Beauvoir and the Question of a Woman’s Point of View
By Mann, Bonnie
Recently, philosophers have taken to announcing a revival or a renaissance in the study of the philosophical work of Simone de Beauvoir.1 Sonia Kruks argues that feminist Beauvoir studies, having passed through an early ( 1970s) phase in which women related to Beauvoir as an icon, and through a middle (1980s) phase in which feminist thinkers related to Beauvoir as an adversary, has now entered a phase of serious philosophical engagement.2 This latter phase tends to be celebratory and corroborative, and is marked by “careful and creative unwindings and rewindings of Beauvoir’s arguments.”3 The new feminist work on Beauvoir is, to my mind with great success, in the process of repudiating a series of claims that were frequently stated with certainty during the age of antagonism: that Beauvoir was simply Sartre’s mouthpiece; that she in fact disparaged women and particularly loathed female bodies; that she was an essentialist; alternately that she was a radical constructivist with a voluntaristic notion of sexual difference; and that she unequivocally and unapologetically adopted a masculine point of view.4 The repudiation of these claims has required detailed attention to the now well-documented failures of the (still, though this is soon to change) only English translation of the text;5 careful studies of the many philosophical influences on Beauvoir’s work besides Sartre;6 studies that attempt to show, through engagement with Beauvoir’s autobiographical and literary works in relation to the philosophical works of both Beauvoir and Sartre, that she in fact influenced him;7 and attention to the originality of Beauvoir’s philosophical method and often parodie voice.8
When I teach Beauvoir, my students are quickly moved by the new scholarship to acknowledge that Beauvoir cannot be reduced to Sartre; that there is both compassion and passion for women in her account; that her Marxist-influenced existential phenomenology can neither be reduced to essentialism nor to constructivism. But they often remain convinced that Beauvoir is taking up a “masculine point of view,” and in fact advocating that other women, as well, adopt male values, projects, and perspectives.9 There is still a great deal of work to be done to show in sufficient textual detail that Beauvoir’s “point of view,” particularly in The second Sex, or rather the multiple points of view that help build this polyphonic and complex philosophical text, can in no way be sufficiently described as “masculine.” In fact such a description proves to be reductive in the extreme. A decidedly non-masculine point of view, one that is anti-masculinist, or feminist to put the matter more positively, emerges in the text itself, as a close reading of a particular moment of such emergence will show. As importantly, the opening toward such a point of view is perhaps the primary performative effect of the reader’s engagement with the text. This second claim, that the text does something to change the relationship of its readers to the masculinist world they are immersed in, is frequently mentioned but too little studied.10
It is my contention that Beauvoir keeps the promise that she makes at the end of the introduction to volume I of The second Sex, about what she will do in volume II. After showing us how women have been constituted as the Other from a man’s point of view, she pledges, “then from woman’s point of view I shall describe the world which is offered to them: and thus we shall be able to understand the difficulties they run up against, at the moment when, endeavoring to make their escape from the sphere hitherto assigned to them, they aspire to full membership in the human Mitsein.”11 Of course, the very notion that there can be something like a “woman’s point of view” is the source of some criticism of Beauvoir, while others criticize her for failing to achieve it. ’21 am more sympathetic with the first claim, those who make it note that Beauvoir’s women are white and European and educated for the most part, so that even if some women ‘s “point of view” emerges in the text, it certainly won’t be every woman’s point of view-which is not to say that it might not be worth engaging nevertheless, even if one doesn’t find oneself well-represented by it. Others are concerned that no women’s point of view emerges at all, not even a limited and privileged one.
Here, emphasizing a single moment of the emergence of a woman’s point of view, I will show that the latter have not read Beauvoir very well. I am referring to those who have argued that the point of view offered by Beauvoir does little but “reinforce the masculine view of sexual difference”;13 that she abandons “her ostensible goal of uncovering the specific point of view of women as other, adopting instead, for the most part, a masculine point of view”;14 that she urges women “to become to all intents and purposes like men,” by overcoming their immanence through “identifying with masculine ideals and aspirations”;15 that she “does little more than rehash and intensify perennial phallocratie bromides,” since she is, in the end, “trapped in a phallocentrism” which makes “her feminism nothing but the operation of a woman who aspires to be like a man and whose voice is that of the ventriloquist’s dummy.”16 As mentioned, I find such readings reductive in the extreme.
By calling these readings reductive rather than just wrong, I mean to acknowledge that Beauvoir does indeed inhabit, or at least attempts to inhabit, at least writes as if she inhabits, various masculine (or better, masculinist) points of view-why else cite literature and philosophy written about women by men so voluminously? She also moves into the points of view of many women, including women who are very different from her in situation and character-as is reflected in her voluminous citations of writings by women. It is her critical movement between, and into and out of points of view that characterizes Beauvoir’s innovative (and specifically feminist) philosophical method.
