Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains

On Journal Writers

A journal is an incondite miscellany, written from day to day, recording the writer’s life and addressed either to some particular person as in Swift’s Journal to Stella, or as in Eugénie de Guérin’s Journal inscribed if not directly addressed to her beloved brother Maurice or else implicitly or explicitly dedicated to some abstraction or ideal confidant — in Fanny Burney’s diary explicitly to “Nobody,” in Maurice de Guérin’s Journal to “Mon Cahier,” in others to the “Reader,” to “Posterity,” “Kind Friend,” and so forth.

The devotee in this “petite chapelle” of literature should beware of shams: drunken Barnabee’s Journal — that curious and scandalous book published in 1638 — is rhymed Latin verse (accompanied by an English verse translation) describing the author’s “pub crawlings” up and down the country; Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is certainly an incondite miscellany, but not written from day to day, and not even broken up into chapters; Turgenev’s “Diary of a Superfluous Man” is a short story in diary form.

In all their infinite variety, real journals possess this much in common: they are one and all an irresistible overflow of the writer’s life, whether it be a life of adventure, or a life of thought, or a life of the soul. To be sure, if a man be sailing the Amazon, climbing Chimborazo, or travelling to the South Pole, it is most obvious and natural for him to keep a diary. Hence we have Darwin’s Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle and Captain Scott’s Diary of his immortal expedition. He would indeed be dull of soul who, on encountering strange or unprecedented experiences felt no desire to write them down. Meeting with great events or great personages startle even the inarticulate into eloquent speech, and the innumerable journals, written by soldiers and others, and sometimes published, especially in France 1 during the Great War, show how the fingers of the most unlikely persons do tingle for a pen to describe each day all they see and do and suffer. It is interesting to observe in passing that a similar crop of journals appeared one hundred years ago round about the time of the French Revolution: those of Madame de Stäel’s circle — Benjamin Constant’s and Sismondi’s, for example, in France, and in England the journals of Lady Holland, Crabb Robinson, Madam D’Arblay. Many of these, however, were habitual journal writers, who had been already posting up their diaries before the storm broke, producing in no sense journaux par occasion as all war diaries are and almost all itineraries. Gray’s Journal of his Lakeland Tour, and Boswell’s Journal of a trip to the Hebrides are two famous literary journals of travel that readily occur to the mind.

The instinct of the true journal-writer is more profound. To every man his own life is of great interest. But to all inveterate self-chroniclers of whatever rank, in whatever situation or condition of life,’ their own existence seems so insistently marvellous that at the close of each day, being incontinent, they must needs pour out their sense of wonder into a manuscript book. Let him be only a clerk with spectacles and eternally pushing the pen, yet his journal shall reveal with what rare gusto he pursues his clerical existence. Though he rarely quits his office, life for him is full of delightful hazards and surprises. He will ride his high stool as if astride a caracoling Arab, and at night, having arrived steaming at the Inn — even though it be but a bed-sitting room over a tallow-chandler’s shop — writes out with an unwearying pen the history of each day’s adventures, thus: “Lunched with Brown. Later played a game of ‘pills’ with old Bumpus and to-night went to see A Little Bit of Fluff.”

But Mr. Secretary Pepys is, of course, our great exemplar. “Old Peepy,” as Edward FitzGerald called him, was “with child” to see every new thing, and everything- was “pretty to see.” The most commonplace affairs had a significance, while a real event became portentous. He rolled each day upon his tongue with the relish of an epicure, and scarce a day passed but his Magpie’s covetous eye caught some bright and novel object for conveyance to that wonderful larder — the Diary. It is amusing to construct an imaginary picture of him — with all seriousness and heads bent together over the book — participating in the perplexity of that other wonderful child, Marjorie Fleming, who affirmed in her diary of confessions that “the most devilish thing is 8 times 8, and 7 times 7 is what nature itself can’t endure.”

With Marie Bashkirtseff, it was something more than a gusto for life. Life was a passion and a fever that presently overwhelmed her. “When I think of what I shall be when I am twenty,” she wrote as a child after looking long in the mirror, “I smack my lips!” And later, when Fate, like a ring of steel, was slowly closing in on her: “I don’t curse life; on the contrary, I find it all good — would you believe it, I find it all good, even my tears and suffering. I like to cry, I like to be in despair, I like to be sad and miserable, and I love life in spite of all.” Even the languorous Amiel in the course of his amazing pages here and there bubbles up into an ecstasy — and Amiel was a Professor of Moral Philosophy, and a dull one at that.

