Posted: March 28, 2011
A review of The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.
n 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, then 41 years old, created a sensation in Paris with her book The Second Sex. Women, she argued, are half the human race but in all places and times have been accorded second-class status. The culture of femininity, including the role of wife and mother, was invented by men for the purpose of oppressing women. "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," she declared. To the amazement of its publisher, this nearly thousand-page, densely written, idiosyncratic tome sold 20,000 copies its first week. Thinking it was a "modern-day sex manual, something between Kinsey and Havelock Ellis," the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house quickly commissioned a translation. The English edition, translated by the retired Smith College professor H.M. Parshley, appeared in 1953 and flew onto bestseller lists.
Critics were not sure what to make of it. "An encyclopedic work on ‘the situation of women' dedicated to the proposition ‘...and he done her wrong,'" said the Atlantic Monthly. Partisan Review's William Phillips quipped that it was "[a] compendious highbrow lowdown on women." Karl Menninger pronounced the tome "tiresome" and "pretentious." Though she agreed with its central thesis, "that society has wasted women's individual gifts," the sociologist Margaret Mead thought the book violated "every canon of science and disinterested scholarship in its partisan selectivity." Brendan Gill at the New Yorker was one of the few early reviewers who saw magic: "What we are faced with is more than a work of scholarship; it is a work of art, with the salt of recklessness that makes art sting...[for] this is her poem—her sometimes blundering ‘Leaves of Grass.'" After a brief celebrity, the book all but vanished.
For the next 20 years it was kept alive by a small group of dedicated readers. Women like Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, and Kate Millet were electrified by its message: "I read de Beauvoir in 1961 and was never the same," recalls feminist writer Susan Griffin. Throughout the '60s and '70s it fell into the hands of thousands of middle-class women—graduate students, political activists, housewives—who resonated with her message that women were "the Other." I recall reading it in college in 1973 and being enthralled by both the author and her message. Today, it is widely considered to be the founding text of the modern women's movement, and it's often called a masterpiece, a work of genius, and according to Catriona Crowe, former president of the Women's History Association of Ireland, "probably the most important and influential philosophical treatise of the twentieth century."
But to the disappointment of its most ardent disciples, Beauvoir's treatise was never given its due by academic philosophers, and by the 1990s it was rarely read by anyone outside the small world of women's studies. Even among feminist theorists it was often dismissed as eccentric, scattershot, and dated. A group of Beauvoir scholars, alarmed by the book's demise, placed the blame on Parshley's translation. Toril Moi of Duke University, for example, lamented that Beauvoir "comes across as a sloppy thinker in English." She and her sister critics complained that Parshley had no training in philosophy and his inept translation often made Beauvoir sound incoherent. Worse, he had cut the book down from 972 to 827 pages. His detractors noted that Parshley was quick to omit examples of women's anger, yet respectfully preserved descriptions of men's emotions.
Knopf initially resisted pleas for a new translation, but in 2004, when a New York Times article on the controversy, "Lost in Translation," took the critics' side and cast Parshley and Knopf as villains, the publisher gave in and commissioned two American women, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, both former teachers at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, to do a second translation. The new "Complete and Unabridged for the First Time" version restores the lost 145 pages, and tries to be as faithful to Beauvoir's original text as possible—including her penchant for long sentences connected with semicolons inside seemingly endless paragraphs.
Was it worth it? Will the new version liberate Beauvoir from the widely held suspicion that she is a fuzzy thinker? Will it extend the book's current appeal beyond a small circle of activists? Having just read both, and reviewed professional evaluations of the two translations, I would say that Parshley's is actually better, but both are fine. The real problem lies not in the translation, but in the actual content. Her book's reputation as a masterpiece, a work of art, or even an inspiring manifesto, depends heavily on no one reading it.
Here is a typical passage, as rendered first in the old translation, then in the new:
Man would fain affirm his individual existence and rest with pride on his "essential difference" but he wishes also to break through the barriers of the ego, to mingle with the water, the night, with Nothingness, with the Whole. Woman condemns man to finitude, but she also enables him to exceed his own limits; and hence comes the equivocal magic with which she is endued.
Man wants to assert his individual existence and proudly rests on his "essential difference," but he also wants to break the barriers of the self and commingle with water, earth, night, Nothingness, with the Whole. Woman who condemns man to finitude also enables him to surpass his own limits: that is where the equivocal magic surrounding her comes from.
Could any translator redeem this passage?
* * *
Her official biographer, Deirdre Bair, reports that Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in fourteen months—on amphetamines and "never sleeping." That explains a lot. Although there are flashes of wit and erudition, the book is a tangle of facts, theories, lists of names, and pronouncements about women from the beginning of time, drawn from social science, biology, religion, philosophy (primarily existentialism and Marxism), and literature. It also contains a lot of sweeping declarations: "In all civilizations and still in our day," says Beauvoir, "woman inspires man with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence, which he projects upon her." In marathon sessions at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Beauvoir gathered together every scrap of information she could find on the topic of women and jammed it all into the book.
