Discussed in this essay:
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir. Harper & Row. $16.00. 368 pp.
It is proof, if proof were needed, of Simone de Beauvoir’s mythic stature in France, that to commemorate the centenary of her birth the French news weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published a photograph of Beauvoir’s naked derriere on its January 3rd cover.
Taken in 1952, when Beauvoir was in Chicago visiting her then-lover, Nelson Algren, the photograph shows the great feminist standing in the bathroom, wearing not a stitch of clothes, looking at herself in the mirror. And it was not Algren who took it, but his close friend, the photographer Art Shay. The way Shay tells it, Beauvoir heard the shutter snap behind her and, laughing, chastised him: “Naughty Boy!” (No word on why Shay was around while Beauvoir was in the altogether).
The author of The Second Sex would have turned 100 this year, and in spite of all the tributes, assessments, analyses, and appreciations—a special issue of Le Magazine Littéraire, a three-day conference under the direction of Julia Kristeva, several new books—it is the sexy, controversial aspects of her life that have been emphasized, once again, in the mainstream media: her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, their pact not to marry and to tell each other everything of their extracurricular conquests, their tendency to pass lovers back and forth and how it was all his idea. Beauvoir comes off as a doormat every time—which suits popular opinion just fine, thriving as it does on human fallibility. What sells more papers: a fair and balanced portrait of the “greatest feminist theorist of our time,” or a photograph of her ass?
Even Beauvoir scholars are guilty of projecting their own anxieties onto her, and it is the relationship with Sartre that plays such an ambiguous role in their idol’s life. Did he compromise her or copy from her; inspire her or keep her down? “Sartre trapped Simone de Beauvoir by insisting that she follow him,” maintains Michelle Le Doeff. Edward and Kate Fulbrook have been at pains to show that Sartre cribbed the philosophy in Being and Nothingness from Beauvoir. Even the most recent biography to appear in English was a double biography—Hazel Rowley’s Tête-à-Tête: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Thinking Simone de Beauvoir apart from Jean-Paul Sartre has not, apparently, been feasible: too many scores to settle, that embarrassing pact, and the paradox of the great feminist in thrall to her boyfriend.
Of course, the relationship between two of the most important philosophers of the 20th century is worth spilling a little—okay, a lot—of ink. It did last half a century. But Beauvoir’s image—not the one that evolves through a careful study of her writing but her popular, mainstream image—could benefit from a little one-on-one time with the lady in question. We can therefore be grateful that Beauvoir’s early diaries have now been released to the public, giving us a glimpse of a passionate, joyful, brilliant young woman, who suspects she has greatness in her, but has no idea of the icon she will become. We meet in them not the older, self-protective Beauvoir who looks back at this period in volume one of her four-volume autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, 1958); rather, we meet the intimate and not-yet-formed Beauvoir, speaking in her own youthful voice, asserting her dedication to ideas, to literature, and to dedicated thought.
When Beauvoir died in 1986, her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, found these diaries in among her papers (an earlier diary, from 1925, which Beauvoir refers to, has not been found). In 1990 she donated them to the Bibliothèque National in Paris, where they were made available for scholarly research, and subsequently, thanks to the efforts of two American Beauvoir scholars, Margaret A. Simons and Barbara Klaw, the first volume of the diaries appeared in English in 2006 as part of the University of Illinois Press’s Beauvoir Series. But this volume covers only 1926 to 1927; the events of 1929—which chronicles Beauvoir’s meeting Sartre and the beginning of their affair, her passing the agrégation examination (coming in second only to Sartre), her move out of her parents’ home, and the death of her childhood friend Zaza—will be released at a yet-to-be-determined date.
The Cahiers de jeunesse cover the years 1926 – 1930, when Beauvoir was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, and then preparing for the agrégation (a highly competitive national exam, which women had only been allowed to take since 1905) while finishing her undergraduate degree. She would not meet Sartre until 1929; we are granted three full years of Beauvoirean thought to consider apart from Sartre’s. And we can also begin to assess the young Beauvoir from a different perspective than the account she gave of herself, years later, in her autobiography.
Beauvoir describes in the Memoires the unhappiness of her adolescent years; in 1919 her grandfather (president of the Meuse bank) went bankrupt, and her father, a bourgeois gentleman and lawyer by training, had to go to work. Georges de Beauvoir was a very charming man, but not particularly suited to the professions, and the family’s income steadily dwindled. He moved his family to a cramped apartment on the rue de Rennes, on the sixth floor with a meager supply of running water. Simone and her younger sister Hélène shared a tiny bedroom off of the kitchen. Their devoutly religious mother read their mail, doted on “Poupette” (as Hélène was nicknamed), and gave Simone a hard time about her reading habits. The Beauvoir girls would have to be educated, their father decided, so that they might go out and earn their living—as they certainly would have no dowry. For Simone this was a blessing, and she threw herself into her studies to combat the loneliness, shame, and frustration of her circumstances. She said later that it was after reading Little Women and identifying so much with tomboy Jo that the idea came to her that marriage was not her only choice in life; doubtless the knowledge that she would have to earn her own living compounded this feeling that marriage was optional. As Beauvoir admitted to her biographer Deirdre Bair, even if Jo does marry in the end, her rebellion was fortified early on by exposure to literary women like Jo March.
