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DIARY OF A PHILOSOPHY STUDENT: VOLUME 1, 1926-27
By Simone de Beauvoir
University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Literary and Historical Context of Beauvoir's Early Writings: 1926-27 Barbara Klaw
Simone de Beauvoir is the Paris-born author of five novels, one play, two collections of short stories, numerous volumes of autobiography, lengthy volumes of correspondence with several men, a war diary, and a wide variety of philosophical and political essays. Her most revolutionary sociopolitical essay, Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex), concerns the mythical and real relationships between men and women in society. It laid the foundation for twentieth-century discourses concerning sexuality and gender relations, and for feminism after 1949. There are those who hold that Beauvoir has yet to be fully understood and that in Le deuxième sexe she not only created a new type of philosophy but suggested something quite other than a sex-gender dichotomy. They believe that she argued that the kinds of projects one may realize do depend upon one's body, but that, more important, it is the interaction between each body and the world around it that continuously constructs and remodels individual choices or social and ethical norms at any given moment.
Since Beauvoir'sdeath in 1986, her scholarship, political activities, fictional and autobiographical works, letters, diaries, and personal life have all undergone intense scrutiny, and they continue to be analyzed. The posthumous publication of her letters to Sartre and her war diary, in 1990, caused her French and American public to reevaluate her on many levels. Her admirers could no longer keep her on the pedestal of feminism, political activism, and altruism. Whereas it was once thought that she was in an unequaled, loving relationship with Sartre, it now became evident that Beauvoir had had a variety of male and female lovers during her fifty years with Sartre. Many scholars had formerly assumed that Beauvoir was simply copying or illustrating Sartre's ideas in her works, but some started to argue that, on the contrary, Sartre had been appropriating ideas from Beauvoir. The publication of her letters written in English to Nelson Algren, the Chicago-born author who was Beauvoir's lover for many years, and their subsequent translation and publication in French endeared her to a public who saw a new, softer side of Beauvoir. New controversies developed and old ones were reworked. Was Beauvoir misogynist or feminist, victim or torturer, male- or female-identified, homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual? Do her writings and activities prove her to be frigid, frustrated, or sexually fulfilled, an innovator or imitator of ideas, a philosopher or a novelist, a great or a poor writer? Finally, was she significantly influential or of lesser consequence as a twentieth-century writer, philosopher, and historical persona? As scholarship flourishes and attempts to answer these questions, Beauvoir's student diary, now available to the public at large, will be an invaluable tool in determining her intellectual and moral influence on the world. It is particularly important for tracing her intellectual development prior to meeting Sartre, whom she did not encounter until 1929.
In the present essay, I will summarize Beauvoir's educational background before and during the writing of this diary to highlight the originality and development of her thoughts and the change in her emotions as she acquired more expertise in understanding philosophy, literature, and mathematics through her studies, her reading, and her peers. I will discuss the importance of Beauvoir's diary to literary studies and to tracing the genesis of her subsequent writings, and I will provide a variety of ideas for future research and ways of reading this portion of the diary. Finally, I will situate her diary in its literary and historical moment in her life. In the second essay, Margaret Simons will further discuss Beauvoir's education, analyze Beauvoir's thoughts in the 1926-2 diary in light of the history of philosophy, and show the philosophical impact of her ideas.
Between 1926 and 1930, or between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, when Beauvoir only dreamed of becoming a published writer, she kept a diary in four small (roughly 1 x 22 cm) notebooks of various colors and lengths. It is the diary entries of the first two years that are the focus of the present volume. (Beauvoir refers to a 1925 notebook of her diary, but that notebook has yet to be found.) The 1926 diary runs from Friday, August 6, through Thursday, December 2; the 192 diary, from April 1 through October 21. When Beauvoir began to write her 1926 diary, she already had completed specialties in French literature and Latin studies and had finished the equivalent of roughly half of a four-year degree in an American university today. Beauvoir had studied philosophy in high school classes at Cours Désir, but, if her memoirs are to be believed, she had such abysmal instruction that she learned little more than a rapid summary of human errors and the truth according to Saint Thomas Aquinas. In 1925, due to her mother's belief that philosophy corrupted the soul, Beauvoir studied mathematics instead at the Institut Catholique and classics at the Institut Sainte-Marie in Neuilly. At the latter institute in 1926, she met Jeanne Mercier, an instructor who encouraged her to return to her love of philosophy.
