Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: Simone de Beauvoir, Wartime Diary

Perhaps it is not always wise to read the diaries or journals of luminaries past and present. Too often these diaries and such dim and darken those shining lights and (to mix metaphors) expose the feet of clay beneath the fine leather boots unshod.

Simone de Beauvoir’s “Wartime Diary” is a case in point. The picture of this twentieth century intellectual giant and feminist icon cavorting with an assortment of her young female students running cavalierly from one bed to another all the while professing her love for both Sartre and Bost, both away at the front, is not particularly flattering, even if one gives her credit for revolting against middle class sexual values. After all, it is 1939. Germany is on the march. The threat of invasion is imminent, even if there is a lull after the first panic. One would think a woman of substance would have something more significant to record in her diary than the complex record of her kisses, quarrels and caresses, something more than her struggle to keep her student girl friends happily supplied with the favor of her company. Couple this with her often dismissive comments on these various lovers [”Vedrine came by; she was neither bothersome nor interesting . . . . we discussed science and politics—there wasn’t anything in it for me, her intelligence being moderate and inferior to mine. I felt bored with her. (p.236). Nathalie Sorokine meets her at a milk bar: “. . . she was sulking, and I let her know it annoyed me.” Later she shows up again “full of hate, but unable to resist the need to see me.” (p.235)] and the picture is even less flattering.

The diary begins in September of 1939. Hitler and the invasion of Poland are on everyone’s mind. She describes the general fear, insecurity and uncertainty of the time. There are the blackouts, the food shortages, but most importantly for de Beauvoir there is her own personal cross, the departure of Sartre for the front. Still the nice thing about anxiety is that it doesn’t last. As the threat of invasion seems to lessen, life gradually becomes calmer, more normal. September 13: “Though gloomy the day was much calmer—one gets used to anything, even to this uncertainty.” (p.60). September 14: “Paris I reopening its movie houses, and even the bars and dance halls are open until eleven o’clock at night. Everything is returning to normal.” (p. 61). Life goes on.

Most of the diary prior to the invasion details her daily life during these early months. She eats in cafes. She goes to movies (“Snow White” which she doesn’t care for and “The Petrified Forest” which she does). She visits friends and lovers. She reads (very eclectically: everything from Jack London and Agatha Christie to Dostoyevsky and Kafka). She goes to concerts and night clubs. She writes letter after letter. But more often than not what seems to concern her is juggling her amours and pining away for Sartre.

The most significant event of this period is undoubtedly her clandestine visit to see Sartre stationed in Brumath, something of an adventure since women were not allowed to visit their husbands let alone their lovers at the front. She left Paris on October 31 by train and they managed to spend about a week together. While the visit seems momentous to her, there is little in the description of their time together to justify her feelings. They eat a few meals together. They spend some time looking for places to stay when he is free. They do a lot of skulking around. Her reticence here is suggestive in the light of her openness about her relations with her lady friends. There is no question but that this time with Sartre is something special.

In general, the reader expects a bit more introspection and self analysis from someone with de Beauvoir’s reputation. It is not really until the very end that there is anything that comes up to these expectations: “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. Anguish. I have finally realized the state that I nostalgically longed for last year: solitude, as complete as when facing death. . . . The hope of maintaining one’s very being is the only reason for which I think it is worth accepting death. It’s not a matter of life, but of something more than that. To make oneself an ant among ants, or a free consciousness facing other consciousnesses. Metaphysical solidarity that I newly discovered, I who was a solipsist. I cannot be consciousness, spirit among ants. I understand what was wanting in our antihumanism. To admire man as given (a beautiful intelligent animal etc.) is idiotic—but there is no other reality than human reality—all values are founded on it. And that ‘toward which it transcends itself’ is what has always moved us and orients the destiny of each one of us.” (pp.319-320). A few more passages such as this would have been welcome.
As far as the description of the flight from Paris after the inv
asion is concerned, de Beauvoir is less than compelling. For my money there is a much more effective narration of these events in Irene Nemirovsky’s novel, “Suite Francaise.”

A word about this particular edition of the diary: the translation is very readable. It certainly makes de Beauvoir accessible. The notes, on the other hand, are not always very helpful. There are both footnotes and end notes and one cannot always tell why the distinction. Sometimes the reader has to wonder why the editors even bothered. They love to identify the streets on which the various cafes de Beauvoir mentions are located. Why? They do identify passages in the diary that are reused in her other work and this is certainly useful for scholars, if not necessarily the general reader.

What the diary provides for the reader is a real insight into the character of de Beauvoir and her relationships with Sartre and others, if it is not always illuminating in regard to her ideas.

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