Letters to My Tutor…
Reading: America Day by Day, The Second Sex

My dearest Simone,

I badly planned my reading of America Day by Day in that the book had to be returned to library last week. I got it back just today, so not enough time to get back into it. I wasn’t sure when it would wind its way back into my temporary possession, so I started an initial glance at The Second Sex. I haven’t read the work before, but I’m certain that I’ve read excerpts and certainly I have read writers who were heavily influenced by this book.

I came across Francine du Plessix Gray’s review of The Second Sex for the New York Times.  I was taken aback by the virulent hostility.  The light peppering of faint praise seems added only to enhance the intensity of the aggressive expression of distaste and disdain.  For instance in the opening salvo, Gray introduces us to early reviews of the work.  She notes two highly negative reviews from the Catholic Church and Albert Camus, then nestles in the middle that Philip Wylie thought the work, “one of the few great books of our era,” before ending with two reviews with the harsh accusations that the work was “pretentious” and “tiresome,” and “bespattered with the repulsive lingo of existentialism.”  Gray says nothing good about the work other than echoing certain accepted platitudes and spends the bulk of her review poorly critiquing Beauvoir’s views of women in the workplace, marriage, and motherhood.  I do not find my own beliefs on these matters perfectly instep with those of Beauvoir, and even I, who love her, could come up with better-reasoned arguments in opposition to some of her views.  At some point Gray offers up observations that boy toddlers reach for cars and guns over dolls as proof that Beauvoir was mistaken in her assertion that gender is learned.

I figured others had certainly been critical of Gray’s review.  In her post, “Curses and blessings,” Cynthia Haven made note of others who expressed a distaste.  Haven makes extensive reference to a letter by Marilyn Yalom, Senior Scholar with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, published in the New York Times following publication of Gray’s review.  Among other things, Yalom finds fault with Gray’s critique of the more recent English translation of the The Second Sex:

Yalom finally zeroes in on Gray’s lambasting the new translation, which the critic finds wordy and cumbersome.  Yalom counters:  “The Second Sex is — among other things — a philosophical text. Would anyone think of translating Heidegger so that he flows nicely, when he rarely does?”

Though critical of the  translation (by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier), Gray called the introduction to the new translation written by Judith Thurman, “splendid.”  Judith Thurman’s review of the new translation published in the New York Times just a few days after Gray’s is a much more balanced review.  Thurman provides biographical details that give better context to Beauvoir’s views.  Whereas Gray seems to characterize Beauvoir as a woman driven to hysterics by the lack of the right to vote and being denied access to birth control, Thurman details both the surrounding political climate as well as Beauvoir’s bourgeois upbringing including mundane truths of how her lack of a dowry dimmed her prospects for the [customarily arranged] marriage.  Whereas Gray sums up comments about Beauvoir’s love life with a conclusion that Beauvoir had a “pronounced sexual appetite,” Thurman provides both a more thorough and nuanced recount of Beauvoirs romances along with an acknowledgement that Beauvoir engaged in love as a thoughtful woman.  Thurman characterizes Beauvoir as a woman who loved also with her mind, whereas Gray gives brief, sultry details by way of making a cheap shot at Beauvoir’s supposed physicality.

Gray seems to cite Beauvoir uses of “derogatory phrases like ‘the servitude of maternity,'” as proof of Beauvoir’s “paranoid hostility toward the institutions of marriage and motherhood,” as if she has never read Aristotle or Aquinas as Beauvoir makes clear that she has in her introduction to The Second Sex.  Thurman picks up on themes from Beauvoir’s introduction and uses them to illuminate aspects of Beauvoir character.  Beauvoir writes how in Genesis Eve is depicted as having been made from a bone of Adam.  Thurman draws parallels between Beauvoir and the author of Genesis saying that Beauvoir “begins her narrative, like the author of Genesis, with a fall into knowledge.”  Prior to this statement Thurman notes that Beauvoir would object to her work being called a “feminist bible,” in that she dismissed religions, “even when they worship a goddess — as the inventions of men to perpetuate their dominion.”

Ok, rush to publish before midnight….

In love and friendship,