“And me?”

Simone de Beauvoir’s novella Inseparable is remarkable in several ways: It was written in 1954 but has remained hidden away among her surviving papers until now. It is an autobiographical text from a prominent writer and philosopher. It is both a beautiful and a sad story about a friendship. It shows how rigid cultural norms and ideals can turn a life into a prison. It indirectly illustrates how one might liberate oneself through authentic love, friendship, and critical thinking.

Inseparable revolves around the meeting between two young girls, Silvie and Andrée, who meet as classmates in a private school in Paris during the First World War. We meet Andrée through the enamored gaze of Silvie, the narrator, who devoutly senses the details of the beloved, as here, where Andrée has hidden in the back garden to play the violin: “Her beautiful black hair was separated by a touching white side parting which one wanted to follow respectfully and tenderly with the finger.” 

Later Silvie acknowledges, “Without Andrée my life is over,” and later, “I had a need to share all with her,” and still later, when Andrée tells about her first love with a boy called Bernard and claims that he was the only one who loved her as she was, Silvie says, “And me?”

Silvie is the smartest in her class; she is a free and critical thinker. For example, one day she is dazed by the obvious truth: “I didn’t believe in God.” Andrée is equally gifted—Silvie fears that she might be smarter—and appears through Silvie’s gaze and fascination to live in her own world. Andrée is more eccentric, unpredictable, and musical than Silvie but also deeply Catholic.

Silvie envies Andrée, especially her independence, until she learns that Andrée lives in a prison where her strict mother watches all the possible exits. Unlike her mother, Andrée believes in the idea of love-marriages. Her mother just wants to marry her daughters off without any concern for love. 

Some might wonder whether the novella is about the friendship or love between the two young girls, later teenagers and young women. Making a distinction between love and friendship may be problematic, since true friendship consists of love—that is, trust, honesty, and equality. For example, Andrée challenges Silvie when she says that wanting to understand everything is haughtiness.

As mentioned, Inseparable is an autobiographical novella, Beauvoir scholars might  debate how accurate Silvie is as an alter ego of Beauvoir—as well as Andrée, who was inspired by the author’s friend Zaza (Elizabeth Lacoin), who died in 1929, when she was only 21 years old. 

Although I look forward to following the debate, the novella can easily stand alone as a sensuous story about friendship, love, freedom, and loss. Still, it may be tempting to tentatively place or interpret the novella through some of Beauvoir’s philosophical concepts. 

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes that authentic love is “founded on mutual recognition of two liberties.” Authentic love is freely chosen or, to put it differently, without freedom, there is no love. Freedom is not only remaining loyal or true to your individuality (whatever that means); rather, freedom is becoming—that is, you are free to become whatever you choose, while you also make sure that the other is equally free. 

The relationship between Silvie and Andrée is authentic. In contrast, an inauthentic love is one in which one party is hindered in experiencing freedom. 

In Inseparable, it is primarily the strong Catholic upbringing and faith that guide Andrée’s family and hinder her free becoming. Her mother makes sure that she has so many tasks to do that Andrée intentionally cuts her foot with an ax just to get some free time. Inauthentic love is based on submission, control, and domination, whether by mothers and priests, as here; or gender, race, or religion in general, to name a few of the most dominant examples. 

The novella might also open up the possibility that Silvie is dominated or restricted by her own ideals. For example, she believes that a woman cannot be free, creative, and innovative if she becomes a mother. Unlike her friend, Silvie doesn’t find the small twins (or babies in general) charming or attractive. Motherhood is apparently a hindrance to free thinking. 

History has, luckily, shown that many women have become philosophers, writers, artists, and much more while being mothers. 

The moral simmering in the novel is that there might not be only one way of being a mother but rather several. Motherhood is a multiplicity. At least, I cannot help but wonder what Andrée, who is capable of cutting her own leg with an ax, would do in a less self-harming way if a potential husband would hinder her playing her violin and writing her stories. Ideally, of course, she wouldn’t have to, if the marriage was one of authentic love. Continuing this line of thought, then no one would have to harm themselves, if they were brought up in a world of love—that is, one of equality and freedom for all.

Furthermore, since we are dealing with a novella inspired by true events, then Andrée was set to marry Pascal, who in real life represented Merleau-Ponty. Could they have matched Beauvoir and Sartre as not only the two dominating existentialists but also another example of aspiring philosophical friendship? 

