Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir, The Blood of Others

De Beauvoir’s novel of romance and resistance, set against the backdrop of an advancing German war machine, is rich with tension, moral turmoil and philosophy. On the surface, there is a love story between Jean and Helene, but beneath the richly layered text is an Existentialist argument on personal responsibility and collective guilt.

First, we must address the style of writing. The ever-shifting tense and POV is jarring and unsettling, but as the first chapter resolves, it is breathtaking. It had such a profound effect on me that I went back to the beginning and started reading it all over again.

What first felt disjointed was ultimately evocative as it established the characters, setting and emotional tone in a far more effective manner than straight narrative. (I’m not comparing these two books, but an analog would be Slaughterhouse-Five, which is all the more powerful for its disorienting jumps in time and space.)

Beneath the stylized prose is the core of Existential thought: Life does not contain inherent meaning. We do not choose to be born, nor do we choose the conditions into which we are born, yet we are, to an extent, at the mercy of these conditions—whether one is born wealthy or poor, during a time of war and plague or one of peace and prosperity.

Whatever the conditions, the only truly objective fact is that we exist. Now what?

Jean is the son of a wealthy capitalist, but as he reaches adulthood he can’t bear the burden of unearned affluence. He cuts himself off from this family and their money and takes up a trade so as to live as a member of the working class. But as his working-class pals explain to him, he will never belong to that social class because he had the luxury of choosing that life.

So what is Jean’s obligation? Should he benefit from the accident of higher birth? Or should he toil for the sake of a solidarity that he knows he’ll never achieve?

As the Nazis advance across Europe, the debates about class and organized labor shift to whether France should intervene in Austria and Poland.

While those around him argue the virtues of pacifism and nonviolence, Jean offers a counterpoint.

“I’ve learned from this war that there’s as much guilt in sparing blood as in shedding it,” he says.

He argues that while killing German soldiers and French collaborators would make them guilty of murder, they are equally guilty for the Jews being murdered due to their inaction.

This is the moral crux of the novel: Both the actions we take and those that we don’t (either by choice or ignorance) have profound consequences on others, even those we will never meet. Therefore, if it is impossible to act in a way that doesn’t harm others, what is one’s moral obligation?

De Beauvoir has essentially created an Existentialist version of the trolley problem.

Or as Rush sang, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”

Another aspect of The Blood of Others that I really appreciate is that it provides a different perspective of WWII. Western culture clings tight to this time period because we see it as the last era of moral absolutism—the last time there was a righteous, uncontested war.

At least that’s how we choose to remember it.

While in hindsight, yes, WWII was a righteous cause, but choosing how to engage with Germany in advance was far more complicated than we think of it today. De Beauvoir shows us a different perspective of Paris both before and during the Occupation, when a western society that valued peace and nonviolence was forced to contend with fascism.

“What could we do if, by living up to the values in which we believed, we brought about their defeat? Were we to become slaves to remain free, or kill to keep our hands clean? Must we lose our freedom because we refused slavery, and sully ourselves with a thousand crimes because we would not kill? I no longer knew.”

The Blood of Others also transcends its era. Though set during WWII, it conveys an important message to our current times. Generally speaking, the west has spent the past 75 years basking in the glory of WWII, and has enjoyed the luxury of moral certitude.

But recently, fascism has taken hold in the west, just as Camus warned us it would at the end of The Plague. In describing how the west was at a crossroads, de Beauvoir could very well be speaking to the U.S. and England during the run-up to the 2016 elections:

“Is it possible to stop a country from committing suicide?”

While de Beauvoir masterfully represents the various arguments for and against France’s entry into the war, she is ultimately an Existentialist. We exist. Now what? The triumvirate of de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre agreed that the only way for meaning to exist is by imposing it onto an absurd, meaningless reality. If there is as much guilt in sparing blood as in shedding it, Jean decides that it is better to accept that burden after acting on one’s conscience.

“You have not given me peace; but why should I desire peace? You have given me the courage to accept forever the risk and the anguish, to bear my crimes and my guilt, which will rend me eternally. There is no other way.”

Such is the nature of the absurd.

