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Category Archives: Simone de Beauvoir

Introduction: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

It is quite a prospect, isn’t it? This 770 page book (in the edition I use). I have to say I am very intimidated by it. But the prospect of reading and discussing it together is also very exciting to me. Because of the length and my late introduction post, the hosts have decided to leave the discussion open throughout August as well. I know I will be needing the time to get through this and give it the attention it deserves. I will try to post updates on the book and the posts discussing it a couple of times, to keep the discussion going.

I do apologize beforehand for the length of this post. Also, I am no expert on De Beauvoir, so this may be faulty. Either way, I hope it is of use to you.

Life

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, 9 January 1908. Her parents were devout Catholics with aspirations to nobility. Simone herself was catholic, and even considered to become a nun when she was in a convent school together with her sister. However, that changed when she lost her faith in 14. For the rest of her life she was an atheist.

Simone’s intellectual interests were present from an early age. She passed the baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925 and afterwards went on to study mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature at the Institut Sainte-Marie. At the Sorbonne she studied philosophy and wrote a thesis on Leibniz. At university, she met several now-famous intellectuals, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, but her most famous relation is to Jean-Paul Sartre. She met him when preparing for the agrégation, the most competitive post-graduate examinations in France. Sartre came in first on this test, de Beauvoir second. Sartre and de Beauvoir had a polyamorous relationship, seeing other people with the consent of everyone involved. De Beauvoir felt attracted to both sexes and Sartre and her frequently ‘shared’ other girls. Both Sartre and De Beauvoir are considered to be great philosophers of existentialism and are iconic for French intellectual life during those decades.

De Beauvoir wrote several kinds of texts during her life, including metaphysical novels like She Came to Stay (1943) and The Mandarins (1954); a collection of short stories based on women important in the early years of her life called When Things of the Spirit Come First (published 1980, written much earlier); and her autobiography in four parts (the third part is often published in two separate volumes in English).

Simone de Beauvoir died in 1986, aged 78. She is buried next to Sartre at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

For more on De Beauvoir’s life, I would like to point you towards Emily’s posts on the first and second parts of Simone de Beavoir’s memoires: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée and La force de l’âge.

Existentialism

De Beauvoir, like Sartre – or maybe even following Sartre? (people seem to disagree on that) – was an existentialist philosopher, and together with Sartre she makes one of the great French philosophers of her age. I cannot here provide a thorough summary of existentialist philosophy, especially since it took diverse forms ever since its rise during the nineteenth century. However, a few key characteristics are important to situating Simone de Beauvoir’s work.

  1. First, existentialist focus on question of concrete human existence instead of speculating about humanity’s essential characteristics. As such, you could say they focus on individual lives lived and the subjective like emotions and states of being than questions of objective knowledge, etcetera.
  2. Second, existence precedes essence. The actual life and circumstances decide the ‘essence’ of a person and the notion that there is a human essence present in everyone independent from lived experience is rejected. Sartre, for example, states: “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards”. Like all theories that emphasize experience over essence, this can also imply that people might (in a way) “choose” who they become: they are not something to begin with, and thus may choose to become a better person instead of a cruel one.
  3. This idea has to do with the third characteristic of existentialist thinking and that is the concept of freedom. People are not free to do anything they choose, per se, as they are situated in a certain space and thus in some ways constricted by that space. The existentialist notion of freedom thus does not imply that there are no values and everyone can think and act as they choose. However, they do accept that values are situated and can therefore be changed. While we are constricted by values present in the world, they are not absolute (since there is no essential nature) and people are thus responsible for their actions as well as the values they hold.
  4. This leads to a fourth characteristic which is existential angst: the negative feeling that arises from this human freedom and responsibility.
  5. The idea of situated freedom, so to say, is explained further in Sartre’s concept of facticity, tied to the word “in-itself” which de Beauvoir uses in The Second Sex as well. Facticity, and I quote from the wikipedia page on existentialism, is:”both a limitation and a condition of freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of one’s facticity consists of things one couldn’t have chosen (birthplace, etc.), but a condition in the sense that one’s values most likely will depend on it. However, even though one’s facticity is “set in stone” (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine a person: The value ascribed to one’s facticity is still ascribed to it freely by that person. (..)
    However, to disregard one’s facticity when one, in the continual process of self-making, projects oneself into the future, would be to put oneself in denial of oneself, and would thus be inauthentic. In other words, the origin of one’s projection will still have to be one’s facticity, although in the mode of not being it (essentially).
  6. As such, existentialist often claim that one should lead an authentic life. Being authentic, as opposed to inauthentic, constitutes ‘finding oneself’, but not in the way of finding humanity’s essence. Finding oneself implies living in accordance with one freedom and that freedom in turn is related to your facticity, your situatedness.
  7. Especially relevant to De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is the concept of the Other, but I have to admit that this explanation on wikipedia did not make it easier to understand for me. And of course, all the books I own on philosophy somehow do not consider De Beauvoir a philosopher at all (really, they talk about French existentialism quite thoroughly, but she isn’t mentioned once – nor is the idea of ‘The Look’ or ‘the Gaze’). Maybe someone can help me out with this concept? What I can tell you is that De Beauvoir was inspired by Sartre’s idea of an opposition between a sovereign self as a subject, and an objectivied other inspired her. And in The Second Sex, she uses this to argue that women are made the Other by men, receiving an aura of mystery around them that caused men to be able to claim they did not completely understand women. The Other denotes the wholly other. And while ethnicity, religion and class were also often part of a distinction in which one group could constitute a hierarchy over other groups, De Beauvoir argues that women are the quintessential Other.

