How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d …
– Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard, Lines 207-210
Towards the end of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mary Svevo (Kirsten Dunst) recites these lines from Alexander Pope’s 1717 Eloisa to Abelard, the exclamation at line 209 a acknowledging the bitter irony of the film’s title. It centres on the sinister, sad Lacuna Inc., a corporation that provides a ‘memory erasure service’ for couples who want to forget not only their traumatic break up but their relationship itself. For me, the beating heart of the film has always been Mary: the clinic’s receptionist, she agrees to undergo the procedure after her relationship with her boss is discovered by his wife. She cries when she gets drunk, but she can never remember why.
Ignorance, then, isn’t necessarily bliss. Eternal Sunshine was a favourite film of mine throughout my adolescence, when memory or, more accurately, the process of memorialisation, of diary-keeping, was an obsessive concern. This is far from rare. Like adolescence, the diary is a balancing act that teeters between self-expression and self-obsession, recurring again and again in cultural representations of teenage life, from Adrian Mole to Heathers’ Veronica Sawyer. Diaries, however, aren’t something we grow out of, and the form has long been a structural gift to fiction writers, linking easily accessible interiority with a strong chronological narrative. The line between fact and fiction is difficult to draw: often, authors use their diaries as material. Virginia Woolf assuaged her qualms about the style of her diary by thinking of it in part as a record for posterity, for ‘old Virginia’, and in part as the foundation for a work of fiction:
‘I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.’
Such an outward focus, however, is hard to maintain. Joan Didion writes that to think of a diary as an exercise in gathering material is an act of self-delusion:
‘I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. […] My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.’
Of course, the discipline of daily observation is useful for the aspiring novelist, just as the practice can also be mentally beneficial, encouraged in psychological treatments based in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Yet such a combination of chronicle and confession offers an opportunity to impose fictional order upon the life of the diarist, even as they aspire towards truthfulness, casting themselves as the protagonist in the process. Didion pinpoints an aspect of the diarist’s practice that is the opposite of the fiction writer’s: inherent within the diary’s perspective of narrative privilege is the elevation of the feelings of its writer above any other concern. This can be dangerous for a novelist. In her essay ‘Love, Actually’, Zadie Smith, following Martha Nussbaum, locates the ethical potential of fiction in a plurality of perspective, finding the ‘bond between the ethical realm and the narrative act […] crystallised in that too familiar homily “Two sides to every story”, a version of which truism one will find in every culture in the world. This is the good that novels do, and the good that they are.’
In her 2000 novel White Teeth, writing of ‘the modern world’, Smith acknowledges the curious self-righteousness inherent in the kind of narrative monomania that has escaped the confines of the diary and entered mainstream Western culture:
‘You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, “Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.” Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently loveable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? […] Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.’
In the fifteen years since White Teeth’s publication, this has become even more pronounced, from tabloid kiss-and-tells to the line of tedious self-revelation so successfully peddled by Lena Dunham. Empowerment is not the same thing as entitlement, and love–so often the primary focus of the mental storyline– is not the same as safety, as respect, as equality of opportunity. It is easy to confuse the fact that you are worthy of love with the right to demand it from everyone, regardless, a symptom of an internal narrative in which the only feelings considered are your own.
Somewhere, the line between self-obsession and self-empowerment has become blurred. The most obvious example of this is Taylor Swift, whose lyrics, as well as giving the troubling impression that were her daily life to be filmed it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test, have constructed a multimillion dollar cult of aggrieved personality. Swift, a woman who appears incapable of understanding that the mere act of ending a relationship is not tantamount to an actual crime, constructs a recurring plotline in which she is both the heroine and the victim, an act of narrative whitewashing that denies the complexity of reality. Rather than remaining padlocked in the pages of a teenage diary, these sentiments are lauded by much of the media as confession-as-liberation. There are circumstances in which self-expression can be an instrument of emancipation, but these are not the circumstances within which Swift’s emotional rhetoric operates. Her recent co-option of Nicki Minaj’s point about black women’s bodies and Western media is a case in point, and, as Nosheen Iqbal has identified, the mainstream media largely bought into Swift’s simplified, harmful narrative. Unchecked, the same impulses that make the fictionalisation of your own life so appealing can lead to a blinkered denial of the privilege inherent in perspective.
In America, the ‘narrativist’ school of psychology is based in the belief that all humans construct personal narratives as a way to find, as Dan McAdams puts it in The Redemptive Self (2006), ‘some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity’ in our existence. In a recent piece in Aeon magazine, Galen Strawson argues that the narrativists are wrong, that it’s both false ‘that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing’. My claims are not so bold: I cannot pretend to grand conclusions about the collective human psyche, but I do believe that, as Strawson argues, narrativisation does not always encourage happiness. I think the practice of diary-keeping exacerbates this. It is not simply the desire to remember things that I am talking about: memory functions, in part, as a beneficial aid in understanding ourselves. Poor Mary, smoking pot and bouncing on beds in Eternal Sunshine, has the appearance of a perpetual adolescent: unable to remember her emotional trauma, she cannot move forward from it. Svevo lacks what Gillian Rose defines in her extraordinary memoir Love’s Work as a kind of ‘control’:
‘When something untoward happens, some trauma or damage, whether inflicted by the commissions or omissions of others, or some cosmic force, one makes the initially unwelcome event one’s own inner occupation […] In ill-health as in unhappy love, this is the hardest work: it requires taking in before letting be.’
Here, the ‘work’ of memory avoids emotional stasis by ‘taking in’ experiences, but this internalisation is only temporary, necessary for the eventual aim of ‘letting be’. It is the letting go of them, however, that is hampered by the transformation of this kind of control into an impossible desire for a kind of ongoing biographical order; a tyranny of memorialisation.
Perhaps it is true that, as Didion puts it, keepers of diaries are ‘lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’ I kept a diary for over a decade, and it became my night office: an inky vigil against change. My ‘presentiment of loss’ included not only a determination to record events but a solemn desperation to write them into coherence. If narrative consistency becomes the governing factor in your perception of the purpose and value of your life, it becomes impossible to move on from anything, from a drunken slight to an exam failure to a drunken kiss. Even if fixating upon an event or a relationship is making you miserable, to forget it feels like a betrayal.
It is a truism worthy of Taylor Swift that ‘we accept the love we think we deserve’. We also construct the narratives we think we deserve. For almost exactly a year now, the pages of my diary have been mostly blank, corresponding with a period in my life in which I have been, and continue to be, happier than ever before. There are circumstantial reasons for this, and correlation is not causation, but I do believe that without an expectant blank page at the close of every day I no longer search for narrative meaning with such an anxious urgency. In The Sublime and the Good, Iris Murdoch writes that ‘love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real’. Happiness, perhaps, is the realisation that these newly-discovered external realities require nothing fictional from you at all, and it is not writing things down that will prevent us from losing them.