In her August 13, 1926, diary entry Beauvoir implies that she now dislikes philosophy because of discussions that remain in a vacuum, and she expresses her hope that she will find new reasons to like it. Her diary entry of July 18, 192 , mentions that she has been doing philosophy for barely ten months, which suggests that her study of what she is calling philosophy began in September or October of 1926. Already in the spring of 192 Mlle Mercier asked her to teach part of her 192-28 baccalaureate class in psychology. During the writing of the 192 diary, Beauvoir was studying for an extraordinary number of college and graduate specialties, including the general history of philosophy, Greek studies, and the general philosophy of logic. Furthermore, as the diary for that year opens, she was able to speak and read English, although the quotes she provided indicate that she often read English-language texts in French translation. She could already read and translate Latin and was teaching herself Greek.
Beauvoir either quoted or mentioned a wide variety of authors, texts, artists, and musicians in her diary, making it an unequalled resource for tracing the development of her thought and the genesis of her published writings. Although critics have argued that Beauvoir's fiction is more or less a retelling of her own experiences, her diary shows that she had many of the ideas for this fiction long before she had the experiences. Seeds for plots, characters, and themes of all of her short stories and novels can be found in her 1926-2 diary, which also contains nascent ideas for her future philosophical essays and the raw data and feelings for what will become part of Beauvoir's autobiography. The numerous authors, texts, and quotations alone provide subjects for vast research tracing the intertextuality involved in Beauvoir's works.
Paintings, cinema, theatrical productions, music, and the people around her all fascinated Beauvoir. At the time of writing this diary she was very fond of symbolism, surrealism, and fauvism. Symbolism can be seen as art or discourse that renders something other than what is immediate and visible. It stands in for something absent or transposes a caricature, becoming the passionate equivalent of an emotion. Beauvoir likewise seems to create a work with disparate parts and shades, meant to render the passionate equivalent of a received sensation. Narrative is not important. The recording of thoughts, feelings, and aspirations becomes paramount. Although her published memoirs mention many of the same authors and texts and a few of the quotes, the 1926-2 diary offers more precise references and many more of them. All of the works and ideas found in it inform the development of her thought. These aspects of her passion affect how she composes her thoughts in her diaries. Reading her 1926 diary might be compared to entering into a symbolist painting of the same time period. Little seems to fit logically together. The pages are filled with a multitude of quotations by others, disparate thoughts, short narratives recounting her activities, and an overflow of emotions. In short, one meets a delightful, highly intelligent, and independent eighteen-year-old who wavers between aspirations of becoming someone great and the desire to let herself be lazy and comfortable. Throughout, she obviously believed in herself with a passion that carried her to originality and success.
The passion, self-love, and self-confidence that shine out of the diary and that ultimately overcome all feelings of self-doubt render it an autobiographical self-help book before the genre became popular. Such an interpretation explains why so many women would later turn to Beauvoir's public life and writings to learn how to live as liberated and independent people. Lessons could be learned even from the teenaged Beauvoir, in the advice she is constantly giving herself: "Don't let myself be absorbed by others; take from them only what is useful for me.... Never take an attitude; never act without knowing exactly why" (July 29, 192); "Move forward. Don't endlessly turn back to see if it wouldn't be better to commit myself to another path that I've left behind" ([May] 11, 192); "It seems to me that love should not make all else disappear but should simply tint it with new nuances; I would like a love that accompanies me through life, not that absorbs all my life" (August 1, 1926). There is a healthy and human contradiction evident in Beauvoir's diary that gives it great universal appeal: on some days, like September 14, 1926, she details moments of anguish and of feeling useless, and on others, such as November 1 , 1926, she exudes self-confidence and the certainty of being very special and talented.
This diary could also be read as field notes to an archeological excavation that reveals the development of Beauvoir's interest in sex roles. In essence, her diary chronicles the inception of her most famous essay, Le deuxième sexe, which she nourished for years until it reached maturity. Sartre, rather than giving Beauvoir the idea for her most celebrated essay, provided the emotional support she needed to develop it. Gender roles are consistently a theme of her 1926-2 notebooks. As the diary shows, her earliest ideas for stories involve a young girl who is passionately in love without being able to actualize it, or who dreams of a love made of mutual admiration and moral independence and who loses herself and her self-esteem in the actual love affair. These are among the very situations experienced by women in Le deuxième sexe.