Beauvoir’s Method: “Certain Women,” Philosophy, and Everyday Life
Of all of those who have argued that Beauvoir fails to take up a woman’s point of view, Tina Chanter has done so most explicitly. Chanter’s own aspiration is to affirm the work of Luce Irigaray, and especially the ways that, on her view, Irigaray surpassed Beauvoir17 by daring to wonder “what stakes are at risk in affirming femininity,”18 or “what it might mean to envisage experience from a specifically feminine point of view.”19 Beauvoir’s work, was “circumscribed by a totalizing way of thinking,”20 i.e., a “Sartrian understanding of the self as a being which consists of nothing but freedom.”21 This dominant commitment made her misread Hegel’s master- slave dialectic, Chanter argues; she made “the role of the other structurally constant”22 instead of dynamic, and this caused her to lose the significance of her own insight that women are “other” to men.23 For Chanter, it is Irigaray, not Beauvoir, who has taken the otherness of women seriously enough to actually inhabit, think, and write from “a feminine point of view.”24
Chanter argues that Beauvoir’s philosophical failures in this regard cannot be divorced from her personal failure to cast her lot with women, or in other words to speak from inside women’s situation. “At times, Beauvoir approaches the situation of women as if it does not concern her personally. It is almost as if Beauvoir is a disinterested observer of other women, set apart from them.”25 Beauvoir “considered herself largely exempt from the problems normally associated with women,”26 and so writes “as if she has already, once and for all, overcome her otherness.”27 Indeed, Chanter cites Beauvoir’s own claim that “some of us have never had to sense in our femininity an inconvenience or an obstacle,”28 even as she appropriately mentions that Beauvoir eventually withdrew the statement that some women had “by and large . . . won the game.”29 Beauvoir cannot succeed in her project of telling the story of women from women’s point of view, Chanter believes, because “she steps out of the very situation she seeks to describe from within. She speaks about the situation of women from a privileged position, as a writer, as if it were a problem she encounters exclusively in others.”30
Yet there are other ways of reading Beauvoir’s self-positioning than as a simple affirmation of a masculinist point of view in relation to women.31 While Beauvoir’s contemporary readers are certainly correct to be suspicious of her claim to have escaped the disadvantages of her sex, especially given our own struggles to see Beauvoir’s work receive the recognition it deserves, to entertain such suspicions does not require us to dismiss Beauvoir’s own self- positioning as unequivocally masculine or masculinist. In fact, we can just as easily read her as suggesting that a capacity to move between points of view is necessary for the one who will carry out the project she has in mind (that of answering two questions: “What is a woman?” on the one hand, and Why are women, so intractably, in the position of other? on the other). We might also question her claim that “certain women,” women who are relatively privileged, even the skeptics among us might admit, are less affected by the oppression that other women suffer, and are necessarily the ones to carry out the project, without reading into such a view that these women are equivalent to men. After all, Beauvoir has already made it very clear that men are not qualified to undertake such a project.32 In the absence of an Angel, she argues the case for “certain women,” women like her, not because they live exclusively in a man’s world, but because they live in both or in between worlds. Still, we know the feminine world more intimately than do the men because we have our roots in it, we grasp more immediately what it means to a human being to be feminine; and we are more concerned with such knowledge. I have said that there are more essential problems, but this does not prevent us from seeing some importance in asking how the fact of being women will affect our lives. What opportunities precisely have been given us and what withheld? What fate awaits our younger sisters, and in what direction should they be guided?31
What would be the point of asking “what opportunities precisely have been given us, and what withheld” if one already knew for sure one were utterly unaffected by women’s situation? Here, Beauvoir poses this as a question to be explored, even as a few sentences before she already seemed to possess the answer. Yet many readers have been better at hearing the supposed answer than the question, which follows it and destabilizes it. Beauvoir’s method is characterized by the frequent stating of certainties, which are subsequently destabilized by questions or counter-examples, without necessarily being discarded altogether. Her readers are frequently bothered by this, as Penelope Deutscher notes in her defense of Beauvoir’s “notorious contradictions.” Deutscher’s carefully argued position is that we would do well to pay attention to “what those unstable elements enable in her work” rather than disregarding or trying to resolve them.34 My attempt here is precisely to pay attention to the “instabilities” in point of view that allow Beauvoir to facilitate the emergence of a feminist point of view for both herself and her readers.
Those readers, like Chanter, who are suspicious of Beauvoir’s contradictions, have tended not to explore carefully enough just how it is that Beauvoir is relating to and differentiating herself from the larger numbers of women who are not among the “certain women” who are qualified to write The second Sex. Chanter cites a passage from The Prime of Life in which Beauvoir gives her readers a kind of hint or foreshadow of her motivation for beginning The second Sex, mentioning a number of conversations with women “who led normal, married lives” that helped to convince her that a “specifically feminine ‘condition’” existed.35 These women were in different situations than Beauvoir’s usual women friends, who were educated and economically independent as she was. “Now, suddenly, I met a large number of women over forty who, in differing circumstances and with various degrees of success, had all undergone one identical experience: they had lived as ‘relative beings.’”36 Chanter uses this as further evidence that Beauvoir sees herself as removed from the “difficulties, deceptive advantages, traps, and manifold obstacles that most women encounter on their path,” and indeed, Beauvoir does say this was “a question which concerned me only indirectly.”37 But she also says, in a portion of the citation Chanter omits, “I didn’t yet attach a lot of importance to it.”38 The aspect of these varied women’s situations that is “identical” (though different from hers), their experience of having lived as relative beings, seems to be key for Beauvoir; it catches her attention.39 Indeed, she will come to attach a great deal of importance to it: what happens when one lives as a relative person, materially and ontologically dependent? These encounters are not dismissed as uninteresting conversations with slavish women, but taken account of as another step for Beauvoir in her move toward engaged philosophy. “I began to realize how much I had gone wrong before the war, on so many points, by sticking to abstractions. I now knew that it did make a very great difference whether one was a Jew or Aryan; but it had not yet dawned on me that such a thing as a specifically feminine ‘condition’ existed.”40 She has, to this point, seen the problem that she and her other women friends have encountered as “individual rather than generic.”41 Yet, here, she is moving away from such abstractions, by listening to women who have lived as “relative beings” and realizing that such relativity constitutes a specific, and specifically feminine, condition. Here she is being turned, through conversation, to a reconsideration of the abstract philosophy that cannot countenance such women and their lives-in fact the conversations affect how she sees her own life and the lives of those friends most like her. Chanter misses the spirit of self-criticism in this passage completely. Beauvoir suggests that she catches herself indulging in abstractions when her own troubles and those of her friends “in her eyes” are individual.42 She begins to realize that there is a “generic” element in their troubles; an element that she implies is related to the specifically feminine condition of living as a relative being.
Beauvoir encounters, through these new friendships, a point of view that is not hers but that will become important to her in her efforts to understand what it means to be a woman, even for those who have escaped the traditionally gendered condition of outright dependence. Again, Beauvoir is moving between points of view: this time that of the educated, economically independent woman who has access to and understands herself to be part of a world devoted to the life of the mind, a world which is, contingently but intransigently, masculine and masculinist; and that of women living women’s condition in more traditional ways.
