Philippe Lejeune (from On Diary, Edited by Jeremy D. Popkin & Julie Rak, translated by KATHERINE DURNIN, published for the BIOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH CENTER by the University of Hawai Press, 2009, pp. 229-315)
From October 1999 to October 2000 I did a study of a phenomenon that was just beginning to appear in the French-speaking world: online diaries. Today, in 2008, given the explosion of blogs, it is hard to believe that in November 1999, after a month of systematic searching on the Internet, I had found only sixty-nine diaries. Things are moving so fast that my study already has a sort of archeological value. At the time, I was dealing with a single shrub showing a few buds; today, it is a forest of trees in full bloom. I observed these diaries by keeping (not online) a journal of my exploration, a sort of travel journal, from 4 October 1999 to 4 May 2000. This journal was published,
together with an anthology of the thoughts of those pioneers on their own practices, as “Cher écran . . .”: Journal personnel, ordinateur, Internet. Below are a few excerpts from that journal.
My book was published in October 2000: I also kept a journal that month, to monitor the critical response and especially to see how the bloggers I had observed would react. This second journal, a sort of postscript, can be accessed on my website at <http://www.autopacte.org>.
MONDAY 4 OCTOBER 1999
Catherine Bogaert was right: a publisher (anticipating the audience’s reaction) will assume that a book on diaries with the title “Dear Screen” must be about “online” diaries on the Internet. It’s funny that so many people should think of that, when probably 95 per cent of French people have never “surfed the Web,” and there are so few blogs in French. It’s a fantasy, like online sex chat (which does exist), a sort of vaguely illicit thing that people talk about at once knowingly and disapprovingly.
What kind of experience have I had with them? It’s been a series of disappointments. I have gone exploring a number of times, through Michčle Senay’s site or the French Yahoo, only to return exhausted, angry, or disgusted by my expedition into a poverty-stricken land. Yes, I have to say it: almost every reaction I have had thus far has been negative. When you’ve been working on real personal diaries, everything in blogs feels like a caricature or prostitution: it all seems to ring hollow. I was in the wrong frame of mind.
Blogs should probably be read differently. In a space where the general public surfsand engages in anonymous dialogue, maybe they come across as profound and authentic to people who are not used to reading private texts? I try to bring myself around, because it is truly unpleasant to feel scornful. I don’t want to infl ict the same insults on these poor web diaries that my “dear diaries” have been facingfor a century (meaning the century since a few of them were led astray by being published).
Let’s try to gain some perspective by taking a “media studies” approach. In the early seventeenth century, the mainstream of the journal (the habit of writing on paper every day what is happening around you and sometimes inside you) split into two different branches. In French, the same name (“journal”) was used for both, while in other languages the vocabulary was differentiated (“diary” versus “newspaper” in English). One of these practices (the social chronicle) consisted of publishing periodically in printed form. That was how the press was invented, fi rst as a periodical and later as a daily publication. The other practice (the personal chronicle) remained unchanged: handwritten and unpublished. It was not until two centuries later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, that it became customary to print certain personal diaries, but with a substantial gap between the time of writing and publication as a book, since the author had to die first! So there was a signifi cant delay, the writing had gained some authority, and it was printed in book form, which meant that entries written one day at a time were read as a single unit.
How did we arrive at the current situation after that? Along two different pathways.
In terms of personal writing, beginning in the 1880s it gradually became customary in France for people to publish, if not an entire diary, then at least a signifi cant and careful selection in one volume during the writer’s lifetime (Edmond de Goncourt did this in 1887, Léon Bloy in 1896, and so on). This was the path taken by André Gide, Charles du Bos, Julian Green, and many others. For the past thirty years, a number of French authors have themselves published, during their lifetimes, a series of volumes of their diaries at more or less regular intervals fairly soon after they were written (André Blanchard, Jacques de Bourbon-Busset, Renaud Camus, Michel Ciry, Charles Juliet, Gabriel Matzneff, Claude Mauriac, Marc-Édouard Nabe, Claude Roy, etc.).
This sort of publication—although in book form and with some delay— achieves a periodic rhythm that mimics the rhythm of the writing itself. Something similar occurs in journalism that is a mirror image: some columnists use a personal style, thus adding an autobiographical twist to periodical texts that end up looking like a “diary” (including such writing as François Mauriac’s Bloc-Notes and the chronicles of Bernard Franck or Claude Roy).
These texts are often collected and printed as books. The final destination from both sides is the book, with all that implies about construction, authority, and distance. Something closer to the blogs I am discussing here would be publishing (on paper) a personal periodical whose sole subject is the author’s interests or experiences. Indeed, such a publication was developed in the United States as the Internet grew: it is known as the “me-zine” (see the New York Times, 15 May 1995). But me-zines still require paper and a distribution system, and they come out monthly or quarterly rather than daily.