Returning to The Second Sex, then, one might also describe the relationship between Silvie and Andrée through Beauvoir’s use of the concepts “transcendence” and “immanence.” She writes: “Every subject posits itself as transcendence concretely, through projects; it accomplishes its freedom only by perpetual surpassing toward other freedoms; there is no justification for present existence than its expansion towards an indefinitely open future. Every time transcendence lapses into immanence, there is degradation of existence into ‘in-itself’” 

Transcendence is a person’s ability to transcend a given situation, which, in theory, is possible for all human beings but in practice is reserved mainly for men—at least during the time where the novella takes place in France. For instance, Silvie transcends the Catholic faith. In contrast, a woman is traditionally held in immanence, where she is tied by her biological destiny: becoming a mother. A way to transcend this “destiny” is to throw alternative projects into the future. Silvie appears skeptical about whether a woman, whether Andrée can transcend her “immanent” destiny, but Andrée believes that another life is possible: another form of motherhood. Could Andrée (or Zaza) have found independence within dependence?  

If you appreciate an intimate novella about friendship, freedom, and love, then read Inseparable. I truly enjoyed the book and recommend it warmly. 

Finn Janning, PhD, writer and philosopher. 

This review was first published in Metapsychology, Vol. 25, No. 37

Shouldn’t I say something out of love?

Readers of the stream of philosophical blogging that I have produced during the last few years will be familiar with the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Behind me, I have 11 or 12 of his books—small essays to be more exact—and some of them I have mentioned here, here, and here.

In The Expulsion of the Other (2018), Han continues his analysis of our everyday existence in today’s achievement society. The Other is expulsed due to the terror of the Same.

“In that hell of sameness, humans are nothing but remote-controlled puppets.”

Expanding on this idea, Han returns to the question “Why?”. He claims that if it becomes irrelevant, nothing is understood, then adds, “knowledge is understanding … Insight in an emphatic sense is also transformative.” That philosophical thinking is transformative is well known, but some philosophers—especially phenomenalists—may differ regarding the Why-question, claiming that it leads to unending regress: because, because, because. Instead, for example, Merleau-Ponty would prefer How- and What-questions.

Still, Han’s errand is to illustrate that when everything is reduced to the Same, we become blind or deaf because the strangeness or even the painfulness of the Other is erased. The world turns flat and boring. After all, the subject of seduction is the Other: “the Other as eros.”

Eros is part of thinking, an idea that Han developed in his essay The Agony of Eros; it’s Eros that makes us courageous enough to take a step into the unknown.

Continuing, Han stresses that neoliberalism is not guided by reason; quite on the contrary the freedom of neoliberalism is an advertisement: “… freedom itself is exploited. People willingly exploits themselves under the illusion of realizing themselves.”

“We do it to ourselves,” as Radiohead once sang, “and that’s what really hurts.”

The ideas that Han present here are not new. He has repeated these, at least, since the publication of Müdigkeitsgesellschaft in 2010 (English, The Burnout Society, 2017). But still, like repeating a good joke, small nuances are added.

Han’s style is Hegelian; he operates in dualism. It makes him easy to follow but at times he misses, at least in my opinion, the blurry gap in between. For example, Sameness is bad because it makes us numb whereas the Other opens us for thinking; negativity is good because it challenges and affects us, whereas the terror of positivity makes us empty; love is the answer whereas today’s narcissism and the endless string of selfies only creates emptiness and depression; it’s better to listen than just communicate. Lastly, today’s notion of authenticity is “the self’s neoliberal form of production.”

It’s difficult not to agree. Today people optimize their bodies and souls to become attractive, sellable commodities. Status, prestige, and power are guided by the market, not by love as a political and transformative power.

Still, when Han quotes Deleuze for saying, “Playing the fool has always been a function of philosophy” because the philosopher breaks with the predominant, i.e., the Same, Han tends to be against or opposing the Same from an opposite position. Black or white. However, in my opinion, Deleuze’s philosophy doesn’t create an opposition to a dominant position; rather he is more prepositional, more immanent, placed in the midst of life pointing out new forms of life.

Han, on the other hand, is transcendental. I sense his German roots, Hegel and especially Heidegger, when it comes to truth and origin. He tends to aim at reawakening an “original animal” within. For example, he follows Heidegger’s concept of Eigenlichkeit, the potential for being that suffers from the seductive power of They (Das Man). We are narcissistic in the eyes of the Other because we want to be liked and followed by them, but Han want us to be more true to ourselves regardless what They say and feel. Intuitively I follow him (although I understand the self as a changing process of becoming, not something solid but something else), and similar ideas can be found, for instance, in psychologist Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, where he writes, “…narcissism involves desperately seeking affirmation from others.

