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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

28 JANUARY, 2015

Sloth, Sissiness, and the Search of Self: Young Tolstoy’s Diaries and the Problem of Compulsive Intentional Organization

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“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?”

Some of humanity’s greatest writers championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but hardly any literary titan has explored the medium’s spiritual and existential value more intimately than Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910). The same intense inward gaze that produced Tolstoy’s record of spiritual awakening became, by the end of his life, an effort to assemble a manual on the meaning of existence. But the most psychologically formative and creatively intriguing journaling is that of Tolstoy’s youth.

Tolstoy wrote his first diary entry at the age of eighteen, in March of 1847, while relegated to a hospital bed during treatment for a venereal disease. He was already on the cusp of being expelled from university for poor academic performance, so the forced sabbatical at the hospital led him to begin a journey of self-exploration — in the dual sense of both examining himself and contemplating the notion of the self — which would stretch and coil across his entire life.

That journey is what Russian literature scholar and historian Irina Paperno explores in “Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self (public library) — a remarkably insightful account of the beloved author’s “paradoxical efforts to create a narrative representation of both the self and the selfless being,” and an inquiry into the broader, more universal concerns with what actually constitutes a self, that elusive and often self-defeating appendage of existence.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy, 1873

What makes these diaries especially intriguing is their parallel existence in the past and the future — Tolstoy combined narrative reflections on the micro scale of autobiography with moral resolutions on the macro scale of character. But what emerges, above all, is the sense that Tolstoy was a man of intense intellect, continually crucified by the compulsive shoulds in which that very intellect was trapped. Caught up in his obsessive project of intentional moral organization, he saw the self as a forceful function of supposed to rather than a peaceful bearing witness to being, an embracing of is.

Tolstoy liked to trace the origin of his fascination with this question to his old nanny, who used to lie in solitude, listening to the clock and hearing in its ticking a question: “Who are you — what are you? Who are you — what are you?” In the clock’s question, Paperno argues, Tolstoy found his eternal quest:

This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?

And so for the young Tolstoy lying at the hospital, the diary was as much “an instrument of self-perfection” with which to steer his wayward life as it was “an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self” through concepts like morality, memory, consciousness, and time.

Tolstoy’s early journals, in fact, were at once a moral checklist and narrative cartography of time. Paperno points to one particularly intriguing notebook from his mid-twenties, titled Journal for Weaknesses, which fell partway between Benjamin Franklin’s agenda of virtues and Isaac Newton’s litany of self-professed sins. Like Franklin, Tolstoy marked his moral development along the temporal progression of the calendar but, like Newton, he focused on his follies rather than his feats — he divided the page of his calendar-notebook into columns for potential weaknesses like laziness, indecision, and vanity, marking with small crosses the days on which the respective vice manifested.

Alongside this notebook, Paperno notes, Tolstoy kept another, titled Journal of Daily Occupations — a time-log in which each page was divided into two vertical columns, one for the future and one for the past. The first listed Tolstoy’s agenda for the next day, and the second marked the fruition of those plans the following day. Each day’s entry thus began by using the previous day’s as a reference point, producing what was essentially an evaluation — and always an unfavorable one — of how the actuality of is measured up against the aspiration of should be.

Indeed, the fact that there was no column for the present at all further intensifies the sense that Tolstoy was driven by the tyranny of should, always leaning forward into a better imagined future and yet always plagued by hindsight’s sense of having fallen short.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

Paperno quotes one illustrative entry from March 24, 1851, in which Tolstoy scrupulously interjects into the narrative of his day the moral weaknesses that led to having fallen short on the previous day’s resolutions:

Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness). — At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character).

He then proceeds to outline his agenda for the next day, March 25:

From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12 — gymnastics. From 12 to 1 — English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4 — on horseback. From 4 to 6 — dinner. From 6 to 8 — to read. From 8 to 10 — to write. — To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style. — To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.