In 1926 and 1927, the diaries give us a privileged viewpoint on the emotional effects of her rebellion from her bourgeois family. She feels keenly the lack of an intellectual equal to confide in, and she writes repeatedly, in the early years at least, of her utter solitude, trying to make a virtue of her difference, occasionally yielding to her misery in pages of despondent prose. But her misery is countered by wild, exultant intellectual discoveries. She reads widely and deeply, frequently including long passages copied out from books that impress her: Bergson, Barrès, Claudel, Mauriac, Fournier, Jammes, Cocteau, Arland, Gide. All the great French writers of the early 20th-century are represented.
Very early on, she realizes that she does not want to lead a stale, static academic life but rather that her life of the mind must be in the service of something greater than herself. A citation on the very first page (an epigraph, even) from the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz points the way ahead:
A quoi est-ce qu’elles servent, ces complications du cæur? . . . Qu’une vie sorte de lá qui émeuve les autres hommes, et nous sommes justifiés.
What purpose do all these complications of the heart serve? . . . May a life emerge from here which moves other men, and we will be justified.
Thing is, the original citation, from Adieu á beaucoup de personnages (1924), reads “Qu’un cri sorte de lá,” not “Qu’une vie.” A “cry,” not a “life.” Beauvoir’s displacement, be it accidental or purposeful, is telling. But she makes an important connection between her own life and its purpose:
Cette citation de Ramuz est la justification morale de ce qu’un moment j’ai cru futilité et égoïsme; oui, je dois cultiver ces nuances de mon moi, et par respect pour le trésor déposé en moi, et pour autrui . . . ” (6 aout 1926)
This quotation from Ramuz is the moral justification of what I formerly believed futility and egoism. Yes, I must cultivate these nuances of my self, out of respect both for the gift bestowed upon me, and for others. (August 6, 1926)
The “and for others” is not a hurried addition made out of guilt or fear of egotism; in the original French the structure of the phrase indicates that Beauvoir has two distinct ideals in mind. The connection between her gift and the “others,” by which we must understand “humanity at large,” is vitally important both for understanding this period in her life and for understanding the philosophy that she would go on to develop in She Came to Stay (1943), The Second Sex (1949), and the rest of her novels and essays. “When I have inscribed my life on this piece of paper, will it be of any use? When I have gotten down all these images of all my former selves, what good will it be? What good?” (August 7, 1926) Why write? she asks. Why live? Beauvoir is writing for her life, to make sense of her life. But she is also writing to evolve her own philosophy of emotion, working outward from her own experiences.
On occasion however, her insights are so perceptive that one wonders how they could possibly have occurred to her, inexperienced as she was. On August 21, 1926, she declares, “There are several things that I hate about love: the total abandon of the self, which is simple cowardice because a being is never an end, and because evidently duty is placed above love, and duty must be careful not to alienate its liberty; I do not see this as a question of dignity but of morality.” She continues,
I would willingly consent to sacrifice everything for the one I loved, but I would never want to exist through him—the sentimental blackmail which pushes women to see in the one they love someone designated to carry the burden which they are too weak to bear. . . . The truest love is expressed by Goethe: “I love you, is it any of your concern?”
It is possible she has made these observations from witnessing her parents’ marriage; her father kept a portrait of his mistress on the desk in his study, and her mother looked the other way. But at 18 Beauvoir was able to articulate precisely her ethical position concerning love and marriage, and it is one she would live out with Sartre and elaborate upon in her novels. It is worth remarking upon here because it supports the thesis that Beauvoir was very much of her own mind when she entered into her “pact” with Sartre, and that those critics who would view her as a doormat are very much mistaken.
We also find the preoccupation with time and death that marks her later writing already present. She finds very early on that the days are not long enough to accomplish all she has in mind, and time becomes extremely precious to her. And so we find her making schedules and reading lists, worrying even that keeping a diary is a waste of precious time. Her hatred of death is paramount; even at age 18 she is concerned with her own aging process and the specter of her own death. She feels “ever so much older, and absorbed by such different problems” than her friends.
