Before we said ‘we’(and after): bad sex and personal politics in Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir

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    Before w e said we [and after): bad sex and personal politics

    in Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir

    Dans un espace courbe, on ne peut pas tirer de ligne droite, dit Dubreuilh. On ne peut pas mener une vie correcte dans une sociCt6 qui ne lest pas.

    - Les Mandarins Free! Whats the use of us being free if they arent?

    - The Golden Notebook A taste for what has not yet been thought is not the same thing as an impasse.

    - Michele Le Doeuff

    In 1993, Sally Munt succinctly called the personal the discourse we now love to hate.4 Feminist theory for the last ten years (at least) has been embroiled with epistemological and ethical issues around the relation of I to we. For sound and healthy reasons, both pronouns often feel uncom- fortable in our mouths, often sound poisoned in our ears. Yet for sound and healthy reasons, Ilwe still use and need them. Nor are these issues purely academic, since whenever I hear or say sentences like am I a feminist, am I still a feminist, is feminism still about me, is feminism about me yet, is there a group I can join, even, isnt there anything we can do about (whatever awful thing has happened that day), those same problems are being posed. Because I am still hoping the answer to all these questions is yes, I want to bracket the forms this issue is taking now and go back behind and before we (and I) got into this mess.

    Different as they are, Doris Lessings The Golden Notebook (1952) and Simone de Beauvoirs Les Mandarins (1954) occupy a similarly ambiguous place in the feminist canon (a similarly odd moment in feminist history). Many women were brought to feminism by one or another of these novels, or by novels much llke them. And yet its not quite possible, not quite historical, to call either a feminist novel. (As Lessings Anna Wulf would say, I wouldnt write that now.)

    Each is: a condition of England I condition of France novel. A long novel including history, so long, and so densely cross-referenced to things

  • Bad sex and personal politics 15

    students dont remember or know, that one has to think long and hard before teaching either. A long novel including politics, including womens experience, but not quite including the politics of womens experience.

    And each is also a love story, a story in which women, through sexuality, lose control: a story that embarrasses us, that we cant seem to put down. We can always claim to be reading it for the politics, the history, the literary experimentalism (like the man who buys Playboy for the articles?) but it is the Iove story, the sex story, the identification (some of it illicit) that keeps us interested for all those hundreds of pages.

    Of course, I could say all those things about Middlemarch, too. When I say neither novel is feminist, what do I mean by that word? The

    ability to name women as a political collectivity, as a prerequisite for calling for change. The willingness to move womens problems from the private sphere into the public sphere, to claim a space for them among the public discourses of resistance. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir said, Women do not say we. Soon she, and other women, would say we, on the basis of the insight into womens subordination provided by that book and others like it. But not yet.

    Instead, these two books pose side by side, and in a concretely histori- cised way, (a) the problematic of what Nancy Miller calls the female erotic destiny (conceived of as private and literary, drawing on a tradition consti- tutive of the novel as we know it) and (b) the problematic of political activism (conceived of as public, mainly Marxist, potentially violent, and male), in a world which seems to be going to pieces both materially and linguistically. They also both explicitly pose epistemological/ethical ques- tions about what is now called subjectivity: who may write, how may one write, how can one write the truth and whose truth will it be once it is written, why write and should one write (or speak) at all. In many ways, these too are still questions for feminism.

    And yet the novels date themselves; our response dates, places us. Many of the essays in Jenny Taylors anthology on rereading Lessing record a double movement of indebtedness and disappointment.5 As Elizabeth Wilson asks in her contribution, Yesterdays heroines: on rereading Lessing and de Beauvoir,

    Who are these women we admired so much? In the strange cultural landscape of 1960 they loomed up, Cassandras of womens experience, an experience that was everywhere silenced, concealed and denied . . . Then, I was lost in admiration, so that I noticed neither their political isolation (as women), nor their contempt for lesbianism, nor their romanticism when it came to sexu- ality. , . . Now, in The Golden Notebook (which I first read as a manual of womanly experience), I discern attitudes towards both men and women whose ambivalence repels

  • 16 Critical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3

    Adrienne Richs comments about Lessing in an interview with Elly Bulkin could stand in for a whole gathering of this response.

