All Men are Mortal - Simone de Beauvoir Finished this last night around midnight. Review to come.

I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again here: I am not a Lit major. My chief exposure to “great literature” came through my high school teachers, some of whom were quite extraordinary and none were anything less than good. And it was one of those teachers who introduced me to the philosophies of Existentialism and Transcendentalism (in their American manifestations). I forget her name because I never had her in an actual English class but she presented a series of lectures/readings in the early morning hours before classes started that I attended – being the consummate student that I am. I was never much attracted to the Transcendentalists but I was (and am) to the Existentialists, and that fascination continued (if unconsciously) through my subsequent reading career, though not to the extent that I read anything by Sartre or de Beauvoir, or any other non-American author. The genesis for picking up All Men Are Mortal was not Existentialism; rather it was a discussion I had with a coworker about death and mortality. At the time, I was reading something that somehow led to the topic, and she mentioned that she had read the book when she was an undergraduate and liked it. “Life,” “death,” “mortality” – these are Big Issues which interest me and when I wikied All Men Are Mortal it sounded interesting.

The book is divided into 5 parts, a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue is the best part of the novel (the epilogue is too short to really count), and I wish that de Beauvoir had stuck with her initial protagonists, Regina, a self-centered actress, and Raymond Fosca, the immortal man who’s brought back to life by Regina’s interest in him. The intervening parts are episodes of Raymond’s life that he recounts to Regina to explain himself and as a warning that he will destroy her life if she continues to see him. It’s a weakness of the novel that these sections drag on too long and to reiterate what’s gone before but there’s enough good material here that I could forgive the occasional doldrums (particularly the relationship with Marianne de Sinclair in part 4 and Armand in part 5).

Raymond imbibes a potion of immortality in 13th century Italy with grand designs about what amazing things he could accomplish if he had all the time in the world only to see his designs constantly fail. In this first section, he brings his home city of Carmona (a fictional Italian city-state) to the heights of power only to see everything undone by the Black Death. He starts all over and brings his people to the heights of power again to see it all undone again (this time by the machinations of the French and Germans). The other sections cover the same ground in various settings until we reach 19th century France and the revolutions of 1832 and 1848, which promised a whole new society that would fulfill the grand promises of the original Revolution, only to see those dreams smashed. The point is made over and over again that any victory, any progress is ephemeral, and for every marginal advance there’s a catastrophic retreat.

In the face of such unrelenting futility, you would expect this to be a terribly depressing book but it isn’t. De Beauvoir’s conclusion won’t satisfy a believer in immortality or that there’s purpose in human life but I found it convincing. Her clearest explication of it comes in part 5 in a conversation between Raymond and Armand, one of his descendants and a participant in the revolutionary movement (the first speaker is Raymond):

“‘I don’t believe in the future,’ I said.

“‘There will be a future, that at least is certain.’

“‘But all of you speak of it as if it were going to be a paradise. There won’t be any paradises, and that’s equally certain.’

“‘Of course not.’ He studied me, seemed to be searching my face to find the words that might win me over. ‘Paradise for us is simply the moment when the dreams we dream today are finally realized. We’re well aware that after that other men will have new needs, new desires, will make new demands.’…

“‘I’ve had a little smattering of history. You’re not teaching me anything. Everything that’s ever done finally ends by being undone. I realize that. And from the hour you’re born you begin to die. But between birth and death there’s life.’…

“‘In my opinion, we should concern ourselves only with that part of the future on which we have a hold. But we should try our best to enlarge our hold on it as much as possible.’…

“‘You admit,’ I said after a short silence, ‘that you’re working for only a limited future.’

“‘A limited future, a limited life – that’s our lot as men. And it’s enough,’ he said. ‘If I knew that in fifty years it would be against the law to employ children in factories, against the law for men to work more than ten hours a day, if I knew that the people would choose their own representatives, that the press would be free, I would be completely satisfied.’ Again his eyes fell upon me. ‘You find the workers’ conditions abominable. Well, think of those workers you know personally, only of them. Don’t you want to help change their lot in life?’”
(pp. 327-28)

The more I ruminate about the book, the more I like it. I’m not going to change my initial 3-star rating but it’s a more confidant one. I’m not rushing out to buy all of de Beauvoir’s oeuvre but I am interesting in reading more of her stuff and it reinforces the notion that I should get around to reading The Second Sex one of these days.