Narcissism is not the result of Eigenlichkeit, but is its antithesis.

Continuing, Han writes that the constant hypercommunication “destroys both you and closeness. Relationships are replaced by connections.”

How do we overcome the terror of positivity, the hell of Sameness?  Han suggests that we use listening as a generous invitation for another to speak. “Listening is a bestowal, a giving, a gift. It helps the Other to speak in the first place.” My silence, therefore, expresses a hospitality.

In conclusion, Han tells us what most of us already know, but unfortunately many find it difficult to live up to: Love is the answer. “Only eros is capable of freeing the I from depression, from narcissistic entanglement in itself.”

What Han doesn’t explore sufficiently in this essay is the delicate balance between a healthy self-love (I would call it self-care) and narcissism; that is, today many people are selling love, praying love, even acting lovingly but in a way that seems to be fueled by their desire for status and prestige related to being a loving person. There is a political correctness that has even invaded love, playing with Heidegger’s distinction between Eigenlichkeit and Das Man; authenticity and They.

It could be interesting to relate his ideas to Spinoza, who defines love as the increase of our joy, as well as of our power to act and think, with the recognition of an external cause. His love is social. Thus, instead of striving to be honest towards myself (Eigenlichkeit), maybe I should try to engage with love and care for others. In a way it would make better sense to love my wife than myself because her love makes me more powerful and joyous. And, therefore, I can act with more compassion socially.

I’m not sure that Han would disagree with these preliminary thoughts; still, what he gains in his accessible and stimulating analysis is perhaps what I miss: a more thorough study where the treatment and diagnosis hang together better. For example, yes, we should listen, but what do we do when what we hear is unacceptable, such as misogyny, racism, and extreme nationalism? Shouldn’t I say something out of love?

If love is the answer, then it means that when there is no doubt, there is love. Seen in this light, Han’s book is full of compassion because every time love is absent, we should doubt, imagine, think … how to enhance love.


First published in Metapsychology, Volume 22, Issue 43

Sant Jordi – den legemliggjorte

Det fortælles at ridderen Sant Jordi red videre efter at have reddet prinsessen fra dragen. Hvor hen, ved ingen. Nogle hævder dog, at han blev hængende, og fik det halve kongerige, som det hører sig til i eventyrene. Jeg ved det ikke. Der er noget heroisk i begge historier.

Sant Jordi også kaldet Sankt Jørgen er mere end ridderen, som redder hele byen – og prinsessen – fra den modbydelige drages gab. I den spanske region Catalonien er han den symbolske figur per se. Han bekæmper ikke kun dragen, men undertykkelse og frygt. Sant Jordi er ridderen, der vil Cataloniens selvstændighed. Han er en del af løsrivelsesprocessen. Efter at have spiddet dragen med sit spyd, dyppede han sine fingre i dens varme blod, og kørte fire blodige fingre henover ørkenens gule sand. Resultat: Fire røde striber på en gul baggrund, nøjagtigt som i det catalanske flag. Senere voksede en masse smukke roser op.

Hvorfor nu Sant Jordi? Skal det handle om eventyr? Nej, i hvert fald ikke mere end det plejer.

Dagen i dag er også bøgernes dag. Det er dagen, hvor selveste romanens fader Cervantes blev født, hvor Shakespeare døde (eller blev født, er lidt i tvivl). Det er dagen, hvor alle skoler i Catalonien afholder en poesi-konkurrence. Det er dagen, hvor mændene køber en rose til pigerne, mens damerne køber en bog til drengene. Det lyder sikkert sexistisk og meget forkert, men byen dufter af roser og er fuld af bøger. Det er ikke en kun en dag, hvor en forfatter kan være glad, men alle, der kan lide at læse og dufte og se på noget smukt, bliver berørt – især, når solen så også skinner.

Sant Jordi legemliggør den catalanske frihedskamp. Det er dog ikke den politiske debat, som jeg vil berøre, men begrebet legemliggøre.

I bogen The Embodied Mind foretager forfatterne Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson og Eleanor Rosch en af de første filosofiske læsninger af buddhismen. De sætter filosofisk ”kød” på begrebet mindfulness, som de definerer mere eller mindre som opmærksomhed. Mindfulness er et begreb, der desværre har det med at blive misbrugt i management og selvhjælpslitteratur, fordi opmærksomheden pludselig bliver strategisk. Opmærksom på noget.

