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.

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