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"Dr. Freud gave me a narcissus." -Virginia Woolf
December 6, 2007 9:42 AM   Subscribe


 
Well, in the case of Pepys' diary, because it's well-written, idiosyncratic, and fascinating as hell .....
posted by blucevalo at 9:44 AM on December 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Someone who doesn't keep a diary, please tell me if they agree at all with the sentiment in this quote:

It’s not that we imagine that we would be happier if we kept a diary; we imagine that we would be better—that diarizing is a natural, healthy thing, a sign of vigor and purpose, a statement, about life, that we care, and that non-diarizing or, worse, failed diarizing is a confession of moral inertia, an acknowledgment, even, of the ultimate pointlessness of one’s being in the world.

I don't know why I keep one, but it doesn't make me feel better about myself. I think at this point (been doing it practically all my life, and online for almost 8 years!) it's just habit.

That, and I do it so I don't forget my whole life.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2007


For me, it's schadenfreude, pure and simple. When someone's life sucks ass more than mine, it makes me gleeful.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2007


(And I think I'm getting sick, and I'm going to blame that and the quote from the article for why I turned it around to "Why do we keep diaries?")
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2007


Why do we read the New Yorker?
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on December 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


I really liked that. Thanks.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:02 AM on December 6, 2007


The first part of that is excellent, the reviews not all that interesting.

I love diaries and journals. Menand is right that there is something fascinating about the mix of the quotidian and the surprising in a really good diary. I also think that he's correct to invoke Freud (even if his use of the structural model is off), although I would suggest that there's a Freudian impulse toward introspection in the face of another life in the reading of good diaries that accounts for their popularity.

One of my favorite bedside books is called The Assassin's Cloak, it's a collection of entries from different diaries arranged by day.
posted by OmieWise at 10:07 AM on December 6, 2007


I'm going to blame that and the quote from the article for why I turned it around to "Why do we keep diaries?"

I think they're related questions. For my part, I keep a diary to find out what I'm thinking. I read diaries to do the same thing: it's like a weird auditory voyeurism... like spying on another person's internal monologue.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:09 AM on December 6, 2007


Also, a previous post I made on online diaries.
posted by OmieWise at 10:09 AM on December 6, 2007


Wow, OmieWise... Thanks! I didn't know this was a hobby of yours. Do you make anything of the literary genre of 'Confession'? Augustine, Rousseau, Derrida, etc?
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:13 AM on December 6, 2007




Diaries... that's kind of like a blog, right?
posted by Artw at 10:17 AM on December 6, 2007


I love writing in a real journal (I have a blog, too, but it's not the same thing). I write every day, like clock-work. I'm sure most of the entries are boring. And maybe there is a little bit of that "writing for an invisible audience" type of feeling. And maybe there's a little "confession" influencing the why, also.

I think I write to remember things. I tend to change my mind a lot about things, too, and keeping a diary helps me to keep both sides in my head about certain situations. It helps me get needed perspective on things going on in my life. Mostly, though, I think I write to help identify patterns in my behavior. To have a record of things I tend to do that I end up regretting later. In hopes that somehow that will help me to live more deliberately and consciously.

And maybe it's just because I have a habit of ignoring problems/weaknesses in myself, but I actually do think keeping a journal helps to make me a better person in the end. Or at least come to terms with myself a little bit better.

(also, interesting topic/article, but it got old after the 2 page or so)
posted by lunit at 11:02 AM on December 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


Because our older sister does not wish us to.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:02 AM on December 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is very interesting. As someone who studies history, I've come to realize that future historians may be in a bit of a pickle. Since letters and diaries are extremely important primary sources I'm worried that electronic forms of communication may remove these valuable traces of the past. As a diary-keeper since early high-school, I love the ease of keeping a journal online, or at least type-written. I can type faster than I can write and my handwriting is not the best. But I realize that keeping these personal records electronically is not the best for presevation. A slim little journal on a bookshelf seems more permanent than a file on the computer.

But that leads back to the question of why do we catalog our lives? Am I doing this for future historians who might give a damn about a librarian who loves crappy television far more than she should? Or am I doing this because getting these thoughts out is something necessary to me?

Dunno, but I'm re-thinking my reliance on electronic media for recording my thoughts.

An aside: Pepys was a dirty, dirty man. He pooped in a chimney!!! [not chimney-est]
posted by teleri025 at 11:06 AM on December 6, 2007


That, and I do it so I don't forget my whole life.

I'm just the opposite. I have no interest in running down the dark alleys of my past; I remember a few high points and important moments and happily let the rest drift away.
posted by quin at 11:10 AM on December 6, 2007


What a vile little diary! But I am determined to keep it this year. - Katherine Mansfield's journal entry for 1 January 1914, a perfectly ambivalent comment on the practice.