Bogens filosofiske udgangspunkt er Merleau-Ponty, der definerer begrebet legemliggørelse (eller inkarnation), som noget der både omfatter kroppen, som en levet og eksperimenterende struktur, og kroppen, som konteksten for ens kognitive mekanismer. Sagt anderledes: Livet sætter sig i kødet på os. Afhængigt af konteksten.

Et eksempel: Lige nu hyperventilerer jeg. Det er underligt, idet jeg sidder ned. Havde jeg derimod lige været ude og løbe, ville konteksten have været anderledes. Selvfølgelig kan min åndedragsfrekvens også skyldes for meget kaffe, at jeg skal undervise på spansk, at jeg lige har set Zlatan nøgen i en reklame … kontekst. Hvordan er hvad muligt?

Mindfulness betyder at kroppen er nærværende i legemliggjorte erfaringer.

I bogen kæder forfatterne, som nævnt, ideen om mindfulness tæt sammen med opmærksomhed. Apropos opmærksomhed, så sagde Henry Miller at opmærksomhed var den bedste etik, ligesom det var den vigtigste kapacitet for en forfatter. Jeg er enig. Flere kunne nævnes, men ikke her. Pay attention. Når vi er opmærksomme, bliver vi mindful, det vil sige vi erfarer, hvad sindet eller vores tanker gør, mens den gør det. Det handler om at blive nutidig eller nærværende i ens tanke. Det handler altså ikke om refleksion eller abstraktion. Det handler ikke om tankens tanke. Det handler ikke om at træde ud af sine tanker og evaluere disse i forhold til et ideal. Det handler i bund og grund om at bringe kroppen og tanken sammen. ”To be mindful of the mind as it takes its own course,” som de så smukt skriver.

En anden måde at forstå mindfulness på er ved at relatere det til Descartes berømte udsagn: Jeg tænker, derfor er jeg. Problemet for buddhisten er, at Descartes konkluderer, det vil sige at han træder ud af tanken i stedet for at blive i processen. Noget tænker. Basta. Tilsvarende kunne man sige, at bevidsthed er noget, og ikke om noget. Det er også her at selvet forsvinder. Buddhismen fortæller dog ikke, at du ikke må tro, at du besidder et selv eller ej. Ingen er stædige. Snarere påpeger de, at ens ekstreme opmærksomhed tydeliggør, at der ikke er et anker, en essens for hvad ”jeg” tænker. Selvet er noget blivende, noget som sker. Det er ikke mig, som tænker, men noget som lægger an på mig. Jeg er noget tænkt. Jeg formes.

At tænke er en måde at blive mere opmærksom på. Uden andet formål end opmærksomhed på det, som finder sted. Det er blandt andet det, som skriften kan. Den findes. Den bevæger sig. Udvikler sig. Den ånder. Nogle gange kan den præcist levendegøre noget, hvorved det bliver muligt at dele erfaringer, idet der skabes rum for ens erfaringsdannelse i kraft af sproget. Sproget er opmærksomt.

Det hele er ifølge bogens forfattere et spørgsmål om sansning. Tanken er den sjette sans. Det er ikke kun kvinder, som besidder en sjette sans. (Med mindre man mener, at kun kvinder tænker). Det gør alle, som tænker. Tanken er afhængig af kontakt. Sant Jordis blodige hånd smelter sammen med jorden. Han berøres og røres; påvirkes og påvirker. Det tørre sand befrugtes med det mest livgivende: blod. Sant Jordi rækker livet videre. Han ser, hører, smager, lugter og rør, men han tænker også. Tanken er den erfaring, som rækkes videre. Den erfaring som siger, at kun kærligheden kan matche døden, at kærligheden er den eneste mulige protest mod dødeligheden. Sant Jordi legemliggør livet.

Det fortælles dog ikke, at Sant Jordi af samme grund også er større end det catalanske projekt. I hvert fald symbolsk.

Bogen er en fin indføring i mindfulness i en filosofisk kontekst. Enkelte steder er den lidt outdated, fx i afsnittene om kognition. At den halter lidt er dog ikke bogens skyld, men min. Min omtale af bogen er outdated, The Embodied Mind udkom i 1991. Dengang havde jeg ikke hørt om Merleau-Ponty eller budisme, men ikke desto mindre indset, at jeg er min krop.

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