The Myth of Woman as Nature: Myth-making, Existential Freedom, and Existential Morality in Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

Myths are world-making. In a phenomenological sense, the myths that we are born into, the myths that permeate the society in which our psychological development and a particular social ontology coalesce into an individual existence, create the world as we experience it. We are thrown into myths. We do not get to choose the myths that make our worlds. Well, at least not initially. To reject or perpetuate a particular myth is to choose which myths will continue to make our worlds, and this, I would argue, is for Simone de Beauvoir an act of freedom. Whether that freedom serves to promote or restrict other existents’ freedom is a question of existential morality. For this paper, I explore Beauvoir’s conception of existentialist freedom and morality through a few of her descriptive passages regarding the Myth of Woman as Nature. I begin with an exposition of Beauvoir’s concepts of existential freedom and existential morality, followed by an exposition of woman’s situation as it relates to myth-making. In the following three sections, I explore passages that relate to various Myths of Woman as Nature, namely, Mother, Spouse, Life/Death. I conclude by returning the discussion to the concepts of existential freedom and existential morality.

Existential Freedom and Existential Morality

Human existence is experienced as embodied in a society. The original position of embodied consciousness is one of duality and is reflected societally; a group “defines itself as One” while “immediately setting up the Other opposite itself”.[1] The consciousness as embodied in the Subject position posits the Other as distinct and opposing, and in doing so, the Subject “asserts itself as the essential and sets up the other as inessential, as the object”.[2] A society of Subjects and Others is, moreover, imbued with myths.[3] The situated existent lives out their transcendence and immanence in relation to myths that the Subject either incorporates into their becoming or not; myths that the Subject either ascribes to and perpetuates, or disavows and rejects, as part of their creative projects.[4] In this sense, the Subject furthers the creation of the original myth by taking the myth on as their own to then perpetuate the myth anew in society.

When two Subjects meet, each one is faced with the relativity of their Subject position; they experience themselves as the Object for the Other, and in this recognition a reciprocity arises in the relation between them.[5] The Subject needs the Other in order to move beyond embodied immanence; to continuously expand themselves beyond their facticity and for their freedom to be affirmed.[6] Man finds that nature does not suffice for transcendent movement because it is either assimilated or destroyed by the Subject leaving the Subject in isolation.[7] Therefore, man needs an Other with consciousness.[8]

However, the movement toward a free existent also entails conflict; each Subject seeks to assert itself as the dominant authority while reducing the Other to an inferior, dominated, state; each seeks to force the Other to affirm their freedom as Absolute.[9] However, dominance only exists in relation; the dominated are necessary for the dominant’s existence and as such the dominated become essential as the dominant become inessential.[10] Conflict is avoided if both Subject and Other freely and reciprocally recognize each other as both Subject and Other.[11] This movement requires that the Subject continuously “surpass himself at each instant”, but, such a movement is perilous and arduous; it may end in the Subject’s recognition never being reciprocated.[12] So, the Subject desires contradictions; to have both the transcendence of existence and the immanence of being.[13]

The Subject achieves freedom in transcendence. The subject achieves freedom in their projects; in expanding their existence continuously into the world and future.[14] Existential freedom is an autonomous and continuous becoming; a continuous going beyond oneself toward the Other. Existence becomes degraded every time a Subject halts this continuous becoming and seeks refuge in immanence; by solidifying their becoming into a facticity, which is to say, by making themselves into an object.[15] To solidify oneself into an object willingly is a moral failure on one’s own part, while to force another into a solidified object is oppression.[16] Existential morality requires never solidifying oneself or another into a set being, and it is not possible in isolation. Existential morality requires the reciprocal recognition between two free existents. In this continuous movement, toward the Other as a free existent, the Subject creates and gives meaning to themselves and the world; their freedom is recognized and affirmed reciprocally with the other Subject. The ongoing reciprocal movement urges both Subjects to continuously transcend themselves indefinitely.

