Apr/May 2007

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

In the summer of 1926, simone de beauvoir was eighteen and desperately unhappy.

Toril Moi


Her first year as a student had been disappointing. She had fallen madly in love with her cousin Jacques Champigneulles, and she spent the whole summer forlornly hoping for a reply to the letter she had dared to send him before leaving Paris for the countryside. Moreover, she hardly had a minute to herself: The constant company of family and family friends imposed endless social obligations and left her little time for reading and writing. Trapped in an almost permanent tête-à-tête with her pious Catholic mother, Françoise, who disapproved of her daughter's intellectual interests and ambitions, she felt utterly alone and misunderstood.

Her father, Georges, was no ally. He had only allowed Beauvoir to attend university because she was going to have to support herself financially. Her plan, therefore, was to pass the highly selective agrégation exam, which would assure her a position as a teacher in France's prestigious lycées for life. (In 1929, she succeeded brilliantly at this exam, coming in second only to Jean-Paul Sartre.) Although Georges applauded his daughter's outstanding exam results, to him they were a reminder of his failure to provide her with a dowry. There were ideological differences, too. A reactionary, nationalist atheist, he had no time for his wife's Catholicism, yet he could not stand seeing his daughter join the ranks of intellectuals, a social category that since the Dreyfus Affair had been associated with left-wing politics in France.

Like so many other teenagers, the young Beauvoir felt alienated. "I feel within myself so many things to say! But I do not dare," she notes on September 6, 1926. "It is unbearable that they do not understand anything." Inspired by Maurice Barrès, she felt surrounded by "barbarians": "You are all barbarians, even if you might be right, O you who are not me!"

Published here for the first time in any language, Diary of a Philosophy Student is a fascinating document from the period when Beauvoir first became conscious of herself as a budding intellectual and began to meet other brilliant minds, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, and Maurice de Gandillac (though not yet Sartre). It provides new insight into the thoughts and feelings of one of the most important intellectual women of the twentieth century and introduces us to a cultural and literary milieu that has long since disappeared. The diary increases our admiration for Beauvoir's heroic determination to make something of herself, to "create [herself], to create [her] story," in spite of her stifling surroundings.

In 1927, she felt she could trust only herself, her work, and her ambitions: "Become attached to the inner life," she wrote, "take it seriously, and sacrifice everything for it. Never let my experiences . . . ruin my inner beauty." This precious inner life was enriched by her passion for Champigneulles, a young man who kept failing his law exams. Beauvoir, whose fierce commitment to being herself in the face of opposition made her notoriously bad at interpreting others, took his failures to be the sign of an artistic soul. In any case, she surely had not fallen in love with him for his intrinsic virtues but because he was the only young man she was allowed to see and because she was so lonely that his small signs of interest must have felt like manna from heaven.

On top of all this, her first year of student life had failed to inflame her. Her greatest wish, to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, had been quashed by her mother, who thought philosophy would surely turn her daughter into a confirmed atheist. Reluctantly, Beauvoir, who had already lost her faith, agreed to take courses in mathematics at the Institut Catholique and in literature and classics at the Institut Sainte-Marie at Neuilly, a school devoted to the higher education of Catholic girls, directed by the formidable Madame Daniélou, mother of the future cardinal. The result was that although she had taken her state exams at the Sorbonne, by the summer of 1926 Beauvoir had barely set foot in that secular institution. Instead of discovering a new intellectual life, she found herself in a larger version of the Catholic world she had always lived in.

Still, Beauvoir worked like a demon. In her first year, she passed, brilliantly, exams in literature, mathematics, and Latin. She began learning Greek from scratch. To understand her achievement, it helps to know that four exams (certificats) were required to finish the licence (BA); an average student would aim to pass one exam per year, an exceptional student, two.

Simone de Beauvoir (right) with childhood friend Elisabeth
(Zaza) Lacoin, ca. 1925.