But these moments of morbidity are countered by the extreme joy she derives out of being alive—and not just “alive,” but alive and the particular combination of attributes that is Simone de Beauvoir. “Yesterday, after reading feverishly, I knew the ecstasy the Barrès mentions in chapter six of L’æil des barbares; before the red trees of the Luxembourg Gardens, and the setting sunlight which formed an impalpable mist, I found, in reading this book, in walking, awakened, in the gardens, the great intoxication of being me.” (October 5, 1926)
This ecstasy is echoed throughout the journals, but as she matures, as she encounters new people, as she sees her crush on her cousin Jacques flare up into a serious case of unrequited love, and eventually heals from it, as she renounces Catholicism, wavers a bit, feels the need of God, and comes to terms with her rejection of the Catholic Church, and, most prominently, as she meets Sartre, this “grand intoxication” is tempered with gravity. “This evening I went for a walk with Poupette, who was quite exalted by the perspectives offered by religious [ardente] life. I demolished her Catholicism in two words. A cowardly morality, which I abhor—a safety rail, but I want none of it. I feel something troubling inside of me which scares me, an exhausting violence. But I accept the great adventure of being me.” (July 21, 1929)
Clearly, it is not easy for Beauvoir to renounce everything she was raised to believe, and there are times when she longs for “peace, a calm, bourgeois life, a husband to love without fearing every minute that this love will kill me.” (April 18, 1927) Over the course of the diaries she becomes more and more aware of these two radically opposed tendencies in herself: “It’s so strange, these two selves inside of me: one so thoughtful, judgmental and self-possessed; the other perfectly out of her mind, ridiculous, and which I prefer so much to the other! One might say that in the first case I am very complicated and completely different from many other people, and in the second I am just like everyone else. But what a difference between what you know intellectually, and what you feel.” (August 12, 1926) The Cahiers affirm her commitment to intellectual and personal freedom, and show her figuring out where her work is going to begin:
There are two tendencies inside of me: a) to describe and create. I ceaselessly recreate life; I close my eyes and unravel a splendid and moving reality based on what experience has taught me. I create myself, I create my history, I live and make others live as if in complicated and passionate novels—from which stems the need to contain all of this in my work. . . . b) to analyze, to understand, to descend more deeply into myself. There, I have to understand, all is feasible. The thing is not to create life, but to think through already created life. That is where I think I must begin. (July 7, 1927)
With Beauvoir, however, witnessing this act of becoming is more important to her later work than perhaps would be the case with a different writer; to become, after all, is a key verb in the most famous phrase Beauvoir ever wrote: “One is not born, but becomes, a woman.” The argument of The Second Sex builds upon this idea of the female self as submitted to a process of becoming, as she is exposed to male expectations of femininity, to her own limits, and to the limits of her body. And for someone who so prioritized becoming in the formation of a self in the world, it is a privilege to get a glimpse at Beauvoir’s own becoming—the necessary model of experience on which The Second Sex is based. To envision freeing womankind from these expectations and constraints, first Beauvoir had to free herself.
But first she had to figure out who she was, why she was, and what she could do.
By 1927 and 1928, Beauvoir had emerged from her self-sustained solitude and was allowing herself to be influenced by her acquaintances; this is the most intense period of her infatuation with Jacques, who serves, to his credit, as a sort of intellectual mentor, guiding Beauvoir toward books and ideas of which she was unaware, taking her to galleries and museums, exposing her to modern art, taking her out on the town for cocktails with his friends. Her Sorbonne professor Jean Baruzi also had a formative influence on her philosophy, “with his manner of living his thoughts to his fingertips.” (April 18, 1927) She is becoming estranged from her childhood friend Zaza, whose haute bourgeoise family has taken a dislike to the “bluestocking” Beauvoir; unbeknownst to Beauvoir (we learn later from the Memoires) Zaza is involved in an unhappy love affair with her own cousin, unhappy because their parents are against the match. Beauvoir turns to her other friends, but whenever she sees Zaza, her joy is unbounded, and she is explicit about her frustration with Zaza’s family. And still, she suffers from a feeling of alienation, but she is learning how to be proud of it: “It is a handsome but difficult destiny to be unlike anyone else.” (February 19, 1928)
And then, not long after, she is no longer unlike anyone else: she finally meets her semblable. The first few times Sartre appears in the journals, in mid 1929, not much is made of him. Beauvoir was, at the time, involved in flirtations with her classmate Maurice Merleau-Ponty and René Maheu (her “Lama”) and was getting over that crush on Jacques. But as they were thrown together more and more while studying for the agrégation, they each discovered in the other the intellectual equal they had so sorely been missing. Quickly, Beauvoir becomes aware that he is going to play a major role in her life:
Extraordinary influence of Sartre—in the 13 days that I have known this boy, he has made a thorough study of me, predicts me and possesses me. Intellectual need for his presence and am greatly moved by his sympathy. Doubts, distress, exaltation. I want him to force me to really be someone, and I’m afraid. I’m a little girl who’s scared of the rebirth taking place in her. I would abandon myself to this man with absolute confidence. Dominated by something so tender and sensitive . . . (July 21, 1929)
They are together that summer at her family’s country home in Meyrignac, where, according to Bair’s biography, they make love for the first time in a field. (A few afternoons later, Beauvoir recounts in her journal, her parents came upon them in that very field and quite a scene ensued.) The deflowering itself she describes in allusive, vague terms: “The awakening of this body, of this woman to whom no one has ever spoken as a woman. Great emotion at hearing such words for the first time, for the first time to rest in the arms of a man, docile, abandoned to tenderness and the desire to give everything.” What is more important to get down in words, it seems, is the sensation of the experience, rather than the name of it. And again she speaks of an awakening in Sartre’s arms, and a calling forth into womanhood and into her physical self. “I was completely unaware of this language of the body,” she writes in October. “I was completely amazed to understand it.”
