The Journal as Art: "Impossible Text"

Victor Muñoz


Every journal begins as self-communication and, to remain purely that, must pass from existence before or with its author. Related to the unposted letter, its privacy is warranted by the same conditions, and, when successful, a difficult subject to discuss since, almost by definition, no one ever sees anyone else’s, like snot among the polite.

A journal becomes, for present purposes, literature when it makes its way through intention or inadvertence to other eyes, when it becomes an intersubjective communication—the published version, the purest instance.

When a literary journal is, in addition, rich in intersubjective meaning and interpretation, we may call it to some degree an instance of the journal as art. This is a discussion of what I think is peculiar and significant about this kind of self-communication.



To while away the idle hours, seated the livelong day before the inkslab, by jotting down without order or purpose whatever trifling thoughts pass through my mind, verily this is a queer and crazy thing to do!

—Yoshida Kenko (1283–1352)

All they say about the literary journal is true. That it’s too easy a form, too much an outlet, a drain for the run-off, the excess, the scrap of expression attending the main business of living or writing. That it can become, through congeniality, a trap for creative energy, an impediment to artistic development. That perhaps its best literary role is the one of dedicated workbook, the place out of which a recognizably finished form will emerge but not a tool in itself subject to the same scrutiny art begs. Nearly always its penchant for narcissism narrows concern to the moment, or to the past—but only as a collection of personal moments. It is melancholy (as Baudrillard reminds us), except, perhaps, when it is taken up with some program of self-improvement and becomes sticky with hope. Usually, it has scant structure. It is directionless, neither forward- or outward-looking, nor polemic. Not "architectural and premeditated," according to Barthes, it is an "Album…of leaflets…, infinitely suppressible: rereading my journal, I can cross out one entry after the next, to the complete annihilation of the Album, with the excuse that ‘I don’t like this one’: this is the method of Groucho and Chico Marx…." Finally, with all this, it appears to sponge criticism so effectively it repels critics.

But as strictures disqualifying the journal from competition for a place in our aesthetic affections, these commonplaces are themselves too facile. Defects of motivation, social responsibility, utility, etiquette, etc., perhaps they are, but not of art. A proper defect in an aesthetic form would have to imply a failure to realize the integration of its essence, of the elements which compel its existence. To help raise the level of the argument and show respect due the subject, I will try for a measure of clarity concerning the mission of the journal, pressed to its limits. Its reputation, nurtured by the distracting commonplaces, has obscured what draws certain genius to this writing crazed by time.



EGOTIST, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

—Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)

Probably none of the truisms is more patent than the diary’s or the journal’s egoism. The feral tangle of the self, a formidable obstacle to effecting sympathetic motion in another’s sensibility, is a convenient snare for boredom. But exactly why the idea of self-absorption is so distrusted is somewhat obscure. Either it is the subject we cannot bear, or some peccancy in the manner or depth of presentation. The latter is the more defensible objection, we have to suppose.

April 29. Marian let me see her diary. This is what she writes every day: "I got up at 7:30; I got dressed, I had breakfast at 8:30 and went to school. Sister was very cross today and I had to stay fifteen minutes after school to repeat my lessons…. I went for a walk with Anaïs and had a nice time. I came home at 6. I did my homework and had dinner at 8. I wrote in my diary. It is already 9. I am going to bed now. Marian."

…That gives me an idea of what a real diary is like and I think I’ll do mine like that….

(But the young Anaïs reverted to her already old ways and went on to pursue her form to its now famous length and self-direction.) Marian’s is an example of a superficially self-absorbed journal, classically boring and susceptible to the withering effects of the truism’s accusation. We may excuse it as a child’s diary; but a child’s diary is the archetype that informs almost any beginner’s journal, so many of which never survive long enough to break from the elementary template. The circuit of attention at this basic level of egoism is too small for a depth of consciousness to develop and validate the effort. The journal project is then left undefended from all the moral and social forces that seek to break the circuit altogether and pull us away from ourselves. At this point the charge of egoism begins to sting. Commonly, just before it dies—is abandoned—the journal degrades to an annoying mirror, or worse, an object of self-loathing. To its credit, the pruning effect of the truism does help to keep the numbers down, a seldom noted aesthetic benefit of the moral criticism of art.

So, provided the self-absorbed circuit is ample, tries our intelligence or imagination, what still irks us? Isn’t acknowledged self-absorption a possible step toward self-transcendence and, as such, an advance over the all too common naive or semi-conscious varieties?

