[Blood-stained Diary of a US Civil War Soldier]
Questions of Genre
Anthology texts to read:
- Walter Benjamin: from The Arcades Project (1929-40 / 1999)
- Donald Keene: from Travelers of a Hundred Ages (1999)
- Thomas Mallon: from A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (1984)
- Sylvia Plath: from The Journals (1983 / 2001)
[28th July, 1936]:
[From Maison-Blanche lunatic asylum]
Open letter to M. the Procurator General of the French Republic, Argentine
Joan of Arc, Medium of first necessity, Chief Justiciary of the barbarous people and of the universe as a whole, wishes to remind you that certain remarkable antique Mediums have evaded their primary missions, on the pretext that they will be locked up if they reveal themselves. They prefer to act on their own; and we must bring to your notice that St. Cecilia is also locked up in Maison-Blanche, under her original private Initials obdqgxyz-abdqrgstuwaïz oubdqjasitgapdqaïrstuxwaïz honorific.
Is it also necessary to remind you that St. Theresia of the Infant-Jesus has gone herself to find M. the Doctor of the R.8. Armenian, 34 Quai des Orfèvres, who, in her absence, had given the sovereign order to evacuate the Asylums of Maison-Blanche, of Ville-Evrard, of Ville-juif, St. Anne, as well as all the district asylums? In collaboration with St. Anne and la petite Roquette, la Grande Roquette holds at this moment Mme J. T. J of Arc!
Do not fear, we shall provide henceforth for all your needs, in our common cause. We will train you, and we will have Exercises in Metallurgy done, in order to avoid falling back on Freemasonic Metallurgy, for it will be necessary to make that cease for the 1st definitive Last Judgment.
We shall also enter into an Astronomic period of incoherent principles, because nothing is hidden from the new personnel who have had themselves inscribed under their real pseudonyms; now, it has appeared to us that Morpheus of the Catacombs had forgotten to have herself recorded on our perfumed register of the most extravagant sects.
Do not be surprised to learn that between her and you there is no difference.
Listen to her!
– My very dear Joan of Arc J. T. I would be grateful, when you’re feeling tired of your destiny, as you did all last week, not to hesitate to call on us yourself. Why do you hesitate?
– Denise de Pégui and Germanie du Lac have been persecuted to such a point that they can’t contain themselves any more. This morning I went to Dufayel’s; I stationed myself there like a policeman, and attracted the attention of my friends, who recognized me as once. And, on principle, I began to argue with the others. All of them reproached me for still being interned in Maison-Blanche, which was not logical. They all reiterated their intention of extracting you by liquid means. Because they too feel for us; they suffer Martyrdom, it’s thus that Jupiter the 1st, in agreement with Rose, had themselves inscribed on our first registers.
They arrived last night, the night was as dark and black as ink …
– Jeanne, do you wish to tell me the principal Elements of your pure and healthy immaculate nature?
Jeanne, we have managed to penetrate the Grande Roquette and also St. Lazare; these hidden prisons are in the vicinity of Maison-Blanche; we have made certain reports, intended to determine certain divine astrological causes; It has appeared to us that Christine was employed as a nurse at Grande Roquette; the Senegalese are at the door of Maison-Blanche; and soon we shall see appear the Annamites of the Grande and the Petite Roquette!
All the prisons of the State are full of unnatural Monsters. Now, the important thing is to Rule over their domains. Jeanne we watch over you as well as over our very dear son and I beg you to believe that in the absence of Solferino, who is a secondary Master-at-Arms from the retreating army, we shall make him reveal who he is.
He knows it now, he has been warned of it, last trimester we recalled to him his treacheries towards us and we are disposed to put him at the foot of the wall, of the Great Wall, which will collapse at the Last Judgement, definitive this time. So do not be anxious; at present, because the acts of barbarism revolting in treachery will make and will give proof that Lucifer the 1st, Satan and Mercury the 1st will be the directors in so far as our appeals are concerned!
The 1st definitive L. J. is predicted for the 11 September 1936. A great worldly review will take place; and those interned in the Maison-Blanche will have to make proof of what they have heard and seen above all! Jeanne. I reply to the thought, I will have you take them yourself, as well as your geographical snapshots.
They must be terminated, because very soon a new Era will be at the door.
