Simone de Beauvoir’s Critique of Masculinity

[I presented this paper yesterday at the mock conference session that concluded my seminar on French Feminism. It is a more expanded version of the argument I posted a while back.]

In the “Introduction” to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir claims that “A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male” (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley [New York: Vintage, 1989], xxi). If such a peculiar notion were to pop unexpectedly into some man’s head, though, he would be well served to start his research with Beauvoir’s book. For reasons both rhetorical and conceptual, The Second Sex is full of declarations on the character of men. In fact, large tracts of The Second Sex must be read as scathing critiques of the masculine self-image, critiques that seem to this particular male to hit their target with humiliating accuracy. Nevertheless, Beauvoir seems on a certain level to hold up the masculine as the ideal—man really does have access to universal humanity in a way that woman does not yet. Although these two strains of Beauvoir’s argument appear on the surface to be contradictory, I will attempt to show that they are actually coherent and mutually reinforcing.

I will start with Beauvoir’s contention that men have access to the universally human, which Beauvoir will often term “transcendence,” while women are trapped within “immanence.” Responding to the idea that women should be happy to remain in the place assigned to them, Beauvoir says:

This notion we reject, for our perspective is that of existentialist ethics. Every subject plays his part as such specifically through exploits or projects that serve as a mode of transcendence…. There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future. Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence…. This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil. (xxxiv-xxxv)

Simply by virtue of being human, both men and women have the formal potential to achieve transcendence. Men, however, impose a kind of “glass ceiling” on woman’s transcendence, such that she can never pass man’s transcendence—this lack of formal liberty, more than any particular unhappiness, encapsulates women’s oppression. The overcoming of this oppression will mean the overcoming of “femininity” as it has hitherto been known (719), but it will not mean the end of “women”—in this respect, Wittig’s claim to have found in the lesbian a purely human stance beyond gender, though grounded in Beauvoir’s famous claim that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (267), goes against the general tenor of Beauvoir’s thought. Beauvoir hopes for a day when women will be able to participate in transcendence precisely as women.

The emphasis here must fall on the formal potentiality, because actualization of transcendence cannot, by definition, ever be automatic. The very fact that the present situation of women largely blocks that actualization for them is proof enough of that. The question then arises—do men, precisely as men, face any particular obstacles in the actualization of their potential for transcendence? In many places, Beauvoir appears to endorse the masculine claim to have immediate and unfettered access to transcendence, but many of these endorsements are followed closely by sarcastic references to the male self-image. In fact, I argue that in Beauvoir’s scheme, men not only face obstacles qua men in reaching transcendence, but ironically, those obstacles amount to a kind of “fall-out” of their imposition and maintenance of patriarchy.

This irony becomes clear in the third part of The Second Sex, on “Myths.” There Beauvoir begins with an account of men’s “ontological and moral pretensions” (139). In a kind of parody of the opening chapters of Genesis, man initially finds himself alone with nature, which does not provide the kind of “other” he needs to tear him away from immanence and start on the adventure of achieving transcendence—the genuine “other” must be another self-conscious being. Initially, that need is met in competition with other men, which is fraught with conflict and wears the man out. He is caught between two undesirable poles: “quite unable to fulfill himself in solitude, man is incessantly in danger in his relations with his fellows: his life is a difficult enterprise with success never assured” (140). Obviously, the man does not like this situation of continual fear, and so “he dreams of quiet in disquiet and of an opaque plenitude that nevertheless would be endowed with consciousness. This dream incarnated is precisely woman” (140). The intervention of woman offers a kind of release valve, a “best of both worlds”—thus the Genesis story portrays God giving woman as a kind of gift or supplement.

