When Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, women had just been given the vote five years before but were still not able to have their own bank account or work without their husband’s permission. Not just abortion but contraception was illegal and yet in her lifetime, when she was growing up, she was among the first women permitted to get a full education and she was able to pass the same exams and get the same teaching certificate that Sartre had gotten. But they reacted to it in a very different way. They each were posted to schools to teach and for Beauvoir, this meant an incredible opportunity to be independent of her family, to earn her own income, to have a profession, to live on her own, to be able to write. For Sartre it was, Oh my God! I’m going to be stuck being a school teacher all my life! How will I ever become the great philosopher I’m supposed to be?
Both Beauvoir and Sartre were preoccupied with the notion of freedom, but their circumstances made them see it differently. Sartre, in a way, always argued for a more radical kind of freedom that was less cognizant of the situation, the conditioning factors that Beauvoir, as a woman, had to contend with. What I want to emphasize today in relation to our practice situation is that Beauvoir did not focus her attention primarily on social issues of liberation, fighting for the end of restrictions on women’s freedom, although she did spend a considerable time, particularly at the end of her life, doing that. What concerned her more was the person’s sense of inner freedom and what constrains that. She thought that for women, perpetually being the second sex, being defined always in relationship to men, always defined in terms of male standards, had an insidious internal effect on women’s psychology that narrowed their own ideas of their own horizons and their own possibilities.
Both Beauvoir and Sartre used the Hegelian formulation of “in itself” versus “for itself,” where “in itself” is a kind of third person objective picture of who you are and what your situation is. “In itself” in an object in the world, but “for itself” is being a subjective agent with possibilities that you yourself define, and that was what was so perniciously and unconsciously undermined by being the second sex, that wearing away of a person’s own sense of agency and possibility automatically restricting and confining the degrees of freedom that they allow themselves or strive for or even dream about.
Part of what Sartre offered her in a way that she never forgot and was always grateful for, was that he saw her intellectually and individually as an equal, having equal possibility and she was free to frame relationships with the same freedom that he did. At that time in particular it meant freedom to have sexual relationships with other people in a way that did not tie them to conventional pictures of the relationship between men and women. She lived that life of freedom in a way that was quite remarkable, having individual relationships with both men and women over the entire course of her life while maintaining a bond of loyalty and commitment to Sartre as he did the same.
Seeing liberation as sexual liberation turns out to have a few downsides, and Sartre in particular never was able to write his promised book of ethics, in which he would address how all that freedom affected other people. Beauvoir did write that book of ethics, the Ethics of Ambiguity, in which she attempted to address the responsibility we have toward others for the impact of our freedom on them, something that neither of them gave attention to in their youth when they were freely seeing all these other lovers who fell under their spell, you might say. The idea of the second sex, of being defined by who you are, what you’re capable of, entirely in terms of someone else or something else, I think, is a phenomenon that we see playing out in all sorts of different cultural arenas.
I thought of it now particularly in terms of what we are reading about Whitman and the background of American Transcendentalism in the mid-nineteenth century because in a way it’s precisely the problem that Emerson was trying to address in his essays on Self-Reliance. Americans automatically saw themselves as secondary or inferior offshoots of European culture and literature. The great monotheistic religions had their origin somewhere else, the great literature of the world had its origins somewhere else, the great architecture and culture and music were all inherited from somewhere else, and it was a very radical notion to even begin to imagine that all of those things could spring from American soil with as much authenticity as they did from Europe. But that’s what Emerson tried to call for even as a possibility, a kind of range of freedom that people didn’t even know to look for.
Whitman was the first embodiment of that, the first American to really actualize that radical freedom of originality and originality of voice, to do something that felt like a purely American voice, never heard anywhere before this way. Another way I see that playing out is in the relationship of American to Asian Buddhism. For a long time that relationship was framed in terms of: Will the dharma be successfully transmitted into the West? Can Americans ever really have the kind of experiences described in the classic literature of Asia? Is it possible to reproduce in America the kind of training that monks receive in Japan? Can we ever do something that comes close to what has been done there over the centuries?
I think there is only very gradually and very occasionally any idea that the dharma can spring forth fully formed and realized here. It’s not as though it’s successfully transplanted from Japan and it’s managed to grow here and it’s going to look just like the original, as if we’ve learned to cultivate bonsai plants, and we finally learn to do this very Japanese thing here just as well as the Japanese do it over there. For a long time it seemed like that’s how people saw Buddhism in the West. But I think that way of thinking may slowly be coming to an end. What does the dharma look like when it’s purely American? What shape will it take here? How will it blossom? How will it be defined and relevant to the lives of people here, completely separate from any comparison to the shape it took somewhere else, some other country, some other time, with an authenticity that will have nothing to do with comparing it to an original, but entirely on how it grows and functions in the native soil?