Review: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

Furthermore, I shall pose the problem of feminine destiny quite otherwise: I shall place woman in a world of values and give her behavior a dimension of liberty. I believe that she has the power to choose between the assertion of her transcendence and her alienation as object (...).

History gives to some works a value they probably wouldn't have in an atemporal lineup. I honestly can't say how much I would have appreciated this book without knowing that it was published in 1949 and believing that it was the first to draw a bunch of distinctions that needed to be drawn. Perhaps that belief is wrong, my knowledge of feminist history is not all that it should be, but it is what accounted for my enthusiasm every time I thought "Simone de Beauvoir gets it!" and, conversely, what tempered my annoyance whenever I felt that she was misguided. That is perhaps not giving The Second Sex the respect it deserves. But, you see, there was something tricky about this book, something that made it very hard to assess it as a whole.

The question at the back of my mind while reading it has constantly been "Is this still relevant?". It's hard to answer that, for two reasons. First, because de Beauvoir's argument flows so directly from an existentialist philosophy that I'm not sure to what extent they can be separated. Second, because a lot of her claims about how women are and how women act are framed in such a way that I don't have the tools to evaluate them, not without doing some historical research. You'll see what I mean below, if you can suffer through me discussing existentialism as practiced by Sartre and de Beauvoir first. (I can't blame anyone who is seriously bored/annoyed by existentialism, but there is a picture of a cat below the fold, if that makes it any better.)

Stendhal on Nature versus Nurture

I'm reading The Second Sex right now and it's tiring and awesome and... tiring. But she quotes Stendhal about why "the eternal feminine" is bullshit and I wanted to stop and share the snippet because it made me happy:
Pedants have for two thousand years reiterated the notion that women have a more lively spirit, men more solidity; that women have more delicacy in their ideas and men greater power of attention. A Paris idler who once took a walk in the Versailles Gardens concluded that, judging from all he saw, the trees grow ready trimmed.
I think this is from Stendhal's essay On Love, which is clearly due a reread because I had no recollection of it. In fact, his section in The Second Sex makes him sound altogether awesome and worth reading and rereading. And I might start using this quote the next time I discuss feminism with someone.

James Joyce's Ulysses: A Personal Odyssey

I read Ulysses for the first time in my last year of high school. I had already decided by then that I wouldn’t go on to study literature, although it was my oldest love. Somehow this made reading Ulysses a “now or never” affair. I wasn’t going to stop reading fiction just because I’d study something else in school, but, to my 18-year-old self, Ulysses seemed like the kind of book I might never check out without the incentive of a required reading list. I was prone to bouts of self-pity at the time, so this quickly became the symbol of all those intellectual landmarks I was going to miss by not becoming a lit major. So it was decided: I had to read Ulysses. There was just one small problem...

So, like many conscientious readers before me, I embarked on The Reading Ulysses Training Camp™. Mine was the abbreviated version. I figured I needed to be familiar with three things before tackling Ulysses: The Odyssey, modernism and Joyce’s previous writing. I was on reasonably good terms with the first two, so I moved straight to Joyce. (In retrospect, I really wish I had added some remedial Irish History to the list.) I read Dubliners and liked it. I moved on to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and there the problems started.

Is Mr. Darcy's Pen a Metaphorical Penis?

"You write uncommonly fast." Ahem.
A couple of days ago, disappointed in some of the twists in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I started to read up on Jane Austen's sexual politics. It is a common theme lately to debunk the sanitized image of Austen as an asexual spinster who never left her house and replace it with the image of an Austen we'd all like to hang out with: world-savvy, cuttingly funny, and quick on the double entendres. I do not know enough yet to tell if this reconstruction is more faithful to her character than the last, but I admit that a part of me cheers for this 3rd wave Jane Austen. (A part of me finds it slightly problematic, though, but that part needs to read a lot more before opening its mouth.)

Anyway, one of the articles I read this week is Jill Heydt-Stevenson's "Slipping into the Ha-Ha": Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen's Novels. Heydt-Stevenson argues that the racy elements some readers see in Austen's writing are not only there, but they are there for a purpose. They are a veiled - and thus acceptable - way of criticizing the patriarchy, of subverting its values. The dirty joke signals that the author sees through the patriarchy's game. Among other things, Austen uses this bawdy humor as a way of exposing the (rather crude) sexual and power dynamics behind the romantic ideal of courtship, as a way of "collapsing boundaries between prostitution and courtship."