    AR: I remember reading The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing, in 1962 when it first came out. . , . The Golden Notebook at that time seemed like a very radical book. It doesnt anymore, but it was a radical book . . . it talked about things that had not been talked about in literature before . . . Lessing has been enormously important as a quasi-feminist writer, a writer centering on womens lives, and the failure of her novels . . . is a real failure to envisage any kind of political bonding of women and any kind of really powerful central bonding . . .7

    Rich linked this point to Lessings homophobia, and returned to it in her crucial essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980), which starts exactly here: boldly naming the failures of venerated and canonised feminist writers to acknowledge and respect lesbianism, and clearly showing the resulting rot at the core of much of 1970s feminist theory and practice. Where the choice, the possibility, of lesbianism, is silenced, nothing true about women (any women) can be said.8

    Feminist disappointment with The Mandarins is more complicated. Here the heroines disastrous preoccupation with love, our subject has been contrasted with a more heroic, more overtly feminist Beauvoir abstracted from her other writing. Carolyn Heilbrun used this contrast in one of her own early books to make an important point about the nature of literary convention, more binding and more conservative sometimes than the social conventions it might seem to mirror.

    The failure of women writers to imagine female selves as characters is . . . profound . . . Thus Simone de Beauvoir explains that her novel The Mandarins was to contain all of myself. Yet even in this novel she cannot, she knows, herself create a positive heroine. Anna [sic], she writes, hasnt the autonomy that has been bestowed upon me by a profession that means so much to me. Anna lives the relative life of a secondary being; Henri re- sembles me more than Anna does.

    Heilbrun generalises from this case and others that

    women writers (and women politicians, academics, psychoanalysts) have been unable to imagine for other women, fictional or real, the self they have in fact achieved. Jane Austen cannot allow her heroines her own unmarried, highly accomplished destiny. Women writers, in short, have articulated their pain. But they cannot, or for the most part have not, imagined characters moving, as the authors themselves have moved, beyond that pain . . . Her creative imagination will fail her even when life, in her own case, does not. She therefore projects upon a male character the identity and experience for which she searches, leaving to male authors the creation of female characters who might well be called he roe^'.^

  • Bad sex and personal politics 17

    Time may have modified this judgment: for one thing, biographical material since made available, and theoretical sophistication, make it less simple to assert that we know who Beauvoir really was. My point here is simply that for all these commentators - and also for many of the women I have buttonholed about this question over the last two years - both the emotional importance, and the disappointment, of Lessings work (and Beauvoirs) can be located on the same terrain: sexuality and its dis- contents. It complicates the matter to realise that women, feminists, women about to become feminists were so captivated by both these books precisely because of these elements that disappoint Heilbrun - because they explore the love problems of women who really know better but cant help themselves; the pain, the shame, the victimisation, the anger were recognisable.


    It is on only one subject that she leaves me flat and that is politics. She doesnt give a damn about it. Its not that she actually doesnt give a damn about it, but she doesnt want to get involved in the political rat race.

    - Sartre, interviewed by Madeleine Gobeil in 1965 My idea of hell is a committee meeting.

    - Doris Lessing to Susan Brownmiller The relation of the individual to the collectivity; the possibility (or impossi- bility) of bringing about political change; the role of the intellectual (the academic); the interplay of ideological and material forces in social life, in history; the changing nature of power in the twentieth century, and of our understanding of it; the search for a discourse about power that will not become a discourse of power, a catspaw or a tool to oppress others in turn; the relative truth claims of various doctrines and disciplines and how to choose among them. Surely these are (some of) our questions. And, turning to The Mandarins and The Golden Notebook, one finds ink, emotion, angst, and intelligence, massively and intensely applied to just these questions. But. Never in terms of feminism, never in terms of women. The Mandarins particularly is a very talky book: located precisely at the close of the Second World War and as inheritors of the French Resistance, Robert Dubreuilh and Henri Perron, writers and public figures, set out, argue, inhabit, reject, and retake various positions, positions we associate with Jean-Paul Sartre and his circle, particularly with their attempt at that juncture to rework his existentialist philosophy to make it compatible with political engagement.