The Internet is revolutionary in that it allows anyone to publish instantly and as often as they like (working “online” means going live); to attain virtual worldwide publication (although actual distribution is still a thorny issue: how do you publicize your site and bring in more visitors?); and to have potential interactivity (through reader feedback). A person can either be thrilled by the possibilities, or realize, on second thought, that they are the total opposite of the conditions that led to the development of the personal diary, which is based on a different notion of time (delay, maturation, and accumulation) and of communication (deferred or exclusive, that is, based on secrecy). With the Internet we face the paradox of writing without “différance,” writing that is almost as instantaneous as speech, and privacy with no inside, since everything seems to be outside immediately. The internalization of social structures that created the individual self (the “heart of hearts”) seems to move in the opposite direction on the Internet. Those are my initial ideas (or biases?) to be compared with reality.
FRIDAY 8 OCTOBER 1999, 2 P.M.
A short pause. I have chosen the journal form to express my own take on things. People might have been surprised by my categorical judgments on what is true or false, or the things I particularly liked. The amazing part is that I set out prepared to despise everything, and yet I liked four of the six diaries I saw. I didn’t have the same unpleasant reaction as I did two years ago, of being confronted with people who were trying hard to be “interesting” or were talking without saying anything. Is it the chance outcome of random sampling, or am I getting softer? Because I know that it isn’t unusual for people to feel compelled to share their diaries. Not that they want to publish them, but they need an outsider’s gaze, someone to sympathize with what they have experienced and approve of the form they have created. I know this because I have felt it, although I resist the temptation. And because at the APA we receive requests like this: “without depositing my diary with you permanently, would it be possible to have one or two people read it?” This is a delicate request that calls for a priori sympathy from those accommodating readers: but they may not like what they read! Reading a personal diary that is being kept by someone else takes a certain commitment, whether the experience is a euphoric meeting or a hellish trap! So the APA deals carefully with these offers on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, it is seeking by every possible means to get autobiographical texts into circulation without their having to be published. Clearly the Internet meets that need, and everyone’s freedom is respected there.
WEDNESDAY 13 OCTOBER 1999, 5 P.M.
It’s a bit like nudism, really. From the outside, the Internet can’t be seen. You have to enter it. Inside, people can do just as they please, and no one forces you to stay. On the other hand, it’s a strange world where only acceptance is accepted. You are in a state of critical weightlessness there. You cannot doubt, criticize, or hate anything without excluding yourself from the game. Does this teach tolerance or does it make people unrealistic and irresponsible? All things become equal, and passing judgment makes you guilty. I have to admit I’ve been troubled by the properties of this new space that turns life into a dream. People pretend to be in dialogue. They think they’re asking for feedback, but all they hear are echoes. You glide, surf, slip, pass through, and nothing has happened. But then suddenly the Internet is actually experienced as an internal space, a huge dream bubble that reflects the outside world, minus its violence, the sort of comfy refuge that the notebook is too, in its own way. Like the steamy interior of an oriental bath where everyone can relax, scantily clad, and luxuriate in a massage.
MONDAY 25 OCTOBER 1999, EVENING
In four days, I have just read two and a half years of a diary that has converted me forever: Mongolo’s Diary (almost). It is admirable. And it’s such a relief to admire something! I can breathe easier. I was feeling mean, disloyal and petty, wandering through diaries I was observing with feelings of suspicion or detachment. I was like an ethnologist who fraternizes with a group of people for the sake of “participatory observation” that will end the minute he gets back to his own crowd. A double agent! A parasite! By dint of cutting and pasting, I was plundering the best from everyone, their metadiscourse about their practices, gathering nectar to store in my collection. And then I met Mongolo.
The first thing I notice is that he uses hypertext links. I hadn’t come across anyone before who did that. With one click, I’m taken straight to a character index telling me who Mrs. BB or Fred or Jessie is. If he alludes to his habit of not unpacking his suitcases when he gets back from a trip, he has a link with the relevant passage from the previous month, etc. At the top of each page, he has an “anniversary reading” (the same day one year ago, two years ago, etc.) and the beginnings of an index (the entry is given two or three keywords). But it’s done with a light touch: the entries are not littered with useless links. It’s a discreet presence, not a clunky gadget. All of a sudden I feel at ease. I detect a “tone,” a way of being that feels right. The very opposite of the caricature I initially imagined. I’m glad I got everything out on October 4. Now I can take stock of how far I’ve come. Yes, this journal is turning into a conversion story. I had my road to Damascus, or, like Saint Augustine, heard a voice telling me, “Click here to read.” I opened the book at the right page. This will be diffi cult to explain to other people. Mongolo is a young French student in computer science. He has been living in Scotland for three years and going to university, where he is now doing a Ph.D. He has just turned 25. In early 1997, he was sending e-mails every day to his best friend Fred, back in France. He told him everything, discussed everything with him. He had the idea of reaching a larger circle of recipients by posting his previous e-mails on a personal website and continuing the daily chronicle of his life and ideas in a public forum. He writes regularly and at length (without going on too much) and has a range of interests. He never talks about anything without thinking about it fi rst: it is always interesting. He often posts his ideas without telling a story: his diary shows the real effort he puts into thinking about the world. In talking about his private life, he strikes an impressive balance between openness and reserve, something that is translated in the title of his diary by the humorous tag “almost.” And of course he is constantly thinking about his own practice, and he takes initiatives as a result: it was he who thought of setting up the Personal Diary Orphanage for abandoned diaries; for diaries that are kept regularly, he has a “circle” called “Souvent” (a calque of the English “Often”). His diary is constantly refl ecting on itself. Yesterday, Sunday October 24, while I was attending an APA board meeting, he was writing a nuanced, highly accurate entry on the “blog.” I am reading the entry on my screen this evening, telling myself that there’s no reason for me to continue this work: he has already summed up the major points, and he knows what he’s talking about. All I have to do is quote him. His way of being and his thoughts illuminate the entire field. He is a sort of model practitioner-theorist, like Amiel for the diary or Montaigne for the essay. Reading him gives the same sort of pleasure. He is nourishing, restful, and stimulating all at once. I will stop this panegyric. A laudatory tone is out of place between friends.
