Friday, September 30, 2016

The Prime of Life V

I got so tired of the remainder of the book that I skimmed it. The period in this section includes the German invasion and occupation of northern France and Vichy France to the south, from 1940 to the end of the occupation in 1944. Sartre initially joined the army, was captured and was subsequently released. He wrote the philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness and the plays No Exit and The Flies. By the end of the war de Beauvoir and Sartre had begun to travel in wider artistic circles. They socialized with Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet and befriended Albert Camus. Sartre became more politically-minded than he had been previously and hoped to steer France in a socialistic direction after the war. This is the same territory covered at the beginning of The Mandarins.

Because de Beauvoir's descriptions in this volume seemed inadequate from the beginning, I looked briefly into other biographical sources in order to get a better sense of what actually went on. Although she makes veiled references to it, she has elided practically all of the considerable sexual activity that was taking place within her circle at the time. I can understand to some extent why she would do this. There is the element of privacy, and most of the people were still alive when she wrote the book. However, this is supposed to be a memoir, and I find it unacceptable that she glosses over facts that more clearly illustrate the nature of her relationship with Sartre than she succeeds in doing otherwise. She repeatedly states that the relationship was at the core of her life, yet in the book he comes across as some guy whom she sees – every once in a while –  to discuss their writing. Fortunately, their literary executors have since released many of their letters, which reveal that Sartre had a tremendous sexual appetite for pretty young women, preferably virgins, and that de Beauvoir played a significant role in finding and grooming them for him. De Beauvoir herself had sexual contact with them but does not seem to have been a lesbian or bisexual, though one author speculates that she may have had erotic interactions far earlier with her childhood friend, Zaza. Apparently Sartre had as many as nine mistresses at a time, and some of them were unaware of the others. Sartre and de Beauvoir themselves stopped having sex early in their relationship, and it is possible to stretch things a little in order to portray them as advanced thinkers in this realm, but one must consider that de Beauvoir has deliberately covered up Sartre's activities and that some of the women who became sexually involved with him later said that they had been used and discarded. I have no interest in pursuing this vein further and am content to agree with Louis Menand's assessment in this article. The most plausible explanation for de Beauvoir's authorial choice in how to handle the activities in question is that she was playing the traditional role of supportive wife in a patriarchal society, which, though out of keeping for the author of The Second Sex, reflects who she was.

The sex part, per se, has little influence on my opinion of de Beauvoir, and I am more concerned that she chose to saddle herself with Sartre, whom I don't admire at all. I would have liked her more if she had attached herself to someone less seedy and manipulative. Beyond her academic abilities she may not have been as smart as you may think. Unfortunately, I am going to have to kick her out of my personal pantheon, where George Eliot still resides, because she reminds me too much of a Jackie Kennedy or a Nancy Reagan in her willingness to bolster a man of little merit: Kennedy was unfaithful and Reagan was not very bright. She demeaned herself by making sacrifices for Sartre, who, in my opinion, wasn't worth it. I have lost all enthusiasm for her writing and may not read any more of it. On the positive side, she is occasionally perceptive and always articulate, but on the negative side she is lacking in imagination, and, above all, the compromises that she made for Sartre found their way into her work, which diminishes her in my mind.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Prime of Life IV

In 1938 both de Beauvoir and Sartre obtained new teaching positions in Paris. They continued to live separately while seeing each other frequently. That year Sartre published his first novel, Nausea, which met with critical and commercial success. De Beauvoir worked on She Came to Stay, which was not published until 1943. By 1939 the imminent war affected everyone in Paris, and de Beauvoir describes her daily life in some detail. I had thought that she must have been drawing from her diaries to write her memoirs up to that point, but apparently she did not keep a diary before then. The diary entries that she reproduces are slightly condensed compared to the preceding text but are otherwise little different. Now, three quarters of the way through the book, I am becoming overwhelmed by minutia that doesn't interest me much. To be sure, World War II was an important event and still has major repercussions over seventy years in its aftermath, and de Beauvoir's chronicles might be useful to a historian of the period, but that isn't why I chose to read this book and I am increasingly finding it boring. I am looking forward to finishing it and moving on to something else.

