Philistine that I am, I had never heard of The Second Sex, a 1000-page protest of woman’s lot in life by existentialist Simone de Beauvoir, until it was given a passing nod in the TV series Emily in Paris.
An over-short snark would be to say that Emily provides more insight into the life of a modern woman than the 73-year-old book. I’m not sure that would be wrong, full disclosure, but I will work a bit harder than that.
The simple fact is that very little in Beauvoir’s rambling tome resonates with me, a married, middle-aged male contemplating retirement in the reasonably near future. Almost without exception, every woman of consequence I know has worked outside the home and to a significant degree forged forward, mostly with, but sometimes without the help of a man. At a macro level, Gen X has little use for the complaints of a middle-aged feminist from the post-WW II years. The issues of that age, with the exception of Soviet violence, have faded away.
Younger generations, though, full of their paralyzing angst about even the slightest discomfort, are more likely to find cause with the book and make their already preachy mores even more intolerable. This is somewhat horrifying considering the direction in which current 20-somethings seem to think 21st-century western society should move. There is far too little fact-facing among Millenials and Gen Z’ers as it stands now.
Back to the book, I somewhat generously chalk up Beauvoir’s extreme verbosity, circular logic, denial of reality, and consistent use of unproven and unprovable claims in place of facts to her obvious passion for communism and win-at-all-costs promotion of her gender. As for her overblown dramatics over menstruation and penetration, little can be said beyond the fact that Beauvoir looks to the fringes in all things. Having found the edge cases, she forces these views down the reader’s throat again and again. Those within 2 standard deviations of normal play no part in her writing. The author despises normal people and makes this plain. Ordinary lives, loves, and sex plainly bore or openly aggravate her.
Beauvoir is obviously intelligent and well-read. Yet, it must be said that she is not a scientist. Instead, she is a firebrand and a rabble rouser with an agenda. Despite all the chapters on alienation, the most obvious truth that Beauvoir overlooks is that most of us who choose to be Other do so more or less deliberately and she far more than most, if her writing is a guide.
A second, equally galling, elitist bungle Beauvoir makes is that of mistaking her peers for sources of truth. Liberally saturated with references to the fiction and philosophical writing of others, she treats novels as textbooks, drawing conclusions from novelists as if from God.
A more complete review of the book can be found here, at least for now, on the NY Times site. The single definitive statement in review of the book is Alfred Knopf’s succinct and accurate assessment that Beauvoir “certainly suffers from verbal diarrhea,” which is certainly true.
More verbosely, The Second Sex is 1000 pages of plaintive denial of reality. The simple truth is western civilization was built by physical force, a reality that cannot be evaded by a clever turn of a phrase. Wrenching civilization out of the mud and the blood and the piss of the 19th century required brute force, determination, and a proactive vision that only Man, determined to achieve through the rule of law, could have realized. Woman, protected by Man and those laws, was thus free to chafe and scoff and cajole. There is The Second Sex, in a paragraph.
This is not to say that there is no value in the book. There are some keen insights into the working of the minds of both sexes and some useful guidance about how – and warnings about how not – to live together in harmony.
It is unfortunate, though, that 100 pages of useful pearls are thrown in with 900+ pages of slop.