Friday, May 28, 2010

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir's book, The Second Sex, a historic study of women, marriage, motherhood, and lack of equality, was translated from the French by a zoologist with an undergraduate's knowledge of French and 15 percent of the material was cut out. A new translation is out, but according to Francine du Plessix Grey, it still hasn't aged well.

How does Beauvoir’s book stand up more than a half-century later? And how does this new translation compare with the previous one? I’m sorry to report that “The Second Sex,” which I read with euphoric enthusiasm in my post-college years, now strikes me as being in many ways dated. Written in an era in which a minority of women were employed, its arguments for female participation in the work force seem particularly outmoded. And Beauvoir’s truly paranoid hostility toward the institutions of marriage and motherhood — another characteristic of early feminism — is so extreme as to be occasionally hilarious. Every aspect of the female reproductive system, from puberty to menopause, is approached with the same ferocious disdain. Females of all living species are “first violated . . . then alienated” by the process of fertilization. Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.” Beauvoir doesn’t appear to have spent much time with children or teenagers: a first menses, in her view, leads the girl to be “disgusted by her too-carnal body, by menstrual blood, by adults’ sexual practices, by the male she is destined for.”

If Beauvoir’s ruminations on “the curse” are pessimistic (and pessimism runs through “The Second Sex” like a poisonous river) her reflections on sexual initiation and marriage make them sound like torture. She chooses the most brutal examples of deflorations — mostly rapes — to make her points. Wedding nights “transform the erotic experience into an ordeal” that “often dooms the woman to frigidity forever.” It isn’t surprising, she adds, “that ‘conjugal duties’ are often only a repugnant chore for the wife.” “No one,” she argues, “dreams of denying the tragedies and nastiness of married life.” Conjugal love, in Beauvoir’s view, is “a complex mixture of attachment, resentment, hatred, rules, resignation, laziness and hypocrisy.” Even marriages that “work well” suffer “a curse they rarely escape: boredom.” Already alarmed? Wait until you come to the discussion of motherhood. A woman experiences the fetus as “a parasite.” “Maternity is a strange compromise of narcissism, altruism, dream, sincerity, bad faith, devotion and cynicism.” “There is nothing like an ‘unnatural mother,’ since maternal love has nothing natural about it.” It is significant that the only stage of a woman’s life Beauvoir has good things to say about is widowhood, which, in her view, most bear quite cheerfully. Upon losing their spouses, she tells us, women, “now lucid and wary, . . . often attain a delicious cynicism.” In old age, they maintain “a stoic defiance or skeptical irony.”


I await the movie version.

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1 Comments:

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1:47 PM  

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