On the first page of his Diary, Gombrowicz bows to the obvious: "Monday: Me, Tuesday: Me, Wednesday: Me…," and proceeds anti-methodically to ply his spleen and genius to his exquisitely and deceptively narrow subject. Every aspersion of moral irresponsibility only makes more intrepid the true journal keeper—the one who has learned to speak in its voice and heard there something vaster than whatever we oppose to the ego. And while the narcissism of art should be confronted, the critic who can’t see past it, nowhere more glaring than in the diary, is too well-meaning to understand the need for it—art, not the narcissism. The charge is welcome when it serves to curtail the spread of mediocrity, but inappropriate at a level that matters—the level of beauty—and when it serves to distract from the greater problems of the form. At the level that matters, in any case, few have or develop enough ‘self’ to seed the notorious process. First class egotists are really quite rare.

But there is an even more basic reason why we must go further than merely tolerating a self-attention. If we expect intersubjective communication ever to penetrate beyond extended biological exigencies, beyond the animal grunts facilitating joint enterprises a vast proportion of the practice of language functions as, beyond a supporting role in the cohesion necessary for survival—it is important that we develop individual selves worthy of the discourse our putative collective self-image ordains. Our own depth is exercised through others, certainly, but from where will these deep selves arise if not, on their part, through self-attention?

Self-love is an antecedent of any other kind of love, speaking of truisms.



I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand, or move; if he say true, he lies.

—John Donne (1572–1631)

Why we should value sincerity, particularly in art, is not always clear. In its absence, where is the insult? Call a piece ‘sincere’ and the artist may rightfully pause since it is not a predicate with an unambiguous emotional train. So minimal an expectation is bound to seem almost off-color, if not irrelevant. Except at times in the history of art and literature when a cult of sincerity has raged—and even then what the artist sees in the concept is not what the moralist sees—the comment has usually smacked of understated compliment or overstated slight. Yet sincerity is often the star claim made on behalf of private writing, its moral raison d’être.

The moral expectation may be that the narrowness of the concept of sincerity—so complained of—acts profitably to crowd out the plump graces of social approval or the invitations to personal cowardice an audience seduces with. A leaner picture may emerge, it is hoped, of the truth or what self-gossip in the coziest quarters purports to worship as such.

In my little notebook I am obliged to practice an ostentatious sincerity, attempt the work Poe proposed entitling "My Heart Laid Bare," the one "no man could write…, even if he dared. [For the] paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen." But a compromise occurs early in the diarist’s act, perhaps in the very will to keep this account. Even supposing I do not intend or anticipate another reader, it is myself I can wish to persuade. And when is it we are not persuading? Surely not in the absence of others, though this might be when we have the best chance of success. The more private the lie, the more likely the hearer will be duped. One of the most ‘sincere’ philosophers, Wittgenstein (whose almost entire literary output was cast in the form of highly tentative, fragmented, private writing), prefaced a collection of his ‘remarks’ by saying he could not expect it to be freer of vanity than he himself was. The aspiration and, perforce, the pretension to sincerity is dubious when I have so schemed the event to exclude any judge but myself. Alone (in my garret, by candlelight…) can I appreciate my own sincerity? If I say yes, who am I sucking up to? Who cares? If I say no, who is making that judgment? The very idea of sincerity as ever an accomplished act is problematic, at a minimum, and, likely, a conceit. So it is no wonder pretensions to it get a side-long glance. (Even when no one is looking!) It only begins to look good when I consider the alternative.

We might (somewhat insincerely) salvage an aspect of the concept by straining to see it as a process, a dance of lies veering toward an extreme but truthful exhaustion. A willingness not to lie could begin with an admission that one might be. As Gombrowicz said of his Diary, "‘This is how I would like to be for you’, and not ‘This is how I am’." In this mannered step back, the form may have a moral superiority not only to its own more naive manifestations but to verse, plot or polemic. It is just conceivable it might gather into itself all the qualifications necessary for the truth, make itself ready, lie and wait for it—at least, if no more: The lucklessness of the enterprise explains, I suspect, a portion of the melancholy.



An unshaped kind of something first appeared.

