Struck yesterday, as I leafed anew through Gide’s journal, by its religious aspect. It is primarily a Protestant self-examination, and then a book of meditation and prayer. Nothing in common with Montaigne’s essays, the Goncourts’ diary or Renard’s journal. The basic thing is the struggle against sin. And keeping up the journal is very often presented as one humble means—one humble trick—to facilitate struggle against the Evil One. E.g.: ‘I have never been so modest as when constraining myself to write every day in this notebook a series of pages that I know and feel to be so definitely mediocre . . . I cling desperately to this notebook; it is a part of my patience; it helps keep me from going under’ (7 February 1916).footnote1 And (16 September 1916): ‘I shan’t succeed without a constant effort, an hourly effort, constantly renewed. I shan’t succeed without deceit and attention to detail. Nothing gained if I aim to note here only things of importance. I must make up my mind to write
So his notebook is a task, a humble daily task, and it is with a certain humility that one rereads it. Of course, it is not and cannot be that alone. First, because of Gide’s personality and writer’s craft, and then because of the dialectical notion of notebook both imposed and executed by the writer. But the framework remains religious. Whence the austerity of this journal, and on occasion its sacred character. At the same time it is the journal of a classic author. In other words, it contains a book of rereadings, and of meditations upon these rereadings. Moreover, the severe quality of many of the notes too must be attributed to this. There is no question of this notebook being the reflection of a life. It is a kind of religious and classical offertory; a moral account-book, with a page for the credit side, a page for the debits. And almost every note, more than the faithful transcription of an act or feeling, is itself an act. Act of prayer, act of confession, act of meditation.
In the light of this, I returned to my own notebook and saw how different it was from Gide’s. It is above all the notebook of a witness. The more I go on, the more I consider it as testimony: the testimony of a 1939 bourgeois draftee on the war he’s being made to fight. And I too write anything whatever in my notebook, but I do so under the impression that I’m justified by my testimony’s historical value. Let us be clear: I’m not an important person nor do I meet important people, so my journal won’t have the same value that Giraudoux’s or Chamson’s might.footnote3 On the other hand, I’m not in a privileged position—on the Maginot line, for example, or on the contrary in the intelligence service or a censorship office in the rear. I’m at an artillery staff headquarters twenty kilometres from the front, surrounded by petty and middle bourgeois. But, precisely because of all this, my journal is testimony that’s valid for millions of men. It is a mediocre and, for that very reason, general testimony.
But here there intervenes what Gide would call one of the Devil’s tricks: I am emboldened by the very mediocrity of my condition, I am no longer afraid of being mistaken, and I speak boldly about this war because my errors will have a historical value. If I am mistaken in considering this war as a swindle, etc., this error is not just my own stupidity, it is representative of a moment in this war. Others, more or less intelligent than me, more or less well informed, have been surprised like me, have reacted like me, without writing it down, or using other words. No more is needed to convince me that everything I write is interesting: even the confession of my sullen moods, for they
From another point of view, and in a quite different spirit, this journal is a calling into question of myself. And there again a parallel might be made with Gide’s confessions. But this is merely apparent. In fact, I don’t do this calling into question with groans and humility, but coldly and in order to move forward. Nothing of what I write is an act, in the sense in which I was speaking of Gide’s acts. It consists of recordings, and as I write these down I have the (fallacious) impression of leaving what I write behind me. I’m never ashamed of it, I’m never proud of it. There’s almost always a gap between the moment when I felt and the moment when I write. So it’s essentially a fair copy. Except, perhaps, in a few cases when the feeling has governed the writing directly. When I write, I try to establish a solid, clearly defined foundation as a point of departure. After all, among primitive peoples there are ceremonies to help the living person to die; to help the soul detach itself from the body. My ‘confessional’ notes have the same purpose: to help my present being slip into the past—push it in a bit deeper, if need be. There’s a degree of illusion there, for it’s not enough to denounce a psychological constant in order to modify it. But at least that sketches some possible lines of change.