– Yes, it’s true; but that has been delayed because the exigencies of the barbarous peoples, at the last hour we will make you know that Our Rocchi, the Master at arms, will carry the arms of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Rocchi.
- Jeanne Tripier
from Lise Aurer: Le remémoirer de Jeanne Tripier (Paris: Erès, 1999): 202-27.
First of all comes the question, is it fiction or non-fiction? One might put it slightly differently. Is it a lie (deliberately feigned) or is it true (purportedly factual)?
Let's take the following three examples:
The scout-boat, struck rather than propelled by the shock-wave, tumbled bow over stern down towards the grey and brown planet, with Adam Reith and Paul Waunder bumping from bulkhead to bulkhead in the control cabin.
– Jack Vance, Planet of Adventure (1968)
Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky; it beats against my cheek,
And seems half conscious of the joy it gives.
– William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805)
- The world is all that is the case.
The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
- The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1921)
On the level of non-fiction, at least, the question seems quite easy to answer. If you go into most libraries, you'll find some variation on the following system in force:
The Dewey Decimal System:
100 Philosophy & psychology
300 Social sciences
500 Natural sciences & mathematics
600 Technology (Applied sciences)
700 The arts
800 Literature & rhetoric
900 Geography & history
As far as fiction goes, classifications are a little more historically contingent:
The Nine Muses from Greek Mythology:
- Calliope (epic poetry)
- Euterpe (music)
- Clio (history)
- Erato (love poetry)
- Melpomene (tragedy)
- Polyhymnia (sacred poetry and geometry)
- Terpsichore (dancing)
- Thalia (comedy)
- Urania (astronomy and astrology)
Or else some variant on the following:
Novels – Novellas – Short Stories - Graphic Novels
- Magic Realist
- Science Fiction / Fantasy
(Cyberpunk, Alternate History, Epic Fantasy)
(Harlequin, Mills & Boon, True Romance)
(Country-House, Noir, Hardbitten, Chandleresque)
(Spy, Supernatural, Horror, Ghost)
(Bodice-ripper, Napoleonic Navy, Ancient World)
But how does all that help us when it comes to diaries?
A diary is (at least in theory) a set of daily writings about the diarist's experiences which hopefully, despite being episodic by their very nature, will come to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
It truthfully records the day-to-day in order to perceive a large pattern of events without imposing such a structure deliberately.
It should, then, presumably be classified as non-fiction: Dewey 900, in fact: autobiography, history.
Some diaries do indeed record responses to significant historical events.
- Lady Daibu reports (albeit indirectly and largely at second-hand) on the war between the Taira and Minamoto Clans in late Heian Japan. Her own focus, however, is on her own attempts at poetry and the various romantic entanglements which inspired particular poetic exchanges. How day to day these jottings are, and how much they've been tidied up and polished subsequently is a matter for speculation. Dewey 800 might seem a better number for her.
- Daniel Defoe does indeed relate interesting historical details of the plague year (1665) in London, but this is definitely a fictional imposture: an historical novel, in fact. He writes in the character of someone who lived through the experience, even though he can have been no more than five years old at the time. You could call it a hoax (which in a sense it is) or a novel, but the significance of the latter term largely postdates his work - which indeed it helped create.
- Mary Chesnut's Civil War diary is a still more complex case. It has indeed been described as a "fake" by K. K. Ruthven in his Falsifying Literature (1999). Chesnut did indeed keep a diary during the years of the American Civil War (1861-65). She was indeed close to the Confederate centres of power, and privy to much gossip and official information. The diary as we have it, though, was written up and greatly fleshed out and expanded in the 1880s as a partial solution to her dilemma of how to write a connected account of her experiences in the war. The separate entries were not, then, actually written thus at the time, but they're mostly based on existing notebooks together with her subsequent recollections and reflections. Like Defoe, though, she keeps up the fiction of having written thus at the time (or near after it - a frequent practice for most diarists, who go back to fill in entries for missed days).
- Alice James constructs (or might be seen to construct) her illness as a kind of metaphor for the society she inhabits - patriarchal and imperialist. Hence her constantly reiterated concern with invalidism, femininity and Irish nationalism. Hence the insightful (or anacrhronistic - the choice is yours) readings of her text which came out from Feminist critics from the 80s onwards.
