has a breakdown in the course of the story and undergoes a psychoanalytical 'cure'. On the other hand, whilst the central figure of Les Belles Images has a long and continuing history of mental disturbance, the climax of the story is her firm decision to take her favorite daughter out of the care of a psychiatrist. In The Woman Destroyed, the main character and narrator of the second tale ('Monologue') is beyond any doubt a psychopathological case; and the heroine of the long third story (which gives its name to the collection) is driven to a psychiatrist by the breakdown of her marriage. In other words, in only one of the five separate stories she has published since the war (namely, 'The Age of Discretion') does Beauvoir fail to bring mental illness and psychiatry quite prominently into the plot in one form or another. And this, of course, takes no account of numerous passing references to psychiatry and psychoanalytical methods in the books, or of the fact that Beauvoir's broad view of the development of the individual and of family life has very obviously been much influenced by psychoanalytical theory and modern psychiatry in general.
Early on in The Mandarins we learn that Anne Dubreuilh became a psychiatrist because she wished to help people to rid themselves of the obstacles they place in the way of their happiness. Her Marxist husband, Robert, had never accepted the unfavourable Communist-Party line on psychiatry and fired her with enthusiasm at the prospect of rethinking classical psychoanalysis in the light of Marxism.
She has always acknowledged that it is possible to question the worth of any one person's equilibrium within an essentially unjust society, but has responded to the challenge of finding an answer in each individual case, believing that to relieve patients of their personal nightmares is to enable them to face up to the real problems of the world. The central purpose of the novel as a whole, however, is to depict the dilemmas experienced by French left-wing intellectuals after the war, and when the story opens (Christmas 1944) it is clear that the experiences of the Occupation have marked Anne profoundly and have already changed in certain respects the nature of her relationship with her patients. Personally, she feels that to allow herself to forget the worst incidents of the war would somehow be to betray those who suffered and died, and yet her professional life is now dominated by the task of encouraging others to set aside the horrors of the past and to adjust to the present and the future.
Anne, therefore, begins to entertain rather far-reaching doubts about the nature of her work as a psychiatrist. She wonders whether, at least in these circumstances, there is not something intrinsically wrong with an attempt to assist people to forget the past. Is she right, for instance, to try to drive out of the mind of one of her child patients (Fernand) the memory of his father, who died two years earlier in Dachau? It is certain that nothing she may do to 'help' will bring the dead back to life or efface past evils, but above all she now lacks the faith in the future that formerly enabled her to believe it appropriate to aîd patients to 'neutralize' their past: her pre-war assumption that 'every sane man had a role to place in a history that was leading mankind on towards happiness' is one that she can no longer accept. Yet in that case, looking only to the present, since the future is in doubt, what difference does it make whether little Fernand becomes cheerful and carefree like other children?
Since Anne's professional life continues as before in spite of her acknowledgement that, if this is what she really believes, she ought to stop treating certain patients or even give up her work altogether, we may reasonably assume that the doubts assailing her do not yet amount to complete conviction that psychiatry is an unjustified activity. And indeed, although she periodically experiences great frustration and fatigue in dealing with people who cope reasonably well as adults but virtually revert to being children in her consulting-room, she regains some of her earlier faith in her profession when the first war-deportees begin returning to France. These 'ghosts' bring back more horrifying stories of the war years than ever and they can gain no rest from their past. They are represented by one of Anne's patients in particular, a young woman whose hair is completely white. Faced with cases like this, Anne feels ashamed at not having suffered enough herself and temporarily loses some of her earlier doubts about the value of therapy: 'the questions that I had asked myself now seemed quite idle ones; whatever the future might hold, these men and women had to be helped to forget, had to be cured. She throws herself wholeheartedly into her work once more and enjoys a certain limited success, not just with children like Fernand, but even with patients like the young white-haired woman: 'the equilibrium she had achieved wasn't marvelous, but at least she was sleeping well'. Before long, however, some of her doubts seem to return, for she is soon saying to Henri Perron that she finds it rather futile to be treating individual states of mind in the prevailing circumstances. Once more she claims that she no longer has enough faith in the future to believe that every life can have a purpose.
As far as we are able to tell, this is more or less where things stand when Anne goes to America at the beginning of the second part of the novel. Her reputation as a 'brilliant doctor' is apparently already established, though she admits that she has a great deal to learn about the latest developments in American psychoanalysis. In fact, other matters (outstandingly, a lengthy love-affair with an American writer, Lewis Brogan) preoccupy her much more than her work in the second half of the book. Yet if we now learn less about her relations with her own patients, we gain a new kind of insight into her attitude towards psychoanalytical 'cures' as she observes at close quarters the breakdown and treatment of her friend Paule. Anne is clear that the ethics of her profession preclude the possibility of treating Paule herself, but although this makes matters somewhat awkward for her as Paule actually goes into decline, its effect is to allow Anne to follow in great detail the impact of psychoanalysis upon someone that she knows very well indeed. That is, she is not involved in the usual doctor-patient relationship here but is, as a result of her professional expertise and her intimate knowledge of Paule, in a privileged position from which to judge the case.
It is Anne who takes Paule to the eminent analyst, Murders, yet from the first we find her wondering exactly what Paule will be cured of, and what she will be like afterwards. And in a stance paralleling her attitude towards suffering in general earlier in the book we also see her initially reacting to Paule's cure by suggesting that it has somehow cancelled out Paule's earlier pain and rendered it pointless. She seems sympathetic to Paule's own view that her 'madness' was associated with a richness of perception and a sensitivity that are now lost, but in any case she explicitly claims that there is an element of inauthenticity in Paule's new personality: 'for the rest of her life she would probably play the part of a normal woman, but it was a task that scarcely inclined her towards sincerity'. Paule, she says, seems more alien to her now than when she was mad. More significant still is Anne's view of the explanation of Paule's troubles that Mardrus has persuaded his patient to accept (that she felt guilt over her infantile jealously of her brother, who died at the age of fifteen months, and had therefore become masochistic in her long love-affair with Henri, who was a kind of brother-substitute):
I kept quiet. I was very familiar with explanations of the kind that Mardrus had used. I, too, made use of them on occasion and I appreciated them for what they were worth. Yes, in order to cure Paule, one had to reach back into the past to destroy her love. But I could not help thinking of the sort of microbe that can be killed only by destroying the organism that it is feeding on.
Anne, who admitted early on that she had always been aware that 'to cure is often to mutilate', finds the destruction of Paule's past increasingly difficult to accept: 'I wanted to weep with her over the love that for ten years had been the pride and meaning of her whole life, and which had now been transformed into a shameful ulcer'. She sees that many of the concerns with which Paule has replaced her love for Henri are foolish, and she cannot avoid relating all of this to her own case, refusing to believe that her feelings are ailments. She would rather go on suffering than have her past scattered to the winds, and when her affair with Brogan breaks up painfully she draws some consolation from the fact that it will continue to live in her memory. She is so saddened by Paule's resignation to her new state, moreover, that she becomes disgusted with her own work as a psychiatrist and wants to tell her patients: '"Don't try to get better. We always get better soon enough"'. All of her earlier doubts are now intensified: 'I could no longer understand why it is a good thing that people should sleep well at nights, make love easily, be capable of acting, choosing, forgetting, living'. Although she is still having successes with some difficult cases, she is now going through the motions more than anything else; she becomes more and more like her own patients, with their misfortunes and obsessions, and she can see no urgent need to 'cure' them. At the end of the novel, however, Anne is portrayed as being in the depths of an intense personal crisis which affects the way in which she sees everything, so that it is not clear how complete and permanent we should regard her disillusionment with psychiatry as being.
More important for present purposes is the fact that in the course of The Mandarins Beauvoir has used Anne's profession as a way of raising many points about the philosophical and moral implications of psychotherapy that have a particular modern ring. In the way in which the nature of Anne's work (and thereby her own reactions to it) changes with the precise political and historical circumstances in the immediate postwar years, we see Beauvoir's sharp awareness of how psychiatry is related to the state of the society within which it is operating. And the point, of course, is taken one stage further than this when Anne is made to question the validity of helping the patient to adjust to a life of 'normality' when the norms themselves may be anything but admirable. Beauvoir stops a little short of suggesting, as R. D. Laing was subsequently to do, that the schizophrenic is a kind of prophet in whose hands the salvation of society may ultimately lie, but she must surely, in 1954, have been among the first to express in memorable fictional terms doubts about the psychiatric concept of normality in the context of modern society. Furthermore, the way in which Anne's approach to her work is shown to be intimately linked with her personal life and circumstances is also very much in line with recent emphasis on the nature of the psychiatrist's own experience with his patient and the phenomenon of counter-transference. In general, the broad aims and the narrative sweep of a novel like The Mandarins provide an excellent context for the airing of fundamental and vital questions about mental illness and its treatment, since the interaction between individual and society which lies at the heart of the matter can be explored so tellingly in fiction. It is also quite clear that Beauvoir, at this stage, has mixed feelings about psychiatry, and the novel-form undoubtedly gives her rather more scope for expressing her hesitations and doubts than would the philosophical essay.
The ambiguity in her attitude is equally discernible in her subsequent works of fiction, where no major character is a psychiatrist, but where we see that Paule was simply the first in a line of case-studies in which Beauvoir continues to explore major aspects of the theory and practice of psychotherapy. The case of Monique in 'The Woman Destroyed', in fact, runs quite closely parallel to that of Paule. Monique, too, (though in different circumstances and in an entirely different way from Paule) has allowed herself to become over-dependent upon her man and eventually needs psychiatric help when it becomes clear that he is going to leave her after twenty-two years of marriage. We do not observe her crisis through the eyes of another as we do with Paule, however, for the story is narrated from her own viewpoint. Hence we notice that she records in her diary various physical symptoms that suggest the onset of some kind of breakdown—loss of weight, fainting, mid-cycle bleeding—and we see both a friend and then her husband suggesting that she should see a psychiatrist. The friend claims that Monique needs only minor help rather than a full analysis but Monique cannot at first see what a psychiatrist could possibly do to help her, and she resists very strong pressure to consult one from her husband, who is himself a doctor. Yet she has to admit that she may be making herself ill 'with the unacknowledged intention of moving him to pity' and, perhaps mainly because she is afraid of the continuous bleeding, she soon gives way. As she ironically notes, she begins to pay a psychiatrist to listen to her.
From this point onwards, most of the parallels with Paule's case fall away: the respects in which Monique's situation is different come more to the fore and, in any case, it is suggested that Monique is in no danger of becoming deranged. But precisely because her case is a less extreme one, the whole question of what effect psychiatric treatment has upon her is more difficult to resolve—a difficulty only compounded by the fact that we never see Monique from the outside and have to read between the lines of her own comments. Taking at face value the totality of her remarks about the efforts of her psychiatrist, Dr. Marquet, we could easily believe that he does nothing at all for her: she soon abandons the work she has taken up on his advice ('What a joke their ergotherapy is! I've given up that idiotic job'); at one point she suspects him of being in league with Maurice; she is often scathing about his analyses; and her last reference to her treatment in the diary implies that Marquet may only have made matters worse. Yet a careful reading of the story indicates that the picture is a more complicated one than this. At least the hemorrhage stops and Monique begins eating again within three days of her first consultation, and she does take up her diary once more on Marquet's advice. In a number of instances, moreover, the accuracy of his comments about Monique is confirmed by what we already know of her in spite of herself. Monique is blind to certain things about her own life and is an arch self-deceiver, so that we are perfectly ready to accept the psychiatrist's view that her intelligence has been stultified by her obsessions and that she must be prepared to consider her own responsibility for the situation as well as that of Maurice and his mistress.
In principle, of course, Monique's psychiatrist is trying to do with her much the same as Mardrus did with Paule: to ease her away from preoccupations with one man and to restore her sense of individual identity. Yet in the context of the story as a whole his attempt is presented in a far more sympathetic light than is that of Mardrus. Monique overtly belittles what he is doing ('Then he began to muddle me with talk of a lost and regained personality, of distance to be adopted, of returning to myself. Claptrap'), but she admits that she wants to collaborate, wants to try to find herself again. Moreover, when Marquet approaches the matter 'from the other end' from Monique and wants to talk not about her husband and mistress but about Monique's mother and father and her father's death, the attentive reader already has reason to suppose that this is appropriate, since many earlier references buried in her diary suggest that much of her current difficulty with her husband stems from her attempt to make him conform to an ideal that her father, himself a doctor, embodied for her. In other words, the psychiatrist's deep analysis of Monique's problem has a great deal of plausibility for us and is not made to appear out of the blue as a kind of deus ex machina as does Mardrus's explanation of Paule's state. Yet having said all of this, we cannot be absolutely sure to what extent psychiatry is effective in Monique's case. The consultations certainly appear to help her, contrary to her own expectations and claims, but she is still in a very bad state at the end of the story and, in any case, we have no means of knowing how well she would have coped without such help.
Much of the emphasis that Beauvoir placed, in The Mandarins, on the psychiatrist-patient relationship and on the nature and implications of psychiatric treatment as such comes to fall, in all of her subsequent stories, on the way in which the structure and quality of the original family situation lies at the roots of mental disturbance. Indeed, Beauvoir acknowledged in All Said and Done: 'I am much more concerned than I used to be with the problems of childhood'. In some respects, therefore, the reported comments of Monique's younger daughter, Lucienne, near the end of 'The Woman Destroyed', may well express the author's own views:
According to her, what counts in childhood is the psychoanalytical situation as it exists without the parents' knowledge, almost in spite of them. Education, in so far as it is conscious and deliberate, is quite secondary.
It is unlikely, however, that Beauvoir would wholly subscribe to Lucienne's inference that someone like her mother accordingly bears no responsibility at all for the development of her children. In fact, part of the point of the preceding story in the collection, 'Monologue', is to show how, in spite of all her protestations that she was a perfect mother, Murielle actually drove her daughter to suicide.
In any case, Murielle is in every respect a fascinating case from the psychiatric point of view. In spite of the fact that, again, no point of view other than the heroine's own is adopted anywhere in the story, there is no shadow of doubt that she is mentally sick, and seriously so. Beauvoir herself has referred to Murielle's 'distortion of reality' and claimed that she can scarcely envisage any future for her except madness or suicide. And technical concepts seem far more appropriate here than is usually the case with characters in fiction: Beauvoir talks of 'paraphrenia' for instance, and it is almost impossible to describe Murielle without using the term 'paranoia'. Indeed, irrespective of any comment by the author, Murielle's obsessions are plain for any reader to see: she not only has a persecution complex, but is also (despite her denials) preoccupied with sex in the most unhealthy way, as well as with the theme of purity and filth. It is also apparent that most or all of those around her consider her deranged, which is not in the least surprising in view of the type of conduct she engages in. Furthermore, her mental disturbance manifests itself in both real physical symptoms and an excessive concern with her own state of health; and we know that when she had to visit the doctor about serious loss of weight after her daughter's suicide, her illness was described as 'psychosomatic'.
Yet as far as we can tell, the nearest that Murielle has come to receiving psychiatric help is in a clinic following this psychosomatic disorder. In 'Monologue', that is, Beauvoir goes still further than she does in 'The Woman Destroyed' in dropping her earlier emphasis on psychiatric treatment as such and stressing the family origins, or at least the family context, of mental illness. According to Murielle's account of her childhood, whilst her father loved and cherished her, her mother much preferred and favoured her brother, Nanard, thereby ruining Murielle's upbringing and her whole life. The evidence of Murielle's intense hatred of her mother is quite plain in the text and if the mother is guilty of only a small proportion of the misdeeds that Murielle charges her with, then it is certainly not without foundation. The difficulty is, of course, that it is impossible to know how much objective 'truth' we must take to lie behind Murielle's version of the past. But in certain respects the question is an unimportant one, since the link in Murielle's mind between her present parlous state and her early family life is a vital one. As R. D. Laing has pointed out, real patterns of relationship within the family have to be 'internalized' by each member and this can bring into being a 'family as a fantasy structure' which is at least as influential as the objective situation. The most interesting feature of 'Monologue' for present purposes is the sensitivity that Beauvoir shows to considerations of just this kind and the great skill with which she enables, or even forces, the reader to enter into Murielle's fantasy world. Moreover, the character's own level of awareness of the forces at work and of what we saw Lucienne describe as 'the psychoanalytical situation as it exists without the parents' knowledge' adds yet another dimension to the complex picture and to the fascination of the story. Murielle claims (though doubtless with distorting hindsight) that although her own jealously of her brother was normal ('all the books say so'), she had the exceptional merit of being prepared to acknowledge it. And although she perverts them for her own ends, she displays certain other items of psychoanalytical knowledge in referring to her own daughter ('She was at the age when young girls detest their mother. They call it ambivalence, but it is hatred'), and in insisting that the children of broken marriages develop complexes. In short, adopting Murielle's own voice, the author in various detailed and subtle ways makes us see her character in psychiatric terms, yet offers no positive suggestion at all that any form of psychotherapy might help her. In its own manner, 'Monologue' again reveals at one and the same time Beauvoir's dependence upon, and reservations about, the general discipline of psychiatry.
But it is, in fact, in Les Belles Images, published the year before, that we see most distinctly that whilst Beauvoir's indebtedness to psychoanalytical theory had undoubtedly increased by the mid-sixties, her doubts about psychiatric practice were at least as strong as in The Mandarins. Like Murielle, Laurence, the central figure and 'narrator' of the story, provides more than enough material for a complex psychiatric case-study. Piecing together fragmentary comments, we learn not only that she experienced some kind of severe disturbance at the age of eleven, but also that there is a certain cyclical pattern to her depressions and that she underwent a crisis five years before the events of the book take place, as well as a near-crisis only three years before. More than this, as we watch Laurence in the story she is having serious difficulties in relating to those around her, feeling alienated from everything and everyone except her children and being unable to experience the emotions that she believes she ought to. Events build up to a new major crisis—this time concerning her elder daughter, Catherine—which constitutes the climax of the book. This particular crisis, like the earlier ones, is portrayed as relating in certain ways to the state of modern Western society. (Laurence believes that just as there were 'reasons' for being disturbed in 1945, so there are in 1965, in abundance; she is therefore much more sympathetic to her daughter's anxieties about the world than are her husband and parents.) In this respect Les Belles Images takes up and develops the theme already broached in connection with the different historical and political circumstances described in The Mandarins, that mental illness and its treatment are intimately bound up with the social context in which they are set: if society itself is 'sick', how can mental health consist in successfully adapting to it? But Laurence's main preoccupations in the story and the extremes to which she is driven by them are shown, above all, as stemming once more from her own upbringing, from the 'psychoanalytical situation as it exists without the parents' knowledge'.
While our situation as readers of Les Belles Images is basically similar to that in 'Monologue'—we have only Laurence's views to base our judgements upon—here we do in fact see her with both her father and mother and, most important of all, we watch her eventually lose faith in her apparently crucial relationship with her father. Laurence is one of a surprisingly high number of characters in Beauvoir's later fiction who are said or seen to have an unresolved Oedipus complex. It is hinted in the story that this is at the root of any difficulties in her relations with her husband and other men, but in any case her breakdown at the end of the book comes after a trip to Greece with her father (they actually visit the crossroads where Oedipus is said to have killed Laius), when Laurence fails to make the kind of spiritual contact with him that she desires. More specifically, her final crisis (which like those of Murielle and Monique expresses itself in severe physical symptoms, notably anorexia and vomiting) is precipitated by the surprise announcement that her father and mother are to begin living together again after a lengthy separation and Laurence's consequent acknowledgement that she has become disillusioned with her father. Equally important to the story is the fact that in her attitude towards the particular issue that provides the point of focus for the conflict at the end of the book—how Laurence's daughter Catherine should be handled—Laurence is reacting strongly against the way in which she herself was brought up by her dominant mother. Like Murielle, she claims with regret that although she was closer to her father, it was her mother who 'formed' her, and she is quite determined by the end that Catherine shall not be forced to toe the line in the way that she was.
What is particularly intriguing about the ending of Les Belles Images, however, is that the particular form taken by Laurence's reaction against a childhood that we are encouraged to see in psychoanalytical terms directly brings into the picture the other main strand of Beauvoir's views on psychiatry, that is her reservations about certain aspects of psychiatric treatment. Laurence, despite her claim at one point that she does not know what to think about psychoanalysis, is shown as having firm opinions about psychiatry in general. She is instantly opposed to her husband's suggestion that Catherine be taken to see a 'psychologist' and, although we probably sense that there is some truth in his retort that 'parents are immediately jealous of psychologists who deal with their children' (Laurence later admits as much), her rational justification of her distrust is one already familiar to us from The Mandarins: '"Isn't as it should be": what does that mean? In my opinion, things aren't altogether "as they should be" with the people you consider normal'. Like Monique, however, she eventually gives way and allows Catherine to begin going to a psychiatrist, Mme. Frossard, before she goes off to Greece with her father. But even during that trip Laurence expresses doubts about her decision. Again, ideas already present in The Mandarins, like that of 'mutilation' in psychiatric treatment, are right to the fore: 'On the pretext of curing Catherine of the "sentimentality" that bothered Jean-Charles, they were going to mutilate her'. When Laurence returns from Greece she at first appears willing to accept Mme. Frossard's analysis and the advice that Catherine needs to be gently separated from her best friend, Brigitte. Yet she soon begins to resist and in the end, to her husband's great surprise, makes an issue of the matter, insisting that Catherine shall not be 'mutilated', shall not be deprived of the friend that she, Laurence, never had, and shall stop seeing the psychiatrist.
It might be argued that Laurence's attitude towards psychiatry at the end of Les Belles Images is, like Anne's at the end of The Mandarins, something of a special case, in that she is in a very singular, disturbed state of mind and that her central preoccupation with the welfare of her daughter has little to do with psychiatry as such. But it is important to recognize that Laurence's resistance to psychotherapy is not confined to the case of Catherine or to the end of the novel. If we study her comments on her own past problems we learn that she is really rather proud of having tackled her difficulties without professional aid: 'Naturally, her depression had deeper causes, but she did not need to be psychoanalysed to come out of it; she took a job that interested her; she recovered'. This does not, of course, prevent us from having doubts whether she is a good advertisement for the brand of self-help that she is implicitly advocating, even though her commendable stand at the end seems to be the result of a deliberate process of self-analysis ('I have drawn the curtains and, lying down with my eyes closed, I shall go over the trip again, image by image, word by word). More important here, however, is the point that, like Murielle, Laurence is portrayed as having assimilated certain Freudian insights, so that anything that she manages to do for herself is undoubtedly already dependent upon psychoanalytical theory and method: 'I am aware of the real reasons behind me: crisis and I have put them behind me: I brought out into the open the conflict between my feelings for Jean-Charles and those for my father and it no longer tears me apart'. Yet altogether much of her thinking about herself takes psychoanalytical concepts like the Oedipus complex as a starting-point, something—presumably her distrust of how psychiatrists actually treat their patients—makes her oddly wary of accepting the full implications of the type of explanation involved: 'I am simply jealous. An unresolved Oedipus complex, with my mother remaining my rival. Electra, Agammemnon: is that why I found Mycenae so moving? No. No. Nonsense. Mycenae was beautiful; it was its beauty that moved me … I am jealous, but above all, above all…. In other words, through the hesitations and contradictions of her heroine, Beauvoir can once more be seen to adopt in Les Belles Images the ambiguous, uneasy stance towards psychiatry that we have detected in other stories. She invokes theories of mental illness with varying degrees of conviction, but resists, for the most part, the notion that psychiatric treatment as it is professionally conceived is a desirable or appropriate procedure for dealing with it.
Although examination of further detailed evidence from the stories considered would produce nothing to modify this general account, we do, of course, need to bear in mind the existence of Beauvoir's many essays and autobiographical works. Scrutiny of these would undoubtedly refine our understanding of her attitude towards psychoanalytical theory, but it would not be likely to add to our knowledge of her reservations about psychotherapeutic practices, since she has said little about the latter in her non-fictional writings. Indeed, one of the tangible advantages of specifically studying the fictional expressions of Beauvoir's views is that it brings out the importance of this distinction and enables us to see the whole matter in a broader perspective.
When Sartre describes himself as a 'critical fellow-traveller' to psychoanalysis, he uses a description that fits Beauvoir just as well as himself, and it is in the very ambivalence implied that the importance of their continuing dialogue with Freudian theory resides. The interest of Sartre's attempt to assimilate psychoanalysis into his own philosophy at the different stages of his career has long been apparent, but those of Beauvoir's fictional works written when Sartre was producing no novels can now be seen to give the topic an additional density or resonance at two levels. Both in the author's own process of creating her characters and in the struggles of particular individuals in the stories to understand themselves and those around them, we see the vacillations and unease that result from using certain psychoanalytical concepts and methods without a wholehearted belief in, or commitment to them. And, perhaps above all, we see very closely linked with this a distrust of therapeutic practices as employed by professional psychiatrists which varies in strength and even in nature but never quite disappears. In all of these respects Beauvoir's stance in her fiction is very much in line with (and may well, via Laing and others, have actually influenced) recent attitudes towards psychiatry. Her stories themselves never go beyond a broad identification of psychiatry with psychoanalysis proper, but it is quite clear from them that her sympathies lie with modern attempts to break wholly new ground in both the theory and practice of psychiatry. In the latest volume of her autobiography Simone de Beauvoir reveals that she has read with great attention the works of Szasz, Cooper, Laing and others: it is interesting to speculate what fictional embodiments of 'anti-psychiatry' this may yet produce from her pen.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2849
SOURCE: "Women and Choice—A New Look at Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex," in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 173-8.
[In the following essay, Ascher examines Beauvoir's views concerning freedom, morality, and women's oppression as delineated in The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity.]
How does the individual responsibility and choice that we assume for each woman dovetail with our belief that failure, disease, and psychological crippling are caused by oppression? In recent years, the women's movement has tended to accept the liberal connection between caring and an assumption of determinism. Because of this, we focus on the oppression side of the issue when we reach out to help a battered wife or someone who has just been raped. As if our sympathy might be blown away, we shout, "you're blaming the victim" at anyone who dares to raise the issue of choice. Though it may not seem useful to debate the abstract concepts of free will and determinism, the implications of these ideas live in the way we view, as well as act on, our lives.
These issues have crystallized for me in writing my book, Simone de Beauvoir; a Life of Freedom, and talking to other women across the country about her ideas. Though she has been called the mother of this wave of the women's movement the interest of American feminists in her existentialism has been negligible. In discussing The Second Sex, women have marveled at, or been exhausted by, her encyclopedic detailing of the patriarchy as it has shaped history as well as the chronological life of each female. But the dialectic of choice which is an integral (though imperfectly realized) part of that book has been almost totally ignored.
Freedom, as those who have read the memoirs know, has been a catapulting notion for Simone de Beauvoir throughout her life. As a personal vision, it has pulled at her as the wish for love or harmony might draw another. It has also been a tool by which she has judged (harshly at times) her life.
Reading the memoirs, however, one notes an idiosyncratic manner in which necessity and freedom combine at moments of particular contentment. She feels most free when she is at one with what she is doing and can't imagine doing or being anything else—that is, an inner necessity imparts her very feeling of freedom. For example, she writes of her pleasure as a child in being just who she was, inside her own family, with her younger sister Poupette at her side. It was all perfect; she couldn't imagine another life. Being a devout, bourgeois Catholic in the early years of this century was, of course, all part of this self-satisfied perfection. Or later, starting at the age of nine, her friendship with Elizabeth Mabille gave her a sense of freedom because of its feeling of being necessary to her existence. And when she met Sartre at the Sorbonne a dozen years later, she felt that, like Zaza, he too would "impose himself upon me, prove he was the right one otherwise I should always be wondering: why he and not another?" A second quote about her early relationship with Sartre conveys this same overlay of freedom and necessity:
When I threw myself into a world of freedom, I found an unbroken sky above my head. I was free of all shackling restraint, and yet every moment of my existence possessed its own inevitability. All of my most remote and deep-felt longings were now fulfilled.
Now de Beauvoir is being self-conscious and not a little self-ironic when she writes this (though she is also clear about the pleasure of her emotion), for the God who once granted her necessity is gone, and only the primitive wish to replace that necessity thrives on.
For the same reasons, philosophically speaking, de Beauvoir's most anguished moments are those when inner or outer necessity stands at the door, but is not answered by a freedom imported through either her acquiescence or circumstance. A moment alone on a train when she experiences the raw unfulfilled needs of her sexuality is one example from early adulthood. During World War II, and again during the French-Algerian War, the "force of circumstance" is unbearable to her because of the multitude of personal and political acts which go against her wishes and are beyond her control.
