Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In preparation for my trip to Paris in September, I am re-reading Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography The Prime of Life. During my trip I plan to visit her grave and that of Jean Paul Sartre in Cemetery Montparnasse and eat at one of the existentials' cafes, either The Flore or Les Deux Maggots. Sartre and de Beauvoir wrote many of their books sitting at these cafes.

I first read this book more than 40 years ago. It had a big effect on me then so I was interested in how my opinion of it would have changed. A useful guide is that I had underlined many passages that seemed to speak to me.

First of all, I have no idea why this woman has so fascinated me. Neither then nor now does it seem we have anything in common. Our political ideas and our rules of morality are diametrically opposed. Many times that phrase, diametrically opposed, is used to mean "very different" but in this case I think it is more literally correct, rather than being just figurative.

Beauvoir was of the left, the far left, the radical left. I am conservative but, surprisingly, not as far right as my children are. Morally, Beauvoir was an atheist, a libertine, a practitioner of free love. I am a believing Christian, and my values and actions are strictly traditional.

I admire her for her freedom and her bravery. She did what she wanted and she did it without fear. She didn't seem to let life put bounds on her actions or her opinions.

I have many soft, loving bindings on me. All my family, my friends, people who have helped me along the way, and, even, my university. I love them so much; they have been so good to me and for me; they have been helpful; and, they love me.

But most of the bounds I have put on myself. For example, Beauvoir spent most of her life living in hotel rooms. She never even had very many books. When she bought one, she usually lent it to a friend who forgot to return it.

I estimate I have 2000 books. Books are so identified with me that that is the possession that both of my children want to inherit. You might think that with so many books, they would each be satisfied with half of the books, but, no, they are MY children so they want them all.

I want them all, too, and much more, so my life is circumscribed. When I was growing up, there were women in my life that I called " floating aunts" These were women that had no home of their own but went from relative to relative living for a few months in one house before moving on to another.

Being like Aunt Etta, or Aunt Nan, or Cousin Josie appeals to me. I could happily get rid of most my possessions, but I cannot let go of my books. And who would want me to live with them when I brought 2000 books with me.

Beauvoir made the decision to live in freedom and I did not.

She was brave with her money. She spent it on vacations till she had none; she had faith that money would always be there when she needed it. I hoard my money. I worry, as many formerly poor people do, that I may go back to the poverty of my childhood.

So I again take up her autobiography.

Written on the inside page is Mr. and Mrs. George Rodney Lightsey, September 2, 1966, Cincinnati, Ohio.

The first underlined passage is this:

There is no timeless formula which guarantees all couples achieving a perfect state of understanding; it is up to the interested parties themselves to decide just what sort of agreement they want to reach....Today, on the other hand, I feel irritated when outsiders praise or criticize the relationship we have built up, yet fail to take into account the peculiar characteristic which both explains and justifies it--the identical sign on both our brows.

Of course, I translated this to George Rodney and me. The identical signs we certainly had. We never doubted the rightness of being together. Yet, contrary, to Beauvoir, we also felt we did owe something to society. As fuddy duddy as it sounds, we believed we should be an example for other people. I shudder when I write that. I am so weak and have made so many bad decisions yet, surely, I have done some good things that others may imitate.

But I do believe that in our marriage, we did it right and Beauvoir and Sartre did it all wrong.

Again, from the book,

...it was no accident that to us, as to Barres, the engineer symbolized the "privileged enemy." He imprisoned life under his steel and concrete; he marched straight ahead, blind, unfeeling, as confident in himself as in his mathematical formulae, and implacably identifying means with ends. In the name of art, culture, and freedom, we condemned him, and through him Universal Man.

I have no idea what she means by Universal Man, but I resent and do not agree with her opinion of engineers. I dearly loved an engineer and I respect and admire engineers in general. They make our world run, and all the things we have that make our lives easier come to us from engineers.

The "marched straight ahead, blind, unfeeling" is partly true. An engineer learns that his personal feelings have no place in his work. Whatever he thinks about the bridge, whether it is beautiful or strong, matters for naught. The only thing that matters is the actual truth. Is it really strong? Woe to the engineer who builds a bridge that he "believes" is strong. His belief is not relevant; all that matters is those mathematical formulas that Beauvoir hates.

I do admit that this tendency seeps over into an engineer's personal life. If I don't "feel" that George Rodney loves me, he ignores it. The truth is the only thing that matters and he does love me, so he ignores my irrationality.

I am surprised at the places where my memory of the book diverges from the book itself. For example, I have told the story of the mailed meat so many times. I would have sworn that it was that way in the book.

My story: de Beauvoir and Sartre are living in Paris during the German occupation of World War II. Beauvoir has a kitchen in her hotel room so she cooks often for her friends. An acquaintance in the country sometimes sends her food, sometimes meat. The meat is often spoiled, or even maggoty. She is desperate for meat so she cuts off the bad part and cooks it anyway but doesn't tell anyone. One day Sartre is there when she gets a package. Sartre opens it and sees the spoiled meat and he immediately takes it away and disposes of it. She cries, because, actually, it is the best meat she has gotten in a long time.

The actual passage is this:

As for Sartre, we hid the truth from him. Later parcels often arrived stinking to high heaven; I would extract cuts of malodorous and rinse them thoroughly in vinegar, after which I boiled them for hours, seasoned the resultant pot-au-feu with strong-flavored herbs. Ordinarily I got away with this minor deception, and was mortified if Sartre pushed his plate away unfinished. Once he was there when I unwrapped half a rabbit; he grabbed it instantly and ran downstairs to deposit it in the garbage.

A very different story than the one I tell. George Rodney was known to elaborate so much on stories that the resulting narrative bore very little resemblance to what had really happened. However, it was much more amusing. But in my case, I don't do that, and I don't have the ability he had to make the story better. So I am stumped as to where my story came from. Could it be possible that I read the more elaborate story in another biography?

I have also done this with other stories. For years I have told a story about the mathematician S.M. Ulam. It tells how his calculating as a child the ERAs of Chicago Cubs pitchers led to his career in mathematics and, therefore, his work at Los Alamos. I had read his autobiography at LSU, but recently I bought my own copy, and to my surprise the story is not in there. Furthermore, he was born in Poland so I'm sure he did not grow up figuring baseball statistics. In this case, I am sure I read this story somewhere. If you have heard it, and know where it is, let me know.

In conclusion, I find that deep down I have changed very little. I am surprised by this. I am a little bit ashamed of it. Have I not learned anything in forty years? Has my character, understanding, morals, etc, not improved at all in those decades?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tonight I watched Q&A on CSpan Book TV. The guest was Thomas Dilorenzo, professor of economics, at Loyola College of Baltimore. He is the author of several books, including The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked.

At first I was so excited. The adoration of Lincoln has been a big mystery to me all my life. When historians vote, they always choose him as our greatest president. A civil war is the worst thing that can happen to any country. A civil war happened on his watch. Suppose he had not been so great a president, how could things have been worse.

So I thought this was right down my alley. However, when he was talking he mentioned favorably that institute at Auburn, Alabama, associated with Lou Rockwell. I can't remember the particulars but I think he is a far right wing libertarian. I googled him and found that David Horowitz considers him a fellow traveler of the Islamofascists. I guess Rockwell is so far to the right that he is left.

So should I buy the books. I am unsure.

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