Btw, The Diary Junction is a nice database of diaries.
posted by otio at 11:18 AM on December 6, 2007


I keep a journal so that I can remember what I did two weeks ago.

After several failed attempts at journaling, I discovered that writing a maximum of 1 page per day forced me to not spend an hour writing about the trivialities of my day and got me to write down just the highlights.

I also have the delusion that some day after I'm dead someone will be curious about what I was like, and they will be able to get to know me a little better through my journals.
posted by JDHarper at 11:23 AM on December 6, 2007


So why do a few keep diaries, when diary-keeping is, for many, too much?

I'm not trying to be snarky, but this question from the article doesn't make sense. I really don't get it. Why do a few keep diaries, when, for many, it is too much? I immediately thought that's why it is a few, and not the many?

Also, I have kept a diary since I was a little girl. I never knew that you were supposed to write down everything, every day. I did impose a rule that I would write to "my friend" every single day, but that rule was gone after a month. I still keep the same diary, with the rule I must write in it once a year. Years when I wrote a lot were good years. Years when I put in a token entry in December were bad years. I like to remember them both.

I also have an online diary, which follows the same pattern. And nobody reads either one of my diaries. I'm more writing to myself. I love re-reading my old entries (I don't read anybody else's diaries), I feel like I'm having a conversation with myself. And then I imagine what I'll have to say years from now. I know things look different to me now than they did then. I assume that pattern will hold. That's the other thing I find fascinating and enlightening, the patterns of my life. Gives me a lot more perspective.

I guess the relevant part of my post is that I don't read other people's diaries. Especially people who are dead. Any connection I feel would be very bittersweet.
posted by Danila at 1:06 PM on December 6, 2007


Do you make anything of the literary genre of 'Confession'? Augustine, Rousseau, Derrida, etc?

To be honest, it's been so long since I've thought about that, that I'd have a hard time answering. Where does Derrida talk about confession again? Writing and Difference? Acts of Literature? I haven't thought about that stuff since college, and I have no doubt at all that my understanding then was completely bullshit.

I guess the one thing I remember taking away from the Derrida on Rousseau thing (and you may be talking about something else entirely, which just shows my lack of knowledge) was that in order to write to someone you have to be away from them. This seems simple, until you really start to think about it, and D. loved all that presence and absence stuff, so he thought about it well. In that sense there's a bit of a difference between those kinds of Confessions and writing a diary. (Something I've never been able to sustain, by the way.)

There is a similar tension between presence and absence in writing a diary, which is why I think invoking Freud is worthwhile. I think, not to stretch it too far, that the difference in the presence and absence of the Confession and the presence and absence of the diary (which is a kind of communion between ourselves and our ideal selves, but absent the presence of another interlocutor) is why I've never agreed with Foucault's classification of psychotherapy when he was writing about the repressive hypothesis. I think he failed to account for the situated knowledge that we have of ourselves. I think that knowledge ("I write a diary to know what I'm thinking") is at the heart of non-normative psychotherapy and of diary writing, although it doesn't guarantee that either won't be trite. (And, obviously, they are not equivalent.)
posted by OmieWise at 1:23 PM on December 6, 2007


Heck, why do we write diaries?
posted by koeselitz at 1:28 PM on December 6, 2007


fiercecupcake: Someone who doesn't keep a diary, please tell me if they agree at all with the sentiment in this quote...

I don't keep a diary, never have, and I don't agree with the statement you mention. I have a feeling that if I kept a diary I'd end up a lot more self-involved than I already am. That's not a goal of mine.

I don't know why I keep one, but it doesn't make me feel better about myself. I think at this point (been doing it practically all my life, and online for almost 8 years!) it's just habit. That, and I do it so I don't forget my whole life.

lunit: I think I write to remember things. I tend to change my mind a lot about things, too, and keeping a diary helps me to keep both sides in my head about certain situations. It helps me get needed perspective on things going on in my life. Mostly, though, I think I write to help identify patterns in my behavior. To have a record of things I tend to do that I end up regretting later. In hopes that somehow that will help me to live more deliberately and consciously.


Part of why I don't keep a diary is because I have a feeling I'd forget everything if I did, because I would't have to remember it-- it'd all be written down. Nietzsche said once that you haven't really understood something until you've moved away from the book and can think about it while walking. The important things in my life are things that I want to keep in my head; writing them down removes them and makes them static and lifeless. Writing kills memory.

