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Simone, I see in technicolour too: On journaling and its promise of imperfection

do 15 sep 2022

Maria Magdalena de Cort

A typical new year’s resolution is to faithfully keep a diary. But many who have tried it, have stumbled on the imperfection that journaling bears. The categorising and curation of our personal events and experiences often turn out to be a struggle. We’re reminded of all the aspects of life we fail to capture when trying to write them down. This tussle is not distinctive to written language. Media such as photography or film likewise confront us with the inability to seize the totality of reality. I rarely watch the videos I filmed at concerts, and my iPhone notes bulges with jottings I haven’t even read since writing them down. If I’m not keeping the score for my future self, who am I doing it for? 

It doesn’t matter how often I remind myself I’m writing something for myself, to help my future memory or to have a moment of reflection after a long day, I’m still driven to prove myself to any possible reader. Be it my sister, who snuck into my room to read my diary or a person a hundred years in the future. I bear in mind that hypothetically, there could be a time when my private thoughts will be read as a ready-made article rather than a collage of impressions. 

Thoughts are fleeting and do not represent me as a whole, I remind myself, but what about the journals of important thinkers that have been published posthumously usually without their consent?

When Simone de Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary and Letters to Sartre were published in 1990 (incited by her daughter Sylvie Le Bon, four years after de Beauvoir’s passing), it stirred up a lot of critiques. Simone de Beauvoir was put down as a petty, hypocritical woman who does the talk, not the walk. I, like many others, was disappointed by the dissimilarity of de Beauvoir’s public thoughts and her private ones, but I also understood the polarising guilt activism can bring along. I recognize that no matter how hard we try, it’s impossible to constantly practice what we preach. But we should keep trying. 

Because of the recently exposed schemes of grooming she was involved in – grooming is when sexual or other kinds of (often paedophilic) predators set the stage for abusing another, usually one much younger than themselves or even underage – I have no interest in defending de Beauvoir’s polarities as the consequence of voicing an opinion, because de Beauvoir was not simply a famous person with occasional bad thoughts. But I have an interest in exploring reality versus the representation of reality. And in a diary, a sanctuary for imperfections, be it Simone de Beauvoir’s or mine, our desires and supposed realities collide. 

In one of her published journals, she wrote about the unconscious influence her favourite movies performed on her worldview. Being the cinephile she was, de Beauvoir sometimes didn’t even see the light of day and instead watched four films in a row, by which she was so often tormentedly disappointed by the contrast between the painted picture and the live object. When she first visited America in 1947, she expressed in her journal how she felt betrayed by the Hollywood movies she fanatically consumed. The empire state lacked its technicolour filter, and the city people weren’t scripted. 

When I am sitting at my desk and writing in my journal, I try to describe the day’s scenes as vivid and life-like as possible. On the other hand, when I am sitting in the theatre or cinema, I scavenge for bits and pieces of life and realness in the fictionalised, be it focussed or staged pieces. On both of these occasions though, I too am often blind to what impact those fictions or constructs of language have on my reality. And more specifically, how on a multi-layered (often meta) level, my reality blurs in with the staged or the worded. 

When I am crying in front of my boyfriend and meanwhile watching myself crying, adjusting my posture for the imagined cameras surrounding us, there is no such perfect symbiosis of fiction and reality. When I try my hardest to find the prettiest words to describe my panic attack, I can’t help but think: there is no way to restore this haywire worldview. Because as often as I relate my real life to fictional events, just as often I see my real life through the technicolour lens of produced imagery. 

A journal is in theory just retrospective writing, an exercise in staying true to your initial experience, which brings along the dissatisfaction of translating the past to paper.  

So why not write my journal in English instead of my mother tongue? I might as well remedy the stolen thoughts of my future self being lost in second-layer translation. If my journal will always carry the imperfection of translation along, nothing is stopping me from fictionalising it on the whole. If even de Beauvoir struggled with this gap between the shown and the experienced, then it’s inevitable. Then I can shake off the guilt of lying to myself on my private pages. Why not manipulate my thoughts into metaphorical, advanced prose? Just for the sake of giving my future self something good to read when reminiscing on youth lost.

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