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In the course of every diary will be found entries testifying to the author’s pleasure in re-reading his past. This is a curiously constant feature — see, e.g., Tolstoi’s Diary, March 20th, 1852. The diarist is a sentimentalist in love with his past, however painful or unprofitable it may have been. Better than any man he knows how that silent artist, the memory, working in the depths, ceaselessly fashions our perhaps dreary or commonplace existence, until the sea one day casts up its beautiful shells, and we are delighted and surprised to find our lives have been so beautiful. Of Pepys, Stevenson remarked that neither Hazlitt nor Rousseau had a more romantic passion for their past — “it clung about his heart like an evergreen.” So, in dressing gown and slippers, before the night fire, your sentimentalist with finger in the book, like a genie, conjures up the days gone by. He and his past keep house together; it is an almost tangible Presence with every feature of which he is familiar — indeed, is it not a row of precious volumes on a shelf, and an article of furniture in his room? Of an evening, poignant memories pull at the strings of his heart and ring the bells, and the whole room is vibrant. Let us not intrude further for very decency’s sake.

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“I have left this book locked up for the past fortnight,” writes Eugenie de Guérin. “How many things in this gap that will be recorded nowhere, not even here!” And Fanny Burney: “There seems to me something very unsatisfactory in passing year after year without even a memorandum of what you did, etc.” To the ego-loving diarist, to take no note of the flight of the present and to forget the past seems like a personal disloyalty to himself: it is an infamous defection to forget or neglect that ever-increasing collection of past selves — those dear dead gentlemen who one after another have tenanted the temple of this flesh and handed on the torch. His journal of self-chroniclings he regards as a mausoleum, where with reverent hands he year by year embalms the long dynasty of his person as it descends. To which end he is for ever harvesting his consciousness, anxious to conserve every moment of his existence, every relic of his passage through the world. He counts every kiss and every heart-beat, he collects all the hours of his life and hoards them up with a miserly hand and a connoisseur’s taste. You shall find his walls hung with mementos, and his escritoire packed with old letters — and probably each annual volume of his journal bound in leather and stored in a fire-proof safe. The diarist is a great conservator. As Samuel Butler (of “Erewhon") said: “One’s thoughts” (and he might have added — one’s days) “fly so fast it’s no use trying to put salt on their tails.” Hence came Butler’s Notebook, and the journals of such reflective writers as Emerson and Thoreau, and of such methodically-minded men as Evelyn and John Wesley.

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Mr. Julius West has given a lively picture of the De Goncourts moving in literary France of the last century, “always with notebook in hand, at any rate metaphorically, anxious not to allow a single trait to escape them — ever on the alert, if not anxious to botanize on their mother’s grave, at any rate perfectly willing to fasten upon the confidences of the living as well as of the dead, to capture the flying word, to take the evidences of the unforgiving minute,” — with what results all readers of their colossal Journal know.

It is indeed astonishing what a hold the diary habit gains on a man. Even as an event or conversation is taking place he will have it mentally trimmed and prepared for its exact position in the daily record, or his observations arranged in a mnemonic list lest they escape his recollection against the evening. Life becomes an accessory to the journal, instead of vice versa — just so much raw material to be caught, polished, and preserved. The consciousness of the habitual diarist develops a chronic irritability and instantly flicks off into his MS. book every tiniest impression, just as a horse shivers off the flies by means of that extensive muscle underneath the skin which anatomists have named the panniculus carnosus. “Congreve’s nasty wine has given me the heartburn,” Swift records in that extraordinary fantasia of tenderness and politics — the Journal to Stella. Then there was Patrick’s bird intended for Madam Dinglibus, Mrs. Walls of immortal memory, Goody Stoyte and all the gossip. The merest bagatelle was worth its record. Eugénie de Guerin owned with what delight she described the smallest trifles, such as the little book lice she observed crawling in the leaves of a volume or on her writing-table. “I do not know their names,” she tells us, “but we are acquaintances. . . .” One would say that it was a real pain to her to see any of her precious experiences slip out of the net for ever like beautiful scaly fish. “. . . to describe the incidents of one hour” (she is voicing the despair expressed by so many journal writers) “would require an eternity.”

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Journal writing where it is chiefly the impulse for self-expression or self-revelation is not infrequently fostered by uncongenial or unsympathetic surroundings or by incurable misfortune. So beset, the diarist, timid and eager as a child, flees into the tower of his own soul, and raises the drawbridge, as Francis Thompson said of the young Shelley.

For a journal can be used as a “grief-cheating device, a mode of escape and withdrawal.” It is like the brown eyes of some faithful hound who bears and suffers all and yet regards his master as supreme. It is a perpetual flattery, an inexhaustible cruse of oil for the sore and sometimes swollen ego. To keep a diary is to make a secret liaison of the firmest and most sentimental kind; the writer can fling off all restraint and all the trappings which are necessarily worn to front the antagonism of the world. It is a monstrous self-indulgence wherein he remembers his friends and he remembers his enemies — with candour; he remembers his own griefs and grievances; screened from the public view in the security of his own room he can — and it must be confessed he occasionally does — gaze at himself as before a mirror, remembering, Malvolio-like, who praised his yellow garters.