The Second Sex

The Second Sex (published in French in 1949) is arguably the best known work by De Beauvoir. It is also a classic of gender studies, or may even be considered the starting point of the distinction between gender and sex: while sex constitutes a biological difference, gender is a ‘socialized’ difference, springing from ‘nurture’ instead of ‘nature’. De Beauvoir, following the existentialist notion that experience precedes essence, argues that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. Furthermore, she argues that throughout history, woman have been defined as ‘the Other’, an aberration of the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ male. Because women were always considered to deviate from the normal, and furthermore busy to try to emulate normality (i.e. males), they were constantly subjected. Only by letting go of this assumption, De Beauvoir believed, feminism could move forward.

Famously, De Beauvoir started writing The Second Sex after trying to write about herself and found the only way to start was to write that “I am a woman”. She then started to question this, since she felt men would never start a text like the one she was writing with “I am a man/male”, since this was a given to them. Trying to understand what the idea of being a woman was, she started writing an essay on women. On a trip to America, she was encouraged by Nelson Algren (one of the men she had an affair with) to turn the essay into a book. According to Judith Thurman, in the introduction to the new English translation of Le Deuxième Sexe, the confrontation with racism towards blacks in the United States, combined with her experience at home with anti-Semitism (do not forget, the Second World War was of great influence on existentialist thinking), let her to conclude that “The black, the Jew, and the woman, were objectified as the Other in ways that were both overtly despotic and insidious, but with the same result: their particularity as human beings was reduced to a lazy, abstract cliché (“the eternal feminine”; “the black soul”; “the Jewish character”) that served as a rationale for their subjugation.” (Judith Thurman, Introduction: xiv)

The Second Sex is divided into two volumes. In the first, “Facts and Myths”, de Beauvoir chronicles the history of womankind, looking at biological, psychoanalytical and historical perspectives and zooming in on the latter when describing the history of ‘the role of woman’. The second volume, “Lived Experience”, is a case study of contemporary womanhood (in the 1940’s, the research for The Second Sex was done by De Beauvoir between 1946 and 1949) and the various stages in life.

A Note on the Translation

There are two English translations available of Le Deuxième Sexe. The first was published relatively quickly after its publication in France. Translated by Howard Parshly, and published by publisher Alfred A Knopf in 1953, it is often said to be a faulty translation, especially since it lost much of the original existential overtones and was abridged, cutting substantial parts of the original texts where De Beauvoir was considered to be overtly long in her descriptions. However, it should be noted that some scholars have argued that there was a form of female oppression at play in these cuts as well. Margaret Simons, for example, argued that examples of women’s anger were cut, while parts referring to men’s feelings were kept.

In 2010, a new translation was published, again by Alfred A. Knopf, this time translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. While the cover will tell you that it is “a new translation of the landmark classic” “complete and unabridged for the first time”, the new translation has been criticized too. Toril Moi, who has thoroughly criticized the first translation, now stated that the first was “lively and readable”, while the new translation does not convey Beauvoir’s “voice and style”. Furthermore, she argues that some words are definitely translated wrong, often substituting “man and woman” for “a man and a woman”

More on the issues with both translations can be found in review articles such as this one in the Chronicle. (Thanks to Ingrid from the Blue Book Case for pointing this article out to me – I think it was you?)

Just out of curiosity, which translation are you using? I am using the new one. Hopefully I will not find it to be “awkward reading” as Toril Moi says it is.

Discussion

Having just read the introduction written by Simone de Beauvoir, I admit I am slightly baffled at where to start with discussion questions.I have a feeling I may need to just read it and see where my mind feels like engaging with at this point. Basically, I wanted to quote that whole introduction as extremely relevant and interesting to discuss. I have already decided that I am just going to read it, see where it takes me, and reread it at some later date, hopefully with the critical questions posed by all of you to engage with the text more critically.

I do believe that De Beauvoir’s most famous assertion; “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” should offer us a good starting point for discussion. Recently it has been questioned with research in biology and the social sciences, how do you feel about this idea yourself? And what is it significance to feminism?

However, since I have only read a few pages up to now, I feel there should be much more to discuss. Do you have any ideas? Please let me know and email me at: irisonbooks [at] gmail [dot] com. Feel free to raise questions in the comments and your own posts as well.

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