WEDNESDAY 27 OCTOBER 1999, EVENING
I’ve just done a quick tour that has left me demoralized. First the “Diarist Registry,” an “international” catalogue that contains almost nothing but English diaries, some 1800 of them. The effect is overwhelming, especially the heading for picnics and other little get-togethers for diarists from Texas to Wisconsin. I went back to Quebec to go through the list of the Cercle des jours écrits et imagés (“Circle of Days in Writing and Pictures”). I did not have much luck, because the few sites I visited left me feeling terribly sad: self-satisfied platitudes about I did this and I did that, daily trivialities served up piping hot, or on the contrary, literary posing and contortions. It makes you wonder how the former can even take an interest in their lives and why the latter go to such lengths to make themselves appear to be interesting. Dreary drones or fussbudgets. Bloggers like Mongolo are few and far between. What’s the use of making a list of these pitiful offerings? The worst part is that they all go overboard on presentation, with the sort of window-dressing you might see at a fancy pastry shop, with superimposed backgrounds, colors, borders, fl ashing lights, doo-dads, bonus photos, spirals, emoticons, help! It makes you long for the good old 96-page notebook and the blank page! OK, enough grumbling for one evening. Good-night all!
SATURDAY 30 OCTOBER 1999
A month on the Net? Am I going to insist on closing this journal on November 4? Otherwise I might start going in circles, or maybe up the wall. The journal form turns my reading into exploration, excuses my lapses of language, and adapts itself to a moving object by falling into rhythm with it. I can also wrap it up when I want to. So I have gone through the sixteen diaries chosen from “Souvent.” Make that just fourteen: I am so inept that I was unable to activate two of them (“Mes états d’âme”—My States of Mind—and “La Bulle de MoX”—Mox’s Bubble). Near gender equality: fi ve men, seven women and two couples (one real couple, married this summer, wedding photos, they’re expecting a baby; the other couple, if I’ve understood correctly, only know each other through the Net, she a young prof just starting out and swamped, he’s fifteen years older). Age: sometimes hard to pin down; but most of them are between twenty and thirty years old; the oldest is the Archangel Daniel (52, a young retired Quebecker who’s a grandfather nonetheless, and like me hopeless at computers since a certain Nicolas, a young French man, maintains his site for him); then a 38-year-old mother, the Insomniac, an awfully nice person; the man in the false couple who must be in his forties, and then Liloo, who is 31. All the rest are under 30, but over 20: no teenagers. The youngest is Fran, at 21. Various occupations, all involving knowledge of computers, all high school graduates with at least a few years of college or experience in business or administration: the world of the offi ce. But it’s hard to say because these rascals are often careful. They discuss all sorts of subjects openly but keep their jobs in the background, for fear of repercussions. Country: Quebec comes first (seven), but France is a close second (six), then Liloo from Frenchspeaking Switzerland. That may be the new thing, that in the past year or two French people have started blogging. This is supported by statistics: between November 1998 and May 1999, the number of French households with an Internet connection rose from 3.7 per cent to 6.1 per cent. Finally, eleven of these fourteen sites are less than a year old. Mongolo is the only one over two years old (he says that for a blog, two years is “old age”). This young man is a veteran. He has not given up. Because it is a tough job to stay on the Web for weeks at a time, fi nding new inspiration every day! He will have earned his retirement.
Generally speaking, there are two opposite (though sometimes related) trends: the humorous chronicle and the private diary. The humorous chronicle often gets its material from the little incidents of daily life, but they are only a pretext. It’s a cross between a newspaper column and a writing workshop. You fi nd your little topic for the day. A fairly free-flowing trend that can pick up on e-mails received, opinions discussed, experiences shared, etc. “My aim is to share some of my thoughts on life and daily events. I also want to inspire you with my little poems and songs” (Archangel Daniel). “I just want to express myself, think aloud, leave my mark on this amazing web of the Internet. Maybe some people will want to respond to the things I say; I hope so” (the Insomniac). “Sometimes you feel like sharing your opinions. I have felt that and I still do. So now I regularly post my thoughts online, my confl icting feelings and wild imaginings of all kinds” (the Electric Firefly).