The development in Beauvoir’s philosophical method that will allow her to write The second Sex is beginning here.43 Beauvoir’s own criticisms of her earlier philosophical work as “abstract” rather than sufficiently engaged with the concrete situations that constitute oppression and the limits of liberation, is just taking shape. As Bauer notes, “the great achievement of The Second Sex, to the extent that it succeeds as a work of philosophy, lies in Beauvoir’s finding a nonabstract and yet recognizably philosophical mode of self-conscious expression.”44 In what does this method consist?: “Beauvoir’s holding her everyday experience as a woman, in all its concreteness, in the same space as her philosophical investigation into what it means to be a woman, in all its abstraction.”45 Bringing philosophical abstraction into conversation with everyday experience (and we should note that it is not only her own everyday experience, but that of other women as well) is no easy task for a philosopher trained in abstractions, but Beauvoir manages it precisely through her agile movement between points of view, and because she refuses to divorce herself from the concrete and particular condition of being a woman, even as she notices that she has not lived the consequences of that condition to the same degree that other women have.
Beauvoir’s new philosophical method requires her to make room in her text for many voices to speak from many points of view,46 and it requires her to move into and dwell in those points of view for a time. Bringing philosophy into conversation with everyday life requires listening to what is commonly said about women, also by those quoting Plato, Aristotle, and other great men; those who effectively help to constitute the “metaphysical-imaginary level”47 of women’s situation of oppression. It requires listening to and inhabiting the points of view of women and girls as well, whose lived experience both varies and overlaps; as Beauvoir does so effectively through her voluminous citations of women’s diaries, women psychoanalysts, a broad array of women writers, and her own conversations with women. These points of view are entangled, they are in conversation with one another, they interrupt, contradict, and corroborate one another, with a complexity that is, at times, utterly overwhelming. The cacophony exposes the contingency and situatedness of each point of view in relation to the others, without sacrificing the ethical force of the claim for freedom for women that begins to emerge in the process.
Beauvoir’s Four Worlds: Woman’s Situation and Character
A particular moment of The second Sex in which the question of “point of view” is worked out in great detail occurs late in volume 2, in the chapter entitled “Situation and Character of Woman.” Yet this chapter has received very little critical attention, including by Chanter, who doesn’t mention the chapter in her own essay taking Beauvoir to task for not fulfilling her promise to speak of women from “women’s point of view.” To be clear, the entire second volume is replete with women’s points of view, and I find it almost impossible to understand how Chanter makes her claim without at the same time engaging the many women’s voices Beauvoir engages; one would need to at least make an argument that the presence of these women’s voices does not express or represent Beauvoir’s own point of view in any meaningful way, and that she included them for some other reason. The point I would like to make here is a slightly different one, however, because in “Situation and Character” Beauvoir leaves off her practice of lengthy, polyphonic citations, and promises, “we will try to adopt a synthetic view.”48
The “synthetic view” Beauvoir proposes will, in part, be one that simply confirms her constant claim that situation gives rise to character. All of the multiple, contradictory, disparaging, and paternalistically glorifying things that are said of women, and that women themselves expose when they speak, are not simply false, but contain elements of truth. The “truth” of these elements points, however, not to women’s biology or “the structure of the female brain,” but to characteristics that “are shaped as in a mold by her situation.”49 Beauvoir refuses to glorify the oppression of women or to flatter women by turning “her prison into a heaven of glory, her servitude into sovereign liberty.”50 She doesn’t exalt the “eternal feminine” because to do so is a “sometimes ridiculous, often pathetic”51 attempt to turn one’s subordination into virtue; a tendency she will soon examine in detail through the characters of the narcissist, the woman in love, and the mystic. Oppression, on Beauvoir’s view, rarely makes virtuous heroes. But this chapter, in fact, does much more work than that. In drawing her conclusions about the relation between situation and character for both men and women, Beauvoir, in great detail, gives an account of four points of view which emerge from the situations in which both men and women find themselves. In the end, we will find women judging men and the masculine universe, and often not in positive terms. Men are frivolous and obtrusive drone bees, children, simpletons, tyrants, and egoists.52 Beauvoir herself moves between points of view, inhabiting and articulating their truths and their judgments, destabilizing all of them in the process. But she also draws some very important conclusions about women’s points of view and their relation to the truth, conclusions that make the claim that Beauvoir herself took up and affirmed or celebrated a masculinist point of view in some simple way clearly untenable.
As she moves between points of view, sometimes several times in a single sentence, she constructs an elaborate account of what I am calling for the sake of conceptual clarity, four distinct, interdependent, conflicted, and complex worlds. We might simply say that Beauvoir shows us the world from four distinct, interdependent, conflicted and complex points of view; but in fact the separate points of view in question constitute worlds of value that are distinct and identifiable. Beauvoir’s descriptions of each world allow us to identify an ontology, epistemology, temporality, and mode of relation particular to it.
Beauvoir begins her account by noting, echoing her claim in the introduction that women “live dispersed among the males,”53 that women don’t have an independent society, but live as subordinates “integrated into the collectivity governed by the males,”54 unable to constitute a truly revolutionary collectivity themselves. Yet women have a world, enclosed, surrounded as it is by the “masculine universe,” a world which they set up “within the frame of the masculine universe.”55 “Hence the paradox of their situation: they belong at one and the same time to the male world and to a sphere in which that world is challenged”;56 a circumstance which creates a certain tension that deeply characterizes women’s situation and women’s points of view.
The dominant masculine universe is, as to be expected by now, the universe of transcendence and action, of projects and world-making. The dominant feminine world is the world of immanence and repetition, of drudgery and jam-making. Yet this fundamental division, which has been clearly specified in the text from the beginning, is given new detail and clarity at this moment in the text. In addition, the outlines of two other worlds begin to emerge, because of course the masculine world requires the feminine and vice versa, so that there is a relation and a movement between them. As it turns out, there is a feminine relation to the masculine world of transcendence that constitutes a world of its own, and a masculine relation to the world of immanence that constitutes its own world as well. I will discuss each in turn, referring to the four worlds under the following designations: the masculine world of transcendence; the feminine world of immanence; the masculine world of immanence; and the feminine world of transcendence. In addition, there is a feminine relation to both masculine points of view which, while not constituting a world in itself, allows a woman’s point of view to emerge in an extremely sharp and critical way.