Myth-making and Woman’s Situation

Woman’s situation is one in which she has been forced into a solidified inessential object position. While man is conceptually his own existent, woman is defined, “determined and differentiated in relation to man,” first and foremost as “a sexed being”.[17] Woman’s assigned definition locks her into a facticity as a sexual being in relation to man; “she is the inessential in front of the essential”.[18] She is the inessential being of a sexed relation defined by the free activity of man as essential; “He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other”.[19] As the Other, woman is never able to transcend beyond the transcendence that forces her into immanence; she is the inessential who never reciprocally returns to the essential.[20] Man has forced woman into the position of the intermediary Other between a Nature that is too foreign to himself and other men who are too identical to himself.[21] As an inessential Other and a submissive consciousness she offers a way for man both to exist and to be, because she is neither indifferent to man nor demands reciprocal recognition.[22]

The Myth of Woman as Nature emerges from man’s desire to “accomplish himself as being through carnally possessing a being while making confirmed in his freedom by a docile freedom”.[23] Woman is both the inessential sexed object-being man seeks to possess as well as the submissive freedom that recognizes man’s freedom. In her, man perceives the “plentitude of being,” an abundance of solidified being, through which the nothingness of his existence, his lack of a solidified being, can create himself.[24] Woman is the freedom that man can surpass in order to create and give meaning to himself and the world, but who does not require reciprocal recognition. The reciprocal relation, where two Subjects reciprocally recognize each other as both Subject and Object, is absent in the relation between man and woman; woman’s submission to the status of the inessential Other occurs from the beginning and spontaneously.[25] Woman’s situation is one in which she is unable to posit herself as Subject.

Myth-making is a free activity of a Subject, “who projects its hopes and fears of a transcendent heaven,” onto the world, future, and others.[26] Subjects make myths, and as only men have posited themselves as Subjects, the myths of the world are men’s projections of their hopes and fears.[27] The creation of and giving of meaning to the world, to women, and to men themselves is all done through men; “women have not created the virile myth that would reflect their projects […] they still dream through men’s dreams”.[28] The world is made through myth in the image of man and man’s projects; men “describe it from a point of view that is their own and that they confound with the absolute truth”.[29] Woman is situated in a world in which she is represented to herself through man; she does not project herself into the world, instead she is projected on.

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Mother

Woman, like Nature, is ambiguous. Woman inhabits contradictions; she is both the solidified being of immanence and the Nothingness of existence that allows for transcendence. She is both the object that can be possessed and the consciousness that resists possession. As the Other, she is Evil, but because Evil is necessary for Good, she slips perpetually between Evil and Good.[30] Nature is both Life and Death. Nature is the fertile material source from which man’s existence emerged, is sustained, and which man transforms in his image at will to suit himself.[31] But, it is also a chaotic force that threatens to immerse him in the finitude of inert and dead matter; it is an opposing force to Man as Spirit.[32] Through man’s projections, Woman comes to embody Nature “as Mother, Spouse, and Idea” and each takes on the duality, the contradictions, man perceives in his own existence.[33] Man’s ambivalence to Woman as Nature reflects man’s ambivalence to his own existence which is at the same “consciousness, will, transcendence” and “intellect” as it is also “matter, passivity, immanence” and “flesh”.[34]

In one version, the Myth of Woman as Nature takes on the form of Mother. Woman’s ambiguity makes her seem magical. She is everything in nature that isolates man as a finite and contingent existent along with all in nature that allows man to surpass and move beyond himself to “commingle with water, earth, night, Nothingness, with the Whole”.[35] Beauvoir states:

Thus, Mother Earth has a face of darkness: she is chaos, where everything comes from and must return to one day; she is Nothingness. The many aspects of the world that the day uncovers commingle in the night: night of spirit locked up in the generality and opacity of matter, night of sleep and nothing. At the heart of the sea, it is night: woman is the Mare tenebrarum dreaded by ancient navigators; it is night in the bowels of the earth. Man is threatened with being engulfed in this night, the reverse of fertility, and it horrifies him. He aspires to the sky, to light, to sunny heights, to the pure and crystal clear cold of blue; and underfoot is a moist, hot, and dark gulf ready to swallow him; many legends have the hero falling and forever lost in maternal darkness: a cave, an abyss, hell. But once again ambivalence is at work here: while germination is always associated with death, death is also associated with fertility. Detested death is like a new birth, and so it is blessed.[36]

 

Earth is named Mother, and she is embodied. She has a face. To have a face is to be an entity that can turn and confront man. The face that confronts man is revealed as chaotic. Chaos, from the Greek word khaos, means a void or vast chasm; it is an emptiness devoid of structure and order. It is the Nothingness of man’s existence as a consciousness unconfined to a stable being. Chaos is the Mother’s womb; a chaotic space of darkness and fluidness, from which Nothingness emerges. Whereas daylight brings order and clear demarcations of boundaries that isolate one existent from another, night brings a commingling, an unorderly blending of boundaries.

Mother represents night; the lightless emptiness of the womb from which existence emerges; from which the Nothingness of existence is birthed. Mother represents opaque matter; a fluid and thick matter that lacks translucency and obscures meaning. Mother represents sleep; to sleep in the lightlessness and fluidness of the uterine night. To be asleep is to rest, but it is to be passive; it is to be unable to see with reality with clarity, and it is to be endangered. Mother represents the mare tenebrarum, the dark sea, in which man navigates his existence as well as that which is dangerously disorienting; that in which he can lose himself and drown. Mother represents the fertile, dark, moist matter that threatens to swallow man in the finitude of death; in passivity and immanence.

Man aspires to be pure Spirit and perform a heroic escape from finitude. Man aspires flight toward the transparency of the heavens; heavens illuminated with the clarity of distinction and demarcation. But, his feet are stuck in a thick soil that muddies existence with ambiguity. His existence is precarious; at any moment he can succumb to the chaos, fall into the abyss, and be swallowed into the cave. Mother is both Life and Death. She is both to be feared and revered; loved and hated.

In this myth, Mother is a magical force that both opposes the hero Man while at the same time giving Man the symbolic material to create his narrative of transcendence. Woman’s ambiguity and submissive freedom is necessary for this movement to occur.

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Spouse

The Myth of Woman as Nature takes another form, namely, that of Spouse. Mother and Spouse coalesce in woman’s horrifying yet magical ability to procreate.[37] The Spouse is “desirable prey”.[38] Woman as Nature – Spouse represents the riches of the earth that man seeks to possess.[39] In the imagery and imagination of man, woman’s body morphs into “all the fauna, all the earthly flora: gazelle, doe, lilies and roses, downy peaches, fragrant raspberries; she is precious stones, mother-of-pearl, agate, pearls, silk, the blue of the sky, the freshness of springs, air, flame, earth, and water”.[40] Beauvoir states:

Man finds shining stars and the moody moon, sunlight, and the darkness of caves on woman; wildflowers from hedgerows and the garden’s proud rose are also woman. Nymphs, dryads, mermaids, water sprites, and fairies haunt the countryside, the woods, lakes, seas, and moors. This animism is profoundly anchored in men. For the sailor, the sea is a dangerous woman, perfidious and difficult to conquer but that he cherishes by dint of taming it. Proud, rebellious, virginal, and wicked, the mountain is woman for the mountain climber who wants to take it, even at risk of life. It is often said that these comparisons manifest sexual sublimation; rather, they express an affinity between woman and the elements as primal as sexuality itself. Man expects more from possessing woman than the satisfaction of an instinct; she is the special object through which he subjugates Nature.[41]

 

The Myth of Nature as Woman – Spouse is man’s projection of woman as a magical and sexed object-being capable of being conquered and possessed through man’s virility. Nature’s garden of delights retains its desirability in the image of the virginal wilderness to be explored and conquered by man and in magical creatures taking the form of beautiful maidens who coyly resist man’s glances. The Spouse as prey is temperamental. Like the moon, she is reticent of unveiling her secrets, but her denial is ephemeral. Eventually, her secrets will be revealed in full to the heroic man able to decipher her. The Spouse as either an unrefined wildflower or a cultivated rose blossom for man; opening themselves and life to him.

