Few literary artifacts remain as consistently enigmatic as the author’s journal. It seems to me that the more we read of them, the more elusive their provenance becomes. The very names we employ — the aforementioned “journal,” the stuffy “diary,” the tepid “notebook” — are failures of imagination, if not outright misreadings. Staid synopses and ossified lives these are not. Rather, what we find within their pages are wild, shapeless, violent things; elegant confessions and intricate codes; portraits of anguish; topographies of mind. Prayers, experiments, lists, rivalries, and rages are all at home here, interbred, inextricable from one another. A piece of petty gossip sits astride a transcendent realization. A proclamation of self-loathing becomes a paean to literary art. News of publication shares the page with the most banal errands imaginable. That juxtaposition, in which the profound and the prosaic rub elbows, creates the space for something like a revelation of character, one that finds the writer enmeshed in the sordidness of life, either striving to ennoble it or wading in its depths like warm mud.
While I disagree with the comments about nomenclature – often these reflect the times, and the habits, of the writers in question – I find journals to be among the most fascinating of works. I like reading about people’s lives: biographies, autobiographies, and journals. I have been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journals & Miscellaneous Notebooks over the years, all 18 volumes of it. I have dipped in and out of the existing volumes of the new edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, eight volumes of which have been published to date. Je me regale reading Cioran’s Cahiers, the 1,000-page transcription of his notebooks over a period of 15 years. John Cage’s Diary is fascinating, I recently bought a set of Samuel Pepys’ Diary, to go back in time and read the thoughts of a complex man in the 17th century, and Valery Larbaud’s 1,600-page Journal is in my to-be-read pile.
I think what is most interesting about these journals – whether they are written by writers or not – is the fact that they relate a life in progress. They show the good and the bad. Nothing is more moving than the entry in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journal where it is indicated that there is a blank page after the day of his son’s death. That silence, that empty page, from a man who wrote so much, is a profound statement of acute grief.