Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My entire soul

‘Could I have already during this year explored my entire soul, and is there no longer anything in me that interests me?’ This is from the diary of a precocious 18 year old student who would go on to become not only a leading existential philosopher but one of France’s foremost 20th century intellectuals - Simone de Beauvoir. It is only in the last ten years or so, though, that some of her personal diaries have been published in English, thanks to the University of Illinois Press and The Beauvoir Series.

De Beauvoir was born into a wealthy Parisian family on 9 January 1908. She studied at the Sorbonne where she met Jean-Paul Sartre. Thereafter, she and Sartre were to remain a couple for the rest of their lives, although they lived apart and had various other lovers. During the 1930s and through the Second World War, de Beauvoir taught at several schools, in Marseilles, Rouen and then, in Paris. After the war, with Sartre, she founded the magazine Les Temps Modernes, and she travelled widely, in Europe, the US, North Africa and China. Her first novel, L'Invitée, published in 1943, was based on the story of one of Sartre’s affair.

In 1949, De Beauvoir published what would become a classic of feminist literature and her most famous work: The Second Sex. She became involved with the feminist movement from the late 1960s. Between 1958 and the early 1970s, she published various autobiographical works, and, after Satre died in 1980, she published her memoir of Sartre’s last years, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. She herself died in 1986. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Paris Review, or The Quarterly Conversation.

In 1947, de Beauvoir spent four months in the US, a sojourn which resulted in her publishing L’Amérique au Jour le Jour in 1948. This was translated into English by Patrick Dudley and published by Gerald Duckworth in 1952 as America Day by Day. Although usually promoted as a diary, with entries for each day, de Beauvoir explains in her preface that, in fact, the text was written retrospectively: ‘In place of a study that it would be presumptuous for me to attempt, I can at least give faithful testimony here of what I saw. Just as a concrete experience embraces both subject and object, so I have not sought to eliminate myself from this account: it would not be a true one did it not take into consideration those peculiar, personal circumstances in which each discovery was made. That is why I have adopted the style of a diary; although retrospective, this journal, reconstructed with the help of some notes, letters and still-fresh memories, is scrupulously exact. I have respected the chronological order of my astonishment, admirations, indignations, hesitations and mistakes. It often happened that my first impressions did not become clear until later on in my journey. But I must point out that no isolated passage expresses a definite opinion; besides which, I often never reached a definite point of view, and it is my indecisions, additions and corrections, taken as a whole, that combine to form my opinion. There was no process of selection involved in the development of this story: it is the story of what happened to me, neither more nor less. This is what I saw and how I saw it; I have not tried to say more.’ A more recent edition of America Day by Day, translated by Carol Cosman (University of California Press, 2000), can be previewed at Googlebooks.

However, more than 20 years after her death, the University of Illinois Press has published - as part of The Beauvoir Series - edited versions of bona fide diaries she kept at different times in her life. In 2006, it published an English translation (by Barbara Klaw) of de Beauvoir’s Cahiers de Jeunesse 1926-1927 as Diary of a Philosophy Student: 1926-1927. Some pages can be previewed online at Googlebooks. And two years later it brought out Wartime Diary (translated by Anne Deing Cordero) covering the period from September 1939 to January 1941. The publisher says of this latter volume: ‘Wartime Diary gives English readers unabridged access to one of the scandalous texts that threaten to overturn traditional views of Beauvoir’s life and work. The account in Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary of her clandestine affair with Jacques Bost and sexual relationships with various young women challenges the conventional picture of Beauvoir as the devoted companion of Jean-Paul Sartre, just as her account of completing her novel She Came to Stay at a time when Sartre’s philosophy in Being and Nothingness was barely begun calls into question the traditional view of Beauvoir’s novel as merely illustrating Sartre’s philosophy. Most important, the Wartime Diary provides an exciting account of Beauvoir’s philosophical transformation from the prewar solipsism of She Came to Stay to the postwar political engagement of The Second Sex.’

The first two of the following extracts are taken from Diary of a Philosophy Student: 1926-1927, and the last two are taken from the 1952 edition of America Day by Day.

9 August 1926
‘Could I have already during this year explored my entire soul, and is there no longer anything in me that interests me? Such indifference, such great disgust, is such lassitude natural or the proof that I am incurably mediocre? It is in solitude that being shows its worth.’

14 September 1926
‘I know now that I would be capable of seeing this work through to the end, but the effort is so useless! I myself am useless! Nothing about me matters to me any longer. Alone in me is this desire more necessary than life. Yesterday, in this barely familiar countryside, that I chose on purpose to avoid the assault of memories from a dead past, I believed myself to be so far from everything, so near and so far from him! Anxiety of knowing that the future will not give me what [I] ask of it. The countryside was really beautiful upon my return, like a thing that one sees for the first time. This morning, memories give me peace, tranquil security . . . and yet I do not even know what my face looks like in the mind of those who think of me. For others, what am I? Can one guess my veritable being behind the words that I have said? One never knows a being, since even if one knows all the elements in him, the unique manner in which the synthesis is formed is perceived only by the being himself, and it is this alone that matters. But one could know an exact symbol for him. How does the symbol for me look? And the place that it occupies? Wait. . .’

26 January 1947
‘In the dead of night and in my deep slumber a voice spoke without words: “Something has happened.” I was asleep and I did not know whether it was joy or catastrophe that had overtaken me. Perhaps I was dead as so often happens in my dreams, perhaps I would wake on the other side of the grave. Opening my eyes I felt frightened. Then I remembered: this was not altogether the world of beyond. This was New York.