De Beauvoir's limitations as a writer and thinker are beginning to weigh on me in a manner that makes it difficult for me to continue reading this book and accept her at face value. I will soon finish reading it and make a final comment. My problem as a reader is that she does not provide enough breadth of perspective to leave me feeling that her portrayals are sufficiently accurate. I had somewhat the same feeling while I was reading The Mandarins, but in that book any deficiencies were made up for by some of the dialogue between the characters. Such dialogue is not present in The Prime of Life, leaving it, for me anyway, somewhat empty. The earlier Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter was also more readable, but in that case it was because it contained a sharper focus and the emotional energy was less opaque. In The Mandarins and the present book, Sartre is an important figure, but I don't see why he is important beyond the fact that de Beauvoir has assigned him that position.

None of my reading of de Beauvoir so far has included much philosophy, and the writing has essentially all been autobiographical. However, in the background of this writing is a credo that she adopted at an early age and mentions now and again. I am finding myself in philosophical disagreement with her, but because she evades the explicit statement of her views in favor of a literary approach I am left with a gnawing feeling that makes her writing seem avoidant. The impression I have is that both she and Sartre are extreme Cartesian dualists, which in their case prompts them to see themselves as free beings who happen to inhabit their particular bodies. She seems to think along the lines that she has a duty to be free from the social pressures associated with the fact that she happens to inhabit a female body. This is a significantly different view from standard American feminism, which focuses more on equal rights and can ultimately be resolved by legal means. For me, Cartesian dualism is conceptually incorrect: you are your body, and therefore both Sartre and de Beauvoir look like fools to me. This foolishness then becomes exacerbated by their insistence on spending their entire lives in Paris with the same closed circle of friends, which is a perfect way to form and maintain a delusional bubble.

Sartre and de Beauvoir are starting to look like naïve college students who never grew up. Specifically, they thought that they could read anything, master it and then write brilliantly on the subject. I first noticed this in The Mandarins. De Beauvoir thought she understood America very well because she had read a lot of American fiction, seen a lot of American films and listened to a lot of American music. In The Mandarins you can instantly recognize as a reader that there is a deep cultural incompatibility between Louis Brogan (Nelson Algren) and Anne Dubreuilh (de Beauvoir), but I am not at all sure that the author recognizes it as such. De Beauvoir strikes me as anthropologically and sociologically obtuse, perhaps because she came to these subjects via trendy, obsolete structuralism, and post-structuralism doesn't seem to me to have been an improvement. In retrospect, the intellectual movements that emanated from France during de Beauvoir's life, including existentialism, seem like fads to me. She did study psychology and seems handier there, but at that time the field was still under Freud's influence and it had not yet become a true science. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre seem to view science as having no bearing on their work, and I think this is a critical mistake which will relegate them to the status of minor historical figures rather than major thinkers of the period. De Beauvoir would have been an interesting person to know, but she is dead and I am beginning to think that all that is left is a flawed legacy.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