  • 18 Critical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3

    But women in The Mandarins never talk this talk. Paule, the classic figure of the femme amoureuse whose dependence on her lover is total and nearly suicidal, refuses to hear any news, even war news, except from the lips of Henri, insists to him that in writing politically he is betraying his vocation (and thus the reason for her self-abnegating existence). In her autobiography, Beauvoir notes that

    Franqoise dEaubonne, in her review of The Mandarins, observed that every writer has his deaths head, and that mine - as exemplified by Elisabeth, Denise, and above all by Paula - is the woman who sacrifices her independence for love. Today I ask myself how much, in fact, such a risk ever existed . . .lo

    Each of her novels, most of her autobiographical books, and perhaps most crucially The Second Sex itself, is haunted by this figure of the depen- dent woman who, in basing her whole identity on love and dependency, becomes complicit with her own oppression, colludes in turning herself into the Other. As critics have noted, however, the femme amoureuse is always doubled by a more lucid, self-sufficient woman character (in The Second Sex this role is taken by the governing voice of the rationalist phil- osopher, Simone de Beauvoir). Dubreuilhs wife Anne is more sympathetic, more intelligent, and more independent - her professional identity as a psychoanalyst is important to her - and she is aware that she has been marked by the war, the Occupation, her personal losses and the inter- national loss of innocence represented in the book by the dropping of the atom bomb and the beginnings of the cold war. Still, she declines to take part in the political movement the men are founding, except as a spectator. She does not speak or act; she witnesses, she suffers, she binds the wounds of others while wondering if it is right to cure patients of their bad dreams by helping them bear an unbearable reality. Someone asks Anne Dubreuilh if she is a writer. And she replies, Thank god, no! This in spite of two passing references to mon livre - she actually does write, but isnt a Writer. In fact she says to herself with great satisfaction I am no-one (Beauvoir notes that her earlier heroine, Franqoise, spoke the same words in anguish). Most problematically of all, she comes into her own and becomes someone in the second volume when, leaving France and poli- tics behind, she discovers sexual satisfaction in the arms of the younger American writer, Lewis Brogan. And the end of this relationship leaves her despairing, ready to commit suicide by swallowing the very poison she took away from Paule, deterred only by a reminder that it would hurt her family. Is this lucid heroine really any better off than Paule for her lucidity?


  • Bad sex and personal politics 19

    Its shameful! I said to myself that evening. They were having a discussion in Roberts study; they were talking about the Marshall Plan, the future of Europe, the future of the whole world; they were saying that the chances of war were increasing . . . War concerns all of us, and I didnt take those troubIed voices lightly. And yet, I was thinking only of that letter, of a single line in that letter: Across an ocean, the tenderest arms are cold indeed. Why, in confessing to me a few unimportant affairs, had Lewis written those hostile words? (The Mandarins, p. 648) Then I thought: the truth is I dont care a damn about politics or philosophy or anything else; all I care about is that Michael should turn in the dark and put his face against my breasts. And then I drifted off to sleep. (The Golden Notebook, p. 299)

    Politics and philosophy are within the grasp and competence of the her- oine - but she does not reach out her hand to them. Something splits, divides each book into two separate channels, erotic (feminine?) and politi- cal (masculine?). Something structural, in both cases.

    In The Golden Notebook, especially, the somewhat experimental structure of the fiction makes this point. Parallel discourses never meet. Lessings main character, Anna Wulf, is a committed leftist, but she keeps her communism in one notebook, her personal life and her psychoanalysis in another; in still a third notebook, she is writing a novel whose third-person heroine, Ella, resembles her in many respects, but has no politics of any sort. In The Mandarins, half the chapters, told in the first person by Anne Dubreuilh, recount a love story, the subjective experience of having survived the Occupation, the difficulties of female friendship and of mothering an adult daughter; the political history and the debates are confined to third-person chapters, seen through the consciousness of Henri (who also has love problems, it must be said). In both books, the great events of post-war history and politics rush by, runaway trains uncomfortably close: Hiroshima, the death of Stalin, the disclosures of the Soviet labour camps, the Prague trials, the death of the Rosenbergs. Each heroine knows people, is close to people - men, mostly - for whom this history imposes a sense of responsibility, a terrifying and yet sometimes exhilarating sense of being part of their age. And each heroine refuses this sense, this role.