Obviously this story fails to match up with reality on any number of levels. Most glaringly, it does not include any reference to the fact that the man was born and hence was presumably in contact with a woman—indeed dependent on her for survival—before encountering the unresponsive earth or his all-too-responsive fellow men. The root of this absence of birth from the “ontological and moral pretensions” of men is ultimately the same thing that led to the installation of the myth of woman in the first place: namely, fear, most radically the fear of death. Man blames woman for his embodied and death-prone state and transfers his hatred of his own body onto the woman. When combined with the highly idealized image of woman as a refuge from the toils of life, the redirection of his hatred of the flesh and fear of death produces the ambivalent love-hate relationship with women that permeates the male experience. Beauvoir sees this ambivalence as the source of the general revulsion toward pregnant women and menstruation—and also of the desire to think of one’s own mother only as chaste. Going against one of the key tenets of psychoanalysis, she says that this desire for maternal chastity comes about “less because of amorous jealousy than because of his refusal to see her as a body” (147). Yet at the same time, man requires woman to “represent the flesh purely for its own sake” (157)—he needs that target for his own hatred of the flesh, then he hates woman for filling the role he has imposed on her.

Christianity exacerbates this disgust at women’s bodies, but at the same time it moves toward the equality of men and women. This is because Christianity increases the individuality of the subject, and for Beauvoir “The more the male becomes individualizes and lays claim to his individuality, the more certainly will he recognize also in his companion an individual and a free being” (170). The horror of the flesh remains, however, above all in the cult of Mary, whose virginity signifies that she is non-fleshly and has never been possessed as other women have (171). Meanwhile, “a certain masked horror of maternity survives” in the reviled figure of the mother-in-law, which initially arose during the middle ages (174). Finally, in bourgeois society, woman becomes a display piece, a way of showing off excess funds. Still, the most fundamental thing that a man wants out of a woman is someone who would simultaneously be a genuine opponent while always letting him win: “the ideal of the average Western man is a woman who freely accepts his domination, who does not accept his ideas without discussion, but who yields to his arguments, who resists him intelligently and ends by being convinced” (184). In short, woman must be intrinsically “other,” an other who is always automatically able to be overcome.

Here man is far from the existentialist ideal of the adventurous seeker after transcendence, expanding the frontiers of liberty at every turn. In fact, the dominant characteristics of man qua man—that is, man specifically in relation to woman—are fear and self-delusion, with the result that man comes across as frankly pathetic. Certainly fear and self-delusion are not absent from any human being and must be dealt with. The installation of the myth of woman, however, is exactly the wrong path to take—instead of overcoming fear and self-delusion, it actively reinforces them. The alternately wounded and self-aggrandizing patheticness of man as portrayed by Beauvoir is not a brute given, any more than the self-undermining parasitism of woman. Both result from the present situation of patriarchy, which was imposed by men, is presently enforced by men, and is met with a basic complicity among women. Patriarchy thus distorts both men and women, but the underlying asymmetry of power means that the effects of that distortion are sharply unequal: for men, it presents a temptation that may keep them from attaining any form of transcendence, while for women, it has to a great extent been simply debilitating.

Beauvoir’s chapter on “The Myth of Woman in Five Authors” provides some specific insight into how the distortions inherent in actual existing masculinity can play out in practice—and also give some idea of what women can realistically expect of men as they attempt to overcome their present condition. There she chooses authors whose attitudes “have seemed to [her] to be typical”: Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Claudel, Breton, and Stendahl. The list seems to be arranged in roughly ascending order of approval, but it is in any case clear that Montherlant represents her worst-case scenario and Stendahl her best—hence I will be focusing on those two.

Henry de Montherlant was a 20th Century essayist, novelist, playwright, and member of the French Academy, and Beauvoir’s attitude toward him is one of unmitigated scorn and disgust. He represents a “long tradition of males” who believe that the true man must “rise in revolt” against woman: “A specialist in heroism, he undertakes to dethrone her” (199). His resentment toward the figure of the mother is explicitly grounded in rather adolescent complaints of the kind that were later echoed in Pink Floyd’s The Wall:

Her crime is to wish to keep her son forever enclosed within the darkness of her body; she mutilates him so she can keep him all to herself and thus fulfill the sterile void in her being; she is the most deplorable of teachers; she clips the child’s wings, she holds him back, far from the summits to which he aspires; she makes him stupid and degrades him. (199-200)

Just as in her general diagnosis, however, Beauvoir believes that the root of his hatred for his mother is his hatred of “the fact of his own birth,” which undermines his self-image as a godlike hero. Casting himself as a completely autonomous agent, unfettered by any connection to the detestable flesh, Montherlant is satisfied that he has triumphed so long as he continues to conquer the women he finds so loathsome. Even in sexual conquest, however, Montherlant is joyless. Disgusted by the bodiliness of a woman and oblivious of his own flesh, he claims to be interested only in giving pleasure to the woman, “for to receive is a form of dependence.” Thus, Beauvoir says that “He seeks cerebral not sensual satisfactions with women” (204). Yet this cerebral satisfaction is incompatible with an encounter with a woman who would be his intellectual equal or his equal in any other way: he likes his women weak.

