Diaries and silence

Polly North

This chapter explores how some diaries have silence thrust upon them, whilst all have silences within them. It uses the word silence loosely - that is, as a figurative as well as a literal term. The exploration in this chapter is both indebted and relevant to all diaries. However, it was inspired by a particular type of diary: the uncommissioned and unpublished diaries of the non-famous. These diaries fall victim to acts of silencing more regularly than, for example, those kept by famous writers or politicians. Professionally I rescue, preserve and - where appropriate - make publicly available this type of diary at The Great Diary Project (GDP), at Bishopsgate Institute.This chapter will highlight why attending to ordinary-seeming diaries can have beyond ordinary scope and impact. The voice of any diarist can be rewarding; every voice has value. Equally, the articulacy that is latent in diary silences can be useful whoever the diarist, and whatever form the diary takes. Hearing and heeding the voices of the ‘many’ as well as the ‘few’ can support broader, more representative, conversations and understandings. And, contribute to our personal growth as readers. Reading diaries can help us hear our world but also ourselves more fully and faithfully.

This chapter starts with a discussion of how diaries are silenced from without. We will note the mundane fact that diarists routinely chuck their own diaries away and, if they don’t, inheritors and other custodians sometimes do. The reasons for these acts of silencing can range from the intellectual, to the personal and the logistical. For example, diarists (and others later) have disposed of diaries for reasons of modesty, secrecy or shelf space. And, archivists have ‘silenced’ diaries by deeming them unworthy of posterity’s attention. Next, the chapter considers how professional diary-readers (such as critics, researchers and/or academics) can deaden the voice of the diarist. They do so, for example, when they treat a diary as an exemplar of something that concerns them, but of which the diarist may have had few or quite different thoughts.

Lastly, the bulk of the chapter addresses silences within diaries. These can be intentional or unintentional. For example, diarists may intend to leave out material as a matter of discretion. A simple memory lapse might lead to an unintended omission. More subtly, diarists cannot write down their whole being: whichever part is in the limelight casts another in shadow. The chapter ends by proposing a methodical and sympathetic approach to reading diaries. It recommends reading them from a variety of points of view. The approach is dubbed ‘deliberate eclecticism’. It is intended to help readers attend to diaries, even when the diarists’ utterance appears muted or, whether intentionally or unintentionally, elusive or sotto voce.

Silences from without: The problem of institutional and professionally imposed silences

Archivists have to make decisions about whether a (any) diary merits shelf space, time and energy. If diaries are not preserved and, if possible, made available, the voices of their writers are, in effect, silenced. Archival triage is sometimes a matter of value judgements that have traditionally missed the significance of diaries, particularly those of the non-famous. In this way, logistical and intellectual discounting of diaries reinforce one another.

Diaries are often ‘silenced’ by institutions that ostensibly stand as safe refuges. Subtle prejudices are at work. The appointment diaries of a local judge might not - on first sight - have the same significance as diary notes on a murder trial, for example. Whilst it is easy to see the value of a diary that shows an obvious abundance of personal expression, many less glamorous diaries become - on proper inspection - a portrait of what it is to be alive. This chapter will show that diaries, by the famous or not, and glamorous or not, serve many forms of expression and understanding, both individual and collective; they have the potential to speak for the writer and to their communities.

Understandable archival biases give great scope to GDP (created in 2007), where the diaries of the uncommissioned, unpublished and non-famous are the priority. Here, they are considered essential and not as, for example, dispensable adjuncts to a larger deposit, or as redundant misfits. GDP has its own resource limitations, but our instincts are to safeguard the diaries no one else will or can preserve. The GDP currently houses over 10,000 diaries. The diaries that make it to the GDP have often been inadvertently or intentionally silenced at some point in their earlier lives. Paradoxically, many remain significantly silenced, even in our care - as an example, the archive preserves diaries that are closed for anything between 10 and 100 years, at the donors’ request. Others have arrived locked, so badly damaged, coded so impossibly, or so scribbled, they cannot be read.

Further to this, diaries are sometimes permanently silenced where we might expect their voices to be most cherished. Diarists and other diary custodians are known to lose, damage, burn, sell, bury and dump diaries. For example, the relatives of a deceased diary-writer, entrusted with going through the diarist’s papers, will perhaps prefer to save photo albums or medals than apparently incoherent diurnal jottings. Furthermore, the inheritors may be embarrassed by what they read, and destroy it. Unrelated inheritors of a person’s life detritus, such as house clearance companies, auctioneers and/or second-hand shops, might see profit in selling on brass bedsteads and enamelled fireplaces, but few pound signs in a used diary. Through no fault of their own, inheritors of diaries are not always alert to the significance of their new possession and inadvertently silence the diaries of which they become custodians.

