The Boston Globe, IDEAS section
December 1, 2002
SAMUEL PEPYS INVENTED THE MODERN DIARY, KURT COBAIN MAY HAVE KILLED IT.
By James Parker
IT MAY BE TOO early to pronounce it dead, but the diary as a literary form is certainly edging toward the end of its natural term. Its close relations are flourishing: the memoir, the spiritual travelogue, the therapeutic excavation. But the humble diary, the daily catalogue of events and impressions - well, just take a look around. That Starbucks scribbler, bent low over his notepad, cradling his pale secrets in the half moon of his spinal curvature, he's not writing a diary. No sir - he's writing a journal. There might be poems in there, or philosophical musings, but never a diary. Not for him the humdrum names and places, the homely din of the everyday. Catch his eye and he'll blink at you thickly, dreamily, immersed in his own depth. For him, you're barely there.
Samuel Pepys, the great 17th century English diarist, would not have approved. For it was Pepys, as Claire Tomalin explains in her excellent new biography "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self" (Knopf), periwigged Pepys with his roving eye, who pioneered the special mode of self-awareness in which all this recording activity occurs, and he was no depth psychologist. The immediate was everything: "One thing of familiarity I observed in my Lady Castlemayne," he wrote on June 7, 1668, "she called to one of her women . . . for a little patch off her face, and put it into her mouth and wetted it, and so clapped it on her own by the side of her mouth, I suppose she feeling a pimple rising there." A pimple on the face of the king's mistress - what a marriage of the great and small that makes. Pepys had no time for profundity; the pressure and sound of the outer world - be it the crowd groaning as the ax came down on Charles I's neck, the roar of the Great Fire of London, or the noise of his wife Elizabeth railing at him downstairs - was too great. Nor was it in Pepys's nature to linger too long over anything. In an age of religious fervor he was devoutly secular and noncontemplative - indeed Tomalin makes a convincing case for him as a genuine skeptic - and he managed to keep himself politically unaligned as heads literally rolled around him (though he couldn't avoid a brief sojourn behind bars for "piracy, Popery and treachery" in his later years).
The middle of the 17th century was a testing time for any Englishman associated with power, royalist or republican, and Pepys's more or less unimpeded rise from tailor's son to a prestigious administrative position in Charles II's Navy was a small masterpiece of discretion. No doubt it was this guardedness in public life that led him to be so delightfully unbuttoned in his diary, chronicling his bowel movements, his dancing lessons, his willing enslavement by every passing fancy. Spying an attractive woman in the street, for example, he would "dog" her at a distance to find out where she lived. A sort of Seinfeld in his time, Pepys preserved a magnificently petty human scale in the face of all reality's assaults; as the world waxed and waned around him, with all its incitements to change and growth, he kept his selfishness and above all his lewdness intact. This, really, was his victory. His sex life is a gift to us all. Edited out until as recently as 1970 were the clumsy rolls beneath alehouse tables and the gropings in horse-drawn carriages, generally rendered in his unique personal porno style: "and yo did take her, the first time in my life, sobra mi genu and poner mi mano sub her jupes and toca su thigh, which did hazer me great pleasure." Pepys was already writing in shorthand, so there's no reason to suppose that he was using French and Spanish words as a code to protect his erotic reminiscences - his language was truer to the task than that, being a foaming polyglot precipitate formed by sexual excitement itself.
There had been diaries before his. In fact, several of his notable contemporaries, unknown to each other, were launching themselves into their own experiments with journal-keeping. But Pepys's was the first to totally escape the character of either an official ledger or a religious exercise, of the sort recommended by John Beadle in his "The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian," published in 1656. Tomalin's title comes from an essay in praise of Pepys by Robert Louis Stevenson: "But whether he did ill or well," wrote Stevenson, "he was still his own unequalled self." And part of her book is the presentation of Pepys as a modern man experiencing himself, the self, which at that time was still virgin space, pristine and laboratory-bright. She calls him "the secret scientist" - one who used the new tools of scientific detachment (as president of the Royal Society, Pepys was well within the current of contemporary thought) for his great private experiment. It's an interesting argument, although how well it bears up against the sublime banality of some of the Diary is open to question. Here's the first entry, all of it, for 1662: "Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry, and so to sleep again."
. . .
If Pepys was embarking - more or less unaware - upon something fresh and untried, Kurt Cobain was winding something up, and he knew it. Rock god and valetudinarian, angel-headed and pajama-jacketed, Cobain had a good grip on one thing only: his place at the end of the line. Modernity was finished. "I feel there is a universal sense among our generation that everything has been said and done," he wrote in his journal. "Words suck." "I had exhausted most conversation at age nine." "Rock and Roll: 30 years = Exhausted!" Music for him was orgasm and aftermath, the shower of sparks and the great groaning that was Nirvana's sound, and he did not expect to survive it.
This season's "publishing sensation" is the release of (some of) Cobain's journals in facsimile - pages of cheap ink on cheap stationery, come as you are. Compare this rapid laying-bare (he's been dead eight years) with the creaking two-century journey of Pepys's diaries toward publication; although carefully preserved, they lay buried in his library (bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge) until in 1819 a student undertook to decode Pepys's shorthand, not knowing that the key - Shelton's "Tachygraphy" - was also in the library. It took him three years. But history, of course, moves faster these days. Sold by the Cobain estate to Riverhead Books for a seven-figure sum, and presented to the reader without explanation, preface or apology, like something found on a subway seat (there are some minimally helpful notes in the back, but so what), the Cobain journals are an event of the wrong sort, a media gambit that not even the perpetrators fully understand.
What's this book for? For Christmas, obviously. The sight of the black-jacketed hardcover on the shelf will make you itch like a consumer: enthralled, horrified, dozily quizzical. Of course, the contents are fascinating. Cobain kept a journal for years, although "kept" might not be the word - he thought not like a writer but like a garage musician (which he was), and his creative economy required a tremendous amount of wastage, excess, noise, disgust: "the river will never dry up for it is fed by the mountains which will always be addicted to boredom." The notebooks, with their rants and fantasies and idees fixes, are not creative so much as pre-creative - a snapshot of the germinal imaginative squalor from which his songs were formed. His contempt for the ordinary, for "basic everyday sitcom happenings," is pronounced, and he turned happily from it into the embrace of what he wouldn't stop calling "heroine."
Here he was free - free to watch the "plankton" drifting down across his field of vision, free to run his tongue across the roof of his mouth and note to himself that "it feels like a small ribcage," free to conjecture about his blood becoming "chowder rust." The Journals make it clear that Cobain lived in a swarm of private imagery, of seahorses, lactating men, and "flipper babies," all circulating with some violence. But then we already knew that from the music. This crippled poem of a man, when some pages of his notebook were stolen on tour, wrote to the anonymous thieves that "you have raped me harder than you will ever know." Now all his privacy is gone, and it can't be helped: a fame of that magnitude is solar, unforgiving, it brings all things to light. The ones he left behind have colluded in his final exposure, and that irony, too, is burned-out.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.