Friday, August 5, 2016

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter II

I've just finished reading the book and have to say, in the feeling of the moment, that it's the best memoir I've read so far. The ending, in context, with the tragic death of de Beauvoir's childhood friend, Zaza, is truly moving and perhaps crystallizes the outlook that de Beauvoir developed and held for the remainder of her life. Although there is some girlishness in the book that I don't care for, de Beauvoir's portrayal of the struggles she faced growing up in a bourgeois French family early in the last century is illuminating to me. Some aspects of her path to maturity are bizarrely reminiscent of the machinations in Jane Austen's novels of the previous century.

The atmosphere in de Beauvoir's household had deteriorated significantly by the time she began her undergraduate work at the Institut Sainte-Marie and the Institut Catholique, where she studied literature, languages and mathematics. She had already declared herself an atheist to her mother, and her father would have preferred a suitable marriage to her planned career of teaching at a lycée. His conservative bourgeois background became evident as soon as Simone began to buck the system. The conflict was exacerbated by the fact that she continued to live at home, even during the academic year, and was completely dependent on her parents financially. They disapproved of much of her curriculum and intrusively monitored her by reading all of her mail, while providing her with a small allowance. She was not permitted to dress fashionably or wear makeup. She fell into despair and desperately sought a meaning to her life.

In college she developed a temporary crush on her literature instructor, Robert Garric, and began a quasi-romantic relationship with her cousin, Jacques Laiguillon. Here is how she describes herself at the time:

Since my infancy I had always been headstrong, self-willed, a creature of extremes, and proud of it. Others might stop half-way in their quest for faith or in the expression of their scepticism, their desires, their plans: I despised their half-heartedness. I always carried my emotions, my ideas, my enterprises to the bitter end; I didn't undertake anything lightly; and now, as in my earliest childhood, I wanted everything in my life to be justified by a kind of absolute necessity. This stubbornness, I realized, deprived me of certain qualities; but there was never any question of departing from my fixed intention; my 'serious side' was the whole of me, and I very much wanted to remain a whole person.

Jacques was far less serious, less intellectual and less reliable than Simone, and he misled her repeatedly. It is difficult to see why she put up with him at all, and I surmise that she was still immature and wanted to leave the door open to a marriage that would satisfy her parents. Jacques and Simone carried on for several years without so much as a kiss, and finally, without telling Simone in advance, he arranged to marry a completely uninteresting woman who had a large dowry. It was all downhill for Jacques from there; his wife eventually kicked him out; he was penniless and died of malnutrition at the age of forty-six. De Beauvoir seems to have loved him: she bends over backwards in this memoir to highlight his positive attributes – which I don't find convincing in the least.

Zaza, encouraged by Simone, also attended the Institute Sainte-Marie and faced pressures from her mother, who pointedly wanted her to marry properly and disapproved of Simone's influence, which she thought had put Zaza on the wrong track. Zaza was far more volatile emotionally than Simone, and when she had a potential husband lined up, Jeanne Padrelle (a pseudonym for Maurice Merleau-Ponty), whom she had met through Simone, he evaded commitment, and this, in conjunction with pressures from her mother, was too much for her to take: she became ill and abruptly died. At the close of this volume, with Zaza's death, the feeling is that bourgeois life puts ridiculous pressures on women, and that they should fight back.

The doctors called it meningitis, encephalitis; no one was quite sure. Had it been a contagious disease, or an accident? Or had Zaza succumbed to exhaustion or anxiety? She has often appeared to me at night, her face all yellow under a pink sun-bonnet, and seeming to gaze reproachfully at me. We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death. 

After the publication of this memoir, de Beauvoir was told that Zaza's parents had hired a detective to check Merleau-Ponty's background. They had learned that he was illegitimate and had forced him to back out of the marriage by threatening to scandalize his family.

Regarding de Beauvoir's take on the intrusiveness of bourgeois society, it is worth mentioning that for her the problem was not men per se:

Their friendliness prevented me from ever taking up that 'challenging' attitude which was later to cause me so much dismay when I encountered it in American women: from the start, men were my comrades, not my enemies. Far from envying them, I felt that my own position, from the very fact that it was an unusual one, was one of privilege.

De Beauvoir's life began to improve when she moved on to the Sorbonne and excelled academically, becoming, at the age of twenty-one, the youngest person ever to qualify to teach philosophy in France. More importantly, she had exposure to some genuinely interesting people for the first time in her life.

