A reader of simone de beauvoir

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A reader of Simone de Beauvoir's revolutionary mid-20th century work, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), would not be surprised to come across the complementary terms "transcendence" and "immanence" since they emerge on such a regular basis. Both of these terms are open to debate and conformity as they "represent the polarities" corresponding to the male and female (Kvigne et al, 2002: 82). They play a central role in understanding Beauvoir's philosophical investigation of the fundamental processes in the formation of the self and also of the foundations of patriarchal oppression in Western civilisation. Her application of these concepts to describe how men and women are clearly culturally conditioned to their gender is not only corroborated when considered in its own historical structure but also when we reflect on our understanding of gender roles in Western society in the early 20th century. At the outset, this essay will shed light on Beauvoir's text and its impact within the public sphere. It will then examine the concepts "transcendence" and "immanence" and reflect on their implications for her feminist theory, namely her aspirations regarding the future of the two sexes in society.

Simone de Beauvoir's treatise, often regarded as the first full-length socio-political and philosophical investigation into the status of women in society, is a useful point of reference for those wishing to familiarise themselves with all aspects of feminist thought within a theoretical framework: the roots of female oppression, definition and liberation. It has attracted a generation of readers who identify with its plea to rationality, historical accuracy and truth. With this readership comes the assortment of different readings the text invites: feminist, sociological, psychoanalytical, biological, philosophical and political. The author questions realities about men, women and freedom in a patriarchal society as well as the corrosive effects of the constructed and artificial roles with which we still struggle. The text, which heralded a feminist revolution in the 1950s, can indeed be construed as a lasting intellectual cornerstone of contemporary Western feminism. However, much of its highly controversial content has infuriated critical and literary establishments, resulting in a surge of hostile articles and hate mail. Even Albert Camus gave substantial criticism to Beauvoir, his close friend, for making French men appear foolish. Nonetheless, this brave and brilliant piece of literature gave women a collective voice and provided them with an opportunity to air their concerns and societal inequalities. It remarkably elicited letters of gratitude from its largely female readership and stimulated a wealth of women's literature in the years following its publication in France in 1949. Written shortly after the Holocaust, at the beginning of France's colonial conflict in North Africa, and at a time when African-American writers such as Richard Wright brought their existentialist ideologies to the forefront of French literature (Fabre 1978: 39), Beauvoir demonstrated that patriarchy was, essentially, the major cause of female subordination.

In this work, the author presents the concepts of "transcendence" and "immanence" in the course of attempting to unravel the major question, "Qu'est ce qu'une femme?" (Beauvoir 1949: 1). She challenges the idea of generic terms such as "masculin" and "féminin" being symmetrical, which, to her belief, only pertains to trivial particularities inscribed on legal documentation (Beauvoir 1949: 16). The respected author argues that the masculine is epitomised as the normative "default" in Western culture and that the feminine is delineated against this:

"Elle se détermine et se différencie par rapport à l'homme et non celui-ci par rapport à elle; elle est l'inessentiel en face de l'essentiel. Il est le Sujet, il est l'Absolu: elle est l'Autre" (Beauvoir 1949: vol. 1, 17).

Beauvoir takes the conceptual binary Soi/Autre to her own dimension as she relates this code of demarcation to more than just male and female relations. For instance, she explains its imports all the way through the cultural history of the West, with analogies to myth, its use in psychological warfare to create anti-Semitic and racist ideologies towards Blacks and Jews, and its associated use to advocate class-based oppression (Beauvoir 1949). This is an evident forte in her work since numerous critics such as Tidd (1999), Stavro (2007) and Simons (1990) indicate that Beauvoir did not limit her concern to gender oppression, but documented and battled against oppression in a multiplicity of forms.

        Beauvoir defines her concepts of "transcendence" and "immanence" against this very framework of oppression. In Le Deuxième Sexe and other theoretical and ethical works such as Pyrrhus et Cinéas, the author suggests that related to this conceptualisation of Soi/Autre, a further dichotomy presents itself that is a simple characteristic of oppression - the distinction between two types of individuals in the world, those who participate and contribute in imaginative and inspiring activities, and those demoted to lives of immanence concerned with the preservation of life in its most standard form (Beauvoir 1949). It should be noted that in patriarchal societies, the state of immanence has traditionally been associated with women, while the state of transcendence has been reserved for men.