Faulkner said it best: "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." Isn't it possible to remember that constantly, day in and day out, and to order one's life without recording assiduously the day's events? And if it is, isn't it more effective to internalize by recording things within our memories, rather than on the page?
posted by koeselitz at 1:41 PM on December 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


I only read the first page of the article and disagreed with nearly all of it, especially this:
It’s true that we read the diaries of Virginia Woolf because they were written by Virginia Woolf, who, in addition to being an interesting novelist, was an interesting character. But (a paradox of representation) we would actually feel that we had a more intimate sense of Virginia Woolf if we read about her in someone else’s diary. Woolf described from the outside by another person is likely to give us a more vivid picture of what Virginia Woolf was really like than Woolf described from the inside by herself. Introspection is not as reliable as observation.
I've read several journals of famous writers (Kerouac, Woolf, Plath) and found them to be immensely revealing as to the thought processes of their author. The author of this particular article describes everyone as being like the same broken record of anxiety and resentment, which I don't think is true at all. Every person has his/her own particular way of looking out at the world, and anxiety and resentment aside, it's fascinating to be able to look at the world through someone else's eyes.

On another note: I think part of the attraction to reading diaries is that it's an illicit act. These are things that were put down on paper with the utmost privacy - never intended for an audience, and here we are, devouring them.

I feel like our blogs, written with a mass audience in mind, will never be as interesting to historians as the private diary, never intended for publication.

(Out of courtesy for my future biographers, I have both a locked personal online journal and a paper diary, and I can't imagine my daily life without either.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:09 PM on December 6, 2007


Omiewise: Where does Derrida talk about confession again?

grapefruitmoon: the same broken record of anxiety and resentment

A lot of work has been done showing that diaries are a kind of genre, with some cliches and patterns that come up again and again, and I think Menand is addressing those. It's not always anxiety and resentment: sometimes it's minutiae and sometimes it's a tendency to remain wedded to the public persona of a famous person instead of getting to know their privates selves. Diary writing goes back a ways, but it really takes off in the nineteenth century, and some scholars like to talk about the 'invention of private life' in this moment of increased literacy and thus intense attention to the internal lives of the bourgeoisie.

This is where Derrida comes in: he actually wrote a 'confession' of his own, called Circumfessions, where he tries to find ways to escape the genre's patterns while still telling a story of his own. I think he succeeds, but it's mostly by being hyper-attentive to the conventions and questioning himself as he catches himself admitting to a theft like Augustine's peaches or Rousseau's hair-pin. What's at stake, of course, is finding a new form of singularity, a particularity in myself not subsumed by the general, or an idiomatic way of joining a millennium and a half of self-reflection without sounding like a broken record.

I've never agreed with Foucault's classification of psychotherapy when he was writing about the repressive hypothesis. I think he failed to account for the situated knowledge that we have of ourselves.

There might be a way to write a diary that's not motivated by a kind of self-disciplining attempt to put oneself under surveillance, but it's hard not to see most efforts in that light. For Foucault, the goals is to put modern self-discipline to work as self-care, not to jettison it entirely. Or at least that's my read, though it's endlessly debated in the Foucault community: there's not much consensus, yet.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:59 PM on December 6, 2007


I hate this diary. Every time I think of this diary, I think of burning it. I think of ripping the paper out in little shreds until nothing but a ratty spine remains intact, dousing the whole pile with cooking oil so that it will burn and burn, slowly, all the way down to fragile dirty flakes and carbon-flecked powder that can be smudged into the garden soil until it disappears. This diary is dedicated to the worms.

One of mine. Stopped writing in that one. :)
posted by zennie at 3:39 PM on December 7, 2007


i'm both a lover of reading diaries, and a compulsive keeper of a diary/writing journal since 1992. as a child, i wanted to keep a diary, but was stymied by a nosy and insane mother who shamed me into not-writing until after i was long out of her clutches.

i would say that the ability to keep one was basically inspired by Natalie Goldberg's idea of killing the self-censor in an effort to free the writer. it is the one place i write all the time, where everything goes, which then gets cut and pasted and organized into myriad half-done novels, wholly birthed poems and whatever the hell else might be worth reconfiguring into something worthwhile.

it freaks me out when people tell me they discard their diaries, or *horrors* burn them. while i do worry about sudden death and a really pissed off family, the idea of getting rid of it or stopping would be like going blind. my notebooks (and now my laptop) are what i think about when i imagine fire (after the cats and family). i have a cruel fantasy about being read by exactly one graduate student a hundred years from now who curses my inanity, self-involved blather, and repetitive self-flagellation. i am the queen of monkey-mind.

i read my own diary for its insight into myself--cuts me right down to size when i see all the shit, and gives me a boost when i see that i *can* have insights i don't even recognize as my own.

blogging has an obvious purpose, but i found it to be totally different when i tried it--useful for a specific type of writing which requires an audience. but for a diary, it only felt like i had my mother looking over my shoulder again. not an honest window, which is what i need it for.
posted by RedEmma at 7:58 PM on December 7, 2007


I missed Derrida's contribution to the genre. I have to admit that the later Derrida made me so tired and slightly annoyed contemplating his output that I stopped paying attention. Bad of me, I know. Is Circumfessions worth reading? I think the last thing I tried was Resistances of Psychoanalysis, and it didn't unduly impress me.

