Significant Other

Michael A Rizzotti

Significant other refers to a gender blind way to name the Other partner in a relationship. The attribute significant implies having a meaningful and influential effect on the Other and onto oneself. Especially if it relates to a deep and liberating experience of love. In her seminal work of Le Deuxième Sexe, Simone de Beauvoir proposed her own analysis of alterity. The Introduction of the book is such a classic that it deserves to be reinterpreted in light of her invaluable contribution to the perception of the Other.

Although Simone de Beauvoir wrote her book in 1949 it is still a major treatise on feminism and phenomenology. The introduction of The Second Sex is based on her own philosophical analysis with references to scholars like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Dumézil, Granet and Hegel. As such she was a pioneer in using pluri-disciplinary fields like anthropology, mythography, mythology and sociology in her philosophical discourse. She brings up some original observations on the importance of myth in culture in light of her concept of the Other. And to this day it is hard to deny the caliber of her intellect.

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De Beauvoir was brought up in a conservative bourgeois family in Paris. Her father was a lawyer and an agnostic. Her mother was a devout Catholic. She juggled the differing influences of her parents by becoming a devoted atheist. The existence of God did not matter as much to her as the existence of Other beings “there” in her life. Especially her life long companion Jean-Paul Sartre, the famed post-war existentialist.

Sartre and de Beauvoir first met in 1929 while taking their agrégation ─a test that rates students that enable them to teach in the best schools. Although Sartre failed the first time he took the test, he was nevertheless awarded first prize on his second attempt. Whereas de Beauvoir, who passed on her first attempt, was given second place. She nevertheless succeeded in being the youngest student to pass the agrégation and became the youngest philosophy teacher in France. Following the test, the president of the jury, professor Lalande, confessed to one of his colleagues that Sartre had marked intellectual qualities, but he added, the real philosopher is “her”.

Both were to remain “essential” lovers until Sartre’s death. They both agreed to an open relationship with a tacit agreement that they would reveal everything about their love affairs to each other. These “contingent” love affairs consisted mostly of Sartre’s ongoing womanizing including several ménage à trois involving de Beauvoir. Adding her own lesbian relationships along the way. Sartre and de Beauvoir’s personal letters published after their deaths, revealed that they were making fun of the Other lovers in their love triangles. They were typically being used to reinforce their own “essential” bond .

Following the second world war Jean-Paul Sartre became the intellectual star of France. Although de Beauvoir was Sartre’s intellectual equal, she never matched his fame and popularity. She became known ironically as Notre-Dame-de-Sartre and la Grande Sartreuse. Not until after her death in 1986 was she finally considered a philosopher in her own right.

French existentialism was a direct product of the liberation of France at the hands of the Nazis. Years of countless deaths, destruction and misery were quickly swept away by a moral and philosophical liberation. God and religion had been helpless to stop the Nazis and were replaced with a post-war moral freedom, spiritual skepticism and existentialism. Years of bloodshed unleashed a joie de vivre and free love that gave birth to the baby boomers. Sartre became the undisputed symbol of that liberation.

Sartre was the eminent French proponent of existentialism. Later on, he became an advocate of Marxism, even though revelations about the gulag’s atrocities committed by Stalin were being well documented. His Marxist’s leanings might appear as a typical French arrogance towards the Anglo allies who had liberated France. However, one must keep in mind that 17 million Russians died during the war. Russian troops under Stalin had advanced quickly into Germany ahead of the allies. And they had been instrumental in the fall of Berlin and the defeat of the Nazis. As such, Marxist Leninism had made a political incursion in the ideological make-up of most European countries.

Sartre was the undisputed star philosopher of the post-war era. His fame reached an unprecedented levels, despite his lack of personal glitter or physical glamour. He was short, crossed eyed and almost blind in one eye. A drab looking fellow that paid no attention to his exterior appearance. Simone de Beauvoir was the opposite: Proper, neat, severe and conservative looking. Despite his appearance Sartre was known to be a real charmer. He had a tendency of promising the world to his female conquest, all of them pretty women. A trait that annoyed the feminist de Beauvoir.