In terms of Beauvoir’s “existentialist ethics,” it is clear that Montherlant is an abject failure. Montherlant “has never been willing to accept the conditions implied in being human…. [and so] he takes refuge in a procedure that is habitual with him: instead of rising above his origin, he repudiates it” (200). A logical consequence of his self-delusion is a refusal to put himself to the test in a genuinely open relationship. All of his relationships with women are predicated on the woman’s inferiority, and not a single one of his writings is taken up with a relationship between two men. For Beauvoir, true freedom is found only in genuine engagement with the world, choosing a project and putting oneself to the test. Such freedom is incompatible with self-delusion—it requires an overcoming of one’s given situation, which provides the only possible milieu for transcendence. By contrast, Montherlant is satisfied with a purely negative freedom with no determinate goal. Thus his freedom is more of an attitude than a reality. What’s more, Beauvoir believes that his negative notion of freedom is directly tied to a love of sheer destruction, as evidenced by his declarations that the French deserved to be conquered by the Germans in World War II:

Mystical negatives can be expressed only through negations. True transcendence is a positive movement toward the future, man’s future. The false hero, to persuade himself that he has travelled far, that he soars high aloft, looks constantly backwards and downwards; he scorns, he accuses, he oppresses, he persecutes, he tortures, he murders. (214)

Beauvoir cites a particularly evocative passage where Montherlant describes himself “urinating on some caterpillars” and enjoying the power that comes from deciding which caterpillar lives or dies—in one of many brilliant turns of phrase in this section, Beauvoir notes that “before the crawling insects, the man relieving his bladder knows the despotic solitude of God” (209). One cannot help but think that this moment of unmitigated power—which seems rather unbelievable to this reader, unless they were really wimpy caterpillars—is the framework within which Montherlant lives, a framework that is instituted and supported by his hyperbolic belief in the myth of woman. The fear that is at the root of that myth permeates his life; the self-delusion allows him to ignore it, thus cutting off the possibility of genuine self-transcendence.

Stendahl is another story altogether. Beauvoir’s tone throughout the section dedicated to him is overwhelmingly positive, such that he appears to be virtually her ideal man. The key to his achievement is that unlike Montherlant and the other authors under consideration, Stendahl is “a man who lives among women of flesh and blood.” Beauvoir is clear about what underwrites his profound love of women, which suffuses his entire life:

This tender friend of women does not believe in the feminine mystery, precisely because he loves them as they really are; no essence defines woman once for all; to him the idea of “the eternal feminine” seems pedantic and ridiculous. (238)

His diagnosis of the situation of women anticipates in large part contemporary feminism. For instance, he dismisses the charge that there have been few great women throughout history, for the obvious reason that society has purposefully held women back. He hopes for a day when women will be free from the idleness society imposes on them and when intelligent and well-educated women will be the norm. All the present faults of women can be explained by their present situation, rather than some antecedent nature: women “are not angels, nor demons, nor sphinxes: merely human beings reduced to semislavery by the imbecile ways of society” (239). Stendahl evinces a certain preference for women society deems silly or frivolous, but that is because he has such low esteem for social norms. In this regard, women may even be at an advantage for men, because their lack of opportunities allow them to avoid being ensnared in a false seriousness that would undercut “that naturalness, that naïveté, that generosity which Stendahl puts above all merit” (240).

For Stendahl, the love of a woman is the key to happiness. While seduction can be little more than a game for some, a man who truly understands the worth of women will find that “true love really transfigures his life” (246). Thus a genuine relationship with a woman becomes the key to self-actualization:

Test, reward, judge, friend—woman truly is in Stendahl what Hegel was for a moment tempted to make of her: that other consciousness which in reciprocal recognition gives to the other subject the same truth that she receives from him. (247)

For such a mutual recognition to be possible, Beauvoir argues that Stendahl cannot view woman as the absolute Other, but rather as a full-fledged subject. That he regards woman as such becomes clear in his choice to write from a woman’s perspective, something Beauvoir says no previous male author had done. All of this is motivated not by any ideal higher than simple human happiness—love will only be more intense and fulfilling as a result of the emancipation of women. He is not even afraid of the inevitable change in women’s general character as a result of emancipation, but is content to allow each woman to be “simply a human being: nor could any shape of dreams be more enrapturing” (248).

