The Private Life of the Diary

By Sally Bayley

From Pepys to Tweets: a history of the diary as an art form

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets: A Review by Alice James

 ‘The Mess and Maelstrom’; Form, Function and Fantasia in Sally Bayley’s The Private Life of the Diary by Sally Bayley

   ‘Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand.’The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962

   Writing as a young woman at Smith College, Plath is secure in her belief that time will overwhelm and submerge her. By committing this conviction to paper, however, she has already begun an attempt to mitigate its effects. The diarist’s response to an onslaught of ‘continuous quicksand’ – the entirety of lived experience and concurrent thought that forms their gargantuan remit – is to edit, curate and sculpt, isolating each ‘burning flash’ within the drab fog of the unremarkable.

   Here, at the outset of Plath’s journal-keeping career, we can see the allure of textually recuperating the ‘high moment’ from its temporal drowning. It is the demotic art of parsing one’s own idiosyncratic experience and selfhood through diary and journal-keeping that The Private Life of the Diary: From Pepys to Tweets takes as its subject.

Sally Bayley imagines the textual corpus of the diarist as a coming-of-age narrative; her initial focus is on teenage diarists.  Her critical vocabulary effectively applies literary and cinematic models to emotional and intellectual growth. A passage tackling the young Susan Sontag’s somewhat vainglorious outpourings extracts a theory of persona-building through journal-keeping from Sontag’s posturing; Bayley terms this natal period ‘ego’s Bildungsroman’ and deftly deploys it in a consideration of the links between Plath’s journals and her mature poetry.

   Diaries are also partially novelistic; they document the interiority shadowing public milestones. In being read, they can outlive their author, but the abrupt cessation of entries upon death or disabling crisis highlights the distinction between diary form and the contrived closure of fictional narrative. This is the most extreme example of loss of authorial control in diary-keeping. The balancing act The Private Life…performs is between sensitive analysis of the diarist’s own tacit re-presentation of their self, iterated daily, and of the moments when this control wavers, subsuming the process of experiential editing to contingency, emotion and the diktats of language and form.

   ‘Diaries draw us into moments; moments of lived experience. They make us envious of those moments’. Bayley’s analysis of these ‘high moments’, as Plath has it, flags up the double life of the diary made public. The subject recalled and documented, whether historic event or ephemeral sense-memory, coalesces the diarists’ perspective on their day. It forms an edited diarium, or daily allowance of preserved experience. The diarists’ temporary tunnel vision ‘…privileges personal moments, and so the large event is recorded through the minute hand rather than the hour.’ The reader of another’s diary, conversely, looks to the immediacy and authenticity of the ‘moment’ in order to expand their experiential and imaginative scope; to step outside the familiarity of their own selves and the daily structure and ritual attending their selfhood.

    In A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf configures the action of diary-writing as a ‘rapid haphazard gallop’, sweeping up ‘the diamonds of the dustheap’. The idiolect has changed, but the notion at core is the same as that behind Plath’s ‘burning moments’, extracted from quotidian ‘quicksand’. Putting time aside to write a diary entry may be a peaceful moratorium on a frenetic existence, but the actual process of writing is, for Woolf, characterized by motion. The Private Life… reconciles this paradox by maintaining a belief in journaling as holistic. The ritual of updating a diary is motivation to both quietude and active participation; Woolf’s selective gallop is an action of the mind rarely found in the unreflective trudge of everyday life.

   The book’s dynamic integration of the history and development of the diary delineates shifts in usage across time and culture. The spiritual autobiography of Marcus Aurelius and the coterie chronicles of Japanese pillowbooks are considered as both precedent and parallel to modern models of diary-keeping. ‘Diaries’ Sally Bayley tells us, ‘privilege difference. They produce individual strands of life—or “ligatures” as Woolf phrased it—which tie themselves into unique formations.’ The Private Life…takes an acrobatic glee in juggling examples of these ‘unique formations’, and reading the hidden material encoded in each twisted stratum.

   What should a diary do? The futility of trying to produce any single prescriptive model for a form that inherently ‘privileges difference’ is illustrated in an autobiographical segment in the book’s opening chapter. When Bayley turns to her own personal experience of diary-keeping, the theoretical dilemmas attending conflicting ideals of the diary are personalized. The shift to memoir mode is seamlessly integrated with the text’s dominant stylistic blend of resonant evocation and analytic acuity. A passage in which the young author is dispatched to Switzerland with a new and beautiful diary describes self-editing taken to a restrictive extreme , as she ruthlessly scourges her writing of idiolect, slang, poor handwriting, sloppy French and evidence of childish behaviour in a quest to bring back a cross between an objective newspaper report and an objet d’art.

   ‘There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?’ The passage conjures the image of a child, rendered in overlay – multiple silhouetted forms battling for solidity of identity. The coveted personification of the diary has, too, been thwarted; diary and diarist are both in flux. In this shadow-play of ideals and textual models, the book’s consideration of the diary’s ‘private life’ – its messy, conflicted backstage arguments – moves from the theoretical to the actual.

