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Philosopher Dick

"Marino, 19th Sept

"Marino, 19th Sept.

"What has become of my resolution to keep a diary?—this daily chronicle, however brief and meagre, of thought and action, duly planned and prefaced, and started with such a flourish? It has gone the way of all other good resolutions, for I never kept one yet; broken down miserably at the very first stage. Should I go on with it—which is doubtful—I can see that it will be in a halting sort of style, with ever so many skips, and not unfrequently a total collapse—a thing of discontinuity—a jumble of breaks and blanks, as unsatisfactory to my future biographer as Darwin's palæontological-genealogical record. The next good resolution I make—and it shall assume the shape of a solemn vow—will be never to make good resolutions any more. I have had enough of them. I have been making them for the past twenty years with praiseworthy perseverance, and I can honestly aver that I have never derived the slightest benefit or satisfaction from any page 351one of them yet. So once for all I shall give them up. And yet the moralising poet tells us—

'Since but to wish more virtue is to gain.'

"Well, we should be content with small profits. Wish, by all means; keep on wishing, and take due credit for it; but to attempt anything more appears to me a work of supererogation.

"Whenever a man fails in any purpose or undertaking, the first thing for him to do is to set about justifying his action or want of action, as the case may be.

"Let him make peace with his conscience in the first place; that done, he may conscientiously defy the world. He should satisfy himself at any cost—dismissing from his mind all vain scruples and weak hesitations—that he did the right thing, and that all is for the best.

"This is the golden rule in life—the only conclusion in this world worth coming to. If a man can't accomplish that much he is to be pitied, and the next best thing for him to do is to become a fatalist. There is some consolation to be got out of that.

"Having failed to post up my journal as intended, I have asked myself this question—

page 352

"Is it profitable unto a man to keep a diary? and I have answered it in the negative.

"Of course, I am not alluding to ordinary diaries—mere registers of the weather, entries of out-of-pocket expenses, jottings of incomings and outgoings, and such-like, or even gourmandising notes. Although, as regards the latter particulars, some excuse might be found for including them in a well-conducted journal. A good dinner is not a thing to be passed over lightly. Its charms, although transient in the flesh, yet leave a fragrance behind them; they remain 'to memory dear.' It cannot be denied that a good or a bad dinner, like a virtuous or a sinful action, exercises an after-effect. This must be the reason why so many distinguished personages, in their published journals and correspondence, have given so much space to what they had to eat. It should be a lesson to common folk to cook their victuals properly, when they learn the grave importance which the greatest of mankind have attached to the culinary art. You may have too much of a good thing, however; and I am inclined to think that travellers descant, as a rule, at too great length about their meals. It's the stuffing that fills half their books. Still, according to the most advanced theories of the modern scientific world, it may be useful—nay, essential—to account minutely page 353for what we eat and drink. The historian who relates the decision of some momentous conference, of vital consequence to the well-being of society, should also describe the menu which preceded it, for are we not taught to believe that we are the mere outcome of our stomachs?—'Der Mensch ist was er isst.'

"Such being the case, it strikes me that I ought to premise any remarks I may have to make concerning my disposition or ideas with a statement of what I have been subsisting upon. This can be done very briefly. Know then all men that for the past four years I have existed almost entirely on damper and mutton. If then I should be charged with being heavy and sheepish, is it to be wondered at?

"But to return to my original query, and leaving gastronomy out of the question—

"Is it profitable unto a man to keep a diary? Cela dépend. Authorities would appear to differ on this as upon nearly every other point of moral or ethical importance. I have read somewhere—probably in many places—opinions by grave authors and instructors of morals, that it is an excellent practice, and greatly to be recommended.

"And at first sight the keeping of a journal—a moral, introspective, psychological sort of record— page 354appears innocent enough, and may prove advantageous.

"The idea is good—the carrying out will depend on a variety of conditions; and the value may be reckoned in direct proportion to the amount of sincerity there is in it. Surely it must be well to be able to look back on a faithful account of trials, temptations and accomplishments—however pitiful the whole chapter may be—interesting and profitable to retrace the varying struggles of a moral and intellectual existence, weighing the motives and noting the results. I feel that I could write an eloquent page on the subject, but I will deny myself that gratification. From a religious point of view a diary should be almost a devotional work, for it is nothing short of a written confession, and confession is good for the soul.

