THE SECOND SEX
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
The Second Sex (published in French in 1949) is probably the best known book of the French philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir. In this work, de Beauvoir analyses why women’s role in society had been consistently inferior to that of men. It is an extremely learned, highly researched work, sustained with examples from all fields of human culture, science and learning - biology, anthropology, mythology, literature, philosophy and economics - spanning the position of women from pre-historic times to the mid-20th century.
Perhaps most famously, in this work, de Beauvoir uses the existentialist reasoning that experience precedes essence, arguing that, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman’. She also argues that since antiquity, women have been defined as ‘the Other’, an antithesis of the ‘normal’ male. Only by relinquishing this assumption, argued de Beauvoir, could feminism progress.
The Second Sex proved so controversial in the mid 20th century that the Vatican placed it on the “Index of prohibited books.” At that time, there existed very little in the way of feminist perspectives on philosophy. Women in France had only gained the right to vote in 1944. It was only in 1959 that the Oxford women’s colleges were given the same status as those of men. Yet, later in the 20th century, The Second Sex was thought by some (feminists included) to be dated – in particular, a later generation of feminists found de Beauvoir’s work to be insufficiently appreciative of feminine difference.
Yet anyone who desires freedom and justice for women should still read The Second Sex. For de Beauvoir, economic independence was crucial to shedding women’s secondclass status, and many years before Amartya Sen, she argued that abstract freedom (eg the right to vote, or freedom of speech) will make little difference to women who are deprived of the health, education and money to benefit from such rights.
I first discovered de Beauvoir in my late teens, and avidly read everything she had written. When I started my first academic job, over 20 years ago, I placed her photograph on my bookshelf in my office, and it still stands there today. What particularly impressed me was the way in which her work, most notably The Second Sex, confounds the boundaries between the personal, the political and the philosophical, an approach which is rarely taken in legal writings, but one to which I feel more and more drawn. And, as an academic who often struggles with the difficulties of writing, I cannot but fail to be impressed by the fact that de Beauvoir researched and wrote The Second Sex in only 14 months, while also working on several other projects.
I have chosen the Jurisprudentia because this work, painted just over 100 years ago, to me expresses the anxieties and insecurities of the late modern era, and it places law firmly at the centre of these anxieties. Indeed, one might read the Jurisprudentia as explicitly demonstrating the gap between two different conceptions of law, namely a formal, rationalist, systematic conception of law, offering certainty and clarity (these elements to be found in the upper part of the painting, with the three allegorical figures of Justice, Truth and Law) and a contrasting vision of law as it really is – irrational, chaotic and uncertain (these elements to be found in the lower part of the work). In this way, much of the work attempts to separate its representation of law from associations of order and stability, foreshadowing the postmodern concerns of the later 20th century, in its attempt to demythologize and displace law’s orderly role, as well as prefiguring some of the more sinister events to come in the 20th century.
The Jurisprudentia was painted by Gustav Klimt in 1903 as part of a series commissioned by the University of Vienna to represent the faculties of law, medicine and philosophy. It was a large work depicting Truth, Justice and Law in its upper section who look down on an old naked man (who is enveloped in the tentacles of an octopuslike figure) surrounded by three (also naked) women, who have been interpreted as the three goddesses of Fate – Clotho, Lachesis and Atopos.
The painting’s fate was closely entwined with 20th century history. In fact, the work was never displayed as it proved too controversial for the authorities of the time to display, and Klimt, while protesting his artistic freedom of expression, ended up buying it back from the university. Klimt died in the great flu pandemic of 1918, and the Jurisprudentia later became part of the collection of the Austrian Lederer family. However, the Lederers were of Jewish origin and in an historical twist emblematic of the 20th century, their entire collection was seized in 1938, and shortly after, the three faculty paintings were displayed in the Österreichische Galerie in Vienna. In 1943, because of the war, they were moved for protection to the Schloss Immendorf in lower Austria, where all three were destroyed by fire two years later when the retreating German army tried to prevent allied occupation of the castle. There are no remaining good quality reproductions of the Jurisprudentia, only some old, rather obscure black and white ones, which, it is said, fail to bring out the rich gold and black of the original.
Instead of a confident Justice, enveloped in the security of law and order, Klimt presents a bleak representation of a very different character. At the top of the picture, Justice, in the centre, is not freestanding but flanked by Law on the right and Truth on the left. The emaciated old man who comes before them appears like a condemned prisoner, head lowered, hands (perhaps tied) behind his back. This painting does not therefore represent the benefits of a legal system, but rather the isolation of the human being, insecure and vulnerable, and a portrayal of law in which justice is uncertain and opaque, seemingly much dependent on the fates. Moreover, the old man is trapped within the tentacles of the octopus-like figure, which perhaps represents capricious societal forces. In such an environment, what hope could there be for Law, Justice and Humanity? This vision is dystopian, hellish, in sharp contrast to the usual, bland, confident, artistic expressions of Justice to be found in courthouses everywhere of that period. The painting symbolises to me our ambivalent feelings about the relationship of law to justice – our great desire that the law will do justice and our fears that it does not do so.
I explore these themes in my book, Law after Modernity, indeed I have chosen the Jurisprudentia as its cover illustration. In order to capture the troubled, perplexing nature of law, I have found it useful to employ pictorial images of law, to proceed by way of metaphor, in the belief that these metaphorical expressions of law crystallize some of my major concerns – for sometimes Art can capture in a more immediate way that which becomes garbled and unclear in words.