—Abraham Cowley (1618–67)

The most distinguishing formal characteristic of private writing is its fragmentation. Times, dates, incidents, occasions—but beyond these and, more fundamentally, what determines the shape of the writing is an openness to revealing the seams of perception and deliberation. Where they appear, actual dates have only a historical (if that) importance for anyone but the writer, though they may function as the native punctuation of the form. The fracturing needn’t be so obvious as that following upon a calendar. When the date or hour, as an index, is so stressed that the diary’s function becomes mnemonic, then it also turns scientific, instrumental and, as such, imminently disposable but for the facts it reports—and not our topic here. The muse, concerned with accuracy of a different order, suffers little compunction in making of a date, time, etc., a stylistic device (as in Gombrowicz, Frisch, Baudrillard and many Japanese diarists). Though it may expand the genre to unforgivable proportions to include a mass of philosophical literature, doing so would help to dissolve some of the puzzles of style and classification connected with the writings of some of the Pre-Socratics, Montaigne, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Antonio Machado, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, E.M. Cioran, Vilhelm Ekelund, Fernando Pessoa, Elias Canetti, Andrei Sinyavski, Laura (Riding) Jackson, et al. To the extent deeply experienced time is creative and in constant strife with the eternal, it has become increasingly conscious of its passing significance, its necessary tentativeness and incompleteness. The existential stutter reaches such a pitch that even crowning a thought with a date is judged so much frippery. Obviously all writing bears at least a casual relation to time, but only in the journal and related forms does the calendar insist on leaving tracks. The journal’s relation to time is essential without needing to be specific. The question, here, most pertinent to the keeper of these forms, is what has its explicit indication to do with substance?… There is, in effect, always a reference to time, however muted. Mortality insures that even a seamless journal (reflecting the lyrical aspirations of its keeper) is broken at its heart: It must be ready to leave off any moment. Novels, treatises, symphonies might remain unfinished, but who has ever heard of the unfinished diary? More cause for melancholy.

But do we abdicate an artistic responsibility to uphold the crafted, labored image? Art shouldn’t be so easy, aren’t we being lazy? Assuming the question is not meant in the same philistine spirit we might hear Munch or Klee unfavorably compared to Vermeer or Botticelli, I take it to express the understandable fear that so democratic a form as the diary, allowed pride of place, would somehow bring on a general devaluation. Too many responses one could make…but I retreat. While insisting that I don’t argue here for the existence of a single instance of the journal as art, I do assert the formal space should one come about. I would rather cast my argument as a challenge: You, as a private keeper of what you would have us believe is a truth about your experienced or reflected life, are up against it more than you, as a weaver of fiction or builder of theory. Still, I imagine I have glimpsed a rarer beauty in even a lame truth.



But everything human is fragmented.
Not even Plato himself was dressed for the music he spoke of.

—Vilhelm Ekelund (1880–1949)

So glibly we excuse the journal its untidiness…but why, granting and setting aside the plea for space, should it be abetted? The fractured, aleatory, episodic we accept; the room is theoretically there, but where is the urgency to fill it? Moreover, while nothing logical may prevent a self-communication from evincing a wealth of intersubjective meaning and interpretation, doesn’t the integrity of the one preclude the artifice of the other? This seems to be what makes the very idea of the journal as art psychologically paradoxical.

In Max Frisch’s Sketchbooks the search for authenticity—the state of being whose expression sincerity is—finds its vehicle in the diary. In discussing it, Evelyn Moore writes:

Everything must be alluded to, nothing should be fully delineated. Essentially, the outline conveys the meaning. To state anything explicitly destroys the ability of the words to express universal truths because that limits the reader’s ability to expand upon these things, to fill the gaps with imagination. Completeness forces upon the reader a vision that, if it is too concrete and complete, he cannot accept as authentic.

This is also the aesthetic of the 14th Century Buddhist priest and diarist, Kenko, as Moore explains in her paper comparing him with Frisch.

The heritage of the nikki bungaku (poetic or literary diary) can be traced at least to the 8th Century. The highly elliptical, vibrantly allusive, temporally present traits of Japanese literature—familiar to us from the Japanese novel (our form, given back to us, transformed) and such poetic forms as haiku—were nurtured in the interstices of the nikki. There, time, made intimate with being, is entrusted to craft a form for it, in contrast to the willful, teleological inclination of Western figures, but now diminishingly evident, for instance, in certain forms of the avant-garde novel. Why persist calling it a ‘novel’?—the heart of which, the plot, is a millenarian vestige and ought to be an embarrassment to our more edgy sensibility. The contours of much of our art still remain an homage to what we are not but vaguely imagine that we should be, still aiming at catharsis through edification, a building toward and away. Though awareness of the formal lag is hardly new in the European tradition (a few voices having always carried—witness the list above), certain trappings haven’t fallen away and still seem able to dim perception of the change in our relation to time and what this requires of the forms we express in. The truths about our being, the ones we used to have to squint to see at the vanishing point of our efforts, have passed over the horizon and left us with an undeveloped sense of the present—a particularly critical state if those ideals, visions of the future in the distance, have collapsed. If we continue to see them, it is a stark act of faith.