In reading Simone de Beauvoir, whether it is fiction, sociological treatise, or autobiography, however, one must remember that she is a philosopher at base, and words like freedom, even if ironically intended, convey the richness of a philosophical view. During the first decade of her relationship with Sartre (1929–39), their understanding of freedom was highly personal. With God unmasked as merely a "useless passion," society, as created by individual human beings, had nothing sacred about it. It could be changed to suit those individuals by mere acts of decision and will. As she writes of herself and Sartre:
The working plan which Sartre and I were pursuing for the annexation of the world around us did not fit in with those patterns and taboos established by society. Very well, then; we rejected the latter, on the supposition that man would have to create his world again from scratch. (The Prime of Life)
In fact, in their view, the pretense that there was either a sacred quality to social laws or something immutable about them was an act of "bad faith."
Though the choice to be free was an individual one, it obviously had social repercussions. "Our liberties support each other like the stones of an arch," de Beauvoir argued in an early philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas. The choice had to be made. One had a moral duty to oneself and others to make it.
The war, and particularly her direct experience with the German occupation of France, gave to de Beauvoir the beginnings of a more complex view of the power of the world as it is and what might be needed for social change. Sartre, as she writes in her memoirs, was coming to consider himself an activist; and he would begin to try to reconcile his existentialism, for a short time, with the views of the French Communist Party and, in the long run, with a Marxist perspective.
The Ethics of Ambiguity, despite de Beauvoir's critical evaluation to the contrary, stands among her most interesting works. In this long philosophical essay, she began to speak to how oppression might curtail freedom—when an act of freedom "is condemned to fall uselessly back upon itself because it is cut off from its goals," this constitutes oppression—as well as to imagine how one might develop an ethics of revolution. (What does one do when one cannot convince the oppressor to yield his power; how does one evaluate violence?) One of the major contributions of this work is her distinction between freedom and liberation. Understanding that oppression for some people was such that they could not simply choose to be free, she argued that in those cases there had first to be social liberation. A slave, for example, might not even be aware of his or her servitude, and it would be "necessary to bring the seed of his liberation from the outside" (Ethics). In this book, too, de Beauvoir tried to establish the criteria by which to distinguish oppression from acts of bad faith. "The less economic and social circumstances allow an individual to act upon the world, the more the world appears to him as given. This is the case of women who inherit a long tradition of submission, and those who are called 'the humble'" (Ethics). Yet, she warns, "There is often laziness and timidity in their resignation; their honesty is not complete" (Ethics). Thus, though oppression was internalized in the individual, there were in a sense still free zones which could be called accountable to act.
In late 1946, at the age of 38, de Beauvoir began to write The Second Sex. She completed the book—1,000 pages in French—in 2 1/2 years, taking out time to travel to the U.S. and to write her journalistic account, America Day by Day. To add to the accomplishment, it should be noted that, although women had recently been given the vote in France, and so the question of female emancipation was surely in the air, in the context of the devastation and deaths of World War II, news of Stalin's camps, the beginning of a nuclear world with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the arming of Europe in the Cold War between the United States and Russia, a discussion of women from the beginning of civilization to the present did not appear on the front burner in the world of left Parisian intellectuals—or anywhere. Nor did de Beauvoir have a women's group, or even a woman friend, with whom to share her efforts.
The Second Sex opens with three sections focusing on theories of women's condition that to de Beauvoir are deterministic: biologism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. To the first, she argues basically that, though our being finite and physical has an effect on how we see the world, the details of our body make no difference, and that "One is not born but becomes a woman." To the second, she offers two arguments: that a Freudian explanation (penis envy) reduces to physiology what could be explained by power; and that psychoanalysis designates transcendence or freedom as normal for men, while condemning women to the "normalcy" of immanence and oppression. As for Marxism, the advent of private property is, to de Beauvoir, an insufficient explanation for women's oppression. In fact, class conflict itself need not exist and must be accounted for. Thus dispensing with the popular explanations for women's oppression, de Beauvoir would seem at the point of asserting a freedom which has merely been waiting to be acted upon. For if nothing has made the patriarchy a necessity, then why not simply lift it off?
Yet de Beauvoir does finally offer a grounding for men's power over women: it lies in what she sees as a basic category, "the other," and the primitive desire to dominate this other. Now this philosophical category has followed de Beauvoir through her early novels and theoretical works. (It is central to Sartre's Being and Nothingness.) The wish to dominate—or, at times, annihilate—the other is part of the same "bad faith" that makes some long for Gods and others want to be God. The lonely, separate, finiteness of the mortal individual is too hard to bear. Dominating and being dominated offer the escape from freedom into necessity. If men solve their fear of freedom by assuming power over women, women solve theirs by being that "other" which is dominated. In fact, with the introduction of this existentialist category of the Other, we are back, or still, in the realm of choice.
In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir expands the analysis of oppression, freedom, and morality she began in The Ethics of Ambiguity. "Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the 'en soi'—the brutish life of subjection to given conditions—and of liberty into constraint and contingence. At one time, in early civilization, there were material reasons for men becoming the dominators and women the dominated, but these reasons have long been obsolete. This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression" (Second Sex). Women who want to be the subject of their lives as much as do men, are confined to immanence, to being an object: "What particularly signalizes the situation of woman is that she—a free and autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of Other" (Second Sex). Unable to reach out toward new liberties through projects in the world, women live unduly tied to their bodies, their physiology; through narcissism, they make projects of themselves, but they thereby only increase their situation as the Other.
In their status as Other, women are like Blacks and Jews—or any other oppressed people. "The eternal feminine corresponds to 'the black soul' and the Jewish character'" (Second Sex). Although the Jew is not so much inferior as the evil enemy, both women and Blacks "are being emancipated today from a like paternalism, and the former master class wishes to 'keep them in their place'" (Second Sex). The "good Negro" is childish, merry, submissive. The "true woman" is frivolous, infantile, irresponsible. By definition, the Other is not worthy of the responsibilities and benefits of full citizenship.
Still, de Beauvoir does not conceive of women's activities as fully determined. "I shall place woman in a world of values and give her behavior a dimension of liberty," she says. "I believe that she has the power to choose between the assertion of her transcendence and her alienation as object; she is not the plaything of contradictory drives; she devises solutions of diverse ranking in the ethical scale" (Second Sex). Rather than her situation being imposed on her, as it is upon a child or a slave, "the western woman of today chooses it or at least consents to it" (Ethics). This means that, unlike children or absolutely oppressed peoples, who have no opportunity to choose change, "once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is a resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility, a resignation which implies dishonesty and which is a positive fault" (Ethics). In fact, because all our liberties are mutually interdependent, de Beauvoir implies that women's complicity in their own oppression is also thwarting the liberty of men. Because women have some access to freedom, judgments about their acts should be based, not on "normalcy," but on "moral invention." These judgments should be positive, about where and when women have made choices within the confines of their circumstances.
Unfortunately, this enormously creative project of determining women's "moral inventiveness" within the framework of oppression is only unevenly accomplished. (In fact, more than thirty years later, the project awaits furthering by any writer.) Instead, The Second Sex has a lumpiness, in which oppression is described with great vigor for paragraphs or pages on end, and only at times interspersed with sections in which one sees how women choose or act upon their (greatly constricted) freedom, pushing it beyond its previous borders. Of course, the overweighting of the oppression side of the dialectic has also been emphasized in the English edition (and in the most current French edition, as well) by the omission of the lives of fifty French painters, writers, soldiers, doctors, etc., who pushed beyond the borders of their world and so created greater freedom for themselves and others. Still, the integration of freedom and oppression doesn't work perfectly on every page. One can imagine de Beauvoir in the Bibliothèque Nationale. She had begun the project, she says, not out of being a feminist, but merely to try to understand what it meant to be a woman. The impressions caused by her reading must have bowled her over! It must have been hard to remember the sense of freedom and choice she had sought to keep alive.
Simone de Beauvoir's pleasure in her memoirs when inner freedom and necessity seem contained within each other show both that she (like most others) finds comfort in being in harmony with herself, and that in her youth and early adulthood this inner harmony seemed most likely to be produced by loving someone who gave her life direction. Yet her life has not been one geared toward comfort; on the contrary, she had often sacrificed the least of the known in order to think and act in ways that grant herself and others greater freedom. If there is the anguish of this discomfort in her fiction and later memoirs, it is an honest anguish—of the price that everyone must pay.
In my talks about de Beauvoir I have been asked as often, "But she really hates men, doesn't she?" as "Don't you think she finally blames women for it all?" Like most books, The Second Sex may be seen as a Rorschach, for people do read what they want in it. And I must admit, ten years ago when I first read the book I saw the detailing of women's oppression only; I would have been astounded and disbelieving had someone pointed out the recurrent theme of choice. Yet de Beauvoir's requirement of determining oppression is a demanding one; if, and only if, one has tried to reach toward a goal, and that attempt has been definitively thwarted, can one speak of being oppressed. At a time when women are being asked to pull in the enlarged boundaries they have fought for over the past decade, it seems particularly important to hold onto this active notion of oppression, with its implications for responsibility and choice.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5262
SOURCE: "Authenticity of Self-Expression: Reinterpretation of Female Independence Through the Writings of Simone de Beauvoir," in Women's Studies, Vol. 17, January, 1990, pp. 219-33.
[In the following essay, Yanay examines Beauvoir's interpretation of female dependency, interpersonal connection, and autonomy as suggested in her autobiographic writings. According to Yanay, Beauvoir invites an alternate notion of female independence based on "themes of spontaneity and authenticity of expression."]
Based on the autobiographical writings of Simone de Beauvoir, this paper reinterprets the concepts of "dependency" and "independence" with respect to women's experiences. De Beauvoir, considered a strong and independent woman, continuously struggled for emotional independence, a struggle which she conceived as being against the need that drove her "impetuously toward another person". However, a careful examination of de Beauvoir's inner voice as it is reflected in the subtext of her autobiographical writings, suggests that her true struggle revolves around a desire for authentic expression of her feelings and needs—rather than for separation from others.
As an adolescent de Beauvoir was caught between the expectations of her parents and her own needs, remaining the "dutiful daughter" at the expense of being false to her own self. This pattern of dependency reappears in her adult life, when she seems to be incapable of validating her feelings of jealousy and anger in her relationship with Sartre. Her means of coping with this problem is by giving it a literary expression, hence, she seems to gain a sense of freedom and independence by giving her repressed feelings an authentic outlet.
The re-reading of de Beauvoir's autobiography in a new light of feminist criticism reveals a concept of dependency different from the need to rely on, receive help from, and be influenced by another. When one examines the meanings of dependency and independence through the female language of connectedness and women's values of care and involvement, the essential meaning of dependency shifts from the lack of self-reliance to suppression of self-expression, and from struggles for separation to struggles for one's personal truth and for authenticity in one's relations with others.
This paper aims to reopen discussion of the meaning of "dependence" and "independence" as they reflect the experiences of women. This desire to reexamine and revise accepted concepts and terms in light of principles of female experience is prompted by the work of feminist scholars, who have suggested the adoption of a new language with which to conceptualize accepted values.
Psychology treats the concept of "dependency" as a tendency to rely on and seek attention, care, or help from close others. Thus, dependence is often equated with affiliation or with the need for affection, reassurance and approval. Along these same lines, the concept of "autonomy" or "independence" is often associated with self-reliance and needing no one else—accomplishing things on the basis of one's own efforts in response to one's own interests and in an attempt to reach self-fulfillment.
This conception of autonomy has only recently been challenged by feminist scholars who explore the masculine attributes of the very nature of scientific thought. [J. B.] Miller (1976), [C.] Gilligan (1982), [E. F.] Keller (1985) and others have pointed out that the prevailing meaning of autonomy is alienating to women because it excludes passion, love, and desire, the very dynamics of interpersonal relations, which, as [O.] Kerenberg (1974) argued, require the crossing of ego boundaries. Miller (1976), for example, claims that the concept "autonomy" derives from male development, as it bears the implication that "one should be able to give up affiliations in order to become a separate and self-directed individual." Similarly, Gilligan (1982) believes that the word "autonomy" has become so closely associated with separation that "separation itself becomes the model and the measure of growth." Keller (1985) points to the correlation between the accepted meaning of autonomy and masculinity in Western culture, which she attributes to certain paradigmatic changes in the nature of scientific thinking. She claims that the transition from hermetic science, characterized by metaphors of sexual unity with nature, to a mechanical science, characterized by masculine metaphors of power and domination of nature, has shaped a concept of autonomy separate from desire and dominated by images of impersonality. At the same time, feminist scholarship in psychology (Miller, 1976; Gilligan, 1982) has demonstrated the different values around which women's selves emerge and the importance of inclusiveness and affiliation to their self-concept and identity.
My own contribution to this argument is to explore the concepts of dependency and independence as they are reflected in the autobiographical writings of Simone de Beauvoir. Not only are these works of recognized literary and intellectual merit, but they deal with "a relatively large number of lines of experience, giving a picture of variety, roundness and inter-relatedness in the life from which the structure of life as a whole emerges" ([C.] Allport, 1951). Moreover—and perhaps most importantly—they mirror a substantial portion of the author's experiences of emotional dependency, and these stand in sharp contrast to the woman herself, who has become a symbol of independence and strength in her own lifetime: "She is a woman who refuses to accept her role passively, who has taken a stand, flouting all convention and opposition" ([A.] Schwarzer, 1985). While accepting her femininity, de Beauvoir has never used her womanhood as an alibi and, moreover, she recognizes emotional dependency on men as "a curse that weighs upon most women" and a condition she has had to struggle with and to defend herself against through most of her youth and adult life. Her autobiographical works are a testimony to an unresolved struggle to reconcile her longing for independence with the love that drove her "impetuously toward another person."
However, though de Beauvoir perceives her struggle as a conflict between unity with another and separatedness—a perception based on the conventional interpretation of "dependence"—it seems that in actuality it revolved around the need to maintain a very close relationship without being false to her innermost needs and feelings. Thus, by drawing out the themes of dependency and independence of de Beauvoir's writings and interpreting them in terms of the development of the feminine self-identity, feminine values, and feminine conceptions of relationships, we challenge accepted definitions of independence and dependency in Western society, particularly the culturally perceived contradiction between love and independence. In this new light, the accepted distinction between emotional "symbiosis" or unity and individual autonomy appears conceptual and culture-bound rather than ontological and absolute. The reflexive reading of de Beauvoir's autobiographical writings through the prism of feminist conceptualizations of autonomy, with the aim of uncovering the author's most inner feelings as a woman, lends new meaning to the concepts of dependency and independence.
Setting the Stage for Reinterpretation
Simone de Beauvoir perceives the struggle for independence as the core experience in a woman's life. In her four-volume autobiography—Memoire of A Dutiful Daughter (MDD) (1958), The Prime of Life (PL) (1960), Forces of Circumstance (FC) (1963), and All Said and Done (ASD) (1972)—and her first autobiographical novel, She Came to Stay (1943), she consciously and subconsciously reveals an ongoing struggle to escape "women's doomed destiny of dependent existence" and to reconcile independence and intimacy, a struggle which is also characteristic of her fictional characters (Ann in The Mandarins, Francoise in She Came to Stay, and the heroine of her short story The Woman Destroyed).
The earliest signs of this inner conflict appear in her childhood memories. Even as a little girl, de Beauvoir rejected traditional feminine values (but not her own womanhood): "When we played games, I accepted the role of the mother only if I were allowed to disregard its nursing aspects. Despising other girls who played with their dolls in what seemed to us a silly way, my sister and I had our own particular way of treating our dolls" (MDD). The young de Beauvoir felt that femininity limited a woman's existence, establishing her position as "other," while masculinity offered endless possibilities of intellectual excitement and freedom. Her male teachers were, in her opinion, clever, even brilliant, but the women who taught her were "comical old church hens." Even though the majority of boys she knew seemed of limited intelligence, she recognized intuitively that "they belonged to a privileged category." The world of men appeared to her as free, imaginative, and full of adventure. As an adolescent, de Beauvoir believed that men were the great writers, the finest thinkers, and that women were tied to family conventions, salon smiles, and to small talk. "My education, my culture, and the present state of society all conspired to convince me that women belonged to an inferior cast" (MDD).
De Beauvoir's adolescent years were marked by the contradictory expectations of her father, who projected onto his first-born daughter (he had hoped for a son) not only his pride and bourgeoise aspirations, but also his economic and social failure:
The war had ruined him, sweeping away all his dreams, destroying his myths, his self-justifications, and his hopes. I was wrong to think he had resigned himself to the situation: he never stopped protesting against his condition … he was trying to show, by his aggressive exhibitionism, that he belonged to a superior class … I was not just another burden to be borne: I was growing up to be the living incarnation of his own failure (MDD).
At the same time, though he "liked intelligent and witty women and … was of the opinion that a woman should be well read and a good conversationalist," and though he was pleased by de Beauvoir's early scholastic success, he also believed in the myth of femininity and the cult of the family: "When I entered the 'difficult age,' he was disappointed in me: he appreciated elegance and beauty in women. Not only did he fail to conceal his disillusionment from me but he began showing more interest than before in my sister, who was still a pretty girl" (MDD). So while praising his daughter for her academic achievements, he was exasperated by what he considered her childish scribblings.
Notwithstanding her father's ambivalence toward her, the adolescent de Beauvoir adored and idolized him. "I could not imagine a more intelligent man than my father … As long as he approved of me, I could be sure of myself." At times her love for him seems incestuous: "But my real rival was my mother. I dreamed of having a more intimate relationship with my father. But even on the rare occasions when we found ourselves alone together we talked as if she was there with us" (MDD).
De Beauvoir's mother was a traditional woman; religious, with a strong sense of duty, she remained in the background, moderating her desires, making no demands on life, and teaching her children austerity and unselfishness. She treated her daughter with tenderness, care and understanding and gave her the acceptance that she sought and needed. "I wanted to be noticed: but fundamentally I needed to be accepted for what I was, with all the deficiencies of my age; my mother's tenderness assured me that this wish was a justifiable one … Without striving to imitate her, I was conditioned by her" (MDD).
Exposed to her father's "individualism and pagan ethical standards" on the one hand, and her mother's "rigid moral conventionalism" on the other, and torn between dependency on her mother and admiration for her father, the young de Beauvoir struggled to reconcile her intellectual life with her growing female sensibility. In this imbalanced atmosphere "I grew accustomed to the idea that my intellectual life—embodied by my father—and my spiritual life—expressed by my mother—were two radically heterogeneous fields of experience which had absolutely nothing in common" (MDD).
De Beauvoir's high esteem for the independent masculine mind and her disparagement of femininity were rooted thus in rebellion, as well as submission, to the image she had of her parents. She internalized their contradictory expectations of herself, particularly her father's ambivalent attitude: "I was obeying his wishes to the letter, and that seemed to anger him: he had destined me to a life of study, and yet I was being reproached with having my nose in a book all the time … I kept wondering what I have done wrong" (MDD). It was by her father's rules—and against them—that de Beauvoir the child seems to have set her ideals and developed her aspirations for freedom. It was also from those early contradictory experiences of affection, idealization and unexpressed inner resentment towards her parents that her conflict between dependency and independence emerged.
Although she idealized her father and was influenced by his literary preferences and intellectual aspirations, she was deeply wounded by his attitude towards the "fair sex" in general and toward her own femininity in particular. Similarly, although needful of her mother's acceptance, she disparaged her religiosity and traditional femininity. As an adolescent de Beauvoir was caught between the world of her parents and that of herself, and though she was developing her own sense of self and identity, she was unable to express it. She therefore remained the "dutiful daughter," being false to her true self:
I accepted their verdict while at the same time I looked upon myself with other eyes than theirs. My essential self still belonged to them as much as to me: but paradoxically the self they knew could only be a decoy now; it could be false. There was only one way of preventing this strange confusion: I would have to cover up superficial appearances, which were deceptive (MDD).
Even while preparing herself for graduation from school, a few years later, her outward behavior did not change: "I still didn't dare disobey or tell any outright lies. I still used to tell my mother what my plans were for the day; in the evening I had to give her a full account of how I had passed my time. I gave in. But I was choking with fury and vexation" (MDD). Hence, de Beauvoir silenced her inner fury and suppressed her true needs. The gap between her real feelings, needs and wishes, on the one hand, and the de Beauvoir she showed to the outside world on the other, seems to signify a pattern of dependency on others, a pattern which continued into her adult life.
By outward appearances the adult de Beauvoir was strong-willed and independent, determined to establish her place in the world: "My own particular enterprise was the development of my life, which I believed lay in my own hands" (PL). Throughout her adult life she was economically independent and never suffered the constraints of marriage or of motherhood ([D. K.] McCall, 1979). She often took long trips by herself to places "no living soul would ever pass through." She was also daring and unconventional in her teaching, standing unsupported against the values and beliefs of the provincial middle-class community in which she worked. Risking her position, she sacrificed neither her freedom of ideas nor her ideals.
Yet, despite this outward appearance of autonomy, it seems that de Beauvoir was continuously striving for emotional independence, struggling against her imperious need for others: "The existence of otherness maintained a danger for me, one which I could not bring myself to face openly" (PL). Describing Francoise, the heroine of She Came to Stay, she writes: "Now another danger threatened her, one which I myself had been endeavouring to exorcise ever since my adolescence. Other people could not only steal the world from her, but also invade her personality and bewitch it" (PL). This threat is particularly salient in de Beauvoir's desire and need for absolute emotional and physical unity with her friend and lover, Jean-Paul Sartre.
[C.] Ascher (1981), following the normative assumption that separatedness, individualism, self-contentment and self-reliance constitute the essence of independence, sees this relation as evidence of an unresolved dependency. In this spirit she has claimed that de Beauvoir's usage of the pronoun "we" in her memoire indicates an unsettled tension between her developing individuated self and developing intimate relationships: "With a relationship to God ended absolutely, a major theme in The Prime of Life is the tension between de Beauvoir's sense of herself as an "I" and as part of a "we," that is, the working out of her autonomy and aloneness within the context of her strong ties to Sartre" (Ascher, 1981).
It seems, however, that these "we relations" (which she had not only with Sartre, but also with others, male and female alike, whom she loved dearly) did not necessarily threaten her self-identity and autonomy. The story of her relation with Zaza is a case in point.
At the age of ten, de Beauvoir experienced the emotion of love for the first time. Elizabeth Mabille, or Zaza as she called her, was a small, dark, thin-faced girl, who was seated next to the young de Beauvoir in their fourth grade. With Zaza she talked about books, schoolwork, their teachers, and their friends. "She at once seemed to me a very finished person" and "everything she had to say was either interesting or amusing." Zaza appeared to her a fascinating person and de Beauvoir's attitude toward her, as later to Sartre, was one of admiration and total devotion. De Beauvoir was drawn to Zaza's courage and spirit of independence, as well as to her originality and talent, characteristics which attracted her also to Sartre. A simple word of praise from Zaza overwhelmed her with joy and a sarcastic smile would cause her terrible torment; her happiness, indeed her very existence, lay in Zaza's power. "Zaza didn't suspect how much I idolized her, nor that I had adjusted my pride in her favor," reflects de Beauvoir (MDD). Nonetheless, her all-encompassing feeling toward Zaza did not prevent her from recognizing their individual places in the world, and her sense of "we" in this case did not compromise her recognition and acceptance of their differences. "If it had been suggested that I should be Zaza, I would have refused" (MDD).
With Sartre, the "we identity" was somewhat different. De Beauvoir, like Sartre, perceived their relationship as a single unity: "I settled the anomaly of Sartre by telling myself that we formed a single entity placed together at the world's center" (PL). Indeed, feeling one with Sartre was most essential to her inner harmony. However, this oneness of identity represented a value and an ideal to de Beauvoir, not a "problem" as is often suggested by her critics.
The strong feelings of closeness and affiliation that de Beauvoir shared with Zaza and later with Sartre should not be confused with dependence upon them. It is true that the accepted definition of dependency includes affiliation with another—as opposed to separatedness—as a major component, and indeed psychology as yet lacks the terminology to distinguish between connectedness and purely negative aspects of dependence, such as experience of inequality (Miller, 1976). Yet the positive and negative aspects of dependency need to be separated. Miller (1976), [L.] Stiver (1984) and others have pointed to the positive elements of dependency, such as its providing conditions for growth and enrichment. Along similar lines, [A.] Memmi (1984) considers dependency an ontological need: "On the whole, dependence is one of the basic elements of the bond that ties one member of a society to another," and the fear of dependency is a fear of others.
In an attempt to focus only on the negative aspects of dependency, the present paper pursues a new interpretation of the concept which isolates those components that reflect inequality and that have been inhibiting to women's expression of self. Underlying this quest is the assumption that women are governed by different rules of psychological development than men (Gilligan, 1983).
Authenticity of Expressed Feelings as Reflecting Independence
Simone de Beauvoir's admitted need to hide her true feelings in order to be a dutiful daughter has already been discussed, this need seems to have persisted into her adult life and to have been highly salient in her relationship with Sartre. Indeed, her tendency to mask her actual feelings is even apparent in her autobiographical works, where an inner voice seems to express feelings which are quite different from, and even contradictory to, her explicit statements. It is around this striving for authentic expression of her feelings and beliefs—rather than for separateness from others—that the true struggle for independence seems to revolve.
One clue in her autobiographical works to this struggle for authenticity of expression is the sharp contrast between the stated conception of freedom and autonomy proffered by de Beauvoir the philosopher and the intellectual and that which may be inferred from the voice of de Beauvoir the woman. The first voice advocates a conception of freedom in keeping with Sartre's existentialism. Like him, she believes that autonomy has to be attained through one's own actions, and, going further, that any woman can escape her destiny of dependence through her own efforts. Shifting one's responsibilities onto another, she feels, is immoral, and, what is more, in the absence of a God, it is a flight from freedom. According to this existential moral ontology, one transcends animal nature by a continuous affirmation of self. The voice of de Beauvoir the woman, however, suggests a different interpretation of independence, one which is closely linked to authenticity of feelings and needs.
The nature of de Beauvoir's struggle for independence is gleaned from a specific example of the way in which she coped with a triadic love arrangement involving herself, Sartre, and Olga, a young student of hers with whom she became intimate friends. Early on in their relationship, Sartre had explained to de Beauvoir his "philosophy" of attachments: "What we have is an essential love, but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs … We reflected on this problem a good deal [says de Beauvoir] during our walks together" (PL). Despite her ostensibly neutral intellectual tone, de Beauvoir's inner voice seems to project jealousy of the lovers and doubts as to her own worth. At the same time "the need to agree with Sartre on all subjects outweighed the desire to see Olga through eyes other than his" (PL). Unable to bear the anxiety, but worse, unable to even consider diverging from Sartre's ideals, de Beauvoir chooses to glorify the trio and foster its well-being: "From now on we could be a trio rather than a couple. We believed that human relationships are a matter of constant fresh discovery" (PL). Nevertheless, she admits to feelings of anger: "I was vexed with Sartre for having created this situation and with Olga for taking advantage of it."
Eventually, as is clear from her remarks in The Prime of Life, de Beauvoir deals with this love triangle by giving indirect expression to her feelings of jealousy and anger in her first autobiographical novel, She Came to Stay: "I exposed myself so dangerously [in that novel] that at times the gap between my emotions and the words to express them seemed insurmountable" (PL). The novel portrays a love triangle between Francoise the heroine "whom I endowed with my own experiences" (PL), her lover Pierre and a young woman Xavierre. Slowly, before the reader's eyes, Francoise is transformed from "a position of absolute and all-embracing authority" to "an utterly transparent creature without features of individuality" who betrays her own truth. With no more than a faded image of herself, Francoise becomes obsessively involved in Xavierre's affections, hatreds, and caprices, and with Pierre's desire for Xavierre. She conceals her true feelings and allows Pierre to dictate her desires because she feels lonely experiencing needs different from his. Hence, she permits herself to express only sympathy for Pierre and understanding of the triangular relationship. Even when she clearly sees Pierre as "a man fighting desperately for his masculine triumph," she sacrifices her emotional harmony for the sake of his freedom. Hurting herself is less threatening, easier, clearer, more acceptable. But her support is equivocal and not without conflict; she despises her role of benevolence. In times of "weakness" she challenges her own behavior: "She had always disregarded her dreams and her desire … why would she not make up her mind to will what she hoped for?" After all, "she need only say one word to herself, she need only say 'it is I.' But she would have to believe in that word; she would have to know to choose herself." Yet, Francoise continues to attribute her (unexpressed) anger, anxiety, and confusion to her own mistrust, and to her inability to transcend human pettiness. She is incapable of validating her feelings of jealousy and anger in the face of Pierre's higher, more noble emotions.