Beauvoir imagines depicting "a soul who would like to be and who must resign itself to appearing" (September 6, 1926). This interplay between being and appearing constitutes a major theme illustrated by the characters Françoise and Xavière in L'invitée (She Came to Stay), by the actress Regina in Tous les hommes sont mortels (All Men Are Mortal), and again later by Laurence in Les belles images (Pretty Pictures). In general in 1926, Beauvoir wants to portray a young girl who believes that she is in love solely because people tell her so, a girl who has moments of doubt and tries to escape marriage, but who marries anyway. Similarly, Françoise of L'invitée constantly struggles with the difference between what she feels and what others tell her, and in effect tries to kill Xavière to avoid being influenced by her. Beauvoir's struggle to reconcile her own Catholic upbringing and her reason resulted in her desire for God and her simultaneous fear that God's existence would render life meaningless, both of which inform Tous les hommes sont mortels. These instances alone suggest the wealth of ideas budding in the 1926-2 diary and how Beauvoir later transformed them into literary works.
The authors Beauvoir reads and cites and her notions of self expressed in her 1926 diary reappear in the unique discursive voice she created in Le deuxième sexe. Overall in her 1926 diary, Beauvoir imagines a sexless self. She identifies with male authors (both homosexual and heterosexual) who focus on developing the self, the search for God (either a God in the universe or a God within), and a type of platonic love in which two souls unite. There is no stated attention to physical love, although this may be due to her initial inability to write about her private difficulties or things she was feeling too strongly. She envisions love between a male and a female as achieving its ultimate in marriage. She also interrogates her love for her female friends. Her focus is on love and the desire for self-realization. The 1926 diary shows a young Beauvoir who reads extensively and admires certain writers and heroines for particular traits. The plots of the novels she mentions and the personalities of their characters point to Beauvoir's fascination with works that focus on masculine and feminine reactions to societal constraints or with authors who discuss gendered concepts such as the Eternal Feminine. Jules Laforgue, a nineteenth-century French poet noted for combining audacity and fantasy, for example, is not only one of Beauvoir's favorite authors in the 1926 diary, but he also appears in several notes in Le deuxième sexe referring to the Eternal Feminine.
Her 1926-30 diary provides ample evidence that she possessed much more intelligence, creativity, fascination with gender roles, and passion for philosophy than suggested by the portrait she provides in her Mémoires. It also shows the difficulty of determining if philosophy, fiction, poetry, autobiography, letters, private journals, or art most influenced Beauvoir's journal writing, especially in 1926. There is little evidence in the 1926-2 diary entries that indicates Beauvoir's expertise in philosophical concepts at that time. However, her diary proves that she had exposure to a variety of philosophical ideas that continually reappear in the poetry and fiction that she cites, and that her exploration of philosophical ideas grows more mature and profound as the 1926-2 diary progresses. Many of her favorite authors were novelists and poets who had studied philosophy or were later appropriated by philosophers. Hegel's name and some of his ideas, for example, are mentioned in the poetry of Jules Laforgue (entry of October 1, 1926) and in the fiction of Louis Aragon (April 1, 192), and there are frequent references to Hegel in the Propos by Alain, which Beauvoir is obviously reading or hearing about as she writes the 192 diary. She also cites one of Hegel's ideas (without mentioning Hegel's name) on November 21, 1926. Although she does not reference quotes concerning Hegel from either Aragon or Alain, one might surmise that she had exposure to them since they are found in the same works from which she noted other ideas.
Beauvoir's strong interest in psychology strengthened her background in philosophy. In 1926 and 192, in fact, she viewed psychology as her major interest. In its earliest stages, the study of psychology consisted primarily of philosophical and theological discussions of the soul, a topic that reappears frequently in the 1926-2 notebooks. Before the late nineteenth century (1890), psychologists did not look at consciousness as an evolutionary process, and people did not view psychology as a field separate from philosophy. Beauvoir would have been well versed in the theories concerning body and mind held by René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and G. W. Leibniz, which all played dominant roles in the development of modern psychology, where the relation of the human mind to the body and its actions have been prominent subjects of debate. Perhaps due to the influence of Mlle Mercier, who was doing her dissertation on Leibniz in November 1928, Beauvoir eventually wrote a thesis on him in April 1929.
Excerpted from DIARY OF A PHILOSOPHY STUDENT: VOLUME 1, 1926-27 by Simone de Beauvoir Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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