The year is winding down. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this project for almost a year. I’ve grown so much as a writer, as a reader, as a potential author. More on that in another post… eventually.
This week’s blessing of a book is Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day, which is goddamned incredible and if you don’t read it, well, you might be plagued by lobsters.
This is either going to be a very long blog or a very short one. I’m having all the feels.
First off, I’ve never read de Beauvoir before. I knew she was the author of The Second Sex, but I didn’t know if she had written anything else. Hell, I didn’t even know that she was French. (For those of you who are like, “Allison, her last name is de Beauvoir, what else could she be?” I will have you know that the bulk of my family is of French and has last names like Le May and Rebout and they’re American.)
A quick America DBD primer:
Simone de Beauvoir traveled to America in 1947 when she was just a little baby French philosopher who had not yet published her seminal book, The Second Sex. She came out to speak at universities, tour around, meet people, all that usual business. She was in America for four months and America Day by Day is a merging of all of her journals and thoughts into book form (this may not be 100% correct, but is the impression I received from the intro).
What’s really great about this book:
1!. de Beauvoir is really interested about American life, perception, being, and politics. This means that she’s not just running around America going “this is a neat place!” but is engaging with the people she meets, learning about their various philosophies regarding the country and get a good spread of information.
2!. Because she’s talking to people all the time and reading the newspaper as she goes, the reader gets to experience, through de Beauvoir, the rising tide of the Red Scare. And it’s fascinating.
3. de Beauvoir, or her translator, or both, is a beautiful and lyrical writer. She transitions from ephemeral experiences to practical engagements with day to day annoyances. The language changes as she does this, but at no point is it jarring nor does it feel like an entirely different writer has taken over. I have no idea how she/they accomplished this shift so often so smoothly.
4. Knowing that this book was written in 47–not even a century ago–really gives you (or at least me) a very immediate realization of how quickly this country has changed. We think 1947–it’s post World War II. That’s like yesterday. That’s the mental milestone where America went from struggling to modern (whether or not that’s actually true, it seems to be perceptively true). We assume that the country was well on its way to modernizing, that laws were basically as they are now, that it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the 2000s and their self-driving cars and the internet. (Shifting out of the numerical system now because I want to and I can.)
But as de Beauvoir is driving, being driven, flying, training, or busing around, she stops in parts of the country that are outside of the big city. And, in those parts, with her description, it becomes so very real that 1947 was further away than we perceive. That there were still cowboys and cattle runs. That the refrigerator was an uncommon luxury. That our heels were still being chewed at by “the past.”
Her wanderings around New York City, where I now live, showed how much things have changed between then and now. Speaking of the quiet Washington Square (quiet??!) and the search for cafes, of riding the trolley, of Times Square being neither a place you will be crushed by the masses nor a place you’ll get murdered at least twice… what a different world.
Most of the places she traveled to, I have also traveled to. Most of the places she described, I have seen. And it creates such a depth of read.
5. (Back to numbers!) Getting to read a perception of the “black problem” by a European… I mean, there are just the most amazing chapters in the book that discuss the racism of the south, the evolution of the country, the daily social interaction between races, the people who perpetuate continued segregation–if not legally, then socially–and her being able to present her own experiences and interactions firsthand… it’s just fantastic. Insightful.
6. Finally, as I need to work on my own book, I found it oddly riveting to see the same complaints I hear now on pages of a book over fifty years old. Complaints about close-minded people, about conservatism, about the government, about racism. It makes me feel like nothing has changed, that people don’t change. But it also makes me feel that there are always going to be people trying to force that change, to realize that it needs to happen. And maybe that will be enough, one day. Pushing that boulder up the mountain inch by inch.
Some worthwhile quotes, if you like reading and stuff. There’s a lot of them and I really had to prune my selections down because, holy shit, Ms. de Beauvoir is a beautiful writer and her translator scores tops points in my very uninformed book:
“[O]ften I never arrived at any fixed viewpoint, and it is the whole collection of my indecisions, additions, and corrections that constitutes my opinion. No selection has been excised in telling the story: it is the story of what happened to me, neither more not less. This is what I saw and how I saw it. I have not tried to say more.”
“[…] I knew the general direction of American politics, but the climate is even more intolerable than I’d been told. Above all, most of the magazines and papers–the Hearst publications leading the pack, of course–are busy creating a war psychosis. Day after day they repeat that conflict is inevitable and that it’s needed to prevent Russian aggression. Life has even declared in a resounding article that the world is already at war; the use of arms therefore becomes legitimate. And within the country, this embryonic state of war, of cold war, authorizes exception measures […]”
“We drink and talk, but I’m disappointed. The lights and the animation of the streets promise a thousand nocturnal enchantments. Isn’t there any place these promises are kept? Perhaps we didn’t know where to look. I’ll keep searching.”