   We move from the troubled notion of diary as bravura performance to one of diary as dress rehearsal. ‘Always attentive to the well-turned phrase and the effective illustration, Emerson’s early journals are largely devoted to the study of rhetoric: a search for the sort of sentence that might cause real ‘sensation’ in the listener.’ Bayley locates in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals a particularly emphatic example of the continual wrestling match between public and private underlying all diary-writing. ‘His journal certainly functions as a confessional – private, secret, but also loudly public.’

    Emerson’s cognitive dissonance permits a pouring forth of the inner self, even as a public persona – strong, cogent and articulate – forges a language of its own. The combination of private experience and rhetorical heft gives these journals an overtone of the sermons Emerson also produced. A similar interplay between the ostensibly private and the instructively public appears in an analysis of the spiritual journals kept by English Presbyterians and read, sometimes posthumously, sometimes not, by the individual’s community, motivated by ‘…the idea… that peering into the spiritual life of another might offer tips on improving one’s own.’

   Bayley’s interest in Anglo-American popular culture - much in evidence in 2010’s Home on the Horizon: America’s Search for Space, from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan - informs her treatment of public interest, prurience, and the formulation of personae for a cultural stage. The television interview set, the autobiographical novel and the occasional essay - as deployed by Mailer, Vidal, Roth and Baldwin - haunt analyses of journal- and diary-writing, finding common ground in the medium’s ability to construct a narrative and create a language constitutive of a new selfhood. The Private Life…shows the death and resurrection of the individual through confessional writing to be a tradition with deep roots. Augustine, we find, ‘…wants us to relate to his former self not as something romantic and heroic but as someone dead and buried.’ Sontag’s hashing-out of a nascent critical persona as an adolescent represents a much earlier point on the trajectory of the coming-of-age narrative; the mature diarist can not only construct and animate multiple selves, with multiple micro-narratives, but also stage-manage contrast and conflict between them.

   For Emerson, the journal is a rehearsal space for a ‘true’ self, the self that emerges in public spaces and published work. Woolf, similarly, uses her diary-space as a training ground. Her concern does not, however, lie in developing and coalescing a public selfhood. Rather, the ill fit of her own identity in the world through which she moves and the encroaching threat of depressive episodes motivate consistent bouts of diary-writing as a means to building creative and mental muscle. Woolf describes herself as a woman ‘writing against the current’ – vowing that ‘this trough of despair shall not, I swear, engulf me’ – a vocabulary of submersion that she shares with Plath. Her image of the diary as a ‘ligature’ crystallizes around this resolution – the diary, for Woolf, has become a medical necessity, a suture.

   ‘The good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive’, concludes Woolf, writing about the seventeenth century diarist John Evelyn. Anonymity bestowed via privacy validates an outpouring as authentic. The distant future can vindicate the writer ‘drowned’ by contemporary currents, hearing them at a remove from the cultural echo chamber of the present age. The great temporal gulfs that frame Woolf’s fictional narratives – as in the Jurassic fantasias of Between the Acts – here inform her notion of what a ‘good diary’ entails. Woolf sees in the diary the potential for a pure text, written unselfconsciously, and a pure reception, unimpeded by the blinkers of proximity. The ‘good diary’ is like a time capsule; sealed, discrete, asocial, frozen, perhaps, beneath ice and snow, benevolently preserving it into futurity, untouched by the threatening ‘currents’ of the liquid present.

   Divided into two halves, The Private Life… tracks, through its documentation of evolving ideas of ‘private’ and ‘public’ writing, the phenomenon often termed ‘the rise of the individual’. Through exposure to multiple diaries, multiple individuals, multiple ‘ligatures’, we are lead to scrutinize and complicate this truism. Which ‘individuality’, which sort of selfhood, is most valid, most real? Emerson’s pupil, Henry David Thoreau, announces, ‘A journal is a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said . . . I cannot afford to be remembering what I said or did, my scurf cast off, but what I am and aspire to become.’ Thoreau cannot abide the thought of a static self, and so his journals will jettison the ‘scurf’ of reminiscence and forge an aspirational individuality.

   As we are guided through versions of diary-writing, we begin to put aside assumptions, ingrained in the popular imagination, about the diary providing a complete account of its author’s essence. The frisson of taboo surrounding the locked or hidden diary can con us into thinking that to access the text is to access a hoard of knowledge, of interiority, that will fill in the gaps in a portrait of life, mind and soul. But the self that an eighteenth century naturalist like John Evelyn commits to paper is necessarily different, more detached and journalistic in intent, than the self – indeed, selves – that the youthful Sontag and Plath manifest in their journals. That is not to say that the former cannot muster reflectiveness and the latter are void of documentary ability. Rather, the expectations and needs that the diarist brings to the page condition the kind of selfhood, or selfhoods, that emerge from the text. Emerson, Thoreau and Augustine all exemplify the possibility – even, perhaps, the inevitability – of one diarist producing a succession of selves, which may exist sequentially or simultaneously.

