“The Delicacy of Women”

"Woman with a fan"  "Femme a l' eventail" Pablo Picasso, 1905

“Woman with a fan” (“Femme a l’eventail”)
Pablo Picasso, 1905

The Delicacy of Women

There is a scene in Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, the book by which he influenced several generations of young people who wanted to be numbered among the existentialists.

A man and a woman are seated together at a café table. In Paris, as goes without saying. They are discussing serious and sublime matters. They are also flirting, but this is subtext, not officially admitted. All of a sudden, the man puts his hand over hers on the table. She acts as if this hasn’t happened and goes on talking about sublime matters.

For Sartre, we have here an object lesson in “bad faith,” mauvaise foi. What would good faith look like? Women all over the world wanted to know.

Good faith, also known as “authenticity,” would consist in a frank, over-the-table admission of their fleshly desires. So said the sage of St. Germain des Pres, and all over the world people – women especially – hastened to get as near to authentic as they could.

Some time later, where are we now? “Authenticity” has become the New Bourgeois Morality. A young, orthodox Jewish woman, matriculated at prestigious Yale University, asked permission to live off campus because the coed dorms, bathrooms, etc., were inconsistent with the teachings of her faith.

Permission denied.

I think the courts even upheld the university’s right to determine that a liberal education required the girl to throw her delicate shyness into the deep blue sea.

College women are charging that their male counterparts take sexual advantage of them when they are drunk and no longer of sound mind (or body). Why are they getting blotto? To lose their inhibitions? What’s wrong with their inhibitions? Oh that’s easy. Inhibitions are inauthentic.

Why? Show me an argument. In philosophy, we support our conclusions with reasons. What are your reasons? You say you don’t want to be thought inhibited? Aren’t you assuming as a premise what you have yet to prove as a conclusion

Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex and founder of modern feminism, was Sartre’s lifelong lover. He laid down condition after condition for their intimacy, and she hastened to adopt each one as her own.

* First, philosophers should not marry.

* Second, monogamy interfered with freedom.

* Third, although each would have separate adventures, their intimacy would continue, through confiding reunions and the support they gave each other as writers and intellectuals.

Well, many such adventures later, Sartre bonded with a woman much younger than de Beauvoir and made her his literary executrix. So the woman widely acknowledged as his widow-in-all-but-name was left with a disembodied memory and no title to any part of him.

You can call that authenticity, but I know some other names for it.

What is authenticity for a woman? Let me give you a hint:

Reality is not

socially constructed.

We are not the first generation to know sexuality. It’s been going on for many millennia and by now some old wives tales are extant. The collective wisdom of the human race is in them.

In recent years, a serial was filmed, based on the ancient epic of India, the Mahabharata. As long as the serial played on their TV screens, people watched it all over India.   In one scene, Krishna’s sister, who incarnates the feminine energy of the universe, is offered to the hero Arjuna as his bride. The wedding night approaches. She lies beneath the blankets in Arjuna’s royal bed, dressed to the chin in sumptuous, brilliantly colored, jeweled robes.

I’ll tell you what the divine bride does not do. She does not stare at the hero with the fearless eyes of a tigress.

Instead, she smiles cozily and looks downward, with perhaps an under-the-lashes, subliminal backward glance at the place where she recollects that her bridegroom stood. They both smile. Nobody makes a move. This scene of explosive coyness is played out very slowly.

Then darkness falls.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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