Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso

Ongoingness is subtitled “the end of a diary.” It’s also about the end of Sarah Manguso, about how motherhood reconciled her to death. Prior to parturition, she kept a journal for 25 years. It was her “defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.” In her diary she built dikes against forgetfulness. I sympathize. I have a diary too, whose hours I keep with a desperation that smells of fear. If I miss a day, it feels as if the day failed to reach its destination. Is it pathetic to see the page as the destination of the day? You can imagine the diarist, ink-stained and bespectacled, looking up at the end of life and realizing he, too, had missed it; he had embalmed it before it was gone. After she gave birth, Manguso’s diary habits changed. “[T]he baby became a little boy,” she says, “who needed me more than I needed to write in the diary.” She decided that “the best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know.” Maybe I need to have a baby?

Until just last week, one thing I didn’t think I needed to have was Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness. Her name was not unknown to me. If you care about the contemporary essay, particularly the “lyric essay,” you probably know of her too. I’d only read 300 Arguments, a slight if entertaining collection of aphorisms. While I was in the London Review Bookstore in search of a paper copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, I saw Ongoingness. I won’t say I bought it for its cover, but its cover was the proximate cause. A few blocks away in a pub, I read it in one go. It’s made to be read that way. It’s 88 pages long, each page devoted to a thought, some thoughts only a few sentences long.

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I enjoy the talk of diaries; I appreciate being made to face the pathological nature of diary-addiction; but I’m not sure I buy Manguso’s conclusion. From the mysticism of finitude expressed in the joy of watching the wave of mortality break over her, she turns to the consolations of pseudo-immortality. This is from the last page of the book: “light . . . shines triumphant from the next of the living, and when their time is up, their potential spent, the light will move along to the next brightest, and the next.” Like all forms of pseudo-immortality, however, the drawback of reproduction is that it’s not, in fact, immortality. Not even on its own terms. The species will end. It will end well before the heat-death of the universe. At best, participation in the passing on of genes is a temporary reprieve.

I guess I’m team diary? It seems to me that if the diary as a tool for attending to the present can be replaced by a child who will carry on your “light,” then it was never a tool for attending to the present in the first place.

Like most people, I think, I spend a lot of time in my head, just hanging out inspecting the contents of my memory. I do that in bed; while riding public transit, queuing up, cooking, working out, taking walks; in those moments between bouts of focus when I stare at the wall. The untended memory drifts toward regret. I have a tendency to ruminate on shame and inadequacy. What I would prefer to do in my head is look over the more interesting of my perceptions and contemplate the brighter of my thoughts. For me, writing in a diary is about selecting those perceptions and thoughts, putting them on the shelves for idle handling throughout my days.

Franz Kafka was also an inveterate diarist. In his biography of Kafka, Reiner Stach compares him to “a photographer who spends the evening sorting through the optic yield of the day.” Kafka had his doubts about the practice. He came to suspect there was an inverse relationship between his prospects for romantic fulfillment and his writing. He struggled with the idea that a commitment to literary observation entailed a commitment to almost metaphysical bachelorhood, bachelorhood not just as alienation from the nuclear family but as alienation from the human race. Would he always be the gargoyle watching from the cornice?

Stach describes a joint vacation Kafka took with Max Brod. They had decided to keep travel journals. The idea excited Kafka because note-taking seemed a better way of taking something genuinely personal home from the trip — his impressions — than buying souvenirs or taking photographs. “But Brod was skeptical and instantly put his finger on the drawback,” writes Stach:

The danger of taking such extensive notes is that one misses out on many impressions that one might have made for even more interesting notes. Isn’t writing while traveling like closing one’s eyes, Brod wondered, after which one has to keep refocusing one’s attention.

Kafka appears to have recognized that this problem is more universal than travel writing: it applies to life itself. Could he commit to literature in a serious way and still participate in life? Wouldn’t it be like closing his eyes? In fact, as he slept his afternoons away and retreated from the life of his family into the silent watches of the night, hadn’t he closed his eyes already? Such thoughts could lead to fearful reflections, like this passage in a letter:

[W]hat frail or even nonexistent ground I live on, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges according to its will and, heedless of my stammering destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but isn’t it more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? […] Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s visual instruction, that it is the reward for serving the devil.

Kafka never married or had children, though he did end his days in the care of a woman he loved. I wonder if he looked up at the end, considered his life, and decided he’d missed it? Maybe. Maybe I should have baby…