Lying and Nothingness: Struggling with Simone de Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary, 1939-1941
“For the most banal event to become an adventure, you must (and this is enough) begin to recount it.” -- Antoine Roquentin, age 30, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
A diary is a strange document. When you keep one, you know that someone might publish it posthumously, years after you first got famous, years after you’ve died. Readers will have a new vision of your work. Also, your friends and lovers might stumble on, and find something in its pages to shock them. The diary, even today -- especially today -- is purer and less slimy than the blog. Even if you publish it before you die, à la Anais Nin, there’s a certain craft to what you publish. Before sending it out into the world, you find its whole skeleton, its master themes, instead of spewing haphazard bits of bile and bone into the ether. It’s a beautiful thing. Readers can watch you transform from the inside out.
Notebooks 1-5, September 1939-May 1940: Grand Illusion
In 1939, thirty-two-year-old Simone de Beauvoir (known as “The Beaver”) was reading Andre Gide’s diaries in a series of cafes. She didn’t struggle with them at all. If she had deep thoughts about them, she saved them for her letters to Sartre. The early notebooks of her Wartime Diary are a saga of stints at cafes, reading or writing. She has clumsy, semi-consummated, unsatisfying erotic tete-a-tetes with two former, jailbait-age students on a regular basis. Nathalie Sorokine, a blond in heavy shoes, is prone to jealous fits and insouciant temper tantrums, which the Beaver enjoys. Bianca Bienenfeld (“Vedrine”) is Jewish, and will lose family in the camps. She smells “fecal,” physically repulses the Beaver, and cries “in front of a wailing wall that she builds with her own busy hands… Something of the old Jewish usurer in her.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone’s “morganatic husband,” is off at war. So is her lover, the young Jacques-Laurent Bost, who is also the lover of her good friend Kos (Olga Kosakiewicz), an actress who was involved in a thwarted ménage with Simone and Sartre -- the subject of de Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, which is a sort of solipsistic roman a clef. Actually, the Xaviere character is a hybrid of Olga and her even younger sister, Wanda, who Sartre took up with after Olga resolutely refused to sleep with him. Simone gets a smug delight out of hanging out with Olga every day and lying to her about her relationship with Bost. When Sartre is on leave, he lies about the time he spends with Simone, so as not to make Wanda jealous. Confused? Me, too. (Spoiler alert: at the end of She Came to Stay, the Beaver strays from autobiography and the Simone-based Francoise character gasses Xaviere to death.)
Simone obsesses about a zit on her cheek. She’s stopped wearing head-to-toe black like she did when she was a philosophy student. Now she wears brightly-colored turbans. The Luftwaffe has recently attacked Krakow, Warsaw and Lodz. Hitler has issued orders to invade France (as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxombourg.) Adolph Eichmann has started to deport Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews into Poland, and Warsaw’s 400,000 Jews have been moved into a ghetto. Poland’s Jews must wear Star of David armbands. Simone doesn’t mention these events in her diary. She goes to see The Gorilla, starring the Ritz Brothers. “I have such an ugly pimple on my cheek that I decided to put a plaster on it,” she writes, “It’s horrible and gives me sleepless nights.” She’s embarked on a project of having her female friends ask the men she knows whether they think she’s pretty: “Kanapa found me ‘good-looking’ but not pretty -- Levy, pretty and even ‘quite beautiful’ -- the Moon Man, very pretty.” She lives for letters from Sartre and Bost.
“Days have a certain rhythm,” she writes on September 4, 1939. “There is a tremendous difference between morning and evening. Evening means fever, a breaking down; one thinks of getting drunk, of crying and doing just anything, and one gets lost in the crowd. Morning is lucidity… I am not unhappy because I am not reflecting on my life. The objects ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’ no longer exist, nor does this object called ‘life.’… I stopped by the hotel. No letters. I felt a pain of anguish and cut off from the world. Even so, Sartre and I are not separated. I absolutely refuse to think, ‘I will see him again'; I just simply continue to be in the same world as he, with him… The pale face of little Bost haunts me like an obsession.”
