Love Letters at the Beinecke

Design by Alexa Druyanoff

Simone de Beauvoir writes in sloping cursive. Her words, spaced half a centimeter apart, resemble seismograms from a small-scale earthquake. You are my destiny, my eternity, my life, my joy, the salt and the light of the earth. In the midday light of the Beinecke Reading Room, the thin paper appears translucent. You are beautiful—I love you to death. I’m still dazed. I feel neither arrived nor left, I don’t know where I am, I am nowhere.  

Beauvoir is best remembered for her contributions to existentialist philosophy, feminist theory, and French literature. Her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), is one of the foundational texts of contemporary feminism. Slightly lesser known among Beauvoir’s literary accomplishments, however, are the hundreds of love letters that she sent to Claude Lanzmann from 1953-1966. During this period, she was touring Europe and Asia with her partner, Jean Paul Sartre. Yale’s Beinecke Library holds 112 of these letters in its archives; a few of them are available to the public in a current exhibit entitled “On the Road with Sartre.”

Although Beauvoir and Sartre famously remained lifelong partners, they maintained an open relationship. Claude Lanzmann was 27 years old and working as Sartre’s secretary when he met Beauvoir, who was 44 at the time. The pair quickly fell in love, and their affair became part of the intricate web of relationships that Beauvoir formed throughout her life. 

In an attempt to gain context for Beauvoir’s letters to Lanzmann, I interviewed Kevin Repp, Curator of Modern European Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Library. In addition to the Beauvoir-Lanzmann correspondence, Repp has acquired the love poems that Guy Debord wrote to Michèle Bernstein at the height of the Situationist movement, as well as the letters that painter Jacqueline de Jong received from her lover, fellow artist Asger Jorn. 

“On the fringes of what I’m doing, there’s a lot of love affairs,” Repp acknowledged.

Repp described Yale’s acquisition of the letters as a product of conflicting attitudes toward Beauvoir’s legacy. Beauvoir, who had affairs with both women and men, ended her relationship with Lanzmann upon meeting Sylvie Le Bon, who Repp described as Beauvoir’s “last major love.” Le Bon was eventually adopted by Beauvoir as her daughter, and as Beauvoir’s literary executor and heir, she refused to let Lanzmann publish the letters. Lanzmann, feeling ignored and overlooked, reached out to Yale to see if the university would be interested in acquiring the correspondence. “When you are dealing with people who are recently deceased or are still alive, there are always going to be people in the mix who are interested in controlling the narrative. [Lanzmann] was frustrated about that,” explained Repp. While the Beinecke cannot publish the letters without the permission of Le Bon, the library allows Yale students and researchers to view and study the vast collection of letters in Beinecke’s Reading Room.

The physical appearance of the letters illustrates the extent of Beauvoir’s travels with Sartre. She wrote to Lanzmann on seemingly any material she could find around her hotel—thin graphing paper, bright blue half-pages, sheets from hotel notepads that boasted prints of various Chinese buildings. Although many of her sentences express over-the-top, affectionate outbursts—she frequently calls Lanzmann “my little sherpa”—the vast majority of her correspondence contains details of her travels and catalogues of her ideas. Nestled among sprawling paragraphs are book titles and crude diagrams of various cities. The colorful backsides of the envelopes resemble passports. Stamps from Italy, Austria, China, and the U.S.S.R. emphasize the distance that Beauvoir’s stories traveled to reach their recipient.

While De Beauvoir’s nearly illegible French prevents the casual onlooker from reading her letters in their entirety, the simple sensation of the paper between your fingertips provokes guilt. The reader has become an intruder, a creep, a spy. Despite her eloquence, the personal nature of Beauvoir’s letters suggests that she did not intend for them to be read. As Repp informed me, “Of course Lanzmann says that Beauvoir would never have wanted these letters published… And he would never have wanted to publish it either, but he felt like he was forced to because he was being written out of the story.”

What does it mean for love letters to become artifacts? Are we crossing some sort of boundary when we stare at Beauvoir’s sloping “I love you”? At Debord’s tender messages for Bernstein? At poems that De Jong received decades ago?