I was finishing for a professor called Laporte a dissertation for my diploma on Hume and Kant; from nine in the morning to six in the evening I was glued to my desk at the Nationale [library]: I hardly took half an hour off for a sandwich; sometimes I would half-doze in the afternoons, and sometimes I even fell sound asleep. In the evenings, at home, I tried to read: Goethe, Cervantes, Chekhov, Strindberg. But I had headaches. I sometimes wanted to weep for weariness. And philosophy, at least as it was taught at the Sorbonne, was not at all comforting. Bréhier gave excellent lectures on the Stoics; but Brunschvig kept repeating himself; Laporte pulled every system except Hume's to pieces. He was the youngest of our professors; he had a little mustache, wore white spats, and followed women in the streets: once he had accosted one of his own students by mistake. He handed me back my dissertation with a fairly good mark and some ironical comments: I had made the mistake of preferring Kant to Hume. He invited me to his home, in a fine apartment on Avenue Bosquet, to talk to me about my work. 'Great qualities; but very antipathetic. Style obscure; a false profundity: when one thinks of what one has to say in philosophy!' He considered all of his colleagues one by one, particularly Brunschvig, then all the old masters. The philosophers of antiquity? They were stupid fools. Spinoza? A monster. Kant? An impostor. That left only Hume. I objected that Hume didn't solve any of the practical problems: he shrugged his shoulders: 'There are no practical problems.' No. One must simply look upon philosophy as an amusement, and one had the right to prefer other forms of entertainment. 'So that after all it's all a matter of convention!' I suggested. 'I know,' he added, 'that scepticism isn't fashionable. All right: go and find yourself a more optimistic doctrine than mine.'  He accompanied me to the door: 'Delighted you came! You're bound to get through the examination,' he concluded, with an air of distaste. His attitude was probably healthier but less comforting than the vaticanations of Jean Baruzi.

I tend to agree with Laporte on Hume, but this anecdote is also interesting in that it shows that some Sorbonne professors were described as at least a little depraved well before Michel Houellebecq depicted one that way.

I was surprised that while at the Sorbonne de Beauvoir got into the habit of patronizing some real dives: she went, usually with Poupette, to bars and nightclubs, got drunk on gin fizzes and danced with whoever asked her. On occasion she put herself at risk, but apparently she always arrived home intact.

Eventually she came into contact with Sartre and his inner circle; they had the reputation of elitists and bad boys. They disdained most of the other philosophy students and avoided them like the plague. Of the three (Andre Herbaud, a pseudonym for René Maheu, Paul Nizan and Jean-Paul Sartre), she first got to know Herbaud quite well. However, Sartre was the most impressive to her: besides genuinely hating the bourgeoisie, he was the most intellectually energetic person she'd ever met and was not an academic type at all; he liked literature, the arts and contemporary American music as much as philosophy, just as she did.

How was it that I managed to fit in with them so quickly? Herbaud had taken care not to shock me, but when they were all together the three 'comrades' didn't pull their punches. Their language was aggressive, their thoughts categorical, their judgements merciless. They made fun of bourgeois law and order; they had refused to sit the examination in religious knowledge: I had no difficulty in agreeing with them on that score. But I was still, in many respects, the dupe of bourgeois humbug; they jabbed a pin in every inflated idealism, laughed high-minded souls to scorn – in fact, every kind of soulfulness, the inner life, the marvelous, the mysterious, and the precious all fell under their lashing contempt; on every possible occasion – in their speech, their attitudes, their gestures, their jokes – they set out to prove that men were not rarefied spirits but bodies of flesh and bone, racked by physical needs and crudely engaged in a brutal adventure that was life. A year before, they would have scared me; but I had made much progress since the beginning of the academic year and I very often felt the need for stronger meat than that to which I was accustomed. I soon understood that if the world these new friends opened up to me seemed crude, it was because they didn't try to disguise its realities; in the end, all they asked of me was that I should dare to do what I had always longed to do: to look reality in the face. It did not take me long to make up my mind to do so.

She soon recognized that "Sartre corresponded exactly to the dream-companion" that she had longed for since she was fifteen: "he was the double in whom I found my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence."

Thus the postwar generation of French intellectuals was born, for better or for worse. I have not been impressed much by what little I know of their serious oeuvres and don't consider Sartre or de Beauvoir to be major thinkers. Their lasting legacy is probably de Beauvoir's influence on the feminist movement of the 1970's. To me, existentialism isn't really a comprehensive philosophical position, and I feel no need to explore it further. Unfortunately, as boring as the practice of it may be, science continues to produce the most important ideas for mankind, and the type of thinking done by Sartre and de Beauvoir and intellectuals everywhere ever since is mainly a relic of the past. It must also be noted that de Beauvoir, by her own admission, is not a particularly imaginative writer. However, these caveats only slightly detract from her value to me, and I think that she is as intelligent a confidante as one could hope to find. I have yet to come across any American writer with de Beauvoir's perspicacity. On the contrary, Americans seem wedded to the idea that the bourgeois lifestyle should be made available to all, a belief that would make her cringe. Hence I plan in due course to work my way through the remainder of her memoirs no matter how long it takes.

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