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Diary as Form, or a Case for Hybrid Genres [by Megin Jimenez]

In one of her brilliant essays, poet and novelist Fanny Howe proposes the diary as the ultimate subversive genre: anarchic, directionless, unconcerned with narrative or context. (I believe it's in the collection The Wedding Dress, I will insert the quote when I'm near the book.) 

Not every diarist is writing for a reader other than herself, but there is something curious in that activity: manifesting thought through writing - what does that change inside the self? In her journals (published in 2008), Susan Sontag Sontag_Peter Hujar justified reading a lover's diary by saying one keeps a diary, in part, in to have it read secretly by one's lover... She describes her self as expressed in the journal:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

"The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it."

I have been taken with reading writers' journals for the past few years, not only for the glimpse it offers at their lives and inner thoughts, but for the unparalleled reading experience they offer. This isn't the case for any diary or journal, I don't mean the day-to-day notes and records, but rather the writer "thinking out loud".

It's that place between fiction and poetry, which I find myself writing in, as well (prose poems, or collections of sentences) - the skeleton of the sentence bearing the luscious flesh of poetry. Plot is not a loss, rather, there's a sense that the pressure, the drive for a tidy beginning-middle-end is removed. There's time to hang out with a thought, or a paragraph, without rushing to find out what happens. The structure, while remaining prose, can bear a poetic approach to language, where the language is the happening itself, rather than a vehicle for getting the reader from point A to point B. (Aside on the prose poem: I heard Russell Edson, prince of the prose poem, refer to contemporary poets' fascination with form as a distraction. Writing the poem, reading the poem in relation to its form is ultimately a distraction from the language.)

Anais ninI recently re-read the first volume of The Diary of Anais Nin and found myself taking it slow, in a really good way, in a poetry sort of way. There was movement, events happening, descriptions of people, but I did not exercise my irritating habit of rushing through, as I do too often when reading fiction.  This time I noticed much more her own awareness of The Diary as its own sort of writing. She describes it variously as her vice, her greatest pleasure, the place for writing all. She took passages out of it to use in her fiction (at that point House of Incest and Winter of Artifice), which she saw as a surrealist, or mytho-poetic distillation of her experience. Everyone important to her (Henry Miller, her analyst Otto Rank) discourages her from writing in the diary and urges her to use that energy instead for her external work, her self in the world, her fiction. It's interesting that the diary remains her best known and most read work. It's important to note that she didn't see it as a private record of her life, she saw it as a lifelong project. She had someone transcribing previous volumes (at least during Volume 1), often let people read from it and saw it published in her lifetime.

I've read some of Nin's fiction (A Spy in the House of Love and Winter of Artifice) and was not too crazy about it. Her dramatic ("poetic" is her word) approach, her attempt at a surrealist space make the prose feel dated, almost prim (despite being about sex), in a way the writing in the diary never is. The writing in the diary is philosophical, witty, vivid, and sometimes simply beautiful. Take, for example, this description of June Miller (Henry Miller's wife), which is a kind of prose poem itself: 

June miller“It was not only that June had the body of the women who climbed every night upon the stage of music halls and gradually undressed, but that it was impossible to situate her in any other atmosphere. The luxuriance of the flesh, its vivid tones, the fevered eyes and the weight of the voice, its huskiness, became instantly conjugated with sensual love. Other women lost this erotic phosphorescence as soon as they abandoned their role of dance-hall hostesses. But June’s night life was internal, it glowed from within her and it came, in part, from her treating every encounter as either intimate, or to be forgotten. It was as if, before every man, she lighted within herself the lamp lighted by waiting mistresses or wives at the end of the day, only they were her eyes, and it was her face which became like a poem’s bedchamber, tapestried with twilight and velvet. As it glowed from within her, it could appear in totally unexpected places, early in the morning, in a neglected café, on a park bench, on a rainy morning in front of a hospital or a morgue, anywhere. It was always the soft light kept through the centuries for the moment of pleasure.”

How amazing is "the lamp lighted by waiting mistresses or wives at the end of the day”? I also love how "a neglected café, on a park bench, on a rainy morning in front of a hospital or a morgue" conjures Paris so quickly, in this condensed way.

There seems to be something gendered about this (there's something gendered in the word "diary", even), and I hesitate to say too much about it for fear of getting mired in the Gender Question Quagmire... But my sense, at least with Nin, is that the reason the diary could contain all (that is, her best writing), was because it could contain both personal and public self, personal and public writer. As we know, this has always been a difficult juggling act for women artists, who have historically either felt forced to choose the domestic, the internal over the public "artist's life" or have sacrificed sanity, sobriety, children, respectability, to live out their creative self. What struck me about Nin is that she cherishes the domestic and maternal parts of herself, she doesn't apologize for them. (She sees the establishment of a beautiful environment -- a home or a garden -- as one of her accomplishments, and values her maternal care of Henry Miller and other artists (Artaud, etc.). By maternal I mean caring for them financially, physically (feeding, clothing) and as editor (whereas I would have sent his sorry ass back to New York).) Perhaps ideas about fiction at that time (a manifestation of the male, public self in the world) did not have the space for her particular voice and talent, hence the freedom and fantastic writing in the diary.

VioletteleducViolette Leduc is another writer I would place in this category, and who is woefully under-read. Dalkey Archive, which is a wonderful press, has published a lot of her work in translation into English. (She is best
known for authoring Thérèse and Isabelle, which was turned into a sexy lesbian schoolgirl movie in 1968.) Her books are not diaries, they are more like memoirs, but they have the same feeling of the writer set free. The reader is also set free from holding the breath for the plot to reveal itself, and can instead enjoy the astounding language, the extended thought.

Here is a taste, this is from La Bâtarde (1964), a memoir of her childhood raised by her mother and grandmother, a recurring theme is being a "bastard", the illegitimate child of an aristocrat father she never met. She is describing her relationship with her mother, intertwined with her birth (originally in French, translation by Derek Coltman):

"Let’s go back again, open your belly and take me back. You have told me so often about the misery of dragging around looking for a room, of not being able to find one because your waist was no longer slim. Let us suffer together once more. I wish I had never been that thing, a fetus. Always present, awake inside you. It was inside your belly that I lived your shame in those days, your sorrows. You sometimes say I hate you. Love has innumerable names. You live in me as I lived in you then. I saw you naked, I watched your most intimate ablutions. No mother can ever have been more abstract than you are. Your skin, your legs, your back when I wash you, the kiss I ask you for in the morning have no reality. How am I to make contact with you? Clouds, elm trees, wild rosebushes are matters of indifference to you. Don’t die as long as I am still alive. Let’s go back again, carry me as you carried me then, let’s be afraid together of the rats you had to step over in the passage to your room. Your blood, Mother, the blood trickling as far as the staircase when I came out of you, the blood streaming from someone dying. The instruments, the forceps. I was your prisoner just as you were mine. Forgotten, abandoned beside the stream made by your blood when I arrived. It’s normal enough, you were dying. It was a long time before they washed the mess off me. But the people who pointed their fingers at you, the people who refused you a bed before I was born, stayed glued to my skin.” 


That's all I got for now. Thank you for reading. The copy editor in me begs your patience for any awkward phrasing or punctuation errors in any posts -- I have tried to stay true to the blogging tradition and written in the moment! Thanks again to Stacey and David for letting me share a few thoughts on BAP.

from the archive; first published March 3, 2012

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