Beauvoir, Morrison and Gordimer on Sex

Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that a conceptual inversion of the sexual act was possible: perhaps woman was not merely ‘penetrated’ or ‘entered into’ by man, perhaps she ‘enveloped’ or ‘engulfed’ him instead. Sex was not an ‘invasion’ of the woman, it was an active seeking out instead. The change in perspective engendered by considering what could be a woman’s understanding of the act was radical indeed, and experienced as such by many of those who read The Second Sex. I understood this shift at one intellectual level and did not at yet another.

Till I read Toni Morrison‘s Sula (Knopf, New York, 1973). In it, when Sula has sex with Ajax, she “stood wide-legged against the wall and pulled from his track-lean hips all the pleasure her thighs could hold.” (pp. 125)  Now, I understood a little better. Here again, was woman active, possessing sexual agency, not the passive receiver of sexual attention but the active dispenser of it. She did not have something ‘put inside her’, she ‘pulled’ it to herself, the limits of that exchange only demarcated by her own desire and ability. It’s been some twenty-two years since I first read that line, and I have never forgotten it, so suddenly did it come on me as I read Sula, and so distinctive was the reconfiguration of sexual politics that it forced upon me.

Here is another literary take on the conceptual revision that Beauvoir suggested. In The Late Bourgeois World (Penguin, New York, 1966), Nadine Gordimer‘s narrator Liz Van Den Sandt ruminates over an interesting dimension of her sexual relationship with Graham:

Yet when he’s inside me–last night–there’s the strangest thing. He’s much better than someone my own age, he comes to me with a solid and majestic erection that will last as long as we choose. Sometimes he will be in me for an hour and I can put my hand on my belly and feel the blunt head, like a standard upheld, through my flesh. But while he fills me, while you’d think the last gap in me was closed for ever, while we lie there silent I get the feeling that I am the one who has drawn him up into my flesh, I am the one who holds him there, that I am the one who has him helpless. If I flex the muscles inside me, it’s as if I were throttling someone. He doesn’t speak; the suffering of pleasure shuts his eyes, the lids are tender without his glasses. And even when he brings about the climax for us–afterwards I am still holding him as if strangled; warm, thick, dead, inside. [pp. 37-38]

I suspect there are men who would find this description disconcerting–the more ‘sensitive’ among them might even be offended–and indeed, it was probably meant to be so. But hopefully, equally many men and women will find in this little passage echoes of the same species of altered perspective that Beauvoir urged us to adopt, and that Morrison so expertly captured and described.

Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists

Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.

In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory AnthologyAnn Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary  Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding  et al.

While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.

I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)

While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.

Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists.  Any non-literature list would be interesting.)