There were a lot of things I appreciated in this article - and it's well worth a read - but there were also places where I felt it veered into "literary criticism gone mad." Take, for example, this exchange between a desperately flirtatious Caroline and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Chapter X:
"I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."

"Thank you—but I always mend my own."
For Heydt-Stevenson, Caroline's line is a "powerful metonymy of phallic power," while Darcy's reply, recognizing her sexual allusion, "playfully invokes autoeroticism." The more I think of it, the more I think this cannot be right. Mind you, this is not just an exercise in interpreting metaphors Freudian-style, where no cigar is ever a cigar and "all vegetation is pubic hair" (to slightly misquote Maud Bailey). In order for this interpretation to work, the characters themselves must be in on the joke. But if they are, how is Darcy's reference to masturbation a good or cutting reply to Caroline's (supposed) innuendo? "Thank you, I've never needed a woman for that"? Is Darcy really the ultimate Socially Awkward Penguin?

But then again, perhaps I'm being naive and reading less into this than I should. (It happened before.) So I'm crowdsourcing this one. What do you think, internet? Is a pen just a pen? Is this pen a, erm, "powerful metonymy of phallic power" and its owner the Socially Awkward Penguin? Is there a third choice I'm missing?

A Timeless Present Contemporaneous with Every Other Present

Giorgio de Chirico, The Return of Ulysses
Apropos Joyce and the Odyssey having the most beautiful, human, all-embracing theme of all, here is a quote from Gadamer's Truth and Method:
The “classical” is something raised above the vicissitudes of changing times and changing tastes. It is immediately accessible, not through that shock of recognition, as it were, that sometimes characterizes a work of art for its contemporaries and in which the beholder experiences a fulfilled apprehension of meaning that surpasses all conscious expectations. Rather, when we call something classical, there is a consciousness of something enduring, of significance that cannot be lost and that is independent of all the circumstances of time—a kind of timeless present that is contemporaneous with every other present.
I have this stupid habit of jotting down quotes I want to discuss in posts along with cryptic comments on them, and then never write those posts and forget what I was going to say and what those comments meant. In this case, I think I wanted to take advantage of the fact that, by his own admission later in the text, Gadamer's criterion applies to any kind of classic, not just those of the classical antiquity, and talk about the tension between being timeless and being historically bound in classic literature. 

But I am unlikely to write such a post because I'm a. lazy and b. much more interested in "that shock of recognition" that Gadamer claims we get with contemporary literature (and how it applies beyond that), so... enjoy this rather nice quote about what makes a classic on its own.

Scenes from Contes Cruels: Les Demoiselles de Bienfilâtre

Constantin Guys, Demimondaines
Constantin Guys, Demimondaines
Contes cruels (Cruel Tales, sometimes also translated as Sardonic Tales) is a book that has been unexpectedly dear to my heart. I say "unexpectedly" because neither satire of bourgeois morality, nor horror in the style of Edgar Allan Poe have ever been among my favorite things, and this book deals in both. Moreover, it delivers them in the guise of short stories, a literary form I'm not exactly fond of. And yet my memory of Contes cruels is that of a book of exquisitely sharp and beautiful tales, a book that was a complete pleasure to read, made doubly so by the fact that it was discovered completely by chance. To test this impression, I am returning to it now for o.'s French February event (and I reading it in French for the first time, too). I will be writing here about the tales that strike me and I hope to find some time to discuss the author as well, Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste WHAT-were-my-parents-thinking de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, who was a pretty interesting character in his own right.

When it comes to Les demoiselles de Bienfilâtre, the first of the Cruel Tales (French version available here; English version available here), there are two things I appreciated. One is a turn a phrase that was so nice I felt the need to keep it - to write it down or memorize it, to carry it with me in some form. The other is the underhanded cleverness of its construction. Let me explain what I mean with this last point.

Born Today in 1882

"The most beautiful, all-embracing theme is that of the Odyssey. It is greater, more human than that of Hamlet, Don Quixote, Dante, Faust. The rejuvenation of old Faust has an unpleasant effect upon me. Dante tires one quickly; it is as if one were to look at the sun. The most beautiful, most human traits are contained in the Odyssey. (...) Why was I always returning to this theme? Now al mezzo del' camin I find the subject of Odysseus the most human in world literature."
Happy birthday, James Joyce, you master of the "most human," you.