This passionate young woman led an austere life. She had little personal freedom. Her mother censored her correspondence, throwing away letters she deemed less than proper. She supervised visits by Beauvoir's friends and did not permit her daughter to go out at night without a chaperone. One of the reasons Beauvoir worked so hard, surely, was that it was a precious pretext to be alone. Ensconcing herself with her books in a university library or in her father's study, she was throwing up a protective shield against relentless maternal intrusions. On the first page of this diary, dated August 6, 1926, Beauvoir poignantly writes, "If someone, anyone, reads these pages, I will never forgive him. He will thus be doing a bad and ugly deed." For further protection, her handwriting had already become the notoriously unreadable scrawl that her later friends and lovers would constantly complain about.

Fear of her mother's intrusive eyes may also have contributed to the unusually austere subject matter. Writing in the tradition of the Catholic spiritual diary but also in that of self-scrutiny developed by Barrès and André Gide, Beauvoir devotes herself to introspection and self-analysis, to notes on reading and projects for future work. We don't hear a word about political or cultural events or about the rest of her family. Only once does the young Beauvoir permit herself to express exasperation at her mother's behavior.

Culturally, though, this diary is a precious document. I was stunned to read almost three hundred pages of the most deeply felt thoughts of a young woman without finding a single mention of her body, or comments on her clothes or what other people might think of her looks.The diary conjures up a world almost unimaginable for us, who live in a society where teenagers have breast implants and older women obsess about their wrinkles. Was there really an age when women didn't constantly worry about what they looked like?

Instead of gazing at herself in the mirror, Beauvoir read and thought. Champigneulles had won her heart by talking to her without criticizing or condemning her and by lending her books. "In my existence, literature took the place religion once had held," Beauvoir writes in Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, 1958), "invading and transfiguring it completely." Champigneulles's favorite novel was Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (variously translated as The Lost Domain, The Wanderer, and The End of Youth). Written in 1913, this dreamy and nostalgic novel about love, honor, purity, and sacrifice spellbound the young Beauvoir: "Meaulnes's enchanted land where I have so often wandered, why can't I stay there?" she exclaims when contemplating her own decidedly unenchanted surroundings.

Reading about Augustin Meaulnes's heartbreaking loss, Beauvoir cried. In fact, she cried a lot in these years: often in frustration or disappointment but also out of pure joy at being alive in the world. Throwing herself wholeheartedly into every sensation, feeling, and thought, she was capable of an almost alarming intensity of mood. Alongside Le Grand Meaulnes, she devoured the correspondence between Alain-Fournier (the pseudonym of Henri-Alban Fournier) and his friend Jacques Rivière, identifying profoundly with the thoughts and ambitions of these two literary men of nineteen, just embarking on student life, full of dreams of authenticity and truth.

It is intriguing to discover how unaware the young Beauvoir was of literary and philosophical modernity. At this stage of her development, she was a perfect idealist: Passionately interested in Kant, she also devoured the decidedly second-rate German idealist philosopher Rudolf Eucken (awarded a highly contested Nobel Prize for Literature in 1908). Intellectually and emotionally, she appears to have been living out the twilight of nineteenth-century idealist aspirations toward nobility, purity, truth, and beauty, which she found in the works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Gide, Wilde, and Bergson, but above all in Barrès, Paul Claudel, and Alain-Fournier.

All this reading instilled in her a passionate yearning for a beautiful life, lived in full, in restless and constantly self-scrutinizing sincerity, and with a noble consciousness of sacrifice and suffering. "A beautiful passion is more difficult and even more rare, I believe, than a beautiful work," she writes, with half a mind on her own relationship with Champigneulles and the other half on Le Grand Meaulnes. Filled with an intransigent demand for an entirely abstract entity she names "life," Beauvoir was still a disembodied spirit. As a strictly supervised virgin with no opportunities for sexual experimentation, she lived passionately and intensely, yet purely in the mode of sublimation.