- Douglas Mawson is writing in a more conventional genre, the explorer's journal, with its own agreed-upon rules and expectations. Technical. "scientific" observations (geological, meteorological and zoological) alternate with pieces of narrative and description intended to be worked up for the - financially inevitable - eventual "popular" account of the expedition. No criticism of other members of the team can be included in the written-up version of the journal, though it may be freely indulged in the manuscript jottings.
- Jean Cocteau, as a professional literary man, sees the account of his battle with drug addiction as potentially bestselling copy. More to the point, though, it accords with a surrealist aesthetic of attempting to obtain access to the unconscious, uncensored regions of the mind: hence the strange drawings and poetic automatisms which accompany his text.
- Vaslav Nijinsky, though also a great artist in the field of dance and choreography, had no such deliberate intentions in producing this strange masterpiece. Its publication could be seen as more of a contribution to the field of psychiatry - being written while he was in the grip of the first waves of (incurable) mental illness - than as a piece of literature. The form in which we have it, too, is due at least as much to the editorial interventions of his widow Romola as it is to his own design in writing it.
- Lydia Ginzburg set out consciously to record a piece of history as it happened. In that sense, her aim was clearly to produce a kind of un-feigned "Journal of the Plague Year". Like Defoe, she editorializes and analyzes what she sees around her more than most diarists (she was, after all, by profession a literary critic), and clearly (like Chesnut) pondered her text for a long time before its eventual publication forty years after the events it describes.
- Arthur Koestler, too, is writing about a war. His diary comes from another fascinatingly complex genre: teh prison diary. Boethius, John Bunyan, Miguel de Cervantes, Antonio Gramsci, Adolf Hitler, Wole Soyinka - even the egregious Jeffrey Archer - have all made (or attempted to make) significant contributions to this field of writing. In Koestler's case, the immediacy and honesty of his diary entries, written in prison in Franco's Spain under the very real threat of imminent execution, have led him to retain only this portion of the book he wrote at the time: Spanish Testament (1937), as the rest began to seem to him more and more like dated (and largely inaccurate) communist propaganda.
- Denton Welch, finally, uses his diary more conventionally as a vehicle for autobiography, but turns his focus in most entries on intense evocations of past events suggested by trivial happenings in the present. His is the most Proustian of these diaries, the most preoccupied with "recollection in tranquillity" rather than the immediacy of the day to day.
One could go on to describe in similar detail the generic problems raised by each of our diaries:
I suppose the message here is to beware of too-facile categories. What all our diarists have in common is that they wrote well about interesting events. In other words, they produced artful versions of experience which are capable of conveying at least some aspects of that experience to their readers. Some wrote for publication, others not. Some wrote at the time, and were faithful to that first inspiration (or found subsequent editors who were); others re-shaped and "feigned" their texts over time.
We began with the problem of raw, "art brut" texts such as that produced by Jeanne Tripier or Henry Darger. She, it seems, was writing for an audience of angels and demogorgons which existed mainly in her head. He was writing for a kind of idealised version of the common reader, the audience for the magazines and popular novels he read. Can we find meaning in these texts without patronising or exploiting them, or reading them deliberately against the grain?
Even more challenging examples could be multiplied without too much difficulty: Alchemical or Rosicrucian texts intended for (real of imaginary) groups of illuminati; Hermetic or hieroglyphic texts interpreted in close (and historically most influential) detail by readers who remained in complete ignorance of their original cultural contexts; documents such as the fabled Voynich Manuscript which has defied all attempts to read, interpret, analyze or even describe it since its (re)discovery by rare-books dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 ...
[Travelers of a Hundred Ages]
“... as far as I know, only in Japan did the diary acquire the status of a literary genre comparable in importance to novels, essays, and other branches of literature that elsewhere are esteemed more highly than diaries.”
– Donald Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages (1999): 1.
Discussion of the course structure, assessment & nature of the assignments.
How we’ll be conducting the workshops – beginning (generally) with discussion of the prescribed texts, then any seminars which have been scheduled for that week, and finally moving on to your responses to the take-home writing exercises.
On this occasion, though, we'll be doing the following in-class exercise in pairs or threes, before reporting back to the whole group:
Discuss the following questions:
- What types of diary or journal have you yourself kept in the past?
- Travel? Course-related? Work-related? Engagements? Literary? Documentary?
- What would you, personally, be interested in writing about in your journal-writing in the future?