Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Age of Discretion

I've just read this short story by Simone de Beauvoir. It features a sixtyish couple, André and his wife, their son, Phillipe, Phillipe's wife, Iréne, and André's mother, Manette. The story is a narration by André's wife concerning events at the time of Phillipe's announcement that he has decided to change careers. André is a scientist, still conducting research, and the narrator is a writer. Phillipe suddenly shocks his parents when he informs them that he is not going to pursue an academic career and instead has accepted a high-paying job at the Ministry of Culture, which he obtained with help from Iréne's father.

The narrator goes off the deep end and has unpleasant spats with Phillipe in which she says that she never wants to see him again. She also becomes alienated from André when his reaction isn't as forceful as hers, and she ruminates over what is left for her in life. Initially she seems depressed and sees nothing more than an unsatisfactory relationship with André, old age and death. Her reaction to Phillipe's decision seems extreme to André, and also to me. In her mind, an intellectual career is unquestionably superior to an ordinary well-paid job. André recognizes that Phillipe may not have been cut out for an academic career, whereas his mother sees Phillipe's choice as a moral flaw.

After André leaves for a few days to visit his mother in the country, and the narrator later joins him, they manage to reconcile, and the narrator agrees that she should take a more conciliatory approach with Phillipe. Much of the discussion concerns the differences between youth and old age. André thinks that most scientists are finished by his age, but that his ongoing research is useful nevertheless. The narrator has just published a new book that is receiving a tepid reception, and she worries about her own decline.

At first glance, the narrator's high-mindedness seems puzzling, especially if you're used to living among philistine Americans. Besides that, she is more controlling than most of the mothers I've known. In fact, she exhibits a rather extreme insensitivity regarding which outcome would best suit her son. I can make a little sense of all this by looking at the ways in which French upper-middle-class culture differs from American upper-middle-class culture. The rules are somewhat different for educated French people, who are more likely to be sensitive to social issues than educated Americans, on average. There is also the element in which de Beauvoir may be imposing her idea of existentialism on the narrative. That implies some vague moral imperative that she derived from the writings of Sartre, which, unfortunately, I interpret as nonsense. 

This reminds me very much of The Mandarins, in which de Beauvoir invented Nadine as the imagined daughter she never had. In that context, Anne and Robert were much younger, but Nadine, their daughter, also seemed like an artifice placed there for some specific conceptual message. Because this is only a short story, Phillipe really doesn't get the chance to develop as a credible character, yet I can still see de Beauvoir's mind at work attempting to demonstrate some theory that suits her preferences. In the end, I am left with the idea that I had previously: de Beauvoir is a good thinker and writer, but she was not able to break out from her conceptual history in the cause of creating a truly transformative kind of art. In literature, creative artists have an advantage over intellectuals in the sense that the feelings that one gets from good literature are more durable than ideas, which tend to have more wooden characteristics and eventually rot, as I think existentialism did. In my opinion, the general criticism that ideology diminishes the value of art is valid, because ideology works better in essays, where the intent of the author takes precedence over aesthetic factors. I must also note that de Beauvoir's presumption that the intellectual life is always better than others seems to have blinded her to the shortcomings evident in her milieu. In reading The Mandarins, I got the sense that she thought that their lives were self-evidently superior, and, based on my research, I would beg to differ. Even so, I believe that some aspects of value are to be found in this story. It presents serious elements that are of interest to thoughtful people as they age. In my case, I don't find de Beauvoir particularly enlightening, yet one does not often come across a writer with a brain in these matters. De Beauvoir remains a kind of salve for me, because there are few options available in a country that in so many ways is intellectually dead.

This book has two other stories, and, after I've read them, I'll decide whether or not to comment on them.

No comments:

Post a Comment