Chapter 1: Gadamerian Hermeneutics and the Letters as Dialogue

In his analysis of Platonic dialogues, Gadamer argues against an interpretation which treats the dialogues as “conclusive demonstrations” of Plato’s definitive position, instead advising that “the reasonable hermeneutic assumption on which to proceed is that we are dealing with a discussion” (Gadamer 22,5). He maintains that a true discussion can never be simplified into the category of doctrine. It is not a unified statement of one internally consistent belief any more than it is a union of two distinct, determined, or fully-developed positions. “Instead,” Gadamer notes, “we move within the live play of risking assertions, of taking back what we have said, of assuming and rejecting, all the while proceeding on our way to reaching an understanding” (Gadamer 5). Understanding this nature of dialogue, Gadamer finds critical significance in Plato’s decision to write his philosophical works in the form of dialogues.

Hoy clarifies Gadamer’s strategic attention to dialogue in Plato’s work when he observes, “Gadamer draws his analysis from the Platonic notion of dialogue, and especially from Plato’s actual practice of writing dialogues” (Hoy 65). Since an authentic dialogue involves the pursuit of understanding through the conversation of the interlocutors, “if the truth of the dialogue is to shine through, the discourse must not be colored by the subjective dogmatism of the leader,” which means that the “leader of the dialogue, if he is really questioning after the truth, cannot yet know the truth” (Hoy 65,66). In the case of Platonic dialogue, Gadamer asserts that Plato does not use Socrates merely as a mouthpiece with which to present a fully-developed doctrine. Instead, Socrates must pursue the truth, and therefore not already possess the truth, just as openly as those with whom he converses. Thus, each participant adds to the dialogue, each participant develops throughout the discussion, and understanding shines through their collaboration.

While Gadamer’s hermeneutics prove invaluable in illuminating the nature of Plato’s dialogues as he constructed them, an understanding of an actual, authentic dialogue, such as the dialogue revealed to us in the exchange of letters between Sartre and de Beauvoir, may provide an even more effective point of access for interpretation. Hoy observes that “Plato himself wrote dialogues,” and in doing so, “he [demonstrated] that writing itself can produce the original movement of genuine discourse” (Hoy 67). Yet, this movement of genuine discourse was still written by a single writer, Plato, thus demonstrating the movement of discourse without itself being a genuine discourse conducted by more than one party.

In the letters of de Beauvoir and Sartre, we do find an authentic dialogue, in which each party remains open to the questions raised by the other, and each party develops. Though their letters are published separately, they may not be read as independent of each other, as monolithic examples of monologue. An isolated reading of Sartre’s Witness To My Life, his Quiet Moments in a War (both of which de Beauvoir edited), or de Beauvoir’s Letters to Sartre would provide, not a monologue, but an incomplete portion of a dialogue, meaningless without its other. In contrast to their academic philosophical treatises, which they obviously intended to stand alone, the letters of Sartre and de Beauvoir must be viewed together as a dialogue. Understanding their relationship in terms of the dialogue established in their letters will provide an interpretational access to their mutual development, in both their theoretical philosophical standpoints and in their lives as they lived them. For the purposes of this paper, therefore, I will focus my attention on their correspondence when Sartre was away at war (from late 1939 through early 1941). During this period, de Beauvoir and Sartre each wrote at least one letter a day to the other, thereby functioning as a true dialogue while they could not correspond in any other way.

But Sartre once called his letters “a transcription of immediate life . . . spontaneous work,” of enough significance and merit that “they could be published. . . . In the back of my mind I had the idea they would be published after my death. . . . In effect my letters were a witness to my life” (WTML xv). And de Beauvoir, when actualizing this foresight after his death, claims she is “simply carrying out one of his wishes” (WTML xv). Here, it may appear that it is I who am imposing a dialogical structure on their letters, though in fact they themselves saw their letters as works which could be published alone and thus stand alone as definitive works. But their own voices, as they speak to each other in their letters, justify my hermeneutical approach to the “spontaneous work” of their letters.