Not to suggest anything so simple as a move toward Eastern principles of art or living—rather, that we shouldn’t have to feel so adventurous or revolutionary in fashioning a timely vessel for the expressive contents of our being. While we may have been (and will go on) inventing remarkable shapes, the wheel has been around a good long spell. The East/West link here is instructive, principally, for bringing to focus the two essences of time-bound private writing, authenticity and fragmentation. The two notions come to define the journal (diary, notebook, etc.). Their coincidence is not arbitrary.

Keen to the journal’s temptations and snares, Barthes conceded at least one diary keeper he could read "without irritation": Kafka. Why is revealing: the non-artificial rhythm of his diaries. Kafka contrives to find and maintain the voice to speak more truthfully in the face of an inevitable artifice than under a licentious honesty (and all honesty, on a conscious plane, is affected). Not surprisingly, "K." barely manages a discrete identity even in his fiction.

Blanchot saw in Joseph Joubert one who made of his "journal-as-trap" an expression specific enough to his literary debility to seem genuine but not without torturing a fit to the traditional genres; the language of a ‘book’, of a ‘work’, always eluded him, the pieces resisted those patterns, insinuating, rather, their own integrity—that of the journal. Joubert, like Wittgenstein, it could be argued, never dared past his pile of observations and reflections, but the possibility that the quality of his reality came to feel thus correctly presented is too abiding to be dismissed.

A morally inescapable lucidity and the passionate structuring of an aesthetic faculty, in the interest of wholeness, may both insist on expression in the same medium at once. When this "virtually impossible text" (Barthes) succeeds, a slightly invisible coherence emerges. Blanchot tries to speak of it:

Fragmentation, the mark of a coherence all the more substantial for being attained through the necessity of undoing itself—not by a dispersed system, nor through fragmentation as a system, but by staging in pieces (a shredding of) what has never existed (ideally or otherwise) as a whole and may not again in some future guise reconstitute itself. The spacing through a timing that can only be grasped—fallaciously—as the absence of time.

But the occasions for their false coming together, for travesty, in a form as generous are proportionately great.



…maybe consciousness even preceded us in death, maybe it arrived before us to initiate us into the white light of nothingness that awaited us there…

—Marie-Claire Blais (1939– )

The conventional journal, as a record, is too mindlessly empirical, too inhumanly serial; the fictional literary forms, too visionary or escapist—they step out of time. Human time sits on the journal, keeping at bay the "unbearable lightness" of the purely aesthetic. This is why we push the journal toward art and not, say, the novel toward some time-bound state to which it has historically been only too willing to submit but rather as a consequence of its lightness. (The number of published fictions in journal form is vast and ever growing.) We push against a natural current, a fact belied by the apparent ease of the project.

This most difficult of shapes for art to inhabit, yet, is exactly the literary challenge of the time. Watching committed writers with increasingly disfigured countenances haunting the old houses of literature may continue for some time to offer entertainment, but the range of elicitable, unmannered reactions is diminishing. We are invited to share in a sarcasm or an ankle-deep nostalgia. They keep wanting to replace the mirrors their faces break.

A set of ambitions, entailing the ‘work’ or finished piece, accompanies the act of writing. The value of the premeditated work is extracted at the price of a distortion of being—a call to undo which, one would think, would be forthcoming. The entire set bears down as a pridian commitment and seeks to extend itself, grow and develop apart even from the writer, and actually puts words in the writer’s mouth or on the page, as it were, that—together with the writer’s vanity or because it is that vanity—urges a grander, more momentous statement than a clock or a calendar has room for in its parceled spaces. You will dissemble under this pressure in any event, but not in a human way unless kept to a schedule. At a certain elusive pace the truth, or what of it we are to be treated to, will get accomplished. To find that pace, it is our will that we should subject to our will; it is, to itself, a stintless enough charge.