This was no mirage. New York was here, it was real.

Suddenly the truth burst on me through the deep blue sky, the soft, damp air. It was even more triumphant than the doubtful enchantments of the night before. It was nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, the streets were deserted, one or two neon signs still glowed. But there was not a person in sight, not a car in the street; nothing to break the rectilinear course of Eighth Avenue. Cubes, prisms, and parallelograms - the streets were concrete abstract designs, their surface looked like the abstract intersection made by two books; building materials had neither density nor texture; space itself had been poured into the moulds. I did not move. I looked. At last I was here, New York belonged to me. I felt again that joy I had known for fifteen years. I was leaving the station, and from the top of the monumental stairway I saw all the roofs of Marseilles spread out below me; I had a year, two years to pass alone in an unknown city; I did not move and I looked down, thinking: it is a strange town. It is my future and it will be my past. Between these houses that have existed for years without me are streets laid out for thousands of people to whom I do not, and never did, belong. But now I am walking, going down Broadway. It’s me all right. I walk in streets that were not built for me, and where my life has not yet left its tracks; here is no perfume of the past. No one knows of my presence; I am still a ghost, and I glide through the city without disturbing anyone. And yet henceforth my life would conform to the layout of the streets and houses; New York would belong to me, and I to it.

I drank an orange juice at a counter and sat down in a shoe-shiner’s booth on one of three armchairs raised on a short flight of steps; little by little I came to life and grew accustomed to the city. The surfaces were now facades, the solids houses. In the roadway dust and old newspapers were drifting on the wind. After Washington Square all mathematics went by the board. Right angles are broken, streets are no longer numbered but named, lines get curved and confused. I was lost as though in some European town. The houses have only three or four floors, and deep colours varying between red, ochre and black; washing hangs out to dry on fire escapes that zig-zag up the buildings. Washing that promises sun, shoe-shine men posted at street corners, terraced roofs - they vaguely recall some southern town, and yet the faded red of the houses reminds one of London fogs. But this district does not resemble anything I know. I feel I shall love it.

The landscape changes. The word landscape is appropriate to this city abandoned by men and invaded by the sky - the sky that soars above the skyscrapers, plunges down into the long straight streets, and is too vast for the city to annex it. Everywhere the sky overflows; a mountain sky. I walk between high cliffs in the depths of a canyon where the sun never strikes; there is the tang of salt in the air. The history of man is not inscribed on these buildings whose equilibrium is so nicely calculated: they are nearer to prehistoric caverns than the houses of Paris or Rome. In Paris, in Rome, history has percolated to the very roots of the soil. Beneath the underground railways, the drains and heating plants, the rock is virgin, not touched by man. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway, deep in the shadows of their gigantic buildings, belong to nature. The little russet church, with its cemetery filled with flat tombstones, is as unexpected and as moving in the middle of Broadway as some Calvary on the wild seashore.

The sun was so beautiful, the waters of the Hudson so green, that I got on the boat which takes the provincials from the Middle West to the Statue of Liberty. But I did not get off at the little island which looks like a small fort. I only wished to see the Battery as I had so often seen it at the cinema. I saw it. From a distance its campaniles seem fragile. They rest so exactly on their vertical slopes that the slightest tremor would make them collapse like card houses. As the boat approaches, their foundations appear firmer. But their steepness still fascinates. What fun to bombard them!

Hundreds of restaurants, but on Sunday all are closed. The one I eventually found was crowded; I ate hastily, pressed by the waitress. . . ’

17 May 1947
‘This the last day I would spend in Chicago. This morning I went to see the museum again, and the splendid lake on which white sails sparkled. A young mulatto had fallen fast asleep in the sun-drenched grass with straw hat over his eye. A grey-blue mist was thinning gradually over the massive buildings of the Loop, so that they no longer seemed to weight the earth. But the blackness was not banished: beside the harbour where the brightly-varnished boats lay still and slumbered, at the edge of satin waters, there were enormous heaps of dust and coal; warehouses streaked with railways and with trucks loaded with black blocks. I crossed an avenue where shining automobiles were moving swiftly, and went towards the canals. I found myself in a subterranean world; it was roofed by a road and very much darker there than underneath the El. It was lit with lamps, and there was a proper street with shops and bars on sidewalks where neon signs shone at midday; I saw in my mind’s eye the brilliance of the sun and the blue waters, and this subterranean city strongly reminded me of the film Metropolis. The street brought me back to the Loop, in which, alas! I wandered for the last time.

I should miss Chicago. I did not see it at all in the same way as I saw New York, so that I could not compare them. Instead of getting to know a lot of people and many places, I preferred to profit by the friends I had, which gave me a deeper appreciation of at least one of its aspects. My experience was very limited. I did not return to the “smart” districts, of which I had caught a glimpse the first time I passed through; I did not set foot in any of the chic nightclubs, nor did I have any contact with the University, which is most interesting, I was told. But because I had taken up a definite approach I came to be quite intimate with the city, in a way that I had been unable to achieve in New York. At all events it would only be a memory to-morrow. And in three days’ time the whole of America would be but a memory. Slowly my phantom had taken on bodily shape; I had seen the blood flow through its veins, and I was happy when its heart began to beat like a human heart. But now it was becoming disembodied with alarming speed.’

The Diary Junction

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