Though de Beauvoir admits that when corresponding through letters, “Communicating’s a lengthy business–it’s so far,” she still, and continually, pleads to Sartre, “Do write to me, dear little being–I love you. . . . Have you got my letters? Tell me how you felt when you received them, do talk to me” (LTS 56,55 emphasis mine). When she closes a letter she says, “I can’t wait for your next letter, in which you will ‘answer’ me” (LTS 61). Her correspondence with Sartre was crucial to her when he was away, and these letters were the only means for their dialogue to continue. His letters to her bring him close so that he may talk to her. When de Beauvoir receives his letters she tells him, “I’m happy. I have three letters from you–you’re talking to me–you’re so close, it’s as if you were clasping me in your little arms” (LTS 83 italics mine). And, an account of her life, she writes, should not be seen as separate from his life. When de Beauvoir experiences things and tells Sartre of them, she wishes “for it to seem like your life that’s continuing through me rather than just an account of my life addressed to a poor hermit” (85). She would not send letters away to a hermit simply for the potential of publication in the future. She writes to Sartre because their collaboration is important, and she desires a response because without it, she cannot talk to her partner.

Sartre also views their letters as a dialogue in which he may actually talk to de Beauvoir. When they cannot physically be together, he relies on their letters, telling de Beauvoir, “Now, your letters are you” (WTML 237). Through her letters, de Beauvoir becomes present to Sartre, even in her absence. He writes, in quotation marks which imply a mutual understanding, “‘We’re chatting'” (WTML 256). The two “chat” over a range of topics, many significant, many insignificant, leading de Beauvoir to feel “as though we were talking, when I write to you or especially when I receive a letter” (LTS 53). As a dialogue, the conversation roams to whatever comes to mind, discussing each other’s other writing, Sartre’s uneventful service during the war, or the important or trivial details of de Beauvoir’s day to day existence. During each day of the war, Sartre would write “Three letters, five pages of novel, four pages of notebook: in my whole life I’ve never written so much” (WTML 256). The pages of the novel (or his philosophical work) Sartre sent to de Beauvoir, his first reader; his notebook he continued to keep and reserve, at least initially, for her eyes only. De Beauvoir also wrote much, though she was not as prolific as Sartre, and their letters mark the mutual influence on each other’s work.

Just as in the collaborative pursuit of truth which Gadamer sees in the corpus of Platonic dialogues, for an epistolary correspondence to actually function as a dialogue, the writers of the letters must influence each other, responding to the same general questions and answering the specific questions posed by their partner. In this respect, de Beauvoir in particular devoted her letters to establishing such a dialogue. Sartre, who tended to write longer letters, began his correspondence with de Beauvoir by writing long, philosophical musings, more monologue than dialogue, which often did not directly respond to de Beauvoir’s letters. Early in their exchange, de Beauvoir recognizes this lack of authentic dialogue and pleads, “My love, do answer what I say in my letters, I want to talk to you. I do so long for something solid and hard to hold on to–do speak to me” (LTS 79). Beginning to realize the need for answering in the sustaining of their conversation, Sartre does enter into the dialogue, writing, “It has been a joy to write this letter, because it’s the first time I’ve answered” (WTML 256). Only at this point does Sartre realize their dialogue and write the phrase “We’re chatting,” to which de Beauvoir responds, gratefully, “As for your letters, my love, how sweet you are to make them so long, and to answer me and speak to me. How close to you I feel! . . . Thank you, my love, for writing to me like that, for not leaving me” (LTS 86). Through this closeness established through their letters, the couple may engage in a dialogue, though they are separated by distance.

While these “romantic” affirmations of closeness and responses to various questions impress upon us the dialogical nature of their relationship, Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s continual emphasis on each of their own writing become much more significant to an understanding of their intellectual relationship and their mutual philosophical development. They depend on each other for the development, justification, and validation of their own thought. Sartre, while at war in one of the most prolific periods of his life, tells de Beauvoir, “Oh, my little judge, I write by turns either in my novel or my notebook according to the things you have to say about them” (WTML 414). He depends on her input to continue, to know if what he has written is good and know how he can improve it.