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 1)

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, but our most interesting cultural stop was at the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits, along Boulevard Saint-Germaine. Something was off from the moment we stepped inside. The entrance ramp was just a rickety plank of plywood set at an incline. Instead of the reverent whispers of the typical museum lobby, there was chatter and the rumble of movers and workmen.

Were they even open?

My girlfriend — fluent in français — was chatting with the woman behind the front desk. I had no idea what they were saying, but deduced that it wasn’t good news. Then the clerk uttered two words I understood: Bernie Madoff.

Sacré bleu!

Turns out the owner of the museum was on the run for defrauding investors and had to close down. (Madoff wasn’t actually involved, but turns out to be an international synonym for “con man.”)

This led me to revise the opening sentence of this essay:

No trip to Paris is complete without stumbling upon an international art scandal!

Mostly, this was better than the museum being open. Instead of exhibits, we got an experience. Still, I regret not 120 Daysseeing the one piece that had led me to the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits in the first place: the patchwork scroll on which the Marquis de Sade had penned his notorious masterpiece, Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, from within the walls of the Bastille.

Until recently, I’d never given much thought to 120 Days. It was one of those books that remains a cultural point of reference, and as a classic of transgressive fiction, I knew it was something I should peruse someday. But, well, it didn’t really strike me as a must-read.

Certainly, nothing penned in the 1700s could still be shocking today.

Then two years ago I read Georges Bataille’s essay on de Sade in Literature and Evil. Then I watched the film translation, Salò, which, despite its reputation, is like a PG-13 version of the book. This is not because Salò is tame (it is one of the most troubling films ever made), but because 120 Days is so beyond anything that could be recreated on screen.

So where to begin when discussing this notorious tome?

Bataille may have said it best, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome without feeling sick.”

This, from the author of The Story of the Eye (which, if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP). The Story of the Eye is an absurd tale of ovular fixation, blasphemy and transgressive eroticism. In it, the narrator and his teenage lover embark on a journey of extreme sexual awakenings. There are blood orgies, spree murders, gratuitous body fluids and a gleeful desecration of the eucharist.

But in both content and exhaustiveness, it’s a viral kitten video compared to de Sade.

Bataille is right. There are some brutally sickening moments in 120 Days. I recoiled more than a few times, and Salomight have even thrown up in my mouth a little. This is not good reading before dinner, as the book’s “heroes” have an insatiable taste for excrement.

However, though it can be thoroughly unsettling at times, for the most part my response was laughter while reading 120 Days. I was enthralled with the prose, appalled by the brutality and intellectually challenged by the philosophy, yet laughing out loud throughout. What other response is there to a purported sexual fantasy of screwing a goat via the nostrils in order that its tongue can work the undercarriage?

You have to laugh, because you just can’t take an anecdote like that at face value. It is these moments that temper the more gruesome scenes. The outrageousness of it creates a buffer for the reader. It’s like that groan-moment in a horror film when the monster is finally revealed in all its plastic-prop foolishness.

In her essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir offers a more sophisticated analysis: “Not only does he tell tall stories, but most of the time he tells them badly.”

Agreed. Does de Sade really expect us to suspend disbelief when a local aristocrat pays a hooker to be dipped in shit so he can lick her clean, head to toe? I was much more disturbed by transgressive classics like Lolita and Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, both of which employ a rational tone that is far more upsetting than the description of their exploits.

But let’s return to de Sade.

What about 120 Days’ plot and characters? It was surprising to me that, despite the book being a cultural touchstone, despite the author having an entire genre of sex and a commonly used adjective named for him, I had no idea what 120 Days was actually about.

Consider it the Winter of Disquiet. In a remote castle, a quartet of wealthy, powerful men indulge their darkest Libertine desires. To assist them are four experienced prostitutes/brothel madames, a handful of servants, hired studs (selected for their endowment) and a harem of kidnapped children, elderly women and the Libertine’s own daughters.

It does not end well for most of them.

Each day, one of the prostitutes tells five tales of her most interesting clients, in ascending levels of depravity.Eroticism Afterward, the Libertines act out the stories on their captives, each page more horrifying than the last. Think you’ve got a dirty mind because you read 50 Shades of Grey? Please. 120 Days makes 50 Shades look like a Disney picture book.