In the final analysis, however, Francoise chooses to be true to her own feelings and so to achieve the "ultimate" freedom: "Her own image became so loathsome to Francoise that she was faced with two alternatives: A lifetime of self-disgust, or to shatter the spell by destroying her who cast it. This latter course she took, and thus remained, triumphantly, true to herself" (PL). And it is this fictional murder of Xavierre that gains de Beauvoir her freedom; killing Olga on paper "purged every twinge of irritation and resentment I had previously felt toward her and cleansed our relationship …" (PL). Moreover, destroying Olga in a projected literary act was more than a cathartic experience. It was also a means of extracting and displaying her innermost feelings. "By releasing Francoise, through the agency of crime, from the dependent position in which her love for Pierre kept her, I gained my own personal autonomy" (PL).
The act of crime represents in de Beauvoir's writing the epitome of both individualism and immersing oneself into the whole of society. It is one means albeit an admittedly extreme one, of achieving independence. Indeed, in discussing her feelings of dependence upon Sartre, de Beauvoir makes an explicit connection between crime and personal autonomy:
The only solution would have been to accomplish some deed for which I alone, and no one else, must bear the consequences. But this would have meant society as a whole taking charge of the matter, since otherwise Sartre would have shared the responsibility with me. Nothing, in fact, short of an aggravated crime could bring me true independence. I often amused myself by a more or less close interweaving of these related themes. (PL)
Perhaps that is why the metaphysical aspects of crime have always fascinated de Beauvoir and captured her imagination: "… crime figured regularly as an element in my dreams and fantasies. I saw myself in the dock, facing judge, prosecutor, jury, and a crowd of spectators, bearing the consequences of an act which I recognized as my handiwork, and bearing it alone" (PL). As de Beauvoir could not actually commit a crime—"Francoise, as I have depicted her, is just as incapable of murder as I am" (PL)—she gained her freedom through a literary projection. The philosophical and ontological ties between the primordial state of "being true to oneself" and the act of murder has long historical roots. The connotative meaning of the Greek "authento" simultaneously reflects the virtue of power over someone or something and the act of committing a murder ([L.] Trilling, 1972). Similarly, "[S.] Miller (1973) traces the 'politics of the true self' back to the poet William Blake and shows that violence is conceived of as the ultimate form of self-expression and self-discovery in the writings of Fanon and Sartre" (in [R.] Turner, 1976).
Much like Raskolikov's murder of the old woman in Crime and Punishment, which was a psychological assertion of his freedom and authenticity, even if momentary, so was de Beauvoir's literary solution of killing Xavierre. This was not merely a philosophical stand, but rather a means of recovering her autonomy and reaching as very deep emotional and psychological resolution. Francoise's real crime, then, was having refused to accept responsibility for her inner needs. Indeed, by justifying, rationalizing and suppressing her emotions, and thereby relinquishing her independence, she had been untrue to herself. Ironically, she purges herself of this sin with an act of extreme violence:
Francoise has given up looking for an ethical solution to the problem of coexistence. She endures the Other as an inevitable burden and then defends herself against this invasion by accomplishing an equally brutal and irrational act herself: murder. The rights and wrongs of her individual case do not concern me. (PL)
This should not be construed to mean that any expression of needs and emotions short of crime lacks authenticity. On the contrary, the ultimate solution of murdering Xavierre is employed by de Beauvoir to depict an act of psychological inversion, to indicate how unnecessary the act would have been if only Francoise had accepted and expressed her true emotions and needs. Authentic expression of needs and emotions through language is, according to de Beauvoir, a viable substitute for violence directed toward the self or the other. "The paradoxical thing is that [gaining my autonomy] did not require an unpardonable action on my part, but merely the description of such an action in a book" (PL).
Interesting enough, the more accepted solution (by social standards) of having Francoise leave Pierre does not seem adequate to be Beauvoir, although it would have relieved her of an "awkward" ending, which has been frequently criticized by her readers, and which she herself recognized to be "beyond any doubt the weakest aspect of the book" (PL). Yet she insists on this conclusion, as it conveys a personal truth which she desperately needed to express.
In de Beauvoir's autobiographical writings the need for another person (excessive as it may be) is distinct from dependency. Her ardent need for unity with Sartre is congruent with her desire for an absolute and essential existence. Similarly, it was not Francoise's need for unity with Pierre which condemned her to a life of servitude. What drove Francoise from her independent self was the lack of spontaneity and authenticity of her emotions and needs.
In summary, the re-reading of de Beauvoir's autobiography in a new light of feminist criticism, reveals a concept of dependency different from the need to rely on, receive help from, and be influenced by another. When one examines the meanings of dependency and independence through the female language of connectedness and women's values of care and involvement, the essential meaning of dependency shifts from lack of self-reliance to suppression of self-expression, and from struggles with separation to struggles with one's own truth and authenticity with respect to relations with others.
It may not be surprising, within de Beauvoir's philosophical framework of the ontological opposition between self and other, that spontaneity of desire and authenticity of expression are the intrinsic values of a dignified human existence, as well as those qualities which distinguish otherness and alterity from autonomous existence. This is not to say that de Beauvoir did not attach an utter importance to the economic and material condition of women. She continuously argued that a woman can achieve true autonomy only through the practice of an independent profession. However, authentic expression of needs is a necessary mediation between love and autonomy.
With all its philosophical connotations, the connection between authentic self-expression and independence ring intimate and psychologically close. It reveals an unspoken dimension of human experience which needs to be further explored and understood.
Whether inhibited self-expression indeed captures the core of women's inner experience of dependency in our society is an empirical question for another study. Nonetheless, de Beauvoir's autobiography does demand our reconsideration of the concept of independence defined as self-reliance and dependency defined as its lack, and calls our attention to the themes of spontaneity and authenticity of expression both in our interpersonal relations and in our sense of independence.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5570
SOURCE: "Ambiguity and Alienation in The Second Sex," in Boundary 2, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 96-112.
[In the following essay, Moi discusses Beauvoir's philosophical analysis of female oppression in The Second Sex. "For Simone de Beauvoir," writes Moi, "women are fundamentally characterized by ambiguity and conflict."]
Divided, torn, disadvantaged: for women the stakes are higher; there are more victories and more defeats for them than for men.
—Simone de Beauvoir, The Force of Circumstance (translation amended)
The article that follows is an excerpt from a much longer discussion of alienation and the body in The Second Sex, taken from chapter 6 of my forthcoming book on Simone de Beauvoir. The excerpt printed here is preceded by a discussion of the relationship between The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity, and by an analysis of the rhetoric—the language—of philosophy in The Second Sex. It is followed by a detailed study of Beauvoir's analysis of female desire. Drawing these threads together, the chapter concludes by examining the philosophical implications of Beauvoir's analysis of what I like to call patriarchal femininity. One of my conclusions in this chapter is that Beauvoir actually succeeds in dismantling the patriarchal paradigm of universal masculinity in philosophy. I am afraid that the excerpt published here only forms one of the steps on the way to that conclusion. I nevertheless hope that it can be read on its own as a close textual analysis of the concept of alienation in Beauvoir's theory. As this excerpt makes clear, this concept is bound up with the idea of the body: it is imperative to integrate any discussion of alienation with an exploration of Beauvoir's understanding of the body. I should perhaps also say that in my own readings of Beauvoir I try to produce a dialectical understanding of her contradictions and ambiguities. It follows that I don't consider every contradiction to be unproductive. It also follows that any single concept, such as that of alienation, should be examined in its interaction with other crucial concepts in Beauvoir's texts. This is why Beauvoir's account of female sexuality—or female psychosexual development—should not be taken to represent the whole of her analysis of women's oppression. In order to grasp the political implications of her epochal essay, it is also necessary to explore the strength and limitations of her understanding of freedom. That is the task I try to carry out in chapter 7 of my book.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) Beauvoir presents a general philosophy of existence. Her fundamental assumptions in this book also form the starting point for her next essay, The Second Sex (1949). According to Beauvoir's 1947 essay, men and women share the same human condition. We are all split, all threatened by the "fall" into immanence, and we are all mortal. In this sense, no human being ever coincides with him- or herself: we are all lack of being. In order to escape from the tension and anguish (angoisse) of this ambiguity, we may all be tempted to take refuge in the havens of bad faith. Starting where The Ethics of Ambiguity ends, The Second Sex launches its inquiry into women's condition by focusing on the question of difference:
Now, what specifically defines the situation of woman is that she—a free and autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless discovers and chooses herself in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. They propose to turn her into an object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is for ever to be transcended by another consciousness which is essential and sovereign. The drama of woman lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject—which always posits itself as essential—and the demands of a situation which constitutes her as inessential.
This is perhaps the single most important passage in The Second Sex, above all because Beauvoir here poses a radically new theory of sexual difference. While we are all split and ambiguous, she argues, women are more split and ambiguous than men. For Simone de Beauvoir, then, women are fundamentally characterized by ambiguity and conflict. The specific contradiction of women's situation is caused by the conflict between their status as free and autonomous human beings and the fact that they are socialized in a world in which men consistently cast them as Other to their One, as objects to their subjects. The effect is to produce women as subjects painfully torn between freedom and alienation, transcendence and immanence, subject-being and object-being. This fundamental contradiction, or split, in which the general ontological ambiguity of human beings is repeated and reinforced by the social pressures brought to bear on women, is specific to women under patriarchy. For Beauvoir, at least initially, there is nothing ahistorical about this: when oppressive power relations cease to exist, women will be no more split and contradictory than men. As I will go on to show, however, Beauvoir's analysis implies that while the major contradictions of women's situation may disappear, women will in fact always remain somewhat more ambiguous than men.
Again Beauvoir's theory is clearly metaphorical: the social oppression of women, she implies, mirrors or repeats the ontological ambiguity of existence. Paradoxically enough, on this point Beauvoir's analysis gains in potential strength from its metaphorical structure: it is precisely the absence of any purely logical link between the two levels of analysis that leaves us free to reject the one without having to deny the other as well. In this way, Beauvoir's careful account of women torn between freedom and alienation under patriarchy may well be experienced as convincing, even by readers radically at odds with Sartre's theory of consciousness.
The oppression of women, Beauvoir argues, is in some ways similar to the oppression of other social groups, such as that of Jews or American blacks. Members of such groups are also treated as objects by members of the ruling caste or race. Yet women's situation remains fundamentally different, above all because women are scattered across all social groups and thus have been unable to form a society of their own: "The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other," Beauvoir insists. The effect of this social situation is that women tend to feel solidarity with men in their own social group rather than with women in general. This is why, unlike every other oppressed group, women have been unable to cast themselves as historical subjects opposing their oppressors: under patriarchy, there are no female ghettos, no female compounds in which to organize a collective uprising: "Women," Beauvoir writes in 1949, "do not say 'We' … they do not authentically posit themselves as Subject." The specificity of women's oppression consists precisely in the absence of a female collectivity capable of perceiving itself as a historical subject opposed to other social groups. This is why no other oppressed group experiences the same kind of contradiction between freedom and alienation. Beauvoir, in other words, is not interested in producing a competitive hierarchy of oppression. Her point is not that women necessarily are more, or more painfully, oppressed than every other group but simply that the oppression of women is a highly specific kind of oppression.
Rich and varied, Beauvoir's own vocabulary of ambiguity and conflict ranges from ambivalence, distance, divorce, and split to alienation, contradiction, and mutilation. But every ambiguity is not negative: as readers of The Second Sex, we must not make the paradoxical mistake of taking the value of ambiguity to be given once and for all. For Beauvoir, the word ambiguous often means "dialectical" and describes a fundamental contradiction underpinning an apparently stable and coherent phenomenon. In The Second Sex, every conflict is potentially both productive and destructive: in some cases, one aspect wins out; in others, the tension remains unresolved. The advantage of Beauvoir's position is that it enables her to draw up a highly complex map of women's situation in the world, one that is never blind to the way in which women occasionally reap paradoxical advantages from their very powerlessness. As a whole, however, The Second Sex amply demonstrates that such spurious spin-offs remain precarious and unpredictable: for Beauvoir, the effects of sexism are overwhelmingly destructive for men as well as for women.
Every one of the descriptions of women's "lived experience" in The Second Sex serves to reinforce Beauvoir's theory of the fundamental contradiction of women's situation. Unfortunately, the sheer mass of material makes it impossible to discuss the whole range of her analyses: her brilliant account of the antinomies of housework, or the absolutely stunning defense of abortion rights (see the chapters entitled "The Married Woman" and "The Mother"), for instance, ought still to be required reading for us all, yet they will not be discussed here. Instead, I have chosen to explore the single most important—and by far the most complex—example of contradictions and ambiguity in The Second Sex: Beauvoir's account of female sexuality. By sexuality I understand the psychosexual, as well as the biological, aspects of female sexual existence, or, in other words, the interaction between desire and the body.
"One is not born a woman, one becomes one," Beauvoir writes. The question, of course, is how. How does the little girl become a woman? In her impressive history of psychoanalysis in France, Elisabeth Roudinesco credits Simone de Beauvoir with being the first French writer to link the question of sexuality to that of political emancipation. Beauvoir's interest in the various psychoanalytic perspectives on femininity was so great, Roudinesco tells us, that a year before finishing her book, she rang up Lacan in order to ask his advice on the issue: "Flattered, Lacan announces that they would need five or six months of conversation in order to sort out the problem. Simone doesn't want to spend that much time listening to Lacan for a book which was already very well researched. She proposes four meetings. He refuses." It is not surprising that Lacan was flattered by Beauvoir's request: in Paris in 1948, Beauvoir possessed much more intellectual capital than he; in other words, she was famous, he was not.
Given this highly Lacanian disagreement on timing, the tan-talizingly transgressive fantasy of a Lacanian Second Sex has to remain in the imaginary. Although she never sat at Lacan's feet, Beauvoir nevertheless quotes his early work on Les Complexes familiaux dans la formation de l'individu, and much of her account of early childhood and femininity reads as a kind of free elaboration on Lacan's notion of the alienation of the ego in the other in the mirror stage.
The term alienation, in fact, turns up everywhere in The Second Sex. Mobilized to explain everything from female sexuality to narcissism and mysticism, the concept plays a key role in Beauvoir's theory of sexual difference. It is unfortunate indeed that this fact fails to come across in the English translation of The Second Sex. In Parshley's version, the word aliénation tends to get translated as 'projection', except in passages with a certain anthropological flavor, where it remains 'alienation'. Aliénation, however, also shows up as 'identification', and on one occasion it even masquerades as 'being beside herself'. As a result, English-language readers are prevented from tracing the philosophical logic—in this case particularly the Hegelian and/or Lacanian overtones—of Beauvoir's analysis. In my own text, I amend all relevant quotations, and I also signal particularly aberrant translations in footnotes.
According to Beauvoir, the little child reacts to the crisis of weaning by experiencing "the original drama of every existent: that of his relation to the Other." This drama is characterized by existential anguish caused by the experience of délaissement, or what Heidegger would call Überlassenheit, often translated as 'abandonment' in English. Already at this early stage, the little child dreams of escaping her freedom either by merging with the cosmic all or by becoming a thing, an in-itself:
In carnal form [the child] discovers finiteness, solitude, abandonment in a strange world. He endeavours to compensate for this catastrophe by alienating his existence in an image, the reality and value of which others will establish. It appears that he may begin to affirm his identity at the time when he recognizes his reflection in a mirror—a time which coincides with that of weaning. His ego blends so completely into this reflected image that it is formed only through its own alienation [il ne se forme qu'en s'aliénant]…. He is already an autonomous subject transcending himself towards the outer world, but he encounters himself only in an alienated form.
Initially, then, all children are equally alienated. This is not surprising, since the wish to alienate oneself in another person or thing, according to Beauvoir, is fundamental to all human beings: "Primitive people are alienated in mana, in the totem; civilized people in their individual souls, in their egos, their names, their property, their work. Here is to be found the primary temptation to inauthenticity." But sexual difference soon transforms the situation. For little boys, Beauvoir argues, it is much easier to find an object in which to alienate themselves than for little girls: admirably suited to the role as idealized alter ego, the penis quickly becomes every little boy's very own totem pole: "The penis is singularly adapted for playing this role of 'double' for the little boy—it is for him at once a foreign object and himself," Beauvoir claims. Projecting themselves into the penis, little boys invest it with the whole charge of their transcendence. For Beauvoir, then, phallic imagery represents transcendence, not sexuality.
A little girl, however, has a more difficult time. Given that she has no penis, she has no tangible object in which to alienate herself: "But the little girl cannot incarnate herself in any part of herself," Beauvoir writes. Similar in many respects to Freud's analysis of femininity, Beauvoir's account differs, as we shall see, in its explicit denial of lack and in its emphasis on the tactile rather than the visual. For Freud, girls experience themselves as inferior because they see the penis and conclude that they themselves are lacking; for Beauvoir they are different (not necessarily inferior) because they have nothing to touch. Because her sex organs are impossible to grab hold of (empoigner), it is as if they do not exist: "in a sense she has no sex organ," Beauvoir writes:
She does not experience this absence as a lack; evidently her body is, for her, quite complete; but she finds herself situated in the world differently from the boy; and a constellation of factors can transform this difference, in her eyes, into an inferiority.
Deprived of an obvious object of alienation, the little girl ends up alienating herself in herself:
Not having that alter ego, the little girl does not alienate herself in a material thing and cannot retrieve her integrity [ne se récupère pas]. On this account she is led to make an object of her whole self, to set herself up as the Other. The question of whether she has or has not compared herself with boys is secondary; the important point is that, even if she is unaware of it, the absence of the penis prevents her from becoming conscious of herself as a sexual being. From this flow many consequences.
Objects for themselves, regardless of whether they know about the penis's existence or not, little girls are radically split, yet irredeemably caught up in their own alienated self-image. But this is not all. On the evidence of this surprising passage, little girls are forced by their anatomy to alienate themselves in themselves. Furthermore, Beauvoir claims, they fail to "recover" or "retrieve" (récupérer) themselves. In my view, these remarks offer a condensed version of the whole of Beauvoir's theory of alienation. As such, they have a series of wide-ranging and complex implications that I will now go on to explore.
Much like Lacan, Beauvoir casts the moment of alienation as constitutive of the subject, but, unlike Lacan, she believes that the subject only comes into authentic being if it completes the dialectical movement and goes on to recover (récupérer), or reintegrate, the alienated image of itself (the double, the alter ego) back into its own subjectivity. Drawing on this Hegelian logic, Beauvoir insists that little boys easily achieve the required synthesis, whereas little girls fail to recover themselves. Why, then, do little boys easily "recover" their own transcendence? For Beauvoir, the answer is to be found in the anatomical and physiological properties of the penis. Eminently detachable, the penis is nevertheless not quite detached from the body. Projecting his transcendence into the penis, the boy projects it into an object that is part of his body yet has a strange life of its own: "the function of urination and later of erection are processes midway between the voluntary and involuntary," Beauvoir writes; the penis is "a capricious and as it were foreign source of pleasure that is felt subjectively…. The penis is regarded by the subject as at once himself and other than himself." Not so foreign and distant as to appear entirely without connections with the boy, yet not so close as to prevent a clear-cut distinction between the boy's subjectivity and his own projected transcendence, the penis, according to Beauvoir, enables the boy to recognize himself in his alter ego: "Because he has an alter ego in whom he recognizes himself, the little boy can boldly assume his subjectivity," she writes, "the very object in which he alienates himself becomes a symbol of autonomy, of transcendence, of power."
In my view, the word recognition here must be taken to allude to the Hegelian Anerkennung. Loosely inspired by Hegel, Beauvoir would seem to imply that there can be no recognition without the positing of a subject and an other. By being relatively other (thus allowing the positing of a subject-other distinction), yet not quite other (thus making recognition of oneself in the other easier), the penis facilitates the recuperation of the boy's alienated transcendence back into his subjectivity. Recuperating his sense of transcendence for himself, the boy escapes his alienation: his penis totem becomes the very instrument that in the end allows him to "assume his subjectivity" and act authentically.
To say that there is something Hegelian about Beauvoir's argument here is not to claim that she is being particularly orthodox or consistent. Freely developing the themes of recognition and the dialectical triad, Beauvoir entirely forgets that for Hegel recognition presupposes the reciprocal exchange between two subjects. As far as I can see, however, Beauvoir never actually claims that the penis speaks back. Confronted with the alluring idea that it is not only the little boy who must recognize himself in his penis, but the penis that must recognize itself in the boy, Hegel himself might have had some difficulty in recognizing his own theory.
Whatever the vicissitudes of the penis may be, little girls have a harder time of it. As we have seen, Beauvoir holds that the girl's anatomy makes her alienate herself in her whole body, not just in a semi-detached object, such as the penis. Even if she is given a doll to play with, the situation doesn't change. Dolls are passive things representing the whole body, and as such they encourage the little girl to "alienate herself in her whole person and to regard this as an inert given object," Beauvoir claims. In her alienated state, the little girl apparently becomes "passive" and "inert." Why is this the outcome of the girl's alienation? The "alienated" penis, after all, was perceived by the boy as a proud image of transcendence. Why does this not happen to the girl's whole body? Where does her transcendence go?
On this point, Beauvoir's text is not particularly easy to follow. I take her to argue that the girl's alienation sets up an ambiguous split between herself and her alienated image of herself. "Woman, like man, is her body," Beauvoir writes about the adult woman, "but her body is something other than herself." This, one may remember, is an exact quotation of her description of the boy's alienated penis. The adult woman, then, has still not achieved the dialectical reintegration of her transcendence. The reason why she fails to do so is that, paradoxically, she wasn't alienated enough in the first place. Precisely because her body is herself, one might say, it is difficult for the girl to distinguish between the alienated body and her transcendent consciousness of that body. Or, in other words, the difference between the whole body and the penis is that the body can never be considered simply an object in the world for its own "owner": the body, after all, is our mode of existing in the world: "To be present in the world implies strictly that there exists a body which is at once a material thing in the world and a point of view towards this world," Beauvoir writes.
Alienating herself in her body, the little girl alienates her transcendence in a "thing" that remains ambiguously part of her own original transcendence. Her alienation, we might say, creates a murky mixture of transcendence, thingness, and the alienated image of a body-ego. The very ambiguity of this amalgam of the in-itself and the for-itself recalls Sartre's horrified vision of the "sticky" or "slimy," as that which is eternally ambiguous and always threatening to engulf the for-itself. Permitting no clear-cut positing of a subject and an other, this ambivalent mixture prevents the girl from achieving the dialectical reintegration of her alienated transcendence which, apparently, is so easy for the boy. For her, in other words, there is no unambiguous opposition between the two first moments of the dialectic: this is what makes it so hard for her to "recover" her alienated transcendence in a new synthesis.
It does not follow from this that the little girl has no sense of herself as a transcendence at all. If that were the case, she would be entirely alienated, which is precisely what she is not. Instead, Beauvoir appears to suggest that there is an ever present tension—or even struggle—between the little girl's transcendent subjectivity and her complicated and ambivalent alienation. On this theory, the girl's psychological structures must be pictured as a complex and mobile process rather than as a static and fixed image. But on this reading, Beauvoir's account of the girl's alienation transforms and extends her own highly reified initial concept of alienation: rather unwittingly, I think, Beauvoir here manages to challenge the limitations of her original point of departure. The result is that her theory of female subjectivity is far more interesting and original than her rather too neat and tidy account of male psychological structures.
Towards the end of The Second Sex, Beauvoir argues that the process of alienation is constitutive of narcissism. (On this point, one may add, her position is entirely compatible with that of Lacan.) "Narcissism is a well-defined process of alienation," Beauvoir writes, "in which the ego is regarded as an absolute end and the subject takes refuge from itself in it." For the narcissistic subject, her ego or self is nothing but an alienated and idealized image of herself, another alter ego or double in danger in the world. As far as I can see, the difference between the narcissistic and the non-narcissistic woman is that the latter conserves a sense of ambiguity or contradiction, whereas the former persuades herself that she is the image projected by her alienation. This is why narcissism, according to Beauvoir, represents a supreme effort to "accomplish the impossible synthesis of the en-soi and the pour-soi": the "successful" narcissist really believes that she is God.
For Beauvoir as for Sartre, alienation is transcendence attempting to turn itself into an object. Alienating ourselves in another thing or person, we deprive ourselves of the power to act for or by ourselves. Deprived of agency, our alienated transcendence is defenselessly delivered up to the dangers of the world. For Beauvoir, there is thus no need to mobilize a specific theory of castration anxiety to explain why little boys feel that their penis is constantly endangered. To worry about the safety of one's penis, however, is infinitely preferable to feeling obscurely threatened in one's whole person, as little girls do:
The diffuse apprehension felt by the little girl in regard to her "insides" … will often be retained for life. She is extremely concerned about everything that happens inside her, she is from the start much more opaque to her own eyes, more profoundly immersed in the obscure mystery of life, than is the male.
In this passage, as everywhere else in The Second Sex, Beauvoir's subtle and incisive exploration of women's situation is juxtaposed to a far too sanguine view of masculinity. In the light of her own belief in the influence of social factors on the development of sexual difference, she hugely overestimates the convenience of the penis as a foolproof instrument of alienation and reintegration. Every little boy or every adult male does not, after all, come across as an authentically transcendent subject. Beauvoir's admiration of masculinity is such that she even assumes that girls brought up by men rather than by women "very largely escape the defects of femininity."
While there are strong biographical reasons for her misjudgment on this point, rhetorically speaking, the main source of Beauvoir's idealization of the penis would seem to be metaphorical. Littered with references to the powerful symbolic effects of urination from a standing rather than from a crouching position, her text repeatedly emphasizes the penis's capacity for quasi-independent motion, as well as for the projection of liquids over a certain distance. What fascinates her above all is the idea that the male organ moves and, moreover, that it is upwardly mobile, particularly in its grandiose projection of urine: "Every stream of water in the air seems like a miracle, a defiance of gravity: to direct, to govern it, is to win a small victory over the laws of nature," Beauvoir claims, quoting Sartre and Bachelard to substantiate her point.
Strikingly original in her approach, Beauvoir in fact sees sexual difference as the result of different modes of alienation. At first glance, however, it looks as if the development of different forms of alienation depends entirely on the anatomical presence or absence of the penis. The question is whether this really is a correct reading of Beauvoir's position. Insisting that hers is a theory of the social construction of femininity and masculinity, Beauvoir herself categorically refuses the idea of a biological "destiny". On the contrary, she argues, it is the social context that gives meaning to biological and psychological factors: "True human privilege is based upon anatomical privilege only in virtue of the total situation [la situation saisie dans sa totalité]." It is only when the girl discovers that men have power in the world and women do not that she risks mistaking her difference for inferiority: "She sees that it is not the women, but the men who control the world. It is this revelation—much more than the discovery of the penis—which irresistibly alters her conception of herself."
Given the right social encouragement, Beauvoir argues, girls may still manage to recover their transcendence. While the penis is a privileged possession in early childhood, after the age of eight or nine it holds onto its prestige only because it is socially valorized. Social practices, not biology, encourage little girls to remain sunk in passivity and narcissism, and force little boys to become active subjects. It is because little boys are treated more harshly than girls, and not because they intrinsically are less self-indulgent, that they are better equipped to project themselves into the competitive world of concrete action. In my view, Beauvoir's theory of alienation actually implies that social factors have greater influence on girls than on boys: precisely because girls' transcendence is precariously balanced between complete alienation and authentic subjectivity, it doesn't take much to push the girl in either direction. Less pronounced in boys, one might argue, this ambiguity makes girls particularly susceptible to social pressure:
Along with the authentic demand of the subject who wants sovereign freedom, there is in the existent an in-authentic longing for resignation and escape; the delights of passivity are made to seem desirable to the young girl by parents and teachers, books and myths, women and men; she is taught to enjoy them from earliest childhood; the temptation becomes more and more insidious; and she is the more fatally bound to yield to those delights as the flight of her transcendence is dashed against harsher obstacles.