    Lessings Anna Wulf refuses it by refusing histrionics, heroism, by refusing and criticising what she calls the myth of the group - by her irony (a quality she dislikes in herself) she refuses it. Sometimes she sees herself as a boulder-pusher, a kind of antitheoretical social worker within a vague progressive movement, but even this may be too noble; in Africa she plays the age-old role of the leaders girlfriend, who argues in literary and personal terms when she knows it is more correct to take a collective,

  • 20 Critical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3

    abstract, political approach. She sleeps with history: first with Willi, the apparatchik in training (and the sex is bad); then with Michael, who has left the Party, betrayed and (in their eyes) betrayer, yet who calls himself the history of Europe in his century. The sex is good, but he leaves her. The position she defines for herself, in this way, is often self-deprecating; never more so than when her subjectivity is sexual subjectivity, as in the quotation above. Lessing deliberately invites us, in certain places, to play the role of the communist grand inquisitor, to be shocked, to take on the voice of the party (this is the voice people hear even now in their paranoid fantasies about PC) and say: irresponsible, middle-class, maso- chistic Anna, no fit role model for us and for the new society. This is one of the voices in which Anna speaks to herself, of course. One of her many valedictions forbidding writing is her condemnation of her earlier book as nostalgic, as a little novel about the emotions.

    But this is very clever of Lessing, is in fact a key part of the amazing ideological balancing act that is The Golden Notebook. For the personal, the ironic, the sexual, the naive, is part of what undermines the grand political myths; and the grand political myths are destroying Europe and the world. Even as Anna surrounds herself with newspaper clippings, forces herself not to write (and this blocked writer is dying to write - all sorts of stories pour out - because she is trying to censor the individual, to become useful, to merge with a collectivity) there is the sense that those who believe them- selves to be in touch with, in control of these events, are dangerous madmen or the dupes of dangerous madmen. It is not just that what seems to be the only effective political force, the communist party, seems to require so much lying, so much lying to oneself. It is also true that when the clippings come out of the notebook and start to take over the apartment Anna is on the verge of going mad. Anna and her best friend Molly joke bitterly that in a truly revolutionary situation one of them would probably have ordered the other shot by now. Similarly, all the brave self-sacrificing politicking of the men in The Mandarins comes to precisely nothing, comes to the realisation that France is a third-rate power within which the intel- lectual has no public role to play and may not even be able to save his own freedom of conscience.

    Yes, there is a weakness in refusing the leadership role, there is a feminine masochism in insisting that it is more my husbands game than mine (as a prominent feminist scholar of our own day said about epistem- ology). Still, in the post-war world, to refuse that role is also to refuse the necessity of doing something awful. The personal becomes the affir- mation of a genuine ethical space, involved with history but not at its mercy.

  • Bad sex and personal politics 21

    Certainly the feminist romance with the male left is over. Which might be one way of smugly rescuing these texts for feminism: see, we were right all along, the politics of orgasm is more important than how feminist concerns can harmonise with efforts to change the whole political and economic structure. Yet that would be a retreat from the darkness of the books them- selves, from their assertion of the connection. Because while neither book can bring off a connection between personal and political, neither is willing to cheat by pretending to resolve the tension it sets up, and each has a famously unsatisfying inconclusive ending. Denied a comfortable identification anywhere, serious readers located themselves in the space in between, with the governing consciousness who wants to be engaged but not to become a monster.

    Still, these refusals on the basis of the sexual are what have made femin- ist readers most uneasy later. The Mandarins, and Beauvoirs fiction gener- ally, has been dogged by the assertion that it is writing for shopgirls, rnidineftes.12 Clearly this view trivialises all women, and our concerns. But I find a trace of the same unease in the view (beginning with Heilbrun) that Beauvoirs fiction has failed to give us strong, non-masochistic role models, that it is a retreat from, in some ways the evil twin of, The Second Sex. And there are sections of The Golden Notebook that are hard to teach to a feminist classroom for precisely the same reason, especially the section where Anna, speaking through Ella, affirms that there is such a thing as a vaginal orgasm - It is the orgasm that is created by the mans need for a woman, and his confidence in that need (p. 215) - and that it is vastly superior to the clitoral orgasms Paul is pleased to give Ella when he is backing away from emotional commitment to her. She even says, for a woman, integrity is the orgasm, as if orgasm were itself utopic, and capable of breaking down barriers, the opposite of escapism. (This utopia can only be articulated in the context of its failure, however.)