As for the personal diary, it is usually factual and systematic (use of time), and sometimes shameless or indiscreet (exposing all aspects of private life). Fran’s diary is a good example of this trend. “Thank you for coming into my world. Come and share my joys and sorrows. You will be able to write to me and that will boost my spirits when I’m feeling low.” Liloo is on the same wavelength as Fran. Sophie the erotic plays an exhibitionist game. The young married couple, on the other hand, despite going on about how in love they are, remain fairly reserved in the end. But the very archetype of the personal diary, with all its freshness and freedom, is that of Isabelle from Quebec (“No Entry”) who, after considering removing posted passages, decides to continue freely: “So I will continue as I began . . . meaning I will reveal my soul, my personality, and all those little details that make me the Isabelle I am! As well as all these incidents and little anecdotes that happen to me day after day. . . ;-))” (15 April 1999). The chronicle sparks discussions. It presupposes an effort at composition, and often the search for a “tone,” which may be cheeky, mannered, direct, lyrical, and so on. You develop a recognizable voice, a more or less distinctive style, turn your personality into a character. That’s the case of “Zuby” (“Let me show you the world through my eyes”), of “Electric Firefl y,” and “ApoStrophe.” There is a bit of that in Archangel Daniel’s writing workshop.
But this “actor” side (which is also often found outside the Internet!) is not inevitable. Some chroniclers don’t force things and just have a natural tone—I am thinking of Mongolo and the Insomniac. It is a real pleasure to hear a true voice.
Bloggers are looking for fellow feeling. They operate on the principle of live and let live, take me as I am, trying to interest people by giving a faithful and detailed picture of a life, not by drawing the reader in with the charm of their conversation. The composition is looser. There is often a tendency to choose a language close to a spoken style, imitating an internal monologue or addressing a sympathetic listener. Same observation as earlier: “oral” postures like this are not exclusive to the Internet, and they are found in many a good old-fashioned notebook.
The chronicle is often a sort of fl irtation with the personal diary, touching it and teasing it, but in the end steering clear. Or rather, it’s the personal diary that pulls back. This evening, I have just delved back into the chronicle of my friend the Weaver, who put it very well last April 27: „Oops! A week has sped by and I haven’t written a line here or given it a second thought, I’ve been so focused on living in the moment. A beautiful, rich week. Surprise, desire, emotion, pleasure, and laughter all mixed together. And as often happens to me, I am running up against the limitations of this chronicle, proving to anyone who might still have illusions that it’s not at all like a personal diary: I cannot tell about the best things here; they have to stay strictly private. Too bad, in a way.”
That’s my little overview. I have tried to be as objective as possible. The study should be extended to two other major circles. I am struck once again by just how ephemeral these ephemera are. Thirteen of the fourteen diaries did not exist in 1997 when Catherine Bogaert and I created the “Un journalŕ soi” exhibit. How many will still be active two years from now? I kept a list in my files of the blogs from the “Cercle des jours écrits et imagés” as of 9 September 1997: there were twenty-one of them. Going over the list today, I find only four survivors (Mongolo, L’Agora, Outaouais, and Brume)—five if I add Zabou, but his blog has actually stopped. All the rest are either dormant or gone. It is difficult to generalize about such small numbers, but chronicles seem to survive better than personal blogs.
SUNDAY 31 OCTOBER 1999, EVENING
As I reread this, I am struck by how aggressively I treat Fran. Twice I have given short quotations of details from her diary that I found shocking (October 12 and 29). But I also realize that she makes a good point: if you don’t like it, leave. So why did I stay? And even come back? And why don’t I like it?
It’s suspicious. I remember that in 1782, half the critics howled because in his Confessions, Rousseau told about peeing in Madame Clot’s cooking-pot and enjoying being spanked by Mademoiselle Lambercier. They stigmatized triviality (peeing) or obscenity (spanking). Not enough meaning, or too much: maladjustment to the antipollution standards of the times. Do I want Fran to check her catalytic converter? What bothers me is that she is not bothered about me. Young women in the nineteenth century never spoke about their bodies, and you should have seen how I jumped to their defense, how I lambasted the censorship they were subjected to, the poor things! But when young women today talk to me like their best friend or their gynecologist, all they get is a taste of my sarcasm! Behave yourselves, ladies, please! So what is it I want? My reaction is all the more unfair and unpleasant in that Fran is natural, guileless, and trusting. She is just telling us about the problems
she faces as a girl, the nasty tricks her body plays on her. There is no end of such talk in women’s magazines. People have every right to talk about these things in their diaries: this is the daily bread of the private world. It’s true that I would rather not know. It’s true that I’m more disturbed by her matterof-fact speech than by Sophie’s highly coded somersaults. She is not looking to please or displease anyone, she is just telling it the way it is, and as a good disciple of Rousseau, she knows that the truth is in the details. Intimate girl talk that is quite widespread in other venues is suddenly pushed by the Internet into the public twilight of a unisex space. This provides an occasion to reflect on gender differences in autobiographical practices (both writing and reception). That is the topic of the next APA Round Table, in March 2000.
Do men write as much about this as women in their personal diaries? Do they talk about their bodies in the same way? In any case, my apologies to Fran. If this weren’t a journal, I would have deleted those aggressive parts. But this reading trajectory, which others may repeat, should be left in to shame myself and instruct others.
MONDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1999
I continue meandering from site to site. A high school student in her final year (17 years old) began a diary on September 15 (“I have nothing planned for tomorrow. . . .”). Alegria, a history student, 20 years old, Quebec, has been keeping a charming, very saucy diary since May. In October she went to a GT (Get Together) of the Société des Diaristes, which was very nice, it’s basically like the APA, except for a different generation, but what am I doing acting like an old grump, it’s a different kind of interaction, that’s all, and it is heart-warming to think that they enjoy and help one other. They’ve become a little circle of friends. Alegria meets Moebius, who missed the last GT. And
this year the Weaver was visited by Zuby, who was passing through Paris. At Christmas ’97, Mongolo turned up in Montreal. I leafed through the Moebius blog, it’s fi ne, sure, but sometimes I have trouble understanding why they’re so enthusiastic about one another; there’s something I’m not getting.
In fact, these diaries end up becoming one huge chat session, a conversation network. There are some people whose identities have been “burned,” like Arianne, who started a new blog under a second pseudonym to escape from her milieu. She is 24 years old, in Quebec, and is looking for a new relationship, a new boyfriend. A little 13-year-old from Quebec, Judith (“Push”), has just started out, but she says she also writes a lot in her diary on paper.
The whole thing seems to be mushrooming. I also come across some vintage blogs, like the one that Brume, a mother of four, has been keeping since January 1997. She’s been around longer than the venerable Mongolo! And another mother (“Le Monde de Sally” or “Sally’s World”), a Quebecker by adoption with a nineteen-year-old daughter, who started in May. And so on. My mind is reeling from surfi ng. Sometimes, when I’m in an epic mood, I feel like Dante being guided by Virgil through the circles of the virtual World. Let’s say it’s more like Purgatory, although some sites do aim for beatitude. Dante clicks and Virgil drops down the “Archive” menu for him.
Sometimes I feel as though I’m making a mess of the job, moving too quickly, like a professional taster who takes the wine into his mouth, seeks out the flavors and aromas, then spits it back out. This evening, I feel as though there are too many of them. And I’m not the only one! Just imagine that the Société des Diaristes Virtuels [Virtual diarists’ society] is considering a numerical quota! A major consultation is under way on its home page because it’s proposing a limit of 50 diaries. I understand them, they want to stay friends, hold their little GTs quietly in Montreal bistros, not turn it into a major conference. But then one of the old diaries will have to die before a new one can enter. Waiting lists, applications, votes. The looming prospect of competition and bottlenecks. Many diaries have visit counters, and some, like Mongolo, install alerts for their readers (now promoted to “subscribers”), who receive an e-mail when a new entry appears! I remember how dizzy I felt when I saw the list of 1,800 English diaries. I am going to spend my last few hours counting the French ones.
TUESDAY 2 NOVEMBER 1999
Done. The method is simple: combine the lists from webring catalogues and Yahoo. Of course, I may have missed a few diaries posted on personal pages. But by the same token, readers will miss them too. I had assumed there would be around one hundred, and I was close. There are 69 active diaries and 42 dormant or dead ones. That’s a total of 111. I will list them at the end of my study, indicating the webring or engine that referred to them. That should make it possible to track their development a few years from now. A study could also be done of titles and themes. The main thing is to avoid saying “Georgette Dupont, My Diary, January-November 1999.” But fake phrases are just as stereotyped and sometimes less informative. It is best to be allusive, metaphorical, and casual. But similar poses hide very different texts: one is often surprised (positively or negatively). How many of them have I read in full, leafed through, or glanced at? I’ve just counted: 32 of the 69 active ones, and 10 of the 42 dead ones. In many cases I have let myself be guided by the bloggers themselves. This is a representative sample, I hope. The part I enjoy most is composing the anthology of excerpts. I have just done this hypothetically, unsure that the authors will give their permission.
But I have put such care into arranging this collection that I would be heartbroken to see it thinned out. I have worked out the links between them and the pacing. I have only kept texts I liked and that I felt were representative. I have two goals. Bloggers, like conventional diarists, are extremely attentive and lucid about their practices. My aim is twofold. Using excerpts from Amiel, Roland Jaccard was able to put together a sort of short treatise on diary-writing (Ed. Complexes, 1987). Before (and with) the excerpts from Mongolo, the excerpts from my eight bloggers (seven of whom are women) will deal with practically every aspect of blogs, based on concrete situations.
But there is also the pleasure of the text. One might say, “that’s not private.” It is private, but this is an epistolary or conversational privacy. I have tried to give the reader an idea of the various tones in this dialogue with an invisible interlocutor. Unlike the reader of a book or a periodical, this reader may loom up from behind the screen and enter the same space in which you have written your own blog. How do you talk to him? You may adopt a familiar or a lyrical or a meditative tone: there is a whole range of possibilities.
WEDNESDAY 3 NOVEMBER 1999
Before finishing up, I take a look back. This one-month trip may be the modest beginnings of a serious study in sociolinguistics or psychosemiotics. I don’t feel serious, I feel light, even vulnerable, and what I have done is, I believe, something of an empirical media study. You have to go into the field.