I need to take a break from Simone de Beauvoir, because she simply writes too much. In her memoirs she is like a pre-Flaubert French novelist such as Victor Hugo who churns out page after page with little of substance to add compared to a postmodernist, whose meaning, if any, may be obscure, but who at least is concise. For my taste she is relying too much on a journalistic style, spending an inordinate amount of time on events and too little on analysis. I suspect that she is just transcribing her diaries and cleaning them up for public consumption, since both she and Sartre were famous by 1960. Her writing isn't as fluid or as evocative as Proust's, but, like him, she, in effect, withholds crucial information – such as that so-and-so is gay – for thousands of pages. Although there is precision to her writing, she, as a writer, seems to intentionally stop at a pre-defined level of depth as a matter of stylistic choice, when I would prefer it if she had dug further into the psyches of the people discussed. She spends far too much time describing her vacations in the manner of travel writing when I want to know what she really thinks about Sartre, Bost, Olga, etc. Her style makes her writing seem as if you are seeing everything through a filter that removes what is most intriguing in order to provide a predefined narrative flow that has been calculated to meet the needs of a hypothetical reader. In other words, unlike this blog, where I make a reasonable effort to tell you exactly what I think about something, de Beauvoir seems to consciously self-edit for reasons that she doesn't explain. For example, while she has firmly established that Sartre is a crucial element in her life, she has said nothing specifically about the strengths and weaknesses of their relationship, what she might have preferred, etc. She is holding back for some reason – Sartre was going to read it and she doesn't want to upset him, it might affect Sartre's public reputation, or, less likely, she didn't really understand Sartre. Similarly, as she describes the Sartre-Olga affair one might surmise that she and Olga were ultimately hurt, but it seems that Sartre has no accountability for his behavior. The impression I have is that she uses writing as a form of sublimation that whitewashes undesirable behavior among her intimates, which is a disservice to her readers. She may also be laboring under the "great man" delusion that is so popular in France. In my writing I try to be as clear as possible about people other than the ones whom I know are reading my blog. That way you get an unfiltered statement of my views, and in those instances where I think privacy is important you get almost no information, and I don't waste your time by dancing around facts or covering up with selected omissions.

In other news, it is starting to get cold here, and there may be a frost tonight. I am planning a very brief trip to Bar Harbor, Maine next month. As you can tell from the comments above, I am a little bogged down with The Prime of Life, but I will continue reading it and keep you posted. There are two more books in this memoir series plus three additional memoir-like books by de Beauvoir, but I'm not in a hurry to read them. I will eventually read the next two volumes, but definitely not in succession.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Prime of Life III

De Beauvoir and Sartre saw each other frequently when they lived separately in Rouen and Le Havre. They developed friends and read a lot. De Beauvoir seems to have been interested in the latest styles in fiction and admired Faulkner and Kafka. They discussed why she didn't concern herself more with philosophy:

...I was well aware that the ease with which I penetrated to the heart of a text stemmed, precisely, from my lack of originality. In this field a genuinely creative talent is so rare that queries as to why I did not attempt to join the élite are surely otiose: it would be more useful to explain how certain individuals are capable of getting results from that conscious venture into lunacy known as a 'philosophical system', from which they derive that obsessional attitude which endows their tentative patterns with universal insight and applicability. As I have remarked before, women are not by nature prone to obsessions of this type....I wanted to communicate the element of originality in my own experience. In order to do this successfully I knew that it was literature towards which I must orientate myself. 

At this stage in my reading I am inclined to think that de Beauvoir was not original as a producer of literature either. She is good at clear and precise renderings of human interactions but adopted a style that reads more like nonfiction than fiction. She draws so directly from her life experiences that it's as if she simply changes "I" in her diary to "she" in her novels. There are close similarities between some of the people in this memoir to some of the characters in The Mandarins. Moreover, although I find her enjoyable to read, her writing is completely lacking in the kind of originality that one sees in writers such as Kafka or László Krasznahorkai. Her strategy as a writer seems to have been to sculpt her life so as to provide a sufficient stream of material for her fiction. There may even be an oddly calculated dimension to her choice of Sartre as a partner, because on close inspection they have little in common, and she may have seen him as a ticket to a colorful life. I notice that in her memoirs she is quick to compliment physically attractive men on their appearance, yet she leads us to believe that she also found Sartre attractive even though he was wall-eyed and practically a dwarf, features to which she never refers, perhaps to spare his feelings.

From 1933 to 1935 Sartre studied in Berlin, and he and de Beauvoir vacationed in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria. Fascism was prominent in Europe by then, and the Spanish Civil War was to begin in 1936. As you might expect, they were appalled by Hitler and Mussolini.