The will to consciousness has so failed to locate us, to find us any place, and so corrupted—made a ruse of—every craft, every reach for order or form, that time, its steady givenness, is (again) offering to become the arbiter of authenticity, that supreme object of conceit. The space it clears for the soul is both lavish and quartered. Allowed to sing in its cell—but it is allowed to sing! Under the auspices of the day, the moment…the journal, vademecum of the soul, the literary form of consciousness itself, through its rhythmic circumscription, reintroduces ritual to the abandonment of the lyric, plays moralist to the aesthete, secreting for awhile (until the next thing) the truancy of any higher illusion, any God or the big Self...

The set begins to bear down too hard on me.

Should it have occurred to anyone (but myself) that the journal tending toward art might require justification in terms of whether it is a good or a bad thing "to while away the idle hours" with, or in some salvation it might offer, the best I have prepared is a moral excuse and aesthetic permission. But it would be wrong to think that all literary genres have these equally, or that once acquired they cannot be lost.




The typology based on exposure is derived in part from Andrew Hassam’s article, "Reading Other People’s Diaries", University of Toronto Quarterly, 56:3 (1987). One based on motive can be found in Roland Barthes, "Deliberation", Partisan Review, 47:4 (1980), also printed in Susan Sontag’s A Barthes Reader. There are others based on focus, public or intimate, and ones sorted by their relation to time, whether time is measured by events or experienced as flow. Earl Miner considers these last two in the introduction to Japanese Poetic Diaries (University of California Press, 1969).

Is my subject just introspective private writing? Where do I place outward looking journals (nature, travel, historical, etc.)? To the extent the keeper’s perspective has no critical bearing on what is being described, I would call the writing an incipient micro-history or a chronicle in the making—not a diary proper. It would be a report to someone, even if that someone was only the keeper. The writing must come from an individual subjectivity for what I am going to say here to apply. So these ostensibly extroverted orientations are not automatically disqualified. Thoreau’s vision of Nature, for example, was stamped with his individuality, his mental economy.



Kenko’s words are from his diary, translated as Essays in Idleness, excerpted in Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature (Grove Press, 1955). Six centuries later Jean Baudrillard echoes, "The journal is a subtle matrix of idleness" (Cool Memories, Verso, 1990).

Baudrillard, Ibid.

Barthes, Ibid.



The Bierce definition is from The Devil’s Dictionary (Hill and Wang, 1957).

Nin quotes her young friend, Marian, in Linotte: The Early Diary of Anais Nin, 1914–1920 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978). I owe this reference to Olivia Dresher.

Witold Gombrowicz, Diary: Volume 1 (Northwestern University Press, 1988).



"A Lame Beggar", one of the Epigrams in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (The Modern Library, Random House, 1941).

On the subject of sincerity and journals, see Henri Peyre, Literature and Sincerity (Yale University Press, 1963), especially chapter 7.

Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia in The Centenary Poe (The Bodley Head, 1949). Also quoted in Peyre.

Ludwig Wittgenstein expresses his modesty in the forward to Philosophical Remarks (University of Chicago Press, 1975). He published only one book, one short article, and one review during his lifetime, and much of what he said there he repudiated.

Witold Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament (Calder & Boyars, 1973), Chapter 8.



The Cowley quote came to me from Poe, who gives it a wry gloss in his Marginalia. It is, Poe writes, from Cowley's poem, "Creation". But I have not been able to verify this.



Vilhelm Ekelund, The Second Light (North Point Press, 1986). The fragment quoted is from the selection, Elpidi, 1939.

Evelyn Moore, "Aesthetic Records: A Comparison of Max Frisch’s Tagebuch 1946–49 and The Diary of Kenko, Essays in Idleness", Comparative Literature Studies, 25:2 (1988).

Barthes, Ibid.

Maurice Blanchot, "Joubert and Space: An Author Without a Book, a Writer Without a Manuscript", in The Siren’s Song, Selected Essays (Indiana University Press, 1982).

Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (University of Nebraska Press, 1986), Ann Smock, translator. However, the translation used here is mine and differs slightly from Smock’s.



Marie-Claire Blais, Deaf to the City (The Overlook Press, 1987).

An extensive bibliography of diary fiction can be found in H. Porter Abbott’s Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (Cornell University Press, 1984).


For the impetus behind some of the thinking in this essay I am in debt to many heated discussions with Olivia Dresher, whose knowledge of the subject and collection of journals is impressive.

This essay, originally written in 1990, is from the anthology, Darkness and Light: Private Writing as Art, edited by Olivia Dresher and Victor Muñoz, Lincoln, NE.: toExcel Press, 2000. Represented here with the permission of author and publisher.

Copyright © 2000 and Victor Muñoz

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