By Fatima Ijaz
“Without fear of infamy
I answer you”
- Dante, Inferno, Canto XXVII 61-66
The very act of keeping a diary is meticulous, keenly observant and defiant. How so? Well, it takes the very nerves of discipline to carve out a daily record of the on-goings of your day, mind and heart. Slowly, you develop the ability of sharp scrutiny of your surroundings, and in the spirit of Scarlet O’Hara you make a cry of freedom everyday by signifying in your daily encounter with life: “Tomorrow’s another day!”
No other form of writing immortalizes Oscar Wilde’s statement: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” than the diary. The kind of scrutiny and piercing self-analysis it can generate, however, can mean a conflicted sort of self-love. As Susan Sontag puts it in her own diary entry:
“After writing this last sentence, I read it again and consider[ed] erasing it. I should let it stand, though. It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence. (There are too few of them anyway!) Let me note all the sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows.”
This very act of being frank in your writings, and noting down every urge as it is, is a unique kind of characteristic element of this form. This makes going back and reading those thoughts a source of painful embarrassment at times, boldly confronting who you are or can be, at others. Sontag felt she could expose herself in her diary – even if she felt a remark was out of place or impolite, she kept it to understand her own uninhibited self. This is interesting because in day-to-day life, we censor, we edit, we do a lot of things – we have to think about a lot of things. But in the diary you can say bluntly as it is without even a poetic cover or fictional voice.
Part historical document, part insight into the life and mind of the diarist, the diary is an unveiling of the person beneath a writer (or the person you meet in real life). It can keep a daily track of the diarist’s mood fluctuations and over time establish patterns in which to understand the temperament of the writer. A diary is written when one is alone, to oneself in a way and it is continuous like a river. Consider that Leo Tolstoy kept a diary from the age of 18 to the age of 82! That is like a lifetime of a lived record. In his writings he delved into questions like: Who am I? What is death? How do I live my life? Even if the diarist hides certain material, one can get a sense of who he is by the books he talks of, by the literary mental-walks he takes through this ancient form of writing.
Derived from the Latin ‘dies’ (translates to ‘day’) which underwent change to ‘diarium’, finally became ‘diary’ as we know it today. The idea of a day record is part and parcel of the very etymology of the word. In “Diary of Anne Frank” Anne’s entries are sometimes sporadic, but they carry the general progression of time as it is passing. Interestingly, her diary earns a name for itself (Kitty) and has an existence of its own. As she writes, “Dearest Kitty, /I’ve probably bored you…but I still think you should know…” The diary is personified many times by Anne. It is her imaginary friend.
Reading “Diary of Anne Frank” in lockdown pandemic times, is an acute sort of experience. Nothing strikes more than first-hand knowledge. She writes, “We’ve forbidden Margot to cough at night, even though she has a bad cold” as they are afraid the neighbors might hear. It reminds me when I had a cough (though the COVID test came back negative) still it was an immensely awkward experience coughing in public. The glare of the eyes on you. Of course, Anne, Margot and her family suffered in different and extremely terrible times.
On not fitting in with her family, Anne describes the act of committing to a diary as being “sentimental on my own.” The family could have catharsis whilst talking amongst themselves, but Anne was solitary by nature and whereas they could be ‘sentimental together’ she couldn’t relate to the gathering. The diary was her real friend, where she could say it how it is and ‘Kitty’ would understand. Perhaps these were the first signs of the temperament of a writer in Anne. Bruce Merry, educator and writer, states that though the diary has known to be of historical or literary value, it is also true that the true diarist writes for no one but her/himself.
Then there is the question about the ‘secrecy’ of a diary. Rousseau, in “Reveries of a Solitary Walker” holds firm to the belief that he is writing for himself, cut off from the rest of the world. However, when something is penned down in a written form, isn’t it always asking for the eyes of a reader to behold it? Is it not also linked to our desire to be fathomed at our own terms?
Thinkers on the subject all seem to agree on the authenticity and immediacy of a diary. For writers, it is an added benefit, to keep track of how their language is evolving and also as an introspective technique of thought formation. However, for non-writers, it is also a way of keeping the passing of life in perspective, noticing it on a deeper level and understanding oneself better.