Journal of a Solitude
W. W. Norton & Co.
reviewed by Dean Hannotte
I hadn't been to the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in some time. When I arrived it was jammed with warm bodies and I felt claustrophobic. I had decided to write a book review but didn't know what was new and interesting. Maybe it wouldn't matter. My eyes scanned the shelves for something meaty but not too long. I thought I would feel comfortable in the male section, but found that my role as critic kept me equally unwilling to warm up to writers of either gender. Finally I saw Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton.
May Sarton has been writing for almost fifty years and has at least thirty books to her credit. This book takes the form of a diary begun September 15, 1970 and ending September 30 of the succeeding year. It records her thoughts and experiences alone in her New Hampshire country house.
As she says, "I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my 'real' life again at last. That is what is strange -- that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life. . . . For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation."
I like in principle the idea of publishing journals because it at least allows for the possibility of knowing what a writer (if it's a writer's journal) is really like. I also enjoy in a self-indulgent way recognizing all the familiar little lies that tend to invade diaries, especially ones designed to be published, since they remind me of my own journals and the ways in which I have used and abused my own self-preoccupation through the years. At this level, reading someone's journal is more like sorting through your neighbor's garbage or listening through the walls to people having sex than partaking in a profound artistic catharsis. Still, the potential is there.
The book actually promises to strip away the veil of her literary reputation on its second page. Her previous book, she now sees, "gives a false view. The anguish of my life here -- its rages -- is hardly mentioned. Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. I live alone, perhaps for no good reason, for the reason that I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day, or one drink too many." But although the self-recrimination is daring, there is no follow-through in subsequent entries. As winter approaches, the book settles down to chronicling the everyday stresses and strains of readying a book of poems, reacting to the weather, remembering dear friends and quoting old letters.
Let me compare this book to a pornographic movie. Every six weeks or so I get hungry for an unjustifiably seedy experience. So I go to a movie and hold myself, and wait out the cute subplots until someone inadvertently smiles at someone or a cheek flushes red or an ejaculation soils someone's belly. Then I go out and feel a secret triumph because there is no mystery in what I have experienced, no unanswered questions obsess me, and no unforgiving gods demanding impossible sacrifices follow me home. That for me is a deeply relaxing and reassuring experience. I seem to expect some similar satisfaction from any work of art. What I missed in May Sarton's book was the juice, the gossip, the meat of her life -- something I could take away and use.
The publisher calls this book an "intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman." What makes for intimacy? I think it has to do with openness, honesty, artless exposure of the bad with the good, exposure before judgement rather than afterwards. But the intimacy in this journal is not really the same as human intimacy. It is simply more intimate than other things you might care to read. (If artless familiarity is the test, maybe a friendly cookbook should be the model.) You would almost think a journal like this was meant to cure the over-stimulation of too much intimacy -- she as much as says so in many passages -- by returning to the objective, the abstract, and, unfortunately, the theoretical.
There is something vain in her self-involvement and the way she holds her most banal moments up for us to inspect: "Back from a weekend away with X. I knew when I left Friday afternoon that the moment of glory was about to come, but I had not expected quite the explosion I found in the dusk when I got back just before nine. Most of the peonies, the classic swanlike ones with a scarlet thread through their centers, are open, and most of the double pinks as well (my least favorite)." Were you as surprised as I was to learn that the "moment of glory" had nothing to do with "X"? Such a gaffe makes me willing to believe that she has a vivid blind spot when it comes to the potential importance of human phenomena.
I remember being ten years old, an age when typing up descriptions of a game of Monopoly with my sister or reading a new comic book conferred an importance on such events far beyond what they actually merited. When should people publish such stuff? When they need the money? Because they think maybe it really is important and just seems banal? Because admirers have written begging for more and they figure what the hell?
I know the answer. You publish it because it's too hard not to, because you don't give a damn if critics don't like you, because you don't really like solitude after all and want any reactions to your exhibitionism to break the monotony. In this context it's entirely possible that she keeps two journals: one for the publisher and one for herself. Maybe the second is earmarked for posthumous release, in which case the need for ultimate privacy can only be satisfied by a third.
"X", by the way, was her lover for most of that year. So little real information is given about this person that it is only in the third reference that we even discover his gender. Not that gender is so important to her, or to me for that matter. In fact in the gay liberation department she rates a definite A plus. But in my book, championing liberation is a sorry substitute for being liberated. The only evidence for her being liberated here is her refusal to settle down and raise children, her decision to live alone. The hollowness of this victory shows in her admittedly ugly moods and fits of weeping and, for me, in the way she treats her personal life as being too precious to be revealed in this supposedly intimate journal. She paints a poignant picture of identifying with a stray cat who comes to her back door and who does not know how to trust her, a vagabond who spends its life sadly peering into well-lit homes (the picture on the cover shows a well-lit room as seen from outside the window). Yet that's exactly how she treats her readers, as sad peering vagabonds, even when we're perfectly capable of walking right in and saying how do you do.
She describes herself as masculine: " . . .It was not the word 'grandeur' or 'greatness' that stayed with me, but 'wholeness'. It occurs to me that this is often a masculine attribute (my father had it, not my mother) and that perhaps it goes not only with dedication to noble ends, but with a certain simple-mindedness -- the people who hew to the heart of the matter, who get hold of the big ideas. . . It may also go with limited sensibility or a sensibility limited in some areas. . . ." This last remark made me feel that her excessive allusions to the great philosophical abstractions was simply a coverup for her more natural directness, which conventional people must often have viewed as coarseness. Like most headstrong writers, she revels in the tautologically oblique. She quotes Louis Lavelle: "We sense that there can be no true communion between human beings until they have in fact become beings." Substituting the word 'human' at the end of that sentence would at least have some meaning, but beings? Even non-being has some of that; go ask a philosopher. I guess it's embarrassing to say, "I kissed Harry, but he pulled away - for the first time," so you say "In order to be fully human you must first be full." This is understood to be a deeper sort of observation, conveying information of a more enduring nature.
