Curses and blessings


New edition

Francine du Plessix Gray reviews Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s newly translated edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex in the New York Times here.  The original translator, Howard M. Parshley, cut 15 percent of the original 972 pages of the book — the new edition restores the lost pages; the new edition promises to bring a new generation to the work.  While Gray salutes the “fierce, often wrathful urgency” of the feminist classic, she finds it largely dated.

The review concludes:

“What a curse to be a woman!” Beauvoir writes, quoting Kier­kegaard. “And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one.” No one has done more than Beauvoir to explain the conditions of that curse, and no one has more eloquently, irately challenged us to turn that curse into a blessing.

Not everyone agrees, however, that Gray’s review is a blessing.

Among the three letters in today’s New York Times is one from Marilyn YalomAuthor Yalom faults Gray for avoiding Beauvoir’s central contention that women will be second-class citizens until they can support themselves.  Women still make — what? — 70 or 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.  Surely the hand that not only rocks the cradle but pays for it in monthly installments ought to have have achieved pay parity in 2010.

Yalom also takes issue with Gray calling Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman “preposterous.” Gray bases her argument on seeing male toddlers grabbing cars and guns while girls cuddle their dolls.  Writes Yalom: “Let me simply add my personal experience to Gray’s: as the mother of three sons and one daughter, I observed a much greater fluidity in their choice of toys, marked less by gender than by individual temperament.”

Old edition

Via blog, may I add my own observation as well?  My daughter went for the trucks and the dinosaurs (with a brief, but intense, foray into sharks), and had only a passing interest in dolls.  An eminent physicist of my acquaintance, Stanford Prof. Patricia Burchat, tells me her own sons wanted a dollhouse.  Why not?  The family drama has an intense fascination for children of both sexes, and what better place to control and reenact it than a dollhouse?  Pat triggered mild alarm when she brought legos to a little girl’s birthday party years ago — so tell me again, please, that toddlers have no gendered programming by that age?

Yalom finally zeroes in on Gray’s lambasting the new translation, which the critic finds wordy and cumbersome.  Yalom counters:  “The Second Sex is — among other things — a philosophical text. Would anyone think of translating Heidegger so that he flows nicely, when he rarely does?”

Judge for yourself with an excerpt here, or Judith Thurman’s introduction to the volume here.  Meanwhile, Gray takes another whack from Stephen Heyman in “Being and Frumpiness;  he notes that Gray once described Beauvoir’s “look as ‘bleakly emancipated,’ which sounds something like being ugly while wearing comfortable shoes.”

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