Louis Menand (and myself) on Diary Keeping


A photo of Louis Menand all chillin’ out ‘n’ shit. In front of books.
I have kept a diary on and off (but pretty much on, full on) since 1985. Holy Christ! That’s pretty much all my formative years and then some. So I’m always interested to read others’ diaries, or in this case a lengthy New Yorker article by Louis Menand on diary keeping. Here’s some choice passages:

And the superego theory, of course, is the theory that diaries are really written for the eyes of others. They are exercises in self-justification. When we describe the day’s events and our management of them, we have in mind a wise and benevolent reader who will someday see that we played, on the whole, and despite the best efforts of selfish and unworthy colleagues and relations, a creditable game with the hand we were dealt. If we speak frankly about our own missteps and shortcomings, it is only to gain this reader’s trust. We write to appease the father. People abandon their diaries when they realize that the task is hopeless.


The Superego theory describes my dairy-keeping out of the three choices (the other two are the Id and Ego), but I do not write to appease the father. Rather I write to shout out to my future self. What was I thinking back then? Oh, yeh, right. Subtle tonal shifts jump out when I reread my diaries (1995: what an angry prick I was!). But, yes, true, I hope someone reads my self-aggrandizing, yet self-pitying bollocks when I pass on. Mostly, I hope various women read it and wish to Christ they had slept with me. Ha ha! Too bad, I’M DEAD!!
Then there’s this about Samuel Pepys’ diary, which comes after some mundane samples of the famous diarist’s minutae. Menand says:

Meanwhile, the Restoration of Charles II, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War are taking place.

Yes, but strangely Pepys didn’t go on about it too much. (By the way, as you may know, my friend Phil is the man responsible for the Pepys Online Diary.) But then again, I don’t go on about the evil fascist junta that I have suffered under for seven achingly long years, either. I’m not a newspaper, thanks!

Menand then goes on to compare diarists who were interested in other people (Warhol) and those who weren’t (Reagan). He also seems to be interested in how famous diarists describe other famous people. It’s as if, in some impossible feat, you could combine all the celebrity diaries, cross reference them, plot them out chronologically, and then look at a certain scene from ten subjective points of view. (However, this event would probably turn out to be some tedious dinner-award show-function.) But then, this would be the perfect event for a Leo Lerman, who Menand talks about:

Lerman was a New Yorker—he was born in 1914 in what is now Spanish Harlem, into a lower-middle-class Jewish family—who had a long career as an editor, consultant, and writer at glossy magazines, principally Mademoiselle and Vogue. He served as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair for eight months, in 1983. It was the high point of his career, but he was sixty-nine, and his health was never good. He was replaced by Tina Brown, and he died in 1994. Lerman operated in the shadow of Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast and his great rival. But he was the sort of person without whom magazines like those could not exist: a gay man whose evenings were free to be spent at openings and parties, who went everywhere and knew everyone, backstage as well as onstage, and who could tell you whose star was about to rise, whose was falling, and who was about to go into treatment. Publishing a successful monthly magazine means being able to guess which names everyone will want to be reading about many weeks down the road, and you need scouts to do that. Lerman was a born scout.

I like that paragraph, mostly because I would like to have my finger on the pulse like a Lerman. Instead, I seem to have my finger on the toe.

This makes me all very reflective on my own diaries. I like other people, but I don’t describe them in my diary. When I mention someone, you as a reader would have no idea what they look like, how they talked, how they dressed, or any idea about their station in life. Yet, in general convo, this is what interests me. One reason is that I’m constantly behind in writing my diary (a point Menand never brings up–that shorthand entries may just be a way of catching up). Perhaps this is what Flickr will be for?? As a visual appendix?

Menand ends this way, still reflecting on Lerman’s recently released diaries (after all, this is a book review):

“At least we know that the only happiness is acceptance,” Lerman wrote to a friend in 1948. Thank God that’s not completely true, but acceptance is one source of happiness, anyway. Did Lerman feel accepted? It’s hard to say. There is a lot of self-doubt, and even self-pity, in the journals, and he might have reflected, on occasion, that famous artists returned his phone calls because they were phone calls from a man who worked at Mademoiselle and Vogue. But everyone has reflections of that kind. Only a few think it’s a good idea to store them up in a diary.

One thread Menand doesn’t touch on is one he may not have thought of: Diary as a written documentary (a written equivalent of what Thom Anderson says about old movies in ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself”). That the diary records, unintentionally in most cases, what it was like to just *be* in certain times of history. The mundanity is the point. That famous people sat around and were bored just like the rest of us…sometimes that’s a most comforting thing.

One thought on “Louis Menand (and myself) on Diary Keeping”

  1. Interesting, I look forward to reading the article (I’ll get round to the paper version eventually).
    I know that in the many times when I unfortunately go days or weeks without writing my diary I’m thinking that my calendar and my Twitters will help fill in some gaps for anyone interested in what I was doing in the future.

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