The Masculine World of Transcendence
The masculine world of transcendence is the world that Beauvoir’s detractors accuse her of uncritically affirming. This is the world of projects, risk, and action, understood by the men who are at home there to be governed by the universal laws of nature and reason.57 In this world, technical training permits the domination of matter, and its typical inhabitant is accustomed to approaching his world as “an assemblage of instruments” intermediate between his will and his goals.58 Here an ontology of mechanical causality is accompanied by an epistemology of science and reason. The individual’s mode of relation to his world is one of knowledge/action, at an extreme, of conquest. “He regards history as a becoming,”59 because in this world, the future is open and progress, while not assumed, is expected. A temporality of progress requires both continuity and creativity in relation to the past. Man is the creative element that shapes time into progress.
In this world, action is a teacher, and the one who does also learns. “Her husband, her son, when undertaking an enterprise or facing an emergency, run their own risks; their plans, the regulations they follow, indicate a road through obscurity.”60 The lessons of action tend to moderate extreme views of right and wrong, “the individual who acts considers himself, like others, responsible for both evil and good, he knows that it is for him to define ends, to bring them to success; he becomes aware, in action, of the ambiguousness of all solutions; justice and injustice, gains and losses, are inextricably mixed.”61 The man of transcendence has a grasp upon the world, confidence in the complex efficacy of his action, and above all a sense of himself as one who creates value. His actions will participate in the course of history and the shaping of our collective public life.
The Feminine World of Immanence
The world of immanence, centered in the private sphere of the household, is where woman enjoys “a precarious sovereignty.”62 “Precarious” because her power depends on her accommodation to and ability to “listen” to the magic forces that govern this realm.63 “It is not matter she comes to grips with but life; and life cannot be mastered through the use of tools: one can only submit to its secret laws.”64 In the home, she is a patient alchemist: “One must obey the fire, the water, wait for the sugar to melt, wait for the dough to rise, and also for the wash to dry, for the fruits to ripen.”65 This world is not under her control, “it is, on the contrary, something obstinately resistant, unconquerable; it is dominated by fatality and shot through with mysterious caprices.”66 An ontology of magic is attended by an epistemology of hidden forces, “the continuity of which can be accepted without being understood.”67 In pregnancy and childbirth, she “feels the strength of a continuity that the most ingenious instruments are unable to divide or to multiply.”68 Her mode of relation to her world is one of harmony, not conquest; she works with the hidden forces, not against them; except insofar as such forces threaten decay. In this world, time is repetition, at its worst “a slow deterioration: it wears out the furniture and clothes as it ruins the face”;69 and “women’s fate is bound up with that of perishable things”;70 this temporality of repetition and decay applies to women as well. Housework, repetitious in itself, is the activity through which a woman stakes a hopeless claim against the ravages of time. Yet this world does not leave her entirely powerless. “The domain in which she is confined is surrounded by the masculine universe, but it is haunted by obscure forces of which men are themselves the playthings; if she allies herself with these magical forces she will come to power in her turn.”71
Beauvoir is herself ambivalent about women’s tendency to embrace the magical world of nature as a way of lending it “a transcendent dimension.”72 She affirms that a relation to the natural world teaches that “life is not merely immanence and repetition; it has also a dazzling face of light; in flowery meadows it is revealed as Beauty.”71 Wandering in nature is a free activity, often engaged in by young girls, to which the adult woman sometimes returns. “Any woman who has preserved her independence through all her servitudes will ardently love her own freedom in nature,”74 Beauvoir asserts, “it is ecstasy to find herself alone on the hillsides; she is no longer mother, wife, housekeeper, but a human being; she contemplates the passive world, and she remembers that she is a wholly conscious being, an irreducible free individual.”75 Here women move through the world of immanence to a sense of themselves as something more than “relative beings.” Yet Beauvoir is critical of the elements of superstition that help to structure women’s point of view in this realm. “Her attitude will be one of conjuration and prayer,” Beauvoir notes, “to obtain a certain result, she will perform certain well-tested rites.” This leaves women “ignorant of what constitutes true action, capable of changing the face of the world.”76 As we know, for Beauvoir, freedom itself is world- changing, value-creating action-if women encounter freedom and their own humanity wandering in nature, that freedom can only be fulfilled in “true action” which requires the presence of other freedoms and has meaning only in relation to them.
Nevertheless, as we will see in more detail below, women’s relation to the realm of immanence constitutes a point of view which enables her to gain critical distance, at least sometimes, from the masculine. “Masculine reasoning is quite inadequate to the reality with which she deals,” Beauvoir notes. Even as “in the world of men, her thought, not flowing into any project, since she does nothing, is indistinguishable from daydreaming,”77 in her world “the male seems light,” like one whose power is real but abstract;78 this is a power that demands things but can’t manage to accomplish anything on its own. The Masculine World of Immanence
Critics of The second Sex often accuse Beauvoir of simply reaffirming a division between either nature and culture, or immanence and transcendence, or both. They read her as having uncritically opposed the two realms.79 What is missing from these accounts is that Beauvoir saw the two realms as having an ambiguous rather than oppositional or simple hierarchical relation to one another. A relation of ambiguity, for Beauvoir, while containing moments of opposition and tension, is not reducible to a simple opposition; it includes dependencies, harmonies, inversions, and limits as well. While Beauvoir clearly associates men with transcendence and women with immanence throughout The second Sex, and clearly believes that women’s association with the realm of immanence is a primary structure of women’s oppression, to describe the relation between immanence and transcendence as one of simple opposition and hierarchy (the realm of immanence being the inferior) misses the fact that one of Beauvoir’s chief criticisms of idealism in the history of Western philosophy was that it constituted a flight from immanence.80 Immanence, for Beauvoir, is not to be overcome, but taken up; escape or flight is as inauthentic as is escape or flight from freedom.
No wonder, then, that we find men do live in the world of immanence, for Beauvoir, and not very well. In “Situation and Character” we find that “there is a whole region of human experience which the male deliberately chooses to ignore because he fails to think it.”81 This is why the housekeeper can exclaim in frustration, “Men, they don’t think!”82 Yet, men do cross the threshold into the domain of immanence daily. Perhaps the primary loss suffered by men at the moment of this crossing is the loss of masculine logic. “A syllogism is no help in making a successful mayonnaise, nor in quieting a child in tears, masculine reasoning is quite inadequate to the reality with which [woman] deals.”83 In fact, the “masculine apparatus loses its powers on the frontier of the feminine realm,”84 “the weapons of thought are shattered.”85 The ontology of reason and mechanical causality that secures his power in the world of transcendence must be left on the doorstep, as it were, it won’t work here.
