Dear Diary, The World Is Burning – The New Yorker

Posted: April 13, 2020 at 8:49 pm


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You no doubt want to hear what I think of being in hiding, Anne Frank wrote in (and to) her diary, which shed named Kitty, on July 11, 1942. Well, all I can say is that I dont really know yet. Only a day or so had passed since the Franks had fled their house in Amsterdam for a secret annex in the back of an office buildinga harsh precaution against the harsher menace of Nazism. Anne, lonely, would soon be lonelier. She wouldnt live to see the readers who no doubt want[ed] to hear what she thought. A few weeks earlier, the thirteen-year-old had referred plaintively to the condition that prompted me to keep a diary in the first place: I dont have a friend.

It is painful to consider the lackof connection, stimulation, solace, controlout of which Franks diary arose. Some authors avoid writing about what they dont really know yet, but, for Frank, discovering what she thought and felt, or at least managing her uncertainty, may have been the whole point. Forced within, both physically and psychologically, Frank seems to have countered that retreat with an exteriorization. She could manifest her inner world in paper and ink; she could shape her not-knowing into language. Perhaps she could even outsmart timeby organizing it, occupying it, smoothing it into a continuous flow.

Its been a lonely few weeks. Our plight isnt comparable to Franks stoppered girlhood, but the coronavirus has made us fearful and helpless, and weve entered an age of diaries: coronavirus diaries and pandemic journals and quarantine diaries and Wuhan diaries and coronavirus-quarantine diaries, in the press and outside of it, as historians and mental-health professionals alike urge us toward self-documentation. Were transcribing what were cooking, eating, reading, listening to, and streaming. Collectively, were revisiting the notebooks of the politician Samuel Pepys, who blogged the bubonic plagues arrival in London, in 1665, and lingering over A Journal of the Plague Year, the protopandemic novel, from 1722, by Daniel Defoe.

What function do such records serve in moments of crisis? If youre looking for a reactive form, one that makes it possible to respond in real time to the latest statistic, then a diary is the one you want, Larry Rosenwald, a professor of English at Wellesley, told me. Any utterance can be an entry. Its the quickest route from thought to production. Let poetry finesse emotions recollected in tranquility; a journal can field them as they come. The form connotes immediacy, authenticity, a lack of mediation. As the writer Andrew Hassam suggests, because a founding principle of the diary is the belief in its own privacy, its language is assumed to have no designs on a reader. This relieves the author from the duty to be accessible or interesting. (They dont have to be timely, eitherindeed, most diaries are explicitly and transparently dated.)

That explains one use for journals in nerve-fraying times: mood regulationor, as a non-psychologist might put it, venting. The lifelong diarist Ralph Waldo Emerson was an extraordinarily diverse and capacious self-chronicler, Rosenwald told me, free in his choice of subject and tone, and yet, in the run-up to the Civil War, Emerson grew obsessive, monomaniacal, writing largely about the perfidy of highly respected congresspeople. This was a less beguiling period of his introspection, Rosenwald said, but it served a psychological need: to rage. Other habitual diarists have processed disaster with a pointed consistency. The Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, an early advocate for vaccination, became a controversial figure during the smallpox epidemic of 1721. Townspeople hurled a bomb through his window. Members of his family fell ill and died. And yet the reverends diary reveals not agitation but a measured and stately piety, an aspirational calm. I this Day considered, Mather wrote, upon learning that the plague had killed his uncle, how strangely the Lord hath, beyond my Expectation, prolonged my Life.

Lifeas in the pure gift of it, rather than its artistic expressionis the diarists chief concern. (This is one distinction between journaling and memoir.) But if diaries argue for the value of the ephemeral or mundane, implying that these subjects need no adornment, the material is nevertheless transformed. The diary, the scholar Irina Paperno writes, represents a lasting trace of ones beingan effective defense against annihilation. Take Albert Underwood, an artilleryman in the Civil War, who scrawled a few sentences into his journal every day until a steamer explosion killed him, in 1865. Very pleasant today, runs a typical entry. Still laying up yet waiting for the river to rise. There is something alchemical about how these words evoke a world: the laying, the waiting, the river itself on pause. What happens becomes, in Seamus Heaneys phrase, the music of what happens. Experience can seem almost sacred.

Diaries have long mirrored both the people who created them and the eras in which they were created. Early examples, in the seventeenth century, grew out of almanacs and housekeeping logs. Third day of planting; sold four bushels of grainx shillings; quarreled with brother. These texts married economic best practices to a new form of religious self-surveillance. Puritans, for instance, used diaries to inventory their sins and, ideally, to hasten a moral awakening. (Cotton Mather, recounting how he spent his thirty-fourth birthday, wrote as if an angel were monitoring the page: I paraphrased, improved, and applied, the whole Hundred and Third Psalms, on my Knees before the Lord.) As the Enlightenment secularized the impulse toward self betterment, diaries became cornerstones of a sentimental educationaids in the cultivation of feeling. In her study of eighteenth-century pedagogy, the scholar J. A. Baggerman focuses on a Dutch child of ten, Otto van Eck, whose journal formed part of a comprehensive didactic regime instilled with great insistence by his parents, who later read his jottings and supplied them with commentary. (Otto inclined toward the poetic, either naturally or because he intuited that a tender melancholy might please his mother and father. We have a perfectly green May, he writes. If I werent deaf, Id rise early to hear the nightingale.) Fifty years later, the Romantic movement co-opted the diary as a vehicle for individualism. (Paperno quotes the painter Eugne Delacroix, who grandly defined his journal as the history of what I feel.) For the Positivists, diaries were empirical instruments. For the modernists, they were crucibles of self making.

And what are diaries now? When things go well, one learns that one is better company than one thought. When they dont, one circles, with some helplessness, those handsome Protestant dreams: atonement and rebirth. Over the past few days, trying to journal, I was simultaneously too shameless to alter my garbage routines and not shameless enough to lie about it. (Wallowed, I wrote, on day two, taken with the symmetry of the ls and ws. Wallowed. Wallowed. WAAALLOOOOWED.) More seductive, to me, than any cleansing aspect was the Enlightenment notion of the diary as a kind of affective workout: weight training for feelings. Global disasters cause suffering, of course, and witnessing the suffering of others can shake loose more sufferingpsychiatrists have spoken about a nationwide increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms, and the mental-health toll is even greater for nurses and doctors. But a quieter fear can haunt those not on the front lines. What if the eeriness of the new normal leaves you numb? What if, bombarded by death rates and scared parents and images of fellow-citizens in masks, your emotions fail to rise to the occasion?

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Dear Diary, The World Is Burning - The New Yorker

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April 13th, 2020 at 8:49 pm

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