I take her constant appeal to social factors to be one of the strongest points of Beauvoir's position. But when it comes to explaining exactly how we are to understand the relationship between the anatomical and the social, Beauvoir's discourse becomes curiously slippery. Not to have a penis, for instance, is not necessarily a handicap: "If woman should succeed in establishing herself as subject, she would invent equivalents of the phallus; in fact, the doll, incarnating the promise of the baby that is to come in the future, can become a possession more precious than the penis." Dolls, it now appears, do not necessarily cause alienated passivity after all: "The boy, too, can cherish a teddy bear, or a puppet into which he projects himself [se projette]; it is within the totality of their lives that each factor—penis or doll—takes on its importance." There is something circular about Beauvoir's argument here. For if the very form of the little girl's body encourages a sticky and incomplete mode of alienation in the first place, the little girl will find it difficult, indeed, to "establish herself as a subject." If "equivalents of the phallus" are what is needed in order to become an authentic subject, it is hard to see why women would want them after they have managed to become subjects in their own right anyway. In my view, Beauvoir's hesitations over the subject of dolls signal her own uneasy feeling that her original formulation of the girl's alienation privileges anatomy more than she would wish. Her contradictory feelings about the role of dolls, then, reveal a deeper theoretical difficulty: that of finding a way of linking an anatomical and psychological argument with a sociological one.
The fact that Beauvoir fails explicitly to raise this problem causes her to overlook an important gap in her own account of alienation. Attentive readers may already have noticed that her text moves directly from the Lacanian idea of the alienation of the child in the gaze of the other to the rather different idea that boys and girls alienate themselves in their bodies. Unfortunately, Beauvoir makes no attempt to relate Lacan's theory to her own. For her, apparently, the two simply coexist. Failing to perceive this as a problem, Beauvoir also misses out on a crucial opportunity to bridge the gap in her own theory, for instance by suggesting that it is the gaze of the other that originally invests the child's alienated image of itself with the phallocentric values it then goes on to repeat in its own work of alienation. By giving her own theory a slightly more Lacanian twist on this point, she would have managed, at least in my view, to produce a better account of the relationship between the biological and the psychosocial than she actually does.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, the Beauvoir makes her subtle theory of femininity function as a foil to her rather less sophisticated theory of masculinity. It is not difficult to show that Beauvoir's idealization of the phallus in fact contradicts Sartre's own account of masculine desire and transcendence. Nowhere is she on a greater collision course with Sartre than in her idealized account of masculinity: there is a nice paradox in the fact that in the very passages where she unconsciously seeks to pay tribute to Sartre, she entirely betrays his philosophical logic.
In Beauvoir's theory of alienation, I appreciate above all her effort to think dialectically, her courageous attempt fully to grasp the contradictions of women's position. The strength of Beauvoir's theory of alienation as constitutive of sexual difference is not only that it manages to suggest—albeit somewhat imperfectly—that patriarchal power structures are at work in the very construction of female subjectivity but also that it attempts to show exactly how this process works. Emphasizing the social pressures brought to bear on the little girl, Beauvoir also indicates that different practices will yield different results: hers is not at all a theory of intrinsic sexual differences. Providing the basis for a sophisticated analysis of women's difficulties in conceiving of themselves as social and sexual subjects under patriarchy, Beauvoir's theory also implies that it is both unjust and unrealistic to underestimate the difficulty involved in becoming a free woman. Given Beauvoir's logic, for a woman to be able to oppose the order that oppresses her is much harder than for a man to do so; under patriarchy, women's achievements therefore become rather more impressive than comparable male feats. As she puts it in The Force of Circumstance: "For women the stakes are higher; there are more victories and more defeats for them than for men."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6847
SOURCE: "Gender and Subjectivity: Simone de Beauvoir and Contemporary Feminism," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 18, No. 1, Autumn, 1992, pp. 89-110.
[In the following essay, Kruks offers a reexamination of Beauvoir's view of female subjectivity and her relationship to contemporary postmodern and feminist thought.]
Theoretical debate among North American feminists in the last decade has been widely influenced by postmodernism. Indeed, some have gone so far as to claim that feminist theory is inherently postmodern, its very project necessarily challenging such "Enlightenment myths" as the existence of a stable self or subject and the possibility of attaining objective truth about the world through the use of reason. They argue that feminist theory, with its deconstruction of what appears natural in our society, its focus on difference, and its subversion of the stable phallocentric norms of Western thought, "properly belongs in the terrain of postmodern philosophy" and that "feminist notions of the self, knowledge, and truth are too contradictory to those of the Enlightenment to be contained within its categories" ([Jane] Flax 1987).
I am not convinced, however, that such claims can be substantiated. For one thing, they presuppose a binary opposition, Enlightenment/postmodern, that is itself both historically and conceptually questionable. For another, we do not have a sufficiently clear consensus on what we might mean by "feminist" notions of "the self, knowledge, and truth" to permit us to be able to claim that they "properly" belong anywhere in particular. Most important, feminism is much more than a field of scholarship, and it is when we come to the terrain of feminist politics that postmodernism arguably presents the greatest difficulties.
In a spate of recent articles, authors such as Wendy Brown (1987), Nancy Hartsock (1987), and Linda Alcoff (1988) claim that postmodernism depoliticizes feminism and urge feminists to have virtually no truck with it. Such authors argue that the problems that postmodernism presents for feminist practice, its radical nominalism or constructivism (including a constructivist account of the body) and its discourse-boundedness, preclude a grasp of the objective conditions of women's lives. Most significantly, they hold, the postmodern refusal to conceive of the self or subject as a knowing and volitional agent—a conception of agency that has underpinned most prior feminist visions of political action—implies an unacceptable passivity: women are reduced to no more than the effects of discursive practices, products of the play of signifiers, victims of a "discourse determinism." No place, they charge, is left in the postmodern account of social change for the organized and conscious struggle of groups or individuals. For postmodernists erroneously claim that change takes place through a suprahuman play of discourses over which we can have little or no influence.
Though such writers portray postmodernism as irremediably flawed and inimical to effective feminist politics, others who share some of their concerns also believe that it is still worth attempting to work toward a rapprochement with postmodernism. Sandra Harding, for example, has recently argued that feminist epistemology needs both Enlightenment and postmodern agendas and that neither agenda can be constructed to the total exclusion of the other (1990). Mary Poovey has neatly summed up the problem this way: "The challenge for those of us who are convinced both that real historical women do exist and share certain experiences and that deconstruction's demystifying of presence makes theoretical sense is to work out some way to think both women and 'woman.' It isn't an easy task" (1988).
My own view, while critical of the more grandiose claims sometimes, made in the name of postmodernism—including those for the "death of the subject," for the impossibility of any totalizing or continuous account of history, and for the irrelevance of biology to sexuality (let alone gender)—is that, at a more modest theoretical altitude than that to which its adherents usually aspire, postmodernism offers valuable tools and techniques to feminism. The best of what postmodern feminism has developed so far is not "high theory" so much as a series of radical glosses on the now classic starting point proposed by Simone de Beauvoir: "one is not born a woman, one becomes one." Postmodern deconstructive techniques and genealogical methods, like the work of Beauvoir, may help us to de-essentialize and de-naturalize the concept of "woman."
What we have learned (or perhaps re-learned) from postmodern theories is the very real power of discourse and the lack of transparency of language: there is no returning to a simple realism today. Yet I share with Poovey a concern that we remain able to talk about "real historical women" and that we do not embrace a kind of postmodern hyperconstructivism in which the very category of "women" can disappear (as, e.g., in [Denise] Riley ).
Similarly, what we have learned from the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment subject is that we should not attribute to consciousness the absolute power to constitute its own world: subjectivity is never "pure" or fully autonomous but inheres in selves that are shaped by cultural discourses and that are always embodied—selves that thus are also gendered. Yet to acknowledge all of this does not mean that we are obliged to proclaim definitively "the death of the subject." It is important for feminist politics (as Alcoff and others have argued) that we remain able to grant a role to individual consciousness and agency, to insist even on a notion of individual responsibility for our actions. But we must do so while also acknowledging the ways in which subjectivity is discursively and socially constructed. In particular, we need to be able to account for gender as an aspect of subjectivity, but to do so without either essentializing or dehistoricizing it.
As a contribution to such an attempt to re-construct the subject, this article sets out to re-examine the work of an earlier thinker: Simone de Beauvoir. For it is not the case that before postmodernism there was only the Enlightenment or modernity. Indeed, if ever there was a binary opposition that needs deconstructing, it is that between modernity and postmodernity. Fortunately, we do not have to choose between the unhappy alternatives of an Enlightenment subject (i.e., an autonomous or self-constituting consciousness) on the one hand and the attempt, as Michel Foucault pithily put it, "to get rid of the subject itself" on the other ( 1980). In the work of Beauvoir, I want to argue, we find a nuanced conception of the subject that cannot be characterized as either Enlightenment or postmodern: rather, it is a conception of the subject as situated.
In her account of women as subjects "in situation," Beauvoir can both acknowledge the weight of social construction, including gender, in the formation of the self and yet refuse to reduce the self to an "effect." She can grant a degree of autonomy to the self—as is necessary in order to retain such key notions as political action, responsibility, and the oppression of the self—while also acknowledging the real constraints on autonomous subjectivity produced by oppressive situations. As I suggest later, Beauvoir's account of situated subjectivity is one from which we could begin to develop an account of the gendering of subjectivity that can avoid both essentialism and hyperconstructivism.
It will perhaps be helpful to return to Beauvoir through a brief overview of recent intellectual history, recalling that, like the main proponents of postmodernism, Beauvoir wrote in a distinctly French intellectual milieu. Postmodernism and the existential phenomenology that shaped Beauvoir's thought form (to write old-fashioned narrative) part of the same history. Although the postmodern critique of modernity can be traced back to Nietzsche or to the later work of Heidegger, what has been imported into American feminist theory in the last decade under the rubric of postmodernism is a cluster of ideas formulated primarily in France from the late 1960s onward. I would argue, however, that these ideas do not constitute the profound epistemic or epistemological break their authors frequently claim for them but, rather, are both absorptions of and reactions against the work of earlier generations of French thinkers.
Postmodernism emerged in France above all as a radicalizing critique of 1960s structuralism, as "poststructuralism." In spite of its objectivist stance and claims to scientificity, structuralism easily passed into post-structuralism through their shared hostility to the classical notion of the subject. What links structuralism and poststructuralism in France is what may be summed up as their antihumanism. From the insistence of Claude Lévi-Strauss that the aim of the human sciences is "to dissolve man" and the claims of Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser that "the subject" is a mere "effect," to Jacques Derrida's attacks on the metaphysics of "presence" and Foucault's arguments that subjects are "constituted" as a function of discourse, what has been under attack are those notions of autonomous subjectivity and agency that have indeed been central to philosophy since the Enlightenment.
Although this attack can, if one so chooses, be located in the broad historical sweep from modernity to postmodernity, the emergence of French antihumanism was in its origins also a far more parochial phenomenon: a Parisian-based reaction against the hegemony exercised by humanistic existential phenomenology and Marxism in postwar France. It was, above all, against Jean-Paul Sartre that the battle was waged. Indeed, the "dissolution of man" was first proclaimed by Lévi-Strauss in 1962 in the context of a chapter-length attack on Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason ( 1968, chap. 9). In the late 1970s, Foucault still bluntly stated his agenda as the attempt to use genealogy to displace not only Marxism but also the phenomenology of his student days: the phenomenological subject, in any form, had to be destroyed, he insisted. Long after we might have thought phenomenology dead in France, Foucault felt it necessary to insist on killing it yet again:
I don't believe the problem can be resolved by historicizing the subject, as posited by the phenomenologists, fabricating a subject that evolves through the course of history. One has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself, that's to say, to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework … [Genealogy] is a form of history which can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects etc., without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history. [(1977) 1980]
This statement opposes as stark alternatives a conception of the subject as "constituent" (or constituting) and as "transcendental" to history, on the one hand, and a conception of the subject as constituted and to be analyzed as an "effect" of its historical framework, on the other. In it we find posed those oversimple choices between humanism and antihumanism, between Enlightenment or modernity and postmodernity that postmodernists frequently tend to present us with because of the dichotomizing lenses through which they view the history of philosophy. In order to account for the weight of social structures, discourses, and practices in the shaping of subjectivity and yet still to acknowledge that an element of freedom is intrinsic to subjectivity—an element that allows us to talk, as I think we must, of individual human agency and responsibility—we need a far more complex, indeed dialectical, account of the subject than Foucault's work would grant us. Ironically, such an account is be found in the work of some of the very French phenomenologists Foucault dismissed, including Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It is also to be found in Sartre's later works, such as Critique of Dialectical Reason ( 1976) and his monumental study of Flaubert. As I have argued elsewhere, however, it was not yet present in his 1940s "existentialism," of which Being and Nothingness (1943) was the fullest formulation: a work that still asserted (albeit paradoxically) a version of the classic Enlightenment subject.
Simone de Beauvoir, the "Mother" of second wave feminism ([Carol] Ascher 1987), was, of course, closely associated with Sartre personally and philosophically. When The Second Sex (1949) was adopted by American feminists in the late 1960s, its insight that one is not born but becomes a woman, that femininity is a social construct and not an unchangeable essence or a biological destiny, seemed a revelation. But although this insight remains central to postmodern feminism, by the late 1970s The Second Sex began to seem rather passé. It was not only that Beauvoir's descriptions of women's experiences increasingly applied to a bygone age and to women of a narrow social stratum. Her solutions—the book ended with a call for a "fraternal" collaboration of men and women in establishing "the reign of liberty in the midst of the world of the given"—seemed to deny the female difference that many feminists now valorized. Her notion of liberation arguably implied making women conform to a male ideal. Her persistent use of sexist language (the Sartrean language of "man" and "his" world) demonstrated how insensitive she had been to male dominance in her own intellectual milieu.
Moreover, since Beauvoir was said to share with Sartre not only a misogynist dislike of the female body but the entire philosophical baggage of "existentialism," including the Sartrean conception of the subject, postmodern feminism has come to dismiss her as methodologically naive. Today Beauvoir is generally treated as a venerable ancestor, but she is no longer regarded as having anything of significance to contribute to the on-going development of feminist theory. Rather than consigning her to ancestor worship, however, I want to argue that Beauvoir remains highly relevant to current theoretical concerns. In particular she still speaks to the problem of developing an adequate feminist theory of the gendering of subjectivity.
Both in her ethical essays of the 1940s and in The Second Sex, Beauvoir developed a somewhat submerged account of "being-in-situation," or situated subjectivity, that was radically different from Sartre's. To claim that Beauvoir departs significantly from the notion of the autonomous subject is also, of course, to say that Beauvoir was far more philosophically independent from Sartre than has generally been recognized. I will begin from this last point, to show that Beauvoir's work is not as consistently rooted in Sartrean philosophy as has been commonly supposed and that it departs from Sartre's identification of subjectivity with an inviolable, autonomous consciousness. I will then suggest, in the final section, what it is about Beauvoir's conception of the subject that makes it of enduring significance for the project of reconstructing our account of the gendering of subjectivity.
It was Beauvoir herself who insisted that her work was philosophically derivative of Sartre's. Repeatedly, and until the last years of her life, Beauvoir said that she lacked originality and was merely Sartre's disciple in matters philosophical. She was willing to claim originality for herself in the field of literature, but in the more hallowed field of philosophy she could not compete but only follow. "On the philosophical level," she insisted, "I adhered completely to Being and Nothingness and later to Critique of Dialectical Reason." Too many scholars and commentators have taken Beauvoir at her word. Most assume that, as one author recently put it, she simply uses Sartre's concepts as "coat-hangers" on which to hang her own material, even to the point where it can be said that "Sartre's intellectual history becomes her own" ([Judith] Okely 1986). Yet such a view, even though embraced by Beauvoir herself, is misleading. For although Beauvoir doubtless tried to work within a Sartrean framework (i.e., the framework of Being and Nothingness), she did not wholly succeed. Many of the leaps and inconsistencies one can find in her work reflect, I believe, a tension between her formal adherence to Sartrean categories and the fact that the philosophical implications of her work are in large measure incompatible with Sartreanism.
For Sartre, subjectivity or "being-for-itself" is wholly autonomous and, because unconditioned, free. Man is an "absolute subject." Each subject, although existing "in situation" and thus encountering the facticity of the world of things (or "being-in-itself"), always freely and autonomously constitutes the meaning of its own situation through the capacity for transcendence. Moreover, in relations between human beings, which Sartre characterizes as the fundamentally conflictual relation of Self and Other, this absolute autonomy of the subject always remains intact. Thus, for Sartre, relations of unequal power have no bearing on the autonomy of the subject. "The slave in chains is as free as his master," Sartre tells us, because each is equally free to choose the meaning he gives his own situation. The question of material or political inequality between master and slave is simply irrelevant to their relation as two freedoms, as two absolute subjects. In the same vein, Sartre is able to write—in the middle of World War II!—that the Jew remains free in the face of the anti-Semite because he can choose his own attitude toward his persecutor.
In his delineation of the absolute subject, Sartre remains within what many feminists have suggested is a typically male conception of the subject. He presents a version of what Nancy Hartsock has characterized as the "walled city" view of the self, which conceives of the self as not only radically separate from others but also as always potentially hostile. As Hartsock has observed, Hegel's account of the emergence of self-consciousness "seeks the death of the other"—an account that Sartre appropriates as the relation of self and other in Being and Nothingness—restates a common masculine experience: "The construction of a self in opposition to another who threatens one's very being reverberates throughout the construction of both class society and the masculinist world view and results in a deep-going and hierarchical dualism" (Hartsock 1985). Moreover, Sartre's notion of the subject shares the abstract universalism that others have suggested comes with a specifically male notion of reason (see, e.g., [Genevieve] Lloyd  and Harding ). To be master or slave, anti-Semite or Jew—or male or female—has, for Sartre, no bearing on the absolute and inviolable subjectivity of which each of us is the bearer.
Given these arguably masculinist elements of the Sartrean notion of the subject, his philosophy would not seem to provide a hospitable framework within which to develop feminist theory. Insofar as Beauvoir tries to remain within it, she does appeal to a predominantly male notion of abstract, universal freedom as the goal for the liberated woman. Existing in unhappy antagonism with the Sartrean framework, however, is a significantly different notion of the self from which Beauvoir operates. This is a less dualistic and more relational notion of the self, such as Hartsock and others have argued often emerges from the particularities of women's life experience (Hartsock 1985). It involves, contra the early Sartre, a tacit rejection of the notion of the "absolute subject" for a situated subject: a subject that is intrinsically intersubjective and embodied, thus always "interdependent" and permeable rather than walled.
Beauvoir had already begun to develop a notion of the subject different from Sartre's well before she wrote The Second Sex. This is apparent in the summary in her autobiographical volume, The Prime of Life, of a series of conversations she had with Sartre in the spring of 1940. In these conversations, Sartre set out for her the main lines of the argument of what was to become Being and Nothingness. Their discussions, Beauvoir recalled in 1960, centered above all on the problem of "the relation of situation to freedom." On this point they disagreed:
I maintained that, from the point of view of freedom, as Sartre defined it—not as a stoical resignation but as an active transcendence of the given—not every situation is equal: what transcendence is possible for a woman locked up in a harem? Even such a cloistered existence could be lived in several different ways, Sartre said. I clung to my opinion for a long time and then made only a token submission. Basically I was right. But to have been able to defend my position, I would have had to abandon the terrain of individualist, thus idealist, morality, where we stood.
Beauvoir was right that her "submission" was no more than "token." Although she was never willing to challenge head-on Sartre's conception of freedom, or the notion of the impermeable "walled city subject" that it implied, she quietly subverted them. This becomes clearer in two essays on ethics she wrote prior to The Second Sex: Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944) and The Ethics of Ambiguity ( 1967). In Pyrrhus et Cinéas, written while Being and Nothingness was in press, Beauvoir begins from the Sartrean autonomous subject but ends by putting in question the theory of fundamentally conflictual social relations that Sartre develops from it. Although Beauvoir presents freedoms as separate, she argues that, paradoxically, they are also intrinsically interdependent. If one tries to imagine a world in which one is the only person, the image is horrifying, she insists. For everything one does would be pointless unless there were other subjects to valorize it: "A man [sic] alone in the world would be paralysed by the self-evident vanity of all his goals; he could not bear to live."
Moreover, for others to valorize one's project, Beauvoir argues, it is not enough that they are free merely in Sartre's sense; it is not sufficient for them to be subjects each of whom constitutes, like the master and the slave, the meaning of his or her own discrete situation. Freedom for Beauvoir, far more than for Sartre, involves a practical subjectivity: the ability of each of us to act in the world so that we can take up each other's projects and give them a future meaning. And for this to be possible, we also require an equal degree of practical freedom:
The other's freedom can do nothing for me unless my own goals can serve as his point of departure; it is by using the tool which I have invented that the other prolongs its existence; the scholar can only talk with men who have arrived at the same level of knowledge as himself … I must therefore endeavour to create for all men situations which will enable them to accompany and surpass my transcendence. I need their freedom to be available to use me, to preserve me in surpassing me. I require for men health, knowledge, well being, leisure, so that their freedom does not consume itself in fighting sickness, ignorance, misery.
Already, then, Beauvoir is aware of the interdependence of subjectivities and, in ways that Sartre is not, of the permeability of the subject. She arguably takes the first step here toward adequately linking Sartre's individualistic existentialism with their shared commitment to the solidaristic and communal values of socialism. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she went a step further. There she suggests that oppression can permeate subjectivity to the point where consciousness itself becomes no more than a product of the oppressive situation. The freedom that Sartre had associated with subjectivity can, in a situation of extreme oppression, be wholly suppressed, even though it cannot be definitively eliminated. In such a situation, the oppressed become incapable of the project of resistance, unable to maintain the reflective distance necessary to be aware that they are oppressed. In such a situation, "living is only not dying, and human existence is indistinguishable from an absurd vegetation." The oppressed—and this is a point Beauvoir will later return to in her analysis of woman's situation—live in an "infantile world" of immediacy, with no sense of alternative futures. Freedom is no longer the capacity to choose how to live even the most constrained of situations, which Sartre had claimed it to be. Freedom is here seen as reducible to no more than a suppressed potentiality. It is made "immanent," unrealizable. Yet, for all this, freedom, is still not a "fiction" or an "imaginary" for Beauvoir. For should oppression start to weaken, freedom can always reerupt.
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir's break from Sartre's version of the walled city subject becomes even more marked. She begins The Second Sex on what appears to be firmly Sartrean ground. "What is a woman?" she asks, and answers initially that woman is defined as that which is not man—as Other: "She is determined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute: she is the Other."
Some commentators have used this and other similar passages to accuse Beauvoir of taking on board the Sartrean (and Hegelian) notion of the self-construction of subjectivity through conflict. Very early in the book, however, Beauvoir relativizes the notion of otherness by introducing a distinction not found in Being and Nothingness, and whose originality needs emphasizing. We can, she argues, distinguish two significantly different kinds of relations of otherness: those between social equals and those that involve social inequality. Where the relation is one of equality, she suggests that otherness is "relativized" by a kind of "reciprocity": each, as she had said in Pyrrhus et Cinéas, recognizes that the Other is an equal freedom. Where, however, otherness exists through relations of inequality, there reciprocity is to a greater or lesser extent abolished, replaced by relations of oppression and subjection. When one of the two parties in a conflict is privileged by having some material or physical advantage, then, "this one prevails over the other and undertakes to keep it in subjection." It is not, then, woman's otherness per se but her subjection—the nonreciprocal objectification of woman by man—that Beauvoir sets out to explain. It is not only that woman is the Other; she is the unequal Other. The question is, if this inequality is not inscribed in nature, how does it occur?
The short answer for Beauvoir is, of course, that "being a woman" is a socially constructed experience; it is to live a social situation that men have, for their own advantage, attempted to impose on women. Beauvoir's discussion of the varying degrees to which women choose or are forced to accept this imposition suggests a continuum of different possible responses. Some—the "independent" women she describes in the last part of the book—consistently, if unsuccessfully, attempt to resist it. Some choose to accept it in what Sartre termed "bad faith" (a strategy to evade the pain and responsibility that come with freedom) because of the security and privilege it brings. Others, unable to conceive of real alternatives, accept it while engaging in forms of passive resistance and resentment. For yet others, as for the oppressed whom Beauvoir had described in The Ethics of Ambiguity, freedom is suppressed to the point where they cease to be capable of choice or resistance. What is of interest here is that in describing the most oppressed end of the continuum Beauvoir departs even more sharply from the Sartrean notion of the subject than in her earlier essays. In so doing, she also breaks free of any kind of Enlightenment notion of the subject, although (as we will see) she certainly does not thereby intend to "get rid of the subject itself."
Once again Beauvoir relativizes Sartre's ideas in ways that significantly transform them. She begins by appearing to agree with Sartre that there is a radical disjuncture between the human and the natural realms, with freedom and subjectivity characterizing the human. Indeed, this claim is the basis for her rejection of deterministic biological explanations of the female condition. However, yet again, Sartre's dualistic ontology rapidly becomes transmuted in her hands. While biology is not itself "destiny," the oppressive situation that men across the ages have imposed on women and justified in large part on the grounds of real biological difference can function analogously to a natural force. Women can have a man-made destiny; indeed, she says at one point, "the whole of feminine history has been man made." If a woman is oppressed to the point where her subjectivity is suppressed, then her situation is de facto her "destiny" and she ceases to be an effective or morally responsible agent. "Every subject," she writes,
continually affirms himself through his projects as a transcendence; he realizes his freedom only through his continual transcendence toward other freedoms; there is no other justification for present existence than its expansion towards an endlessly open future. Each time that transcendence falls back into immanence there is a degradation of existence into the 'in-itself,' of freedom into facticity; this fall is a moral fault if the subject agrees to it; it takes the form of a frustration and an oppression if it is inflicted upon him.
Woman, then, is locked in immanence by the situation man inflicts upon her—and she is not necessarily responsible for that condition. Although the language in the passage is Sartrean, the argument is not. A consistent Sartrean position would make woman responsible for herself, no matter how constrained her situation. But for Beauvoir, women are not the primary source of the problem even though some comply with their oppressors in "bad faith." For many, there is no moral fault because there simply is no possibility of choice. In the notion that freedom can "fall back into the 'in-itself,'" that the "for-itself" can be turned through the action of other (i.e., male) freedoms into its very opposite, Beauvoir has radically departed from the Sartrean notion of the absolute subject. For Sartre, there can be no middle ground. Either the for-itself, the uncaused upsurge of freedom, the "absolute subject," exists whatever the facticities of its situation, or else it does not exist at all. In the latter case, one is dealing with the realm of nature or inert being. Insofar as Beauvoir's account of woman's situation as one of immanence involves the claim that freedom, the for-itself, can be penetrated and modified by the in-itself, it implies another notion of the subject than Sartre's. Beauvoir is trying to describe human existence as a synthesis of freedom and constraint, of consciousness and materiality that, finally, is incompatible with Sartre's version of the walled city subject.
Indeed, so far has Beauvoir moved that one might even be tempted to formulate her position, albeit only at this extreme end of the spectrum, in Foucault's terms: woman is a historically constituted, not a constituting, subject. For not only does woman fail freely to choose her situation, according to Beauvoir, she is in the most extreme situation its product: "When … a group of individuals is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is they are inferior … yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men, which is to say that their situation gives them less possibilities."
Yet unlike Sartre's postmodern critics, Beauvoir never wholly discards a notion of free subjectivity. Even when it is suppressed, reduced to immanence, subjectivity remains a distinctly human potentiality. Thus, for example, while much of her painstaking and detailed account of the young girl's formation could be retold in the Foucauldian mode of "the political technology of the body" and of "discipline," Beauvoir would never have agreed to abandon the notion of a repression of freedom. However suppressed, however disciplined, it is still freedom-made-immanent that distinguishes even the most constituted human subject from a trained animal. For Beauvoir, a real repression or oppression of this subject is also always possible, unlike for Foucault. However socially constructed its identities may be, for Beauvoir the subject is still something other than the "effect" of its conditionings. Although she avoids the essentialism of the subject as, for example, a Cartesian cogito, she also rejects the hyperconstructivism of the Foucauldian account, which presents the subject as discursively produced, to be "stripped of its creative role and analysed as a complex and variable function of discourse" (Foucault  1977).