In 1946 Sartre decided to move in with his mother, although he had become well-off from his royalties. Most of the money he made from his publications was spent on sustaining his love affairs. Sartre confessed that the reason he began writing plays was to create acting jobs for his lovers, who had no means to support themselves. Overall he was known to be generous, intelligent and charming man. Not renowned for being a warm or attentive lover.

Despite the complexities of his philosophy, Sartre managed to make existentialism fashionable. Anybody could become an existentialist, especially the young. People might not have fully understood its philosophical intricacies but could readily identify with its unabashed free love and overall moral laxity. Jazz music, Paris night life, dancing, erotic euphoria were deemed the highest expression of a post-war existentialism. Nonetheless, existentialism also exposed a spiritual vacuum about the harsh reality of human existence.

In her Ethics of Ambiguity de Beauvoir described existentialism in clear terms and made it easier to understand ─her own interpretation and tribute to Being and Nothingness. Unlike Sartre, who had the propensity of being too analytical, dense and sometimes prone to lucubration. It was wrongly believed that de Beauvoir had no original ideas of her own. And the she was merely making Sartre’s existentialism more readily accessible to the reader.

Throughout her relationship with Sartre she was viewed as his philosophical apprentice, an intellectual second fiddle. After her death, as more of her personal correspondence was made public, a different portrait emerged. The letters show her as the more dominant partner in terms of exploring new sexual experiences and relationships. She was also more passionate and more emotionally daring than her companion. In retrospect, a reassessment of her life’s work does indeed prove that the real philosopher was “her”.

In her book Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter she undertakes to disclose the “enterprise of living” in which literature is substituted for life’s spiritual and religious needs. In this book, and a few others to follow, she reveals the intellectual journey of a twentieth century woman. Disclosing a moral disconnect with traditional religion and social conventions. On the one hand, she reveals the condition of women in light of post-war existentialism. On the other hand, her novels depict fictional accounts of her personal sexual experiences with varied partners of both sexes.

De Beauvoir proclaimed herself to be an atheist. Being an atheist however, does not mean being devoid of spirituality. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter she describes her relationship with her mother in this manner:

At every moment in the deepest of my heart she was my witness and I could not make any distinction between her gaze and that of God.

In retrospect, her life’s intellectual journey reveals a re-enactment of the twentieth century’s history of religious thought. She was raised a good Catholic and then grew up to embody a post-war secularization of established creeds, beliefs and practices. With a consequential reassessment of traditional religion, its sacred rituals and symbols.

De Beauvoir through her profane art of writing disclosed a preoccupation with the absolute: An absolute without God. Simultaneously denounced materialism and hedonism, as flawed and lewd. And objected to the idea that you needed to redeem yourself in this world in order to save yourself for the next in heaven. Her life and her writings reveal a search of the absolute through the living experience of the Other.

It is with the publication of The Second Sex that de Beauvoir’s analytical thinking is fully revealed. In it she states the premise of her book, “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”. One is not born a woman: One becomes one. Explaining that a woman is a cultural label dependent on her identity only as a reference to “man”. An alterity in relation to the totality implied in the conceptual ideas like “mankind”. She exposes a patriarchal vision were the feminine is belittled, censured and negated. The book quickly became a manifesto for women’s liberation. Fans were grateful that a woman had finally understood their condition. For a growing number of them she became their “symbolic mother”.

Today, many of her ideas have become common knowledge and are now part of an acceptable way of thinking. But at the time of its original publication her observations were considered quite revolutionary. When the book came out she was branded by her male critics as an “existential Amazon” who has written  “a manual of erotic egotism” full of “pornographic zeal”.

Her assessment of the Other begins with her own insights about her own status as a women. A bright, sexually emancipated and independent human being in a world of women economically dependent on an “absolute” patriarchal system. As she explains: the relationship between the sexes involves a duality and like any duality it gives rise to conflict. Inevitably, the dominant partner will assume the status of absolute.

Now, what peculiarly signalizes the situation of woman is that she ─a free and autonomous being like all human creatures─ nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. They propose to stabilize her as an object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be overshadowed and forever transcended by another ego (conscience) which is essential and sovereign.