The famous Journal Intime which ran to 17,000 folio pages of MS. and consumed countless hours of its author’s life, was written by a man who realized that he had been “systematically and deliberately isolated” — “premature despair and deepest discouragement have been my constant portion.” Marie Bashkirtseff also was driven into the subterranean existence of journal writer by the hard facts of her short life, towards the end of it living more and more within its pages and thus, in the end, wringing out of a stubborn destiny her indefeasible claims to recognition. “I do not know why writing has become a necessity to me,” muses the tragic sister of Maurice de Guérin — himself a tragedy and a journal writer. “Who understands this overflowing of my soul, this need to reveal itself before God, before someone?”

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In reading subjectively written diaries one constantly comes across the expression of this same desire for self-revelation and self-surrender. Incredible as it appears to the ordinary secretive human being, this very common kind of diarist longs to give himself away, to communicate himself to some other person in toto; with pathetic gesture the passionate creature offers himself up for scrutiny, sick of his own secret self, anxious to be swallowed up in somebody else’s total comprehension.

“On dit,” wrote Maurice de Guérin under date March 23rd, 1834, “qu’au jugement dernier le secret des consciences sera révélé à tout l’univers: je voudrais qu’il en fut ainsi de moi des aujourd’hui et que la vue de mon âme fût ouverte à tons venants.”

Such journals are in nowise comparable with the confessions of religious journals — among saintly women always a favourite mode of unburdening themselves — pale crepuscular souls fluttering through pages of self-disparagement by the aid of the lamp and a copious inkhorn, never intended for the public view. “Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign Judge with this book in my hand and loudly proclaim, ‘Thus have I acted, these were my thoughts, such was I.’” This memorable opening to Rousseau’s Confessions, which shocked John Morley for its “dreadful exaltation,” is the typical brag in most journals of Confession. With defiant pride of personality, Marie Bashkirtseff, in her marvellous volume of self-portraiture, constantly emphasizes for her readers that she conceals nothing: “I not only say all the time what I think, but I never contemplate hiding for an instant what might make me appear ridiculous or prove to my disadvantage. For the rest I think myself too admirable for censure.”

Passionate egotism knows no shame. Everything — however scandalous — goes down in a self-revelation, beside which the little disclosures of essayists like Montaigne, Lamb, De Quincey sink to the level of dull propriety. Voltaire said of Rousseau that he wouldn’t mind being hanged if they stuck his name on the gibbet. I suppose to the average man Raskolnikoff in “Crime and Punishment,” moving to his confession with the inevitableness almost of an animal tropism, is easier to understand than, say, Strindberg, the author of that terrible book, “The Confessions of a Fool,” or even Pepys, whose diary of peccadilloes and little vanities was certainly written down in cypher, but only to conceal them from his wife.

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The introspective diarist is almost a type by himself, distinguished by his psychological insight and cold scientific analysis of himself. Of these Amiel stands easily at the head. “For a psychologist,” he writes in the Journal Intime, “it is extremely interesting to be readily and directly conscious of the complications of one’s own organism and the play of its several parts. . . . A feeling like this makes personal existence a perpetual astonishment and curiosity. Instead of only seeing the world around me, I analyze myself. Instead of being single, all of a piece, I become legion, multitude, a whirlwind — a very cosmos.” Amiel’s self-consciousness was an enormous lens and, like other microscopists, he found worlds within worlds, and as much complexity and finish in small as in great.

The passion of the introspecter is for truth of self. He should be full of curiosity about himself and quiet self-raillery, delighting to trip himself up in some little vanity, to track down some carefully secreted motive, to quizz and watch himself live with horrible vigilance and complete self-detachment. He must be his own detective and footpad, his own eavesdropper and his own stupid Boswell. His books should be La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, and one of his favourite occupations to measure himself alongside other men. Marie Bashkirtseff thought she was like Jules Vallés, of whom she had read in Zola. “But,” she adds the next instant, “we look so stupid when we appraise ourselves like that.” It was the same agile self-consciousness which discovered to her while weeping before a mirror the right expression for her Magdalen, who should look “not at the sepulchre but at nothing at all.” Amiel, too, gathered hints for self-elucidation, especially in the eternal self-chroniclings of Maine de Biran, in whose diary he thought to see himself reflected, though he also found differences which cheered and consoled him.

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Yet this way madness lies. For too complete a divorce from self provokes self-antipathy, too great a preoccupation with self leads to self-sickness and by the strangest paradox egotism to self-annihilation.

1 See for example the Diary of a Dead Officer, by Arthur Graeme West; the Diary of a French Private: War Imprisonment, by Gaston Riou — the author, however, being a journalist with marked literary gifts. — ED.

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