Despite this overwhelmingly positive assessment, Beauvoir expresses some final reservations about Stendahl in the summary of her findings from the five authors. Though he is, in Beauvoir’s mind, completely free of the destructive effects of the feminine myth—both for the women with whom he comes in contact and for his own character—he nonetheless views woman as irreducibly “other”:

Stendahl wants his mistress intelligent, cultivated, free in spirit and behavior: an equal. But the sole earthly destiny reserved for the equal, the woman-child, the soul-sister, the woman-sex, the woman-animal is always man! Whatever ego may seek himself through her, he can find himself only if she is willing to act as his crucible. She is required in every case to forget self and to love. (251)

One could call this stance a kind of zero-degree sexism—the “glass ceiling” mentioned above is as high as possible, reaching even to perfect equality to men, but woman can never “transcend” her relationship to men. The underlying logic that thus seems to be shared by all men, apparently even the perfect man Stendahl, is perhaps best encapsulated in an aside from Beauvoir’s chapter on psychoanalysis: “When a little girl climbs trees, it is, according to Adler, just to show her equality with boys; it does not occur to him that she likes to climb trees” (51).

The ideal Beauvoir aspires to is not for women to turn the tables on men, but rather for them to be able to undertake projects that have nothing to do with men. In this undertaking, women cannot and should not expect help from even the best-intentioned men—taking advantage of the formal rights that the feminist movement has won them, they must now take action on their own behalf to reach self-actualization. Beauvoir believes that this ideal is simply human and that the toxic effects of the myth of woman often hold men back from reaching it themselves. Yet the zero-degree sexism represented by Stendahl opens up some ambiguity here. Clearly a permanently subordinate position as absolute Other is intolerable, yet Beauvoir seems to aspire to an individualistic ideal where the other qua other is necessary and yet always subordinate to the subject’s self-unfolding. Such an ideal is not “masculine” if we stick with Beauvoir’s own notion of masculinity as based in fear and self-delusion. Indeed, we must say that her ideal is a kind of courage founded in a clear-headed view of one’s situation and its possibilities. And in many ways, I myself find such an ideal appealing, though I have been sufficiently affected by Beauvoir’s critique of masculinity that I am suspicious of myself. Perhaps it’s a bit too convenient that women, once fully free, will aspire to a goal I feel comfortable with—why not expect new and different ideals, ideals that have nothing to do with me at all?

3 thoughts on “Simone de Beauvoir’s Critique of Masculinity

  1. Hm. What about the very real problem–which if I remember properly, deB does say is central–of pregnancy and child-rearing? As I recall, part of her thesis is that women have less access to transcendence because *in fact* they are more bound by their physical nature, not merely as a consequence of patriarchy. And this is insurmountable.

    Now, the idea that genuine transcendence requires a kind of acknowledgment, rather than fleeing from, the body helps a little. But I think only a little.

    ‘Course it’s been ages since I read deB.

  2. She does talk about pregnancy, menstruation, etc., but then she says that it’s a mistake to think of biological facts as a brute given when it comes to structuring human society. For instance, it doesn’t matter much that men tend to have more upper-body strength in a situation where most of the heavy lifting is done by machines — then men’s extra strength doesn’t make a difference in terms of effectiveness.

    The problem is that society is structured such that pregnancy, etc., puts women at a disadvantage, but that isn’t immutable.

  3. Well, that would be my argument, but it would take a pretty massive social overhaul (one that ought, of course, to take place). I suppose the down side, from your pov, is that such a society would of necessity have a fairly strong state ensuring that kids are taken care of so that it wouldn’t all fall on teh laydeez, but then the issue of how such a state would finance itself has to be dealt with.

    Of course, this doesn’t trouble me or deB, since we’re both pretty bourgeois.

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