The Perfect Uselessness of Diary Writing

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 10.01.27It seems that at Somerset House in London there is a current exhibition called Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants. It showcases a selection from the 7.500 diaries donated to the Great Diary Project, set up in 2007, to “provide a permanent home for unwanted diaries of any kind”. The diaries are housed at the Bishopsgate Institute of East London.

A similar initiative has been up and running in France since 1992. L’Association pour l’autobiographie et le patrimoine autobiographique (APA) accepts personal writings – memoirs, diaries, personal narratives, autobiographical fictions, and so on – which can either be consulted openly by the public or kept secret for a period of 50 years. Clearly such a venture constitutes an enormous resource in terms of social history, whatever the quality or inherent interest of what people put down on paper.

I have kept a diary pretty much all my life, though I’m not quite sure why I do it. It serves no purpose other than a daily act of introspection, a clearing-house for anything that is going through my head. It is a way of allowing that day to leave its mark. It is also a mechanical act of writing that oils the wheels of the mind for more purposeful writing later in the day. But purposelessness is part of the perfect charm of diary writing. I never re-read the diaries, nobody else reads them – or nobody else is supposed to read them – and I have no ambitions for them whatsoever. Whatever else it is, a « diary » or a « journal » are inextricably and etymologically anchored in the notion of « a day » in the chronicler’s life.

I used to be acquainted with a minor poet whose diaries are bought as and when they are produced by an American library for quite substantial sums of money. How can anyone write a diary in all honesty when the notebooks are conveyor-belted into a minor hall of pending fame so instantaneously, and for instant financial gratification? The whole notion of a diary, as one’s thoughts shared with oneself, is lost. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were originally titled in Greek Ta eis heauton, “To himself”. This feature is what, to me, distinguishes the diary from a blog such as this (mine or Marlowe’s).

One of the most extraordinary diaries I’ve ever read is the Journal of a Disappointed Man by W. N. P. Barbellion (1889-1919). Barbellion was a naturalist at the British Museum’s Department of Natural History in London and he kept his journal from the age of 13 to his death at 30. In 1915 he learnt that he had multiple sclerosis and had five years to live. From that point on, the intensity, urgency and explosive frustration of the diary drives it forward with incredible spurts of dark energy. Its candour is very unBritish and many people have remarked how Barbellion is as close as one gets to Kafka. It is a unique record of a unique, and short, life, written by someone burning with intelligence and emotion.

Here is a sample:

“I have revelled in my littleness and irresponsibility. It has relieved me of the harassing desire to live, I feel content to live dangerously, indifferent to my fate; I have discovered I am a fly, that we are all flies, that nothing matters. It’s a great load off my life, for I don’t mind being such a micro-organism—to me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe—such a great universe, so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible—and eternal, so that come what may to my “Soul,” my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part—I shall still have some sort of a finger in the Pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me—but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you.” 

For Barbellion, as for many others, he is his diary. It is what he knows he will become, and towards the end he realised that he was destined for publication. As he says, “A book is a Person and not a Thing.” Journal of a Disappointed Man is at one end of the spectrum, though its cosmic exasperation is not to everyone’s taste.

At the other?

From the Great Diary Project, one Frank Wycliffe writing on 28 February 1972: “I think my uncertainty of whether to go to the hairdressers’ has been solved. I have decided not to, but wait and see what things are like in another month’s time.”

For verily, we are creatures great and small…

W. N. P. Barbellion
W. N. P. Barbellion


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