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Twitter and Confessional Writing: Mixing Garbage and Perfume?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-05-13 09:40:48
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In the recent 51st Ovi Symposium we have endeavored to explore and discuss at some length the issue of confessional writing trying to untangle and clarify literary phenomena such as autobiography, confessional writing, and diary writing. We covered a lot of ground but we still did not a reach a consensus or a conclusion on this controversial issue. Nevertheless, an enlightening dialogue has begun on the subject and I hope it will eventually lead to a greater clarification. This is a modest follow-up with that aim in mind.

It appears that the books that are becoming increasingly more popular, claiming a reflection of contemporary life, are not the autobiographical novels of old, but those that mix philosophical observations with the banalities of day-to-day quotidian life; what used to be classified as diaries. Some detractors of confessional writing have characterized it mixing garbage with perfume.

In the past those diaries, being confessional remained secret and not published, at least till the author was still alive. Sometimes they went to the grave with its author. This is no longer the case. Today we have confessional writings and meandering painfully personal narratives galore on Twitter for everyone to read. It’s like going to confession in public or perhaps doing one’s dirty laundry in public. There we find recorded daily actions and thoughts, allowing space to roam around, sometimes taking liberties with grammar and punctuation, latching onto earlier memories and musings. Are those to be classified as diaries too? What is the boundary between personal life-logging and art for public consumption, if indeed there is any? What is behind this over-sharing, so to speak, of one’s most intimate personal experiences. Some see narcissism or even masochism lurking behind the curtains.

One of the rationales adduced for keeping a diary is that it is a therapeutic and cathartic exercise to let if all off one’s chest; it may even be redemptive, if one thinks of the sacrament of confession where people confess and ask for forgiveness from God. But now it has become a mere line of communication with people we don’t even know and who may or may not share our interests and anxieties. We simply communicate our lives without any filters or interpretations via a self-indulgent daily rambling in a diary.

There is an obvious philosophical conundrum here. Confessions, after all, go back to St. Augustine in the 5th century AD. Many diaries which also go back centuries, are rich in historical details but nevertheless remain dull, at times logging meals, or the style of clothing one is wearing, all fascinating for an historian or those who wish to escape the bird’s eye view of history, but rather boring to everyone else. To be sure, the diaries that most readers consider excellent and exciting are the exception and not the norm: one thinks of Anne Frank, Hellen Keller, Seichonagon. What is unique about those diaries is that they fall outside our personal realm of experience. As we read what their writers did or thought in each particular day we connect with them on a more human level, and consequently we understand history beyond chronological timelines that historians normally use to make some sense of an event’s importance. 

And yet, despite the proliferation of confessional writing, we continue to imagine diaries as a separate, more intimate form of self-expression which the author shares with its readers. What makes it a diary rather than a letter or a mere note is that it is conceived as a means to share unfiltered secret musings which of course are no longer secret once they are shared with the readers. As Susan Sontag observed in her Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, one of the main functions of a dairy is to be read by other people, often the very people about whom one has been cruelly honest in the diary conceived as uncensored self-narration. It is logical: if we vent our lives, we expect to be heard. And this may explain blogging. In the past fifteen years the blog’s relative number of private account holders has decreases by 21 per cent. Twitter bio describes itself as “blurring the lines between blogging and social networking capitalizing on the shift we’ve undergone from squirreling away our secrets to announcing them proudly.” Clearly, sharing our quotidian wants and needs and happenings has become a pastime of sort, to be trumpeted on Twitter. This obsessive self-documentation can be interpreted either as generational narcissism, or as something liberating, the way one feels liberated after making a confession within the sacrament of reconciliation, what used to be called “confession.”

So how are we to define a modern public cyber space diary? As a narcissistic exercise in enumeration of banal and shallow trivia, or a valuable document written in media res which applies not only to historical musings but to present existential ones too. The jury seems to still be out on a definite verdict and controversies abound. Some confessional writers say that its value consists in using the dailiness of the diary’s observations as a jumping-off point to examine one’s life without a plot. With a plot it is a novel or autobiography, without a plot it is a diary following Socrates’ injunction that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But of course the question persists: is a life without a plot or a coherent perceivable journey toward some kind of intuited destination a meaningful life?

What are the strategies behind these novels without plot? Well, for one, they stress the I: they usually begin with “today I…” this circumvents the chronological order of the plot of most novels. The connections are then made via memory or nostalgia with different parts of one’s life; a sort of Joycean stream of consciousness which however remains unconscious of meaning in one’s life; thus the I or the self could direct itself anywhere in time, even when it knows that going back in time is physically impossible, at least in the universe we inhabit. But what remains strange is that usually one detects little connection between different parts of the life being narrated; there seems to be no telos or purpose. It does not feel like a coherent narration or story, but rather they seem to support a fragmentary sense of life, almost as a prelude to a nihilistic or tragic sense. Some critics have boldly called this strange enterprise selfish and irresponsible. In fact, those who prefer to conceive of life as stories full of connections and meaning, will find the confessional mode of narration in most diaries repugnant. Others, on the other hand, call diary writing an exploration of interiority, or the exploration of the self; they are opposed by those who consider the keeping a public inventory of the daily happening a big yawn for the readers, or worse, mere solipsism and narcissisms. And so the debate goes on.

The above is to say that the diary, in becoming unblushingly public, has gone beyond a therapeutic act of self-reflection. It now claims to be a means of connecting with others and even an artistic tool. Some see in these self-confessing stories men and women drowning their sorrow in self-pity, engaged in self-destruction, obsessed with the people who did not love them, searching for validation. The ordinariness of pain seems to them a story not worth writing about; but despite the vehement criticism this form of art is now accepted by many. It is considered an honest reflection and how information is produced and consumed in our era. Indeed, in some way, a plot-less story may reflect how we live nowadays. Today we do not connect with each other, we link. Everything has a link with everything we read through the cyber space stories we navigate. There is no plot, there is no meaning, there is no dialogue, just linkage. One is led to wonder is we are not reinventing the wheel for the meaninglessness of life which is as old as Epicurus and as new as Sartre.


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Nikos Laios2015-05-14 00:41:57
Very apt article,and a few issues to consider here; on the one hand we have confessional writing on the pages of social media,and on the other hand,its appearance in literary pages of books.Most writers indeed rightly so dismiss confessional writing; long winded,difficult to read and laborious with first person tense usages.I for one from my very early childhood never have bought any confessional books and never will.'Mixing perfume with garbage?"...,you've hit the nail on the head there

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