But when the 25th arrives, Tolstoy produces once again a litany of his shortcomings as he contemplates his failed shoulds:

Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevard wanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s. — Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

And yet the harsh self-flagellation Tolstoy exercised in these youthful journals, Paperno suggests, became a foundational experiment in the elasticity of time and the struggle for moral development — the elements that eventually came to define the very fiction for which Tolstoy is so enduringly beloved. She writes:

He was involved in a struggle with the constraints that language and narrative impose on one’s ability to know and represent the “I.” Ultimately, Tolstoy refused to accept that the self — his self — was limited to what could be told. Inherent in the structure of any verbal narrative is a view of life that accords a predominant role to linear temporal order, which implies finitude. Tolstoy’s lifelong attempt to describe his life (or self) was a project with philosophical, moral, and religious implications.

[…]

His lifelong search for the true self turned into an impossible mission: to define the non-self of the true being that lay outside language and time. Tolstoy was tormented with the paradoxical desire to write himself into a state of silence.

[…]

His personal struggles with a sense of self left their mark: For many of his readers, in Russia and beyond, Tolstoy has been an example by which they seek to orient their own lives.

“Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self is a magnificent and layered read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy’s search for meaning, his reading list for every stage of life, and his letters to Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. For more pause-giving perspectives on the question of the self, see Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity, Joshua Knobe on how we know who we are, Meghan Daum on how we become the people we are, and Alan Watts on the self illusion.

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23 JANUARY, 2015

Hans Christian Andersen’s Daily Routine

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From coffee time to bedtime, via ample walks and a necessary stretch of royal tedium.

I have a longstanding fascination with the daily routines of writers — most recently, those of C.S. Lewis, Charles Bukowski, and Anne Truitt — which is, of course, underpinned by an interest in the psychology of the ideal daily routine.

From The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — the same forgotten gem that gave us Andersen’s little-known and lovely sketches and his account of climbing Vesuvius during an eruption — comes Andersen’s outline of what his days were like in December of 1845, when he was visiting with the King and Queen of Denmark on their formal invitation. By that point, having already revolutionized storytelling, Andersen was practically royalty himself — a celebrity revered by commonfolk all over Europe and welcomed in the court of nearly every monarch. “Europe’s most famous and noble personalities fondly surround me, meet with me as kindred spirit,” he marveled in the diary just a couple of years earlier, but by 1845 he had come to accept his fame as fact.

Portrait of Hans Christian Andersen by Thora Hallager, Denmark's first professional female photographer

Shortly before Christmas that year, while staying at the royal couple’s castle, he writes:

How my day goes: up at 8 o’clock and drink coffee; putter around and write until 10 o’clock; then walk up along the long, tree-lined drive and out the gate to the path through the field to Hollufgaard; look at the strait and wander back; read, sew, put things in order; and lunch at 12 o’clock with a glass of port. Then a short rest and after that, as before, an hour’s walk. It is the same route, and I take a little farther out in the other direction. Read and write until around 4 o’clock, get dressed; and dinner is from 4:00 to 5:00.

Wall clock design by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

In a passage that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s point about the importance of developing a capacity for boredom, Andersen goes on to describe “the most boring period, until 8 o’clock.” One invariably wonders how he might have filled that time if he lived in our era of on-demand distraction, and how that might have impacted his creative legacy. He bemoans that tedious stretch of time:

I sit in my room; don’t want to do anything, not to sleep either. One of the servants is playing a flute badly, practicing a piece… The wind is whistling outside; the fire in the tile stove is rumbling; the moon is shining in… Downstairs I conduct the entire conversation from 8 until 10 o’clock… I look at the clock; it doesn’t seem to be running at all; and when it finally does strike, each stroke falls as if marking time to a funeral march. — At 10 o’clock, upstairs; and half an hour later, in bed.

Illustrations for Andersen's fairy tales by Japanese artist Takeo Takei. Click image for more.