Transcendence encapsulates the notion that the premeditated consciousness of people drives them towards something further and additional. They have a natural yearning to surpass the conditions that they find themselves implicated in. For Kvigne et al (2002: 82), transcendence can find expression in "actions" and "projects" with a plain substance or objective. Transcendence is completely different to developmental variations linked to growth as it calls for qualities of conscious determination, motivation and creativity by a human subject (Beauvoir 1949).

Beauvoir considers freedom to be an essential social value and an assumption for transcendence. The author makes the difference between freedom on an existential plane and freedom in the life of individual men and women. She claims that the fact that some individuals have considerably more liberty and more opportunities for transcendence than others is a categorical reason to arouse controversy (Moi 1999). Women are, in most countries, accorded less freedom than men:

"[...] oui, les femmes dans l'ensemble sont aujourd'hui inférieures aux homes, c'est-à-dire que leur situation leur ouvre de moindres possibilités: le problème c'est de savoir si cet état de choses doit se perpétuer" (Beauvoir 1949: vol. 1, 27).

The initiation of projects by the individual is a means of expressing freedom and it is through self-made plans that an individual seizes the world as theirs. Therefore human beings have the capability of changing their fate (Beauvoir 1949).

        Immanence, on the other hand, links neither to facticity nor to Satre's en-soi, rather it is associated with monotonous repetitive work that does not challenge or stimulate the mind. It is not associated with qualities such as optimism, confidence and ingenuity and it yields nothing "durable through which we move beyond ourselves" (Simons 1999: 120). It is a perpetuation of life or a mere maintenance of the status quo.

Beauvoir did not theoretically invent these concepts for her own self-gratification. Rather, it was done so on the basis of allowing her readers to apply them to their daily lives. From this viewpoint, "transcendence" and immanence can be defined in terms of the everyday work and actions of human beings. Veltman (2004) and Simons (1999) have proposed their own illustrations of transcendent work but other examples consist of building, discovering, designing, inventing, painting and studying whereas immanent work largely involves domestic tasks such as cooking, tidying, washing, nurturing children and even biological functions such as giving birth and suckling infants. The main idea to grasp in this marked difference is that activities which entail immanence are quintessentially unproductive, in the sense that they require time and energy, but achieve nothing of vital importance (Veltman 2004: 114). Simons (1999: 122) suggests they demand women to be "passive instruments of the forces of nature," as oppose to them being able to innovate or create something like a "craftsman makes an object."

The division of immanence and transcendence according to gender manifests itself in the everyday lives of men and women. For example, girls are brought up to live in a state of immanence as sisters, wives and mothers, usually confined to the home, whereas boys are encouraged to experience transcendence as an essential part of their masculine identity.

In the chapter 'Enfance,' Beauvoir indicates that passivity is an essential characteristic of the 'feminine' woman that is made to seem attractive to the girl from early childhood. Her position of immanence is therefore nothing new or unfamiliar but it is inevitable and preordained: "C'est un destin qui lui est imposé par ses éducateurs et par la société" (Beauvoir 1949, vol 2: 28). Beauvoir argues that the girl will ultimately become épouse, mère and grand-mère who will maintain the house and offer her children the same care and attention she herself received in early life. Marriage and motherhood involve her entire fate whereas boys are much less concerned about their role as husband and father. The immanent position of the girl echoes Hegel's philosophies of immanence, which were certainly a source of inspiration for the author, as well as stoicism, versus philosophies of transcendence such as Thomism or Aristotelian tradition.

The boy, as argued by Beauvoir, engages in transcendent work that will bring him opportunity and success. Irrespective of his ambitious, thoughtless or timid nature, he gazes towards an open future full of hope, optimism and opportunity:

[...] il sera marin ou ingénieur, il restera aux champs ou il partira pour la ville, il verra le monde, il deviendra riche; il se sent libre en face d'un avenir où l'attendent des chances imprévues (Beauvoir 1949, vol. 2: 52).

Transcendence for him expands into the future and his apprenticeship for life consists in free movement towards the outside world. He takes part in actions that require his manly body and physical capabilities, for example, climbing trees, fighting with his companions and facing them in violent games. According to Beauvoir, he is conscious of his body as a means of dominating nature and as a weapon for combat. The boy participates in various activities of transcendence "à travers jeux, sports, luttes, défis, épreuves" (Beauvoir 1949: vol 2: 29).