    The two textual moments I cited above - moments where the heroine unhooks herself from politics and especially from political responsibility - are guilty moments for the heroine and for the reader. They express a split in the heroine between thinking and feeling, between reason and emotion, But they are also moments of tremendous authenticity and radical truth. Female subjectivity through sexuality seems profoundly masochistic, dependent, scandalous; but it is also affirming its autonomy from male systems, breaking free. And since the ethical centre of both novels is a search for a language in which the truth could finally be told . . .

  • 22 Critical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3

    Both The Mandarins and The Golden Notebook contain memorable de- scriptions of monumentally bad heterosexual sex, depicted from a womans point of view, in fact from the point of view of a womans natural and healthy interest in, and right to, less-than-monumentally-bad hetero- sexual sex. Both discuss the female and male anatomy in a detailed and unsentimentalised way, and again from the point of view of womens subjective experience of it. In both traditions, this is pathbreaking. (It is easy to forget the shock and impact, in 1962, of what Rachel Blau DuPlessis called the first Tampax in world literature.l3) Beauvoir implies, and Lessing says straight out, that female sexual subjectivity is different from male sexual subjectivity. We need not accept this point, which has been highly contested since; or, we can accept its descriptive accuracy without seeing it as inevitable and rooted in the natural (Lessing wouldnt accept that modification; Beauvoir, according to some readings of The Second Sex, might have). But it seems almost more important to me that each asserted that female sexual subjectivity even EXISTED, deserved to be named, talked about by women themselves (not shrinks or Sartre). I would argue there is in each text a serious point of resistance that keeps the book from turning into either Mills and Boon goop or a socialist-realist diatribe against the personal, and that the point of resistance, in both texts, is womens nega- tive experiences of heterosexual sex. (Sex, not relationships or love.)

    The Golden Notebook is almost a Sears Roebuck-sized catalogue of what we have since learned to politely call sexual miscommunication. Willi and Anna in Africa are incompatible as if the very chemical structures of [their] bodies were hostile (p. 70); the only time I could remember him making love to me with any conviction was when he knew I had just made love to somebody else (p. 151). Mollys repellent ex-husband Richard, a bourgeois businessman whose constant cheating on his wife Marion turns her into an alcoholic basketcase and all other women into popsies, stands throughout the book for a certain kind of sexual (and moral) stupidity:

    I know theres one problem you havent got - its a purely physical one. How to get an erection with a woman youve been married to fifteen years? He said this with an air of camaraderie, as if offering his last card . . .

    And it is clear that he misses the point, over and over again:

    You should have loved her, said Anna simply. . . . Good lord, said Richard at a loss. After all Ive said - and it hasnt been easy mind you . . . he said this almost threatening, and went red as both women rocked off into fresh peals of laughter. No its not easy to talk about sex frankly to women. (p. 31)

    American men are caricatured, first in the minor figure of Cy Maitland, with his oh boy, oh boy! wham-bam-thank-you-maam, almost innocent

  • Bad sex and personal politics 23

    in his lack of awareness that anything else is possible, puzzled why his beautiful wife wants nothing to do with him in bed. Ella gives pleasure and feels like a prostitute. And the last sections of the book turn into almost a laundry list of sadisms: the man who calls Julia a castrating woman after she has taken pity on his impotence; Da Silva, who turns women into players in his own sick sexual scripts; Milt, who cant make love to a woman he likes; Nelson, who is using Anna as a pawn in his neurotic battles with his wife; most of all Saul in the last sections. Saul may be clinically mad and may be infecting Anna with his madness; he has lost his sense of time, seems to be a number of different people, often seems unsure just who he is making love to when he is in bed with Anna . . . Yet part of what Anna is fighting is her own masochism and the tendency to turn all this experience into self-pity. She fights not to be a victim. And her weapons are partly formal: she turns some of her experi- ence over to Ella, the fictional Anna character in the novel she is sort of writing, and arranges some of the rest of it in lists of possible stories or scripts, as if to distance it and analyse it. Although the Anna who analyses is a stranger to the Anna who is capable of falling in love, who can create through naivete.