I guess I agree that most diaries are self-disciplining, but I'm not convinced that they always are or that they need to be, or, rather, that the disciplining that occurs is the same as that which Foucault argued against. I have no doubt that this is a self-serving opinion, but I don't think that Foucault left enough room for paying attention that is not either "subversive" or part of disciplined modernity. I do understand that he didn't rule out practices that slide out the back door, as it were (at this point I tend to think of these through the lens of Nussbaum's Therapies of Desire), but I think he missed the particular flavor pf private mental illness. There's no doubt that some of that is produced through the discourses that he described so well (the prevalence of paranoid schizophrenia in AA former prison inmates is practically a textbook case), but I think that he dismissed Freud, and the personal accomodations that Freud described, too readily. Basically I end up (theoretically and clinically) as a Lacanian, and I do think that Lacan accounted for both the pressures of the public sphere (the symbolic) and the vicissitudes of interpersonal interaction and communication (the imaginary) while trying to account for a personal version of the ineffable tension between the two (the real). (I also think, however, that almost all non-psychoanalytic appropriations of Lacan get some things seriously wrong, and don't get me started on Butler.) His seminar on Joyce talks more precisely about how very personal writing (of which I take a diary to be an example) can be used to essentially buttress the psyche and avoid the outside imposition of disciplining knowledge. (I've only read descriptions of the seminar, it's as yet untranslated, but I don't think it's a departure from his earlier writing.)
posted by OmieWise at 4:23 AM on December 11, 2007


Circumfessions is a response to a bet with Geoffrey Bennington, that he couldn't write something surprising. (Bennington writes an essay that he believes will 'circumscribe' all of Derrida's work, Derrida tries to escape the circle.) I'm not sure it's truly worth reading, but it's definitely more personal and accessible than something like Resistances, which didn't impress me either. I do like the later Derrida, though. Aporias and The Gift of Death, especially: his ethical work.

to essentially buttress the psyche and avoid the outside imposition of disciplining knowledge.

This sounds right to me. It would require a very thoughtful form of journaling, though, and the product might look more like a work than a working through, which leaves the reader with a different experience than the writer. Insofar as journaling is an activity that underwrites self-reflection, I think few would really question it. Yes, we repeat tropes and cliches, but ultimately in the service of a private experience that could very well be subversive. But when we read diaries I think we end up with a problem like 'subjection,' the problem of the 'strong poet,' who gives us the words that shape our lives. Haven't you ever found yourself thinking in another's words or turns of phrase?

don't get me started on Butler.

If you insist... but I'm disappointed. I love getting started on Butler. (And Nussbaum's little takedown review is a good place to start....) Or were you thinking of the new book, Giving an Account of Ourselves? Full disclsure: I'm working through these issues right now in the service of my next research project.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:40 AM on December 11, 2007


I forgot The Gift of Death. I do like that, a lot. It sits on my shelf with The Instant of my Death (I saw that you mentioned Station Hill in that small press Askme), and Gillian Rose's books on death (Gift of love? and Mourning becomes the law).

Yes, I love that Nussbaum take down. Any good takedown of Butler, really. I assume you saw the Judy 'zine back in the day? I wasn't talking about the recent stuff, I haven't read that. You know I'm just a dilettante, but I'd love to hear about what you think you'll be working on next.
posted by OmieWise at 10:50 AM on December 11, 2007


Oh, I think it's Love's Work, and yeah, Google confirms that. Only Derrida gets the Gift, I guess.
posted by OmieWise at 10:51 AM on December 11, 2007


I'm ambivalent about Butler. I love her work, and I don't personally find it overly laden with jargon or quietism, but I understand the objection that much of it is derivative and some of the readings of major figures are wrong. Plus, she's representative of some of the worst aspects of the academic star system and the tendency of feminism to get bogged down with theoretical problems. You think she gets Lacan wrong? I'd love to hear about that. Also, if you get a chance you should pick up the new book in a bookstore or library. I'm not saying buy it, but take a look: it focuses on this issue of reflection, self-determination, and the narrative self that emerges, for instance, in a diary.

My own work on this problem is still sort of inchoate, but the debate about confession as discovering/producing the self is at the heart, alongside some work I've been doing on anonymity and pseudonymity in Kierkegaard. My guiding question is an old one: "Is the self a private thing or a public thing?" I'm looking to push back against various private notions of singularity. Blogging and livejournal might play a role, and my experiences as a member here definitely do.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:36 AM on December 11, 2007


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