Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, at the Late Writers & Readers Festival,
interview by Mark Ulyseas
In Gethsemane: Transcripts of a Journey www.amazon.co.in
Some months ago when the moon played truant with the night and the shadows had taken a day off, a visitor from the twilight zone dropped in unannounced to invite me to the festival. The visitor, the director of the festival, was none other than Sylvia Plath. Her captivating melancholic demeanor was overwhelming so I had to accept the invitation.
There are no tickets or dinners or literary lunches or congregating culture vultures or for that matter book launches or book signing ceremonies. The uniqueness of this 24 x 7 festival is that every visitor can conduct a one on one with any (late) writer or poet by simply walking into a book shop and picking up one of his or her works; and then, reading it in the confines of one’s mind.
So join me dear readers on this truly enchanting journey through the labyrinth of the lexicon world of (late) authors who have often brought enlightenment to oppressed and suppressed peoples.
For all those women who had been and continue to be subject to male chauvinism through coercion and/or benign enslavement in social, religious and sexual obligations; here’s a few words of enlightenment and encouragement from eminent French philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir author of the ground breaking magnum opus The Second Sex.
Simone and her friend, longtime lover Jean-Paul Sartre, are attending the festival more as spectators than parti-cipants. Chinese whispers doing the rounds suggest that they are jointly working on a thesis to define the sexual parameters, profundities and existential dilemmas confronting asexuals and metrosexuals in the After Life.
But before I share with you the details of my tête-à-tête with Simone de Beauvoir let us take a glimpse at her life and works that gave impetus to the feminist movement and highlighted the social, religious, historical and anthro-pological aspects of women in a male dominated environment.
Simone was a French existential philosopher, who became the youngest teacher of philosophy at age 21, is the author of – The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947); The Second Sex (1949) which was/is a cult book for feminists and had been banned by the Vatican for its radical perspective of woman’s position in the world; The Coming of Age (1970); in addition to numerous short stories, novels, plays; and observations on America and China as a result of her travels to these countries.
In her teens, Simone had a crisis of faith that transformed her into an atheist. She preferred the life of an intellectual (though Sartre had proposed to her) than that of married life.
It is a known fact that she never shared her home with Sartre but remained his lifelong companion, while at the same time conducting affairs with both men and women.
I began by asking her to briefly outline her controversial book The Second Sex that arguably shattered the age old sexist and unchallenged views on women held both by men and women! This deeply insightful book continues to be the basic foundation of study in philosophy and feminism.
“Mark, my book contains two major themes. The first part delves into the “Facts & Myths” about women and in the second part I have attempted to dismantle the perceived notions that women are born feminine. When I wrote that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman I meant just this that women become feminine through the process of social ‘brainwashing and stereotyping.
Women have been relegated to being the “Other Sex” whilst man has taken on the role of Self. In simple terms, Man is the Absolute and the Woman is the “Other”.
I have paid heed to the facts including biological-scientific, psychoanalytic, materialistic, historical, literary and anthropological perspectives of women.
A woman’s experience of giving birth, lactation and menstruation are alien to man and therefore this prompts man to ‘view’ the woman as lesser of the two sexes, basically an unequal.
In the first part of the book I had explored the myth of the “Eternal Feminine” such as the myth of the mother earth, the virgin, the motherland, mother nature etc. This myth creates an unattainable image of the woman thereby ‘collaring’ her and disregarding individual circumstances and prevailing conditions of women in various societies. On one hand the mother is venerated and on the other she is reviled as the messenger of death. She is both hated and loved and this contradiction traps individual mothers in their respective situations.
In the first part of the book I had explored the myth of the “Eternal Feminine” such as the myth of the mother earth, the virgin, the motherland, mother nature etc. This myth creates an unattainable image of the woman thereby ‘collaring’ her and disregarding individual circumstances and prevailing conditions of women in various societies.
On one hand the mother is venerated and on the other she is reviled as the messenger of death. She is both hated and loved and this contradiction traps individual mothers in their respective situations.
In the second part I have researched the role of wife, mother and whore to portray how women instead of progressing through their work are forced into the humdrum daily existence of pregnancy, giving birth, looking after the home and being the vessel for the male libido.
However, I cannot surmise that all women are innocent in the subjugation. Many of them who are living in Patriarchal societies have willingly allowed themselves to be oppressed for the reason of the advantages accruing, as well as, respite from responsibility that freedom/emancipation entails and offers/brings.
My existential belief is that every individual regardless of sex, class or age must define oneself and take individual responsibility that comes with freedom of Self.
I have shown the modern woman as one who takes the reins of her life in her own hands by empowering herself through actions like working and creating on the same level as man. So instead of maligning the male sex she seeks to pronounce herself equal.
My book suggests changes in universal childcare, equal education, contraception, legal abortion and the economic freedom and the casting off of the ‘dependence’ on man.
In 1970, I launched the French Women’s Liberation Movement by signing the manifesto of the 343 for Abortion Rights. Incidentally at that time abortion was illegal in my country.
An interesting part of my life with Jean-Paul has been the assertions made by my contemporaries that my work as a philosopher was not original.
They probably based their misplaced assumptions on the fact that as we were engaged in a physical relationship ‘the other sex’ (me) was not an accomplished individual in her own right but merely an appendage to the Self i.e. Man. This only confirmed my hypothesis.
By the way, what is the position of women in this century? Has there been significant positive development since I died in 1990?” she asked.
I told her that wife beatings and burning, social imprisonment in stifling societies, female foeticide
and more are alive and well and progressing in the world. Some changes are taking place in many countries where women are now on parity with men in a few areas. Unfortunately, there still remains much work to be done in the field of education, protection and enforcement of women’s rights. The heartening development has been woman’s increasing participation in politics which has brought about a new kind of empowerment.
“Jean-Paul and I have noticed that there are quite a few single western women who have made Bali their home. Any thoughts on this subject that you can share with us?” she asked.
I suggested that they meet some of the women in question; adding that they (women) were not discards from the countries from whence they came but probably fleeing their apparent masculine culture to the safe haven of Bali’s ‘feminine environment’.
Simone nodded her head and looked at Jean-Paul who by now was listening intently to our dialogue. She told me that they had been to a delightful Kecak dance performance the previous day and were now looking forward to their weeklong sojourn in enchanting Amed (east Bali).
Prior to leaving the café, Simone wrote down something on a piece of paper, folded it and handed it to me.
After they left I opened the folded paper to read what she had written…
“If I do not actively seek to help those who are not free, I am implicated in their oppression”.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om
(Parts of this article appeared in The Bali Times)
© Mark Ulyseas