"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, June 14, 2019

From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir: On the Side of Happiness

Re-creation of Simoine de Beauvoir's Study
Spring 2017 Installation at the
The National Museum for Women in the Arts

Last month, I counted myself fortunate to see the writing desk of Ernest Hemingway, in Havana. Every nook and cranny of his Cuban villa remains much as he left it in 1960 -- or has been staged to re-create the mood of the prolific writer's life. Gazing at his wall - to - wall - floor - to - ceiling book collection and his desks and tables covered with books, pipes, pens and papers, reminded me (not that I had actually forgotten) that a couple of years ago I was also lucky enough to see the re-imagined writing desk of Simone de Beauvoir, another prolific 20th Century writer and reader.

You might recall that when asked "Do you suffer when you write?" Hemingway replied, Not at all, only when I don't write, but I "never feel as good as while writing." Similarly, one of de Beauvoir's short story narrators describes her plans to "do a little work during the holidays," despite the shortage of time: "It is not a matter of energy . . . I just could not live without writing. . . . When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values, and it is impossible for me to examine this conviction with an objective eye" (22, "The Age of Discretion" in The Woman Destroyed, 1967).

As Jane Smiley says in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel: “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book." I suppose that could mean almost any book, but what a specific comfort, indeed, to see this old familiar copy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women on the de Beauvoir's desktop (below). Apparently, as a girl, young Simone loved Little Women -- especially Jo, the writer! -- as much as I did. In another of Alcott's girlhood novels, An Old-Fashioned Girl, Polly earnestly explains that "Help one another is part of the religion of our sisterhood" -- a mandate carried out in the written work of both Alcott and de Beauvoir.

In The Second Sex (1949), de Beauvoir's comprehensive classic, she discusses "the treatment of women throughout history," a variety of gender roles designated fairly or not by nature, society, literature, politics; the basics of female sexuality; and the development of women through every phase of the human life cycle. She writes poignantly of a young woman's struggle to form a creative identity for herself:
“When she does not find love, she may find poetry. Because she does not act, she observes, she feels, she records; a color, a smile awakens profound echoes within her; her destiny is outside her, scattered in cities already built, on the faces of men already marked by life, she makes contact, she relishes with passion and yet in a manner more detached, more free, than that of a young man. Being poorly integrated in the universe of humanity and hardly able to adapt herself therein, she, like the child, is able to see it objectively; instead of being interested solely in her grasp on things, she looks for their significance; she catches their special outlines, their unexpected metamorphoses. She rarely feels a bold creativeness, and usually she lacks the technique of self-expression; but in her conversation, her letters, her literary essays, her sketches, she manifests an original sensitivity. The young girl throws herself into things with ardor, because she is not yet deprived of her transcendence; and the fact that she accomplishes nothing, that she is nothing, will make her impulses only the more passionate. Empty and unlimited, she seeks from within her nothingness to attain All” (374).

― from The Second Sex
Volume 2: "Lived Experience"
Part 1: "Formative Years"
Chapter 2: "The Girl"
If you don't have time right now to read the entire 800 pages of de Beauvoir's feminist history, philosophy, and psychology, you can start with the handy Extracts, barely 100 pages, light enough to carry anywhere, perfect for airplane reading. Look closely (both here & above), and you'll glimpse a copy in the bottom desk drawer:

Simone de Beauvoir's own eloquent,
inspiring description of her life's work:
. . . But at least I helped the women of my time and generation to become aware of themselves and their situation.

Many of them, of course, disapproved of my book; I disturbed them or opposed them or exasperated them or frightened them. But there were others to whom I did some service, as I know from numberless testimonies to the fact, especially from the letters that I am still receiving and answering after twelve years. These women have found help in my work in their fight against images of themselves which revolted them, against myths by which they felt themselves crushed; they came to realize that their difficulties reflected not a disgrace peculiar to them, but a general condition. This discovery helped them to avoid the mistake of self-contempt, and many of them found in the book the strength to fight against that condition. Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it. Psychiatrists have told me that they give The Second Sex to their women patients to read, and not merely to intellectual women but to lower-middle-class women, to office workers and women working in factories. "Your book was a great help to me. Your book saved me," are the words I have read in letters from women of all ages and all walks of life.

If my book has helped women, it is because it expressed them, and they in their turn gave it its truth. Thanks to them, it is no longer a matter for scandal and concern. During these last ten years the myths that men created have crumbled, and many women writers have gone beyond me and have been far more daring than I. Too many of them for my taste take sexuality as their only theme; but at least when they write about it they now present themselves as the eye-that-looks, as subject, consciousness, freedom.

I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with feminine problems, and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, lacerated, in a world made to put them at a disadvantage, for women there are far more victories to be won, more prizes to be gained, more defeats to he suffered than there are for men. I have an interest in them; and I prefer having taken a limited but real hold upon the world through them to drifting in the universal.

Yes, this she has done.
Thank you Simone de Beauvoir!

― From Force of Circumstances:The Autobiography
of Simone de Beauvoir [1908 - 1986], Vol. III
Sometimes published in two parts:
After the War: 1944-1952 & Hard Times: 1952-1962

― See also
Vol. I ― Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958)
Vol. II ― The Prime of Life (1960)
Vol. IV ― All Said And Done (1972)
All translated by Richard Howard
An Overview: “From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir”

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, June 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

No comments:

Post a Comment