Put yourself out there. Use your biases to become part of the situation: that is knowing how to become engaged. And stay detached enough to survey the field: that is knowing how to disengage. I have tried to show how fragile the notion of privacy is. Writing for oneself in a notebook is not a “natural” situation that is somehow changed by the advent of new media. The computer is no more artificial than the notebook. It merely changes the relationship with writing. And the Internet opens up a new mode of communication that removes all the distinctions we had become accustomed to with paper, so much so that we are afraid we may lose our souls in it. We feel so passionately about these things! So compelled to exclude people who do things differently! I have taken up every position by turns. For twenty years, I was fiercely prejudiced against the diary. Then I went over to the other side and gave the floor to people who write by addressing the medium they are writing on: “Dear Diary. . . .” Then I moved onto the computer, and here I am doing a second study, “Dear Screen . . . ,” to explain myself to people who have remained loyal to paper, and to teach them tolerance. But haven’t I been intolerant toward bloggers, whom I used to call gossips? Everything comes full circle: first I was a “modern” confronting the “ancients,” and now here I am an “ancient” facing the new “moderns.” That is the story you have just read.
Have I made any progress since October 4? Not to the point where I have embraced the blog wholeheartedly. But enough to recognize, once again, that the self is not an unchanging essence that has now been altered by disastrous technical progress, and that it has always been shaped by the development of new media. Enough to feel that I am in friendly territory, to have points of reference, preferences, and already to have my own little habits. I am stopping this journal but will continue mouse-clicking.
WEDNESDAY 24 NOVEMBER 1999
Wednesday morning. Things happen fast on the Internet. When I wrote to my correspondents in late September for last year’s study, their replies came back over a period of more than a month. Here, in the space of three days, I already have seven replies out of nine. And some of them are apologizing for taking fory-eight hours to respond! These replies are positive, with comments or criticisms that I am finding very helpful. Since these are private letters, I will not quote from them here. On the other hand, I can quote Fran’s reaction because she published it in her diary: “Well done, honest, but some people might feel hurt.” I would add: it is not intended to hurt anyone. If my survey had turned out negative, I would have stopped after a few days. I have no desire to hurt anyone. And I would be devastated if I were to turn anyone off of blogging. Fran goes on: “I can’t complain too much, although he had trouble getting used to my style, so I’m fi ne.” While I begin soul-searching along those lines (who else might have a complaint?), Fran suddenly changes tack: “On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate it so much when Stéphane started criticizing me for talking about him and not respecting his private life. Nice. This diary is the only thing I’ve considered worthwhile in a long time, and he had to go and destroy it?” I immediately drop my soul-searching and get back to a favorite topic of mine: the legalities. The Internet is not an enclave where the law doesn’t apply. Internet users themselves emphasize this. Mongolo copyrights his blog and tells those who may not understand the © sign: “Do not reproduce these pages without my permission.” Still, at least in French law, since the text has been published by its author, the reader has the right to make short quotations. Sophie, with a touch of parody, makes sure to warn minors that her site may be too racy for them: “WARNING: The contents of this site may be inappropriate for minors, and even for some adults! ;-).” Putting one’s diary online is an act of public disclosure that creates certain rights (Mongolo) and duties (Sophie).
But there is more than just intellectual property rights and the protection of minors. The main point is the one Stéphane quite properly raises. Unless we live on a desert island or in a cell, our private lives include other people. They are never entirely our own private property, but are always a sort of jointly held property. We are not allowed to make confessions on behalf of other people. This is a legal issue (although it’s hard to imagine Stéphane getting an injunction against Fran to stop writing her blog!) and a moral issue. The selfcensorship that we see on the Internet is not necessarily a sign of timidity, but of respect for others. That is also why the good old notebook tucked away in a drawer, the one you write everything in, is so nice. I was struck when the Walker stopped herself last June 27 just as she was about to share something that would have made her feel better—she talks about a storm battering her heart—but then said: “I won’t do that because, apart from the people whose names I don’t know, there are people I see every day and I have to show them the same respect I show myself.” The fact that she is anonymous does not change anything. If I found out that, without my knowledge, someone very close to me was writing about me in her blog under the name of Gustave, even if she signed it “Dulcinea del Toboso,” I would be outraged.
Fran ends her tirade against Stéphane: “I nearly told him that in any case this blog will probably last longer than our relationship, but I said nothing.” But she did write it, to us, and I have to admit that this bothered me. It got me back to my interrupted soul-searching, but in a different direction. Is it possible to love your diary more than a person—someone you love? And I recalled a recent entry in which Mongolo asked the same question but answered it the other way round: he would probably stop his blog if he were living with Mrs. BB, unless she ordered him to keep writing it. In any event, he added, his diary would end some day, as long as it was for a good reason. That could be the touchstone of true love.
SUNDAY 5 DECEMBER 1999
Is there a “psychological profi le” of the typical blogger? The question occurred to me as I was doing my rounds this evening. Mongolo has been silent since Wednesday. The Weaver has only occasionally been weaving, and I’m reduced to rereading his chronicle for Sunday the 28th, but it was so beautiful, a walk through Paris, and I could see him as a new Louis-Sébastien Mercier or a Rétif de la Bretonne. His chronicles are little prose poems, fables, or morality plays, so sensitive. The Firefly had dinner with him last Thursday.
