Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Mandarins IV

I hope I don't end up boring you by spending too much time on a book that you probably haven't read, but I prefer to proceed slowly. The novel is definitely worth reading, and there is much for me to mull over in it, because de Beauvoir certainly does open a window to the intellectuals of her milieu.

As far as I've read – I'm only halfway through – the male characters are still not very compelling. They seem like automatons running on obscure programs that don't necessarily make much sense. Some are obsessed with punishing Nazi sympathizers and some are obsessed with ensuring that the political future of France turns out precisely the way they envision it. The theoretical basis for most of their thinking looks shaky to me. Although Marxism was popular in Europe at the time, I think much of it looks obsolete now. In a post-industrial society, the purported schism between the so-called bourgeoisie and the so-called proletariat seems contrived. The U.S. today looks more like one class, the bourgeoisie, which could be subdivided into the 1% and the 99%. The 1% are the winners and the 99% are the losers, as Donald Trump might say. Leona Helmsley liked to refer to the 99% as "the little people." In American thinking, just about everyone wants an opulent lifestyle, and it is hard to make out any real cultural distinction between your local plumber and a billionaire; both of them want a big house and prefer pizza to gourmet food. It is easy to imagine hiring someone like Donald Trump to install a new boiler in your house, because class distinctions here are minuscule compared to those in Europe.

Henri (Camus) is still looking better than most of the men. In his work, he seems to place a lot of emphasis on honesty and integrity, and, more than the others, he seems like a pure artist in need of self-expression. However, he is hell on women, and for that matter he might just as well have been a Houellebecq character. After a ten-year relationship with Paula, he's ready to dump her. To be fair, she is partly to blame. She has dreamed up a ridiculous fantasy about their undying love for each other just as he has started to see her as intrusive and out of touch with his feelings. To make matters worse, he has agreed to take on a beautiful young actress, Josette, as the lead character in his new play in order for her mother to guarantee its production. Henri immediately falls in love with Josette, who is 26, making poor Paula an undesirable old hag at 36. To be sure, Henri would rather not hurt Paula, but to his way of thinking he has a duty to pursue his personal freedom and does not feel bound to her.

I had hoped that this group of intellectuals would come out looking better than the ones I'm familiar with in the U.S. Unfortunately they don't. The only difference I can see is that, as public intellectuals, they are far more engaged with the population than American public intellectuals are now. They write articles that are read by thousands of factory workers, unlike, say, an article in the NYRB, which might be read by fifty retired college professors and quickly forgotten. It is also disappointing to me that in both cases the majority of the intellectuals are mere journalists. They are simply well-read people who write for a living, and the absence of interest in science and technical subjects is conspicuous. I don't think the writings of either group will have much long-term significance. As thinkers, these kinds of intellectuals seem to me to be of limited value, and if they are remembered at all in a few hundred years it will be only for their literary productions.

I am beginning to see similarities between Simone de Beauvoir and George Eliot. As a child, de Beauvoir was inspired by The Mill on the Floss, and she seems to have made a conscious effort to place herself at the center of the intellectual currents of her time, like George Eliot. During her life, George Eliot was overshadowed by the fame of her one-time boyfriend, Herbert Spencer. Spencer is now considered a minor thinker and is associated with the discredited concept of Social Darwinism, while George Eliot's prominence as a major novelist hasn't faded much. Perhaps a similar pattern will emerge leaving Simone de Beauvoir as a greater cultural and intellectual influence than Jean-Paul Sartre. For example, besides her fiction, de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was a seminal text of the women's movement, whereas I doubt many people have ever bothered to read Sartre's Being and Nothingness.

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