The lack of co-ordinated institutional effort to preserve diaries is matched by those diarists who actively silence their work. Many diarists choose to write in private and, ostensibly at least, for an audience of one (‘Dear Diary’). Quite rightly, their work starts as and remains a sacred and silent refuge secreted from family, archives and a wider reading audience. Some diary-writers go a step further and, to protect their silence, destroy their writing. Other diarists, far from being fiercely protective of their writing, dismiss it as ‘boring’. And then burn it. ‘Boring’ is a judgement made particularly of appointment-orientated diary-writing. Such diaries seem to lack tone or rhythm, but can be extremely eloquent, even in areas in which they appear muted. Past, present and future events and experiences are often recorded in a linear, temporal structure. In such cases, wherever and however they fall, all life’s narrated moments are given equal time and page space. This assumed equalisation of all moments, whatever their emotional import, can - notionally -help diarists equalise emotions. It is for the reader to discern or decide what feelings lay, silent and perhaps gagged, in the flow of these events. Combining day-to-day events, such as hairdressing appointments, with more dramatic events, such as the death of a loved one, is called ‘parataxis’. Parataxis allows the reader to imagine the writer’s responses to the variety of his or her life; indeed, its silences encourage reader participation. As literary academic, Patricia Meyer Spacks observes: ‘To uncover the relentless triviality of a writer’s everyday life may confirm the value of a reader’s mundane daily career. A diary can reveal the importance of commentary unspoken.’1 In this way, diaries help us find common ground and perhaps connect us to something unspoken and precious in the apparently unremarkable elements of life.2

As a diary-devotee, I am bound to stress the potential locked in any and all diaries. First, in years to come, even the most pedestrian tasks will take on all the gravitas of bringing ‘history’ alive; imagine getting a flavour for Shakespeare’s, or Shakespeare’s servants’, day-to-day. Diaries can act as historical springboards. Second, diaries can act as political, cultural and social barometers; mapping movement in social, cultural and political attitudes. Third, the diaries of the everyman and woman, including the diaries at GDP and Sussex University’s Mass Observation Archive (MOA), are not the dominant, widely accepted narratives of elites (rather, they are not these alone: the GDP and MOA are indifferent to who is the author).That is because the diary form does not discriminate: few literate people are prohibited from keeping a diary and so many do. Tales of celebrity do have a place, but diaries give us an idea of how a moment in time struck all, and not just those of elevated status.The GDP and MOA include the diaries of the marginalised, as well as the mainstream. Raphael Samuel,

the social historian and regular at Bishopsgate Institute said:‘History should not be left to the historians.’Diarists’voices speak for history too.The virtues of reading diaries are many, so it is unfortunate that so many find themselves silenced by diarists and other custodians. (Of course, we can only imagine the stack of fascinating diaries we might have had from the billions of people silenced by millennia of illiteracy, or for whom self-writing was impossible and, often, not even thought of.)

We have looked at why and how some diaries are intentionally or unintentionally silenced by individuals and institutions. It remains to say that diaries have often had rather a hard time at the hands of academics. In effect, diaries have been regarded as tools of a particular trade, often a biographer’s or historians, rather than as voices to be heard out of common interest in the diarist as a person speaking to us. In her forward to Philippe Lejeune’s, On Diary, literary critic Julie Rak summarises this trend in the criticism of self-writing:

|T|he study of diaries has been met with indifference, incomprehension, and hostility. Historians have regarded diaries either as transparent source documents or personal records which should be taken with a grain of academic salt. English-language literary scholars have examined some diaries, most notably the diary of Samuel Pepys for their historical content ... Feminist criticism ... highlighted the importance of women’s experiences.3

This approach to the diary has a tendency to relegate the form to the status of auxiliary (usually unreliable) primary resource, or as subordinate bystander to an age, body of work or a person. In the main, it misses the more serious merits of reading diaries and thus, of ‘hearing’ the voices of ‘ordinary’ people. This type of critical oversight is a species of diary-silencing. It is akin to the power of critical fashion to sideline this or that genre, or to lead students and general readers in this or that dogmatic direction. Obviously, diaries such as Samuel Pepys’ (1633-1703); Anne Frank’s (1929-1945) and Virginia Woolf’s (1882-1941) have been widely read and applauded. The difference here is between a wide lay readership, which enjoys the highly personal in famous diaries as well as the historical, and the academics for whom the historical relevance of the literary artefact is more important.

