Saturday, October 22, 2016


The last few days have been spent observing fall colors and politics, which don't require comment. I continue to ruminate over Simone de Beauvoir, who, unfortunately, has produced an unpleasant aftereffect in me. Whatever her good points, I am tending to notice a pattern of self-indulgence, a lack of self-criticism, and, on top of that, some delusional thinking about the nature of her existence. The self-indulgence pertains to her lengthy writing style. If I had adopted a similar style, this blog would now be several thousand pages long, you would have heard about everyone I ever met, and I would have familiarized you with the details of every vacation or trip that I ever took. I would have done this without providing much context and very little analysis of the character and motivations of the people I knew. In order to do this I would have had to think that my life was important enough to waste your time describing it ad nauseum without ever getting to the heart of anything.

The lack of self-criticism occurs to me in those instances where de Beauvoir may have had a harmful effect on those around her. Based on her own account, it appears that she placed a lot of pressure on her friend Zaza, forcing her to adopt a harsh intellectual outlook on life that didn't suit her personality and put her at odds with her family. De Beauvoir hints at her own culpability in Zaza's death but takes no responsibility and ends that section of her autobiography on that note. Similarly, though she does not discuss the details of her sex life, she conveys a cavalier attitude toward the psychological impact she may have had on people who were much younger than she was. In the case of Nelson Algren, I got the feeling that her relationship began and ended as an amusing experiment for her, and that, though she may have felt bad about the outcome, she had been unwilling to make any changes in her life on his account.

The delusional thinking aspect is what concerns me the most. Apparently she was exceptionally headstrong from an early age, and she had a tendency to define herself as whatever she wanted to be even if that meant denying physical reality. As I mentioned earlier, she thought that she could transcend her body and be a woman or a man or whatever she liked. Her version of feminism wasn't a simple one that emphasized equality, but one more akin to contemporary gender studies, which allows individuals to choose their gender based on how they happen to feel. As in modern gender studies, de Beauvoir tended to view gender as a social construct, and while I agree that it is to some extent, it is also partly the result of irreducible biological facts. Where she goes overboard is in her ridicule of women who enjoy childrearing, domesticity and social ritual. In what I've read of de Beauvoir, I have seen no sympathy for those women, whose behavior accords with obvious biological reality and their actual feelings. In this respect, she is displaying the most basic kind of ignorance, for which I can never forgive her. Ironically, though defying traditional gender roles, she adopted a distinctly subservient role to Sartre throughout their relationship and ascribed greater talent to him than she did to herself. Furthermore, the intellectual superiority which she credits to herself and Sartre looks suspect just thirty years after her death. Between the two of them there seems to have been a decided avoidance of science, and this permitted them to manufacture their own reality, even when that meant that they were guaranteeing their future obsolescence as thinkers.

Not long ago I thought that de Beauvoir was similar to George Eliot, but on closer examination that resemblance is illusory. Specifically, I have been thinking about how de Beauvoir was deeply moved by Eliot's The Mill on the Floss but doesn't even mention, as far as I know, Eliot's far better novel, Middlemarch. The former is an autobiographical tale about social circumstances that unfairly cause the ostracism of a precocious young woman, but to George Eliot it was also a lamentation on her break with her brother, Isaac Evans, with whom she had been close during childhood. De Beauvoir seems only to have read it as in indictment of social custom, which was not the only intention of the author: Eliot felt heartsick for Isaac, and the novel indicates that she would rather have died with him than remain estranged. Middlemarch, in contrast, is a magisterial work that examines society at all levels, and, unlike any work by de Beauvoir, accurately appraises everyone within their particular social niche. While George Eliot had the perceptiveness to notice the foibles of the intellectuals in her life, de Beauvoir seems never to have taken off her rose-tinted glasses for Sartre, who would probably make even better fodder for satire than anyone known by George Eliot. Moreover, there is a warmth to George Eliot's portrayals of ordinary people, which contrasts with de Beauvoir's simmering disdain for all things bourgeois.

I've started to read G.H. Lewes: A Life, by Rosemary Ashton, which is about George Eliot's partner. Although I'm tired of England and English literature, Lewes and Eliot represent a more productive and interesting intellectual time and place than the wrongheaded and unsavory one inhabited by de Beauvoir and Sartre.

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