As a teenage romantic, I used to be the rom-com queen of secondary school who devoured every edition of the romanticized biography of her intellectual-crush – my favorite couple was Liang Sicheng and Lin Hui-Yin, the two Chinese architects and writers who went to Penn together in 1924, whose residence is now turned into a bookshop on Spruce Street, opposite to the Gregory College House of my sophomore year. Having come to study comparative literature in US, I grew increasingly fascinated by the twentieth-century western intellectual history – with a new “crush” on the Sartre-de-Beauvoir-tale and existentialism as a topic – and learned to temper my teenage popular romanticism with informed, critical thoughts. In other words, I also discovered how much I enjoy framing my personal interests into scholarly inquiries.
Among the intellectual couples of the twentieth-century, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir continue to draw both popular and critical attentions, most widely known as the first model of “open relationship” built upon the “essential” love between the couple while allowing for “contingent” love affairs. Part of my romantic self still preferred to believe in the existence of “the perfect literary couple,” while my scholarly self was skeptical about the partial and polished version of the story that Beauvoir insisted on telling. I read around the published letters, autobiographies, biographies and Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s philosophical and literary writings to try to piece up a “fuller” account of what happened.
This summer, I was fortunate to be awarded College Alumni Society Travel Fund to spend my research time in New Haven. I was excited to discover that The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University recently purchased a set of Simone de Beauvoir letters from Christie’s, which revealed another dimension to the intricate relationships between Beauvoir and Sartre. It was the letters from Beauvoir to Claude Lanzmann, a lover Beauvoir cohabitated with for a long time despite her hatred for the fetters of marriage. I visited the Beinecke Library daily while taking advantage of the Yale Sterling Library to make cross-references between published and unpublished materials. I attempted to connect the real life and the philosophical ideas of the thinkers and locate them in the larger world: the world war, impending death, a commitment to the ethics of “authenticity”…
The major difficulty I encountered was to decipher Beauvoir’s handwriting with my limited intermediate-level French. Fortunately, the Christie’s Vendor list guided me on the content of the carefully catalogued letters, and I managed to find pieces of information that were consistent (or contradictory) between Beauvoir’s public memoir and private correspondence. I was also humbled to return to the published works in the field to make sure my study provides meaningful contribution to what the public and the academia already know. With Professor Warren Breckman’s kind guidance, I also learned to develop a set of conceptual tools in this relatively new field of study – intellectual history – to think like a real historian, to navigate between overarching themes and nuances and contradictions.