The Ethics of Ambiguity

‘”The continuous work of our life,’ says Montaigne, ‘is to build death.’ He quotes the Latin poets: Prima, quae vitam dedit, hora corpsit. And again: Nascentes morimur. Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo. A new paradox is thereby introduced into his destiny. ‘Rational animal,’ ‘thinking reed,’ he escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it. He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness. He asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things. At every moment he can grasp the non-temporal truth of his existence. But between the past which no longer is and the future which is not yet, this moment when he exists is nothing. This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.”

—Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity. (trans. Bernard Frechtman)

The surprise was not the closure of Les Temps Modernes, but that it was until this week’s announcement still being published. It was in this journal, founded by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, that The Ethics of Ambiguity was first published, originally serialised across four issues between November 1946 and February 1947.

In Ethics Beauvoir develops an ethical system founded on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943). I read both early enough to be of immeasurable influence. I found my edition of Ethics, published by The Philosophical Library of New York in 1948, in one of those bouquinistes on the Left Bank, which seemed appropriate.

The opening section quoted above is beautiful, but the elegance and force of Beauvoir is particulaly evident in her argument against nihilism:

“The nihilist attitude manifests a certain truth. In this attitude one experiences the ambiguity of the human condition. But the mistake is that it defines man not as the positive existence of a lack, but as a lack at the heart of existence, whereas the truth is that existence is not a lack as such. And if freedom is experienced in this case in the form of rejection, it is not genuinely fulfilled. The nihilist is right in thinking that the world possesses no justification and that he himself is nothing. But he forgets that it is up to him to justify the world and to man himself exist validly. Instead of integrating death into life, he sees in it the only truth of the life which appears to him as a disguised death. However, there is life, and the nihilist knows that he is alive. That’s where his failure lies. He rejects existence without managing to eliminate it. He denies any meaning to his transcendence, and yet he transcends himself. A man who delights in freedom can find an ally in the nihilist because they contest the serious world together, but be also sees in him an enemy insofar as the nihilist is a systematic rejection of the world and man, and if this rejection ends up in a positive desire, destruction, it then establishes a tyranny which freedom must stand up against.”

Forthcoming Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading

  1. Roberto Calasso, The Unnamable Present
  2. Laura Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul
  3. Jan Zwicky, The Experience of Meaning
  4. Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
  5. Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob
  6. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anarchy’s Brief Summer
  7. Simon Critchley. Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
  8. Dan Gretton, I You We Them
  9. Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
  10. Simone de Beauvoir, Diary of a Philosophy Student: Volume 2, 1928-29
  11. Annie Ernaux, Happening
  12. Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
  13. Claudio Magris, Snapshots
  14. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Sarah Richmond’s translation)
  15. Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project
  16. Christina Hesselholdt, Vivian
  17. Enrique Vila-Matas, Mac and His Problem
  18. Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature
  19. Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin

Deborah Levy’s Memoirs

These are the first two volumes of a planned “living memoir”. You feel in them the presence of Simone de Beauvoir. Both autobiographical projects go beyond the reconstruction of a life, and Deborah Levy does that strikingly, but these memoirs develop into an exploration of the ethics of human interdependence.

There is a dynamism in Levy’s writing that tempts me to sample her fiction, though in de Beauvoir’s case the memoirs are the best of her work. I am curious about how the highly literary autobiography and fiction spill into each other.

Self-knowledge is Impossible (Beauvoir)

Reading through old common-place books, I come across this context-setting from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life. Beauvoir’s memoirs are marvels with so much more immediacy than the novels. I repeat this piece in my latest common-place book and here on my blog as it is necessary to remind oneself often.

“[..] I still believe to this day in the theory of ‘transcendental ego’. The self has only a probable objectivity, and anyone saying ‘I’ only grasps the outer edge of it; an outsider can get a cleaner and more accurate picture. Let me repeat that this personal account is not offered in any sense as an ‘explanation’. Indeed, one of my main reasons for undertaking it is my realisation that self-knowledge is impossible, and that the best one can hope for is self-revelation.”

This week: Middlemarch, Kathleen Ferrier’s Winterreise.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Reading Women by Stephanie Staal

In the opening pages of  Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life Stephanie Staal outlines a familiar plot: “And then I got married, had a baby, and everything changed”, and though married to a “progressive and supportive man” (though his credentials for that portrayal appear insubstantial) is disheartened when her narrative conforms to the familiar plot. Resolved not to forgo her feminist ideals Staal returns to college to take a Feminist Texts course. By the closing pages it is difficult to see what effect the ‘Fem Texts’ course had on Staal’s original distress and she concludes the memoir:

The storyteller in me wishes I could point to one watershed event, but the truth is that we had change slowly, incrementally, coming closer together through thousands of tiny moments that make up a day, a life. This didn’t have to happen. I knew from experience, both my own and others, that those moments could have just as well pulled us apart, if even one of us had chosen otherwise.

In other words, Staal participated in a relationship through the high and low points and grew. A memoir, engagingly told, not particularly profound, and one that fails to offer any substantive suggestions about how women (or men) can reconcile the broad ideals of feminism with marriage and parenthood. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

There is considerable value though in Reading Women is as a synoptic primer of feminism, at least as it pertains to the middle classes. Staal progresses chronologically through ‘Fem Texts’, with a fascinating summary of Elaine Pagel’s Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, an ‘intellectual history of the first two chapters of Genesis that traces traditional patterns of gender and sexuality’.

From there Staal argues convincingly for the continued relevance of first-generation feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft,  cleverly contrasts the fiction of Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and moves on to a half-hearted defence of Beauvoir. The strongest section of the book deals with the feminist writers most familiar to Staal, those of the sixties and seventies.

The section I had been anticipating with interest was the next generation that includes writers like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Staal evidently struggled with these texts and reverts to the comfort blanket of Erica Jong, amusing enough but trite. She recovers towards the end when studying Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, the one text Staal covers that I felt compelled to order immediately.

As a memoir it was a quick, occasionally amusing but ultimately forgettable event. As a whizz through three generations of feminist writers, for those, like me, that frequently know the names but only the basic arguments, it was a useful doorway to deeper exploration.