When he returned to his job in Le Havre, Sartre became depressive. He was extremely ambitious and was concerned, at the age of 30, that he would spend the rest of his days as an obscure philosophy teacher. He didn't like teaching and at least once had called an entire class stupid to their faces. De Beauvoir, though only 27 in 1935, was more worried about her age. Sartre was interested in dreams, and a medical friend recommended that he take mescaline in a controlled setting. Most people had found the experience pleasant, but Sartre had a classic bad trip: "umbrellas had become vultures, shoes turned into skeletons, and faces acquired monstrous characteristics, while behind him, just past the corner of his eye, swarmed crabs and polyps and grimacing Things." Although the effects of the drug quickly wore off, Sartre continued to experience hallucinations for months. It became a joke with de Beauvoir that he thought that he was being followed by a lobster. However, this was a serious episode of depression that took time to dissipate.

At the time their friends included Marco, a gay teacher and earlier acquaintance of Sartre who wanted to be an opera singer, Olga, who had been a student of de Beauvoir, and Jacques Bost, who had been a student of Sartre. Marco would dream up elaborate deceptions for fun, and once even Sartre and de Beauvoir participated. Olga was the daughter of a White Russian émigré and was being pressured by her parents to study subjects in which she had no interest. Bost was a good-looking, intelligent young man who appealed to both Sartre and de Beauvoir. Before long, Sartre got into a relationship with Olga, which did not exclude de Beauvoir, and they tried for a while, unsuccessfully, to live as three. Marco fell in love with Bost, who was not gay and rejected him. De Beauvoir had an affair with Bost. In the end, Sartre and Olga broke up, and Olga later married Bost. Perhaps out of discretion, de Beauvoir leaves out most of the details of what transpired, but she made use of the triad for her first published novel, She Came to Stay.

There was considerable controversy in de Beauvoir's life, and some of it began with Olga. Olga was the first of several young women whom she introduced to Sartre, and, depending on what you read, she was either an emancipated thinker or a pedophile-enabler who procured girls for Sartre's sexual gratification. I am reluctant to dig into this because it is time-consuming enough to read de Beauvoir's version and I am fairly confident that she would not be completely callous in these matters. What concerns me more is the possibility that de Beauvoir intentionally staged her life events, including her relationships, in order to generate material for her fiction. That seemed to be the case in her relationship with Nelson Algren as portrayed in The Mandarins. If I don't tire of reading her memoirs, that topic should come up in the next volume, which covers that period. She obviously had a formidable intellect, but I could hardly approve of her as a person if she intentionally toyed with people's lives in the interest of her personal success.

An aspect of writing fiction that you don't hear much about is the difficulty that writers face in coming up with fresh material. That can't be taught in writing programs, and this explains why, in the present day, the vacuous students who attend creative writing programs tend to produce interesting word usage more often than astute observations of any kind. De Beauvoir, for her part, knew her limitations as a writer and was intelligent enough to find a solution that worked in her case.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Prime of Life II

Sartre tried to line up a teaching position in Japan to follow his military service, but he failed to do so and ended up teaching in Le Havre instead. De Beauvoir got a job teaching at a lycée in Marseille. She impetuously set about exploring the region alone on foot and by hitchhiking. Once two men attempted to abduct her, and she managed to escape. At the lycée she was so young that many thought she was a student. One of her colleagues, a married woman, tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. Before long she took a new position in Rouen in order to be closer to Sartre and Paris.

During this period their interests were eclectic. Sartre had lively friends in the theatrical world, and they read widely, always discussing issues that they deemed important. Their reading and entertainment included more lowbrow than highbrow material. They watched films with Buster Keaton and Sartre particularly liked detective novels. They closely followed crime stories in the news. De Beauvoir especially liked the works of John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. They managed to travel on inexpensive vacations to Spain, Italy and London. The pattern that they were to follow for the rest of their lives began to emerge.

