Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Prime of Life IV

In 1938 both de Beauvoir and Sartre obtained new teaching positions in Paris. They continued to live separately while seeing each other frequently. That year Sartre published his first novel, Nausea, which met with critical and commercial success. De Beauvoir worked on She Came to Stay, which was not published until 1943. By 1939 the imminent war affected everyone in Paris, and de Beauvoir describes her daily life in some detail. I had thought that she must have been drawing from her diaries to write her memoirs up to that point, but apparently she did not keep a diary before then. The diary entries that she reproduces are slightly condensed compared to the preceding text but are otherwise little different. Now, three quarters of the way through the book, I am becoming overwhelmed by minutia that doesn't interest me much. To be sure, World War II was an important event and still has major repercussions over seventy years in its aftermath, and de Beauvoir's chronicles might be useful to a historian of the period, but that isn't why I chose to read this book and I am increasingly finding it boring. I am looking forward to finishing it and moving on to something else.

De Beauvoir's limitations as a writer and thinker are beginning to weigh on me in a manner that makes it difficult for me to continue reading this book and accept her at face value. I will soon finish reading it and make a final comment. My problem as a reader is that she does not provide enough breadth of perspective to leave me feeling that her portrayals are sufficiently accurate. I had somewhat the same feeling while I was reading The Mandarins, but in that book any deficiencies were made up for by some of the dialogue between the characters. Such dialogue is not present in The Prime of Life, leaving it, for me anyway, somewhat empty. The earlier Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter was also more readable, but in that case it was because it contained a sharper focus and the emotional energy was less opaque. In The Mandarins and the present book, Sartre is an important figure, but I don't see why he is important beyond the fact that de Beauvoir has assigned him that position.

None of my reading of de Beauvoir so far has included much philosophy, and the writing has essentially all been autobiographical. However, in the background of this writing is a credo that she adopted at an early age and mentions now and again. I am finding myself in philosophical disagreement with her, but because she evades the explicit statement of her views in favor of a literary approach I am left with a gnawing feeling that makes her writing seem avoidant. The impression I have is that both she and Sartre are extreme Cartesian dualists, which in their case prompts them to see themselves as free beings who happen to inhabit their particular bodies. She seems to think along the lines that she has a duty to be free from the social pressures associated with the fact that she happens to inhabit a female body. This is a significantly different view from standard American feminism, which focuses more on equal rights and can ultimately be resolved by legal means. For me, Cartesian dualism is conceptually incorrect: you are your body, and therefore both Sartre and de Beauvoir look like fools to me. This foolishness then becomes exacerbated by their insistence on spending their entire lives in Paris with the same closed circle of friends, which is a perfect way to form and maintain a delusional bubble.

Sartre and de Beauvoir are starting to look like naïve college students who never grew up. Specifically, they thought that they could read anything, master it and then write brilliantly on the subject. I first noticed this in The Mandarins. De Beauvoir thought she understood America very well because she had read a lot of American fiction, seen a lot of American films and listened to a lot of American music. In The Mandarins you can instantly recognize as a reader that there is a deep cultural incompatibility between Louis Brogan (Nelson Algren) and Anne Dubreuilh (de Beauvoir), but I am not at all sure that the author recognizes it as such. De Beauvoir strikes me as anthropologically and sociologically obtuse, perhaps because she came to these subjects via trendy, obsolete structuralism, and post-structuralism doesn't seem to me to have been an improvement. In retrospect, the intellectual movements that emanated from France during de Beauvoir's life, including existentialism, seem like fads to me. She did study psychology and seems handier there, but at that time the field was still under Freud's influence and it had not yet become a true science. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre seem to view science as having no bearing on their work, and I think this is a critical mistake which will relegate them to the status of minor historical figures rather than major thinkers of the period. De Beauvoir would have been an interesting person to know, but she is dead and I am beginning to think that all that is left is a flawed legacy.

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