In 'La Jeune Fille,' the young girl, now nearing the age of adolescence is old enough to exercise some autonomy that is unfamiliar to her, to explore new options and go beyond the constraints of family life but she has not yet descended into marriage. She is torn between the protection of her home, a sheltered place where her relatives can keep close watch on her, and the encouraging prospect of cultivating her imagination in the external world. Staying at home is temporary; she is well aware of its transience, and so are her parents who hope she will soon renounce her unladylike vivacity and eventually settle down into a marriageable young woman, eventually satisfying her customary role of immanence as an obedient housewife and mother. So it seems that she is a figure, for Beauvoir, full of opportunity, hope and optimism, yet somehow unfortunately tragic.

The young girl, confined to her home and not being able to fruitfully surpass the new boundaries with which she is confronted, is urged by her mother to uphold and fulfil the traditional role of woman as the nurturer of the family and home through the completion of household tasks. Beauvoir highlights the massive extent of the hardships that young women face in contemporary Western society and invites the implied feminist reader to sympathise with the young girl and relate to her difficult situation:

"La mère l'envoie vite faire une commission. Il y a aussi à terminer les travaux ménagers laissés en suspens et elle a encore à s'occuper des soins de sa propre garde-robe [...] Elle se sent malheureuse, compare sa situation à celle de son frère qui n'a aucun devoir à remplir à la maison et elle se révolte" (Beauvoir 1949: vol. 2, 95-96).

The girl is interrupted at times of inconvenience, even when overwhelmed by the private thoughts that continue to preoccupy her. Yet the injustice that causes the most pain and frustration is the fact that her brother is independent and unimpeded from any household duties. Mothers do not impose house keeping chores and common drudgery on boys, which allows them to engage in other activities associated with transcendence such as outdoor recreation. For example, Beauvoir implies that men, unlike women, have the capabilities of independently organising activities such as "une longue randonnée, un voyage à pied ou à bicyclette ou s'adonner à un jeu tel que le billard, les boules, etc" (Beauvoir 1949: vol. 2, 96).

Indeed, in making the differentiation between transcendence and immanence, Beauvoir is not challenging the idea that immanent activities are not always significant. In any case, people need to provide for themselves, or have provided for them, cooking, cleaning, washing and other domestic-type services. Likewise, childbirth is an essential prerequisite for the perpetuation of the human species. Furthermore, as critics of Beauvoir have contended, it is crucial to take into consideration the intricacies in her awareness of these ideas throughout her different works. For instance, Beauvoir recognises that immanent labour can occasionally be original and inspired; the same way activities of transcendence can be of a cyclic and unexciting nature (Veltman 2004: 120). A clear example of each would be the case of a mother sewing up a torn sweatshirt for her child to wear as an activity of immanence associated with creativity, whereas an artist paying meticulous attention to detail in her painting would be a repetitive transcendent activity.

        In order to pursue this complexity further, it would be useful to make a distinction between the concepts transcendence and immanence on the grounds of their identifiable associations with two key attributes: (1) existential rationalisation, and (2) durability over time. Veltman (2004: 124) comments on Beauvoir's representation of these notions:

"Since activities of immanence merely sustain life and achieve nothing more than its continuation, they also cannot serve to justify life as its raison d'etre. Rather, existential justification can be established only within transcendent activities that move beyond the maintenance of life itself [...] If a life is to have reason for being rather than persist solely without reason, it must reach outward toward the future through the production of something creative, constructive, enlightening or otherwise durable."

Having thus examined and defined the limitations of Beauvoir's concepts of transcendence and immanence, their implications for her theory of feminism remains to confront us. It is irrefutable, for instance, that she employs them to investigate the processes of female oppression throughout history, both on a broad-spectrum and also in the specific context of Western society in the 1950's. As Beauvoir contends,

"[...] la situation de la femme, c'est que, étant comme tout être humain, une liberté autonome, elle se découvre et se choisit dans un monde où les hommes lui imposent de s'assumer comme l'Autre: on prétend la figer en objet, et la vouer à l'immanence, puisque sa transcendence sera perpétuellement transcendée par une autre conscience essentielle et souveraine" (Beauvoir 1949: vol. 1, 34).

