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Old 19th Jan 2007, 15:23   #1
Digger
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Default Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

My first foray into Existential French literature (apart from A-Level French set texts from Camus and Satres) has been thought provoking and enjoyed. Beauvoir actually wrote this collection fairly early on in her life but did not publish them until much later, when she was already accepted and well known as an author and philosopher. She herself declares in the forward the themes that she decided to cover in this work:

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…this time I should speak about the world I knew, and I should expose some of its defects. A few years before this I had discovered the harm done by the religiosity that was in the air I breathed during my childhood and early youth. Several of my friends had never broken away from it: willingly or unwillingly they had undergone the dangerous influence of that kind of spiritual life.
The book is divided into five chapters following five young women, all of whom are connected in some way. Marcelle and Marguerite are sisters (older and younger respectively) who also have a brother Pascal; their stories begin and end the book. Chantal is a newly qualified teacher, she teaches Anne, the subject of the fourth chapter, and is friends with Pascal. Lisa, the shortest and middle chapter, is at school with Marguerite and burns with unrequited love for Pascal who actually loves Anne. Both Marcelle and Marguerite fall in love with Denis who does no good whatsoever for either of them.

All of the characters are striving in some way to stand out for themselves, to burn with their own flame, to escape the fates either of being married off or the other apparent fate of being a provincial teacher of other girls compounding all the bourgeois ideas that they have been drilled in all their lives by mothers, priests and their teachers. They all wish to be intellectual, to have ‘great thoughts’ to stand up and be counted to be free of the strictures of religion and forced moral behaviour (girls shouldn’t argue, drink, go out, talk to boys, read). They all wish to find love, pure passionate love on all levels – although for the most part the idea of actual sex still disgusts and horrifies them!

My imperfect understanding of the existential movement recognised all these stories as befitting this philosophy – the struggle to escape proscribed norms and the imposed order of society and religion and to find meaning in life through ones own actions but none of them seem to find that solution, even in one case to not be capable of rising above all those traditional values at all. Chantal, the new teacher, is determined to be a free spirit, and to become some sort of idol to her pupils as an example of all of those free ideals, she wants to be liberal and thoughtful and beautiful and all sorts of splendid ideals, but when one of her girls comes to her pregnant and alone and in trouble and wanting forgiveness and help from her free-spirited teacher Chantal is revolted and horrified and immediately says she should marry the guy. No matter how much she tells herself she has transcended the traditional strictures she hates, she is still absorbed in them and unable to escape.

Marcelle feels that she can only find her true self by ‘saving’ the reprehensible Denis Cherval. The honest, open and respectful love she has in a first fiancé is thrown away in favour of this low life who has seemingly abandoned all decisions in life as meaningless, he lives for the moment and Marcelle thinks she can save him and lift him up for a life of pure creativity.
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They walked by the river most of the night. Marcelle thought of the future that lay in wait for Charval if a loving woman did not devote herself to him, and she pictured it with horror; he would waste his precious gifts – he would sink into a facile life, perhaps into vice. She alone could save him; she had never dreamed of a finer destiny than being the inspiration of a brilliant man…
Denis turns out to be a slug of the highest order, and treats Marcelle just as you would expect perfectly continuing with his facile life of vice. And, Marcelle’s younger sister Marguerite falls into his spell as well, and he treats her just as badly, although she comes out best of all the girls.

These women are drawn to the prospect of intellectual and spiritual freedom, but none of them seem capable of actually thinking about these things abstractly or of finding a balance to their lives. Denis seems to be the embodiment of freedom taken to extremes of selfishness. The religious and societal rules the girls strive to escape clearly have flaws (the book is filled with domineering mothers/principals/priests) and are every bit as selfish in their way but the opposite is also portrayed as just as bad in a way. The girls don’t seem to find any way of combining an intellectual freedom with a moral way of living their lives. I came away feeling that perhaps Beauvoir is showing only the crisis points in each of these girl’s lives. If the chapters returned a few years later perhaps they would have grown, learned from their experiences and managed to find some equilibrium. And I suppose that this is one of the crises of existentialism – without the broad societal rules, how does one find a moral guideline to follow. Can we find a moral path indeed without any guidance?

Marguerite comes out best of all at the end of the book – and Beauvoir states that Marguerite is closest to herself:
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…I was brought to try to look things straight in the face, without accepting oracles or ready-made values. I had to rediscover everything myself, and sometimes it was disconcerting – furthermore, not everything is clear even now.
She appears to have been through a phase of abandoning all in favour of this new ‘free’ life embodied by Denis, but once he treats her as poorly as he did her sister, she seems to realise that neither extreme will guide her life, but questioning all aspects equally might allow her to move forward, free.