   The identity of the diarist is also tied up with their objectivity. The Private Life…is a book fascinated by diarists’ (often thwarted) attempts to document, to evoke those precise, unrecoverable moments that make the reader envious of first-hand experience. This fascination is borne out in its account of Samuel Pepys’ modification of the household ledger into a diary form that inhabits a space between dry fact and introspective confession to convey the texture of a life and its era. The world of social media also referenced by the title has given rise to another form of reportage; a glance at the tweeted accounts of protests and riots in the wake of recent events in Ferguson confirms the ability of the tweet or blog post as ‘Diary 2.0’ to immediately give its audience a sense of the eyewitness experience. Scepticism toward the biases of mass media outlets reinforces a modern appreciation for personal logs that, like Christopher Isherwood’s ideal author, act like cameras.

   The young Plath shares this appreciation for detached observation – an account of her art teacher notes how ‘Miss Hazelton never praises. She just bustles and rustles around, asking if we see this shadow, or that curve in the apple’. Plath, who always kept a foot in the realm of visual arts, takes this pedagogical method on board in her diary’s rich descriptions. Her attempts at quietly rendering the shadows and curves of her subject matter, however, rub up alongside a prose style Sally diagnoses as ‘rapid and colloquial’; her anxious projections of potential futures turn into a ‘shouting match’ and she regurgitates the terminology of pop psychology, giving her writing the effect of a collage, rather than that of a still life. Plath’s forebears in empiricist reportage, Thoreau and Emerson, are equally scrutinised for the conflict produced by regarding your diary as both solemn enterprise and comforting confession booth; particularly striking is the imposition of a poem to Emerson’s late wife upon his journals, faltering on the page as the author is subsumed by grief.

   The reader may feel uncomfortable taking in the vulnerability pouring from Emerson’s break from his customary mode. It is a discomfort that The Private Life…shows to underpin every interaction between diary and reader. Bayley writes with particular verve on subversions of diary-reading etiquette; textual voyeurism, whether merely curious or malicious in intent, stalks the private confidence under analysis. John Lennon, in his parodic diary filled with absurdly banal entries, is ‘…like a grinning gargoyle above a church door’, mocking the reader for their eager anticipation of a celebrity’s secrets. Elsewhere, the adolescent Sontag argues that ‘an essential part of the diary code’ is ‘the notion of a ‘furtive’ reader’. Samuel Richardson developed this dynamic in the mid eighteenth century with the erotically charged secrecy – implicitly violated by the reader – of Pamela’s diary, which she keeps strapped near her underwear. The diary as incriminating object crops up throughout fiction and film, from 1984 to Cruel Intentions. When Bayley recalls her own, discomfortingly ‘communal’ diary of the Swiss trip, she notes that the prospect of a readership forced her to be ‘more grown up than (I) could muster’. A lack of self-censorship in diary-writing invites the devastation of exposure if the diary is read; the flip side of this is the modification of the self, the development of a persona that germinates from the demands of being observed.

   The Private Life…excels at tracking down the origins of these personae born out of diary-keeping. Sally Bayley’s previous work on Plath’s poetry is brought to bear not only on Plath’s journals, but on other diarists; the ‘theatrical’, ‘mercurial’ identity the young Plath seeks in her bricolage of linguistic personae is pertinent not only to the creation of Lady Lazarus but to the practice of journaling generally. Any number of shameful secrets may be cathartically offered to the welcoming blankness of the diary, but perhaps the most deep-rooted shame the diary acts as antidote to is the messy, fractured nature of selfhood.

   Woolf bravely foregrounds her split selves, replacing herself in accounts of family life with ‘Miss Jan’, a ‘flamboyant’, ‘exhibitionistic’ thing, and addressing her future self as ‘my dear ghost’. Bayley clearly views this level of familiarity with one’s own personal poltergeists as both psychologically healthy and creatively galvanizing. ‘A diary is a form of identity-practice and self-production, a workshop for our future selves’; The Private Life…stresses that the act, the routine, of recollection and articulation is work, a ritual that gives rise to tangible results. In the vein of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and John Carey’s What Good are the Arts?, it regards the action of the mind and the hand as integrated, and their dual exercise as crucial in building an empathetic, expansive selfhood.  

   Its playful approach to self-exploration, however, gives it a more optimistic sensibility than the one underlying Plath’s projection of her multiple selves, with past, present and future girls crowded round her writing desk like the Fates. Diaries continue to lure us with their promise of access to the previously unrevealed; like the Edenic apple, they tempt us with offers of absolute knowledge. We eat up Stephen Fry’s account of his debauched Eighties, presented as a ‘dead self’ in Augustinian fashion, and devour Nigella Lawson’s ‘Life on a Plate’, curious as to whether her food diary will reinforce or undermine her sensuously gluttonous persona. It is oddly reassuring to be reminded that trying on different identities at the privacy of the writing desk does not require commitment, nor reduce the individual to any single iteration of themselves; the private life of the diary has always been, and should remain, both mysterious and diffuse.

Author: Alice James



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