How then does Beauvoir develop this account of a situated subject that can be characterized neither as an autonomous walled city nor as uniquely a construct of discursive practices? Two fundamental insights orient the development of her account of situated subjectivity. The first is her recognition of what I will call the intersubjectivity of the subject. By this is meant something more than the interconnectedness of subjects. What is meant is the impossibility of a subjective self-constitution that is not always socially and culturally permeated. If all that took place between an individual man and woman was a struggle of consciousnesses between two human beings, one of whom happened to be male and one female, then we could not anticipate in advance which of them would objectify the other. If, however, we examine the relations of a husband and a wife, then it is very different. For the social institution of marriage in all its aspects—legal, economic, sexual, cultural, etc.—has formed in advance for the protagonists their own relation of inequality. As Beauvoir points out in a strikingly unSartrean passage, "It is not as single individuals that human beings are to be defined in the first place; men and women have never stood opposed to each other in single combat; the couple is an original Mitsein; and as such it always appears as a permanent element in a larger collectivity" (emphasis added).
Although subjectivity is individually lived, it is never, then, simply an individual constitution of existence. Rather, according to Beauvoir, it is both constituting and constituted. It is, to use Sartre's later terminology, "singular universal." Thus it follows (as Beauvoir had already made clear in her ethical essays) that oppression of any kind affects more than its immediate victims and that liberatory struggles cannot be other than collective. That Beauvoir herself did not apparently see at the time she wrote The Second Sex that she should explicitly apply these conclusions to women (as she was already doing in the late 1940s to colonial peoples) is an indication of the isolation in which she wrote her book and of the limits to her own political imagination. But this failure should not blind us to the implications of her argument.
Beauvoir's later assessment of The Second Sex was that it was not a "militant" book. Insofar as it presents no call for a concerted resistance by women to their oppression, she was justified in this judgment. But if not militant, the book is in its implications deeply political—and it is here that much of its continuing relevance lies. For in her insistence that freedoms are interdependent and that freedom, however suppressed, however immanent, is an enduring potentiality, Beauvoir affirms that women's oppression is real and that political struggle is indeed possible. While eschewing the naive assumptions of individual free agency and responsibility that are central to the Enlightenment conception of subjectivity, she also insists that subjectivity cannot be accounted for solely in terms of the effect of the apparently autonomous power of structures, technologies, or discourses.
I turn now to Beauvoir's second insight. This concerns the inherence of subjectivity in the body: the idea, which she borrows from Merleau-Ponty, that the subject is always properly called a "body-subject." It is toward the specificities of embodied subjectivities that Beauvoir orients us to grasp the oppression of women. If the couple is an "original Mitsein" (Heidegger's term, meaning a fundamental "being with"), this is because of its reproductive significance. By stressing that reproduction and sexuality are socially and culturally constituted phenomena, Beauvoir avoids the essentialism of biological reductionism. But she also avoids hyperconstructivism by arguing that reproduction is ontologically fundamental. If (as she had argued in Pyrrhus et Cinéas) we need others to take up our projects and overcome our finitude, then each individual freedom requires "the perpetuation of the species." Thus, she now argues, "we can regard the phenomenon of reproduction as ontologically founded." In an argument that is neither realist nor constructivist but dialectical, Beauvoir insists that although biological "facts" have no significance outside the values that human beings give them, they do still have an objective reality: there are real limits to the significations we can choose. It is helpful to contrast Beauvoir with Foucault here. According to Foucault, "nothing in man—not even his body—is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for … self-recognition." For Beauvoir, however, although the body is not a stable essence, it still is encountered by the self as an objective given. And whether or not a woman decides to procreate, it is an inescapable fact that of the two biological sexes her physiology is geared to the more extended and physiologically demanding role in perpetuating the species. Although a woman's body "is not itself sufficient to define her as woman," it is, Beauvoir argues, "an essential element of the situation she occupies in the world."
Beauvoir has been criticized, with considerable justification, for her horror of the female body and its functions. There are indeed many passages in The Second Sex where women's bodily functions are identified with animality, passivity, and lack of freedom and are denigrated from the masculinist standpoint of an apparently disembodied reason and freedom. There is, however, another reading of woman's body to be found in Beauvoir's text as well. This reading, which I intend to pursue here as the more fruitful one for feminism, tells us that it is as body that human subjectivity both encounters and gives meaning to its own inescapable rootedness in objective reality. In Beauvoir's account, women encounter this in a particularly intense form, one whose alienating aspects she most emphasizes: "Woman, like man, is her body," she says, but immediately adds, "but her body is something other than herself."
The important point that is lodged here against Enlightenment or walled city conceptions of the subject is that subjectivity is not given in closed contradistinction to a realm of objective entities that it oversees or contemplates in detachment. Rather, it is through the body that we each inhere in one and the same world. Moreover, this common inherence may form the basis for an overlapping or for an even fuller sharing of experience on which common action may be based. Beauvoir's woman is not, then, a Sartrean for-itself for whom the body is merely a facticity. But neither, contra Foucault, is she merely a "soul … produced permanently around, on, the body, by the functioning of a power that is exercised on … those one supervises, trains, corrects." Rather, for Beauvoir, we need to explore what she calls "the strange ambiguity of existence made body." For "to be present in the world implies strictly that there exists a body which is at the same time a thing in the world and a point of view on this world" (emphasis added).
For Beauvoir, subjectivity is corporally constituted; it is coextensive with the body, while being simultaneously "a point of view." This account is significantly different from Sartre's, for whom "my body forme" and "my body for-others"—that is, the body as object—are on "different and incommunicable levels of being." She holds that biological difference itself, as well as the socially constructed significations that adhere to that difference, permeates subjectivity, but it is not reducible to their effect. Thus, rather than accepting either a realism of the kind that posits an inevitable feminine essence grounded in the body and in mothering or the position of much postmodern theory in which the body itself becomes no more than a discursive construct, Beauvoir suggests a less dichotomized account of subjectivity. Such an account allows us to acknowledge the sameness of women as biologically sexed and socially constructed females without pinning an immutable essence of womanhood onto "real historical women" whose lives may also be radically divergent, shaped also by class, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and many other factors. Biological sex is always present as a given in the "lived experience" of the body. Yet our lived experience of the body is never "natural." It is, for Beauvoir, one of the always socially mediated experiences we have of the objective givens of our lives. Thus Beauvoir would, I think, approve of postmodern feminist projects to contest the discursive constructions of gender, even though she would reject the hyperconstructivist epistemology upon which they generally rest.
Thus, against the hyperconstructivism incipient in postmodernism, in which subjectivity itself can become but a fiction and everything, including the category of woman, can cease to be real, Beauvoir sketches an account of the gendering of subjectivity that can best be characterized as a dialectical realism. By this I mean an account in which not only discourse but also a discursively mediated "beyond" of discourse is acknowledged. This "beyond" of discourse includes, on the one hand, the existence of objective parameters to human life, such as sex, birth, disease, malnutrition, and death and, on the other hand, an always-present potentiality for that margin of autonomous thought and action in situation that Beauvoir calls "freedom." For unless we grant that real historical women live and die, that they do decide and act, and that they can in varying degrees be oppressed or free, we risk becoming our own grave diggers. If we need to seek a way between hyperconstructivism and essentialism, Beauvoir's work remains richly suggestive as to how we might set about it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4094
SOURCE: "Simone de Beauvoir: From the Second World War to The Second Sex," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 39-51.
[In the following essay, Houlding discusses the influence of the Nazi Occupation of France on Beauvoir's intellectual development and philosophical insights in The Second Sex. According to Houlding, "Through her exposure to the nature of women's everyday lives during the Occupation, Beauvoir first began to perceive the active construction of femininity."]
In her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir referred to the Second World War as a pivotal moment in her life, a time when her ways of interacting with the world underwent permanent transformations. Until 1939, Beauvoir had refused to believe that the trauma of war could come to interrupt the life she had so carefully constructed: "Je refusai furieusement d'y croire; une catastrophe aussi imbécile ne pouvait pas fondre sur moi." It was through the war that Beauvoir came to perceive her "historicity," that is, the force of history in the shaping of individual lives. Years later, in a 1985 interview with her biographer Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir would criticize her pre-war attitude: "À vrai dire, je ne suis pas fière de ce que j'étais alors—trente ans et toujours égocentrique. Je regrette qu'il ait fallu la guerre pour m'apprendre que je vivais dans le monde, pas en dehors."
The Occupation and the Second World War precipitated a generation of French intellectuals toward political engagement. Le Deuxième sexe was published only four years after the war in 1949. Beauvoir undertook her study of the feminine ideal in the wake of the Occupation. In this paper, I will consider what led Beauvoir to incorporate questions of gender within the post-war project of engagement in the world.
Commenting on the reception of Le Deuxième sexe, Toril Moi has remarked upon what she terms the "political isolation" of the book in 1949, finding it
curiously out of step with its own historical moment, written as it was at a time when Western capitalism was kicking women out of the factories in order to hand their jobs over to the boys back from the war, and published just as the West was about to embark on that most antifeminist of decades, the 1950s.
Within this global representation of Western capitalism, Moi's transposition of Rosie the Riveter from the United States to France is misleading, since the particular conditions of occupied France had not transformed the traditionally agrarian French economy into the booming American model of industrialized military production.
In addition, French women had not played as prominent a role in the wartime workplace as their American counterparts. In direct contrast to the American model, women in France were actively recruited as workers after the war in order to shore up the depleted national workforce and the desperate national economy. Among the political measures taken toward national recovery by liberated France, women "were finally granted the right to vote and to run for public office, and the Constitution of the Fourth Republic enshrined the right to work in its articles." The Liberation was seen as "the moment to bring women into full participation in the polity and equality of the workplace." It must be said, though, that postwar social programs were implemented under the assumption that women's true place was within the family, where wives remained subordinate to their husbands, the legal chefs de famille.
Moi's second displacement, that in which she projects Le Deuxième sexe forward into the 1950s, is more central to my argument here, however. Because of the enormous impact of Le Deuxième sexe in its American incarnation as The Second Sex in 1953, there has been a tendency to date the work and its influence from that time. Yet, in observing that the text central to the elaboration of late twentieth-century feminism appears oddly out of step with the 1950s, we do not account for the fact that Le Deuxième sexe stepped into history directly out of World War II and the German Occupation of France. It is precisely the genesis of Le Deuxième sexe in occupied France, with its specific gender conditions and historical configurations, that we have overlooked.
Rather than an eery prediction of the house-bound 50s, or a clarion call to the women's movement of the 70s, Le Deuxième sexe responded above all to the experience of the 40s. Closing the French decade in 1949, it is literally a post-war work, a work that Beauvoir could not have written before the lessons of the war years. For France, this was a decade defined by war, defeat, and occupation by the eternal enemy. For French women, it was a decade in which it was virtually impossible to avoid what Denise Riley has termed "gendered self-consciousness," that is, the (self-) recognition that results when women are consistently "named as a sex" within social discourse. In what might now be interpreted as attempts to counter the crisis in masculinity occasioned by the French defeat, the Occupation was the site of relentless attempts to define women's social function and to circumscribe the dangers posed by femininity in a nation controlled by a foreign and unremittingly masculine presence. As recent feminist criticism on women and war has demonstrated, "war throws gender into sharp relief." In an extremely dramatic way, the German Occupation of France exacerbated conventional notions of femininity and politicized the traditionally "feminine" networks of everyday life.
Humiliated by the exode, feminized by the rapid defeat, and by the signing of the Armistice with the Nazis, France did in fact appear to be a country of women in the early years of the Occupation. While the recurrent image of France-as-fallen-woman haunted Vichy discourse, many men, an estimated 1.6 million, were held as prisoners after the defeat, while 92,000 had died in combat. For all its focus on the rights of the family, Vichy legislation actually limited the rights of women as individuals, since the effect of such conservative ideology bound women as wives and mothers even more forcefully to the home. To this day, French families have Philippe Pétain's traditional Catholic leadership to thank for the national holiday known as "La Fête des Mères." Vichy also underwrote the legislation of specific pro-family laws: aid to families was significantly increased; divorce was prohibited for couples married less than three years; adoption laws were broadened in order to reduce the number of childless homes; husbands who abandoned their families were charged with having committed a misdemeanor; and in keeping with this pro-natalist policy, the performing of abortions was punished as a form of treason against the state.
For Simone de Beauvoir, who had scrupulously rebelled against the life of a dutiful French daughter until this point, the Occupation provided an obvious working example of the social and historical construction of gender. Through her exposure to the nature of women's everyday lives during the Occupation, Beauvoir first began to perceive the active construction of femininity. Writing daily letters to Sartre (who was absent from Paris on military duty and then in prison camp until March 1941), waiting in food lines, preparing meals, and attempting to secure the continuity of life for those within her care, Beauvoir herself lived more "like a woman" during the Occupation than at any other time in her life.
Beauvoir briefly discussed the factors which led her to undertake a study of women's condition in La Force des choses. As an admirer of Michel Leiris's L'Âge d'homme, Beauvoir was moved to write an autobiographical work after the war. With Leiris's text serving as a masculine model, she began with a personal question: "Qu'est-ce queça avait signifié pour moi d'être une femme?" At this time, Beauvoir did not feel that being a woman had hindered her in any way: "ma féminité ne m'avait gênée en rien." When Sartre pointed out that she had nonetheless not been raised in the same manner as a boy, Beauvoir realized that the question deserved more thought and, characteristically, took herself off to the Bibliothèque Nationale to study it further. It was then that Beauvoir had the following revelation concerning the "myths of femininity":
Je regardai et j'eus une révélation: ce monde était un monde masculin, mon enfance avait été nourrie de mythes forgés par les hommes et je n'y avais pas du tout réagi de la même manière que si j'avais été un garçon. Je fus si intéressée que j'abandonnai le project d'une confession personnelle pour m'occuper de la condition féminine dans sa généralité.
I want to argue, beyond Beauvoir's analysis, that it was her Occupation experience which led her to pose the initial question of the meaning of sexual difference in her own life, and to seek its answer in the theoretical exploration of gender in Le Deuxième sexe.
In reading Beauvoir's personal texts concerning the war years, it becomes clear that Beauvoir's confrontation with the nature of women's daily lives under the extreme conditions of the Occupation supplied the key impulse to the writing of Le Deuxième sexe; through her wartime encounters and experiences, Beauvoir began, however unconsciously, to take the measure of what she terms in her memoirs a certain "condition féminine." A work of the magnitude of Le Deuxième sexe draws on various origins, among which we must include Beauvoir's first trip to the United States in 1947, her encounters with American women and visits to several women's colleges, her readings on the system of slavery, and the traditional aspects of her love affair with Nelson Algren. Virginia M. Fichera's study of Les Bouches inutiles has also identified Beauvoir's only play, written during the Occupation, as a definite precursor to Le Deuxième sexe. The role played by women's Occupation experiences in the elaboration of Le Deuxième sexe has remained a missing piece around which these other essential elements must be reassembled.
Severe practical hardships did not end for the French with the Liberation nor with the end of the war in 1945. The winter of 1944–45 was the coldest of the war thus far, with supplies of coal and clothing reaching their lowest level. Food rationing continued well beyond 1945, while prices for the basics rose. Bread rationing was reintroduced in December 1945, with the daily allotment decreased to 300 grams, a lesser amount than during the Occupation. A newspaper estimated that the average Parisian diet consisted of 1400 calories per day in March 1946, with this figure also representing a decrease since previous years. In September 1947, women in Le Mans rioted in protest against bread shortages. At the end of the war and for several years afterward, France represented the hungriest and least well-supplied European country other than Italy. Naturally, the everyday hardships occasioned by this lack of necessities fell upon the shoulders of women. This was the atmosphere in which Beauvoir was researching and writing Le Deuxième sexe.
With the mobilization of her two closest male friends Sartre and Jacques-Laurent Bost in the fall of 1939, Beauvoir found herself in familiar but somewhat depleted surroundings. During the drôle de guerre and the Occupation, Beauvoir was to spend a significant amount of her time in the company of women. Her most constant companions, all members of the extended Family constructed around the Beauvoir-Sartre couple, were drawn from the circle of young women who revolved around the couple in their various roles as lovers, friends, students and protégées. Much of Beauvoir's memoirs of the time, her recently published journals, and the letters to Sartre involve the intrigues created by the shifting configurations of these relationships.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Beauvoir's recording of her daily life during the early months of the war is her breathtaking level of activity. For Beauvoir, as for most of the proverbial "women who wait," the previously impressive demands on her time and attention increased with the coming of war. Beauvoir continued to carry out her teaching duties until 1943. With the absence of many male teachers from Paris in the fall of 1939, her workload was significantly increased while her salary did not change. As she recalled in conversation with Bair:
Le bon peuple de Paris devait continuer à éduquer ses enfants et, maintenant que tous les hommes étaient appelés à se battre, on attendait des femmes qu'elles fassent leur devoir patriotique et assument les postes des hommes sans aucune compensation financière. Je me rappelle m'être dit que ce n'était pas juste que j'aie une telle surcharge d'élèves sans toucher un franc de plus.
Bair reminds us that as many as eight people often depended upon Beauvoir's salary for their well-being during the war.
Perhaps due to the feminine company in which she necessarily found herself, even the seemingly indifferent Beauvoir came to realize more fully the meaning of a woman's public appearance during the war. In its very restrictions, the Occupation drew attention to the demands and the significance of women's fashion. As Dominique Veillon notes in her study of the French fashion industry under the Occupation, the first winter of the war occasioned the birth of the adjective "utilitaire" to describe the element of practicality that now governed certain fashion choices. Upon the death of her father in 1941, Beauvoir and her mother made use of his clothing coupons and old clothes. For herself, Beauvoir had an unflattering dress and coat made up out of a heavy overcoat of her father's. Each one of the few items in her wardrobe was threadbare from use by the end of the war. As many women took to wearing men's trousers during the winter months, Beauvoir wore her ski pants and ski boots as daily apparel. However, even during the record cold temperatures of 1942–43, female instructors were required to wear dresses in the classroom.
Beauvoir was one of many women who learned how to ride a bicycle during the war. Still, these utilitarian aspects of the Occupation years were recuperable within the fashion system: for example, in the summer of 1941, the newspaper Paris-Midi sponsored a contest for the most beautiful cycling outfits. With each new development in women's wear, the magazines of the day debated the fine line between reason and fashion. In June 1942, Marie-Claire's "Ten Commandments for the Parisienne" warned female readers: "La jupe-culotte, tu porteras à bicyclette seulement." Beauvoir's trademark turban was yet another sign of the practical times, as trips to the beauty salon became increasingly expensive and shampoo increasingly rare. Here too, French unwillingness to sacrifice femininity entirely during wartime is illustrated by a striking double photograph taken by Lee Miller: as women at the Salon Gervais sit under hairdryers with manicurists in attendance, two young men—"les forçats du bigoudi"—ride bicycles in the basement to generate electricity for the dryers above. Images such as this, with its division of labor along gender lines, demonstrate the degree to which it was essential that the notion of femininity and the sacrifices made in the name of Parisian glamor survive during a time of national crisis.
Accustomed to an austere lifestyle, Beauvoir confided in her journal on 5 September 1940 that she adapted easily to the restrictions of Occupation life: "Personnellement, ça m'amuse un peu la modicité des ressources qui me sont offertes; j'ai toujours aimé imaginer des situations où il fallait arranger sa vie presque sans matière: extrême pauvreté, ou maladie, ou village, ou province." Despite this initial enthusiasm, Beauvoir discovered over the next five years that the "challenges" of women's lives during wartime could prove to be exhausting and demoralizing. With Sartre's release from prison camp in the spring of 1941, he and Beauvoir resumed their communal life by renting rooms in the same hotel and meeting for meals together. As dining in restaurants became unaffordable, Beauvoir took on the ever more challenging tasks of purchasing and preparing food for herself, Sartre, and various members of the Family. The Occupation was the only moment of her life during which Beauvoir actively participated in the daily concerns of a typical French housewife:
J'avais peu de goût pour les tâches ménagères et pour m'en accommoder je recourus à un procédé familier: de mes soucis alimentaires, je fis une manie dans laquelle je persévérai pendant trois ans. Je surveillais la sortie des tickets, je n'en laissai jamais perdre un; dans les rues, par-delà les étalages factices des magasins, je cherchais à découvrir quelque denrée en vente libre: cette espèce de chasse au trésor m'amusait; quelle aubaine si je trouvais une betterave, un chou!
As she sat in her room writing while dinner simmered on the burner, Beauvoir momentarily shared in the modest pleasures afforded by the interiority of women's domestic lives:
Je me rappelle, au début de décembre, une fin d'après-midi où le couvre-feu—fixé à 6 heures, à la suite d'un attentat—me claquemurait dans ma chambre. J'écrivais; dehors c'était le grand silence des déserts; sur le fourneau cuisait une soupe de légumes qui sentait bon; cette odeur engageante, le chuintement du gaz étaient une compagnie; je ne partageais pas la condition des femmes d'intérieur, mais j'avais un aperçu de leurs joies.
Wartime conditions made Beauvoir more aware of "la condition des femmes d'intérieur," although she herself had deliberately chosen to live outside of the restrictive domestic space by avoiding both matrimony and maternity. Within these passages, Beauvoir is also sure to maintain her distance from the "joys" of housekeeping by implying that her glimpse of domesticity's fleeting pleasures did not still the pen in her hand.
If Beauvoir often appears in her memoirs to be innocently playing at the role of French housewife, referring half-ironically to these years as her "femme de charge" period, she does not go so far as to glamorize the labor and sacrifices involved. In the first months of the Occupation, she was infuriated by her father's complaints of hunger and hardship because she knew that it was taken for granted that "it was [her] mother who stood in the queues all day long trying to find enough for him to eat, shorting herself to give him more." It is also clear that, with Beauvoir fulfilling her "wifely" duties, Sartre was never expected to share household responsibilities and indeed was often shielded from certain realities of Occupation life: "Quant à Sartre, nous lui dissimulâmes la vérité." While Beauvoir did her best to disguise the unsavory food that she was obliged to put on the table, packages of food sent from the provinces often arrived with the meat in an advanced form of decay. Beauvoir attempted to salvage what she could, cleaning maggots out of pork, rinsing beef in vinegar, heavily seasoning the stewpot so as to camouflage any telltale signs: "D'ordinaire, je réussissais mon coup; j'étais mortifiée quand Sartre repoussait son assiette." On one particular day, however, Sartre arrived home to discover Beauvoir unwrapping a piece of rotting rabbit, seized it from her hands and rushed downstairs to throw it out. Unbeknownst to Sartre, Beauvoir was to retrieve it later, soak it in vinegar, cover it in herbs, and serve it to him for dinner.
In 1985, Beauvoir also admitted that, in spite of Sartre's vehement principles against black-market dealing, she was sometimes forced by hunger and necessity to purchase goods there without his knowledge. While she clearly enjoyed the special occasions on which she acted as hostess for friends such as Michel and Louise Leiris, Camus, and Picasso, Beauvoir also recognized the costs of taking on such a role permanently. Bair writes that after the war ended Beauvoir never cooked again, a highly unusual accomplishment for any woman, and especially so for a woman born in 1908.
Until the Second World War, Beauvoir had considered herself an exception in her discontent with the roles of wife and mother traditionally accorded to women. When the Occupation brought her into contact with a slightly older group of women whose lives were more conventional than her own, Beauvoir began to take stock of the similar obstacles they had each encountered along the way:
Soudain, je rencontrai un grand nombre de femmes qui avaient passé la quarantaine et qui, à travers la diversité de leurs chances et de leurs mérites, avaient toutes fait une expérience identique: elles avaient vécu en "êtres relatifs."
Although Beauvoir felt at the time that, as an unmarried woman without children, she had escaped being trapped within the traditional model, her interest in the socially-determined patterns of women's lives had nonetheless been focused.
Beauvoir makes another vital connection in this passage of La Force de l'âge concerning the extent to which the war years transformed prewar abstractions into concrete realities:
Sur bien des points, j'avais réalisé combien, avant la guerre, j'avais péché par abstraction: qu'il ne fût pas indifférent d'être juif ou aryen, à présent je le savais; mais je ne m'étais pas avisée qu'il eût une condition féminine.
Beauvoir had learned during the war years that whether one was Jewish or Aryan could matter immensely, and that such distinctions were not mere abstractions. Although she would not articulate her wartime intuition until after the Liberation, Beauvoir had also witnessed the difference gender made during the Occupation.
The ideological connections between anti-semitism, racism and sexism would prove to be essential to Beauvoir's opening argument in Le Deuxième sexe. During the war, Sartre drafted a "Constitution" for the post-war period to be sent to Charles de Gaulle, which included the protection of religious, cultural and linguistic rights for Jews. Whereas Beauvoir felt at that time that no individual or culture should benefit from "special" treatment, Sartre argued that the specificity of "le fait juif" must be recognized and protected. Beauvoir was eventually to agree with him on this. Both Sartre's work on "the Jewish question" and Beauvoir's project on "the Woman question" reflect this change in attitude toward oppression which the war had provoked.
In the introduction to Le Deuxième sexe, Beauvoir makes numerous references to cultural stereotypes surrounding European Jews, African American slaves, and women:
Refuser les notions d'éternel féminin, d'âme noire, de caractère juif, ce n'est pas nier qu'il y ait aujourd'hui des Juifs, des Noirs, des femmes: cette négation ne représente pas pour les intéressés une libération, mais une fuite inauthentique. Il est clair qu'aucune femme ne peut prétendre sans mauvaise foi se situer par-delà son sexe.
Beauvoir makes clear distinctions between forms of oppression in terms of race, class, and gender. However, for today's reader, certain similarities remain powerful and telling. The Holocaust and slavery were both systems in which no "after" could be envisioned, in which the fundamental assumption was that European Jews and African American slaves would not go on to testify to the conditions of their lives. Jews were not to have survived. Slaves were not considered capable of constructing a meaningful narrative. How then would these stories be told? What form would the witness's testimony take? Regarding female testimony, Beauvoir could not have foreseen when writing this introduction that her readers would come to speak in terms of "before" and "after" Le Deuxième sexe itself. Nor could she have known that her decision to study "la condition féminine" rather than herself alone would so undeniably result in a work that set generations of women's testimony and writing in motion. Le Deuxième sexe provided precisely an analysis of women's condition through which female testimony could occur.
In the recent Yale French Studies issue devoted to her work, Beauvoir is celebrated as the "witness to a century," in recognition of the fact that "her autobiography 'begins' back in 1908 with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and goes up to 1970 with All Said and Done," continuing through to 1980 with the account of Sartre's last years in Adieux. In considering Le Deuxième sexe as Beauvoir's first contribution to twentieth-century feminism, we are obliged to rethink the role of the war years in the decades of women's history that followed. Le Deuxième sexe draws on her position as an eyewitness to the Occupation years. It was at this time that Beauvoir witnessed the process through which women become a gender, a process compellingly identified in Le Deuxième sexe: "On ne naît pas femme: on le devient." The Second World War did not just make of Beauvoir a historical subject, it made her a woman as well.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6955
SOURCE: "The Second Sex: From Marxism to Radical Feminism," in Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Margaret A. Simons, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995, pp. 243-62.
[In the following essay, Simons explores elements of Marxist, socialist, and psychoanalytic theory in Beauvoir's feminist philosophy. According to Simons, "Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, laid the theoretical foundations for a radical feminist movement of the future and defined a feminist political philosophy of lasting importance."]
Despite the acknowledgment by radical feminist theorists of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s that Simone de Beauvoir provided a model for their theorizing, The Second Sex (1949) has yet to find a secure place in the history of political philosophy. The feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar, for example, whose pioneering work defined the categories of feminist political philosophy (i.e., liberal, socialist, and radical feminism), does not include a discussion of The Second Sex in her definitive text, Feminist Politics and Human Nature, despite her recognition of the "historical significance" of The Second Sex as "a forerunner of the contemporary women's liberation movement."
Jaggar omits "religious and existentialist conceptions of women's liberation" (including Beauvoir's) because they fall "outside the mainstream of contemporary feminist theorizing" and she finds them "implausible" from her socialist feminist perspective. But I shall argue in this paper that far from being outside the mainstream of feminist philosophy, Beauvoir provides the very foundation for radical feminism in The Second Sex, where the historical importance of radical feminism to both socialist and radical black theorizing of racial oppression is apparent.
Demonstrating the foundational relationship of The Second Sex to radical feminism addresses one of Jaggar's fundamental criticisms of radical feminism: that it lacks a "comprehensive theoretical framework" and in particular any psychological explanation of male behavior. Ignoring Beauvoir's work in The Second Sex, Jaggar traces the roots of radical feminism to a "contradictory heritage" in "the basically liberal civil rights movement and in the Marxist-inspired left." Liberal feminism and socialist feminism, in contrast, have strong foundations in the philosophies of Mill and Marx, respectively. But a recovery of Beauvoir's philosophy in The Second Sex can both reveal the philosophical foundation for radical feminism, and challenge the conception of the civil rights movement as "basically liberal," since Beauvoir drew upon the challenge to Marxist reductionism in radical black theorizing of racial oppression in formulating her theory. Her work thus challenges the definition of the feminist "mainstream" by affirming the interconnections of different forms of oppression while challenging the reductionism of identity politics.
