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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

10 FEBRUARY, 2015

Thoreau on Hard Work, the Myth of Productivity, and the True Measure of Meaningful Labor

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“Those who work much do not work hard.”

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) is the closest thing I have to a bible — I read it frequently and devotedly, always with great gratitude for the enduring wisdom that brings me closer to what I know to be true but so often forget. Indeed, Thoreau is among those rare luminaries whose ideas live on as resolutions of the most existential kind — be it his reflections on the creative benefits of keeping a diary or the spiritual rewards of walking or the only worthwhile definition of success.

Recently, while listening to a conversation with the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer — a Thoreau for our time — I was reminded once more of a particularly insightful passage from the journal as Palmer lamented that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on.”

More than a century and a half before our modern malady of confusing productivity with purposefulness and the urgent with the important, Thoreau wrote in an entry from the last day of March in 1842:

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.

In another entry from the fall of 1851, Thoreau touches on this again in reflecting on a neighbor he finds to be “the most poetical farmer,” one who embodies “the poetry of the farmer’s life”:

He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

This philosophy of quality over quantity, of present labor over productive work, is also manifested on a meta level in the journal itself — Thoreau’s entries are usually short, always acutely insightful, and never belabored with vain excesses. He writes one December day:

I find that whatever hindrances may occur I write just about the same amount of truth in my Journal; for the record is more concentrated, and usually it is some very real and earnest life, after all, that interrupts. All flourishes are omitted.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is indeed an infinitely rewarding read. Complement it with Thoreau on the spirit of sauntering, the greatest gift of growing old and a charming children’s book about his philosophy.

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06 FEBRUARY, 2015

Virginia Woolf on the Paradox of the Soul and the Consolations of Aging

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“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.”

Although Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) kept some sporadic early diaries, she didn’t begin serious journaling until 1915, when she was 33. From that point on, until her final entry penned four days before her death in 1941, Woolf diligently filled twenty-six notebooks with her private meditations, which were posthumously published as the indispensable A Writer’s Diary (public library). Over the decades of dedicated journaling, she came to be among the many celebrated writers who expounded the creative benefits of keeping a diary as an R&D lab for both her craft and her soul.

In fact, some of her most profound and perceptive meditations deal with the question of the soul itself — a notion which modern secular culture handles with varying degrees of skepticism and cynicism, and yet the most useful term we have for what Maya Angelou called our “real selves, the children inside … innocent and shy as magnolias.”

In one diary entry, Woolf marvels at “the slipperiness of the soul”; “oh the delicacy and complexity of the soul,” she exclaims in another; she fantasizes about writing “a dialogue of the soul with the soul” in another still. In an entry from February of 1926, midway through writing To the Lighthouse, she resolves to begin each day on a new page — her self-professed “habit in writing serious literature” — and considers the craftsmanship of the soul:

As for the soul… the truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes; but look at the ceiling, at Grizzle [the dog], at the cheaper beasts in the Zoo which are exposed to walkers in Regent’s Park, and the soul slips in. It slipped in this afternoon.

Six years later, the soul slips in again in another direct encounter. In October of 1932, Woolf notes the odd dampening of her mood upon returning to London and contemplates, like Henry James did at the same age some decades earlier, the graces of aging:

Odder still how possessed I am with the feeling that now, aged 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are. Therefore all this flitter flutter of weekly newspapers interests me not at all. These are the soul’s changes. I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated.

But the soul slips in most of all when the body slips out. In an entry from December of 1934, 52-year-old Woolf recounts visiting a dying friend — the Bloomsbury writer, journalist, and film critic Francis Birrell, forty-five at the time — with her husband, Leonard:

Talk with Francis yesterday. He is dying: but makes no bones about it. Only his expression is quite different. Has no hope. The man says he asks every hour how long will this go on, and hopes for the end. He was exactly as usual; no wandering, no incoherence… The soul deserves to be immortal, as L. said. We walked back, glad to be alive, numb somehow. I can’t use my imagination on that theme. What would it be like to lie there, expecting death? and how odd and strange a death. I write hurriedly, going to Angelica’s concert this fine soft day.

Wherever one may stand on the question of the immortal soul — I happen to stand with Bertrand Russell — it’s hard not to feel that Woolf’s soul, that singular packet of her mind and personhood and creative spirit, is kept eternally alive by the very pages of her writing, especially her diary. Its exquisite “delicacy and complexity” emanates from the remembrances of those she left behind and continues to bewitch generations of “common readers” long after Woolf’s bolts sank her body into the river.

Complement A Writer’s Diary with Woolf on writing and consciousness, how to read a book, the malady of middlebrow, and her breathtaking love letters.

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28 JANUARY, 2015

Young Tolstoy’s Diaries: Time, Moral Development, and the Search of Self

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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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