“I think that American women never dress for comfort, for themselves. Their clothing is first and foremost a declaration of a certain standard of living. that’s why there’s no place for any personal flair that cannot be valued in dollars (save in certain artistic or intellectual circles, but even that rests on a firm foundation of silk and fur).”
“From the cradle to the grave, working, eating, loving, walking, dancing, praying, he can never forget that he is black, and that makes him conscious every minute of the whole white world from which the word ‘black’ takes its meaning. Whatever he does, a black man is ‘committed.’ There is no black writer who can avoid the problem of commitment. It is resolved in advance.”
“The plenitude I dream of, which would take me out of myself, will never be more than a phantom. I will never be promised anything but myself, and this is nothing if I make nothing for myself The night is merely a setting; if I try to seize it, to make it the substance of the moments I’m living, it dissolves in my hands. Something has to happen to me–something real–and the rest will follow in abundance.”
“It was through these black-and-white images [movies] that I first knew America, and I still think of them as its real substance. The screen is a platonic heaven where I grasp the Idea in its purity once more, an Idea that is only approximately embodied in the stone houses and neon lights.”
“In America, the individual is nothing. He is made into an abstract object of worship; by persuading him of his individual value, one stifles the awakening of a collective spirit in him. But reduced to himself in this way, he is robbed of any concrete power. Without collective hope or personal audacity, what can the individual do?”
“Los Angeles is beneath us, a huge, silent fairyland. The lights glitter as far as the eye can see Between the red, green, and white clusters, big glowworms slither noiselessly. Now I am not taken in by the mirage: I know that these are merely street lamps along the avenues, neon signs, and headlights. But mirage or no mirage, the lights keep glittering; they, too, are a truth. And perhaps they are even more moving when they express nothing but the naked presence of men. Men live here, and so the earth revolves in the quiet of the night with this shining wound in its side.”
“The rest of the time he’s bored, like everyone in America with too much leisure time. He goes off in his big car to meet other people who are also bored, he takes them to other people’s homes, and when he’s managed to get a large enough group together, he thinks he’s really having a good time.”
“I feel more than ever what I’ve so often felt in America–there is no distance between the human realm and that of nature. It was with brute hands that human colonies created these landscapes of stone and light, and man conquers the earth only because he is part of it. Perhaps it’s because these cities lack the mediation of a long history that they seem to abruptly hewn from the earth’s crust; deprived of a human past, they plunge their roots directly into the depths of the planet…”
“[…]the average American devotes a great part of his leisure time to driving along the highways. The gas station, roads, hotels, and solitary inns exist only for the tourist and because of the tourist, and these things are profoundly part of America.”
“Now that summer weather has swept down on the city, I understand why, in Hollywood, ambitions weaken, minds grow dull, and only the immediate seems real. The intense blue of this sky is at once too easy and too hard.”
“[…]people in America consume ‘conditioned’ air, frozen meat and fish, homogenized milk, canned fruits and vegetables; they even put artificial chocolate flavor into real chocolate. Americans are nature lovers, but they accept only a nature inspected and corrected by man.”
“Last year, there were waves of apricot-colored dunes and palm trees touched by moonlight–nothing happened. Sand, stone, moon, setting sun; things are here, and I am here, and we come face to face. But in the end, I’m always the one who gets up and goes away.”
“You cannot understand Chicago, Los Angeles, or Houston if you forget that they are haunted by the troublesome, propitious, irritated, or complacent ghosts of the old Puritans. If you want to find a way into the difficult heart of America, it’s in Concord that you’ll find the key to open the first gate.”
“Nothing is stranger to Americans than the idea of seeing the moment of a recapitulation of time, as a mirror of the eternal, and of anchoring themselves in it in order to grasp timeless truths or values. The contents of the moment seem to them as precarious as the moment itself. Because they don’t acknowledge that truths and values are evolving, they don’t know how to preserve them in the movement that surpasses them; they just deny them. History is a large cemetery here: men, works, and ideas die almost as soon as they are born. And every individual existence has a taste of death: from minute to minute, the present is merely an honorary past. It must constantly be filled with the new to conceal the curse it carries within it. That’s why Americans love speed, alcohol, film ‘thrillings,’ and sensational news. They feverishly demand something more and, again, something more, never able to quell their restlessness.”