A man’s response is determined disinterest in how things work, as long as they do, and on command. “The engineer, so precise when he is laying out his diagrams, behaves at home like a minor god: a word, and behold, his meal is served, his shirts starched, his children quieted; procreation is an act as swift as the wave of Moses’ wand, he sees nothing astounding in these miracles.”86 Nothing astounding, because a god need not be astounded at his power to work miracles through divine command. When he steps over the threshold into the realm of immanence, a man enters an ontology of the miraculous. His epistemology, if he has one, is that a god might have; the only thing the “paternal minor god” needs is to know is that his commands bring forth miracles, that both matter and creatures obey him. His mode of relation to the world he enters, then, is one of divine command. Time changes when he walks through the door. It is no longer time in the shape of progress, but rather the temporality of instantaneous creation that he experiences. “The concept of the miracle,” Beauvoir notes, “is different from the idea of magic: it presents, in the midst of a world of rational causation, the radical discontinuity of an event without cause…. The newborn child is miraculous for the paternal minor god, magical for the mother who has experienced its coming to term within her womb.”87 The mother who carries the child and births her into separate existence is party to the hidden forces of life, while the father merely receives the miraculous gift, one he considers to be of his own creation. “He has the lightness of dictators, generals, judges, bureaucrats, codes of law, and abstract principles;” from the point of view of those who know the mysterious forces of life he seems frivolous and obtrusive.88
Of course a minor god such as this, comfortable with divine command, will be utterly awkward, laughable even, if he steps down from his throne and actually tries to do something rather than command that it be done. Women know this, and are sharply cynical in relation to men’s power in this realm, “she sees man from top to toe, as a valet sees his master”; 89 she knows that he is incompetent and dependent on her in the realm of immanence, that without her his power is mere abstraction. In this world, she is not a religious woman but a mystic, and her husband’s divine command breeds cynicism, resentment, protest, complaint, even cruelty, in response. This is not to say, however, that she is not a religious woman at all, she becomes so, at least for a time, in relation to the world of transcendence.
The Feminine World of Transcendence
While the feminine relation to transcendence is tenuous, on Beauvoir’s view, it still manages to constitute a world with a distinct ontology, epistemology, temporality and mode of relation from the others. Lacking in “the technological training that would permit her to dominate matter,”90 “ignorant of what constitutes true action, capable of changing the face of the world,” and “not familiar with the use of masculine logic,”9I this world seems to her to be opaque. In relation to this realm, her husband is “the liberating hero, the divinity who bestows values”;92 she gains her worth in this realm, and what access she has to it, through her relation to him. Beauvoir takes note of the ecstatic expression “He’s a man!” as an example of the awe that some women are only too eager to express in the face of masculine virility93-another version of the expression is “He’s a man’s man!” I was reminded of the exclamation I’ve heard from parents about their male children, “He’s all boy!” meant to invoke lighthearted frustration undergirded by awe and pride. These exclamations seem, simultaneously, to confer value on the girlfriend or wife, on the mother who uses them. He has access, even more than less manly men, to the realm of action and meaning in which things are done and values count in the most public, collective sense. This realm is not opaque, but completely transparent to him. Here, her value is also established-by her connection to him.
Given this situation, she has little recourse but to adopt a mode of relation to this world that resembles religious commitment. “The masculine world seems to her a transcendent reality, an absolute,” so that for her, the ontology of this world is mysterious in the way that a divinity or an absolute is mysterious to the world of mortals. Her epistemology is dogmatic faith, “blind, impassioned, obstinate, stupid.” w She is dependent, for her own grasp upon the world, on her husband, who “embodies the masculine universe”95 and is situated so as to be able to act in it. The future is, for her, closed; she has no grasp upon this world that would give her hope of changing it except through him. She waits for change rather than undertaking it. A temporality of waiting and worrying is her lot.96
But this situation of dependence is unstable. It provokes, in women, a state of ecstatic awe and worshipful enthusiasm, on the one hand; but her enforced passivity provokes resignation on the other. And resignation is itself unstable. In fact, Beauvoir notes, “resentment is the reverse side of dependence.”97 A woman’s faith in the world of transcendence is liable to reverse itself and become persistent distrust. A free existent, cut off from the possibility of free action, is “not resigned to being resigned,” she is bound to protest the fact that “everything happens to her through the agency of others.”98 The instability of her situation of being a “relative being” in the realm of transcendence pushes toward the emergence of her own point of view.
Situational Instabilities and Women’s Points of View
A women’s point of view emerges in both the feminine realms of immanence and transcendence, as we’ve already seen. There are certain instabilities in her relation to men’s points of view that serve to motivate and sharpen this emergence even further. There are two aspects of this instability that I would like to examine more closely here: hypocrisy and lying. Women encounter masculine hypocrisy by observing how men move between the realm of transcendence and the realm of immanence, how they change, how they divest themselves of public values and commitments at the door to the private sphere. The masculine demand for lying on the part of women also serves to expose masculine dependence, vulnerability, and frivolity.
As women’s point of view emerges in the realm of immanence, Beauvoir notes that “to the myth of the praying mantis, women contrast the symbol of the frivolous and obtrusive drone bee.”99 He is frivolous and obtrusive from her point of view, because he fails to think the realm of immanence, or to understand how anything happens here. Nevertheless, he is fond of asserting the wisdom that reigns in the masculine realm of transcendence in conversation with her, because he needs her recognition. This she cannot give without reservation, since her point of view makes her see things differently, the world she is most at home in contests the world he presents to her. “It is understandable, in this [her] perspective, that woman takes exception to his masculine logic. Not only is it inapplicable to her experience, but in his hands, as she knows, masculine reasoning becomes an underhand form of violence; men’s peremptory proclamations are destined to mystify her.”100 She responds by sidestepping the argument rather than conceding; “halfway between revolt and slavery, she resigns herself reluctantly to masculine authority,” yet “she knows that he has himself chosen the premises on which his rigorous deductions depend.”101 In other words, she knows that the principles of his argument are not universal principles, even as he presents them as such. How does she know this? Because he doesn’t understand the first thing about how her world works, and she knows he doesn’t. “He will not convince her, for she senses his arbitrariness.”102 She understands that his is, in other words, another point of view, rather than god’s truth. Not only that, his point of view is interested, it is a way of winning power. “She refuses to play the game because she knows the dice are loaded.”103 He senses that he is not really winning. Really winning would mean that she would recognize his point of view as absolute, yet she only acquiesces to avoid an argument; he senses that she senses his frivolity, his arbitrariness.