Simone and Sartre are so merged that they read each other’s diaries. People who follow the French literary world or philosophical history (I don’t, usually) will know that the two of them incessantly chronicled their lives and published everything they could on the subject, and lied to all of us about it. Simone swore she didn’t actually sleep with the students (like Bienenfeld and Sorokine) she pimped out to Sartre. She said she lost her virginity to Sartre, when in fact she lost it to his married friend (as Sartre revealed in a 1971 interview). Simone, at 21, was the youngest student ever to pass her agrégation in philosophy. Her exam was tremendous, and the committee was torn between awarding her first place, or giving it to Sartre, who was 24, a man, and had already failed the exam once. They chose Sartre, but everyone in the room agreed that Simone was “the real philosopher” of the two.
In her introduction to the Wartime Diary, Margaret A. Simons suggests that de Beauvoir systematically misrepresented her work in philosophy, in order to give credit to Sartre for her own innovations. One reason, according to Simons, might have been to protect The Second Sex from accusations that it was the work of an embittered forty-year-old bisexual with stolen dreams. She told an interviewer that her modus operandi for writing her memoirs was to show readers that her masterwork was not one of “feminine resentment”: “I would like it to be known that the woman who wrote The Second Sex did not do it… in order to avenge a life that had been totally unhappy… If one interprets the book in that way, one might as well say that one repudiates it.” Although her public self-styling as merely a devoted follower of Sartre confused and angered feminists, says Simons, “She would have known that such a self-representation can be a woman’s most powerful defense in a sexist society.”
In trying to understand the tangled web of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s 51-year relationship, I read as many of their letters as I could get my hands on, Sartre’s diaries, the weighty tomes of the Beaver’s autobiography (“One of the few great women of her time!” enthuses the Newsweek blurb on the back of my edition of The Prime of Life), Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend by Kate and Edward Fullbrook, Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley, various materials about The Second Sex, Entre nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Ollivier, a bunch of background on existentialism, and a really great article by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, which reveals that there are new layers of secrets and lies lurking in the archives of the two estates. Sartre’s is controlled by Arlette Elkaïm, the nineteen-year-old he had an affair with in 1956, then adopted. De Beauvoir’s is handled by Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, a seventeen-year-old student she met in 1960, then adopted. (Le Bon has described their relationship as “carnal but not sexual.”)
Before all this reading, I’d simply read The Second Sex, and found it fascinating, flawed and misunderstood. The idea that humans look at each other’s bodies and create a slave class based on physical characteristics has caught on when it comes to race, but still threatens everyone to their very marrow when applied to gender and the creation of the sexual order. And, along the same lines, I thought Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew was brilliant.
After the reading, I was just exhausted. I started to resent the turbaned Beaver and the sleazy, furry-toothed Sartre. Deciphering Simone’s work, from her solipsistic early novel through her philosophical breakthroughs, is one thing. Weeding through her interminable autobiographies, journals, and letters (some of which are packed to the gills with lies), and reading them in the context of Sartre’s work, Sartre’s legacy, Sartre’s letters, and the gazillion biographies written about both members of existentialism’s first couple is quite another. It is the most boring literary striptease, ever. How did this woman manage to be so arid, yet so sexually capricious, at the same time? Why didn’t she stick with her own vow, made at age nineteen and inspired by Andre Gide, Paul Valery, Maurice Barres and Paul Claudel, to be painstakingly honest and “call a spade a spade”? Why did she do so many things she disliked, and spend time with people she disliked? Why did she and Sartre stick to a rigid schedule of one-on-one time, instead of spontaneously being with whoever moved them at the moment? If Simone and Sartre were all about honesty and freedom, why were they such liars? And why were they so actually unspontaneous? They were mostly just power-trippers, people without the nerve to spar with equals, people who used their formidable intellects to make themselves feel more in control.
Last year, Hazel Rowley told The Guardian she was worried that the centenary celebration of de Beauvoir’s work would set off a stream of pronouncements on the her sex life, that people would call her “cruel, sadistic, manipulating, lying and all these stupid words… I don't think we should be trivialising this incredible figure by fixating on lascivious sex. Why are we doing this? Are we puritanical? Do we think we're superior, and why?”