It is at this juncture that, for me, the reader, the picture becomes a little myopic. While de Beauvoir's writing seems honest and open and she seems to be relatively perceptive, I am beginning to become a little uneasy with her point of view and feel the need for a second opinion, which you never get in memoirs. I can accept de Beauvoir's perspective, in which her life with Sartre meets all of her expectations, and that he may have been the only person who could offer that to her, allowing her to live free from the social constraints that had been the bane of her youth, but I don't get a sense that I would analyze the situation exactly as she did if I had been there, because she seems to be overreacting to her past and possibly is placing more faith in Sartre than is justified. My problem is that Sartre was not a great thinker, and, for that matter, not a great writer. He was constantly generalizing, but his theories were often bad or even stupid. De Beauvoir obliquely hints at this, and the impression I get is that, to her, Sartre was sort of a lifestyle choice more than anything else, and that ultimately ideas were not all that important to her. Rather than take a systematic approach to this problem, I am simply going to read Tony Judt's Past Imperfect, in which the French intellectuals of that era, Sartre in particular, are eviscerated. I'm not sure that I'll agree with Judt on every position, since both he and Sartre have different points of view from mine, but you can always count on Judt for a well-written, rigorous analysis.

The good part of de Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre, as far as I'm concerned, was their willingness to discuss everything in great detail:

Sartre sometimes upbraided me for my insouciance, just as I became irritated when he spent too long buried in a paper. To justify my attitude I invoked the theory of the 'solitary man'. Sartre objected that the 'solitary man' does not lack any interest in the course of events: though his thought may not depend on external supporting opinion, this does not imply that he opts for ignorance. Sartre's counter-attack shook me, but I persevered in my attitude. I wanted people to despise the futile contingencies of daily life, as I thought Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Van Gogh had done. The position I had adopted suited me somewhat ill; there was nothing in me of the visionary, or the solitary, or indeed of the lyric poet. I was really indulging in escapism, putting myself into blinkers so as to safeguard my piece of mind. For a long while I stuck obstinately to this 'rejection of humanity', which was also the inspiration of my aesthetic views. I liked those landscapes in which there was no apparent sign of man's presence, or else the sort of camouflage – local color, picturesque background – which concealed such presence from me. In Rouen my favorite spot was the Rue Eau-de-Robec: its shapeless, rickety houses, lapped by filthy water, looked very much as though they might be destined for some wholly alien species of inhabitant. I was attracted by those people, such as madmen, prostitutes, or tramps, who had in one way or another denied their own humanity.  

Certainly neither Sartre nor de Beauvoir can be accused of mental laziness. I identify more with de Beauvoir, because it was Sartre's "save the world" mentality that got him into trouble, putting him in way over his head, where he badly tackled issues that he didn't even understand.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


I had hoped that by now I would have read enough to make another book post, but I haven't, due to several distractions. We had a rare string of four nights in a row with good stargazing conditions – the best in nearly a year – and I wanted to take advantage of them. I've been looking at objects such as M2, M5, M13, M27, M31, NGC 6207, NGC 6960, Burnham 1, and lots of other multiple star systems. Although it would have been possible to see several planets this summer, I didn't bother with my large telescope, because it is hard to find a place in the yard with a good view to the south, and they are close to the horizon, which is hazy. I prefer to view planets on my smaller refractor on the rear deck, and it is difficult to situate the Dobsonian there. The season is moving along, and if you stay up late enough you can already see M42, one of the most interesting objects in the night sky.

