Self and Other in Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary


‘underlying everything, and before me, an incomprehensible horror.’

Simone de Beauvoir’s Journal de guerre, documenting the period September 1939 to January 1941, caused a stir upon its publication in 1990, four years after her death. Commenced on 1st September 1939 as France was mobilizing to meet the German invasion, Beauvoir’s wartime diary opens with a similar confluence of political and personal strife to such other contemporary diaries as Stephen Spender’s September Journal (1939): faced with the imminence of war and her separation from Jean-Paul Sartre, she can see only disaster ahead, her fate and that of France locked together in a downward-spiralling dance that threatens to destroy any possible future.

The aforementioned posthumous stir was provoked by revelations as to precisely how open her relationship with fellow philosopher and novelist Sartre really was, intersecting as it did with their passionate attachments and affairs with Jacques Bost, Olga Kosakievitch, and Wanda Kosakievitch. Yet the disarmingly direct writing of the wartime diary is about so much more than simply the complicated love lives of two French literary icons. Predating Beauvoir’s metaphysical novel She Came to Stay (1943) and The Ethics of Ambiguity (1946), the text of the diary, and the performative act of its very writing, marks a transformative phase in Beauvoir’s philosophy and particularly in her theoretical engagements with the fraught relationships between self and other.


Beauvoir’s separation from Sartre in September 1939 presented the most immediate circumstance in which to reflect upon knowledge of the other and questions of interpersonal connection and dependency. With her lover sent to the front, she waits on his letters and writes in her diary of crying at reading him confess – so far from her and facing the reality of armed conflict – to feeling ‘absurd and so small’. She also writes of her panic at imagining Bost dead and of only being calmed by receiving his letters; but as the letters prove only that he was alive a few days prior (at their time of writing), she must live in a permanent state of tension engendered by the inevitable time lag and an unavoidable substitution of presence for mere trace.

Whilst such reflections, certainly in the early months of her wartime diary-writing, were always concerned with those closest to her and the raw immediacy of her feelings towards them, the wartime diary has since been recognised by scholars as documenting a stage of the transition in Beauvoir’s philosophy from solipsism to a post-war argument for moral and political engagement. The novel She Came to Stay, on which she was working certainly as early as 1939, still falls within the former phase of her thought, yet the wartime diary was in some ways ahead of her writing destined for publication, containing as it did the raw materials for enquiries that would follow years later. In a diary entry dated 7th October 1939, she makes a note to explore a particular problem through the two principle characters of her developing novel (what will become She Came to Stay). But this problem – an interior one of holding two seemingly conflicting statements as true, and therefore of holding conflicting ideas of love – nevertheless sets up a quandary, to be picked up later, as to why such a notion can be entertained as possible within others but not in oneself.


The context in which Beauvoir was making such enquiries was one of uncertainty and dread. Seized by premonitions of ‘incomprehensible horror’ in the first month of diary-writing, she can imagine only worse and worse days to come as she recognises that violence will be inevitable. Her accounts of life in Paris during that tense period is one of ominous autumn evenings, disquieting silence and deserted streets, the blackness of night, and the heaviness and sheer relief of sleep. To modern readers, the relative luxury of her lifestyle is nevertheless apparent: venturing forth in her best clothes (including what seems an extensive collection of turbans), she runs errands and goes to meet friends whilst pondering the dynamics between her tangled knot of lovers. But underlying this urbane existence and the appearance of business-as-usual is the debilitating sense that ‘the world is destroyed once and for all’ and an absence of hope in the face of cultural annihilation under fascism.

The scale of the threat provokes a certain morbid curiosity in Beauvoir. She admits to ‘that very tragic interest’ in wanting to live to see the outcome of Europe’s subjugation by fascism, as opposed to simply killing oneself as her friend Védrine suggests. In an ostensible effort to comprehend the current situation and its possible outcomes by looking to the past for precedents, she reads André Gide’s Journal of 1914 and finds ‘many things similar to the situation now’.

Away from her literary pursuits, her diary-writing evidences her increasing engagement with the mood on the streets of Paris. The nervous wait for conflict to escalate prompts her to reflect that, ‘If only there was more going on and more danger […] then I would be more concerned about myself and the thought of others would be more tolerable.’ Living in what she describes as ‘a kind of stupor’, even on what she admits was a comparatively good day, she becomes preoccupied with thoughts of the crowd, the mass of Parisians milling around with their gas masks, amidst whom she soothingly feels ‘no personal life, only the community, which lives in itself as in primitive societies’. Whereas the unspoken support of the communal salves her, she then describes an experience that same day of sitting in the back room of a restaurant and being violently snapped back into herself: ‘my individual life returned; I thought I was going to scream.’ Elsewhere she admits that, in the evenings, one is in a state of ‘fever, a breaking down’, and seeks escape by getting ‘lost in the crowd’ until morning once again brings some lucidity.


Whilst her dissolution into the crowd is often figured as an anaesthetic, there is ample evidence that it also turned her attentions outward to an empathetic appreciation of those in vastly differing circumstances; as early as 11th September 1939, she expresses her upset at ‘all these foreigners being hounded’ in increasingly public demonstrations of intolerance. Meanwhile she records subtle shifts in the social make-up of the Paris she knows so well, noting how such establishments as bars and clubs are becoming more casual but losing their identity, which we can understand as likely meaning their exclusivity prior to the upheaval of wartime. Even if such observations initially seem somewhat snobbish, they also reveal an acute awareness that traditional barriers between people were shifting or dissolving entirely. As witness to a changing Paris stratified less and less by conventional social distinctions, Beauvoir begins to imagine even in those early wartime days of June 1940 an ‘afterwards’ in which peaceable cohabitation between the displaced, the disenfranchised, and the conquering forces could be possible. Never acquiescing to any aspect of fascist ideology, she simply recognises a need for the world to be rebuilt through restorative social integration.

On a visit to meet Sartre where he is stationed in Brumath, she sits with him as he states his belief that this will be a ‘modern war without massacres’. And yet her reflections on embodied consciousness and empathetic engagement prevent her from sharing such a detached (and, we now understand in retrospect, naïve) outlook; caught up in the June 1940 flight from Paris, she is confronted by the refugee crisis and the plight of the less fortunate, all overshadowed by the persistent rumours of vast death camps. The reality of displacement and exile, of the rending of the social fabric and of people from people, constitutes for Beauvoir its own kind of violence. She reflects that, in deserted streets, life without the presence of others does not seem like life at all.


In a highly significant diary entry dated 9th January 1941, she wrestles with the Hegelian notion of recognition, of profound awareness of others’ consciousness, which can offer ‘a foundation for a social view of the world’. She considers this notion in relation to ‘the metaphysical tragedy of a fascism’ which denies the being of others. Whilst admitting that she has once again turned inwards, fixed on her individuality, she grapples with the problem of how one can make oneself ‘an ant among ants’ and still retain those qualities that distinguish the human. Beauvoir uses and comments upon her reading of Hegel and Heidegger to consider how recognition of the self and the other’s consciousness can be brought to greater parity. In the entry dated 29th January 1941, only a few weeks later, she admits in a self-critique of her novel that ‘to suppress the other’s consciousness is a bit puerile’.

In Beauvoir’s wartime diary we find a record of her philosophical development through the positing of such problems. Her diary-writing had impelled her to engage more directly with questions of self and the other in the context of estrangement from loved ones and the wider landscape of societal upheaval. She would experience a further seminal shock in 1944 when the Nazis murdered her Jewish friend Bourla, recalled years later in Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life (1960); critic Margaret Simons has attributed this event as a crucial factor in Beauvoir’s movement away from her previous position of defending an absolute and disembodied notion of freedom – a movement made in defiance of the German occupation. By the time of 1945’s The Blood of Others, Beauvoir was situating her interrogations of individual choice in the context of how those choices directly affect others, even how not making a choice is effectively a choice to do nothing and thus be complicit – a significant conclusion to draw considering the novel’s setting within the French Resistance.

In these published works, the trajectory towards the moral and political arguments of Beauvoir’s canonical post-war writings is evident, yet her wartime diary can add a valuable and distinctively discursive insight into the embryonic stages of those engagements with the problems of self and other that would shape Beauvoir’s thought and her contributions to philosophy. The wartime situation as she experienced it – that of a painful present that lacks, even denies, the promise of any recognisable future – created an urgency wherein only the diary form could provide an adequate means of expression. Ω


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