This is probably a terribly garbled review, the book made me think a lot about how free I am, how many societal or religious rules do I follow without question in order to keep the peace, in order to just carry on? I think we have it somewhat easier now than de Beauvoir writing as women were only just gaining some measure of independence, but perhaps we simply struggle to conform to new religions or parents. If re-written now could it be titled ‘When things of the fashion industry come first’? Perhaps.

I know both JfP and Bookie have read some de Beauvoir and been pleased. I shall now join that list.
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Old 21st Jan 2007, 16:55   #2
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

Thank you for your detailed thoughts, Digger! I'm very fond of de Beauvoir's first novel, She Came to Stay -- a tense, vivid autobiographical book about jealousy, manipulation and betrayal. It recounts the intellectual and sexual ménage * trois between de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Olga Kosakiewicz, de Beauvoir's young student who threatened to come between her and Sartre. It struck me as a very honest and lucid account of feminine jealousy, without becoming histrionic or unbelievable.

I also recently read de Beauvoir's The Mandarins, which is often cited as her most famous novel. It's another roman * clef that details the years after the WWII, making fictional portraits of numerous figures in de Beauvoir's immediate circle (such as Sartre, Camus, Arthur Koestler and Nelson Algren). I remember reading that she wanted write an account of the disappointing years after the war, during which Paris struggled to rebuild itself after the occupation -- and during which intellectuals and writers struggled with questions of political action. That is the question that de Beauvoir grapples with most seriously throughout the novel: to what extent to public intellectuals have a responsibility to make political stands in a world where morality appears to be relative and personal obligations create conflict? It also tells two love stories, the first being the character of Anne's (de Beauvoir) affair with an American writer (Algren); and the second being the breakdown of Henri's (Camus) relationship with his lover, Paula.

As I said, it's a most serious novel, and one, I would say, that succeeds more often than not. For such a long book (almost 800 pages), it reads very smoothly (in my English translation, at least). It's rigorous and thoughtful, but not at the expense of the flow of the narrative. However, it occasionally lapses into strange passages of heavy-breathing melodrama which I didn't really care for. But the novel is very successful in providing a picture of the times and giving an impression of what these famous people were like. I look forward to reading more of her books.
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Old 21st Jan 2007, 17:11   #3
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

Bookie, remember what I mentioned elsewhere about the English Fontana translation I cribbed from in the early eighties when I was doing Les Mandarins at university? That it had been bowdlerized and all the sex-scenes taken out? Have they stuck them back in...?
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Old 21st Jan 2007, 20:20   #4
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

Thanks Digger, that was a great review. I enjoyed reading it a lot. It has certainly reignited my long held desire to read some of her work. Thanks : )
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Old 22nd Jan 2007, 4:05   #5
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

Digger, your review is wonderful. I skimmed it Friday and read it again thoroughly tonight. I read de Beauvoir's Second Sex about this time last year, but her ideas in that book are dated to the extent that I found most of it irrelevant. With one exception, and that's an amazing section devoted to the dangers, particularly for women, of the sort of narcissism that cripples with its worries about aging and beauty. She speaks to that conundrum as eloquently as any writer could. Thanks to your input, I'm going to take another look at her work, in particular When Things of the Spirit Come First.
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Old 22nd Jan 2007, 8:15   #6
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

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Digger, your review is wonderful. I skimmed it Friday and read it again thoroughly tonight.
Yes, it is very appetising. I shall go back to it in detail, and add When Things of the Spirit Come First/Quand prime le spirituel, which I haven't read, to my lengthening list.
Here is the link to the little bit I wrote about The Mandarins (post #7).

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I read de Beauvoir's Second Sex about this time last year, but her ideas in that book are dated to the extent that I found most of it irrelevant.
Dated, yes. But seminal. "Irrelevant" is a bit sweeping, isn't it, Beth? Surely it's irrelevant only if one considers that Jane Austen's heroines, for example, or Jane Eyre, should have gone on the pill and got out and had themselves a good time instead of fussing and fretting so much and writing endless letters to one another... Sorry to be flippant there, but Le deuxième sexe (published in 1949!!) was light-years ahead of its time, remember:

Quote:
Her single most influential work, Le deuxième sexe (1949), scored a succès de scandale in a France where women had just been granted voting rights on equal terms with men (in 1944, as a gesture of gratitude from de Gaulle for women's work in the wartime Resistance). An even bigger storm was raised by its translation and publication in the United States in 1953, at the height of the post-war drive to push working women back into marriage and motherhood. In 1956, the Holy Office placed the book on the Index.
(Jennifer Birkett and James Kearns, A Guide to French Literature/From Early Modern to Postmodern, 1997)