In the discussion that follows I draw upon the definition of radical feminism provided by the feminist historian, Alice Echols (1989), author of Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975, the first comprehensive historical study of the radical feminist movement. Echols, unlike Jaggar, makes a helpful distinction between radical feminism and "cultural feminism," the movement that followed it in the 1970s. Jaggar charges radical feminism with falling back on biological determinism for an explanation of men's behavior, defining women's oppression under patriarchy as seamless and absolute with women as absolute victims, and focusing on the construction of a womanculture as the sole political strategy. But Echols differentiates these "cultural feminist" positions from earlier radical feminism, which was "a political movement dedicated to eliminating the sex-class system." According to Echols, radical feminists were both "typically social constructionists who wanted to render gender irrelevant," and at least "implicitly" "anti-capitalists" who "believed that feminism entailed an expansion of the left analysis." Cultural feminists, in contrast, "conceived of feminism as an antidote to the left," "dismissed economic class struggle as 'male' and, therefore, irrelevant to women," and sought to establish a womanculture where "'male values' would be exorcized and 'female values' nurtured."
In Echol's view Jaggar's analysis of radical feminism reflects a misreading of the movement common to socialists: "Most leftist and socialist-feminists mistakenly characterized radical feminism as apolitical. To them radical feminism involved changing the 'cultural super-structure' and developing alternative life-styles, rather than effecting serious economic and political change…. So when radical feminism began to give way to cultural feminism, socialist feminists simply did not notice." Echols can provide convincing evidence for the existence of a radical feminist movement that was social-constructionist and leftist in its critique of racism and economic class oppression. But her focus on American movement history prevents her from identifying Beauvoir's contribution to radical feminism in writing The Second Sex in France some twenty years earlier. To do that, it is most useful to adopt a methodology more akin to Jaggar's own philosophical analysis.
Echol's history of the movement reminds us that radical feminism was born out of dissatisfaction with both liberal feminism and socialism, and inspired by the transformation of the liberal civil rights struggle into the radical black power movement, a development that Jaggar does not acknowledge. In obvious parallels with radical black criticisms of the civil rights movement, radical feminists criticized liberal feminists for pursuing "formal equality within a racist, class stratified system, and for refusing to acknowledge that women's equality in the public domain was related to their subordination in the family." Much like the radical black theorists who defended the specificity of the African-American experience against Marxist reductionism, radical feminists also differed from socialists "who attributed women's oppression to capitalism, whose primary loyalty was to the left, and who longed for the imprimatur of the 'invisible audience' of male leftists." For radical feminists "male supremacy was not a mere epiphenomenon."
In The Second Sex Beauvoir rejects liberalism and its legalistic model of society as a public sphere governed by a social contract, and accepts instead a Marxist model of history as shaped by material factors and class struggle. Beauvoir recognized in 1949 the importance of the hard-fought battle for legal equality but saw it as insufficient. "Abstract rights … have never sufficed to assure woman a concrete hold on the world." Women have yet to attain "the union of abstract rights and concrete opportunities" without which "freedom is only a mystification." Even with many legal rights won, "the institutions and the values of patriarchal civilization have largely survived." Liberal individualism is no solution: "The success of a few privileged women can neither compensate for nor excuse the systematic degradation on the collective level." The analysis of the causes of women's oppression would have to go much deeper.
In an important theoretical step toward radical feminism—one paralleled by the radical African-American writer Richard Wright, whose work Beauvoir read and published in the 1940s—Beauvoir begins with a Marxist historical-materialist analysis of oppression and class struggle. In The Second Sex she argues that economic and technological developments provided the conditions for a women's liberation struggle. The industrial revolution "transformed women's lot in the nineteenth century and … opened a new era for her" by enabling her "to escape from the home and take a new part in production in the factory," thus "winning again an economic importance lost to her since the prehistoric era." Developments in technology made this possible by "annulling the difference in physical strength between male and female workers in a large number of cases."
New methods of birth control "permitted the dissociation of two formerly inseparable functions: the sexual function and the reproductive function." Reproductive technology will provide the material conditions for further gains by women: "By artificial insemination the evolution will be achieved which will permit humanity to master the reproductive function…. [Woman] can reduce the number of her pregnancies, and integrate them rationally into her life instead of being a slave to them…. It is by the convergence of these two factors: participation in production and emancipation from the slavery of reproduction that the evolution of woman's condition is to be explained."
When economic developments in advanced capitalist societies freed bourgeois women from dependence on their families, the material conditions were laid for the collective struggle by women, across economic classes, for their liberation. Beauvoir's feminism is activist: the only recourse for women is the collective struggle for their own liberation. "Freedom remains abstract and empty in woman, and can be authentically assumed only in revolt…. There is no other issue for woman than to work for her liberation. This liberation can only be collective, and it demands before all else that the economic evolution of the feminine condition be achieved."
An analogy with racism was important to both 1960s radical feminists and Beauvoir, as is evident in this passage:
Whether it's a question of a race, of a caste, of a class, of a sex reduced to an inferior condition, the processes of justification are the same: "the eternal feminine" is the homologue of "the black soul" and "the Jewish character."… [T]here are profound analogies between the situation of women and that of Blacks: both are emancipating themselves from a same paternalism and the formerly master caste wants to keep them in "their place," that is to say in the place the master caste has chosen for them.
Beauvoir's analysis of the underlying paternalism common to justifications of both sexism and racism bears striking resemblance to an essay by Alva Myrdal, "A Parallel to the Negro Problem," included as an appendix to the classic text on American racism An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Myrdal, Sterner, and Rose 1944), a book Beauvoir consulted while writing The Second Sex.
For Beauvoir ethnocentrism seems to encompass sexism historically in the experience of alterity. Women were not the original, or the only Other: "[Woman] has not represented the sole incarnation of the Other for [man], and she has not always kept the same importance in the course of history." Drawing on the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, Beauvoir argues that: "The category of the Other is as original as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality—that of the Same and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes…. Jews are 'others' for the antisemite, Blacks for the American racists, indigenous peoples for the colonialists, the proletariat for the class of owners."
According to Jaggar, the defining feature of radical feminist theory, which set it apart from liberal and Marxist theories "was a conviction that the oppression of women was fundamental: that is to say, it was causally and conceptually irreducible to the oppression of any other group." Echols agrees that radical feminists "expanded the left analysis" of oppression and "argued that women constituted a sex class, that relations between women and men needed to be recast in political terms, and that gender rather than class was the primary contradiction." Beauvoir's support for this fundamental claim is evident in the following passage from The Second Sex, where she acknowledges Marxist insights into the historically changing role of technology and economic factors in shaping women's lives, but criticizes Marxism for failing to recognize the irreducible nature of women's oppression: "Engels does not recognize the singular character of this oppression. He tried to reduce the opposition of the sexes to a class conflict…. It's true that the division of work by sex and the oppression that results from it evokes the class division on certain points. But one must not confuse them…. The situation of the woman is different, singularly due to the community of life and interests that renders her in solidarity with the man, and by the complicity which he meets in her." For Beauvoir, "the bond that attaches [woman] to her oppressors is comparable to no other."
To expand Marxism to include an analysis of gender oppression, and to argue on one level for the primacy of gender contradiction, as later radical feminists would, Beauvoir returns to the philosophical roots of Marxism in Hegel's distinction between immanence and transcendence and his analysis of the master/slave relation. Turning Hegel against himself, Beauvoir argues that his description of the relationship of men, whose warfare and inventions create values that transcend the mere repetition of Life, and women, whom biology destines to immanence, to the passive and dependent reproduction of Life, is more reflective of the absolute opposition of the master/slave relationship than any relationship between men: "Certain passages of the dialectic by which Hegel defines the relation of the master to the slave would better apply to the relation of the man to the woman…. Between the male and she there has never been combat. Hegel's definition applies singularly to her."
Beauvoir described the relationship between men and women as a "caste" relationship defined by struggle: "All oppression creates a state of war; this is no exception." "[W]oman has always been, if not the slave of man, at least his vassal." In the past,
the woman confined to immanence tried to keep the man in this prison as well…. She denied his truth and his values…. Today, the combat takes on another face. Instead of wanting to enclose man in a dungeon, woman is trying to escape from it herself. She no longer attempts to drag him into the regions of immanence but to emerge into the light of transcendence…. It is no longer a question of a war between individuals each enclosed in their sphere. A caste with demands mounts an assault and it is held in check by the privileged caste.
For Beauvoir, a historical analysis is necessary to understand the differences between women and other oppressed groups, and explain why women's liberation has been so long in coming:
[Women] have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Blacks, the ghetto Jews, the workers of Saint-Denis, or the factory hands at Renault. They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men—fathers or husbands—more firmly than they are to other women.
This situation elicits woman's moral complicity with her oppression, a willingness to accept dependence as a way of fleeing the responsibility of freedom facing any existent. Women are not simply victims in Beauvoir's analysis, as Jaggar charges of radical feminism. Beauvoir argues, in anticipation of the later radical feminist "pro-woman line," that women find both material and ontological advantages from their dependence on men.
But unlike many radical feminists, Beauvoir also holds women morally responsible for complicity with their own oppression once an alternative is presented to them:
To decline to be the Other, to refuse complicity with the man, would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste. Man-the-sovereign will provide woman-the-liege with material protection and will undertake the justification of her existence; thus she can evade at once both economic risk and the metaphysical risk of a freedom which must invent its ends without aid…. The man who makes woman an Other will then meet profound complicities in her. Thus, woman may fail to claim herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means to do it, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often well pleased with her role as Other.
The complexity of Beauvoir's analysis of gender difference and women's oppression is evident in her critiques of Marxism and psychoanalysis. Both theories attempt, unsuccessfully, to apply a model derived from men's experience to women. Beauvoir's version of existential phenomenology provides her with the ontological and methodological grounds for reclaiming the specificity of women's experience while avoiding the essentialism of identity politics. Her criticism of the Marxist analysis of woman's situation is both existentialist and feminist. She charges Marxist economic reductionism with denying the reality of woman's lived experience.
Engels's attempt to reduce woman's situation, including her reproductive role, to economic production is "not tenable." Sexuality and maternity are dramas in the lives of individual women that defy integration into society and control by the State. "One cannot without bad faith consider woman uniquely as a worker. Her reproductive function is as important as her productive capacity, as much in the social economy as in individual life…. Engels evaded the problem; he limited himself to declaring that the socialist community will abolish the family: it is an abstract solution indeed."
The practice in the Soviet Union reveals the limits of such a reductionist theory, which fails to recognize the patriarchal power of the State as oppressive to women. "Suppressing the family is not necessarily to emancipate the woman: the example of Sparta and the Nazi regime prove that by being directly bound to the State she can be no less oppressed by the males." In the interest of rebuilding its population, the Soviet Union was trying to once again "enclose her in situations where maternity is for her the only outlet…. These are exactly the old patriarchal constraints that the USSR is resuscitating today…. This example shows well that it is impossible to consider the woman uniquely as a productive force."
For Beauvoir a true socialist revolution must affirm, not deny individualism, and thus acknowledge gender difference in individual experience and the uniqueness of women's situation. "For a democratic socialism where class will be abolished but not individuals, the question of individual destiny will keep all of its importance: sexual differentiation will keep all its importance. The sexual relation which unites the woman to the man is not the same as that which he sustains with her; the link which bonds her to the child is irreducible to every other. She was not created only by the bronze tool, the machine will not suffice to abolish her. Demanding for her all the rights, all the chances of the human being in general does not signify that one must blind oneself to her singular situation. And to become acquainted with it one must go beyond historical materialism that sees in man and woman only economic entities."
So Marxism, by imposing a male theoretical model of economic production on women's experience, falsifies the experiences of individual women and fails to provide the grounds for challenging patriarchal oppression of women by a male-dominated socialist state. Beauvoir's rejection of the mystification of gender difference by antifeminists and cultural feminists thus does not entail the denial of gender differences in the lives of individual women.
Beauvoir argues that psychoanalysis as well as Marxism reduces women's experience to that of men, thus silencing women. Her argument against essentialist reductionism reflects an existentialist ontology that links her with the new left's "politics of experience" and 1960s radical feminism. It also differentiates her position from that of cultural feminism, and in its combination of cultural critique and celebration of spontaneity and the transgressing of boundaries, aligns her with postmodernism.
Beauvoir criticizes Freud's psychoanalytic theory for attempting to impose a male model onto female experience: "Freud concerned himself little with the destiny of the woman; it is clear that he modelled it on the description of the masculine destiny of which he limited himself to modifying several traits." Freud "admitted that woman's sexuality is as evolved as man's; but he scarcely studied it in itself. He wrote: 'The libido is in a constant and regular fashion essentially male, whether it appears in a man or a woman.' He refused to pose the feminine libido in its originality." By relying on a reductive male model of female sexuality, Beauvoir argues, Freud was unable to explain either penis envy or the Electra complex, primary features of his psychology of woman. Freud "supposed that the woman felt herself to be a mutilated man. But the idea of mutilation implies a comparison and a valorization … it cannot be born from a simple anatomical confrontation…. Freud took [this valorization] for granted when it was necessary to account for it."
An adequate explanation of both penis envy and the Electra complex, in which Freud accounts for women's heterosexuality, would require that one leave the confines of the psychoanalytic model and examine the larger social, historical, and ontological dimensions of individual life and woman's oppression: "Psychoanalysis can only find its truth in the historical context." "The fact that feminine desire focussed on a sovereign being [as it does in the Electra complex] gives it an original character; but [feminine libido] is not constitutive of its object, it submits to it. The sovereignty of the father is a fact of the social order, and Freud fails to account for it."
Thus for Beauvoir a primary feature of the development of female heterosexuality and the transference of a girl's attraction from her mother to her father, is the father's sovereignty, that is, the social context of woman's oppression. Here we see Beauvoir extending social constructivism to sexuality. Her alternative description of the female libido further undermines the assumption of normative female heterosexuality by postulating an original resistance and repulsion toward men. Psychoanalysts who have approached the female libido only from the male libido, "seem to have ignored the fundamental ambivalence of the attraction that the male exerts on the female…. It is the indissoluble synthesis of attraction and of repulsion that characterizes it." Psychoanalysis has failed to acknowledge gender difference in female sexuality: "The idea of a 'passive libido' disconcerts because one has defined the libido on the basis of the male as drive, energy; but neither could one conceive a priori that a light could be at once yellow and blue; it's necessary to have the intuition of green." Beauvoir's social constructivist analysis of sexual difference, and her challenge, albeit limited, to normative female heterosexuality anticipates the later radical feminist critiques of "compulsory heterosexuality."
But in arguing for gender difference, Beauvoir avoids essentialist claims. She lays the groundwork for an appreciation of differences among women in arguing against the reductionism of Freudian psychoanalytic theory: "One must not take sexuality as an irreducible given…. Work, war, play, art define manners of being in the world which do not allow themselves to be reduced to any other." Sexuality is one manner among others of ontologically discovering the world. Thus Beauvoir, unlike the radical feminists described by Echols, rejects the a priori primacy of sexual difference. An individual woman establishes a unity among her activities as she chooses herself through her work, play, struggles, and sexuality.
Beauvoir criticizes psychoanalytic theory for reducing women to passive objects in the world and for denying women the possibility of authentic choices. "We will situate woman in a world of values and we will give to her actions a dimension of freedom. We think that she has to choose between the affirmation of her transcendence and her alienation as an object; she is not the plaything of contradictory drives; she invents solutions between which exist an ethical hierarchy." In describing a subject's failure to effect a transference or a sublimation (and surely the most obvious example here is in the "failure" of a woman to become a heterosexual), a psychoanalyst, Beauvoir argues, "does not suppose that they perhaps refused it and that perhaps they had good reasons for doing so; one does not want to consider that their conduct could have been motivated by ends freely posed."
Freedom is a central theme of The Second Sex. If "one is not born a woman," then with the reality of social intervention comes the possibility of individual action, as Butler argues. Beauvoir is celebrating woman's freedom, the expansion of her choices, not confinement in a role, whether defined by Freud, or by implication here, essentialist identity politics. In her critique of psychoanalytic theory Beauvoir rejects as inauthentic the pursuit of Being, of a substantive self, which was to become prominent in cultural feminism.
In the psychoanalytic sense "to identify oneself" with the mother or the father is to alienate oneself in a model; it is to prefer an alien image to the spontaneous movement of her own existence, to play at being. One shows us woman solicited by two modes of alienation; it is indeed evident that playing at being a man will be a source of failure for her. But playing at being a woman is also a trap. To be a woman would be to be an object, the Other; and the Other remains subject in the heart of its abdication. The real problem for woman is refusing these flights in order to accomplish herself as transcendence.
Beauvoir's description of the contemporary struggle as one in which women claim the values of "transcendence" and refuse the limits of "immanence" differentiates her from the cultural feminist position Echols describes as seeking a womanculture where "'male values' would be exorcized and 'female values' nurtured." For Beauvoir, women's "demand is not to be exalted in their femininity; they want transcendence to prevail over immanence for themselves as for all of humanity."
In truth women have never opposed female values to male values. It is men desirous of maintaining the masculine prerogatives who have invented this division. They have claimed to create a feminine domain—realm of life and immanence—only in order to enclose woman there. It is beyond all sexual specification that the existent seeks her justification in the movement of her transcendence…. What [women] are demanding today is to be recognized as existents as men are and not to subjugate existence to life, man to his animality.
But Beauvoir's theory of gender difference is complex. She rejects both the mystification of gender difference and the abstract, gender-free nominalism of liberal modernity as well.
Some feminist critics, such as Iris Young (1990) have charged The Second Sex with typifying a nineteenth-century "humanist feminism" that, leaving gender largely unexamined, calls on women to assume men's public roles. Beauvoir does reject the mystification of gender difference typical of both nineteenth-century antifeminists, who argued that women's intellectual and physical inferiority and sensitive natures warranted their exclusion from public life and confinement to the private sphere, and their contemporaries, the "domestic feminists," who argued that women should have access to both education and the vote in order to improve and extend the influence of their special moral sense. But Beauvoir does not deny there are differences.
In the introduction to The Second Sex, Beauvoir differentiates her position from modernism, from "the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman…. But nominalism is a rather inadequate doctrine…. Surely woman is, like man, a human being; but such a declaration is abstract. The fact is that every concrete human being is always singularly situated. To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Blacks, women exist today—this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality. It is clear that no woman can claim without bad faith to situate herself beyond her sex."
Beauvoir is a social constructionist who sees women's liberation as requiring the dismantling of the male cultural construct of woman as Other. She certainly wants women to gain access to the public sphere, to escape the confines of women's traditional role of wife and mother, to emerge as an individual. But the public sphere will be transformed in the process: "The future can only lead to a more and more profound assimilation of the woman into the formerly masculine society" (my emphasis). She describes how philosophy, for example, has been distorted by men who have taken their own unique perspective as absolute. Her alternative is not to argue for the possibility of an absolute perspective without differences, that is, a return to the nominalism of modernity, but to both critique the male claim to objectivity and to begin constructing a knowledge based on a phenomenological description of women's experience. Hence the title of the second volume "Lived Experience," where Beauvoir tries to move outside the context of men's constructions of woman as Other, which are primarily useful in understanding not women but the men themselves, into women's ways of knowing their own experience.
Beauvoir does not demand access to a gender-free objectivity of modernity, but rather challenges the objective/subjective dualism itself and provides a phenomenological description of how men's perspectives shape their views of women, and reality. Laying the groundwork for women's studies in her feminist cultural critique, Beauvoir argues that men, in defining knowledge from their own point of view, have mistaken that perspective as absolute: "[Man] seizes his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends in its objectivity, whereas he regards the body of woman as an obstacle, a prison, weighed down by what specifies it." "She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other."
According to Beauvoir, Lévinas exemplifies this masculinist view in his essay Le Temps et l'Autre where he writes that: "'Otherness reaches its full flowering in the feminine, a term of the same rank as consciousness but of opposite meaning.' I suppose that Lévinas does not forget that woman is also consciousness for herself. But it is striking that he deliberately takes a man's point of view, disregarding the reciprocity of subject and object…. Thus his description, which is intended to be objective, is in fact an assertion of masculine privilege." Beauvoir would have men, as well as women, claim the subjectivity of their situated consciousness, rather than lay claim to false objectivity.
Beauvoir's psychological explanation of men's behavior is derived from her close reading of myths and male-authored texts with which she began her research for The Second Sex. Her analyses of the images of women in the works of Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Claudel, Breton, and Stendhal provided the model for Millett's cultural critique in Sexual Politics. Psychologically, men's oppression of women is, in Beauvoir's existential analysis, an inauthentic attempt to evade the demands of authentic human relationships and the ambiguous realities of human existence. For men who would define themselves as pure spirit, women represent an odious link to the absurd contingency of a man's own life: his birth, embodiment, and death. "In all civilizations and in our own day, [woman] inspires horror in man: it is horror of his own carnal contingence which he projects onto her."
Woman as Other also seems a privileged prey of men desirous of the confirmation of self found in relationships with others, and yet fearful of the dangers in relationships with their peers. "[Woman] opposes to him neither the enemy silence of nature, nor the hard exigencies of a reciprocal recognition; by a unique privilege she is a consciousness and yet it seems possible to possess her in her flesh. Thanks to her, there is a means of escaping the implacable dialectic of master and slave which has its source in the reciprocity of freedom."
Authentic human relationships, on the contrary, must be constantly created. Beauvoir's vision does not offer a comforting if static social order, but a future of ceaseless struggle in morally challenging relationships. According to Beauvoir, the master/slave dialectic can be surmounted, but only by
the free recognition of each individual in the other, each posing at once himself and the other as object and as subject in a reciprocal movement. But friendship, generosity, which realize concretely this recognition of freedoms, are not easy virtues. They are assuredly the highest accomplishment of man, the means by which he finds himself in his truth. But this truth is that of a struggle forever opening up, forever abolished; it demands that man surmount himself at each instant. One could say also in another language that man attains an authentic moral attitude when he renounces being in order to assume his existence.
"One is not born, but rather becomes a woman." This familiar quotation (eloquently translated by Parshley) which opens volume 2 of The Second Sex, indicates Beauvoir's social constructionism, a position Echols sees as key in differentiating radical feminism from the biological determinism of cultural feminism. In fact Jaggar unknowingly points toward Beauvoir as a theoretical source for the social constructivism of radical feminism in recognizing Monique Wittig as one of the few radical feminists to reject biological determinism; Jaggar cites Wittig's influential 1979 essay "One is not born a woman"—clear reference to Beauvoir.
Judith Butler has argued that Beauvoir's concept of the body as situation "suggests an alternative to the gender polarization of masculine disembodiment and feminine enslavement to the body." For Beauvoir, Butler writes, "any effort to ascertain the 'natural' body before its entrance into culture is definitionally impossible, not only because the observer who seeks this phenomenon is him/herself entrenched in a specific cultural language, but because the body is as well. The body is, in effect, never a natural phenomenon." Butler draws our attention to the conclusion of the biology chapter in The Second Sex, where Beauvoir writes: "it is not merely as a body, but rather as a body subject to taboos, to laws, that the subject takes consciousness of himself and accomplishes itself…. It is not physiology that can found values; rather, the biological givens assume those that the existent confers upon them."
If Beauvoir's view, Butler argues, is that the body exists as a locus of cultural interpretations, "then Simone de Beauvoir's theory seems implicitly to ask whether sex was not gender all along," a view radicalized in the work of Monique Wittig and Foucault who both "challenge the notion of natural sex and expose the political uses of biological discriminations in establishing a compulsory binary gender system." Butler, it should be noted, claims that Foucault, a student of Merleau-Ponty, was not influenced by Beauvoir. But an indirect influence is not unlikely given Merleau-Ponty's long association with Beauvoir.
Beauvoir "suggests," according to Butler, "that a binary gender system has no ontological necessity." In fact, Beauvoir argues explicitly against the ontological necessity of sexual dimorphism earlier in the biology chapter. Beauvoir argues there against Hegel that "it is in exercising sexual activity that men define the sexes and their relations as they create the sense and the value of all the functions that they accomplish: but [sexual activity] is not necessarily implied in the nature of the human body." "The perpetuation of the species appears as the correlative of individual limitation. One can thus consider the phenomenon of reproduction as ontologically founded. But we must stop there. The perpetuation of the species does not entail sexual differentiation. If [sexual differentiation] is assumed by existents in such a manner that in return it enters into the concrete definition of existence, so be it. It nonetheless remains that a consciousness without a body and an immortal man are rigorously inconceivable, while one can imagine a society reproducing itself by parthenogenesis or composed of hermaphrodites."
Butler's analysis provides an alternative reading of existentialist concepts of freedom and choice found in radical feminism, which Jaggar discredits as liberal and idealist (as in one "choosing a sex role" from a transsocial standpoint). For Butler:
In making the body into an interpretive modality, Beauvoir has extended the doctrines of embodiment and prereflective choice that characterized Sartre's work…. Simone de Beauvoir, much earlier on and with greater consequence [than Sartre himself], sought to exorcise Sartre's doctrine of its Cartesian ghost. She gives Sartrean choice an embodied form and places it in a world thick with tradition. To "choose" a gender in this context is not to move in upon gender from a disembodied locale, but to reinterpret the cultural history which the body already wears. The body becomes a choice, a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms which surface as so many styles of the flesh.
Beauvoir's rejection of the mystification of gender difference evident in her ontology is based, in part, on her analysis of the historical deployment of an ideology of difference in women's oppression. She concludes from her historical analysis in The Second Sex that: "Those epoques that regard woman as the Other are those that refuse most bitterly to integrate her into society as a human being. Today she is becoming a fellow other only in losing her mystical aura. Antifeminists are always playing on this equivocation. They gladly agree to exalt woman as Other in order to constitute her alterity as absolute, irreducible, and to refuse her access to the human Mitsein [being-with]." Beauvoir's intent, here as elsewhere, is not to deny gender difference as women experience it concretely, but to demystify it.
In the nineteenth century, glorification of woman's difference was common to both antifeminists such as Comte and Balzac, as well as utopian socialists such as the Saint-Simonians, who, in a foreshadowing of the goddess worship of contemporary cultural feminism, awaited the advent of the female messiah. But neither, according to Beauvoir, served well the interests of women's liberation: "The doctrines that call for the advent of the woman as flesh, life, immanence, as the Other, are masculine ideologies that in no way express feminine demands." Beauvoir's analysis of the historical relationship of socialism and goddess worship provides an interesting context for reading the critiques of cultural feminism in both Jaggar and Echols. Some utopian socialists of the nineteenth century such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Cabet called for an end to all slavery and for the ideal of the "free woman." But later followers of Saint-Simon, "exalted woman in the name of her femininity, which is the surest means of her disservice." Enfantin "awaited the coming of a better world from the woman messiah, and the Companions of the Woman embarqued for the Orient in search of the female savior." But for all the glorification of the feminine, with few exceptions, "women held only a secondary place in the Saint-Simonien movement." The socialist Flora Tristan, we learn later, also "believed in the redemption of the people by the woman, but she interested herself in the emancipation of the working class rather than in that of her own sex." Thus socialism, which Jaggar argued could provide the only clear alternative to goddess worship and cultural feminism, is, ironically, itself a historically problematic root of both.
Beauvoir's historical analysis reveals other limitations of socialism for feminists, problems still apparent in contemporary socialism. There was Fourier, for example, "who confused the enfranchisement of women with the rehabilitation of the flesh…. He considered woman not in her person but in her amorous function." But the most serious problem for socialist feminism stems from the reductive Marxist analysis that conceives of women's liberation as contained within the proletariat revolution instead of, as Beauvoir argues, requiring women's own collective struggle as a separate development.
In arguing for the importance of recognizing gender difference in experience, Beauvoir does not maintain that the relationship between men and women has been historically unchanging. Her analysis of women's oppression is not a simple analogy, neither trivializing other forms of oppression nor asserting that gender is always the primary contradiction. Class differences figure prominently in Beauvoir's analysis of how the historically different situations of bourgeois and proletariat women have undermined feminist solidarity and activism. For example, in her analysis of the bourgeois French Revolution, Beauvoir argues that neither working-class women, "who experienced, as women, the most independence," nor bourgeois women were able to make many gains: "The women of the bourgeoisie were too integrated into the family to know any concrete solidarity among themselves; they did not constitute a separate caste able to impose their demands: economically, their existence was parasitic. Thus the women who, despite their sex, would have been able to participate in the events were prevented from doing so by their class, while those of the activist class were condemned as women to remain at a distance." No analysis that ignores class differences can understand the history of women's oppression and the problems of feminist activism.