No psychology there! The idea of the profi le came to me as I read Fran’s and then Isabelle’s blogs one after another. Hyperactive, chatty, excited, and both of them have been immersed in their inner emptiness lately! Fran: “I really don’t have anything to live for right now, not even a goal in life. So if you’re happy, if you love life, and if you’re ambitious, make the most of it because not everyone has that” (December 5). Isabelle, who was not selected for the modeling competition that had completely preoccupied her for two months, takes it well at fi rst and then falls apart: “But what I realized when I woke up this morning is that I was empty!” (December 1). Certainly she will bounce back, as well as Fran. That’s their rhythm. And they’ll be down in the dumps again, over and over. It’s possible that their blogs are a way of fi lling that great inner void, a project that fi lls them up.
But I refuse to believe that a similarity glimpsed in passing between two or three blogs amounts to a profi le, and I refuse to let it turn the diary into a pathology. I have always been skeptical about Michčle Leleu’s system of character studies (Les Journaux intimes, 1952), or Béatrice Didier’s psychoanalysis on diary writing as a return to the womb, a homosexual tendency, etc. It seems to me that the facts themselves have not been established, and their links to the diary are sketchy. If one wanted to draw a correlation between a personality type and online blogging, I would ask first of all that the personalities of the 68 bloggers who were online on 4 November 1999 be analyzed, and secondly, that they be compared with a representative sample of 68 non-diarists from the same generation and the same social class. I did not do this, I cannot do it, and so I refrain. I’m not saying that you wouldn’t find overrepresented categories, etc. But my basic premise is that life is difficult for all of us, and that it also provides an infi nite number of outlets, passions, and imaginative behaviors. The practice of keeping a diary (offl ine or online) may be a part of different behavioral strategies, and many other practices may have similar functions. Judgments about “the diary,” taken as a single unit, have nothing to do with science, often arise from biases, and serve to cover up a lack of knowledge. I remember one psychoanalyst who, never having seen any real diaries, could do nothing during a round table but repeat with conviction, “It’s a security blanket, it’s a security blanket.”
My surfing took me to other sites this evening, especially the site of Strophe, who is much better than Sophie at writing in praise of love and the joy of living. And then there are the meditators, the philosophers, and the idly curious. Their security blankets have all the colors of the rainbow and will help me get to sleep. See you later.
TUESDAY 15 DECEMBER 1999, EVENING
A small literary episode. Lire is preparing a report with the title “Are You All Writers?” This afternoon, Catherine Argand came to interview me. I talked to her about the magazine Écrire et Éditer (“Writing and Publishing”), which is aimed specifi cally at the small audience of people who like to write and are thinking of publishing: she didn’t know it existed. Why the report? It seems that editors are drowning in manuscripts, and what’s more, poor things, half of them are autobiographies. What a catastrophe! The question being tossed out to the readers of Lire seems to be an insult, and an invitation to get lost.
It’s funny that people whose job it is to publish things should be upset that so many people want to be published. Yet these aspiring writers legitimize their power of legitimizing! But it’s easier to operate in a closed circuit with a stable of confirmed writers and relationships. A manuscript that comes in over the transom has very slim chances. What would have happened if Johann Heuchel’s parents had approached a publisher directly? I hear the word “literature” bandied about by people who seem to think that they know what it is, and act as though they have been given a personal mission to protect it. It is the dominant religion, with its saints, sects, and true believers. So they come to me to add a populist, secular touch. I answer to the best of my ability, as though sitting an oral exam on the question, “Can anyone be a writer?” I answer in two parts: write (yes); publish (no). Then in subsections, with one subsection on the Internet toward the end. The struggle for survival is “softer” there than in the book world. You can be “visible” from the get-go, and then remain visible without ever being “seen.” Lack of success does not lead to elimination. The Internet provides a sort of stratigraphy of the natural selection process, whereas the publishing world only shows us the winners. This needs to be nuanced: many published books have no readers and end up being pulped! There are worse things than being rejected by a publisher: being rejected by the reading public is a punishment without appeal. On the Internet, the spectacle of this disaster can last indefi nitely. But is it a disaster? Not really. The Internet does not work like the vanity press, with its naı¨veté and pretensions, but like selfpublishing, which is active and responsible. People have created the product themselves, and have gone to the trouble of publishing it. They assess the difficulty, they are more modest, and they adapt. They are not after glory, but only a response. When they get one, even if only from a few readers, they relish it. Although visit counters do exist, the Internet shifts the emphasis from quantity to quality of reception. Digital printing led to “micro-publishing.” The Internet has created “micro-reception.” We have already seen this at theAPA: people who thought they wanted to be published are thrilled because they have been read, truly read, by two or three people they can talk to.
FRIDAY 3 MARCH 2000
Another good-bye tour: for the Round Table I’m leading tomorrow on “the proper noun” at the Maison des Écrivains (Writer’s House), I’m rereading my anthology of virtual diarists to see what they say on this topic. I find it amazing how much respect they have for their names. They almost always hide them, but never change them. I have not found a single family name, real or false. When a fi rst name is given, it always seems to be real. Nicolas is Nicolas and Isabelle is Isabelle. They never use a pseudonym that resembles a real name, which would well and truly hide them. They take shelter behind fanciful nicknames, which turn out to be masks. But these nicknames, which should allow them to avoid detection by people close to them, sometimes come from their childhood! This is the case of Alegria and Mongolo.
