By Judith Okely.
176 pages
New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
ISBN # 0-394-74765-8

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2003

Judith Okely examines the work of Simone de Beauvoir from two very different points of view. First there is the story of her initial response when she read the SECOND SEX and MEMOIRS in 1960 as a young, naïve and virginal student from England studying in Paris. This point of view is retrieved by Okely from her marginal notes and underlining of the texts. These works were a conversion experience for her and de Beauvoir becomes her life-long mentor and (intellectual) mother figure.

The second point of view is as a scholar, writing some 25 years later, after de Beauvoir has been mainly ignored, dismissed and even attacked by establishment feminism. This more mature Okely examines de Beauvoir with both a critical eye as to what is telling in the contemporary attitude and what is misguided in it, especially because it is often an anachronistic critic, using criteria, attitudes and information only available long after (and perhaps BECAUSE OF) de Beauvoir’s writings.

This is a wonderful book. Given the interplay of the two periods of her life, it is witty and deeply personal (in the earlier Okely) and measured, careful and scholarly (in the later Okely). I found the book to be more readable than most treatments of a scholarly nature and come away deeply appreciative of the humanness and intelligence of Okely’s treatment.

First of all, independent of the rest of the book, at the front there is a quite detailed and useful chronology of de Beauvoir’s life, and at the end there is a detailed and useful bibliography of de Beauvoir’s own published works and secondary sources about her.

A central thesis seems to be that many feminists in reading and assessing de Beauvoir are not aware of just how centrally her insights and treatment are set in Existentialism. As such de Beauvoir (on Okely’s view) has a somewhat naïve view of the possibility of choice and is not aware of more recent work detailing deterministic factors.

Okely says: “Her own example seemed to show it was possible to choose to be free – however naïve this many seem now to readers today.”

But, Okely’s critical perspective seems to me to have weaknesses of its own. She makes two assumptions, with no argument, which force her to the conclusion above. First, is the power of the modern “deterministic” features of our situation and the second is that there is a distinction to be made between changing SOCIETY and changing THE SELF. It’s not clear that de Beauvoir would argue that every person is free to choose, but that people particularly situated may. The key precondition for the Existentialists and de Beauvoir seems to be that one must first arrive at conscious awareness of who one is and then examine one’s possibilities and choices, THEN, only after arriving at such awareness, begin to make more conscious choices of one’s life. Even the feminists who wish to devote much of their own lives to changing the social conditions which “determine” our lives seem to recognize this.

What I have often been moved and impressed by is less the feminist political war to change social institutions, than I am at the impressive witness (to use a religious term) that individual feminists give of the ability to CHOOSE to change their own lives in radical fashion and begin to live a form of life they have determined to be more authentic to their values and beings. They don’t at all seem “determined” and (thus) limited to these structures of society which they object to.

Despite her rejection of this “excessive” (Okely assertion) view of human possibility to choose, Okely gives one of the better clear, succinct and fair summaries of Existentialism I have ever read:

The existentialist implications of de Beauvoir's arguments are briefly outlined as follows. Existentialism challenges any notion of a universal and fixed `human nature'. Human beings create themselves in specific and changing situations. Maximum emphasis is placed on the freedom of the individual to choose his or her existence. A person's being is revealed by reflection on his or her unique concrete situation in time and space; it cannot be understood objectively and in the abstract. Minimum emphasis is placed on external determining factors which would limit the individual's choice. Thus the influence of the social, economic and historical context is underplayed. Similarly, other factors such as class and ethnic position are not extensively explored, although Sartre later gave greater representations to external factors as he engaged more fully with Marxism. An extreme view of existentialist choice would be that at each given moment individuals have the freedom to create themselves anew and to alter even seemingly fixed aspects of their past. No one has a predetermined position, so each individual is in a state of anxiety, faced with a terrifying aloneness and the responsibility of freedom. The individual should recognise that he or she has chosen either to confront or to avoid the making of choices. People are guilty of self-deception or `bad faith' if they fail to grasp their own radical freedom.