Her skepticism of him is not only based on the differences between the feminine world of immanence and the masculine world of transcendence, however. What turns her suspicion into muted anger is her recognition that masculine morality “is a vast hoax,” and that her husband needs her to lie.
It is not only the changing nature of life that makes her suspicious of the principle of constant identity, nor is it the magic phenomena with which she is surrounded that destroy the notion of causality. It is as the heart of the masculine world itself, it is in herself as belonging to this world that she comes upon the ambiguity of all principle, of all value, of everything that exists. She knows that masculine morality, as it concerns her, is a vast hoax. Man pompously thunders forth his code of virtue and honor; but in secret he invites her to disobey it, and he even counts on this disobedience; without it, all that splendid facade behind which he takes cover would collapse.104
How does he “invite her to disobey”? In truth, this isn’t just an invitation, but a requirement. “Man even demands play-acting: he wants her to be the Other, but all existents remain subjects, try as they will to deny themselves. Man wants woman to be object: she makes herself object; at the very moment when she does that, she is exercising a free activity.”105 The duplicity required of her is not one that can always be successfully masked. “Sometimes the fact that in giving herself to him she looks at him and judges him is enough to make him feel duped; she is supposed to be only something offered, no more than prey. He also demands, however, that this ‘thing’ give herself over to him of her own free will: in bed he asks her to feel pleasure; in the home she must sincerely recognize his superiority and his merits.”106 His need for her recognition is unstable in that it requires a free subject, yet requires this free subject to make herself object, in which making she proves herself to be a subject-he demands, in short, that she “feign independence at the moment of obedience.”107 Should women succeed in somehow convincing their men of their adulation, afterwards, “with lovers or woman friends, they make fun of the naive vanity of their dupes.”108
Meanwhile, women recognize that the lying man demands of woman means that “his relations with woman lie .in a contingent region, where morality no longer applies, where conduct is a matter of indifference.”109 This situation destabilizes masculine morality in general. She sees, from her point of view, “the contrast between the lofty tone of his public utterances and behavior and ‘his persevering inventions in the dark.’”110
Men’s hypocrisy, their insistence that women lie, insure that women will recognize “that there is not any fixed truth,”1″ even as men continue to demand that women recognize the “truth” they pronounce as absolute. Beauvoir is basically claiming here that women’s situation, their point of view in relation to what men say they know, pushes women to recognize a primary tenet of existentialist philosophy: that meaning and values are made, and must constantly be remade. Men’s “truths” are held in place by force. This realization is at the root of women’s “incoherent violence,”112 their attitudes of “constant reproach” of “complaint,”113 their “impotent revolt,”114 their “state of impotent rage.”115 Her husband (Beauvoir implies: not quite justly) is the object of her rage because “he embodies the masculine universe, through him male society has taken charge of her and swindled her.”116 While she does not have the kind of grasp upon the world that can enable her to establish a “solid counter-universe”117 to his, that would enable her to act collectively to change her situation,118 her rage must be interpreted as the only available “form of protest.”119
One does not protest without a point of view. Beauvoir’s own attitude toward such protest is clearly one of understanding, affirmation even, as she insists, “there are many aspects of feminine behavior that should be interpreted as forms of protest,” rather than character flaws.120 While there is nothing ideal about “impotent rage” it is a far cry from slavish complaisance. The one who affirms this rage as protest, who sees and invites her readers to see male hypocrisy and moral duplicity with and through the eyes of women in traditionally feminine situations, is far from unequivocally affirming a masculine point of view as either universal or normative. She translates impotent rage into ethical action. Beauvoir is, after all, protesting throughout The second Sex; protesting the situation of woman, the “feminine condition” that loosens a woman’s grasp upon the world, closes the future to her, and makes her live as a “relative being.”
But in the end, Beauvoir’s own point of view is not the same as that of the women who are living the “feminine condition” in its traditional form, who are living as “relative beings.” What makes “certain women” qualified to write a book like The second Sex is a capacity to move in and between points of view. This capacity itself emerges as a result of a situation: that of being a woman who has not suffered the lot of women to the extent that others have; that of being a woman who has had many of the privileges and opportunities that men traditionally enjoy; that of being a woman who has moved between worlds and retains her footing in more than one place at a time; that of being what, from a masculinist point of view, is a contradiction in terms: a woman who is also a philosopher and a writer. What makes “certain women” qualified to write about women from a woman’s point of view is being able to hear what a man couldn’t: the voice of another woman who experiences “the feminine condition” more acutely. It is a capacity to acknowledge that such a woman may be “more attentive than man” to herself and to the world,121 that she may experience time more intimately than man, that “she experiences more passionately, more movingly, the reality in which she is submerged than does the individual absorbed in an ambition or a profession,” that “she sometimes draws up real generosity,” and her suspicion of “ready-made forms and cliches is nearer to authenticity than is the self-important assurance of her husband.”122
Beauvoir thought that she needed economic independence, to start with, in order to be able to write The second Sex. She also needed another sort of independence, one that came from the experience of moving between worlds that had been traditionally closed to one another. This was an experience that loosened the holds of sanctified masculine truths, even as it gave her access to them; that kept her listening to the experiences of women more trapped within the “feminine condition” even as it gave her powerful intellectual tools to articulate the realities of that condition. To reduce Beauvoir’s ability to live and think the possibilities of her own situation, to construct a point of view through engaging many points of view, to a “male point of view” is to miss the point of what Beauvoir has done for us completely.