Last edited by John from Paris; 22nd Jan 2007 at 19:01. Reason: Forgot "on equal terms"
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Old 23rd Jan 2007, 5:40   #7
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

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Dated, yes. But seminal. "Irrelevant" is a bit sweeping, isn't it, Beth? Surely it's irrelevant only if one considers that Jane Austen's heroines, for example, or Jane Eyre, should have gone on the pill and got out and had themselves a good time instead of fussing and fretting so much and writing endless letters to one another... Sorry to be flippant there, but Le deuxième sexe (published in 1949!!) was light-years ahead of its time, remember:
Definitely seminal, JfP. You're right. And I'm enjoying your flippancy, especially when I'm getting the visual of Lizzy and Jane writing some pretty tense letters, papers flying everywhere, in lieu of going out. But, 1949! Would you say that much of what de Beauvoir identifies in The Second Sex has been changed for women today? Are western women still the Other to such great extent?
I'm wondering if the importance might have more to do with the work's historical value at this point. Perhaps I wronged it in the reading. Instead of trying to pull new things from The Second Sex, maybe I should have approached it from the perspective of a 1950s reader, trapped at home with lots of letters to write (and lots of sweeping to do). I was hoping to tap into her philosophical vein and this just didn't do it for me, though it was certainly astounding when it was published. It sounds as though her novels might work. I'm fascinated by her relationship with Sartre and would love to read their letters. Have you studied them?
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Old 23rd Jan 2007, 18:38   #8
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

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Bookie, remember what I mentioned elsewhere about the English Fontana translation I cribbed from in the early eighties when I was doing Les Mandarins at university? That it had been bowdlerized and all the sex-scenes taken out? Have they stuck them back in...?
My edition was translated by Leonard M. Friedman, and is 736 pages. As I recall, there are a few sex scenes, though none of them are in any way explicit. There's no mention in the text of the novel having been edited, so I'm assuming it's a complete version.

Also, I haven't read The Second Sex, but apparently it's a seminal feminist work. If the book is in any way dated, I suppose that speaks to the progress women's rights, no? Regardless, I'm currently fascinated by this idea of the philosopher/novelist, which seemed to flourish in the mid-twentieth century, particularly amidst the Existentialist "movement". I'm about to turn my attention to Jean-Paul Sartre's The Age of Reason (though I hear Nausea is his best novel).

I don't know if it's fair to say, but it seems to me that we won't see the likes of these kinds of writers again for a while. Especially today, the idea of a philosopher writing novels or a novelist philosophizing might be a bit precious.
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Old 24th Jan 2007, 21:29   #9
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

Quote:
Originally Posted by Beth
But, 1949! Would you say that much of what de Beauvoir identifies in The Second Sex has been changed for women today? Are western women still the Other to such great extent?
Quote:
Originally Posted by Beth
Instead of trying to pull new things from The Second Sex, maybe I should have approached it from the perspective of a 1950s reader, trapped at home [...]
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bookie
If the book is in any way dated, I suppose that speaks to the progress women's rights, no?
Beth, I'm not quite sure how to interpret your "But, 1949!"
What (I think) I meant was that, yes, women's rights have made enormous progress since the time Beauvoir was writing, as Bookie says. And that, as you say, you need to try and look at the situation from Beauvoir's own stance when she was writing it. Have you seen the film of The Hours? If so, think of the downtrodden Mrs Brown, trapped in her suburban Californian home in 1951. That's the kind of housewifely existence that Beauvoir was writing about, I think.
I think there is always a danger of finding books dated (and even irrelevant) because we read them with hindsight, and it is difficult to recreate the social context in which they were originally written. Hence my flippant reference to Jane Austen's heroines; we cannot make much sense of their situation and preoccupations if we compare them with young women today.
People today find, for example, Dickens rather quaint. But, as I've been trying to explain to my students recently, people sat down and lost themselves in reading Dickens at a time when there was no television or radio, etc. Dickens was of course incredibly modern when he was actually writing.
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Old 26th Jan 2007, 3:44   #10
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Default Re: Simone de Beauvoir: When Things of the Spirit Come First

Hi JfP I'm afraid my reference to 1949 was in a bit of surprise that the work is that old. Your mention of The Hours does well to create a reference point and the movie resonates fiercely here, especially Moore's portrayal of Mrs. Brown. I think I see what you are saying, that we can't easily dismiss ideas just because they belong to another time and may not translate fully into today's needs. If I had approached de Beauvoir differently, I might have gleaned more from The Second Sex. It very often seems that when someone offhandedly dismisses a writer as pretentious, unfathomable, or even irrelevant, more is revealed about the reader than the author or piece!
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