    Sex is essentially emotional for women. How many times has that been written? And yet theres always a point even with the most perceptive and intelligent man, when a woman looks at him across a gulf: he hasnt under- stood; she suddenly feels alone; hastens to forget the moment, because if she doesnt she would have to think. Julia, myself and Bob sitting in her kitchen gossiping. Bob telling a story about the breakup of a marriage. He says: The trouble was sex. Poor bastard, hes got a prick the size of a needle. Julia: I always thought she didnt love him. Bob, thinking she hadnt heard: No, its always worried him stiff, hes just got a small one. Julia: But she never did love him, anyone could see that just by looking at them together. (p. 215)

    Yet for all this focus on the emotional side, and for all Ellas irritation with Pauls mechanical ways of bringing her to orgasm, the worst sexual moments in this novel (and in The Mandarins) occur when the heroine realises that a man with whom she has felt deep sexual satisfaction shows that he actually cant tell (and doesnt care) when she doesnt. And, as depressing and frustrating as the status of free woman under patriarchy is for Anna and Molly (and Ella and Julia), the book never retreats from its early assertion of the good reason to be one.

    Challenged now, I would say that every woman believes in her heart that if her man does not satisfy her she has a right to go to another. (p. 143)

    None of the currently available narratives of female eroticism is acceptable

  • 24 Critical Quarferly, vol. 38, no. 3

    to Anna; any way of talking about it turns out to be a trap; the points of resistance are that Anna names this; and that she does not give up.


    The Mandarins makes a similar point about female sexuality by a different sort of splitting. The first sex scene in the book takes place between Henri and Paule, and is told from the point of view of Henri, who would like their affair to be over.

    He heard a rustle of silk, then the sound of running water and the clinking of glass, those sounds which once used to make his heart pound. No, not tonight, not tonight, he said to himself uneasily . . . She slipped in between the sheets and without uttering a word, pressed her body to his; he could find no pretext to repulse her.14

    Her hand on his erect penis, Paule insists that Henri tell her that he loves her, that he repeat the ritual endearments of their courtship, and he does.

    She uttered a long moan of satisfaction. He embraced her violently, smothered her mouth with his lips, and to get it over with as quickly as possible immedi- ately penetrated her . . . He was horrified by her and by himself. Her head bent back, her eyes half closed, her teeth bared, she had given herself so totally to love, was so frightfully lost, that he felt like slapping her to bring her back to earth, felt like saying, Its just you and I and were making love, thats all. It seemed to him as if he were raping a dead woman, or a lunatic, and it took him forever to come. When finally he fell limp on Paula, he heard a triumphant moan.

    Are you ha py? she murmured. Of course. IE

    This is almost a textbook example of what the existentialists call bad faith. Paule lies to herself and to Henri (because she must know that he no longer loves her; she plays a role of the most beautiful woman in the world loved by the most glorious of men to the point where she no longer knows who she is or what she feels). It is strikingly similar to the examples (anecdotes, really) about womens frigidity which Sartre used to define the whole concept of bad faith in Being and Nothingness. Its also very similar to Beauvoirs discussion of the bad faith and self-deception of the femme amoureuse in The Second Sex; for Beauvoir, this is one of the very worst ways that a woman can assume her situation as an oppressed person, one of the ways that implies being deeply complicit in her own oppression.

    But Sartre could not have written this scene - which you can see if you compare it with the novelistic depictions of sexual disgust he did write, in Nausea and in the first volume of The Roads to Freedom. Because Henris bad

  • Bad sex and personal politics 25

    faith is also in evidence here: however sympathetic he is to us, he is clearly a coward, unable to acknowledge his own freedom or his own responsi- bility. What can be said about someone who feels as if he is raping a dead woman - but still does it?

    This incident is balanced by one where Anne goes out for the evening with a minor character named Scriassine, a Russian refugee associated with their political group. It is significant that he has already made Anne uneasy, at the party which opens the book, by predicting that French intel- lectuals are about to find themselves at an impasse, forced to choose be- tween the imperialisms of the Soviet Union and the US or be crushed between them; and that in the course of the book he will move further and further to the right, as the degeneration of their movement leaves Robert and Henri more and more isolated. For Anne at this moment, however, he represents more of a risk that she makes herself take because she is afraid to do so. She has been considering that her life as a woman is over; her daughter Nadine has accused her of going through life with kid gloves on; his desire reminds her that she still has a body. But:

    He took me in his arms and I felt a hard yet gentle mouth pressing against my lips. Yes, it was possible, it was even easy . . . I closed my eyes and stepped into a dream as lifelike as reality itself, a dream from which I felt I would awaken at dawn, carefree and lighthearted. And then I heard his voice: The little girl seems frightened. But we wont hurt the little girl; well deflower her, but painlessly. These words which were not addressed to me, awakened me rudely I hadnt come here to play at being the ravished maiden, nor at any other game. I pushed myself free.