It is often noted that the act of reading The Second Sex has been life-changing for many women. I include myself here, since reading the book at the age of nineteen was what gathered my “impotent rage” into a feminist life. Reading the book still makes women into feminists: I see this every time I teach the text. The act of reading The second Sex can only do this because the book draws the reader into a point of view that is critical and anti-masculinist. It does this work by taking the reader on a 1000-page journey (700 if she is reading the English version!) into and out of a multitude of points of view, both masculine and feminine, on the subject of woman. These are interrogated, destabilized, questioned, contradicted; and gradually, a point of view that is ethically committed to the freedom of women emerges as a result. This is Beauvoir’s point of view, neither masculinist, nor traditionally feminine, bat feminist.
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-1295
1. Nancy Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001); William McBride, “Philosophy, Literature, and Everyday Life in The Second Sex: The Current Beauvoir Revival,” Bulletin de la Societe Americaine de Philosophie de Langue Francaise 13 (2003): 32-44; Sonia Kruks. “Beauvoir’s Time/Our Time: The Renaissance in Simone de Beauvoir Studies.” Feminist Studies 31 (2005): 286-309.
2. Ibid. Kruks herself acknowledges that “the story is not quite as neat as I have suggested; stories never are” (289-90). During the adversary period, there were moments of engagement, and during the period of engagement, there are moments of dismissal that persist, as we will see below. 3. Ibid.
4. There are now many summaries of these claims. See for example: Penelope Deutscher, “The Notorious Contradictions of Simone de Beauvoir,” in Yielding Gender: Feminism, Deconstruction and the History of Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1997); Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, 3-4; Kruks “Beauvoir’s Time/ Our Time,” 287-89.
5. Margaret Simons. “The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What’s Missing from The Second Sex.” Women’s Studies International Forum 6/5 (1983): 559-64; Toril Moi. “While We Wait: Notes on the English Translation of The Second Sex.” in The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Emily R. Grosholz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 37-68. Apparently, a new translation is now in the works, though the publishers have elected not to do a scholarly edition and the translators are not themselves philosophers. See “Bookforum” in Artforum, Apr/May 2007. It is important to note that the criticisms of Beauvoir mentioned here were by no means limited to readings of Beauvoir by English language speakers, however. While attention to the problems of translation have been key to troubling some work in the Anglo-American tradition of Beauvoir scholarship, and translation errors clearly exacerbated certain tendencies among Beauvoir’s English-language critics, better translation is not in itself enough to refute the main claims of the critics altogether.
6. See for example: Sara Heinamaa, Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference: Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003); Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir; Sonia Kruks, Situation and Human Existence: Freedom, Subjectivity and Society (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990).
7. See for example Kate Fullbrook and Edward Fullbrook, “Sartre’s secret Key,” in Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir ed. Margaret A. Simons (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995), 97-111; Sonia Kruks, “Simone de Beauvoir: Teaching Sartre about Freedom,” in ibid., 79-95.
8. See Nancy Bauer, “Must we Read Simone de Beauvoir,” in The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir, 115-35, for one of the best accounts of what Beauvoir manages, methodologically, in The second Sex, and Deutscher “The Notorious Contradictions,” for a positive account of the instabilities in Beauvoir’s text.
9. Fredrika Scarth argues that “the charges of masculinism . . . have come to constitute almost a critical consensus on The Second Sex” in “Simone de Beauvoir: A Masculine Mother?” in The Other Within: Ethics, Politics and The Body in Simone de Beauvoir (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 32. She, along with others (see also Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir), makes some headway in refuting this claim, yet it seems to persist in readers of Beauvoir in spite of these efforts. Scarth’s defense, with which I am in sympathy, is focused on accusations that Beauvoir rejected the female body, rather than critical readings of the question of “point of view” such as the one presented here.
10. Le Doeuff is an exception here, see her essay “Operative Philosophy: Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism,” in E. Marks, ed., Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co, 1987), 144-54.
11. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Irans, by H. M. Parshley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1951), xxxv; Le deuxieme sexe, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), l :34. All citations from the introduction are from an unpublished translation by Beata Stawrska and Boonie Mann, the page numbers follow those of the Parshley translation. Mitsein comes from Heidegger and is German for “being- with.” For an analysis of Beauvoir’s appropriation of the term from Heidegger, see Nancy Bauer, “Beauvoir’s Heideggerian Ontology” in The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, ed. by Margaret Simons (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), 65-91. My thanks to Beata Stawarska for assistance with French translations.
12. Beauvoir herself noted the difficulty. After mentioning the difference in situation between women “of the upper middle classes and aristocracy” and “the housekeeper,” she notes: “It is as absurd, then, to speak of ‘woman’ in general, as of the ‘eternal’ man. And we understand why all comparisons are idle which purport to show that woman is superior, inferior, or equal to man, for their situations are profoundly different” (The Second Sex, 627). She also argues that women of the upper classes are more “eager accomplices” to their oppression than other women, in part because “a woman whose work is done by servants has no grip on the world” (The Second Sex,, 626-27).
13. Moira Gatens, Feminism and Philosophy: Perspectives on Difference and Equality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 56.
14. Tina Chanter, Ethics of Eros: lrigaray ‘s Rewriting of the Philosophers (New York: Routledge, 1995), 51.
15. Ibid., 75.
16. Celine T. Leon, “Beauvoir’s Woman: Eunuch or Male?” in Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, 152-53.
17. Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 48.
18. Ibid., 74.
19. Ibid., 50.
20. Ibid., 50.
21. Ibid., 61.
22. Ibid., 67.
23. For a much more positive view of Beauvoir’s appropriation of Hegel see Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir.
24. The use of “feminine” here is problematic. Beauvoir uses the term in at least two ways: to designate a condition of oppression on the one hand and as another way of saying “pertaining to women” on the other. These distinct usages tend to be entangled both in Beauvoir’s text and in the critical literature, so that the claim that Beauvoir didn’t speak “from a woman’s point of view” and the claim that she didn’t speak from a “feminine point of view” are presented as equivalent-which they are, but only if “feminine” is used in the second, rather than the first, form-and this difference generally remains unremarked. In the present essay, when I use “feminine point of view” in relation to Beauvoir, I intend the second usage, “pertaining to women”; when I speak of “the feminine condition” I intend the first usage, as I think Beauvoir did. Of course, this problem is worth a paper in itself, since women’s point of view, in the second sense, is informed and structured by the “feminine condition” in the first sense. The “woman’s point of view” that emerges in Beauvoir’s work through the exploration of multiple points of view is not simply feminine in the first sense, however, which may be what bothers some of her critics, though it is feminine in the second sense-the best word for this new point of view, however, is feminist, even though Beauvoir had not yet embraced the term herself.
