Man is, like woman, a flesh, thus a passivity, the plaything of his hormones and the species, uneasy prey to his desire; and she like him, in the heart of carnal fever, is consent, voluntary gift, and activity; each of them lives the strange ambiguity of existence made body in his or her own way.
Indeed, the entire book can be read as a sex-ed course, which is how I first experienced it. In the course of articulating “what singularly defines the situation of woman,” Beauvoir covers many essentials neglected in state-mandated health classes, including the anal phase of psychosexual development, role-playing, abortion, breast-feeding, “inversion,” religious ecstasy, married life, and sex as an obliteration of self.
But enough of sex, which after all is a mere metaphor for the more critical drama of immanence and transcendence played out between the sexes in history, biology, psychology, and literature. It's the story of our lives, as told by someone unafraid to generalize: “Woman has always been, if not man's slave, at least his vassal;” caught up “halfway between revolt and slavery,” she is complicit in creating the conditions she lacks the power to change on her own.
I'll admit I found Beauvoir à la Borde and Malovany-Chevallier to be a little chewier than I remembered. This is perhaps what you'd expect from the whole-grain version of a dense philosophical text. “It's very heavy,” Malovany-Chevallier warned in Bookforum three years ago. “We're not jazzing it up." Instead, they went the opposite direction, restoring the original punctuation of the original, with its page-long sentences and abundance of semicolons in places where many an English reader would prefer a full stop.
The resulting prose has a tendency to get stuck in your teeth. The Beauvoir scholar Toril Moi disagrees strenuously with the translators' decision to reinstate every semicolon, arguing that it does an injustice to Beauvoir: “In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries,” she writes, while in English, those same sentences “come across as rambling or incoherent.”
We know from Beauvoir's text that woman is forever making the wrong decision; there's no right decision for her to make. Yet here we now are in the era of “choice” feminism, faced with two versions of the same classic text: the faithful if slightly leaden version of the triumphal present set against the livelier, slightly dumbed-down version of yore. It's an impossible choice.
But “The Second Sex” is an exciting book, period. No semicolon can get in the way of lines like these:
The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of the other; and they can take the same glory from their freedom.
Now that we have our faithful translation in hand, it's time to shoot the movie already.