Attempting to turn her loneliness into a strength, she achieves moments of magnificent haughtiness: "I am too intelligent, too demanding and too rich for anyone to take care of me entirely. Nobody knows or loves me completely. I have only me." Her notion of love is so full of idealist notions of suffering and sacrifice that it becomes masochistic: "I love the things and beings who can make me suffer the most. This refinement of sensitivity, this elegance of thought, these subtle complications, this is what I love." The notion of heterosexual love as self-immolation returns in her novels (the most horrific example being Paula in Les Mandarins [The Mandarins, 1954]), but it is there in Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex, 1949), too: "Every woman in love recognizes herself in Hans Andersen's little mermaid who exchanged her fishtail for a woman's legs for love, and then found herself walking on needles and burning coals." (Every woman in love?)

The theme of love as suffering, however, coexists with intense self-affirmation: "I would willingly consent to all sacrifices for a being I loved, but I would not want to exist only through him." "The only thing is that I must not abdicate any of myself for him; I desire for him to know me and not for him to love me."

In the academic year 1926–27, Beauvoir finally escaped the Catholic world and started to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. As she met new, fascinating friends, Champigneulles came to appear less important: "I have understood that others besides him carry an infinity within themselves. I have absolutely no need of him any longer in order to be; he would bother me instead. . . . Impossible for me to fall asleep in a love, refusal to submit to any slavery," she notes in July 1927.

This diary proves, beyond any doubt, that Beauvoir would have become a writer even had she never met Sartre. She dreams of dedicating herself entirely to a work she believes in. Most important, right at the beginning of her intellectual life, Beauvoir already understands philosophy as a way of life. She lives her ideas and thinks her feelings. Systematic or academic philosophy does not interest her. "Now I am no longer mildly interested in anything but ideas that I elaborate painfully with all my being," she notes in October 1926. Ten days later, she declares, "I put reason into my feelings and my spontaneity into my ideas." Pondering the differences between herself and Merleau-Ponty, she comments, "Those problems that he lives in his mind, I live them with my arms and my legs. Has he ever known months when all the days were only tears?"

In May 1927, ruminating over her love for Champigneulles, she notes: "It amuses me to think about what J[acques] would say if he knew that on the subject of my love for him, I ask questions about the one and the many, about finite and absolute modes, about ideas and being. He probably would not understand because few people can understand what it is to feel ideas. . . . But there is a deeper question, and I am once again curiously finding myself thinking the same things as last year about this incommunicable self." There is a near-perfect symmetry between Beauvoir's own experience of life at this time—her sense of alienation, her loneliness, her distance from Champigneulles—and her obsession with the skeptical idea that the self, our thoughts, feelings, spontaneous reactions, cannot be communicated to others, that each human being is fundamentally unknowable by another.

In July 1927, Beauvoir tries to summarize the preoccupations of her diary, concluding: "The theme is almost always this opposition of self and other that I felt upon starting to live." The principal editors of this volume, Margaret A. Simons and Barbara Klaw, are right to say that the relationship between self and other did in fact become a major theme in Beauvoir's writing, from her first novel, L'Invitée(She Came to Stay, 1943), onward. But Simons goes too far when she presents the sentence about the "opposition of self and other" as Beauvoir's "most important discovery," insisting that it is conclusive evidence of Beauvoir's fundamental philosophical independence from Sartre. It is difficult, to say the least, to see a single line jotted down by a nineteen-year-old as evidence of a set of substantial philosophical ideas. Rather, we should take Beauvoir's whole life during this period, her sense of isolation, her intellectual passions, as evidence of a certain fundamental sensibility, which she surely would have developed in interesting ways even without Sartre but which happened to find keen and perceptive encouragement in her life with him.

It is true, of course, that many hostile readers of Beauvoir's work have insisted on seeing her as nothing but the passive recipient of Sartre's superior wisdom, and her works as the dabblings of a mere disciple. The editors are rightly concerned with dispelling such ridiculous myths. But we should not put so much energy into denying an absurd picture that we become incapable of acknowledging the obvious—namely, that in a couple consisting of two brilliant philosophers who discussed their ideas and their writing every day of their lives, it would be incredible if they had never learned anything from each other. Beauvoir surely deepened and sharpened her sense of what her questions were by discussing them with Sartre, just as he elaborated his ideas by discussing them with her.