She made no effort to distinguish relevant from irrelevant material. In a brief section on the history of women from the 16th through the 18th century, she spends 22 lines on a plot summary of an obscure 16th-century play. A few pages later, she devotes 24 lines altogether to five giants of the Enlightenment: Diderot, Voltaire, Condorcet, Montesquieu, and Helvetius. They were all passionate defenders of women's rights and crucial to the movement that would lead slowly, inexorably to the liberation of women in the West. Beauvoir mentions in passing that these philosophers viewed women as "human beings equal to those of the strong sex," which would seem to contradict her claim that, "In all civilizations...woman inspires man with horror." Women inspired men like Diderot, Voltaire, and Condorcet with admiration and respect.
Her fixation on grim findings and the challenge of writing a nearly thousand-page book in little over a year led to carelessness. In a passage on female novelists in the 17th and 18th centuries, she says, "A thousand circumstances conspired against the woman writer." As evidence she cites a passage about Samuel Johnson in Virginia Woolf's, A Room of One's Own:
In England, Virginia Woolf notes, women writers always engender hostility. Dr. Johnson compared them to "a dog walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
First of all, Dr. Johnson's quote, made famous by Boswell, was not about women writers, but women preachers. Johnson held many of the prejudices of his time, and was given to sexist quips, but he was famously supportive of women's literary advancement in both his personal and professional life. Had Beauvoir read further in Woolf's book, she would have found the author praising Johnson for his enlightened attitude toward the fair sex. In any case, what is remarkable about Samuel Johnson's England is not the "thousand" obstacles against women's writing, but the explosion of female authorship. That was the time when the "second sex" began to make itself heard—almost as loudly as the first. Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen are two well-known examples. Anne K. Mellor, a scholar at UCLA, calculates that in England between 1789 and 1830 there were at least 900 female poets, 500 female novelists, and numerous female philosophers, historians, and political writers. Beauvoir's fixation on women as the "Other" prevents her giving genuine progress its due.
Such criticisms will strike Beauvoir enthusiasts as being beside the point. She had a vision that would change the world—why quibble over details? But what was that vision exactly? Her most original contributions to feminist theory—and where she departs radically from the Enlightenment philosophers—are her views about wives and mothers. It was not enough, she insisted, to give women the vote, or the right to an equal education or to work. To be liberated, they had to be freed from the burdens of femininity. But instead of making the reasonable point that women should not be forced into conventional roles of wife and mother against their will—she attacked the roles themselves.
The drama of marriage is not that it does not guarantee the wife the promised happiness—there is no guarantee of happiness—it is that it mutilates her; it dooms her to repetition and routine.
Consider just two of her many hostile meditations on pregnancy:
Day after day, a polyp born of her flesh and foreign to it is going to fatten in her; she is the prey of the species that will impose its mysterious laws on her, and generally this alienation frightens her; her fright manifests itself in vomiting.
[S]nared by nature, she is plant and animal, a collection of colloids, an incubator, an egg; she frightens children...and provokes sniggers from young men because she is a human being, consciousness and freedom, who has become a passive instrument of life.
Why do so many women consent to roles that demean and oppress them? Beauvoir explained that women garner benefits by sacrificing their freedom and cooperating with their oppressor: "Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on them." Such passages may be thrilling to hard-line gender scholars, but they will strike most readers as bizarre.
* * *
Several recent biographies and collections of Beauvoir letters detract from her cultivated image as a stalwart champion of freedom. She and Jean Paul Sartre were less than heroic during World War II. The best Deirdre Bair in her biography can say is, "Their record is not scrupulously clean, but neither is it clearly soiled." Beauvoir, following Sartre, took freedom as the summum bonum of human existence. But that did not prevent her from championing repressive countries such as the Soviet Union and Cuba late into the 1960s. Beauvoir may have been a great defender of women's rights, but she was not above cruelly exploiting women in her personal life. On various occasions she seduced her young female students, then handed them over to Sartre for his enjoyment. The two would then entertain one another with gossip about the conquests—in the style of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuilin in the 18th-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Love Affairs).
Truman Capote, stung by unflattering remarks about him by Beauvoir and Sartre, took his revenge in one of his books by describing a chance meeting at a café in 1949:
At the time the Pont-Royal had a leathery little basement bar that was the favored swill bucket of haute Boheme's fatbacks. Walleyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued Sartre and his spinsterish moll, de Beauvoir, were usually propped in a corner like an abandoned pair of ventriloquist's dolls.
Capote is cruel, but after reading hundreds of pages of Beauvoir's woolly prose, it is a pleasure to read someone who can write.
Despite her many failings, it is hard not to feel a certain affection for the spinsterish moll. She may not be a moral icon or a philosophical genius, and her book may be a mess, but she was an engaging figure—an eccentric, paradoxical Parisian artist who would alarm her feminist acolytes by insisting her life's greatest achievement was "[m]y relationship with Sartre." Millions of women owe her a debt of gratitude. Most of us who read The Second Sex in the '60s and '70s probably glided over the weird bits and took away vague but salutary ideas about personal responsibility, dignity, and the importance of love based on mutual respect.
Meanwhile, the battle over the translation has only intensified. The feminist professors who disparaged the Parsley translation despise the new one by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier even more. In a bitter exchange in the London Review of Books, Beauvoir scholars savage the new version, accusing the translators of "pervasive" errors and of betraying Beauvoir's "voice." One feminist professor scolds the translators for producing a text where "pretty much every page" is "painful" to read. Too true, but this is not the translators' fault. The Second Sex is painful to read in any language—including French.
* * *
For Correspondence on this review, click here.