"Why are we doing this?” Well, because it’s a huge part of Simone de Beauvoir’s legacy. This isn’t about paparazzi hunting Simone and Sorokine (or Bianca, or Bost, or whoever) down in the middle of a hotel tête-à-tête, or trailing their limo until the driver veered off the road and killed them. No, Simone de Beauvoir piled page after dishonest page about these little ménage a trois and folies a deux and rendezvous into her autobiography, and then left her diaries and letters to clear things up after her death. By the time I read through notebook five, I had jotted every one of Rowley’s “stupid words” in my own diary, and I was feeling neither prurient nor puritanical. Just tired.
Once, before the war, Sartre and de Beauvoir had a heated argument at Café Balzar with Georges Politzer, a Hungarian émigré with flaming red hair who had been involved in politics since he was sixteen years old. Politzer pointed out that Sartre was “in every way a product of the French bourgeoisie.” Sartre furiously disagreed, but later understood that his passionately political friend was right. According to Rowley: “It took the cataclysm of the Second World War… to make them discover history. They understood that it was precisely because they belonged to the privileged bourgeoisie that they had been able to entertain their grand illusion for so long.”
Notebooks 6-7, June 1940-January 1941: The Courage to Hegel
I wish I’d read the Wartime Diary with no background, as if it was just a strange pile of notebooks I’d found hidden on a shelf at Librairie Galignani on Rue de Rivoli in Simone’s own language and indecipherable handwriting, as if it had no past and no future. But then again, maybe a diary is so beautiful because its very linearity shows how human lives aren’t linear. After the war is over, after Sartre is released from prison camp, after this famous pair is too well-known to write, undisturbed, in cafés anymore, they’ll repeat the same tiring patterns, documenting them comprehensively (if sometimes deceptively) for posterity. Transformations aren’t total, really, in human life -- there are lapses, relapses, cycles and circles. It doesn’t mean they’re not real, and not important.
In the sixth notebook, de Beauvoir becomes a refugee and spends three weeks no longer a person, living like a “crushed bug”: “Those last three weeks I was nowhere -- there were big collective events or a particular physiological anguish and neither past, nor future, nor anybody.” It feels like she’ll never see Paris again, and, “I understood that Sartre would be a prisoner indefinitely, that he would have a horrible life and I wouldn’t have any news from him… for the first time in my life, I had a kind of nervous fit. I think that was the most awful moment of the entire war.” The “stench of defeat” is everywhere. After fleeing the city, she goes back and finds things intensely surreal. She’s torn between realities, hope and hopelessness. Finally, she gets a penciled letter from Sartre. “The letter is so much, and it is nothing -- it’s an affirmation, a positive reality, but I don’t know what reality, a something that is there, but without determination. I turned it over in my hands, indefinitely; it seemed to me that other riches ought to come out of it, that the world around me ought to have changed, but nothing had moved…” She stops writing in her notebook for a while, then catches us up. She’s totally immersed in Hegel, and still having little battles and make-up sessions with Sorokine.
By notebook seven, she’s stopped working at all. She’s also stopped making the diary a diary -- it’s addressed to Sartre, a merging of memoir and letter, and somehow this seems more honest. She copies in a clandestine letter from Sartre, a prisoner at Stalag 12. She notes that if she weren’t going to see him again, she would commit suicide. There’s a different kind of light falling over everything, as if her emotional landscape has been stabbed until it bleeds. “Now I flee among people,” she writes on November 19, 1940, “(and so I’m disappointed because Bost is not you and I look for you everywhere while finding you nowhere) -- in my work (which often seems outdated and obstinate) -- in music that only fills time. I should no longer flee but try to think. Now would be the time to write real memoirs or do philosophy again with Hegel, who brought me so much. But that requires such courage!”
She’s tired of crying and headaches, dragging herself from one day to the next, feeling “a vague desire to take hold of myself again and find myself in the metaphysical solitude of my youth.” She’s up to her neck in incessant, insistent images. We lose her for more than a month, and then, starting in January 1941 -- a breakthrough.
