# 329: Completion and Expression
Story behind the Passage
Just now when opening de Beauvoir’s book, I had one of these moments again when you are being confronted with things you did in the past, which your “old” self did many years ago, and you had completely forgotten about them. But since you found testimony for these activities, actual documentation, there is no doubt. You cannot just tell your brain that what you are thinking or even seeing right now is just some misbelief or phantasy. No, in my case, my books are my documentation, maybe even written documentaries, in some way. When I say “my books,” I mean the books I read in this case. And when I just opened de Beauvoir and skimmed some passages that I had marked — I was completely moved by what I was seeing.
Not only was I moved by what I was reading, i.e., her words, I was moved by the fact that I had underlined them, really neatly! The stress is on “underlined” and “them.” Them refers to the content of the sentences. I really marked key sentences which I, even from today’s perspective, would judge as deep findings. The other stress is on “underlined” because I obviously started this practice of reading private books, I mean books which I did not have to read for school or university, in a “scholarly” manner.
The reason why seeing all this is so revealing right now is because there must be close to 20 years between then and now. I remember reading about de Beauvoir when I was in my early years in high school. I might be mistaken, but I hardly think so. It must have read her around the time when I was so much into Africa and women’s rights. And as I wrote in one of my earlier posts, based on the media reports I remember watching at the time, this must have been around 1997, as I just double-checked online. So, I was 14 or 15 then. And her memoirs, as the date of publication shows, were on my reading list when I started studying in university.
The weird part is, this feels like ages ago on the one hand, and just like yesterday on the other. I hardly remember any of the specific content of her biography. But I obviously remembered reading her. And that in and of itself is so remarkable, even magical in some way. My underlinings and the positive feelings that come up now when I remember reading the book in the bathtub (I read many books in the bathtub…), document, give testimony to the fact, that I dealt with all this deliberately. So, in one way or the other, all of this must have settled somewhere in my brain and become part of unconscious knowledge. And when I look at where I am now and what I do now (I am writing, above all), it becomes clear how much all of this is related to what I read back then. Even more so: I find myself today in exactly the lines she wrote almost a century ago and tht I read many years after.
The reason why I chose her book today is because I wanted to write about maturity — originally. That was the first title that came to my mind this morning. I wanted to write down some thoughts about this certainty I feel right now that the past weeks made me grow up. I mean it the way I am writing it here. I feel, I left something behind and became mature in a novel way. Then I had planned on finding a passage in de Beauvoir that deals with her “Abitur,” her graduation from school. That was because I remembered that in Austria, for example, they still call the Abitur “matura.” And I wanted to reflect a little bit on what this means in the life of a person and how much this has changed now in an era in which people become professors at age 30, without knowing a fraction of the things that people knew a few hundred years ago at the same age and in a system which required you to study for more than ten years to earn a master’s degree and teach.
But now I am obviously not writing about this.
I am writing about a different passage.
Because it simply caught my eye and I could not turn away from it.
“Mein Weg war klar vorgezeichnet: mich vervollkommnen, mich innerlich bereichern und mich in einem Werk ausdrücken, das den anderen zu leben helfen würde.“ / “My path was clearly sketched: perfecting myself, enriching myself internally and expressing myself in a work that would help the lives of others.“ One thing to make sure that nobody thinks I put myself in the shoes of de Beauvoir: Obviously, my life has some parallels to what she is writing here but not more. To me, she was one of the last true intellectuals in a time when we still had something like this — people who had studied the classics and thought about them in order to come up with something of their own creation. Today, we have people who are busy summarizing and communicating what others wrote in the past. To a certain extent, yes, this is what intellectual work is all about. Still, today I am afraid that the mere communication part leads to much excitement because the public has never heard about the true sources; even though these works do not require any Latin or Greek language skills anymore.
After making it clear that I write from a humble perspective, let me return to this remarkable sentence, this remarkable passage,. What moves me so much as I read this sentence again and again is the truth that speaks to me and the fact that I obviously noticed this truth even at an age when I practically had only a fraction of the knowledge and life experience I have now. I was a happy girl at the time. Little did I know about anything in the world. What I did know, however, was that I hated injustice. I cannot deal with it — still cannot. At some point of my life I then decided to fight injustice. That must have been around the time when I first heard about de Beauvoir and it was also when I got more interested in women’s rights and so on which never turned into my sole focus. Still, defending the rights of others was the only thing that — if there exists such a motivation — drove my political thinking.
The first thing that is striking about de Beauvoir’s insight is her obviously clear plan to “complete herself” by developing herself intellectually. I mean, she did not write this at the time when she had the feeling. That is important to note. I doubt that she would have been able to put it into these conscious words as a teenager or young girl already. But maybe this is my projection. Maybe she was able to voice this explicit wish already and I simply did not. Retrospectivly, however, I think I wanted the same thing, I had the same goal, but I did not know it. That makes all the difference. It does not mean that I did not see my path just as clearly. But that clarity was shattered as soon as I found out that my unconscious goal, even the need, for inner completion did not go along with the practical path I had chosen in the world to reach a position that would allow me to fight injustice and help others to power.
The second thing, and that is even more breathtaking now, is the clarity she had to express herself in writing. That is even more moving since she makes it clear that her writing is intended to help people lead better lives. I never said it this way, I think. That is because I never really know that this was my driver as well. I only realized this very recently, I mean, the full magnitude of how this makes your writing different from writing that is merely about statistical facts or marketing, whereby these and other forms of writing can certainly also “help” people, no doubt. And then I did not dare talk about my “helper’s syndrome” because I knew that nobody in this world cares about good books anymore. Books are written to be sold, marketed, or they reveal some truths and document stuff. All these functions are legitimate. But philosophical insights, autobiographical truths, deep truths, they are being laughed at by those with power.
The only thing that made me realize that this is not true, that I should return to my old belief in the power of literature, is my own return to philosophy and learning. I am now back to the person I once was. Well, changed, but still closer to the self I can become. Someone who can swallow books and think sharply and even write about these thoughts — at high speed and with maximum joy and true fulfilment. And as I read about all the ancient leaders, thinkers, and politicians, I feel more than confirmed that my thoughts about the power of intellect and practice apply to those who really want to make a difference in the world — who actually made that difference in the world, no matter how much noise the dumb and the ignorant are making on the sidelines.
So, this rediscovery of de Beauvoir and the passage has really made my day. No, it has done more than this, actually. It has caused a huge realization that will carry me further. But there is one thing that she says in the same passage which is equally true and which, despite all positive thoughts and enthusiasm, still remains true for people like “us” — maybe even more in the present age. And de Beauvoir seemed to be aware of it before she experienced it. What I am talking about is loneliness. Here is the sentence.
“Schon kam es mir so vor, als sollte ich das Erlebnis der Einsamkeit, das ich durchzumachen im Begriff war, mitzuteilen versuchen.“
“Thus, it occurred to me that I should try express the experience of loneliness which I was about to ungergo.”
Maybe the awareness of loneliness is what drives all writers?
Maybe writing is the only thing that makes us escape loneliness?
Maybe we are blessed with the ability to turn loneliness into beauty?
1) Did you ever discover traces of past actions in your life which you had totally forgotten about? What did you learn about yourself in that context?
2) Can you share de Beauvoir’s wish to express her own process or result of completing herself in a work of literature? Why/not?
3) If you think back of yourself as a child, was there any particular value that you stood up for (e.g., justice, equality, freedom…)? Can you explain how you came to defend this value?