When I was in college and looking for something to believe in I was attracted to religious terms like grace, revelation, celebration, communion and such. But now I regard them as unnecessary mystifications of experience, laden with heavy theological overtones that lend authority but not authenticity to the images they convey. May Sarton is great at finding new applications for such terms. She says, for instance, "Gardening is an instrument of grace." My mother might have said, had she a garden, "I like to garden." I'm not convinced the first formulation says more than the second. I often worry about the beautiful thoughts of writers. When that old poetic license tells you to sit down and go creative, you go. Beautiful thoughts are their own excuse. You don't think them at all. On the contrary, you unleash them.
One day May Sarton tidies up a cupboard and can now "feel a sense of relief when I walk past that cupboard and know that it's neat and in order." Boy did that remind me of my mother. Every few weeks she'd rearrange the junk in my room into neat stacks and announce how relieved she was. I didn't mind because sometimes I could locate individual articles of junk more easily that way, but all the same I though it was sick. Then there was the time she pulled a paper bag out of a closet and started shuddering violently just because a baby cockroach hadn't jumped off in time to escape notice.
May Sarton's need to control and order her life's minor details as an antidote to lurking depression makes her fond of statements that have a seemingly self-contained completeness. She repeatedly makes reference to the fact that her development has benefitted from disappointment and uncertainty, yet this is a kind of formal vow of reverence -- she rejects real uncertainty whenever she can. She will not tolerate mystery, the unknown. Ironically enough, she uses the tool of religious mystification to concretize and label feelings and states of mind she really has very little understanding of. An otherwise good statement like "Whatever people I take into my life I take in because they challenge me and I challenge them at the deepest level," is for me marred by the smug allusion to this deepest level which I have heard more than one writer refer to. I always wonder just which level they mean. To me this is a symptom of needing to order into simple categories that which is inherently much more dynamic, namely human psychology.
In spite of the fact that she speaks often about growing and changing, she seems supremely uncomfortable with new ideas. Not a single idea in this book hasn't been bandied about in print for thirty years. The only ideas which interest her are those which are very dear and familiar and which she can reminisce about, ideas from letters and books of long ago. This reminded me of Socrates' description of learning as the remembering of what we've always known but long ago forgotten. She seems to think that learning therefore comes from trying to remember the past, but I don't think that's what was meant.
She complains that a New York Times editor did not even take the trouble of finding a critic who was familiar with her work and who would be expected to be understanding and kind to her. It seems to me that understanding and kindness are fine in their place, but so is a little criticism. I don't think she has ever had the chance to learn to use constructive criticism. This helps to explain why, no matter how often she reminds herself that suffering brings wisdom, her depression is so stark and relentless. In the name of creativity she seems to be digging her own grave, not an exactly uncommon thing to do in an age where creativity has replaced God as a respectable excuse for self-sacrifice and self-neglect.
She never really questions the validity of her career, which strikes me as conventional. Although she is willing to go on and on about the nature of growth, solitude, holiness, etc., she treats her commitment to writing as if it were an unquestionable religious crusade, albeit a mild-mannered one. Is this the inevitable arrogance of success? After someone claims to have read all her books, she says, "It always amazes me that anyone has ever read anything of mine, so it is exceedingly heartening now to discover that somehow, little by little, the work is getting through." Getting through? To whom? What is the message? In which ways will this tired world be any different after all this getting through has been accomplished?
The scenes in the book that seemed to me to be most authentic are those about her pet parrot, Punch, and the stray cat who slowly learns to trust her. In these passages there is humor and tenderness that seems real to me, or anyway as real as they probably are to her. But I have the same nagging doubts as when I watched my mother with her pets: Have we come this far for this little?
I don't want to seem antagonistic or contemptuous. I feel towards May Sarton somewhat as I do towards my mother. My mother is alone now, too, and I respect the courage I see in each too much to portray either as enemies of humanity. Nevertheless, neither are they its saviors. Both are amiable, retiring people, getting along in years, still muttering vague philosophical sentiments, each with more than a dash of pretension to being something they're not.
I gather that I would like her if we were neighbors, because she's honest and up front about homosexuality, if nothing else. And the fact that her decency as a person comes through otherwise flawed books says, maybe, that she would rather be first of all a good person than a good writer. I wish more writers felt that way. Where are Norman Mailer's soul-searching journals?
If you were to accept this journal as a novel of an independent lone woman given to abstruse thoughts, I think you could appreciate it as being at least true to life. As such, the book becomes an affecting confession, an image of loneliness symbolic of the emptiness and vagueness of our age -- if you wanted to. You could also say it was a fraudulent mockery of conceptual thinking. Then again, you might even claim it was an eloquent testimonial to New Hampshire scenery.
I really don't care. I'll take it as an innocent memoir to be appreciated in a quiet moment, having no justification for its existence other than that it helped one person live more fully for a certain time in her life.
-- reprinted from The Ninth Street Center Journal 3, Winter 1983
[D:\DH\NSC\HTP\J3HANNO.HTP (39 lines) 1998-09-17 19:45 Dean Hannotte]