Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Mandarins VI

I'll summarize the final third of the novel and then make some comments. Against the advice of Robert, Henri publishes an article in L'Espoir exposing the Gulag system, and consequently the two have a major split. Similarly, most of the intellectual community objects to the article and sees it as an endorsement of capitalism. Paula goes into a psychological tailspin that lands her in a mental hospital, where she eventually recovers, and she slowly adjusts to life without Henri. Henri's relationship with Josette ends abruptly when he discovers that she has lied to him about consorting with the Germans during the war; he puts himself at risk by assisting her accuser in order to prevent charges from being brought against Josette and her mother. Before long Henri is seeing Nadine again; she becomes pregnant, and they marry, seemingly in love with each other for the first time. Their daughter, Maria, appears at the end. By that time Henri has given up L'Espoir, Robert has given up the S.R.L. and politics in general, and the two reconcile. Anne's relationship with Lewis continues via correspondence and summer vacations in North and Central America. During the second summer vacation Lewis admits that he no longer loves Anne and confesses that he isn't cut out to love anyone. Anne is devastated, and shortly after returning to France considers suicide, but decides against it.

Throughout the book, political machinations dominate, at least in terms of page count. I had hoped that it would be more of a novel of ideas than it is, and while it does contain many ideas, the political ones often strike me as pointless, shortsighted or incorrect. Since these ideas are the ones with which the male characters are obsessed, it makes me wonder whether de Beauvoir is trying to be realistic or whether she has intentionally included a subtext about a male predisposition for stupidity and violence. Certainly, if these are supposed to be the leading French thinkers of the time, they come across as misguided and ineffectual. Looking at them from the present, they seem to have little sense of how geopolitics would play out over the next fifty years. Although it is already quite obvious to one character, Scriassine (Arthur Koestler), that Stalin is nothing more than a brutal dictator, the rest are in denial and more anti-American than the facts warrant. They seem to have bought into the inevitable triumph of communism without taking a close look at what Stalin actually represents. The lesson for me is that if intellectuals can't see a mere fifty years into the future, why should anyone pay attention to them? Framing this in the context of some of my other posts, the wisdom of contemporary intellectuals should be viewed with even greater caution. Because of enormous technological advances and increased specialization within science and academia in general, it is now harder than ever for anyone to speak authoritatively on the subjects that were once the province of a few thinkers. If Sartre and his gang weren't up to the task then, the prospects for contemporary intellectuals are even bleaker. For this reason, my own thought has evolved from a general disappointment with current intellectuals to the view that intellectuals are now mainly historical artifacts. Intellectuals are better equipped to engage in what amounts to human interest stories for the well-educated than in imponderable subjects such as the future of mankind. Especially when it comes to the humanities crowd, their purview should be restricted to the arts, where they are likely to do the least amount of damage. The increasing complexity of civilization has placed the tasks once associated with great thinkers beyond the reach of mortals, and, as I've said, the next step is inevitably going to be AI, which may turn out very well or very badly for mankind – we don't know yet. In the meantime it is appropriate to regard the words of the reigning cognoscenti with skepticism.

The primary inquiry made in this book has to do with what strategy a middle-aged woman looking ahead to her physical deterioration ought to adopt for the remainder of her life. Specifically, Anne is in a relationship in which she feels appreciated but not loved. Robert and Anne live well together, but she sees that he could live perfectly well without her, happily occupying himself with his work. During her first trip to America she is seeking a new relationship before she even meets Lewis. While on the East Coast she makes herself available to another man she's met, Philip, but he turns her down. As a reader, I found Anne's relationship with Lewis completely unsustainable from the start. Lewis is a classic brash, anti-intellectual American, and his variety of socialism is the Depression-era socialism of Woody Guthrie, not the refined socialism of a French intellectual like Sartre. Lewis has a cantankerous personality and does poorly in his relations with others. Furthermore, the cultural backgrounds of Anne and Lewis could not be more dissimilar. As the relationship declines, Anne asks Lewis, "Why are all your best friends pickpockets, or drug addicts, or pimps?" When you add to this the fact that Lewis has no desire to live in France and she has no desire to leave Robert, the exercise looks completely futile. The Anne-Lewis relationship may have appealed to French readers who were curious about life in America, but, to me, the affair may just as well have occurred in Texas instead of Chicago and the outcome would have been the same: she was Lookin' for Love in all the wrong places.

Within the narrative, the collapse of Paula's relationship with Henri echoes Anne's romantic travails with Lewis. However, Paula really goes off the deep end, and, despite an apparent recovery, Anne remains doubtful about the quality of Paula's mental state:
"Have you seen him again, I [Anne] asked."
"Oh, no! And I won't see him again," she [Paula] said spiritedly. "He took unfair advantage of the situation."
I kept silent. I was quite familiar with the kind of explanations Mardrus [Paula's psychoanalyst] had used; on occasion, I myself made use of similar ones, and I valued them for what they were worth. Yes, to release Paula it was necessary to reach back into the past in order to destroy her love. But I thought of those microbes which can't be exterminated except by destroying the organism they are devouring; Henri was dead for Paula, but she, too, was dead. I didn't know that fat woman with the sweaty face and the bovine eyes who was swilling Scotch beside me.
To my taste, de Beauvoir's highest skill as a writer resides in passages such as this one: they are the heart of the novel.

More generally, I would say that the book has strengths and weakness, while on the whole it is very good. I felt that it didn't have to be as long as it was and might have been strengthened with some judicious editing. I suspect that there must be some overlap between The Mandarins and The Second Sex, but I'm not curious enough to explore them further. In some ways it seemed to me as if Nadine was an invented character who combined the girl of de Beauvoir's youth with an imagined version of herself in a slightly more emancipated state.

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