Beauvoir criticized the so-called independent French feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century for reflecting bourgeois interests. But the "revolutionary feminism" of the same era, which "took up the Saint-Simonien and Marxist tradition," also contributed to the internal divisions that were the source of the "weakness of feminism." "Women lacked solidarity as sex; they were first linked to their class; the interests of the bourgeois women and those of the proletariat women did not intersect…. Louise Michel pronounced herself against feminism because this movement only served to divert forces which ought to be in their entirety employed in the class struggle; women's lot will find itself well ordered by the abolition of capital." "Since it is from the emancipation of workers in general that women await their freedom, they only attach themselves in a secondary manner to their own cause."
Beauvoir reserves her highest praise for the Woman's Social and Political Union established in Britain by the Pankhursts around 1903. Progressive without putting women's issues second; it was "allied with the laborist party," and "undertook a resolutely militant action." "It is the first time in history that one sees women try an effort as women: that is what gives a particular interest to the adventure of the 'suffragettes' in Britain and America." In a detailed account, deleted by Parshley from the English edition, Beauvoir pays tribute to their inventiveness: "During fifteen years they led a campaign of political pressure which recalls on certain sides the attitude of a Gandhi: refusing violence, they invented more or less ingenious substitutes."
Identifying with an earlier feminist movement, drawing on insights of radical African-American theorists of racial oppression, Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, laid the theoretical foundations for a radical feminist movement of the future and defined a feminist political philosophy of lasting importance.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7096
SOURCE: "Beauvoir's Two Senses of 'Body' in The Second Sex," in Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, edited by Margaret A. Simons, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995, pp. 223-42.
[In the following essay, Ward examines Beauvoir's views concerning the nature of the female body and gender roles. Rejecting the view that Beauvoir's feminism is guided by principles of biological determinism, Ward contends that Beauvoir "should be seen as developing a social-constructivist view of the body."]
It was Beauvoir's dictum that one becomes but is not born a woman and her broad analysis of the reality behind that statement that charted the course for most contemporary currents in modern Western feminism and for which she has been hailed in the past as an emancipator. Yet in the wake of a gynocentric wave in feminist thinking, Beauvoir's work has increasingly come under scholarly scrutiny, with the result that Beauvoir, far from being hailed as a liberator, is reviled as a turncoat. Some of the more trenchant criticism centers on Beauvoir's discussion of woman's body and related subjects such as sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and maternity ([Mary] O'Brien 1981, [Charlene] Seigfried 1984, [Mary] Evans 1987, [Céline] Léon 1988). Almost uniformly, these critics have found her analysis of these areas to reflect a negative attitude about the female body, and so her view has been labeled "masculinist" and essentialist. In a sense, the evidence for their claims is not difficult to find: Beauvoir's descriptions of females as more enslaved to the species than males, of women as less transcendent than men and as alienated from their bodies in the course of normal processes such as menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth seem tailored to fit the critics' charges. And so, some have gone on to conclude that Beauvoir, perhaps unknowingly, has adopted a hostile, "masculine" stance toward women, and toward the female body in particular. Others have maintained that Beauvoir assumes that female characteristics are fixed by nature so as to doom her to inferiority. Judith Okely, for example, finds that Beauvoir's account is deterministic: "Despite Beauvoir's formal rejection of biological determinism, when the details of her arguments are closely examined it can be seen that she contradicts any claim that biological factors are irrelevant or arbitrary. Again and again she slips into biological reductionism to explain the primary cause of women's subordination." First, it should be pointed out that, as far as the critics' charges are concerned, biological determinism does not coincide with biological reductionism: the latter is a weaker view than the former in the sense that it reduces human abilities like thinking to biological properties, but it does not entail the further view that these capacities are subject to deterministic biological laws. However, in spite of Okely's contrary implication—since the two positions are not logically equivalent—for the purposes of this essay, I shall offer arguments against both sorts of objections to Beauvoir's account of women's oppression and of the body. So, while one cannot deny that readers of The Second Sex encounter a host of negative remarks about woman's biology, the question to address is whether these claims constitute biological reductionism or determinism. I contend that they do not, and that Beauvoir clearly rejects both these positions. It would, in fact, be surprising for Beauvoir to embrace any incompatibilist position that would preclude the possibility for individual choice and responsibility, as does biological determinism. In order to make this case, I argue that one has to take seriously Beauvoir's claim that it is her intention to consider the body not as a thing, but as a situation, about which more will be said in the following section. Briefly, if we follow her suggestion, we see in her theoretical analysis of woman's body at least two different perspectives from which the discussion about the body is conducted, so that we must put her comments in their proper context by noting the perspective from which she makes them. By differentiating between these levels, I contend that neither the charge of biological determinism (or reductionism), nor that of "masculinism" has a firm foundation. The charge of "masculinism" will be displaced by showing that Beauvoir is not committed to the negative views about woman's body that she mentions—which is why she distinguishes the "biological" treatment of the body from her own way of accounting for it.
As a general observation, the method of philosophical analysis Beauvoir employs in The Second Sex is fundamentally nonreductionist in the sense that it depends on a synthesis of social, economic, and historical factors to one perspective she sometimes calls the "existential" perspective, which is her preferred stance in comprehending the full reality of woman's oppression. Once the theoretical complexity of Beauvoir's perspective is acknowledged, two obvious objections to the reductionist interpretation of Beauvoir emerge. First, the possibility that we could reduce the intrinsically heterogeneous analyses of female experience—psychological, biological, economic, etc.—to a single kind of analysis looks to be slight. Second, even supposing that we could achieve this reduction, why should we be inclined to think that for her the biological explanations, rather than historical ones, say, are the most fundamental? These two basic objections warrant against the reductionist program.
But, so her critics would maintain, even though Beauvoir's overall analysis of woman is multifaceted, her account of woman's body is seriously flawed: Beauvoir herself succumbs to some of the well-worn, patriarchal myths about the female body. I reject this criticism, finding that Beauvoir's distinction between the two senses of the body, and of the physical generally, has been overlooked or not addressed adequately by her critics. Briefly, my interpretation of Beauvoir's position is this: she appears to make neutral statements about females and biology in chapter 1, and so looks to be making essentialist statements about women's bodies; in fact, this is not true. For, as Beauvoir points out, one cannot make neutral, aperspectival claims about female biology since the physical capacities of either sex gain meaning only when placed in a cultural and historical context—this, I argue, is what Beauvoir means by saying that the body is to be seen as a situation. In the rest of this essay, I shall contend that if Beauvoir takes seriously the notion that the body is itself a situation, as I believe she does, she must reject the idea of the body as a purely biological mechanism, contrary to her critics' charge. For these same reasons, I shall also find that Beauvoir is not fundamentally opposed to typically female functions, such as maternity. Instead of being cast as holding some form of biological reductionism or determinism, she should be seen as developing a social-constructivist view of the body. In this vein, I generally agree with Judith Butler's view of Beauvoir. In the last section, I shall argue that Beauvoir's claim about the body as situation may be taken as rejecting the notion of a natural, sexed body. So interpreted, we may comprehend Beauvoir's dictum that one only becomes a woman to imply not only that gender, but the body itself, is socially constructed.
Putting Biology in Context
"the body is not a thing, it is a situation"
In coming to general conclusions about Beauvoir's view of woman's body, I have followed two heuristic principles. The first is that when confronted with apparent contradictions among an author's claims, one needs to look deeper for some means of reconciling them. The second principle consists in taking the structure of the work as central to its interpretation. On this latter point, it is useful to note that the initial three chapters of the work, on biology, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism, preface the chapters on history and myths about women. Together these chapters constitute the volume entitled "Les Faits et Les Mythes" (Facts and myths), which precedes the second volume entitled "L'Expérience Vécu" (Lived experience). By naming them thus, the two halves of the work suggest distinct yet interrelated levels of analysis, the first half emphasizing abstract constructs with which male thinkers have theorized about woman, the second what woman's experience under patriarchy has been like. This order, then, suggests a "top-down" approach to her discussion: a mode of analysis such that the current myths and theories detailed in her first volume are to be regarded as part of the conceptual apparatus presupposed in the lived histories of women in the second volume. Since the theories and myths detailed in volume 1 constitute part of the theoretical framework of patriarchy, it would be naive to think that that which is said about women and their experience is necessarily affirmed by Beauvoir herself. For example, in chapter 1, Beauvoir asserts that the theoretical justification in biology of the male as the sole creator of the offspring coincides with the advent of patriarchy. Additionally, Beauvoir ends each of the three initial chapters with critical comments detailing the inadequacies of each theoretical approach. We must infer, then, that Beauvoir is open to rejecting either part or all of the conceptual analyses of women given in volume 1. In this regard, we may note that she rejects psychoanalysis for its partiality and ahistoricity, specifically faulting the theory for its failure to explain, rather than merely assert, the supremacy of male as against female power as it is reflected in the sovereignty of the phallus. Beauvoir's comment that "representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men … which they confuse with absolute truth" is instructive here: she clearly acknowledges the dominant myths and ideologies that men have created about women, but she by no means thereby subscribes to them. This said, it is highly improbable to think—as her critics maintain—that the traditional view of woman merely as a reproductive vessel, such as is expressed in the opening lines of chapter 1, can be identified with Beauvoir's own view: "Woman? very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary, she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her." While even her critics may acknowledge that such a line does not express Beauvoir's position it seems to me that the critics have charged her with holding views as improbable as this one—largely by overlooking the fact that since much of the theoretical discussion in volume 1 is the product of male theorizing about women, it will inevitably be subject to some criticism by Beauvoir. If true, it follows that when we encounter various apparently essentialist statements about woman's body in the chapter on biology, we cannot thereby conclude that Beauvoir is uncritically accepting them. In general, any reductive account of woman, such as what Beauvoir calls the "sexual monism" of Freud or the "economic monism" of Engels, clearly runs contrary to her own foundations since the whole thrust of Beauvoir's analysis of woman is to appreciate the complexity of being feminine. For the same reasons, one can imagine Beauvoir calling the simplistic view that woman is merely "a womb, an ovary" as a kind of "biological monism" and dispensing with it.
Although Beauvoir has been faulted for opening her work with a chapter on biology, in fact the chapter involves a complex task. It aims to set out a nonreductive, nondualistic account of human beings. So, while Beauvoir rejects the notion that woman can be reduced to her reproductive organs, she wishes to mark the importance of the physical by emphasizing the central role that the body plays in human experience. She reflects a strongly anti-Cartesian, or antidualist, perspective in her general conception of human beings, claiming: "the body [is] the instrument of our grasp upon the world." She then goes on to claim that women and men do not "grasp" the world in the same terms, for differences in body entail differences in experience. Now, when she summarizes the differences between the sexes, she says that the two biological traits that characterize woman are that her grasp upon the world is less "extended" than man's ("sa prise est moins étendue que celle de l'homme"), and that she is more narrowly enslaved to the species ("elle est plus étroitement asservie a l'espèce"). Presumably, what Beauvoir has in mind here are various physiological differences she details in chapter 1, for example, the relatively smaller musculature of women to men, and the possession of fewer red blood corpuscles so that the gross muscular effort is lower.
Do these and related comments entail she is being "masculinist" in her view of the female body as her critics charge? I think not, although it is easy enough to see in her descriptions of woman as having "a less extended grasp," and as being "enslaved to the species" the basis for the criticism that she is mixing biological facts with value judgments. However, Beauvoir is in fact not unaware that "factual" descriptions are insignificant in themselves and acquire meaning by being placed in a cultural context. As she notes at the opening of chapter 3: "these facts [above-mentioned] take on different values according to the economic and social context. In human history, grasp upon the world has never been defined by the naked body … on the contrary, technique may annul the muscular inequality of man and woman." Consequently, although she acknowledges physical differences such as the relatively greater musculature of men over women, she correctly points out that this difference in itself signifies nothing. In fact, as she here argues, the large part of human history has been concerned with the improvement of technology, the historical effect of which has been to negate all the advantages of brute strength. Thus, she is arguing precisely contrary to what she ought to be if she were in fact holding some form of biological determinism. Again, in a related passage, Beauvoir astutely comments that the notion of "weakness" one presupposes depends upon both one's instruments and one's goals; in any case, bodily force alone is hardly the sole criterion for determining what power is. Even if one sums up all the physical differences between men and women, including the apparent inequalities, one cannot infer any truths about female experience from this "data." For, as Beauvoir is quick to note, the so-called biological facts do not set an inevitable destiny for woman, contrary to the Freudian estimation. Rather, she maintains that woman's physical and physiological characteristics are themselves the effect, or result, of woman's social and material conditions, and so, they are inadequate to explain her subordinate social status. So, while Beauvoir asserts that woman's biological characteristics place a kind of constraint on her experience, it does not follow that these characteristics stand as the explanatory determinants of her experience, for they are themselves accounted for in terms of social, economic, and cultural conditions, at the level which Beauvoir refers to as situation.
Before looking more closely at the significance of Beauvoir's term situation and how it relates to her view of the body, one needs to make mention of two fundamental threads of her analysis of woman. She subscribes, first, to the existentialist notion of humans as conscious beings able to shape themselves through freely chosen projects, and second, to some form of historical materialism. Both of these commitments are evident in chapter 3, "The Point of View of Historical Materialism," where she embraces the notion of humans as subject to historical material conditions, yet maintains that the Marxist theory itself is inadequate to explain the concrete situation for human beings: "to comprehend that situation we must look beyond the historical materialism that perceives in man and woman no more than economic units." One may conclude that Beauvoir thinks that humans as conscious beings have the ability to transform their environment, yet as social beings they should be considered primarily in relation to the historical and economic conditions that to some extent determine them.
Although it may appear to some that existentialism and historical materialism are opposed on the issue of the extent to which human beings may choose their actions—with the former emphasizing individual freedom and the latter determination by material conditions—yet in both views there exists a combination of indeterminacy or freedom, and determinacy in the sense of being subject to certain unchosen conditions. Thus, Beauvoir's attempt to synthesize the two views should not be viewed as prima facie implausible. But leaving aside the larger issue of whether one can strike a precise balance between the existentialist and historical materialist conceptions of human beings, I find that Beauvoir tries to combine these two views in her general notion of situation. The task may appear less daunting to us once we note that Beauvoir embraces a form of existentialism that does not insist on the radical and fundamental freedom of human beings to the exclusion of deterministic factors like race, class, or gender; she finds, instead that humans are only partly free because they are partly determined by various internal and external factors. In her introduction, Beauvoir actually points out several kinds of limiting factors on human freedom: here she insists on the seriousness of gender discrimination, likening it to forms of racial and ethnic discrimination. In her words: "whether it is a race, a caste, a class, or a sex that is reduced to a position of inferiority, the methods of justification are the same." Especially striking evidence of the latter in her analysis of women is the analogy Beauvoir draws between racial and gender discrimination: "there are deep similarities between the situation of woman and that of the Negro. Both are being emancipated today from a like paternalism, and the former master class wishes to 'keep them in their place'—that is, the place chosen for them." So, it may be said that in her analysis of women, Beauvoir eschews the radical freedom sometimes attributed to existentialists. Yet having stated this one cannot conclude thereby that woman for Beauvoir is not also responsible for her actions due to oppressive institutions and customs. On the contrary, it is precisely because she is free to some extent that Beauvoir criticizes the middle-class woman for her complicity in various patriarchal and sexist institutions which she can use to her advantage.
We may conclude that, on the one hand, Beauvoir claims that women as human beings are transcendent—able to choose their own projects—and yet, on the other hand, are often caught up in social and economic forces beyond their control, forced into immanence. So we see Beauvoir attempting to correct the extreme voluntarist form of existentialism with her insistence that we take a broader, historical view of human beings, as exemplified here in a passage from chapter 3: "The theory of historical materialism has brought to light some important truths. Humanity is not an animal species; it is a historical reality. Human society is an antiphysis—in a sense, it is against nature; it does not submit to the presence of nature but rather takes over the control of nature on its own behalf. This arrogation is not an inward, subjective operation: it is accomplished objectively in practical action." We may draw a parallel, then, between Beauvoir's view of the position of human beings and of woman's situation in particular: both are culturally and historically bound, yet are not wholly subject to the social and economic constraints placed upon them. It is fitting, then, for Beauvoir to deny that any one set of given conditions, in this case, biological characteristics, could ever be fully determinative of feminine experience. Thus, she demurs in giving undue importance to physical or sexual properties in her explanation of woman: "Thus, woman could not be considered simply as a sexual organism, for among the biological traits, only those have importance that take on concrete value in action. Woman's awareness of herself is not defined exclusively by her sexuality; it reflects a situation that depends upon the economic organization of society, which in turn indicates what stage of technical evolution mankind has attained." Beauvoir's point here is that biological characteristics are not themselves explanatory of feminine experience; rather, women's status and self-identity is constituted by the set of external, social conditions in which women find themselves. But if woman's self-awareness cannot be said to be determined by a natural, sexual identity, then it becomes untenable to claim Beauvoir subscribes to some form of biological reductionism.
We may now turn to our examination of Beauvoir's term "situation," a word that appears often in The Second Sex and one that has special significance in her analysis of the body. In general, Beauvoir uses "situation" to signify the specific historical and social contexts in which women find themselves to be Other, that is, relegated to a subordinate status relative to men. In these occurrences, the word clearly signifies the set of social, economic, and in general, material conditions that give rise to the psychological, subjective condition of being a woman. Significantly, she also chooses to analyze the concept of the body in terms of situation, the effect of which is to reconceive the body as a social construction, as opposed to a physical thing. In fact, we find both senses of "body" alluded to in the chapter on biology where Beauvoir asserts her preference for the constructivist conception of the body, in spite of her long discussion of the "alienating" aspects of female biological functions. Notwithstanding such comments, she employs the notion of situation to explain the sense in which the biological statements about "body" are to be considered. She distinguishes between two conceptions of "body": in one sense, it may be said to signify the body conceived of as inert matter or stuff, "a thing," as she terms it; in another sense, it signifies how the physical body is experienced, given the social and economic conditions, and here her term is situation. Now the body conceived of in the first sense is roughly equivalent to the Cartesian res extensa, extended matter lacking all thought, whereas in the second sense the notion presupposes thought and consciousness, and so, is anti-Cartesian. And it is just this latter sense of body that Beauvoir embraces in chapter I, rejecting the Cartesian notion.
It should be clear that seen from the perspective of situation, what "body" signifies is not an entity with certain invariant characteristics, but an entity whose features can change since the nature and value of bodies depends upon the social, historical, and economic context within which embodied individuals exist. In surprising fashion, Beauvoir then weaves the existentialist notion of human beings as incomplete in their nature with the Marxist view of human beings as subject to historical variants into the notion of the human situation:
As Merleau-Ponty very justly puts it, man is not a natural species, he is an historical idea. Woman is not a completed reality, but rather a becoming, and it is in her becoming that she should be compared with man; that is to say, her possibilities should be defined. What gives rise to much of the debate is the tendency to reduce her to what she has been, to what she is today, in raising the question of her capabilities; for the fact is that capabilities are clearly manifested only when they have been realized—but the fact is also that when we have to do with a being whose nature is transcendent action, we can never close the books.
The passage illuminates Beauvoir's existentialist notion of humans as dynamic beings, in her term, "transcendent," that create themselves through their activities. Yet more striking is her insistence upon marrying this view with historicism in considering the meaning of woman's physical attributes. Thus, in spite of the fact that she claims woman's body to be weaker, less muscular, less stable, and to possess less lung capacity than a man's, she also argues that when interpreting the female body on the "basis of existence," such weakness is incomplete, without meaning. For, it is only within the context of certain social norms and values that differences in lung capacity and muscular mass have any significance. As Beauvoir rightly observes:
"weakness" is revealed as such only in the light of the ends that man proposes, the instruments he has available, and the laws he establishes…. In brief, the concept of weakness can be defined only with reference to existentialist, economic, and moral considerations…. Thus, while it is true that in the higher animals the individual existence is asserted more imperiously by the male than by the female, in the human species individual "possibilities" depend upon the economic and social situation.
The direction of Beauvoir's analysis of woman's body, then, is toward subjecting the biological statements concerning the body to further historical and material analysis. For, as she consistently points out in the first three chapters, human biology is incomplete: biological "facts" about human beings cannot be interpreted in isolation from the relevant social and economic conditions in relation to which they take on value. She argues, for example, "these facts [biological facts] take on different values according to the economic and social context. In human history, grasp upon the world has never been defined by the naked body." Rather, "the value of muscular strength, of the phallus, of the tool can be defined only in a world of values." So, at the close of the chapter on biology, she notes, "we must view the facts of biology in the light of an ontological, economic, social, and psychological context."
Beauvoir thus sets forth a standard for assessing biological claims. But does she herself follow it? At first glance, it would appear that she does not carry out the promised broad analysis of biology in terms of social, economic, and existential factors. As previously noted, chapter 1 contains a number of statements that appear to be a historical and essentialist, such as that in intercourse, as in fertilization, woman experiences a "profound alienation," and that since the embryo requires the woman to become "other than herself," she becomes alienated from her body. Or, again, we find that in morning sickness we see "the revolt of the organism against the invading species." I suggest, however, that it is unnecessary to read these claims as essentialist and masculinist. After all, it is only if we expect Beauvoir to be making ahistorical claims that we find this is the only possible interpretation. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that she is not limited to describing the body as a thing, there is no need to read these statements as essentialist. Instead, as [Kristana] Arp demonstrates, Beauvoir's claim that the female is alienated from her body has to be interpreted as a description about the body as "situation," not about the body as a thing. I suggest that once we acknowledge the legitimacy of analyzing the body as situation, we need not find her comments about woman's body as essentialistic and misogynistic. Instead of reading enslavement to the species, for example, as a description of the female body outside of social and historical context, I suggest that we consider it as a description of the female body under various patriarchal periods. Under this interpretation, the above-mentioned objections leveled against her discussion of the body are perhaps understandable, if unjustified. For it may be admitted that when Beauvoir makes these essentialist-sounding comments, she is not always careful to explain at which level she is speaking, and so sometimes invites confusion. As a consequence, some of what Beauvoir says about the female body appears to have escaped her critical lens and so, her work has achieved the reputation of evincing an aversion to "femininity" and specifically, to the female body.
"the close bond between mother and child will be for her a source of dignity or indignity according to the value placed upon the child—which is highly variable"
Of all the female experiences Beauvoir critically observes, perhaps her most controversial account is that of pregnancy and maternity. Mary O'Brien (1981), for example, finds that Beauvoir's account of motherhood simply repeats the traditional view that women are doomed by their biology: since maternity prevents women from participating in social, public life, women should refrain from becoming mothers, according to Beauvoir. Where Beauvoir errs, as O'Brien sees it, is in the initial assumption that female reproduction and birth is alienating; according to O'Brien, it is men who, in lacking the continuity between sexual intercourse and birth, are alienated from sexual reproduction. And so, O'Brien argues, since Beauvoir begins with the wrong premise about women's reproductive experience, she necessarily comes to the wrong conclusion about maternity. This criticism raises the question whether Beauvoir is, in fact, taking the position that women's biology necessarily entraps them so as to prevent their attaining equal status in society.
There is, as noted above, the appearance of a conflict in the text insofar as one interprets Beauvoir's comments ahistorically. So, for example, much has been made of the fact that Beauvoir describes the female reproductive capacity as making the woman the "prey to the species," and that she seems to denigrate the usual functions of motherhood. But when Beauvoir speaks of the female's subordination to the species she is usually thinking of the host of unfavorable conditions under which women, lacking adequate food, health care, and contraceptive control, become pregnant and bear many children to the detriment of their well-being. In addition, she points out that regarding children as an universal panacea for one's happiness can be naive and harmful.
But having said this, we are not compelled to think that Beauvoir finds maternity always to have negative value for women. Beauvoir clearly wants to argue that the value of maternity, like pregnancy, depends upon the situation of the woman: the attitude she takes toward these experiences, her social and economic condition, and whether they are freely chosen acts or states imposed upon her. Depending on the external conditions, as well as the psychological attitude of the mother, the experience of birth is variable among women, Beauvoir finds. Some women, she notes, find birth an enriching experience, one that gives them "a sense of creative power; [that] they have accomplished a voluntary and productive task," while for others the experience of birth makes them feel like passive instruments. So, too, with the experience of child-rearing: Beauvoir argues that the mother's relations to her child are not univocal, but vary according to the "situation." Some women feel alone and empty following birth, others welcome and find delight in the child, as Colette's description of her own feelings toward her daughter in L'Etoile Vesper which Beauvoir quotes: "I marvelled at the assemblage of prodigies that is the newborn child: her fingernails transparent as the pink shrimp's convex shell, the soles of her feet, which had come to us without touching the ground. The feathery lightness of her eyelashes, lowered on her cheeks or interposed between the scenery of the earth and the pale-blue dream in her eyes." Beauvoir, in choosing to quote this and many other positive passages about motherhood, indicates her openness to the rewards of maternity. As she claims in her chapter on the mother, "the fact remains that unless the circumstances are positively unfavorable the mother will find her life enriched by her child."
Beauvoir's general point in the discussion of motherhood has been overlooked by her critics in the presence of cer tain negative remarks. In this chapter, her theoretical objective is to restore the plurality of women's experience. By bringing together all kinds of accounts of motherhood, both literary and "scientific," Beauvoir effectively demonstrates: first that it is of necessity a heterogeneous experience, and second that since the former is true, there is no such thing as "maternal instinct." It is true that she thereby seeks to dispel a familiar assumption, namely, the notion that maternity is an univocal experience for women and one that in some way is a guarantee of their happiness, but for women living without contraception and adequate wealth, this would hardly seem to be controversial. So it is that Beauvoir dares to question whether one can say that human beings possess a maternal instinct, concluding that "the mother's attitude [toward the child] depends upon her total situation and her reaction to it … [which] … is highly variable." So, although Beauvoir is hardly averse to pointing out the problems and pitfalls of maternity, neither is she blind to its potential as a source of positive experience. Rather, her point is to reveal two basic misconceptions about maternity: first, that it is not sufficient in itself to ensure woman's happiness; and second, that a child is not certain to be happy in its mother's arms. Not only is her discussion adequate to this goal, but Beauvoir is surely right in arguing for these two premises. For the related notions that women are necessarily fulfilled by motherhood and that they are naturally good mothers ignores the role that negative conditions such as poverty, ignorance, and general deprivation play in the experience of mothers and children. Beauvoir is highly sensitive to these external conditions that may definitively color the experience of motherhood for women. So, while some feminists charge Beauvoir with classism, it is instead the feminists who insist on the primary place and value of motherhood who may themselves be guilty of a classist assumption, one that assumes that all women are able to undertake pregnancy voluntarily, in comfortable economic situations and supportive surroundings, enjoying good health care throughout. Of course, as Beauvoir admits, under favorable conditions, children are bound to be highly positive experiences for the woman, but society can hardly choose to disdain women as human beings, give them no economic support for being mothers, exclude them from public life and then expect them to find motherhood rewarding.
Nor do children raised under the conditions of inequality mentioned flourish, as the myth maintains. Instead, as Beauvoir notes, the social contempt for women is often played out in the relations among the family members, with the result that children suffer. Since there is nothing "natural" about maternal love, according to Beauvoir, there is the possibility that there be bad mothers, a point illustrated in her fiction with dramatic examples of mothers like Madame Blomart in The Blood of Others (1945) who is at once the passive, submissive martyr and a mother who causes both guilt and resentment in her son. Yet Beauvoir's criticism of such mothers does not lie, as some think, with the relation itself, but rather with its present expression in society. Beauvoir's recommendation in The Second Sex is that society come to care for its children and help its mothers by furthering them in careers. She is right, I believe, in rejecting talk about the "sacred rights of the mother" and its attendant notion that through motherhood in the abstract woman somehow attains the social and political equality of men. However, having said this, she also holds that there is no essential conflict between woman's transcendence and maternity: "In a properly organized society where children would be largely taken in charge by the community and the mother cared for and helped, maternity would not be wholly incompatible with careers for women…. The woman who enjoys the richest individual life will have the most to give to her children and will demand the least from them, she who acquires in effort and struggle a sense of true human values will be best able to bring them up properly." The emphasis in this discussion, then, lies in the social and economic context surrounding maternity, not in the institution in itself. Thus, the objection that Beauvoir deprecates motherhood misses the mark in failing to appreciate the historicized stance she adopts toward maternity. O'Brien's criticism that Beauvoir errs in neglecting the role of motherhood in the path toward woman's emancipation is thus flawed since Beauvoir eschews taking an ahistorical perspective in her analysis of maternity. Furthermore, it appears that O'Brien confuses two senses of alienation that are at work in Beauvoir's discussion, one biological, one social, so that even if O'Brien is correct to dispute the idea sometimes suggested by Beauvoir that woman is biologically alienated in reproduction, she has not thereby disproved Beauvoir's other contention that woman is socially alienated in reproduction. But as I have noted, even Beauvoir in her more careful moments rejects biological determinism as untenable, preferring to analyze woman's biological capacities in light of what she calls "the total situation."