Perhaps further explanation is needed for my interest in stargazing, since I seem to be the only person I know who likes it. I do it partly for aesthetics, because many of the objects are attractive natural phenomena, and partly for knowledge, because, after all, most of the universe is out there, not here. And I like operating precision equipment. Other stargazers have different motivations from mine. Some are more socially motivated, and star parties are popular throughout the world. Others are even more interested in tinkering than I am, and when they find out how hard it is to see things well they take up astrophotography, which can occupy a technically-oriented person indefinitely. With newer cameras, long exposure times and new software it is possible to produce images that show far more detail than one can see with the naked eye even under ideal viewing conditions. There is also a competitive aspect to stargazing, which often centers around – you guessed it – who has the largest telescope. In stargazing culture, all of these motivations get scrambled up by the commercial element, which emphasizes product over knowledge. Many stargazers seem to have a checklist mentality; they want the right equipment so that they can go down a list and check off what they've seen, whether or not they know what the objects are. I prefer to at least have some astronomical understanding of what I'm looking at. The universe is a large place, and even many of the known objects are not well understood.

In other news, William the cat is improving over time. He was a little wild at first and is gradually becoming better adjusted. This is an excellent house for a cat, since there is space to run around, an old basement with crickets, and chipmunks, birds and rabbits to watch outside. The chipmunks seem to enjoy taunting him by standing right in front of him, separated only by a screen. He has a high level of energy which we hope will gradually subside.

The tomato crop turned out well, and we are at the point of giving them away. I've done more watering than ever before due to the lack of rain, but the absence of rain also meant a reduction in fungus, which has left the plants healthier than they usually are by now.

We continue to follow politics, but I'd rather not think about it. My unavoidable conclusion is that presidents are never up to the task, and in fact the U.S. seems to have had a series of mediocre presidents following FDR. Even in FDR's case there was a certain amount of luck involved in the sense that he held office during real crises that obviously required strong actions. In my opinion, if you exclude climate change and mass extinctions, there has been no serious disaster facing the U.S. since World War II, and, if anything, the greatest disaster since then has been American foreign policy. Arguably, China has produced the best leaders in recent years: Deng Xiaoping and now Xi Jinping. It is unfortunate that the whole world has become trapped in a vicious cycle of economic competition. A better solution may lie in the communist regimes that are willing to play the game for a while, rather than Europe and the U.S., where the current system originated. If you could take the corruption out of communism and improve the decision-making of its leaders, it might well provide a system of governance far more appropriate for mankind than the one in which we live today.

On my next post I'll be back to de Beauvoir.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Prime of Life I

Because I'm far from entering my winter mode I haven't been doing much reading. However, I have made some progress in this central portion of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs and am finding it quite rich. She describes her life after college in great detail, and there is so much to ponder here that in writing a few comments about it I can only hope to give you an impression of the things that interest me the most.

When she finished at the Sorbonne she got her first apartment and began to see Sartre regularly. They would meet in public and talk for hours in the sight of others, and word got back to her father. Since their relationship was obviously sexual, he went over to have a word with Sartre to prevent embarrassment to his family. Sartre was tough-minded even then and didn't back down, but thereafter they met in more private locations. She made money working as a private tutor and in temporary teaching positions and Sartre lived off a small inheritance. He soon had eighteen months of compulsory military service that allowed him to stay close enough to Paris that they could see each other often.

De Beauvoir was giddy with her newly-found freedom and luxuriated in her free time. Although she didn't have much money she didn't care at all:

Our puritanical education and the firmness of our intellectual commitment ensured that we remained immune to dukes, millionaires, owners of Hispanos, women in mink, and all such denizens of high society. We actually stigmatized this beau monde as the very dregs of the earth, on the grounds that it sucked profit from a régime which we condemned.

During this period they decided that they would not marry, but that their relationship would be their primary one, with "essential love," and that they would each be free to pursue "contingent" relationships. They also agreed to keep no secrets from each other. Their long-term plan was to travel and live as writers. Their worldview was still in a formative stage:

Sartre built his theories, fundamentally, upon certain positions which we both adhered to with some passion. Our love of freedom, our opposition to the established order of things, our individualism, and our respect for the working classes – all these brought us close to the anarchist position. But to be quite frank, our incoherence defied any sort of label. We were anti-capitalist, yet not Marxists, we glorified the powers of pure mind and perfect freedom, yet we rejected the spiritual approach; though our interpretation of man and the universe was strictly materialistic, we despised science and technology. Sartre was not bothered by these inconsistencies, and refused so much as to formulate them. 'When you think in terms of problems,' he told me, 'you aren't thinking at all.' He himself skipped from one conviction to the next, without rhyme or reason.