Evidently, Beauvoir's use of the concepts of "transcendence" and "immanence" is located within a broader framework of female oppression by men in society. Furthermore, it is also apparent that Beauvoir has a clear-cut strategy in her work in that she does not consider this oppression emotionlessly. She continually questions how women can evade this oppression and attain transcendence in their daily lives:

        Comment dans la condition féminine peut s'accomplir un être humain? Quelles voies lui sont ouvertes? [...] Comment retrouver l'indépendence au sein de la dépendance? Quelles circonstances limitent la liberté de la femme et peut-elle les dépasser? Ce sont là les questions fondamentales que nous voudrions élucider. C'est dire que nous intéressant aux chances de l'individu, nous ne définirons pas ces chances en termes de bonheur, mais en termes de liberté.

What Beauvoir desires is that all human beings, women and men, should have access to the state of transcendence, which she equates with freedom, creativity and progress. However, due to the way society has put women in a subordinate position, only men have been allowed to experience transcendence, whilst women have been confined to immanence.

It follows, therefore, that the implications of this theory are that Beauvoir wants women to get out of their immanence and be able to experience transcendence in the same way as men, namely through education, politics and paid employment outside the home and the possibility of developing their creative and intellectual potential, for example, through becoming writers, artists etc. In other words, for Beauvoir, transcendence is the only desirable position to be in for everybody and she believes that gender equality can only be achieved, if this position is available equally to both men and women. This means that society has to create more opportunities for women in the areas that men seem to dominate. Beauvoir contends that financial independence for women is fundamental for their liberation as it endows them with feasible prospects for transcendence. Veltman (2004: 140-141) implies that contemporary Western women are positively exposed to tangible possibilities for liberation, as they are able to discover "political and intellectual instruments necessary for rebellion" against female oppression.

        Although contemporary critics have superseded the supposition that the transcendence/immanence dichotomy is effectively Sartrean with an illumination of the dichotomy as Hegelian and Marxist, some feminist philosophers sustain the belief that this notion is old-fashioned, largely metaphysical and in particular, 'male-identified.' A major complexity of the dichotomy is its implication that motherhood and domestic labour are viewed as immanence, i.e., as non-creative and non-productive. Kvigne et al (2002: 82) identify criticisms of Beauvoir for her lack of input with respect to enhancing women's situation and self-confidence, but glorifying men's lives as boundless and self-sufficient, by portraying women's lives as restricted and oppressed. She has also been censured for depicting the life of men in a positive light and the life of women in negative terms and especially for a lack of emphasis on the constructive aspects in the traditional life and experiences of women.

Another implication of Beauvoir's theory is her exposure of the caring work of women in terms of immanence as oppose to transcendence. She fails to acknowledge the opportunities in motherhood, the unique rapport between mother and children as an honour and foundation of transcendence in women's lives. Moi (1999) considers this to be one of the most contentious arguments in Beauvoir feministic theory as she perceives the destructive 'mother image' as a constantly pervading throughout Le Deuxième Sexe. However, whilst caring work is largely concerned with catering for the needs of others, it can also open doors for transcendence. From looking after the ill and old to the upbringing of children, they are all viable opportunities for escaping one's immanent condition and stretching beyond oneself. Furthermore, history is sated with female role models who fought for social change to develop the state of affairs for children, the sick, the deprived and the elderly.

In the course of the women's liberation process, within which Beauvoir played a chief role, women have achieved freedom and transcendence predominantly through independent vocations outside home. It is only a recent phenomenon that women have started to realise that transcendence and freedom can only be obtained through paid employment outside the home. Critics such as Chodorow (1978), Lundgren-Gothlin (1992), Halsa (1996) and Brembeck et al. (1999) share the assumption that the transformation of women's behaviour and their new outlook on life has substantially influenced their conventional functions as mothers and carers. In comparison to former generations of women, the decision for present-day women to work as housewives as their main career has noticeably reduced. As affirmed by Blom (1992), Skrede (1996) and Wærness (2000), double workload (paid employment together with the role of family nurturer) remains to be prevalent among women.

        The 'imperialism of consciousness' is a further significant implication of Beauvoir's theory that feminists such as Schaaning (1992) have alluded to, which refers to the battle for ideological control and hegemony. The main point to understand is Beauvoir's claim that women have to acquire authority over their respective lives and that this demands obtaining realisation of "differences and diversities among woman and between women and men" (Veltman 2004: 85). Feminists have outlined that research on men as 'imperialism of consciousness' needs to be examined with respect to sickness and rehabilitation of women which will shed light on the ways that the healthcare sectors have been impacted by patriarchal consciousness and the costs that this may have for female patients.


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