Simone De Beauvoir: The Author of “The Second Sex”

Spurred on by my interest in Mary Wollstonecraft, I felt it would be prudent to look into Simone De Beauvoir; not only was she a prominent feminist writer, but also an influential critic of her period. The introduction to The Second Sex was especially enlightening, and I particularly enjoyed the piece, particularly when it is compared alongside Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Again, I used the Radio Four resource to take some extra notes and hear real experts on the subject speaking, and below are my notes on the program.

With thanks to http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b010dp15

Simone De Beauvoir (1)

Simone De Beauvoir became a poster girl for feminism, and was a strong disciple and lover of Jean Paul Sartre. The two had a very close academic relationship and within their intellectual conversation, there was a coupling which was very important to her. She strongly believed that he was the greatest philosopher of the age. Their relationship was very transparent and sometimes loyalties crossed over, and threatened to rock the boat; their emotional affairs however sometimes left gaps in the relationships and led to illness.

The two however were very much celebrities, and were part of existential philosophy, and what can be made now and of the future. They were the spokespeople of the young, and the next generation backs. Simone’s life however was very special; her parents were alarmed by her high intellectualism. Simone realised around the age of thirteen that God did not exist; she was dutiful of course, however when she became a student, departed and moved on. She was a very passionate woman; the loss of God to her and the admiration of her father was very important, and she felt things very deeply. She attempted to provide her relationship with Sartre with reason; this attempt on rationality is extremely difficult, but in a strange way becomes more emotional, and forms more rage; it replicates what went on in her childhood (her father was also a philanderer). The transparency made their relationship both weaker and stronger and formed the part of an experimental love, in the same way as she formed experimental ideas.

Women in particular have always been extremely susceptible to men of intellect and theory; De Beauvoir was no exception. She was an intellectual woman and therefore fell in love with Sartre’s mind. She however had a huge impact on Sartre and often edited, and contributed, to his writing. She stated that the success of her life had been her relationship with Sartre.

There had been very little examination of femininity and what it really meant to be a woman previously; The Second Sex was an often overlooked text of the Feminist movement and is often perceived by some academics as being old-fashioned and based on patriarchy; this is however what she knew. The text was however (later) revelatory in feminist ideology.

De Beauvoir’s life often seems to be lacking in ‘fun’. She seems to have an academic life, however a lack of social prominence, but had a tremendous capacity for fun, sitting in society and the exchange on information. She was patient throughout her life. She used her experiences to influence her writings throughout her life; she was published relatively late however she had many writings based around her earlier life. She was often found to engage in a threesome, (consider Olga). She also felt that sexual exploration was a fundamental part of growing up; the exploration of life forms. She also enjoyed the student-teacher relationship.

When Sartre returned from military service he began taking more drugs and began to hallucinate about crustaceans. When Beauvoir was moving towards wooing Olga, the crustaceans began to disappear; despite this apparently positive effect, it is possible however to consider that she never actually wanted a ménage a trois with Sartre, and that it came at great emotional cost to her. She felt destroyed by Sartre; lonely and worried at being abandoned and having failed in relationships, and being scared of death. Simone De Beauvoir’s humour was extremely dry, however her life was probably full of fun and happiness.

When she arrived in Canada in the 1950’s, the Catholic church had censored much of what she said, because of the sheer force of its impact. Nelson Algren and Beauvoir had an extremely passionate love affair, and even referred to each other as little husband, and little wife.  She wore his rings, up until her death. They had a very on and off again affair. Sartre was demanding, and due to this, Nelson Algren and Beauvoir had a gargantuan row, ending their affair temporarily. However they tried to be friends and Algren tried to understand the menage a trois. This was an experiment in how to have an open relationship more honestly.

Beauvoir was always anti establishment; she argued that the church and society were against women, and that men wanted to feel superior to these people. It is a hatred for women. This apparently was not found in Anglo-Saxon cultures. She felt however that the title “feminism” was a reductive title and would have defined her in relation to a man; she wanted to be defined as a human and as a humanist, as opposed to simply the opposite of man. Existentialism however was very much a theory of its time, and is less applicable to the modern age. The exploration of gender issues has moved on however Simone De Beauvoir is still very much the bedrock of gender and feminist studies.

“Women still form a repressed group, and have very little advantage compared to those in capitalism.”

This particular discussion was not only enlightening about her work, but also about her life. I will certainly be pursuing the career of De Beauvoir much further, especially considering her work in relation to her relationships.

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With thanks to Radio Four for the content of these notes.

(1) http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/de-beauvoir-simone.jpg

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Mary Wollstonecraft: The First Feminist Writer

This week, I began studying feminism as part of my course at university. Therefore I decided that some research into feminist writers would be a good place to start, and because of my recent love affair with In Our Time, decided that these programs would be particularly useful. Therefore I treated them as lectures, taking notes as I listened. It was thoroughly enjoyable experience!

Courtesy of http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00pg5dr.

By the time of writing, the Vindication of the Rights of Woman represents a very sophisticated level of her abilities. It is not however a straightforward proposal for women’s rights, especially in terms of property and politics, however they are implicit in that if women were re-educated and society reshaped, then these rights would become a part of the ‘new woman’. She writes primarily about middle class women. Women tended to accept the ascribed social position; Wollstonecraft tries to think her way out of this, to find a way that a woman can perform a civic role in society and be more educated.