By the way, what’s with all the numbers? De Sade was methodical in outlining the book, and the numbers are very important here. The 120 days are divided into four 30-day sections, each showcasing one of the prostitute story-tellers. They tell 150 stories apiece, so altogether there are 600 sexual acts performed in the book. However, only the first 30 days were actually drafted (the tales of Madame Duclos). The unfinished manuscript was lost when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. (While the remaining 90 days and 450 sex acts were never fleshed out in narrative, de Sade meticulously outlined the entire book, so each of the sex acts, as well as the full plotline and character arcs, are described.)

Supposedly, de Sade’s obsession with numbers played out in his real-world rendezvous as much as in his fiction, and, according to Bataille, “His own stories are also full of measurements.” In a story told by one of the many prostitutes he frequented, he savored the lashings of the whip, but hurried to record how many blows he had received when it was finished.

De Beauvoir weighed in on this anecdote: “What was peculiar in his case was the tension of a will bent on fulfilling the flesh without losing itself in it.

“He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature,” she adds, “he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.”

Despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

We’ll address that in the next installment.

Littérature Francaise: The Second Sex

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

In anticipation of visiting Paris, I wanted to bone up on my French philosophy. I’d devoured Camus and Sartre, but The Second Sexwas light on the third member of the Le Deux Magots triumvirate, Simone de Beauvoir. So en route to Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, I read volume I of her seminal 1949 book, The Second Sex.

It was intended to be a pleasure read, not a book to review, but then Vanity Fair published a cover photo of Caitlyn Jenner. This opened an interesting and unexpected dialogue about gender identification. If you stick to legitimate outlets, the discussion has been civil, informative and worthwhile. The New York Times, in particular, has provided engaging commentary.

I bring this up because, well, de Beauvoir was writing about gender identity nearly seventy years ago and her words remain relevant. Remarkable, really, when you consider that she wrote the first volume prior to the civil rights movement.

Disclaimer: This column is mostly a review of the book, not a commentary on Jenner, the cisgendered and transgendered communities, or the definition of a “woman.” Of course I have my opinions. I’ve had many transgendered friends, co-workers and clients, and personally, I’ll refer to you by whatever pronoun you’d like and recognize you as whatever gender you identify with.

But I believe the role of cisgendered, heterosexual men in this discussion is to listen and learn from it. The only edict I’ll deliver is that we all could benefit from reading de Beauvoir. Especially now.

In the first part of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argues that mere physiology is not enough to define gender. One of the lines that most stuck out for me was, “It is not nature that defines woman; it is she who defines herself by dealing with nature on her own account in her emotional life.”

Remember, this was more than half a century before cisgendered entered the layman’s lexicon.Cafe de Flore

De Beauvoir emphasizes that environment plays a profound role in gender development. Environment includes everything from external forces (de Beauvoir considers the role of psychology, religion and myth in identifying women as an “Other”) to internal feelings and expression.

“…it is not the body-object described by biologists that actually exists, but the body as lived by the subject. Woman is a female to the extent that she feels herself as such. There are biologically essential features that are not a part of her real, experienced situation…”

The breadth of The Second Sex is astounding. De Beauvoir surveys the fields of biology, psychology, literature and religion with a thoroughness that is impressive as much as it is purposeful. She’s not lecturing as she is constantly working through her thesis in excruciating detail. De Beauvoir isn’t discussing single-cell reproduction for the hell of it. She is constructing a logical stronghold that still stands.

Yes, it can be tedious at times, but her argument was meant to transcend its time, as it has. It’s worth the struggle.

Of course, existentialist thought permeates the book, but it plays different than that of Camus and Sartre. Whereas Le Deux Magotsthose guys, awesome though they were, often deal with abstracts and ideals, de Beauvoir is working at more of a gut level. She is fighting for privileges her two comrades take for granted.

While the continued relevance of The Second Sex speaks to the brilliance and vision of de Beauvoir, it’s also an unfortunate reality. It would be preferable if this book felt more dated, but as most commentaries on Jenner reference The Second Sex, I think we have not come as far as we should have.

But the fact that we’re having this conversation is progress, and we owe a great debt to de Beauvoir’s contributions. It’s best, I think, to let her have the final word on this topic and leave it at that:

“…it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.”