Monday, January 23, 2006

Beauvoir's Positive Side

Simone de Beauvoir has received a great deal of criticism over the years -- some of it quite justified -- for being excessively negative about the status of women: a great many people who have read The Second Sex have come away with the impression, easy to get, that her argument really implies, despite her occasional contrary statements, that women are doomed, and will never cease to be oppressed, because every liberatory move they could possibly make is tainted by prior definitions of Self and Other. But Beauvoir has a positive side that shows up here and there, and that, had she developed it a bit more, would give a very different picture. Some notable passages:

An authentic love should assume the contingence of the other; that is to say, his lacks, his limitations, and his basic gratuitousness. It would not pretend to be a mode of salvation, but a human interrelation. Idolatrous love attributes an absolute value to the loved one, a first falsity that is brilliantly apparent to all outsiders. (ch. xxiii)

Genuine love ought to be founded on mutual recognition of two liberties; the lovers would them experience themselves as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated; together they would manifest values and aims in the world. For the one and the other, love would be revelation of self by the gift of self and enrichment of the world. (ch. xxiii)

[Discussing transcendence in the case of men] It is possible to rise above this conflict if each individual freely recognizes the other, each regarding himself and the other simultaneously as object and as subject in a reciprocal manner. But friendship and generosity, which alone permit in actuality this recognition of free beings, are not facile virtues; they are assuredly man's highest achievement, and through that achievement he is to be found in his true nature. But this true nature is that of a struggle unceasingly begun, unceasingly abolished; it requires a man to outdo himself at every moment. (ch. ix)

See also the passage I quoted in a previous post from the conclusion of the book. Passages like these, although fragmentary and scattered, give us hints of a very attractive path to liberation: friendship and generosity, honesty and mutual recognition, between men and women but (just as importantly, since the last passage is primarily discussing interactions among men alone) between women. This is a side of Beauvoir's feminism, however rarely glimpsed in The Second Sex, that needs to be more widely recognized.

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