Liberation, according to de Beauvoir, is based on our mutual recognition that each partners is free and alternatively Other. Lovers view themselves ambiguously as subject and object of erotic desire. Rather than being confined and defined as a cultural or institutionalized man or woman. The concept of ambiguity, a fuzzy perception of self and Other, is in love identified as an essential step in the process of transcending the oppression of patriarchy.

The erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of the condition; in it they are aware of themselves as flesh and as spirit, as the other and as the subject.

At the time of the writing she introduced some ideas that might appear as self evident today but were shocking to the more conservative population of the time. As she explained, woman was defined as an incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other. But her analysis did not only limit itself to her feminist views of patriarchy but overlapped into the condition of the Other in culture in general. It is this contribution that we would like to emphasize here.

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent on any empirical fact…The feminine element was at first no more involved in such pairs as Varuna-Mitra, Uranus-Zeus, Sun-Moon, and Day-Night than it was in the contrasts between Good and Evil, lucky and unlucky auspices, right and left, God and Lucifer. Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought.

In addition to her assessment on the condition of women she also describes the idea of alterity in varied aspects of culture. She brings up the example of racism as applied to Black people as well as with Jews and anti-Semitism. All are based on a culture of master and slave and a tribal division between us and them. The outcast ─Other─ being relegated outside our mental process banned from our network of contacts, belittled and excluded from our spiritual embrace.

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De Beauvoir’s idea of “man” as absolute, must not be confused with a person defined by his gender, but as a symbol of a patriarchal system. An invisible hierarchy that is over-powering and omnipresent. A top down system of control that is covert and guarded. More often than not, this power structure has been confused with God. It is intangible, pervasive and so elusive that it is deemed to be non existent.

What is usually visible about the hierarchy is the violence and terror displayed by totalitarian regimes, the war industry, hate groups and terrorist organizations. All the while, the workings of these systems remain invisible, expanding with legal immunity and impunity. Such is the enduring power of the elusive hierarchy.

The paradox is that the Other is a decoy to help reinforce the echelons of power. The Other that lays outside the system is a reminder that the hierarchy is in need of a scapegoat to be viewed as a threat so to strengthen the system.

Anybody who has experienced being excluded from family, friends, a group, a club, from people of a foreign nation, unable to speak the language, knows the feeling of helplessness from being excluded, of being the Other. This segregating experience allows us to see how the system works from the outside. It enables a solitary view of the whole scheme of which one is excluded.

Different examples of the Otherness are represented here as: the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant, the Jew, the gentile, the black person, the Muslim, the infidel, the mad, the gay, the elderly, the poor, the homeless, the orphan, the sick, the unemployed, the prisoner, the handicapped…These groups signify varied aspects of human condition that are overshadowed by the majority in society. They become labeled as Other so to discount their value. Invariably distorting our mental perception of the whole human reality.

Cultural and racial boundaries between self and Other define who we are spiritually. The wider our level of affective and cultural openness towards the Other determines how developed we are spiritually. The more boundaries we raise, the narrower we become mentally. The greater denial of the Other, the more regressive and sectarian we become. These exclusions then activate a fanatical set of beliefs that are the basis for a cult: A perversion of true spirituality.

Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought

De Beauvoir’s assessment that Otherness is a fundamental principle of human thought is compelling and could easily be applied to other aspects of human perception of reality. The example of the Other as a profane reality revealed in the Catholic concept of God in the doctrine of the Trinity comes to mind.

God the Father

God the Son      the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is Other in relation to the absolute implied in the patriarchal relationship between God the Father and God his Son. The gender component of the Mother is missing from the divine relationship between Father and Son. What makes pro-creation of either principles possible is “censured” and “negated”. The Holy Spirit is the Other, defined at the Giver of Life. A passive and overshadowed reality of the divine and sacred feminine. A principle that is nonetheless an essential and fundamental part of our spirituality’s dynamic.

In respect to her views about God and patriarchy, we can safely say that Simone de Beauvoir was not thrown out of the garden of Eden. She left voluntarily. Unafraid to leave behind the grip of a jealous Landlord and his overbearing generosity. A Lord who demands unconditional obedience in exchange for living in an environment of overwhelming security. She escaped with no regrets for having eaten from the fruit of the tree and revealed the secrets of the knowledge of good and evil.

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