“…The metaphysical tragedy of a fascism -- it is not just a matter of stifling an expression but of absolutely denying a certain being, a matter, really, of confusing the human with its animal, biological aspect. And according to the other idea of Heidegger that the human species and I are the same thing, it’s really I that am at stake. After reading a ridiculous and despicable issue of the NRF (New French Review), I experienced this to the extent of feeling anguished. I am far from the Hegelian point of view that was so helpful to me in August. I have become conscious again of my individuality and of the metaphysical being that is opposed to this historical infinity where Hegel optimistically dilutes all things…. I have vertigo… I understand what was wanting in our antihumanism.”
She can’t decide between Hegel and Heidegger. (“Why would my individual destiny be so precious if consciousness can transcend itself?... At times it seems to me that the Hegelian-Marxist universal point of view deprives life of all meaning. Then again I think that perhaps individuality as such has no meaning and that wanting to give it one is a delusion. The idea of personal salvation -- but why that idea?”) The not-yet-finished She Came to Stay “rests on a philosophical attitude that is already no longer mine.” It’s kind of puerile. Her next novel will be about “the individual situation, its moral significance and its relation to the social.” In her brutal, sudden solitude, she has broken out of her solipsistic loop forever. She’ll be writing about the “rationalization of the world by happiness,” about historicity, about the search for conciliation and “temptation to merge with the universal (for example, when returning to Paris in June, when Germany has won) -- then conquering individual existence again,” about relationships between people, about the mutual recognition of consciousness.
The diaries end there, or at least the Wartime Diary ends, with some undated notes on Descartes or Labor Unions, with a list of books to get for Bost. For me, it’s as if the book cracked open and there’s another, much more brilliant book inside.
It’s ironic that Simone revives her inner philosopher at the very moment of real estrangement from Sartre -- a loss that can’t be rationalized. At that moment, he becomes her muse instead of her watermark. Of course, as in any 51-year collaboration, things change and change back again. Their work runs together and breaks apart, and so do their lives. We will trivialize these incredible figures by fixating on lascivious sex, however much of a bummer the sex really is. There will be piles of false and true documents proving and disproving things, a rich scavenger hunt for biographers leading to bursts of new interest. All of it will be infinitely relevant, and irrelevant, to the history of philosophy -- to the ways we try to understand the mysteries of human consciousness and existence through mere words.
Georges Politzer became a resistance fighter who published a journal denouncing the Fascists over the same years that Simone de Beauvoir was teaching under a Nazi-run administration. (She was finally fired, even after signing the required document that she was no Jew, because Sorokine’s mother complained about her inappropriate cradle-robbing.) He and his wife, Marie (“Mai”), were arrested in 1942. In prison, after his interrogators beat him badly, they offered him the chance to write theoretical pamphlets supporting National Socialism instead of being tortured and killed. He refused. He was tortured, then executed by a Nazi firing squad. Mai, who was a doctor and also a resistor, was taken to Auschwitz. She died there in 1943. You’ve probably never read Politzer’s books Elementary Principles of Philosophy or his Critique of the Foundations of Psychology. You probably lack information about who he and Mai slept with, and whether it was lascivious or not. You probably can’t find a thick autobiography written by Mai about being a female doctor and resistance leader in 1940s France. When Newsweek is tallying up the “few great women” of the twentieth century, Mai is probably not included.
“Discovering history” is clearly a tricky business. Do we think we’re superior, and why? Well, as Churchill said, history is written by the victors. But it remains to be seen who writes philosophy, and why, and who writes diaries, and why. (Churchill also said: “There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true.”)
I’m done reading Simone de Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary. It’s a key document of history, of French letters, of existentialism, of the Second World War. It chronicles halfhearted sex, despair, and a pivotal philosophical transformation that had a ripple effect on intellectual history. It’s also the same as my diary, the same as any other diary, except that it’s out there to be read, in French or in translation. It’s one of piles and piles of books about one particular woman, who hides her blemishes, has the money for pate, and lies to her friends. No one had to come across it in some secret attic in Amsterdam. It wasn’t ever burnt or destroyed. That alone says something important -- about that particular war, about history and documentation, and about being and consciousness -- that can’t be expressed with words.