Everyone has kept a diary, at least for a day or two, and
some have kept them religiously for years, even made a kind
of religion of them. Recently I came upon a book, whose sections
were the months of the year, and each day of each month had
an entry taken from various diaries. Apart from the calendar,
there was nothing unifying in the book. The diaries gleaned
for its purposes were from different centuries, different
countries. It was an omnium gatherum, a kind of paean to the
per accidens. If there is little other than the chronological
in any journal or diary, this compilation underscored the
disconnected trivia that seem to make up our lives.
I was going to end that sentence with, 'alas.' David Thoreau
said that most of us lead lives of quiet desperation. He exempted
himself, of course, repairing to Walden Pond to get away from
an urban hustle and bustle that would strike us in the 21st
century as serenely idyllic. Thoreau was a bit of fake, as
it happens, sneaking off to the wicked city for respite from
solitude, and failing to enter such forays in his account
of his supposedly hermetic existence there by the pond. There
is something artful in any attempt to portray a life devoted
only to big thoughts and the abiding sense that one is not
like the rest of men. Hence the absence of 'alas' above.
Embodied as we are, our minds are constantly bombarded by
sensory reports, disconnected and fleeting. No wonder William
James called mental activity a booming buzzing confusion.
Some philosophers have succumbed to the temptation to see
themselves as simply minds, pure reason, floating above the
sensible and changing panorama about us. But our thoughts
apart from their dependence on the senses are empty; better,
non-existent. However artful or artless, diairies and journals
make inescapable the realization that we are mired in contingency.
The journals of Paul Claudel have been my companions over
many years, ever since my wife brought back from Paris the
two volume Bibliotheque de la Pleaide edition of them. Of
course the entries are random, many references obscure, no
matter the care with which the journals have been annotated.
There are many accounts of meetings, readings, reflections
on this or that. One notices the constant citing of the Vulgate,
making the journal a kind of florilegium of biblical texts.
Why does it fascinate so?
Some keepers of journals published them, suitably rewritten.
Julien Green, for example. The term 'journal' becomes equivocal.
The shaping and editing of one's random daily musings becomes
another thing. One wants the thing raw or not at all. The
revised journal imposes a meaning, as if life were a story
whose events build toward some peripety thanks to which everything
falls into place. Is the choice one between an imposed intelligibility
or absurdity? Claudel's journal is permeated with his Catholic
outlook, the fleeting and ephemeral are usually seen sub specie
St. Paul tells us of being swept up into the heavens, whether
in the body or out of the body, he knew not. But by and large
the epistles present us with a bossy, earthy man, driven by
zeal all over the known world, constantly buffeted by his
thorn in the flesh. The Incarnation provides us with the key
to understanding, to being reconciled with, our embodied existence.
The great spiritual writers, in their accounts of meditation,
begin with sensory images, much as Jesus spoke in parables.
In stories we are given an account, proportioned to our embodied
souls, that provides a meaning to our otherwise unintelligible
Shakespeare called man a little less than the angels. Poetic
licence, no doubt; we are a lot less than the angels, and
whether in epistemology or religious practice, it is well
to remember that. The state of the human soul from the time
of death to the last times is mysterious. How can the separated
soul, without a body, without memory, without senses as the
source of ideas, remember or think at all? St. Thomas suggests
that the souls of the departed are given infused knowledge,
not unlike that of the angels. But the final word is that
we, like Jesus and Mary now, will be again embodied, persons
The resurrected body is a puzzle of its own, of course; Jesus
passes through locked doors and then wants a little fish to
eat. But what would the triumph over death mean if we didn't
get our bodies back?
Meanwhile, the corporeal and sensible are both our means to
arise to something more and the greatest impediment to it.
Life, it has been said, is a book in which we set out to write
one story and end by writing another. But out lives are intelligible
stories to God alone. For us, life is a bewildering congeries
of the intended and accidental. And we cannot say 'alas' to
that without wanting to be other than we are. Meanwhile, diaries
must substitute for the Book of Life.