Her teaching jobs didn't always go well, as she recounts in this humorous anecdote:

To earn my living I gave private lessons and also taught Latin at the Lycée Victor-Duruy. Previously I had taught psychology to thoughtful, well-behaved secondary-school girls in Neuilly; and this new junior class of mine caught me somewhat off guard. Learning the rudiments of Latin is a grim business for ten-year-old girls, and I thought I would soften the grimness with a few smiles. My pupils smiled back; then they came clambering up on the dais to get a closer look at my necklace, and began pulling at the lace collar of my dress. The first time I sent them back to their places they sat more or less quiet; but in a very short while they were wriggling and whispering to each other incessantly. I tried to make my voice sound stern, and to instill a fierce gleam into my eye; but they still chattered and played up to me as much as ever. I decided to take a tough line, and gave the worst offender a black mark. She flung herself head first against the nearest wall, screaming: 'My father will beat me!' The whole class took this cry up, in reproachful tones. 'Her father will beat her!' they chorused. Could I, I asked, condemn her to parental execution in this way! But if I let her off, how could I then punish her classmates? I found only one solution, and that was to talk so loud that my voice drowned the row they were making. The result was that those who wanted to listen could at least hear me; and I fancy my class learned about as much Latin as any other. But I more than once was summoned before an irate headmistress, and my assignment was not renewed.

An early attempt at writing a novel didn't go well either:

I became vaguely aware that the magic wasn't working in my case, though this didn't prevent me from chasing it stubbornly, and for a long time....My work lacked all real conviction. Sometimes I felt I was doing a school assignment, sometimes that I had lapsed into parody.

I am finding it tempting to compare de Beauvoir at this age to George Eliot at the same age. They both started out deeply religious and evolved into powerful intellectuals. Despite their similarities, de Beauvoir's advantages are striking. She had led a privileged life and had consciously rejected it and worked out an alternative by the time she was twenty-one. George Eliot, in contrast, came from a considerably lower social rank, without a higher education; she had no choice but to live with her conservative, uneducated father until he died, and her writing career didn't take off until she was in her late thirties. Her pickings among men were also restricted, with her dowdy looks and humble origin. Instead of finding a Sartre she found G.H. Lewes, who, though admirable in many ways, also came from a modest family and was ridiculed by some of the intellectual elites in London for his physical appearance. Moreover, living in London during the Victorian era had to be more stifling than living in Paris in the late 1920's and early 1930's. In sum, there is no question that George Eliot led a more challenging life. De Beauvoir fits a more contemporary bohemian model, and elements of her worldview at that age are reminiscent of the beatniks and the hippies, though her puritanical side provided her with far more self-discipline than ever existed in either of those groups. George Eliot's circumstances preempted the possibility of an adventurous life in the manner of de Beauvoir, and in this sense de Beauvoir seems to have been quite lucky.

If de Beauvoir is a little less saintly than George Eliot, she still looks much better to me than my contemporaries among American women. Many of the ones I've known have been upper-middle-class, or roughly comparable to de Beauvoir in social background. Their educations did nothing more than enable them to continue living bourgeois lives, perhaps showing slightly greater sensitivity to social issues than their parents did, but never deeply questioning the desirability of this stifling capitalist system. Their take on women's rights was that they deserved more than they had been getting, even if they had nothing to offer in return. That in itself isn't surprising among ordinary people, and particularly among Americans, who tend to be conformists, but it becomes more telling with respect to intellectuals, a group that I once mistakenly thought might have something important to say.

I'm only a tenth of the way through the book, so you can be sure that you'll be hearing more about this.