Disregard the ‘Philosophy Student’ half of the title. These diaries of the young Simone de Beauvoir, written at eighteen, nineteen and twenty could be better titled.They are not stodgy tales of the taxing study of philosophy, though philosophers and novelists are discussed and extensively quoted. I am not sure if de Beauvoir intended their publication, but her opening admonition suggests otherwise:
Nothing is more cowardly than to violate a secret when nobody is there to defend it. I have always suffered horribly from every indiscretion, but if someone, anyone, reads these pages, I will never forgive him. He will thus be doing a bad and ugly deed.
Though I sailed past that solemn warning, later I often felt regret at reading these diaries. They are a raw exposition of unsatisfied love. Perhaps Diary of a Tortured Adolescent is more apt. Not that Simone de Beauvoir is a conventional tortured adolescent; her persistent examination into the nature of her angst is frank and penetrative. But it will not leave a reader unscathed.
The voice of these diaries is not the measured reflection of a woman in her fifties offered in the autobiographical Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. In Memoirs, de Beauvoir quotes these diaries extensively, but selectively. Read consecutively they are an intriguing study of the nature of autobiography.
There is much more to these diaries than an adolescent’s emotional outpouring. That this represented the foreground of my reading is perhaps a failing of gender, anticipated by this brilliant young woman:
In my intelligence, I am similar to men; in my heart, how different! It seems to me that they have a wider and less profound heart. More cordiality, an easier access, more indulgence, more pity, but also this does not descend into them as in me. For me, to love is the painful thing that Benda describes and blames, this identification with the other, this total “compassion.” This hardly touches them, does not penetrate into their internal universe: a refuge, a pleasure, not an avidity of the soul.
It is the depth of interrogation into her emotions and thoughts (and gender), and the early formation of de Beauvoir’s philosophical stance, that is so rewarding. I read these diaries, pen in hand, and filled several dozen pages of my notebook with passages worthy of prolonged meditation.