As the political climate changed, the book’s understanding changed. Much of the book however was not ‘anti-man’. Women are actually attacked; they are put in gilded cages, and value beauty over intellectualism, and Wollstonecraft believes that these women should refrain from modelling their aspirations on flimsy novels and instead, embrace their minds.

Wollstonecraft often struggled with her own sexuality and sensuality. She believed that there was a right and wrong kind of femininity; women should be human first, and feminine afterwards. The power that comes from beauty is a false kind of power and should only really be used within the context of a relationship; not within the public arena. She perceived love as an obstacle for rational thinking. Wollstonecraft was probably a virgin at the time of writing of the vindication.

There is however a very powerful theme of love in the book; the love of God. Sexual passion in any relationship should not last long; friendship is the basis of a long-term and successful relationship. When Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris, the revolution was in full swing, and she places herself in a perilous position by writing an early history of the revolution. The Vindication does not dwell on political rights of women, however Wollstonecraft does attack political rights in her piece on the French revolution, and so she can be viewed as a political activist in a certain sense. Eventually however she became alienated by the ideology of the revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft theorised motherhood as a fundamental element of the role of women. Godwin reveals much about Wollstonecraft after her death, detailing everything from her suicide attempts to her illegitimate child; people were alienated by this revelation. Her unfinished book also was far more radical than her previous works, and alienated her erstwhile followers. She became more important in the post Woolf era, becoming a foundational figure in the underground feminist movement, and was influenced by her husband in terms of his left-wing communist beliefs; this certainly would have broadened her mind politically.

Thank you to Radio Four for the programme and all its associated content.

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Humanism as the Ideology Behind Nazism

Cicero: The Founder of Humanism (1)

The Radio Four program, In Our Time, explores the key ideas of our century and of our existence; it is also a fantastic resource for students, because it covers topics from Philosophy to Shakespeare, and being an English student with an interest in Philosophy, consider it to be one of the corner stones of research. Today, I was preparing for an essay with a grounding in humanism and oppression, and so turned to the website and found http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00547bk. The program, including the writer of one of the most important humanism texts, Tony Davies, went on to completely change my perception of humanism. It covered the complete history of the ideology from the founder, Cicero, to the somewhat convoluted version we have today.

Humanism is essentially the study of the self, and of human behaviour, and sought to change religious external ceremony from being entirely focussed on a higher authority to focussed on reflection and the understanding of the internal self. Cicero, who was a Roman politician, philosopher and academic in his own right, translated Roman texts alongside the Greek ideologies, and produced a less rigid, dogmatic approach to literature. He sought to produce a model of education that was complete and rounded, and focussed on the study of the self in relation to everyone else. He focussed on the study of poetry, philosophy and even gymnastics. He therefore created the Ciceronian tradition; however this wasn’t an easy, because as a part of this, he had to redefine terms such as “humanitas” to mean something pragmatic, that the Roman psyche could understand. Nevertheless, he managed to associate this new ‘humanist’ approach with a political basis, and thus formed the basis of Renaissance humanism. His published letters regarding the subject created the ‘public’ approach the classical education that he sought; and therefore brought the new style into a public arena.

The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters in the fourteenth or fifteenth century can be considered the motor of the Renaissance movement across Europe. The movement was composed of teachers who declared they were in support of the Ciceronian education. They alluded that this would lead to a more sophisticated man and a thoughtful individual, who can obey and support the political system promoted. Italian humanism was increasingly mystical and allegorical. In Northern Europe however it takes on a more Roman character, and the development of an active civic humanism. It produced a sense of belonging to a nation and to humanity as a whole, which was particularly important in the early age of empire.

Our human need to constantly reinvent tradition and investigate our genealogy led to the German fascination with Ancient Greek society; they constructed their own narrative, their own history, and their own education in line with the Ancient Greek tradition. Preserving the integrity of the person and self-reflection led to the perception of humanism among German academics as being very much about preserving the perfect world. However, at some point in the 19th and 20th century, this became far less focussed on the preservation of yourself as opposed to the preservation of humanity as a whole, and in the case of Germany and Nazism, in preserving the ‘perfect’ race.

At this juncture we can suggest that there would have been two approaches here; either to go back, and examine each person, reinforcing a philosophical, Ciceronian education so that they can react from an intellectual viewpoint to culture and influence, thus creating an intellectually sound race, or to eliminate those who they thought would threaten the ‘purity’ of such a nation. And at this point, Nazism became a dominant political ideology and felt that the destruction of perceived threats would be the most efficient way to preserve the nationalistic narrative that they had created for themselves.

It is possible to suggest then, that Humanism was corrupted by genocide in the 20th century. However now, after de-nazification, and the general rejection of Nazism as a viable political system, we can take the idea of humanism back to its roots, simultaneously confronting the tainted history it now carries (or that we can allude to it carrying) and return to the idea of the individual, a philosophical education, and perhaps most importantly of all, the independence of the mind. It is this that is perhaps the most defining feature of “pure” humanism which differs radically from that of Nazism; that humanism promotes independence of the mind. It is however this independence that leads to the politicizing of any educational ideology; it is inevitably linked to power structures because through education comes the new leaders, and therefore education cannot ever be mutually exclusive to politics.

I think I shall be spending much more time listening to radio four instead of Ed Sheeran, because I seem to like to absorb strange thoughts such as this. With thanks to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00547bk.

If anyone is wondering what to do on the long winter evenings, try listening to In Our Time on BBC Radio Four; there’s a topic I think for everyone (there’s literally hundreds!)

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(1) http://www.philosophybasics.com/photos/cicero.jpg

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