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The Journal of a Disappointed Man (Nature Classics Library) Paperback – 21 Oct 2010
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`My one solace is that I do not submit, it infuriates me, I resent it; I will never be resigned and milky. I will keep my claws sharp and fight to the end.' (p.144)
`I have wanted to love man blindly, yet I am always finding them out, and the disappointment chills the heart.' (p.281)
After youthful entries about zoological, naturalist ambitions, an older boy spying out girls and reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species, we are given our first intimation of the style and trend of Wilhelm Nero Pilate Barbellion's (nom-de-plume of Bruce Frederick Cummings) The Journal of a Disappointed Man as it moves through adolescence and towards his bitter, sickly, powerfully self-observed adulthood, `The intense internal life I lead, worrying about my health, reading (eternally reading), reflecting, observing, feeling, loving and hating--with no outlet for superfluous steam, cramped and confined on every side, without any friends or influence of any sort, without any acquaintances except for my colleagues in journalism (whom I condemn)--all this will turn me into the most self-conscious, conceited, mawkish, gauche creature in existence.' (pp.41-2). Sometimes the entries are fragments of glass, `Am feeling very unwell. My ill health, my isolation, baulked ambitions, and daily breadwinning all conspire to bring me down. The idea of a pistol and the end of it grows on me day by day.' (p.116). At others they are worked out, `It always weightily impresses me to see someone asleep--especially someone I love as today, stretched out as still as a log--who perhaps a few minutes ago was alive, even animated. And there is nothing so welcome, unless it be the sunrise, as the first faint gleam of recognition in the half-opened eye when consciousness like a mighty river begins to flow in and restore our love to us again.' (p.197).
Structured in three parts, the first section gets the simple title `Home' and details a youth that commences with dry descriptions and snappy details, sometimes with an amusing edge, `September 8 Wet all day. Toothache. September 9 Toothache. September 10 Toothache September 11 Toothache' (p.23). The headings remain cursory, but `London' recounts in much more texture and richness how the city is, `a phantasmagoria, an opium dream out of De Quincey.' (p.130). Here Barbellion has taken on a more intertextual edge; one suggested before, but now effortlessly assumed. Finally, `Marriage' covers its titular subject as well as fatherhood in a mostly similar tone, with a charming and also consistent certainty about his choice--`I love no one else but E' (p.181)--but his sting remains, `She is the most wonderful darling woman. Our love is for always. The Baby is a monster.' (p.241). His tripartite arrangement, however, even when taken with the many affectations, should not be read so as to lend the book a clear form. Softness, roundedness of any kind, is stylistically and actively resisted.
A constant sense of incomplete reaching pervades the entirety of the mostly autobiographical book, punctuated by a painful historical detail, `August 1 All of Europe is mobilising. August 2 Will England join in? August 12 We all await the result of a battle between two millions of men. The tension makes me feel physically sick.' (p.137). However these punctures are resisted; Barbellion is on the side of the particular, against the generalised sweep of time, `To become a common soldier is to become a pawn in the game between ambitious dynasts and their ambitious marshals. You loose all individuality, you become a "bayonet" or a "machine gun" or "cannon fodder" or "fighting material".' (p.180). His ambivalence about being too ill for conscription is a struggle with the self-importance of the unique. The ending fittingly follows through this ongoing tension, `October 21 Self-disgust' (p.286). As this last self-abuse attests, it would only be mildly simplifying to identity a quality of the Twentieth Century pessimists about Barbellion, `One by one I have been divested of all my most cherished illusions.' (p.151); much like Emil Cioran he is a proud bastard of that great German iconoclast, one also suffering frequent oedipal rages, `But Nietzsche is no consolation to a man who has once been weak enough to be brought to his knees.' (p.141). His is often a worldview of spiritual despair, for which his book unashamedly proselytises, `I am in love with my own ruin.' (p.250)
Unfortunately, despite favourable comparisons to Kafka and the staunch advocacy of H.G. Wells, Barbellion's name and work has slowly faded from popular reception. Largely remembered by association with his painfully well documented experiences of MS, `This Diary reads for all the world as if I were not living in mighty London. The truth is I live in a bigger, dirtier city--ill health. Ill health, when chronic, is like a permanent ligature around one's life. What a fine fellow I would be if I were perfectly well. My energy for one thing would lift the roof off....' (p.85). I even admit my own interest was catalysed by a personal diagnosis, but that side has played well and in certain respects, despite or because of its aggressively grim tone, The Journal of a Disappointed Man could fit the consolatio genre; it was touching to read something so familiar as, `haunted by the possibility of blindness. Then I have a numb feeling on one side of my face, and my right arm is less mobile.' (p.102) and `The numbness in my right hand is getting very trying....' (p.240). That is, from my own diary, `Woken at four by the noise of the elements, bedevilled by MS numbness.'
For Barbellion death is an obsession. And the journals, sometimes referred to collectively as his coffin, are intimately bound to a symbolic death. In Zizekian terms they are the displaced excess that is constitutive of the subjective lack, `These precious Journals! Supposing I lost them! I cannot imagine the anguish it would cause me. It would be the death of my real self and as I should take no pleasure in the perpetuation of my flabby, flaccid, anaemic, amiable puppet-self, I should probably commit suicide.' (p.166). Something of the process of selection shows, `Am busy re-writing, editing and bowdlerising my journals for publication against the test of time when I shall have gone the way of all flesh.' (p.263). And this flaunting of editorial artificiality (on pp.267-8 he narrativises his love life into a potted novel) separates the journals qua theatre not so much from Barbellion, who is an overt construct, a zombie, but from Cummings's Hegelian night of the world--the opaque nothing of the cogito. At the end, in a moment of the greatest, simplest, non-sentimental poignancy, Barbellion gives his wife the task of disrupting the fictionalising, `"People who cry in novels," E-- observed with detachment, "never blow their noses, they just weep."' He is a man superseded by text, but in conflict with its irreality, `In this Journal, my pen is a delicate needle point, tracing out a graph of temperament so as to show its daily fluctuations: grave and gay, up and down, lamentation and revelry, self-love and self-disgust.' (p.270).
Richard loved it. I love the title. It was bitter sweet, seeing it beside his bed in the Hospice.
Anybody who isn't disappointed after the age of fifty, needs to get out more, or stay in with better books.
This beautifully produced new edition of what Barbellion termed a "self-portrait in the nude" still grabs the attention through his lust for life in death -- or what Tim Dee in his introduction encapsulates as `vigor mortis'. Paperback, 288 pages.
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