"Tis greatly wise to talk with our past hours,
And ask them what report they bore to heaven,
And how they might have borne more welcome news.'

"On the other hand, I have seen it in print—and I should fancy that it was from the hand of some straight-going, hard-headed, practical-minded Christian—that diaries—moral diaries, mind—are rubbish, and the keeping of them a transparent fraud. 'Who shall decide, when doctors disagree?'

page 355

"Now, as a general rule, whenever the merits of anything are disputed—when they are open to reasonable and candid contention, for I am not alluding to malicious detraction, or to cavilling sophistry—wherever there is a fair pro and con—then go for the con. It has a dozen chances to one on its side. Doctor Tant mieux and Doctor Tant pis are ever at it, squabbling from morning to night. It is an everlasting tussle, but hang me if Tant pis doesn't generally get the best of it.

"If you have lost your way in an inhospitable country, and you meet two strangers, one of whom says that you have five miles to travel to the nearest inn, the other makes it seven—be resigned to the seven.

"But if you have placed out your money in a safe investment which 'one who knows' tells you will bring you in seven per cent., whereas another one who also knows declares it can only yield five, then reckon on the five—it will be nearest the mark.

"To my mind it is very much the same with moral questions. Between the optimist and the pessimist, the truster and the distruster, if you have to choose—however much it may go against the grain—you had better incline to the latter.

page 356

"So about the keeping of a diary; there is much to be said 'agin it.'

"Life is made up of mean little actions that we perform out of habit, or because we like it, or can't help it, but which are certainly not worth recording.

"A commonplace book is right enough so long as it is confined to commonplace, but any attempt to turn it into a repository of sentiment and meditation fails miserably. As well might we scribble down the small-talk of every day, which is no sooner said than forgotten, and which nobody could wish remembered. The fact is, that in the ordinary routine of life our sentiments are shallow, our reflections most trite, our communications mere clatter. There's nothing in it.

"Then again the value, if any, of a confidential journal must rest upon its outspoken candour and genuineness, and that is precisely what diaries almost invariably lack. Who would willingly lay bare his heart, especially on paper? Who would believe in writing down the innermost desires and sensations of his being, even if it were in his power to do so. There are secrets of the heart that cannot bear exposure; there are communions of the spirit that are beyond vulgar expression. The mind is replete page 357with an inward sense of shame that it would be torture to reveal, and which it endeavours to conceal even from its own consciousness.

"A schoolboy, even of the most outspoken type, might be excused if he omitted from his juvenile diurnal an entry of a flogging received. A young lady, however modest and pure-minded, might hesitate before committing to paper the thoughts that occasionally occupy her mind, and tend to keep her awake of a night. And where is the man who cares at all times to read his own thoughts, and would find words to express them? No! we cannot throw down the veil, and the veil spoils the confession.

"Man is essentially an egotistical being. The universal I monopolises his thoughts and desires. It is the consideration of self that rules his life. It engrosses his conversation; it predominates in his correspondence; it is only intensified in a diary. Is it well to be ever harping on Number One? I trow not. Let this inevitable personality rest, or rather try to forget it. There is a morbid tendency in constantly dwelling upon or inquiring into our conditions, either of body or of mind. It is, indeed, with moral as with physical health—the less coddling and doctoring it gets the better. A sound and robust nature thrives best when left alone.

page 358

"But the past—the beloved past? Is not the history of our lives worthy of preservation? You cannot take it from us. The joys that are fled still live to us in our memory, and there is even consolation to be derived from the recollection of our misfortunes.

"Ay, when they are a long way off, and 'distance lends enchantment to the view,' but a prosaic diary would go far to dispel the illusion. There is, indeed, but little good to be derived from raking up the past; oblivion also has its charms.

"The lessons of adversity are sufficiently painful, as a rule, not to need recapitulation, and past happiness cannot be restored. What is done is done, what is gone is gone, whether for good or for evil.

"Fate has so decreed, and we can only bow to its dictates. It is sufficient to say, On a vécu."