25. Chanter, “Ethics of Eros,” 54.
27. Ibid., 75.
28. The Second Sex, xxxiii; Le deuxieme sexe, 1:32; cited in Chanter, “Ethics of Eros,” 53.
29. Ibid. The retraction occurs in All Said and Done, Irans. Patrick O’Brian (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 491.
30. Chanter, “Ethics of Eros,” 75.
31. The most reductive assertion in this regard belongs not to Chanter but to Leon, who states simply that “hers is indeed a male, and far from healthy, way of looking at women and sexuality,” completely failing to see that Beauvoir takes on and takes up various perspectives without affirming them as true or unproblematic (“Beauvoir’s Woman,” 143). For a defense of Beauvoir on this point on slightly different grounds than those here, see Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, 219-23.
32. The Second Sex, xxxii-xxxiii.
33. Ibid., xxxiii-xxxiv; Le deuxieme sexe, 1:32.
34. Deutscher, fielding Gender, 192.
40. Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, trans. Peter Green (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1962), 452; La Force de L’Age (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 586 If I have amended the translation this will be indicated. The French here reads: “je ne m’etais pas avisee qu’il y eut une condition feminine” (La Force de L’Age, 586).
41. The Prime of Life, 452; La Force de L’AgeSST. Translation amended by the author. Green translates “etres relatifs” as “dependent beings.”
42. Ibid. Translation amended by the author. The French reads: “une question qui ne me touchait qu’indirectement.” Green translates this as “the problem did not concern me directly.”
38. Ibid., emphasis added. French: “Je n’accordai pas encore beaucoup d’importance.” Translation amended by the author. Green translates the passage as “as yet I contributed comparatively little importance to it.”
39. Ibid. French: “mon attention fut eveillee”.
40. The Prime of Life, 452; Force de l’Age, 586. Emphasis in the original.
43. Bauer argues that Beauvoir doesn’t come into her own, philosophically, until she comes upon the method that will allow her to write The Second Sex; see “Must We Read.”
44. Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, 160.
45. Bauer, “Must We Read,” 134.
46. Michele Le Doeuff. “Towards a Friendly, Transatlantic Critique of The Decond Sex,” Irans. E. Grosholz, in The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir, 31-32.
47. Ibid., 32.
48. The Second Sex, 597, Le deuxieme sexe, 2:477. Translation amended by the author. The French reads, “Nous allons essayer de prendre sur celle-ci une vue synthetique,” Parshley translates the passage as: “We shall endeavor to make a comprehensive survey.”
50. Ibid., 628.
52. Ibid., 612.
53. Ibid., xv.
54. Ibid., 597; Le deuxieme sexe 2:477. Translation amended by the author. The French reads: “elles sont integrees a la collectivite gouvernee par les males.”
57. Not all men are: “There are many men who, like women, are restricted to the sphere of the intermediary and instrumental, of the inessential means.Destined like woman to the repetition of daily tasks, identified with ready-made values respectful of public opinion, and seeking on earth naught but a vague comfort, the employee, the merchant, the office worker, are in no way superior to their accompanying females. Cooking, washing, managing her house, bringing up children, woman shows more initiative and independence than the man slaving under orders,” 624. Here it is clear that Beauvoir is dealing in gendered meanings, providing a “phenomenological inquiry into the constitution of the meaning of sexual difference” (Heinamaa, Toward a Phenomenology, xiii), while realizing that the positioning of men as well as women in relation to those meanings will be dependent on the specifics of a situation, and the situations of men are multiple, as are the situations of women. Yet it is possible, and necessary, to speak meaningfully of a “masculine” or a “feminine” condition that differently situated subjects will necessarily experience, negotiate, resist, or escape. 58. I am paraphrasing what Beauvoir says of women in the world of immanence in the negative, citing Heidegger (The Second Sex., 598).
59. Ibid., 601.
60. Ibid., 606.
61. Ibid., 607.
62. Ibid., 605.
63. Ibid., 598, 611.
64. Ibid., 598.
67. Ibid., 611.
68. Ibid., 598.
69. Ibid., 599.
70. Ibid., 602.
71. Ibid., 618.
73. Ibid., 619.
74. Ibid., 620.
75. Ibid., 619.
76. Ibid., 599.
78. Ibid., 612.
79. Gatens, Feminism and Philosophy, 49; Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 50; Leon, “Beau voir’s Woman,” 146.
80. “As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it. They have striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance. Those who have accepted the dualism have established a hierarchy between body and soul which permits of considering as negligible the part of the self which cannot be saved.” Simone de Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity (New York: Citadel, 1948), 7-8.
81. The Second Sex, 611.
82. Ibid., 612.
83. Ibid., 599.
85. Ibid., 611.
88. Ibid., 612.
89. Ibid., 615.
90. Ibid., 598.
91. Ibid., 599.
92. Ibid., 617.
94. Ibid., 600.
95. Ibid., 607.
96. Ibid., 606.
99. Ibid., 612.
100. Ibid., 612; Le deuxieme sexe, 2:496. Translation amended by the author. The French reads: “On comprend que, dans cette perspective, la femme recuse la logique masculine. Non seulement celle-ce ne mord pas sur son experience, mais elle sait aussi qu’aux mains des hommes la raison devient une forme sournoise de violence; leurs affirmations peremptoires sont destinees a la mystifier.”
104. Ibid., 613.
105. Ibid., 615.
109. Ibid., 613.
111. Ibid., 612.
112. Ibid., 609.
113. Ibid., 606.
114. Ibid., 608.
115. Ibid., 606.
116. Ibid., 607.
117. Ibid., 617.
118. Ibid., 627.
119. Ibid., 610..
121. Ibid., 625.
122. Ibid., 626.
Copyright DePaul University Summer 2008
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