In post after post on this blog, I find myself seeking to convey some enthusiasm or other, usually some private and idiosyncratic enthusiasm. Readers, I worry, might become quite fatigued by this. "You may find this fascinating", I imagine them thinking, "but why should we?".
Perhaps this desire to articulate strange enthusiasms derives from the attitude I had towards poetry (both writing it and reading it), back in my teens and early twenties. I thought of myself primarily as a poet back then.
It seemed to me obvious that poetry should seek to convey some unusual or novel emotion or impression. Writing on well-worn themes seemed to be cheating. It's strange I thought like this, since so much of the poetry I loved related to the great constants of human life. But so it was. I spent a great deal of time trying to think of subjects no poet had tackled. It never occurred to me that a great poet like Wordsworth was capable of writing both an extremely original poem like his sonnet on Westminster Bridge, and also the millionth poem about flowers, when he wrote "The Daffodils". (For the pedants out there, I realise he never actually gave it that title.)
In any case, where I once strained after idiosyncracy, I now feel rather embarrassed by it.
On the other hand, perhaps striving to convey enthusiasm is a good thing. It seems to have been a lot of what my hero, G.K. Chesterton, was all about. It also describes some of my own favourite pieces of writing-- such as Keith Waterhouse's article on the Button Fairs of his childhood, or his rhapsody on a box of cheese he bought (and ate) while on holiday.
So here goes. In this post, I am going to tackle my "chronomania", a passion for chronicles and chronicling which I have always harboured, but which has been particularly strong lately.
I have written a great deal about my diary on this blog, so I am not going to return to that subject here... much to your relief, no doubt.
Here are some things which arouse my chronomania.
The very words "chronicles" and "annals". (How often these are used to evoke grandiosity!)
Whenever a sports commentator or political reporter says: "History is made tonight", or "So-and-so writes himself into the history books", or "I think you'd have to scour the history books to find etc. etc."
Any reference to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a chronicle of events in British history which was kept independently by various monasteries. (We have our own version in Ireland with the Annals of the Four Masters, as well as other works.)
Any reference (for instance in biographies) to the chronicles kept by individual monasteries.
Any reference to visitor's books in hotels and other establishments.
Any event which is annual, or otherwise regular, such as the Oscars, the Olympics, the World Cup, the Eurovision, the music charts, elections, etc.
Diaries and journals, (as long as they are not something boring and utilitarian such as a food diary).
The archives of newspapers.
"This day in history" columns.
The phrase "the annals are silent" or "the sources are unclear" as used when writing about history of some kind. This emphasises the preciousness of the record, and creates mystery.
In general, I don't get excited by chronicles that are too dry or utilitarian. Parish and school registers can be fairly interesting, but only as a source. One imagines that ten minutes browsing one would satisfy most people, unless you were looking for something in particular. Similarly, I am baffled by the fascination that our distant ancestors seemed to have for genealogies and king lists, which seem so important in most pre-literate cultures.
The appeal of any archive, to me, is that it is not too narrow nor yet too overwhelming. It has to be, even in principle, capable of comprehension (if only in outline) by one person. The monarchs of England are a good example. An average person could hope to remember all (or most) of the monarchs of England, even if we go back to Anglo-Saxon times. Nor would this simply be a list of names, but it would inevitably include some biographical knowledge. Of course, this knowledge could be extended indefinitely, since whole libraries have been written on this subject. That is part of the joy of the thing. It's a paddle pool that can extend to the size of an ocean.
(As should be obvious from this example, I'm using "chronicle" to mean either a literal source, or a chronicle in a more abstract sense-- the chronicles of English monarchs, for instance, which are not to be found in any one volume.)
Against this there are archives so massive that only a computer could hope to comprehend them-- for instance, census returns. These are very interesting, but not in the way I'm writing about here. Mass Observation is another example.
Archives don't have to be deliberately created to give me this pleasure. For instance, the archives of newspapers are not deliberately created as archives. The archival aspect is incidental. Another example are the archives of websites. I rarely mention the Irish Conservatives Forum which I set up a few years ago, but I'm happy to report it's still going strong. I was delighted when I realised its archives formed a kind of tour of recent Irish and international history, seen from a conservative perspective.
This blog wouldn't work as an archive so well, since I tend not to write on many topical issues.
Why the fascination with chronicles? I've thought about this a lot and I'm pretty sure of the answer. Life is very messy, chaotic and enigmatic. The structure that a chronicle puts upon the flux of life is intensely pleasing.
To put it like that suggests that such a structure is simply a comfort blanket, an insulation from reality. However, I think the psychology of the thing is more subtle than that, and less pathetic.
I think its the fusion of flux and structure which is so appealing to me. The same appeal, I would suggest, lies at the heart of most art-forms. Take stories, for instance. Stories are pleasing because they are a fusion of life's messiness with the pattern of the narrative. If the story is too rigidly patterned, it takes away from the pleasure. A good story gives the impression of real life going on around the characters, of a solid world with its own preoccupations and business quite aside from the events of the narrative.
The same thing applies to poetry. Poetry (especially poetry that is rhymed and metrical) combines the spontaneity of speech with the structure of verse. A great part of the skill involved is making the verse rhyme and scan without losing the impression of natural speech, of how a person actually talks. Poetry that is too obviously contrived to fit into the verse is generally poor poetry. As Yeats put it, in lines I have quoted before:
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
The harmonious reconciliation of contraries seems to be something that gives human beings intense pleasure, in this and many other instances.
The pleasure of chronicles, I would suggest, also lies in another meeting of opposites; the interaction of memory and oblivion.
Memory cannot be understood aside from oblivion, from forgetting. Imagine if you could perfectly recall everything that happened in your life, down to the minutest details. Or if we somehow all had immediate knowledge of everything that had happened in human history from the beginning of the species. I don't know about you, dear reader, but that to me is a horrible thought. Would you really forego moments such as the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux? Or the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamen? Or the moment in your own life when you come across an old photograph, or hear a song that you had forgotten about and that brings a host of memories flooding back to you?
Annals and sources and chronicles, to me, are partly appealing because what is saved is only a fraction of what is lost. Scenes and figures stand out against a black background. This is especially noticeable in historical moments for which there are a limited number of eyewitnesses, and where we rely more than usual upon eyewitnesses. Examples of this are the final hours within the General Post Office during the 1916 Rising, the sinking of the Titanic, and the life and death of Jonestown, the cult which ended in mass suicide in 1978.
But chronicles in general have this characteristic of fragments rescued from oblivion, of shafts of light penetrating darkness. Obviously, this is more or less true depending on the nature of the chronicle, but it's true to some extent of them all. For instance, we know almost nothing about many of the early Popes other than their names.
Dear reader, has your imagination caught fire from mine, at this point? I hope so. If it hasn't, I don't think further words will do it.