True freedom is attained in moving from an inert or fixed state of `immanence' towards the ideal of `transcendence' through action. To transcend him or herself the individual should engage in projects in the world. Sartre distinguishes two types of being: that of en-soi (in-itself) and pour-soi (for-itself). Being-in-itself corresponds to the state of `immanence' and can be compared to a fixed object which has a relationship neither with itself nor with anything outside. By contrast, being-for-itself represents a fluid, changeable state of being. An individual who acts and lives this way can move from immanence to transcendence.

Every individual is in a potentially dangerous struggle with others in the assertion of freedom. Since nothing is decided in advance, it cannot be predicted who will emerge triumphant. The notion of struggle was drawn from Hegel's master-slave dialectic. In his later work, Sartre was more affected by Marxism in recognising that individuals need not necessarily engage in competitive struggle, but instead seek solidarity with each other. The individual is threatened by the weight of others' freedom but also needs interaction with others in order to affirm his or her existence. The individual necessarily uses `the other' for self-definition. He or she needs the other's gaze and presence as a confirmation of existence.

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir refines the existentialist denial of any fixed `human nature' by asserting that there is no fixed `feminine nature'; it too is a creation. Similarly de Beauvoir minimizes any determining influences from biology, economics, psychoanalysis and the unconscious. Neither does she explore the implications of class and race. She does however introduce a gender twist to the notion of struggle and to human beings' use of `the Other' by suggesting that woman is always treated as `the Other'. Woman never won the struggle, she is never the definer, never the subject in a mutual exchange, just the object. Of the three types of external or `objective' explanations for women's subordination, de Beauvoir devotes maximum space to biology. She states that so-called `feminine' characteristics are neither dictated by hormones nor determined in parts of the brain. The biological differences are not sufficient to explain male

Throughout the book this issue of what is philosophy about: changing the individual or changing the society seems to be unaddressed and a reason for thinking that both de Beauvoir and the contemporary feminists have got it essentially correct.

If de Beauvoir and the Existentialists’ faith in the individual chooser is understood in the context that I think their texts support, the view is not anywhere close to as obviously objectionable as Okely suggests. As I see it, this possibility to freedom is limited on two counts. It requires a careful understanding of the self and by the self to elevate one to the place where one would choose one’s future, and further, those choices are in fact limited by one’s concrete situation. The posthumously published novel of Albert Camus, A Happy Death is one clear argument for the necessity of material conditions being a pre-requisite for most choices.

Further the Existentialists seem to accept the Dostoyevskian concept of the Grand Inquisitor that in fact the overwhelming mass of people will never choose this freedom, which they find terrifying and repulsive and thus behave like “determined” beings, giving their lives over to the social structures of power around them.

Yet we cannot ignore the de Beauvoirs, Sartres and others around us who choose against those very powerful (and often attractive) social structures.

The issue seems much more to hinge on: what is more important: the individual taking charge of her own life, or the changing of the social institutions making it more likely that a larger portion of the populace with have a different form of life?

Okely and the feminists’ choices are quite clear, but they don’t seem to be much argued for, just asserted.

The mature Okely does a powerful job in criticizing de Beauvoir’s excesses and pointing to data and attitudes which she wasn’t aware of or ignored. Given that Okely can often balance the sting of those criticisms with humorous glances back at the younger and naïve Okely herself, there is a certain charm and even greater power in the criticisms. They seem (and are) so much less vindictive and dismissive, and more understanding and gentle, while being firm and clear.

My favorite piece of self-deprecation and delight that Okely shares from her younger days is the story of how, after reading and being just blown away by de Beauvoir, walked the Boulevard St. Michel with her friend looking for their ideal: “We awaited our poets, our equal partners, our Sartres who looked like Camus…” I thought that was just a delightful touch!

It is seldom that I can look on such a book of philosophical analysis and criticism and say: it is both charming and intellectually powerful. Even further, it is in part its very charm and humor which emphasizes and calls attention to the seriousness and intellectual power of the critique at the same time.

I recommend that anyone seriously interested in either feminism or Existentialism read this delightful and provocative book.


“Born in Malta, Judith Okely received her B.A. and her PhD in social anthropology from Oxford. She currently teaches social anthropology at the University of Essex in England.” (From the book jacket.)

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett