Prolegomena to a truth-analysis of Simone de Beauvoir’s oeuvre: truth-telling, resistance and absence, in and around Les Inséparables
Postdoctoral fellow at Sorbonne University. In 2020, he published a book from his dissertation on the functions of writing and reading in Jean-Paul Sartre’s conversion to history during the phony war. His current research focuses on self-writing, subjectivation and truth statements, particularly in the work of Simone de Beauvoir. He is also the French Managing Editor of the journal Simone de Beauvoir Studies.
This short article is a supplement to the conference I gave at the Simone de Beauvoir Society’s Webinar “On Inseparables”, in early January 20221. Then, I tried to give as much space as I possibly could to what I called a “truth-analysis” of Les Inséparables: an analysis that focuses on the way the narrative is structured by the movement of “truth”. Presently, my aim is, while reinterring some elements of this analysis, to share the basic groundwork of my current research on truth-telling in Beauvoir’s oeuvre.
The starting point of my investigation is a “Foucauldian wonder”, a philosophical questioning originated “not in the wonder that there is being, but in the surprise that there is truth2”. This kind of philosophical thinking does not interrogate the formal or transcendental truth conditions of discourses and knowledge. Rather, it questions the effects of truth-telling, notably on subjectivity or, as Foucault writes himself, “[t]he problem is to understand how subjects are effectively linked in and by forms of truth-telling in which they engage themselves3”. Truth-telling, and especially truth-telling about oneself, is not the act of exposing an authentic “truth” deeply rooted in the subject; it’s a productive act in a subjectivation process. However, truth-telling acts only occur in relation to others and within the specific historical state of a “truth regime”: the set of “truth obligations” through which subjectivities are produced by others and by “themselves”. The “Foucauldian wonder” therefore leaves us with two major philosophical problems: 1) the tension between subjectivation as an alienating and/or as a resisting process4; 2) the relation between truth-telling and truth-seeking, that is, for instance, the relation between truth-enunciations and phenomenological investigations, whether these investigations take place within a philosophical, literary or autobiographical project. The later problem is largely left aside by Foucault, as he is mainly trying to observe and produce a shift within the understanding of truth from an epistemological perspective – truth as knowledge – to a “manifestation” conception of truth as an “event”. However, these two modalities – seeking and telling – are, in Beauvoir’s oeuvre, intimately linked, as Beauvoir’s writing practices are, all at once, informed by a certain conception of the relation between truth and subjectivity (the transcendental and universal subject of classical philosophy) and resisting situated acts of subjectivation extending and resisting to this first conception of subjectivity (the oeuvre as a “universal singular”). In other words, I like to think that Beauvoir is, through the conjunction of truth-telling and truth-seeking, manifesting resistance to the “universal subject” within the seeking and telling possibilities opened up by historically situated conceptions of truth: she transforms the abstract (male) universality into a concrete universality by producing a special kind of truth manifesting object that she calls, in her later work, a “universal singular5”.This form of object is not universal in itself but within the movement of communication; it thus implies a “situated subject of truth”, that is, a “subject of enunciation” consciously situated in time and space. To be more precise, it implies a “ground”, a phenomenological and enunciative “truth scenery”, which can be interpreted as the fragile limit between pre-enunciative and post-phenomenological space and time, or between materiality and language, here and elsewhere. I like to think that Beauvoir’s profound creativity, her capacity to resist to truth obligations by generating new truths, new forms of truth-telling and new forms of living, emerges from her deep attention to the bodily and discursive experience of phenomenologically and historically situated enunciation, for instance: writing as a situated truth-act. In any case, this “truth scenery”, I think, can be grasped through the analysis of what could be called Beauvoir’s “written absence”.
The current editorial format grants me with a complete freedom of thought; however, its shortness does not allow me to completely unfold – and thus transform – these initial remarks. To speak truly, the current state of my research only allows me to reconfigure my hypothesis. Therefore, in the next few lines, I will be focusing, as I initially did in my conference on “Zaza and truth-telling”, on Beauvoir’s latest posthumous publication: Les Inséparables. This short story, originally written in 1954, interests me for three reasons, which I will briefly describe. For further analysis, I invite the reader to watch my initial conference in the light of the following considerations – these two texts share the same structure.
- Beauvoir’s poetics of truth
As Éliane Lecarme-Tabone previously noticed, Les Inséparables is Beauvoir’s final attempt to translate Zaza’s story into fiction and it can thus be read has a pivotal moment in Beauvoir’s transition from fictional to autobiographical writing, that is, from a truth discourse to another6: the short story was written moments after the publication of Beauvoir’s last long length novel (Les Mandarins, 1954), and a few years before the publication of her first long length autobiographical work (Les Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, 1958). Therefore, Les Inséparables is not only structured by narrative shifts in a fictional truth-telling scenery: it is, in a wider truth-analysis perspective, a strategic piece to observe the movement within Beauvoir’s poetics of truth. As a matter of fact, Beauvoir’s thoughts, around 1956-1957, on her self-claimed failure to resurrect Zaza in Les Inséparables can be strategically read in the light of two of her main texts on the relation between truth and writing: her 1946’s article “Literature and metaphysics”, and her 1964’s conference on “What can literature do?”. One of the major differences between these two texts is related to the presence/absence of the author: in the 1946’s article, the “presence [of the author], must be well hidden7”; in the 1964’s conference, the reader must be able to “hear a singular voice […], a language that carries the mark of someone […]. [T]he presence of the author must be imposed upon [the reader]8”. Therefore, this shift implies a different conception of literary communication, now rooted in enunciation, and, by that very fact, a different understanding of the relation between truth and writing: in 1946, a literary text is a “representation” of truth; in 1964, it is a “presentification” of truth, a moment in the ongoing envelopment of singularities generated, notably, by literary communication. More precisely, in her earlier work, Beauvoir thinks of literary writing as an evocation of “lived ambiguity”, that is, of “movement”: if ambiguity is, for Beauvoir, the general truth of human condition, “movement” is the singular truth of life9, and “only the novel can evoke in its complete, singular, and temporal truth the original burst of existence10”. However, as fiction is not understood, in 1946, as enunciatively rooted, literature is therefore the evocation of the original burst of existence that cuts itself form is own original enunciative movement: it is not itself rooted in lived ambiguity, and thus, as Beauvoir would later claim, precisely while evaluating her fictional attempt to resurrect Zaza, it “destroys the world in order to re-create it11”. Consequently, it is still too general: from the bracketing of the subject of enunciation results a delocalized world, a microcosm “closed upon itself”, over-significant, and in which “each element refers to [each other and to] the whole universe12”. Cut from its own outburst, its own enunciation, fiction is “the equivalent of a general truth13”: it is too general to properly evoke Zaza’s story, “too exceptional, too extreme14”, too singular. Therefore, to resurrect Zaza, Beauvoir had to tell the story of her friend in the context of her own singular life story, that is, while seeking for her own voice. This “beauvoirian revelation”, I think, can be further understood through the comparative analysis of fictional and epistolary enunciative scenes, an analysis that I will briefly unfold in the third section of this article.
In the meanwhile, the 1964 conference offers substantial leads to understand the transformation of Beauvoir’s poetics of truth. For instance, in her later work, she defines the world as a detotalized-totality: each subject is, in relation to the world as a totality, singularly situated. However, each singular situation, while it is still separated from each other, “envelops” each other, and is thus opened to totality, even if it’s only negatively through ignorance and/or absence. Therefore, the author can “communicate within separation itself” by manifesting a “partial truth15”: the way a singular detotalized situation uncovers aspects of the world in totality. Therefore, literary reading is, through identification, the ambiguous lived experience of “being oneself and another”: “[A]nother truth becomes mine without ceasing to be another. I abdicate my “self” in favor of the speaker; and yet I remain myself. It is a confusion unceasingly sketched, unceasingly defeated and it is the only form of communication that can give me the incommunicable, the taste of another life16.” In other words, the literary object is a “universal-singular”, which is not a delocalized singular object that would evoke universality through an hermeneutical totalization process, but rather a situated singular truth that has some concrete attachment to universal truth, as it takes place within the totalizing-detotalizing process of literary envelopment.
However, Beauvoir’s considerations on Les Inséparables are retrospective: the turning point in Beauvoir’s poetics of truth is more likely the writing process of her Memoirs, not of Les Inséparables. To grasp the singular role of Les Inséparablesin this process, I will briefly unfold a textual and enunciative truth-analysis of Beauvoir’s last attempt to fictionally communicate the story of her first “true friend”.
- Textual truth-analysis of Les Inséparables: subjectivity and resistance
Les Inséparables caught my attention as it shows how young girls are alienated by truth obligations, as well as how they try to resist those obligations by enacting their own singular truth. The main body of the first chapter is a series of truth-telling acts through which Sylvie concretely produces her “selfness” (the summer letter, the gift, the confession scene). For instance, Sylvie (and/or Beauvoir) develops her singularity while “discover[ing] in a flash the truth” about herself: her affection for Andrée (and/or Zaza)17. The second chapter is a set of self-destructive acts, as Andrée turns upon herself the violence of the truth regime of self-renunciation she lives in, a regime/domain described by Beauvoir in The Second Sex: “What exactly is truth? In the domain where [the young girl] has been locked up, the word has no meaning. Truth is reality unveiled, and the unveiling takes place through acts: but she does not act18.” For instance, Andrée’s dramatic act of self-mutilation is an attempt to enact her singularity tied up in the impossibility of its manifestation: it is a desperate truth-act, Andrée’s vital movement violently transforming self-renunciation into self-destruction. The way truth-telling functions in Les Inséparables can be summarized in the light of a comparison between the “kitchen scene” in which Sylvie confesses her affection and loss of religious faith to Andrée, and a previous “confessional scene” in which Sylvie shares with her abbot her lack of devotion to God:
1) In the “confessional scene”, Sylvie does not have the choice of what is a significant object of truth-telling, as the abbot redirects the conversation on Sylvie’s latest disobedient behavior. In the “kitchen scene”, the object of truth-telling, love and beliefs, are significantly related to Sylvie and Andrée’s common but distinct soul seeking process.
2) The relation between the interlocutors is unbalanced in the first scene, and friendly, open, reciprocal in the later one: not only is this scene immediately preceded by Andrée’s own confession of her childhood love, but no one is, in the kitchen scene, holding the truth about truth.
3) As the confessor is insisting on Sylvie’s “faulty” behavior, he is implying a type of relation between the subject and its truth: culpability. As for Sylvie, she is, with Andrée, “not afraid of truth19”. Her relationship with truth is courageous.
4) The two scenes take place in two opposing material and symbolic spaces: the institutional rituality of the confessional and the intimacy and clandestinity of a silent kitchen. The last scene thus contests the traditionally alienating function of the kitchen by transforming it into a self-defining space.
5) The truth-telling act is, in the first scene, only meant to influence Sylvie’s movement; in the last scene, truth-telling is meant to modify the relation between the interlocutors.
These five points are, I think, five aspects of the structure of truth-telling where power and resistance meet20: in the second scene, truth-telling is a situated act of resistance directed against the structure of a non-reciprocal and self-renunciation truth scenery itself, which is meant to silence young girls, thus preventing them from mutually constructing themselves. However, this type of truth-telling resistance act directed against the structure of an alienating truth scenery is not specific to Les Inséparables: it takes place within Beauvoir’s practice of literary and philosophical “engagement”.
Some “truths” share with lies a common enunciative structure: they have to be told or enacted to exist. These truths are “events”, moments where something is created, and they therefore tend to transform the relationship in which they occur. For instance, the “truthiness” of true friendship is produced by truth-telling and truth-enacting. Therefore, these forms of truths are, like lies, risky: creation of new forms of living, of being-with-others, is always risky, as the “truths” brought to existence do not occur within the security of methodology and experience, but by a leap of faith, love and friendship, for instance. And it is at this point, through “engagement”, that truth-seeking and truth-telling meet: the aim of engaged, creative, risky truth-acts is to “live with others in a world of truth”. In a word: “truth-living”.
- Enunciative truth-analysis: absence and truth-telling
In Les Inséparables, Andrée’s two main truth-acts, the confession of her childhood love and of her desperate self-mutilation, are, in Zaza’s correspondence, contemporary: they both occur in absence, through letters she wrote to Beauvoir in the summer and early autumn of 1927. While Beauvoir was writing these specific scenes of Les Inséparables, she had to project herself through Sylvie as if she were with Zaza/Andrée when these acts took place; she had to fictionally relocate herself as if she were present. This movement from epistolary absence to fictional presence also caught my attention, as I think it can help understand Beauvoir’s “written absence”, that is, traces of her enunciative movement and of the truth scenery from which she is speaking. For instance, in a letter written in the early September 1927, Zaza writes to Beauvoir: “I am often with you despite the distance. You know this, but I say it for the pleasure of seeing my pen write such an undeniable truth21.” Truth is evoked as a “time-space”: the pre-enunciative site of absence, which is, through true friendship, a presence to the other; the two friends are together within distance, present within absence.
“Presence within absence” is a recurring motive in Beauvoir’s philosophical and literary oeuvre. Absence itself is a form of ambiguity: being-for-others an absence, which is also being-for-myself a presence, and vice-versa. Lived absence is therefore a certain way to unveil the world through the objective discovery of the other in the mode of not-being22. The disposition of “presence within absence” can be understood as an internalized presence of the other, and a special kind of externalizing movement towards the word: an inattention to the immediate world that opens up an attention to the world-in-totally, an (in)attention that reflows to the immediate world by opening up possibilities: writing, for instance. “Presence within absence” opens a “pre-enunciative scene”, rooted in a “pre-enunciative phenomenological site”, the spatial and temporally grounded truth scenery from which enunciation takes place, the world shared through friendship, for instance. This “presence within absence” is therefore already, before it is effectively written, the pre-disposition of being “oneself and another”, that is, an ambiguous form envelopment, at the crossroads of positivity and negativity, of known and unknown. In a word: it is a creative field of possibility.
Written and read absence is therefore a certain way to “taste” the world through a mix of selfness and otherness, a way to be here and elsewhere, all at once: it is a projective “presentification” process, a way to produce not only a discursive object but an enunciative co-presence of the speaker and the reader. In Les Inséparables, Beauvoir is reinvesting an epistolary scenography, or, rather, she is applying on a common truth scenery, the shared world of friendship, another enunciative operation: fictionalization. In the mirror of epistolary absence, fictionalization does not appear as a “bracketing of the subject”, but as a self-projective process, a way, for Beauvoir, to extend her experience of the world by exploring other phenomenological and enunciative postures, a way to reposition herself in another situation, to overcome her limited experience of the world: her own ignorance and absence. In this process, truth-seeking and truth-telling are intricate modalities of writing and/or written absence.
And this is what makes Les Inséparables such a singular piece in Beauvoir’s oeuvre: it includes a partially fictionalized presence of the subject of enunciation. Beauvoir describes this equivocal enunciation scene in the dedication of Les Inséparables: “If I have tears in my eyes tonight, is it because you are dead, or because I am alive? I should dedicate this story to you: but I know that you are nowhere, and it is by literary artifice that I speak to you here. Besides, this is not really your story but only a story inspired by us. You were not Andrée, I am not this Sylvie who speaks in my name23”. The dedication, just like the genesis of Les Inséparables itself, slips from an epistolary enunciative scene, a direct address to Zaza, to a partially fictionalized enunciation scene: a fictional character speaks in Beauvoir’s name. And this is probably where Les Inséparables failed: to construct an epistolary presence, one must write from a world in which the other is absent. To successfully achieve her project of “resurrecting” Zaza, Beauvoir had to write from a world in which Zaza was dead; in other words, she had to speak from the truth scenery of absence, and thus fully commit herself as the enunciative subject of her own truth, like Sylvie courageously does in Les Inséparables.
The notion of “universal singular” is, in Beauvoir’s oeuvre, at the conjunction of the three aspects of truth-analysis which I briefly unfolded in the present article: enunciation, resistance and truth scenery. It is a special form of communicational object, which does not aim to inform, but to act as an “event”: the “truth” communicated by a universal singular is a concrete modality of envelopment; it is a force discovered and/or invented by Beauvoir’s in her living pursuit for truth, her desire not only to discover or to speak the truth, but to live truth. In a word: Beauvoir’s living passion for truth.
