Friday, June 23, 2017

More on Diaries and the Everyday

I'm still reading Fanny Burney's diaries. They're fascinating. Already I've read her account of a masquerade (I did not realize participants were expected to remain in character, as well as wear the costume), a carriage accident, a storm at sea on a boating excursion (in a town where the women did all the manual labour while their husbands are away at sea, for months at a time), and any number of balls and dinner parties. Even in the 1770s, Fanny Burney was disdainful of Spanish bull-fighting, and expressed surprise it had not been abolished. However, she was also disapproving of Oliver Goldsmith's argument that capital punishment should be abolished for every crime except murder-- and Burney was noted for her humanitarianism.

But I'm not principally interested in the diary as a "window onto the past", or for its record of notable people and events (though that is interesting). In fact, quite the opposite is true; the thing I like most about it is its chronicle of ordinary days. The life of a genteel woman in the late eighteenth century is not so terribly different from my life, or from your life. Somehow, it's this that makes the diary so readable-- it's this that makes any diary readable. As I said previously, it's the atmosphere of the day-to-day, the ordinary, which gives it its charm.

I'm dissatisfied with my efforts on this blog, hitherto, to express my fascination with the daily, the quotidian, the ordinary-- the atmosphere which pervades every good diary. I will try again, now-- and doubtless many times in the future, when I once again fail.

First of all, I should say that  I'm fascinated by the opposite of the daily and quotidian as well. This is one of the reasons I'm so enthralled by tradition. Traditions take us into the realm of the timeless, or the almost-timeless. The sight of a Christmas tree or a Halloween bonfire draws us out of the current of the everyday, and into a kind of special time outside time.

The same could be said about so many other things. We can attain this feeling of timelessness by watching some classic film such as Casablanca or Groundhog Day, or by listening to a classic song or album, or by looking at good pictures in an art gallery. Perhaps to a greater degree than anywhere else, we get it from the silence of a church or cathedral. In all cases, we find ourselves contemplating something which seems to occupy a realm beyond change and transience.

(I've sometimes heard it suggested that we achieve this sense of timelessness in interpersonal love-- "eternity was in our lips and eyes", as Shakespeare puts it in the mouth of Mark Antony, describing his love for Cleopatra. I have not found this to be the case, whether the love was romantic, filial or any other kind. Quite the opposite; the transience of such moments are unbearably poignant. But perhaps other peoples' experience is different.)

Timelessness isn't the only state that contrasts with the quotidian. There are many others.

There is historical time. We slip into historical time when we read a history book, or watch a TV documentary about the American Civil War, or walk through a museum. Of course, I'm not just talking about history with a capital H here-- I mean sporting history, electoral history, art history, and so forth, just as much.

As well as this, there are many other rhythm of time. There is story-time, the sort of time we occupy in a narrative-- whether it's a movie we're watching or an anecdote we're hearing. There's dream-time, the strange current of time we occupy in dreams. There is phenomenon of being "in the zone", being so completely absorbed in some creative activity or problem-solving that we seem to enter another state of being. And there are many more.

The everyday contrasts with all of these-- although I would argue that it's not entirely separate from any of them, but to some extent encompasses them all, as a sea encompasses the islands within it.

How, then, can we describe the experience of "everyday"  time? Well, it's very hard to express. The best way I can try to express it, I think, is by listing the places where I find it embodied, other than diaries.

The daily news-- obviously. I doubt I'm the only person who finds poetry in the daily news. As usual, Chesterton puts it best, in an Illustrated London News article from October 1906: "A newspaper does not exist to give you information; it leaves that low work to encyclopedias. A newspaper exists in order to pass before you a panorama of this wonderful world. When you are growing washes you with politics. it purifies you with murders. All the articles are rot. You have not learned any facts about finance or education or military preparations. But you have had a vision; you have seen the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them."

(Just as slow, cloistered days make for my favourite diary entries, slow news days are my favourite news days. I love a day where a street protest in a far-off country is the top headline.)

I especially like news in the form of rolling news headlines at the bottom of a screen, especially when the main content on the screen has nothing to do with the news.

My mention of Chesterton's Illustrated London News article brings me to another example. Newspaper columns, whether in their original context or in a collected volume, are drenched in this aroma of the everyday. The same is true of old periodicals, loose or bound. The passage of time only makes the everyday-ness more striking, and more poignant.

Television shows are another great vessel of this atmosphere-- at least, they are for me. Not all television shows, but television shows which fall into TV Tropes's category of Status Quo is God. Whatever happens in the course of the episode, everything returns to the status quo at the end. This is especially true of situation comedies, like Cheers. Yes, there are significant plot developments, but they are rare. Life goes on, and sufficient unto the day is the evil (or the mishaps) thereof. This gives a sense of stability and security which is very comforting. And it's not only what's on the screen that is imbued with this atmosphere, but the thought of all the millions of sitting rooms in which these shows have been watched, over the years. (For some reason, "The One with All the Thanksgivings", an episode of Friends, is the example par excellence of this for me.)

Chart history is another example. I'm not talking about music history here, but music chart history.

Film review shows, such as At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert, are another example. Film magazines, which I used to read avidly, are another.

Other examples:

Timetables, especially old timetables; school, college, work, trains, TV schedules, etc.

Photographs of street scenes.

Recorded ad breaks from years past, which are now easy to find on Youtube (and which I love).

Old printed advertisements and handbills.

Work meetings, of a routine nature. (I'm one of the seemingly rare people who actually enjoys these, most of the time.)

Public announcements in train stations and airports.

Well, you get the idea. I'm sure you could add many examples of your own. But have I even started to express the poetry of all this, reader? I fear not.

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