And as much as it shows a desire to hide, this choice is indicative of the joy of creating a new identity. You rename yourself, make yourself a totem. Read down the list of the sixty-eight active diaries. Often the nickname is part of the title, and sometimes the title is used as a nickname. And you can change them! Alegria did not have the same personality when she signed herself “T” in a previous blog-life. Mongolo, tired of the character he has become, dreams of escaping under a new name. The Insomniac would like to start over with a cruder, more direct diary: why not, she throws out, “the Insolent Rebel,” “the Unfulfi lled,” or “Desires, Wants and Needs”? And these masks are fragile. Isabelle fi nds out from her sister that their mother discovered her diary months ago. Mongolo is surprised to receive an e-mail sent to his real name, as is my poor Liloo when she finds out that Gaétan was secretly reading her site while their relationship was floundering! As for the praiseworthy efforts to change other people’s names, they collapse like a house of cards once your own identity is revealed. I was thinking of this as I read the list of characters that Mongolo obligingly provides for his readers. These games inspired by discretion (distancing oneself from friends and family members) are all the more charming in that they dispense with authorial vanity: no one is thinking about publishing in the real world to land on the shores of posterity.
They don’t want to be famous, they want to be popular: the dream is to recruit a small circle of friends, your very own fan club.
WEDNESDAY 19 APRIL 2000
In Parentheses, Question Mark, Mulling Things Over, My Soul Is in Your Hands, Forest of Dreams, Den of Madness, My Secret Island, Harmony, Poesia, Her Words, White Rat Moaning, Cécotine’s Secret, Diary of Abeille Bee. Thirteen titles out of fifty. Schoolboy poetry. It’s the first day of school and here are the names of the new students! Let me explain: I took an inventory on 4 November 1999 to compare with the situation on 4 November 2000, then 2001, and so on. But before I finish this book, I wanted to know what had happened in six months. Fran closed her Circle and sent her little bunch over to the Communauté des Écrits virtuels (CEV, the “Virtual Writing Community”), which is better equipped and more effi cient. As for the blogs, there are no longer 68 of them, but 120! Yes, nearly double the number! That’s if I’ve counted right, because it’s a devil of a job. The names sometimes change from one circle to another, the sites occasionally change names, and some are shown as open when I know very well that they’re closed or not operating (the Weaver, Zabou, Sophie, Brume, who said his good-byes in early March, the Solitary Walker, etc.) Overall, a dozen or so have closed down, while more than sixty have started up. In the fall, when I do my counts, I will see whether the male/ female balance is holding up, whether France has become active (it doesn’t look that way), etc. Most of the bloggers are 18 to 34 years old. The CEV has three age groups up to 34, then just one for “35 and over”! And the little village from last fall is no more. There’s a whole new crowd that the veterans, those with eight months or even a year of online seniority, welcome into their circles, but soon it will be impossible to tell them apart. How do you choose from a menu of two hundred dishes laid out in alphabetical order?
SUNDAY 23 APRIL 2000
Which diaries should I read? Michel Longuet, who keeps an illustrated diary in notebooks, has just got onto the Internet and posed this question. I tell him to be adventurous, to shop around. But fi rst I make up an introductory selection for him, six titles to represent the range of tones: methodical (Mongolo), emotional (the Firefl y), bubbly (No Entry), melancholy (the Insomniac), poetic (Strophe), romantic (Zuby, “Let me show you the world through my eyes”). I could have added the familiar (Fran or Liloo), the picaresque, etc. And this is simplifying things—these diaries have plenty of other tones—to show him that anything is possible. And to inspire people to add a new tone: their own. The blog has constraints and resources that are just beginning to be explored. It is a new frontier.
To make the selection, I dive back into Zuby’s blog, whose title is a line of poetry and the text delightful. She knows how to select material, build a scene, play on an emotion, and speak directly and simply. I have reread everything since January. The scenes in the bakery, the strike at the UQAM (University of Quebec at Montreal), her preteen internship, her new love, which she writes about sweetly and in veiled terms. And then, surprise, on April 15 there’s a photo of her taken by the Weaver last year when she came to Paris, and of the Weaver as well, which she displays as a “wanted” poster.
I immediately go back to the Weaver’s diary (May 1999) and my own. The friends of our friends are our friends.
Would I like Zuby’s diary this much if I received it in book form? The wrong question: why is the book the point of reference? For the past century it has kept diaries in shackles. Real diaries, infi nite and deliciously chatty, are condensed and cut down to fi t into these Procrustean beds, leading to tortured expectations about “style” and “depth.” We taste them like liqueurs.
On the Internet, the diary can fi nally breathe, stretch out on a chaise lounge, and relax. Computer fi les and loose-leaf pages lend themselves wonderfully to writing fragments. But fi les are even better than notebooks for endless accumulation. And the website is a garden with pathways, crossroads, and viewpoints; it turns time into space without shrinking it.