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A Very Easy Death (Pantheon Modern Writers Series)

A Very Easy Death - Simone de Beauvoir I encountered A Very Easy Death twice before actually reading it. The two encounters amounted to radically different readings of the same text. My first encounter with A Very Easy Death was not exactly a reading but an abridgment of the book that appeared in an anthology entitled Mothers: Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Literary Daughters edited by Susan Cahill.

The collection aims to present an array of well-known women writers’ memories of their mothers depicted in “positive tones and vivid colors” (xii). The section from Beauvoir’s book, recounts her mother’s death from cancer. Despite the general excellence of the anthology, I later found the abridgment of Beauvoir’s text amounted to a bowdlerization: the less positive aspects of their mother-daughter relationship, and Beauvoir’s more explicit descriptions—the body parts, the private parts—had all been removed. The rest of the book, describing her mother’s brutal illness and death, is also omitted. Only the final pages of the book, where Beauvoir writes movingly of her mother’s death and death in general, are again included.

My second encounter with A Very Easy Death occurred when reading an article by Alice Jardine entitled “Death Sentences: Writing Couples and Ideology.” It was Jardine’s article that prompted me to go back to Beauvoir’s original text, because none of the quotes Jardine cited had appeared in the anthologized version of A Very Easy Death. Unlike Susan Cahill, who edited the anthology to conform to more sentimental notions of motherhood, Alice Jardine focuses specifically on how Beauvoir’s mother is “buried in and by narrative” (93), on Beauvoir’s clinically explicit descriptions of her mother’s cancerous, decomposing body. In particular, Jardine cites the passage where Beauvoir has walked into the hospital room and suddenly sees her mother exposed by her open hospital nightdress.

In Jardine’s quotation the dialogue between Beauvoir and her mother is deleted. By deleting the dialogue and the introduction to the incident from her mother’s perspective (“Maman had an open nightdress on and she did not mind that her wrinkled belly. . . ), Jardine specifically fore-grounds the body of Beauvoir’s mother. “Seeing my mother’s sex organs” is far more stark than Patrick O’Brien’s translation (done for the l965 English edition): “The sight of my mother’s nakedness . . .” (19). Jardine demonstrates that Beauvoir exposes her mother’s body in words in order “to evacuate the dangerous body, the poisoned body, so that she [Beauvoir:] may continue to write” (94) but then revalorizes her mother as phallic when she dreams, lying next to her mother in bed, that her mother has become Sartre. In short, Jardine focuses on Beauvoir’s descriptions of her mother’s body while the Cahill anthology deletes the body in order to present a positive mother-daughter relationship. The body of the text—literally Beauvoir’s mother’s body—becomes the site of critical blindness and/or insight. The body is either seen or absent and the text has been variously called a masterpiece, indelicate, honest, moving, beautiful, and brutal.

A Very Easy Death arouses controversy because it is textually irritating. It is neither a touching memorial or a caustic dissection of her mother’s body. Yet the intersection of clinical discourse and emotional asides—a clash of logos and pathos—makes a reader uneasy. A mother’s body, particularly a mother’s dying body, may be eulogized or sentimentalized, but certainly not made sexually explicit. When Beauvoir refers to her mother’s bald pubis—her sex organs—she breaks taboos.

In “Stabat Mater,” Julia Kristeva traces the taboos surrounding the mother’s body back to the Virgin Mary: the original mother in Western culture. In short, the sight catches Beauvoir by surprise and forces her to confront all her ambivalence about the maternal body in general and her mother’s body in particular. Beauvoir’s first reaction to the sight of her mother’s sex organs is to turn away. Conversely, the body of the mother, specifically the mother’s vagina, underscores our helplessness, reminding us that we did not spring into the world as little gods. When Beauvoir “sees” her mother, the site of origin, she also realizes she is seeing the end, for it is only in the extremities of death that her mother would cease being ashamed of her body. This time, however, in opposition to her portrayal of her mother in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Beauvoir attempts to reconstruct her mother’s history, re-visioning her mother as a daughter, so that her mother may be understood as victim as well as perpetrator. Importantly, Beauvoir does not withhold the unpleasant. She still finds her mother somewhat stupid, often silly, and similarly refuses to idealize her disease—her mother’s cancer is described in relentless, clinical detail.

What Beauvoir starts in A Very Easy Death she does not finish. The complex representation of her mother gets somewhat cast aside at the end of the book when Beauvoir retreats into general comments about death. Yet, without sentiment, Beauvoir attempts to really see her mother, and in seeing her, sees herself. Beauvoir is also forced, in caring for her mother, to radically shift perspectives. As opposed to the more gradual course Kathleen Woodward outlines, where a woman is first “daughter to her mother,” then “mother to her daughter,” and finally, “as she grows older . . . becomes mother to her mother” (“Aging” 96), Beauvoir, childless, switches directly from a daughter to her mother to the mother of her mother. Moreover, in this text Beauvoir crafts an autobiographical work where the portrayal of the daughter is not accomplished by simplifying and/or effacing the mother. Instead, Beauvoir’s stark representation of her mother exceeds generic expectations, frays accepted cultural margins, and calls into question what may, can, and should be written about mothers.

From a prior publication