There have been three important "conversations" in European culture. One is the materialistic, naturalistic, scientific one. Another is the formal religious one, marked by a Christian concern for individual salvation through the avoidance of sin. The third conversation is also spiritual, but not tied formally to religion or theology or to salvation or sin; it is a conversation on what impressed the European mind as being of spiritual meaning or worth in life.
We are used now to the materialistic conversation dominating what we discuss and in what terms. The Christian conversation is still there, but cordoned off to a minority of the population. The third conversation is now almost entirely lost to us, even though it was once as prominent as the other two.
What is also striking is that there is so little crossover now between the conversations. It was once not unusual for an individual to hold all three realities together: a man could be a believing Christian, conversant in theology; he could at the same time recognise the reality of the material world, and be educated in the scientific processes describing this world; and still again take part in a conversation about the role of character or moral virtue in the spiritual life of man.
And here's the thing. When I read books about the radicals of the early twentieth century, I recognise immediately what I dislike about their politics. At the same time, though, it's hard not to notice that even the radicals of the time were usually more embedded in all three of the European conversations than an ordinary, conventional man of today. In this sense, they were still more cultured, in spite of their political radicalism.
I was interested to learn, in researching my recent posts on Simone de Beauvoir, that she too seems to fall into this category of relatively cultured mid-twentieth century Western radicals.
No doubt she was mostly committed to a secular materialism. Consider, though, her views on love between men and women:
Love has been assigned to woman as her supreme vocation, and when she directs it towards a man, she is seeking God in him ... Human love and love of the divine commingle ... because human love is a reaching out towards a transcendent, an absolute.
This is taken from her book The Second Sex. I only have a partial quote and so I'm not sure of the exact context of what she is saying. Still, she seems at least to be "conversant" in an aspect of the human experience not usually dealt with so openly today.
A commenter at this site, Franklin, did recently write something similar to de Beauvoir. In a discussion on relationships he stated that,
Man, both male and female, has an innate desire for transcendent love, for something out of this world in this world.
This places a considerable degree of meaning in human relationships. If a man experiences the transcendent in his love of women, then he will appreciate all the more (and be particularly attuned to) those women who bring out their finer, more womanly qualities.
There will be a deeper reason to appreciate what is admirably feminine in women and to feel alienated by moves toward an androgynous, grungy culture in which gender difference is repressed.
De Beauvoir's quote reminds us, too, of one reason why many women are discontent with metrosexuality in men. There are women who want to admire us for our stronger, more masculine qualities - the ones that we ourselves instinctively feel carry the most significance.
De Beauvoir may have been relatively cultured in her ability to participate in the different Western conversations; she did women a disservice, though, in making her final political stance so one-sided.
She chose in her politics to tell women that femininity was an oppressive construct created by men in a process of "othering". This entirely fails to reconcile what de Beauvoir had written of in the quote above: that individuals experience the finer qualities of the opposite sex to have a significant meaning and to inspire love.
De Beauvoir knew the conversations but she failed to hold them together.