The critical mood has lightened a little in the last 50 years. Now diaries are also often prized as tools of empowerment by self-writing critics. In particular, as Rak identifies, they are valued by critics exploring ‘women’s experiences’. Self-writing critics campaigning for feminist, gender identity and/or civil resistance objectives have rescued and promoted a wide range of diaries but often with the common denominator being that they identify the self-writing as being by the oppressed and gagged.4 This approach is prone to label the diarist, rather than listen to them. Cause-related critical near-sightedness can make an auxiliary of the diarist’s voice and/or overlook the diarist’s wider subject matters, perhaps in matters quite apart from the critic’s special interest. It is a species of silencing diaries with hallmarks of the type of approach that tends to read them as adjuncts (and which is described above). Of course, both critical directions are warranted within their interpretative silos.5 The point is that along the way something of the diary and the diarist’s voice may be forfeited.

More broadly, starting with autobiography and then including the diary, recent criticism has praised diarists for their strength of character or for being, ‘private’, emancipated or self-possessed,‘authentic’,‘sincere’,‘dignified’ or‘raw’.6 Such criticism is often led, by logical steps, to characterise self-writing as empowering: writing that champions and fosters the idea of an individual who can think, act, speak, or write with volition.

Critic’s motivation for applauding the degree to which self-writers and their voices are autonomous is, perhaps, fuelled by a deeper desire to shore up the value and status of the critic’s voice. (Anyway, it is little wonder that critics are driven to fathom, characterise and/or ascribe merit to the voice and person they meet so powerfully in the diary.) Regard for a type of diarist’s voice that is assumed, to some degree, to be autonomous can be traced back to humanist critics’ early attempts to elevate the form’s academic and literary profile. The humanist Georges Gusdorf’s essay,‘Conditions and Limits of Autobiography’ (first published in 1956) is a good example of this critical move.7

In the latter half of the twentieth century, self-writing criticism (in particular, cause-driven criticism) came in tandem with, and was - at times - enthralled by, another academic credo. This had grown in power since the 1960s:‘post-modern’ theoretical approaches to text, language and narrative. These had, broadly, supposed that a writer’s voice was variously a cipher for hegemonic elites or grammar, or both. Foucauldian analysis, for example, erodes (aims to erode) the older humanist confidence that - to a degree - a writer has volition and presides over his or her voice.8 Foucauldians insist that one’s voice, if it is granted a degree of validity at all, is overlaid with elite narratives. Such analysis does not silence the person exactly (it does not throw them in jail or cut their tongue out), but it helps drown them out. According to a predominantly post-modern interpretative take, the diary’s daily entries and its blank pages - like the diarist - are always already subjects of a pre-existing and often exacting temporal order and/or regulatory discourse. At its extreme, such a creed complicates critics’ attempts to praise or dismiss a diarist’s self, since it has been deconstructed into non-existence.9 Pathologising the self-writer and their self-writing as being overwhelmed by powerful outside influences will lead, reasonably, to pathologising concepts of self, free-will and voice. If this path is followed blindly it can become a species of gagging.

It is worth pointing out that diarists do not need critical insight to speak powerfully with their readers. Indeed, it is rare that diarists will consider how a critic might address their private and silent interlocutions. Diarists often deserve to be read less critically or judgementally and more as a friend and with affection, or at least a deliberate attempt at seeing the writer’s point of view. Academics are trying to find what can reasonably be said and, usually, what helps them put the diarist in this box or that. They are bound to approach the diary set before them with a degree of professional distance or coolness. Their job is to analyse more than to accept.They seek to clarify and (though they can sometimes be obscurantist in their own right) to disambiguate. Beyond criticism and ideas of self or agency (whether post-modern or humanist) diaries throb with the frequency of their diarist - they thrum with life. The discerning reader does not mind if the essence of a diary is as ambiguous as it is animate. That forgivingness allows the diary’s character to fructify without being stymied by one, or more, modes of analysis and categorisation. It allows diarists to be heard in-the-round.

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