    Wait. l6

    Scriassines first mistake is to insist on reading Anne as a player in his own sexual drama. But this does not destroy her sexual feelings all at once:

    His hands ripped off my slip, caressed my belly, and I abandoned myself to the black swell of desire. Carried away, tossed about, submerged, aroused, dashed headlong; there were moments when I felt as if I were plummeting through empty space, were about to be stranded in oblivion, in the blackness of night. What a voyage!

    His voice threw me back abruptly on the bed. Do I have to be careful? If you can. You mean youre not wearing anything? The question was so brutal it made me start. No, I replied. Why not? why arent you? he asked angrily. It was difficult to begin again. Once more I gathered myself together under

    his hands, welcomed the silence, clung to his body and absorbed his warmth through my every pore. My bones, my flesh were melting and peace was wrapping itself about me in silky spirals, and then he said commandingly,

    Open your eyes.I7

  • 26 Critical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3

    What Henri wanted to say to Paule - open your eyes, its only you and me making love - Scriassine actually says to Anne; she, unlike Paule, can see his point, but it destroys her pleasure - and he holds that against her, too.

    You have no real love for the penis. This time he scored a point against me.18

    In one way, this scene is the first scene inside out, one more sympathetic to the point of view, also expressed in The Second Sex, that womens desire is deeply different from mens - quieter, slower, more situational, more emotional, less concentrated on the one organ, more diffuse. In this way Anne becomes allied with Paule and we may see that ouvre les yeux is not in fact the right thing to say. In another way, and especially as things progress from bad to worse, Anne becomes allied with Henri, in that both experience themselves as subjects but are treated as objects by the other, who needs to appropriate their pleasure.

    Like Henri, Anne ends up simulating a pleasure she does not feel, to get it over with; like Henri and unlike Paule, she takes a certain amount of lucid responsibility. Later, with a man she loves, she will be able to feel and express genuine sexual pleasure - including un vrai amour pour le sexe de Ihomme. But then, like Paule, like Anna, she will discover that she does not really know what he is feeling, that he does not really know what she is feeling, and that he is able to get sexual pleasure even without knowing and without caring. And this will be the worst betrayal.

    Many possible conclusions could be drawn from this analysis. It can help us see, for example, that while there is a tragedy implied in the differences between womens sexuality and mens, as Beauvoir says in The Second Sex, there is also a human tragedy in the separation of consciousness each from the other - a truth the temporary reciprocity of sexual meeting can only temporarily block. And it is important, as part of a larger argument about the usefulness of The Second Sex and Beauvoir generally, to see how com- plicated her vision of this was and finally how un-Sartrean. Theres a base- line authenticity to this language, simply an explicitness, that is its own point: when we read a description like, Inside me, I sensed a presence without really feeling it, as you sense a dentists tool against a swollen gum, we may feel that the experience of being a sexual woman is being named with incredible specificity, and that this in itself asserts the right of women to be sexual subjects, to feel what they feel and name it.19 It is finally this authenticity that shows resistance to conventional sexual scripts, including Sartres, and incidentally shows that she takes refuge neither in a cosy essentialism nor in a self-denying male-identification. Like Anna Wulf, like Doris Lessing, Anne and Simone cannot solve the

  • Bad sex and personal politics 27

    problems they raise. The point is that they raise them, and they dont cheat and say they have the answer. And in an era where every book about women, every book about sex, did claim to have the answer, and the answer for every woman, about what women wanted, what would make women sexually happy, this was (and still seems to me) breathtaking.


    These two texts have not lost their power to disturb us, because the problems they have not solved, we have not solved (though we may have set them aside). Part of the unfulfilled promise of feminism was that sex would get better, that the sexual contract would be revised. That somehow through collective activity we would bring about change so that I would have better choices than Anne and Anna had in this most intimate, least obviously collective area. (Though each I would still have to make them.)