The cave no longer represents the chaotic abyss of the maternal womb, but now is perceived as a site to be explored by man. The sea no longer represents a threatening force capable of disorientating and drowning man. While both the cave and sea retain their dangerous magic, the danger is now an enticing challenge for man. His Spouse cannot give herself too hastily to him, or else she would just be unconscious Nature proper. She must resist and rebel in order for man to satisfactorily transcend her as the Other. She must show that she is a consciousness because only a consciousness can affirm man in his projects. But, she must also be able to be subjugated. She must be transformed into a submissive object when confronted with man’s virility in order for man’s affirmation to be complete. This myth is not a mere transformation of sexual impulses, but a primal affinity; the Spouse as prey is the symbolic embodiment of man’s desire to conquer and possess all of Nature.

Man’s Spouse must, importantly, “embody the wondrous blossoming of life while concealing its mysterious disturbances at the same time” because “man cannot be enraptured in his embrace of a living thing unless he forgets that all life is inhabited by death”.[42] Nature appropriated is the appropriation of Life. Nature subjugated is the subjugation of Death. Through his Spouse, man conceives of himself as a virile force able to possess Life while conquering Death. The Spouse is the sexual object through which man feels himself as most transcendent, but at the risk of making himself flesh; at the risk of reducing himself to immanence.[43] Here, man experiences the duality and ambiguity of existence once again. When man posits himself as a Subject over his Spouse as the Other, he is an autonomous freedom ruling over the world.[44] Yet, at the same time in reducing himself to flesh he becomes “a limited and perishable object”; he is again reminded of the immanence of Death.[45]

The Myth of Woman as Nature – Life and Death

Woman always carries Death along with her. Man projects his own deterioration onto her aging body; her aging body becomes an object without value and evokes the image of Mother.[46] Beauvoir states:

The Mother dooms her son to death in giving him life; the woman lover draws her lover into relinquishing life and giving himself up to the supreme sleep. […] Born of flesh, man accomplishes himself in love as flesh, and flesh is destined to the grave. The alliance between Woman and Death is thus confirmed; the great reaper is the inverted figure of corn-growing fertility. But it is also the frightening wife whose skeleton appears under deceitful and tender flesh.[47]

 

In bringing man into life, the Mother has condemned man to death. The Mother is the ambiguous figure who is at one and the same time the bringer of both Life and Death. In bringing man into the flesh, the Spouse entices man into a lifeless slumber. Man seeks to escape from the finitude that psychologically haunts his existence through trying to appropriate life from the Spouse. He seeks to accomplish his freedom, to transcend the facticity of his embodiment, through the sexual act. But, in doing so, he is one again reduced to the immanence of the flesh that destines him to death. The Spouse is, then, the ambiguous figure who is also at one and the same time the bringer of both Life and Death.

Woman as Nature is the dual visage of fertility and sustenance on the one face, and deterioration and decrepitude on the other face. Despite woman’s duality, in the end man is always confronted with Death. Woman, thus, appears to embody Death concretely. Woman appears as the deceitful, magical, and dangerous specter whose objective existence is fundamentally oppositional to man.

Conclusion: Myth-making and Existential Morality

In each of these myths, woman is the symbolic representation of all of man’s hopes and fears as the bringer of Life and Death. As the bringer of Life, she is a symbol of hope. She is the Mother who births man both in the physical sense and the existential sense. She is the material sources that brings the Nothingness of existence into this world and along with it the possibility of transcendence. As the Spouse, she is the material sources on which men act in order to achieve transcendence. As the bringer of Death, she is a symbol of fear. She is the Mother who has condemned man to death, and she is the Spouse who reduces man to finite flesh.