Constructing the Body
"it is not the body-object described by biologists that actually exists, but the body as lived by the subject"
As Judith Butler has pointed out, Beauvoir's insight that one becomes a woman ought to be interpreted as related to another, less familiar idea, that there is no "natural" body. The argument for this conclusion would be that just as for Beauvoir there is no gender identity that one is born with, so, too, there is no sexual identity that one is born with. Thus, the body itself should, on Beauvoir's grounds, come to be seen as a cultural and historical idea, not as a natural fact. Yet the notion of the physical body as a social artifact may strike some as implausible; they would argue that the biological body is simply something natural or given. Yet it is precisely this notion with which Beauvoir has tried to take issue in her distinction between the two senses of "body," arguing that the relevant sense for understanding woman's oppression is the sense in which the body is experienced by the subject, and this body, surely, is a product of social and cultural meanings. Then it becomes comprehensible how one must set aside the idea of a "natural body"; that is, a body whose features are capable of being "neutrally" or "scientifically" described, in order to understand how the body can be socially constructed. If we approach Beauvoir's statement in volume 2 that one is not born but becomes a woman with her idea that the body should be conceived of as a situation, we would not be led into thinking that she intends that a "natural" body comes to take on a gendered identity, or equally, that a genderless subject pre-exists the acquisition of gender. As Butler points out, it is incorrect to think that Beauvoir's dictum implies either that some mysterious "I" exists apart from the gendered subject or that an ungendered subject exists prior to becoming female, since Beauvoir never assumes the existence of a natural, ahistorical body.
As I have argued, Beauvoir's biological discussion needs to be interpreted in relation to the historical comments with which she flags such discussion. So, for example, when she claims that woman of all mammals is the one most alienated by her biology, that her body dooms her to immanence, she should be read as intending to say that because woman's social and economic status throughout history has been subordinate to men's, as a consequence her body has been despised and derogated to the level of something shameful. Consequently, Beauvoir's descriptions of women's biology should be interpreted in light of her further analysis of the roots of women's oppression, noting well that for her these roots are historical and cultural. So conceived, the claim that, for example, woman is "alienated" from her body should be taken as asserting a true proposition about women's bodies as conceived within patriarchal societies; biology thus repeats culture.
On the interpretation I have proposed of how to read her claims about the female body and its biological capacities, Beauvoir is far from thinking that biology determines destiny in any straightforward sense. By the same reasoning, Beauvoir is not committed to maintaining that gender acquisition, that is, coming to be feminine or masculine, is a wholly deterministic process, although it may be limited by the social, historical, and economic conditions that place constraints on what counts as femininity and masculinity. Thus, if one were to place Beauvoir's position on the spectrum of determinist and indeterminist views, one would have to locate it on the end conventionally termed "indeterminist" since she maintains the reality of choice, although I do not find her holding that we possess the kind of contra-causal freedom characteristic of the libertarian position. In contrast to my reading of Beauvoir, Butler places more emphasis on the indeterminacy of gender and thereby upon the freedom that the individual has in attaining some gender identity. Butler even suggests that we may conceive of a wide spectrum of genders, expanding Beauvoir's insight that gender is culturally constructed so as to provide for a multiply gendered society. That is, Butler takes Beauvoir's fundamental insight that one becomes a woman to suggest that gender is, or should be, a fluid category. So, Butler reads Beauvoir as saying that although there is cultural constraint as to the general "shape" of gender that one becomes, one is nevertheless free to realize it in various ways. Concerning the relation of gender to body, one may say that the body becomes the stage, as it were, upon which one acts out one's gender identity. In this respect, gender is not a process that happens to the mute, static body—like poaching an egg—but it is an activity consciously engaged in by the subject, and one over which the subject herself can exert considerable control. Butler makes the point that "gender is a corporeal style, a way of acting the body, a way of wearing one's own flesh as a cultural sign," such that to become a woman means "to execute, institute, produce, reproduce, wear, flaunt, hide, and always stylize [one's womanhood] in one way or another." If one can interpret the descriptions such as "acting the body" and "wearing one's own flesh" as nondualistic metaphors for the agency implicit in gender expression, I concur. Furthermore, the idea that gender is nondeterministic, or fluid, in the sense that it is historically and culturally contingent strikes me as both true and liberating, rather than defeatist or "masculinist." Beauvoir's account of how an apparently nonsocial thing, the human body, is in fact itself the product of profound social and historical forces is highly original, no feminist before Beauvoir thinking to analyze our very ideas about the body in this way. Furthermore, her account concerning the social and historical roots of the ideas about woman's body yields both a description of the malady and the suggestion for a cure. Insofar as she pinpoints certain prevalent Western cultural myths and assumptions about the female body that affect our present reasoning about women's bodies, she correctly diagnoses the problem, and insofar as she expresses the need for universal dignity and self-creation, she indicates the direction for social change to allow women to participate fully in the human arena.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4036
SOURCE: "Commitment, Re-Commitment and Puzzlement: Aspects of the Cold War in the Fiction of Simone de Beauvoir," in French Cultural Studies, Vol. 8, No. 22, February, 1997, pp. 127-36.
[In the following essay, Keefe discusses Beauvoir's political perspective during the Cold War and attitudes concerning the United States and the U.S.S.R. as reflected in Le sange des autres, Les mandarins, Les belles images, Le femme rompue and "Malentendu à Moscou."]
In two novels having a kind of continuity that is not always recognized, Simone de Beauvoir creates fictional worlds that closely mirror major phases and events of two decades of modern French history. But whereas Le Sang des autres reaches back some way before focusing on the build-up to World War Two and the Occupation, a distinctive feature of Les Mandarins is that it treats a very short period of time in considerable depth. Portraying the dilemmas and reactions of French left-wing intellectuals in the immediate post-Liberation years, it tells a story beginning in December 1944 and ending in summer 1948, thereby encompassing the world's movement into Cold War, which forms an integral feature of the political framework of the novel. Long sequences set in America, although centring on a love-affair, also reflect the way in which French intellectuals like Sartre, Camus and Beauvoir discovered that country at a time when they were obliged to take serious account of it in their political thinking, with the emergence of the 'superpowers'. Beauvoir's final two works of fiction, Les Belles Images and La Femme rompue, contain few references to the Cold War, but, intriguingly, a story written though discarded by her in 1966 and recently published for the first time, 'Malentendu à Moscou', turns out to be set wholly in the Soviet Union in that year. It forms a counterpart to certain aspects of Les Mandarins and enables us to examine a wider and more balanced treatment of the Cold War in Beauvoir's fiction as a whole—a treatment that supplements in interesting ways her account in the third and fourth volumes of her memoirs.
In spite of its over-schematization, one of the continuing fascinations of Le Sang des autres is the way in which it shows a variety of characters drawn into political commitment. Jean Blomart's evolution, of course, is relatively complex. He becomes involved in politics very early, but is so troubled by his part in the violent death of a young friend that he leaves the Communist Party and falls back upon a version of 'le vieux syndicalisme français' that permits only non-violent political action. In spite of the pressure of events, he clings onto his pacifism throughout the late 1930s, passes a very brief period as a soldier, then during the Occupation comes to advocate Resistance sabotage and killing even more strongly than most of those around him. His young girl-friend Hélène, who at first takes her political indifference to the point of mild collaboration with the German occupier, undergoes an equally abrupt and radical conversion. Moreover, by the time she is fatally injured while working for Blomart's group, they have been joined by a range of characters who seemed most unlikely to make common political cause—including Marcel, the previously uncommitted artist, his socially ambitious wife Denise, the Communist Paul, and even Blomart's bourgeois father. The novel ends as a kind of hymn to such unity around the ideal of freedom.
This unity can be seen as the starting-point of Les Mandarins. In various ways, the reader is constantly reminded of the Resistance, and the sole political goal of one minor character, Luc, is to 'sauver l'unité de la Résistance'. But what is more striking is that the central figures Henri and Dubreuilh both deride Luc's objective as ridiculous ('Tout ça c'est des conneries!'), suggesting that Resistance activities were essentially negative or destructive. This raises the question of exactly what Resistance groups were committed to. They were clearly anti-fascist, but the very composition of Blomart's team constituted a warning against any simple notion that they uniformly supported the political left. In any case, from the very beginning of Les Mandarins, the matter of whether the left itself is entirely united is brought under scrutiny. In the first chapter, the Russian émigré, Scriassine, who has also lived in the United States, questions the assumption that unity of action with the Communists is desirable, and shows that he is far from regarding the Soviet Union as a model, or as a country holding the future of the working classes in its hands—a belief shared by most of the other major left-wing characters and constituting a major element of their commitment. Precisely because Les Mandarins concentrates so strongly upon the French political dilemmas that internalize international conflict, it is worth emphasizing that Scriassine's prophecies—of massive technological and economic change, the emergence of the superpowers, and the Cold War—hang over the whole novel, and that the reader is often given cause to remember them.
Of the two narrative focalizers, Anne is the more disturbed by Scriassine's vision, because it implies a bleak future for her husband Dubreuilh. But it is Henri, above all, who is shown as learning the hard way that the world is indeed polarizing around the great powers of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. He is reminded of the influence of America, 'le grand pays libérateur', when he discovers that it is indirectly helping to maintain fascism in Portugal, and when the American Preston tries to attach political conditions to his offer of extra paper for Henri's newspaper, L'Espoir. Yet he is still taken aback when a former Resistance leader argues that France counts for nothing in the world any more: 'Soudain, il découvrait qu'il habitait la capitale moribonde d'un tout petit pays … Henri n'était plus que le citoyen négligeable d'une puissance de cinquième ordre'. Considering the world to be hesitating between the new war that Scriassine has predicted and peace, he develops a growing sense of impotence, which leads him to doubt the value of writing novels—'Les Russes étaient en train de saccager Berlin, la guerre s'achevait ou une autre commençait: comment pouvait-on s'amuser à raconter des histories qui ne sont jamais arrivées?'—and eventually to put his newspaper at the service of Dubreuilh's new independent political party. For some time the threat from America in particular is shown as increasing, but everything else, of course, is eclipsed by the exploding of the first atomic bombs. Henri is clearer than ever at this point where he stands in relation to the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union:
L'hégémonie américaine: c'est la sous-alimentation, l'oppression à perpétuité pour tous les pays d'Orient: leur seule chance, c'est l'U.R.S.S.: la seule chance d'une humanité délivrée du besoin de l'esclavage et de la bêtise, c'est l'U.R.S.S; alors il faut tout faire pour l'aider.
Scriassine's further warning that, while those on the left in France are always ready to attack the U.S.A., they will not say a word against the Soviet Union, seems justified when the first serious evidence of the existence of an extensive system of labour camps in the U.S.S.R. comes to light, since a row ensues over whether to make this publicly known. Quite apart from the consequences for internal French politics, Henri is especially deeply affected by the worry that what he had always assumed—that a socialism reconciling freedom and justice would finally come into being in the Soviet Union—is false. It may turn out to be like every other country: 'Impossible de le nier: en U.R.S.S. aussi des hommes exploitaient à mort d'autres hommes!' Perhaps the end justifies the means, but he sees that everything now needs to be reconsidered, and is entirely bemused by the implications of the new situation.
Placed exactly at the mid-point of Les Mandarins, the discovery of the Soviet labour camps is a major turning-point in the political developments of the story as a whole. As far as fictionalization is concerned, what is of interest is the time-shift that Beauvoir operates in the novel, situating in the middle of 1946 in her story a controversy that flared up at the end of 1949. To that extent, with the benefit of hindsight, she forces certain dilemmas of the Cold War upon her characters much sooner than they were actually experienced. As in Le Sang des autres, she is concerned with the interaction of the private and the political in the lives of her characters, and wishes to foreground the general moral as well as political confusion that came to prevail, as well as to dwell upon a subsequent period of disengagement, even irresponsibility, on the part of both Henri and Anne. After denouncing the camps in his newspaper, Henri is accused of furthering the American cause, but in fact he is still perfectly clear that he will always continue to defend the U.S.S.R. against the U.S.A., which he sees as a country that systematically takes the side of the privileged rather than the people. When he and Dubreuilh bury their differences barely a year later, Scriassine's earlier claim that one is obliged to accept one or the other of the two world blocs in its entirety looks more plausible, in that Dubreuilh argues that they could only achieve anything by throwing in their lot with the Communists.
There is little mention of the Cold War in those sections of Les Mandarins recounting Anne's first trips to America, but towards the end of her affair with Brogan she sees the country in a threatening light: 'Maintenant l'Amérique, ça signifiait bombe atomique, menaces de guerre, fascisme naissant', and in summer 1948 she argues that, if her American friends go on doing nothing, they will have no right to complain when their country becomes fascist and brings about war. Philippe's answer that, unless one is prepared to withdraw from the battle altogether, the fanaticism of the U.S.S.R. has to be answered in kind by America is an important one in its way, since it ushers in the last phase of the novel, where Dubreuilh and eventually Henri snap out of their fatalistic stage and return to the political fray.
Deciding that the French left is not so completely powerless as he had believed—for instance, America's attempt to arm Europe could be resisted—Dubreuilh claims to be reverting to a position very close to his original political commitment in the 1930s, using any means at hand in order to fend off a particular danger. He acknowledges that the Soviet Union is far from perfect, but says it has the advantage over other possible forms of socialism that it exists. Henri himself is not wholly convinced, and when he looks back to the Christmas party in 1944, with which the story began, he is struck not only by his naïvety about America, but also by continuing uncertainties concerning the Soviet Union: 'la secourable Amérique se préparait à asservir l'Europe, et quant à ce qui se passait en U.R.S.S. il valait mieux ne pas y regarder de trop près'. Nevertheless, with a new war looking imminent, Henri finally agrees to resume the political struggle. If the circumstances of World War Two led to commitment, one could say that, after a period of withdrawal characterized by confusion and a strong sense of powerlessness, the circumstances of the Cold War lead to re-commitment. And just as the nature of the original commitment was in some respects clear, but in other respects not, so the re-commitment has its certainties and its obscurities. In global terms, however, what is involved is undoubtedly opposition to the U.S.A., in conjunction with resolute but qualified approval of the Soviet Union.
It is unsurprising that, with a gap of twelve years between Les Mandarins and Les Belles Images, the latter should not resume, politically, from exactly the position reached at the end of Les Mandarins, in the way that the former picked up the ending of Le Sang des autres. Interestingly, the central figure of Les Belles Images, Laurence, is presented as having undergone in 1945, at the age of 11, a crisis related to the desperate state of the world, but there is no significant notion of political commitment in the novel. Moreover, it contains remarkably little mention of Cold War phenomena. And the only exception to a similar pattern in the short stories published a year later as La Femme rompue is that André, the husband of the central woman figure of 'L'Âge de discrétion', is shown—in contrast to his wife—as still active politically at around the age of 60, at least to the extent of working on behalf of the persecuted anywhere in the world. But again there is no general preoccupation with the Cold War as such in the story, and, unlike his mother, André seems to have lost the will to go on struggling for the eventual triumph of socialism. He will do his utmost to help suppress human suffering, but admits that 'pratiquement aucune cause n'est tout à fait la nôtre: nous ne sommes pas pour l'U.R.S.S. et ses compromissions; pas non plus pour la Chine'. However, a major theme of the story as a whole is ageing, and André visibly allows any remaining political commitment he may have to be weakened by the fact that there are goals that he now knows he will never see attained in his own lifetime. Since in the second story of La Femme rompue, 'Monologue', virtually everything said by Murielle is discredited, it contains no substantive references at all to politics. And in the final story of the collection, 'La Femme rompue', neither of the two central figures has any political involvement whatever. Indeed, there is scarcely any indication at all of the political context in which this essentially private, domestic story takes place.
By contrast, 'Malentendu à Moscou', the story that Beauvoir left unpublished, has quite strong political content. A retired French couple, André and Nicole, are visiting the Soviet Union in 1966, for the first time for three years, to see André's daughter, Macha, who lives and works in Moscow. At the beginning we learn that Nicole is anxious about the possibility of a third world war, and André later confirms that the Cold War anxieties that emerged in Les Mandarins are now greater than ever: 'La bombe, en 45, ce n'était qu'une menace assez abstraite: aujourd'hui elle était devenue une angoissante éventualité'. As is usual in a Beauvoir text, however, it is André who is much the more involved in politics. We see from the first that he is particularly anxious to learn more about a country that has meant more to him politically than any other. Like Henri and Dubreuilh (and the other André), he has never joined the Communist Party, but 'à travers les remous de l'espoir et du désespoir il avait toujours pensé que l'U.R.S.S. détenait les clés de l'avenir, donc de cette époque et de son propre destin'. Beauvoir has no occasion to refer to all that has happened between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, but she indicates how far things have moved on by having André acknowledge of the U.S.S.R. that 'jamais, même dans les noires années du stalinisme, il n'avait eu l'impression de si mal la comprendre'. The political content of the rest of the story will, effectively, expand upon this point.
The context of André's remark—although this is sketched in rather than explained—turns out to be some kind of disillusionment that set in after any re-commitment that he might be assumed to have made. He claims not to be exactly engaged in the political struggle any more: 'J'essaie de rendre des services, ce n'est pas pareil. Par dessus le marché, c'est toujours vain'. And, as is the case in 'L'Âge de discrétion', whatever change has taken place is somehow associated with the Algerian War, for André believes he has lost 'toute prise sur le monde' since 1962 and regards his own (new) powerlessness as that of the French left as a whole. He is essentially in a state of confusion that is bound up with the difficulty of understanding what is happening in other countries, including the U.S.S.R., so that it is above all that country's commitment to socialism and its foreign policy—and to this extent the Cold War—that becomes the subject of heated exchanges between himself and his daughter. Macha claims that the U.S.S.R. does not want war: André suggests that, although no one else does either, it may come about if American 'escalation' is allowed to continue. Macha says that the Soviets cannot take the chance of American retaliation if their bases are bombed: André asks whether they will act when America attacks China. Finally, he responds to Macha's point that the U.S.S.R. is trying to reconcile two imperatives, 'aider le socialisme à travers le monde, et sauver la paix', by acknowledging that the situation is not a simple one and reiterating his disillusionment:
si l'U.R.S.S. s'installait dans la coexistence pacifique, le socialisme n'était pas pour demain. Que d'espoirs déçus! En France, le front populaire, la résistance, l'émancipation du Tiers Monde, qui n'avait pas fait reculer d'un pouce le capitalisme. La révolution chinoise: elle aboutissait au conflit sino-soviétique. Non, jamais l'avenir n'avait paru à André aussi désolant.
In general, André discovers that the Soviet Union has moved more towards capitalism, as well as peaceful co-existence, since his previous visit in 1963. When the three of them go to Leningrad, he is struck even more forcefully by a kind of westernization, and has to fall back upon a sort of speculation in order to preserve any of the hopes that he had on arriving in Moscow. His uncertainty, and, specifically, his feeling that, even if the Soviet Union is still on track for genuine socialism, he will not live to see it come about, increases in the later part of the story, as ageing becomes more of a central theme. When Macha almost convinces him that he is seeing no more than a kind of backward surge in the Soviet Union, which will eventually be replaced by a new phase, a new generation who will fight for a brand of socialism that excludes neither happiness nor freedom, his reaction is entirely consistent with the stance of his counterpart in 'L'Âge de discrétion':
à Moscou et à Leningrad il no trouvait pas ce qu'il avait espéré…. Bien sûr, il y avait uno grande différence entre l'U.R.S.S. et l'Occident…. Le socialisme finirait par devenir une réalité. Un jour il triompherait dans le monde entier…. C'était possible, c'était probable. Une probabilité qu'André ne vérifierait jamais…. Il avait compté sur l'histoire pour justifier sa vie: il n'y comptait plus.
Since 'Malentendu à Moscou' was certainly written before 'L'Âge de discrétion', it is possible to trace or reconstruct in Beauvoir's fiction a long and sinuous line of political development that passes through Jean Blomart, Henri Perron, the André of 'Malentendu à Moscou', and finally terminates in the André of 'L'Âge de discrétion'. Textual indications suggest that all four characters were born at much the same time, so that the continuity and coherence of their experience in relation to relevant twentieth-century historical events can be maintained. Only Henri and the two Andrés, of course, are shown as seeing anything at all of the Cold War. And many of its vital stages which the latter must be presumed to have lived through are not touched upon at all in Beauvoir's stories. Her memoirs are naturally much fuller in this respect, addressing the same and additional aspects of the Cold War explicitly. Nevertheless, just as Henri speculates in Les Mandarins that, in personal matters, literature is in some ways truer than life, so we can suggest that some of the patterns in Beauvoir's fiction may be clearer and bring sharper insights into her experience than accounts in her non-fictional writings. Certainly, the broad movement of the characters' political involvement after World War Two in the stories examined is one of great interest.
The way in which it is always the male characters who are engaged in politics, with the women figures drawn in only on the margins—and then reluctantly—is especially prominent. So is the fact that, at least on the global scale, the issue of whether to be politically committed or not rather prevails over that of what to be committed to. Or, better, one could say that certain assumptions or constants in the political attitudes involved—like the basic faith in the Soviet Union that is at the root of most of the phases described—are so strong that, in difficult circumstances of a particular kind, they bring about a paralysing puzzlement. Hence the dominant pattern of commitment, confusion/withdrawal, re-commitment, confusion/withdrawal, which—albeit in a different way—even stretches back beyond wartime commitment, since in Blomart's case this was preceded by a period of confusion/withdrawal, which itself followed an initial commitment …
Moreover, within this general pattern, which, together with the earlier gender point, raises obvious questions about the relationship between Beauvoir's own political involvement and that of Sartre, other, more specific areas of interest come to the fore. References to Algeria serve as a useful reminder that France had its own war (indeed, wars, if one thinks of Indo-China) in the middle of the Cold War, and one that probably eclipsed the latter for many French intellectuals for a long period. And, perhaps above all, as a result of the belated publication of 'Malentendu à Moscou', the vexed matter of later perceptions of the Soviet Union comes into sharp focus. It was clearly during the trip that Beauvoir made with Sartre in May 1966 that she gathered many of the impressions registered in the story, yet in it she barely records anything at all in relation to their central concern during that and earlier visits, namely freedom of expression and the fate of writers and other artists. It is even possible that any unease about the state of the U.S.S.R. that this betrays may lie behind her decision to replace, in La Femme rompue, a story set in Russia by one in which virtually the only substantive reference to the Soviet Union expresses disapproval of its 'compromissions', 'Malentendu à Moscou' was written in the second half of 1966, but by 1967 Beauvoir and Sartre had become sufficiently disillusioned with aspects of the U.S.S.R. to refuse to go back. It is quite possible, therefore, that the portrayal of the country in that story came to seem too favourable. However that may be, the kind of confusion surrounding Beauvoir's attitude towards the U.S.S.R. from the mid 1960s onwards is scarcely different in principle from the perplexity experienced by Henri in the mid 1940s. The Cold War appears once more to have brought the wheel full circle.
Of course, this pattern, based just upon her fiction, amounts to no more than one perspective on Beauvoir's political stance as a whole, but it is a helpful and suggestive one. In any case, any totalized account of her view of the Cold War could only ever be a fragment of a larger picture. In considering this even stranger type of 'war', we do well to bear in mind Mathieu's paradoxical comments on the elusive nature of World War Two in Sartre's Le Sursis:
C'était un drôle de corps, proprement impensable … Elle est là, elle est partout, c'est la totalité de toutes mes pensées, de toutes les paroles d'Hitler, de tous les actes de Gomez: mais personne n'est là pour faire le total. Elle n'existe que pour Dieu. Mais Dieu n'existe pas. Et pourtant la guerre existe.
Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
Adamowski, T. H. "Death, Old Age, and Femininity: Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of La Vieillesse." Dalhousie Review 50, No. 3 (Autumn 1970): 394-401.
Provides critical analysis of Beauvoir's views on aging and the elderly in La Vieillesse.
Davis, Colin. "Simone de Beauvoir's Le Sang des autres and the Ethics of Failure." Modern Language Review 93, No. 1 (January 1998): 35-47.
Examines the significance of violence and uncertainty in La Sang des autres as a commentary on the risk associated with political engagement and decision-making.
Davis, Mary G. "Introduction: Debating Simone de Beauvoir." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 18, No. 1 (Autumn 1992): 74-88.
Provides an overview of contemporary feminist response to The Second Sex and the significance of Beauvoir's theories for feminist scholars.
Hughes, Alex. "Murdering the Mother: Simone de Beauvoir's Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée." French Studies XLVIII, No. 2 (April 1994): 174-83.
Provides a psychoanalytic reading of Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée focusing on Beauvoir's relationship with her mother, Zaza, and Sartre.
Kuykendall, Eléanor H. "Simone de Beauvoir and Two Kinds of Ambivalence in Action." In The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern French Philosophy, edited by Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young, pp. 35-50. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Offers linguistic analysis of Beauvoir's existentialist ethics and feminist vocabulary in The Second Sex.
McCall, Dorothy Kaufmann. "Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, and Jean-Paul Sartre." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, No. 2 (Winter 1979): 209-23.
Offers reevaluation of Beauvoir's feminist perspective through examination of her complex relationship with Sartre and the influence of Sartre's existentialism in The Second Sex.
Moi, Toril. "Beauvoir's Utopia: The Politics of The Second Sex." South Atlantic Quarterly 92, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 311-60.
Provides an overview of Beauvoir's feminist perspective and philosophical ideals in The Second Sex.
Pilardi, Jo-Ann. "The Changing Critical Fortunes of The Second Sex." History and Theory 32, No. 1 (1993): 51-73.
Examines the critical reception and publishing history of The Second Sex and the lasting significance of Beauvoir's ideas for feminist scholarship.
Powrie, Phil. "Rereading Between the Lines: A Postscript on La Femme rompue." Modern Language Review 87, No. 2 (April 1992): 320-9.
Discusses Beauvoir's presentation of unstable female characters in Le Femme rompue as a reflection of the difficulty women authors encounter when creating their own fictions within male literary tradition.
Simons, Margaret A. "Lesbian Connections: Simone de Beauvoir and Feminism." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 18, No. 1 (Autumn 1992): 136-61.
Examines Beauvoir's romantic attachments to women and the significance of her bisexuality for feminist interpretation of her gender identity and writing.
――――――. "Sexism and the Philosophical Canon: On Reading Beauvoir's The Second Sex." Journal of the History of Ideas 51, No. 3 (July-September 1990): 487-504.
Discusses Beauvoir's important contributions to existentialism and her problematic status as a woman philosopher in the male-dominated canon of Western philosophical literature.
Sturm, Douglas. "Natural Law and the Ethics of Simone de Beauvoir." Bucknell Review XIII, No. 2 (1965): 88-101.
Offers analysis of The Ethics of Ambiguity and elements of Beauvoir's existentialism that correlate with principles of natural law theory.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin. "Simone de Beauvoir and the Writing Self." L'Esprit Créateur XXIX, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 42-51.
Explores issues surrounding sexual identity and authorship in The Second Sex, Beauvoir's autobiographical writings, and fiction.
Jardine, Alice. "Interview with Simone de Beauvoir." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, No. 2 (Winter 1979): 224-36.
Beauvoir discusses her intellectual relationship with Sartre, contemporary feminism, and The Second Sex.
Simons, Margaret A., and Jessica Benjamin. "Simone de Beauvoir: An Interview." Feminist Studies 5, No. 2 (Summer 1979): 330-45.
Beauvoir discusses her role in the feminist movement and the influence of psychoanalytic theory and literature on her own writings and ideas about women.
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