To cite this article: Francis Walsh, “Prolegomena to a truth-analysis of Simone de Beauvoir’s oeuvre: truth-telling, resistance and absence, in and around Les Inséparables”, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, March 2022. Link: https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3653
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- The conference was preceded by a dialogue between Claudia Bouliane and Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir. The entire session can be watched at the following link : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoP49pSjBUw
- Michel Foucault, Mal faire, dire vrai, Fonction de l’aveu en justice. Cours de Louvain, 1981, Fabienne Brion et Bernard Harcourt (dir.), Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2012, p. 9. All translations of Beauvoir, Foucault and others are my own translations of the French texts
- On this topic, see: Michel Foucault, « Le sujet et le pouvoir » , Dits et écrits, II : 1976-1988, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Quarto”, revised edition, 2017 , p. 1041-1062.
- Simone de Beauvoir, Tout compte fait , in Mémoires, II, Jean-Louis Jeannelle et Éliane Lecarme-Tabonne (ed.), Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 2018, p. 607. For instance, the ambiguity of human condition (being subject and object, transcendence and immanence) is not a deconstruction of the universal subject, as it maintains transcendence as a fundamental aspect of being, and as a predominant value. Rather, ambiguity is a subversive reiteration of the classical epistemological and metaphysical subject, the “grounding”, so to speak, of the subject-object relation. It therefore opens up the possibility of deconstruction, but still contests it. However, the notion of “universal singular” as a moment of communication is, I think, the result of Beauvoir’s effort to overpass the idealistic remains of her earlier conception of subjectivity.
- Éliane Lecarme-Tabone, “Des nouvelles sur Zaza”, in Jean Bourgault et Jean-Louis Jeannelle (dir.), “Sartre Beauvoir. Genèses croisées”, Genesis, no 53, automne 2021, p. 93-120.
- Simone de Beauvoir, “Littérature et métaphysique” , in Idéalisme morale et le réalisme politique, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Folio”, 2017, 93-108, p. 96.
- Simone de Beauvoir, “Simone de Beauvoir”, in Yves Buin (dir.), Que peut la littérature?, Paris, L’Inédit 10/18, 1965, 73-92, p. 79.
- “Movement” as the truth of life and as lived ambiguity (aiming for self-coincidence, becoming, changing, aging, etc.) is constant in Beauvoir’s oeuvre. For instance, she writes in La Vieillesse that instability is “the essential truth of life. […]. The law of life is to change.” (Simone de Beauvoir, La Vieillesse, Paris, Gallimard, 1970, p. 17). She also claims in The Second Sex, that “[i]n fact [en vérité], human existence is transcendence and immanence, all at once; in order to surpass itself it requires to maintain itself, in order to launch itself towards the future, it must integrate the past and while communicating with others, it must confirm itself within itself. These two moments are involved in any vital movement.” (Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe, I, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Folio”, 1949, p. 224).
- Simone de Beauvoir, “Littérature et métaphysique”, art. cit., p. 108.
- Simone de Beauvoir, “Notes de 1956 ou 1957 recopiées pour La Force des choses”, in Mémoires, op. cit., p. 385.
- Ibid., p. 386.
- Simone de Beauvoir, in Que peut la littérature?, art. cit., p. 79; p. 80.
- Ibid., p. 82-83.
- Simone de Beauvoir, Les Inséparables, Paris, Éditions de l’Herne, 2020, p. 40.
- Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe, II, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Folio”, 1949, p. 128.
- Simone de Beauvoir, Les Inséparables, op. cit., p. 84.
- This analysis is directly inspired by Foucault’s 1983 article “L’écriture de soi” (in Dits et écrits, II, op. cit., p. 1234-1249). However, in this article, Foucault only focuses on the first three sites, and does not explicitly interpret them as meeting points between alienation/resistance.
- Letter from Élisabeth Lacoin to Simone de Beauvoir, 3 Septembre 1927, in Zaza (1907-1929), amie de Simone de Beauvoir, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2004, p. 102-103.
- On this topic, see: Edward Fullbrook and Kate Fullbrook, « The Absence of Beauvoir », in Julien S. Murphy (dir.), Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Paul Sartre, University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999, p. 45-63. I previously discussed this topic in a different perspective in the chapter “Présence, absence” of my book on Sartre (En lisant, en s’écrivant. La drôle de guerre de Jean-Paul Sartre, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2020, p. 325-352).
- Simone de Beauvoir, Les Inséparables, op. cit., p. 21.