In these myths, woman is reduced to an intermediary between Nature and other men. She is the abundance of being. She is all of the passive and inert objects of nature that man can act on and transform at will. Her solidified being, her facticity, is of the moon and stars, of fruits and flowers, of docile animals. But, she is also a consciousness that offers recognition and affirmation of man’s freedom. Her consciousness is magical, haunting, malignant, and temperamental, but it has to be. She has to be resistant to man in order for man achieve transcendence, but she cannot resist too much.

In these myths, woman is the privileged object through which man achieves transcendence, and it is a transcendence that seeks absolute submission from the Other. The Other needs to recognize and affirm man’s freedom as Absolute; to submit to being the inessential Other without demanding reciprocal recognition and affirmation. Woman, in these myths, epitomizes the inessential Other. She lacks activity; her only verb is “to be”. She is that which births man and dooms man to death, or she is that which resists only to succumb to man’s virility, or she is that which is horrifying. She does not birth, doom, resist, or horrify as an action stemming from a transcendent consciousness seeking to project itself into the world. Her abilities to birth, doom, resist, or horrify are not abilities at all, but instead are facts of her being. These are not activities that she chooses, but instead are just effects on man that are inherent in her matter as sexed object-being. Woman, in these myths, is fully denied Subject status.

In these myths, woman is fully denied her ability to transcend beyond herself. She is locked into immanence. She is locked into her facticity; into her situation. She is locked into a situation that has been created through man’s transcendence. Man transcends beyond himself in creating the Myth of Woman as Nature (as Mother, Spouse, Death). Woman has no myths of her own. She has created no myths about herself, man, or the world. The transcendent myths created by man serve to oppress woman by perpetuating her status as an inessential Other who is incapable of transcending beyond the verb “to be”; who is incapable of creating her own myths. But, it is not only woman’s freedom that is denied when woman’s transcendence is stifled. As man’s freedom also requires a continuous movement of himself into the world, a constant reciprocal movement toward and between Subjects who continuously urge each other to transcend indefinitely, man also denies his own freedom in denying woman’s freedom. In other words, Existential freedom is a constant movement of transcendence that requires the reciprocal recognition between Subjects. To halt this movement, or to limit this movement to only half the population and thus limit one’s opportunities for transcendence, denies oneself freedom.

Ultimately, I read Beauvoir as asserting that these myths are world-making. These myths narrate embodiment and, reciprocally, embodiment narrates these myths. This reciprocal movement is what makes these myths take on an aura of naturalization. But, these myths are not facticity nor are they absolute Truth. That we are born into these myths does not make them immutable or essential. They are pure contingency and they can be transcended. The re-creation and incorporation of these myths into our embodied existence is a moral failure. The choice to reject or perpetuate these myths is a world-making moral choice between oppression and freedom, for oneself and Others.

[1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Shelia Malovany-Chevallier (New York City: Vintage Books, 2010) p. 6

[2] Ibid. p. 16

[3] As well as customs, values, laws, taboos, norms, etc.

[4] Ibid. p. 47

[5] Ibid. p. 16

[6] Ibid. p. 159

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p. 160

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p. 16

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 6

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. pp. 16-17; 160

[21] Ibid. p. 16

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid. p. 161

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. p. 7. I will be using the terms “man” and “woman” throughout my exegesis of Beauvoir’s work. I do so only with the intention of connoting “man” as “masculinized existents” and “woman” as “feminized existents”.

[26] Ibid. p. 162

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid. pp. 162-63

[31] Ibid. p. 163

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. p. 167

[36] Ibid. pp. 166-67

[37] Ibid. p. 167

[38] Ibid. p. 174

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. pp. 174-75

[41] Ibid. p. 175; emphasis is mine.

[42] Ibid. p. 176

[43] Ibid. p. 180

[44] Ibid. p. 180

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid. pp. 178-79

[47] Ibid. p. 183

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