The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen is a wonderful read in its entirety, full of the legendary storyteller’s intimate reflections on writing, criticism, travel, mental health, love, family, and more. Complement it with the best illustrations from 150 years of his tales, then revisit celebrated writers’ ideas on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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13 JANUARY, 2015

How to Master the Vital Balance of Freedom and Restraint: Young André Gide’s Rules of Conduct

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“One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.”

French author André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century — in no small part, paradoxically, because he adamantly believed that a great writer must always swim against the current of his era. He dedicated his life to the problem of personal freedom and became a staunch champion of the oppressed. His work inspired legal reform in the Congo and helped loosen the grip of colonialism, championed prison reform and more humane conditions for the incarcerated, and laid the philosophical foundation for marriage equality a century before it became a legal reality. The tradeoff for Gide’s devotion to speaking truth to power was that he was systematically snubbed by the literary establishment and deprived of award nominations. It wasn’t until shortly before his death that the Swedish Academy granted him the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” and even then 78-year-old Gide proudly declared to a journalist that if the had been asked to recant any of his subversive work in order to qualify for the prestigious accolade, he would have gladly “bade farewell to the Nobel Prize.”

But nowhere does this “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight” reveal itself with more crystalline precision than in Gide’s six decades as a dedicated diarist with an intense inward gaze exquisitely reflective of the notion that “the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are”; nowhere does Gide’s deepest personhood and most universal insight on the human experience come more fully and dimensionally alive than in The Journals of André Gide (public library), of which young Susan Sontag found “such perfect intellectual communion” as she wrote in her own journal: “I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it — I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times.” Sontag was not alone — it is no more possible to put down Gide’s journal than it is to finish it without feeling wholly transformed.

In one of the earliest entries in the journal, from November of 1890, the 21-year-old author grapples with what would become the defining quest of his life as a thinker and a writer — the pursuit of a moral framework that combines freedom and restraint. Gide itemizes his aspiration toward proper conduct:

I am still clumsy; I should aim to be clumsy only when I wish to be. I must learn to keep silent… I must learn to take myself seriously; and not to hold any smug opinion of myself. To have more mobile eyes and a less mobile face. To keep a straight face when I make a joke. Not to applaud every joke made by others. Not to show the same colorless geniality toward everyone. To disconcert at the right moment by keeping a poker face. Especially never to praise two people in the same way, but rather to keep toward each individual a distinct manner from which I would never deviate without intending to.

Under the heading “RULE OF CONDUCT,” Gide goes on to outline his self-imposed moral mandates:

First point: Necessity for a rule.

2. Morals consist in establishing a hierarchy among things and in using the lesser to obtain the greater. This is the ideal strategy.

3. Never lose sight of the end. Never prefer the means.

4. Look upon oneself as a means; hence never prefer oneself as the chosen end, to the work.

(At this point a blank space in which the question arises as to the choice of the work, and the free choice of that work. To manifest. And yet… Can one choose?)

He adds a further admonition against this focus on the self as a means:

Thinking of one’s salvation: egotism.

The hero must not even think of his salvation. He has voluntarily and fatally consecrated himself, unto damnation, for the sake of others; in order to manifest.

A few months later, in the spring of 1891, he revisits the question of discipline in manifesting the end via the means:

One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it. But I desire everything and consequently get nothing. Each time I discover, and too late, that one thing had come to me while I was running after another:

He then resolves:

No compromise (either ethical or artistic). Perhaps it is very dangerous for me to see other people; I always have too great a desire to please; perhaps I need solitude… (But there should not be any “perhaps” in matters of conduct. There’s no use creating question marks. Answer everything in advance. What a ridiculous undertaking! How rash!)

That he should issue this self-admonition in a parenthetical remark — the ultimate “perhaps” of punctuation — speaks to Gide’s willingness to complicate and contradict his thought, which is the greatest gift of his diary as a timeless trove of psychological insight and creative assurance.

Complement the endlessly rewarding The Journals of André Gide with some of history’s greatest writers, including Gide himself, on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit these 15 self-refinement aspirations from some of humanity’s greatest minds.

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