Honesty and frankness
The characteristics of honesty and frankness are often taken as a sine qua non of the diary form. It seems reasonable to suggest that, in their diaries, diarists are authentic, candid and outspoken. But, whilst the form seems to invite honesty and frankness, these are not remotely guaranteed. (And, in the degree to which the critic ascribing such concepts to the diarist is post-modern, this faith in the ad hominem is paradoxical.) Attempts at honesty and frankness tussle with their antitheses and issues around truth-telling. The diarist, aspiring to honest self-reflection, will produce a narrative with - as it were - several layers and channels within it. And, the ‘truths’ the diarist speaks to will be expressed in all manner of ways, some more forthright and vocal than others.
For example, one challenge to the idea that one can honestly examine the idea of self or oneself comes from the fact that one does so from the very odd position of the self itself: from the first-person and subjective point of view. The consciousness of self is both pivot and lever, even when it is attempting to shift its view of itself. Perhaps it is kinder to say that diarists cannot transparently discuss or speak of their inner selves, even if they are trying to be honest. In short, when it comes to diarywriting there is an important issue in the matter of honesty and it has to do with self-deception. A diarist might have every intention of being honest (or rather, as honest as one might be), and yet fail in the struggle to be so. As Lord Byron wrote in his diary:‘I fear one lies more to oneself than to anyone else’.1'1 Honesty might require diarists to follow Wittgenstein’s dictum that one shouldn’t speak of what one cannot know. Thank goodness, they often plunge on with the attempt.
Critics can flesh out the information (or lack thereof) contained in diaries with related materials, including historical documents; diary drafts and letters; and/ or official records relating to the diarist. A philological approach to diaries, what Lejeune calls ‘genetic study’, can recalibrate, query and flesh out personal narrative. It can fill in the silences (or gaps) left by omissions, secrets, memory lapse, selfdeception, fragmentary writing and so on. Weaving together such filler material, the approach can construct diarists’ writing processes and map psychological landscapes.
However, even this more fully ‘curated’ life, including multiple sets of records and interpretations of these records, would still constitute a gappy autobiography.
The infinite complexity of an individual’s life is beyond expression, even in a diary or criticism. We are - after all - more than the sum of this or that set of documents. One could add that we are more than one or other set of concepts, labels, psychological evaluations, contexts, interpretations and so on. We are living beings. Being absorbed in a diary is to attend to something of this lifeblood, but sometimes also to embrace its inevitable inarticulacy.
Secrecy and privacy
Let us now consider the diary characteristic of privacy and its companion: secrecy. Privacy can be described as a quiet space; here extraneous matters, we imagine, are - for a moment - tuned-out, if not silenced. The diarist who scurries to a secluded spot or lights a torch under a duvet, might feel he or she is stepping away from the noisy swirl of spectacle and into a moment of silent inner reflection. In private seclusion diarists may be shutting out much that would fascinate us if their account included all the noisiness the sanctuary or inner sanctum deliberately excludes. Further to this, some things the diarist is silent on, and some the reader does not hear. Of course, privacy as much applies to the diarists’ assumption that no one is reading over their shoulders, and perhaps never will. Many diarists will write in private and their work remain unseen and hidden.This might be thought of as being self-silencing, along the lines of the more familiar idea of self-censorship.
There is an open question as to how private any writing or person can sensibly claim to be. Current criticism of self-writing often describes it as using a language composed by others (i.e. a public language, not a private language); as constructed against a back-drop of determinates and contexts (such as social, cultural, or political milieux); and as a silent conversation conducted with a hypothesised interlocutor. Spacks, in ‘How to Read a Diary’ and in, Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self, describes how ‘public’ or external contexts (historical, social, political, or otherwise) can encroach on ‘private’ or internal experience. However, Spacks goes on to describe how a diarist - who more often than not writes in private and keeps their writing secret - is able to cultivate ‘private’ as well as ‘publicly’ influenced mental spaces.20 This is perhaps due to much diary-writing being conducted without the intention of its being revealed to the public gaze. Spacks is careful to observe that the relationship between the public and private is not a simple one of conflict. It can be an important part of a person’s development of the self.21
In the degree to which it is written as a silent conversation with a private and hypothesised interlocutor, the diary can act as silent confidante. However, diarists can refuse to commit their secrets even to the page. Katherine Mansfield was one such:
There was a time - it is not so long ago - when I should have written all that has happened since I left France. But now I deliberately choose to tell no living soul. I keep silence as Mother kept silence.22
The diarised secret contains the threat of revelation, to another or to oneself. Secrecy requires maintenance: codes, verbal ciphers, external locks and digital encryption are instruments of secrecy. Codes are designed to conceal information. The indecipherable code is like a scrambler on a phone: it silences the callers conversation - in this case, diarists’ writing.