    Looking at the young women in my class who are about to graduate, and comparing them to the young women of 1970, I see enormous economic strides. On the terrain of sexuality, I see enormous discursive change, but not much progress. The issue of so-called date rape is rightly prominent: it signals that heterosexual activity still occurs on mens turf and on their terms, and that women are not positioned to negotiate successfully for their own pleasure.

    I must admit, finally, that there has been something fishy, all along, in my account of feminist history. Ive been discussing The Golden Notebook and The Mandarins as somehow pre-feminist or proto-feminist texts; this both does and doesnt make historical sense. Both Lessing, in her 1972 introduction to The Golden Notebook, and Beauvoir, in the introduction of The Second Sex itself (1949, please note), explicitly distance themselves from feminism, not because it hasnt happened yet, but because it is over, obsolescent, boring, beside the point. (Both would express some initial unease with the feminism about to be reborn and reclaim them as its hero- ines; Beauvoir quickly got over hers, but Lessing continues to express her view that the sex war is irrelevant to political realities, to the distress of many fans.) Can a text be both pre-feminist and post-feminist at the same time?

    Certainly theyre in good company: Virginia Woolf declared herself ready to scatter the ashes of a successful, obsolete, and slightly embarrass- ing feminist movement as early as 1928, in A Room of Ones Own. Readers will recall that this book, probably more important to feminist intellectuals in the twentieth century than any other unless that other is The Second Sex

  • 28 Critical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3

    itself, also calls on us to stop using the word feminist and to put aside our anger at womens oppression as we set aside all other obstacles to the white light of truth.

    When teaching, it is tempting to brush this off as a regrettable but un- important concession to male readers (Forster, Strachey and company; Sartre and company), But there may be more to it than that. MichPle Le Doeuff, who has also noticed that the woman question always presents itself to the conscious mind as the question-which-has-already-obviously- been-settled, links this recurring gesture to the point that every womans life is lived in contradiction: one is oppressed, and one is at the same time sufficiently free of oppression to name and denounce it.20 There may also be something about the position of the woman writer as writer that intensi- fies this contradiction, in the same way that, while it is odd to hear a woman stand up and say, I have been silenced, one hears it all the time - and rightly so, since the alternative is for women to actually remain silent. In any case, my point is that the linear progress narrative of feminism both does and doesnt ring true. Feminist history both evolves in real time and unfolds within mythic time. But this hardly makes it less powerful.







    6 7





    Simone de Beauvoir, Les Mandarins (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1954), vol. 2, 343. You cant draw a straight line in a curved space, Dubreuilh said. You cant lead a proper life in a society which isnt proper (The Mandarins, trans- lated by Leonard Friedman, Flamingo, London, 1993, 625). Unless noted, all further references will be to these editions. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (New York: Bantam, 1962), 458. All further references will be to this edition. Michele Le Doeuff, Hipparchius Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Phil- osophy, etc (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991). Sally Munt, Introduction, N m Lesbian Criticism (New York: Columbia Uni- versity Press, 1992), p. xv. Jenny Taylor (ed.), Notebookslmernoirslurchives: reading and rereading Doris Lessing (Routledge, 1982). In Taylor, 57, 71. Conditions, April 1977, part 1, p. 60. Reprinted in Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger (eds), Critical Essays on Doris Lessing (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986), 181-2. Adrienne Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Signs (Summer 1980), 631-57. Carolyn Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 72-3. Heilbrun says Anna instead of Anne throughout - coincidence? The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1962), 69. The Prime of Life, 269.

  • Bad sex and personal politics 29




    15 16 17 18 19 20

    See Tori1 Mois excellent discussion of this topic in Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (London: Routledge, 1990), 10. The Mandarins, 33. Having worked from the original French, I was rather surprised to discover quite late in the game that many of the passages most central to my argument were silently omitted from the recent and rather classy-looking British Flamingo edition. I have supplied them from an American edition with a rather lurid cover, which is otherwise the same Leonard Friedman translation. So, beginning with He could find no pretext, the above comes from The Mandarins (New York: Popular Library Eagle Books, 1956), 22. Ill leave it to my British readers to explain this anomaly. American edition, 23. Translation further altered by me. American edition, 71, slightly altered. American edition, 72, slightly altered. My translation. American edition, 73. Le Doeuff, 3, 128.


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