The editors provide an introduction and two essays with this diary. Because their writings focus exclusively on the diary as a source of understanding of Beauvoir's later works, the editors fail to notice its value as a cultural document, as a precious source of information about French intellectual and cultural life in the late 1920s. Since the focus is always on similarities between the diary and her later works, they also fail to explore the striking differences between Beauvoir in 1926 and Beauvoir in, say, 1949. Above all, they do not discuss her swift and complete dismissal of the idealist romance of the "inner life," which surely had something to do with Sartre's total contempt for the notion. In general, they never discuss what Beauvoir herself leaves out. I missed, for example, a serious outline of the political and social situation in which she pursued her inner life with such tenacity.

Because they see Beauvoir, above all, as the future author of The Second Sex, the editors are at times overly focused on gender and feminism, often in a way that tends to make interesting questions simpler than they actually are. When Beauvoir identifies with male authors and male fictional characters, for example, it is presented as something obviously limiting, something that she was going to have to struggle to free herself from before she could write The Second Sex. But is there nothing to be said for the capacity to admire and identify with writers and characters of the other gender than one's own? Doesn't Beauvoir's self-declared skepticism with respect to other minds begin to break down precisely as she lives herself into novels and essays by writers of all kinds of political and religious persuasions? Wouldn't it be interesting, moreover, to ask what there was about Beauvoir's decidedly nonfeminist beginnings that nevertheless helped her to become the woman who wrote The Second Sex?

Klaw's painstaking translation is hampered by too much respect for the original, which produces too many clunky sentences. As in all translations, there are mistakes and infelicities. The notes veer between the useful (the diligent attempts to identify the sources of the innumerable literary and philosophical quotations) and the amateurish. It is unclear who the target audience for some of them is supposed to be. Thus a single footnote tries to explain the philosophy of Plato and Thomas Aquinas, while two others gamely attempt to summarize Kant. One note begins by explaining who Rembrandt was, before launching into a potted summary of the history of French painting from Ingres to Corot. Beauvoir's reference to the leading French nineteenth-century painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815–91) is mistakenly turned into a reference to Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (1695–1750), an obscure Rococo designer, architect, and goldsmith.

This diary is published as the second volume of the University of Illinois Press's Beauvoir series, under the general editorship of Simons, who deserves praise for ensuring that so many previously untranslated texts by Beauvoir now appear in English. The first volume in the series, Philosophical Writings, was published in 2004 and contains, among other important early essays, Beauvoir's first philosophical book, Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944). The publishers have announced five more volumes to come: Beauvoir's war diaries; three volumes of essays on philosophy, literature, and feminism; and, eventually, the most exciting volume of them all: namely, the second installment of these student diaries, with entries from 1928 to 1930.

If the diaries from 1926 and 1927 lay bare the deepest foundations of Beauvoir's intellectual and emotional life, the diaries still to come cover an absolutely crucial period in her development. In the spring of 1929, Beauvoir met Sartre during the preparations for the agrégation exam; in the early fall, she finally moved away from home; and at the end of November that year, her beloved friend Zaza (Elisabeth Lacoin, called Elisabeth Mabille in the memoirs) died suddenly and tragically, under circumstances that made Beauvoir hate bourgeois Catholicism for the rest of her life. If the second volume has the same sincerity, depth of feeling, and depth of thought as this one, its publication will be a major event.

While we wait for that volume to appear, we should look back with amazement and gratitude at the young woman who fought so hard to preserve a sense of inner freedom against the forces of conformity that sought to crush her. In pure self-defense, she kept reminding herself: "I must not care about what others think and do. . . . I am myself."

Toril Moi is the author of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Blackwell, 1994).

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