“Think about archives as really digging into somebody’s life,” said Repp. “There’s a kind of vulnerability in placing your papers in an institution.”

It’s no accident that the Beauvoir exhibit sits only a few steps away from the Gutenberg Bible. Letters are an undeniably critical part of our history; the vulnerability of famous artists and intellectuals provides a necessary context for their work. But can we treat love letters like a published autobiography? In Beauvoir’s most exposed moments, is she honest or confused?

The sale of Beauvoir’s love letters to Yale generated considerable press—a preemptive Google search reveals articles eager to expose Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre or reveal a “telling” disparity between her sexual practices and her feminist beliefs. In one of her letters, Beauvoir writes, I have loved Sartre, it is true. But it was without reciprocity, and it was certainly not on account of our bodies. Lines like these have inspired the narrative that Beauvoir sought in Lanzmann the physical satisfaction that she could not obtain from Sartre. In my conversation with Repp, he emphasized that this narrative discounts the extensive intellectual exchange that Beauvoir had with Lanzmann and promotes the idea that Beauvoir’s intrigue lies in her connection to Sartre. “Even though Beauvoir is very well known, and, I think, highly regarded… people tend to think of her as Sartre’s wife. And in fact she wasn’t Sartre’s wife. They never got married.”

While no author has control over how their readers perceive their work, in selling your personal archive to an institution, you become subject to judgement of not only your ideas, but of your life. Beauvoir’s legacy becomes inevitably intertwined with her discussions of Sartre, with the way that she addresses Lanzmann. Perhaps this is appropriate. But, unlike a book or an article that promotes an argument and carefully structures paragraphs and chapters around that argument, it is much harder to say that a human life contains a central thesis. It feels reductive to claim that the “takeaway” from Beauvoir’s archives is her relationship with Sartre or some contrived hypocrisy between her philosophical and personal identity.

Repp has also acquired the papers of Raoul Vaneigem, a famous Situationist theorist and author of The Revolution of Everyday Life. Repp described Vaneigem’s desire for a certain understanding among the readers of his archives: “When I acquired [Vaneigem’s] papers, he wrote this kind of preface to the papers—it’s really a letter to everyone who uses the archives—where he says, ‘Lives are like labyrinths, you go down a lot of false paths, you are always moving around, and an archive should reflect that. That’s what life is, it’s not about moving down one straight path and knowing where you are going all of the time… And so when you read my archives, I would like you to remember that.’ I think what he was worried about is people finding one thing in his archives and saying, ‘Aha, I’ve discovered the real [Vaneigem].’”

The book recommendations that Beauvoir intersperses between affectionate variations of Mon amour chéri provide some evidence of a life that is also a labyrinth. So do love letters in glass display cases. Or torn envelopes between manila folders. Any sacred artifact has been written by a human hand – someone navigating the labyrinth, maybe just as lost as the rest of us. When asked about the relevance of the collection to the average college student, Repp reflected on a certain universal vulnerability: “The tremendous sense in which these people, once they get well-known and famous, we tend to see them in some sense as not like us, that what [we’re] going through right now is just kind of silly and pathetic… I think it’s fascinating to see how passions infuse the lives of people who we admire and critique and regard as worthy of our serious attention.”

Any wide-eyed Yale philosophy major knows the name of Simone de Beauvoir. She represents an aesthetic, a controversy, or, occasionally, the topic of an ambitious Directed Studies essay. But, in the Beinecke Library, the name “Beauvoir” is also associated with ridiculous, embarrassing, and all-consuming love.

“My favorite phrase is from Seneca,” says Repp. “He says, ‘Ecce res magna habere imbecillitatem hominis securitatem dei,’ which, roughly translated, means, ‘Behold the marvelous thing, to have the weaknesses of a man and the serenity of a god.’ Because being human is being vulnerable…The gods are not vulnerable, so they can be serene. But for us to be serene and have that kind of composure and security in the midst of the uncertainty of being human, that is really what makes us almost more than the gods… I think that’s what he was trying to say.”

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