That the road from these journals leads to The Second Sex is not clear at first glance. It is worth noting that in her university years Beauvoir had no sense of being barred from anything by virtue of being a woman, even though women had only very recently been allowed to matriculate alongside men. Rather, she prioritizes the individual and his or her right to freedom—this is why she rejects the bourgeois/capitalist system—for the way it limits everyone’s rights of liberty, not just that of women. The emphasis is on the human, not the gender of the human. However, Beauvoir does not reduce femininity or humanity into general terms in The Second Sex; rather, she writes that every human being exists in a specific situation.
Overall, the Memoires are certainly a more fluid read than the journals, since they are a narrative in the past told from the privileged vantage point of the future. But there is something very decorous in the way the story is told—a certain awareness that they are being read, and judged, by strangers. Nancy K. Miller points out that to a certain extent, autobiography is a performance and that reading womens’ autobiographies can be rather like “shaking hands with gloves on.” But in the journals the gloves are not yet on. Beauvoir drew greatly from her student journals to write her autobiography, but when elements from her journal appear in her autobiography we are being guided. Groomed. Given Beauvoir’s image of herself from 30 years on. Now, having the journals themselves allows us to make our own connections and chart our own paths from the very beginnings of Beauvoirean thought up through the novels, essays, and philosophical works. Now we can begin to understand the writer and her work in ways she did not (could not) understand herself.
If writing an autobiography involves a certain amount of self-dramatization, journal writing is the rehearsal: trying different pitches, line readings, airing out different motivations, hitting a false note here and there. The journals make for slow reading from time to time (mainly when she is obsessively analyzing her relationship with cousin Jacques), but even on these occasions it helps to remember that Beauvoir was being completely candid—these journals were resolutely not intended for any eyes other than her own. They even come with a warning on the title page: “There is no more cowardly act than that of violating a secret when one is not there to defend it. . . . If anyone were to read these pages, I would never forgive him. . . . Please respect this warning, in spite of its ridiculous solemnity.” And there it is. The two sides of Beauvoir: the passionate and solemn Simone, ruled by her heart; the intellectual and ironic Mlle de Beauvoir, ruled by her “man’s brain.”
The journals end on a less dramatic note than the Memoires, though both endings concern Zaza’s death at the end of 1929. When Zaza dies, a massive rupture is created in Beauvoir’s life, which she tells us in the Memoires, but which is less clear in the journal. For several weeks she does not so much as mention her best friend’s death; she only notes in the margin “Mort de Zaza,” as if it were added later. In the Memoires she explains that she is haunted by Zaza’s death, by the indeterminacy of it and by the way it seemed connected to her own liberation. She describes going to see Zaza’s body when it was on display in the chapel of the clinic and notes that her face was so yellowed and thin that she hardly recognized her. When last she saw her alive, Zaza had sought to reassure her weeping mother that her death was a natural state of affairs: “There are outcasts [déchet, or "refuse"] in all families; I’m the outcast in ours.” The (mis)translation “outcast” highlights Beauvoir’s identification with Zaza, and with her fate. She concludes the Memoires:
The doctors called it meningitis or encephalitis; no one was quite sure. Had it been a contagious disease, or an accident? Or had Zaza succumbed to exhaustion and anxiety? She has often appeared to me at night, her face all yellow under a pink sunbonnet, and seeming to gaze reproachfully at me. We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.
In her journals, she noted nothing of the sort. It is not until the following year that she speaks of her grief: “Oh my life—I could never resign myself to be alive, if it were to serve for nothing.” (September 6, 1930)
Without the journals, the ending of the Memoires seems to hint at the guilt Beauvoir suffered all her life at the unfairness of the exchange—her life for Zaza’s. But read in the light of the journal, this final passage becomes inflected, not only with guilt but with resolve. Her life will be in the service of something—and after Zaza’s death, the backdrop for Beauvoir’s rebellion is complete. Zaza becomes the real heroine of The Second Sex.
Lauren Elkin is a writer, literary critic, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. She writes about books and French culture on her blog, Maîtresse, and lives in Paris.
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