De Beauvoir also kept a journal, intended for Sartre to read, as well as writing her own novels, which she waited anxiously to show Sartre. In speaking of her own novel, de Beauvoir calls Sartre “my little judge” (LTS 216). She writes of her own work, “I’m ashamed to say I never ask myself: ‘Have I done well?’, merely: ‘Will he think badly of me?'” (167). Her view of her work is dependent on her communication with Sartre. In a later letter, she concludes with a sentence which at once expresses her impatience for Sartre to comment on her work, her interest in his work, and her love for him. She writes, “Goodbye, my dear little one. I can’t wait to know all your little theories, to show you my novel, to talk to you and to kiss you, my little one” (LTS 241). It becomes clear, in reading such letters, that their relationship existed on many levels, that their love was both a source of happiness and a crucial part of each of their theoretical and intellectual development and productivity.

But is it possible for us to enter into dialogue with them? Or is their own dialogue too exclusive or foreign for a reader to achieve an adequate access for interpretation? Pilardi notes, “It’s no secret that this relationship still haunts us–a carcass whose bones we pick over, wondering, after the many vilifications it has suffered, whether we can still canonize it, as we once did; whether its remains are relics, or just debris” (AC 1-2). This picking-over of their relationship has indeed de-canonized it, but the letters may provide us with a fresh life for interpretation. In our position, we now have their philosophical works, as well as the letters, which document the dialogical process from which they developed. We have an account of works throughout their planning stages and the periods during which their ideas were worked through.

Beyond a simple historical hermeneutical approach, I will access the letters of Sartre and de Beauvoir by entering the circle of questions which develop within their relationship as a philosophical project. Through their collaborative attempt to understand authenticity in terms of their own love and freedom, they worked through such themes as they lived them, forming their philosophies from ideas which began with their experience and which were developed through their dialogue. As a result, their philosophies necessarily underwent changes as they brought up new ideas, discounted previous ones, and continued to live through important issues in their lives and their philosophies.

In the letters exchanged daily between Sartre and de Beauvoir during Sartre’s involvement in the war, we are given the opportunity to observe their conversation as they work through and deal with these ideas. Often, their feelings seem to be in conflict with their theories, or tension exists between their previous ideas and their ideas as they are currently developing. Thus, their conversation always circles back upon itself, moving forward with constant self-conscious understanding of the experience, dialogue, and ideas which help to form their tentative positions in the present. While their respective philosophical treatises outline their theories as they wished to have them published in completed form, the letters of de Beauvoir and Sartre show the development and the tension inherent in their dialogue, a conversation which represents a mutual attempt to work through the questions of freedom and authenticity.

Hoy claims that a hermeneutical tenet fundamental to an understanding of Gadamer’s interpretational strategy is that “Understanding is always a form of dialogue” (Hoy 63). As this is the case in the development of understanding through the letters of Sartre and de Beauvoir, so it must be in the case of my present interpretation. The letters stand before us as an authentic dialogue, and thus, “To interpret these texts is to come into dialogue with them” (Hoy 63-64). From our present standpoint, with their completed texts and their circle of understanding before us, we may better interpret their works as well as their letters.

Throughout this paper, I will use this hermeneutical access to the dialogue between Sartre and de Beauvoir to enter into dialogue with their texts, which represents the dialogue between them. By entering into such a dialogue, I will be in a position to see the way in which de Beauvoir and Sartre, through their relationship as we may read in their letters, developed their understandings of authenticity, a concept as crucial to their thought as it was problematic. I will initiate this new dialogue with their own dialogical circle of understanding with a focus on the primary question around which Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s dialogue is formed, that is, the question of authenticity, both strictly in the self and in relation to others, particularly in the strong and problematic relationship of love.

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