When I was younger and more feral I kept a diary, usually after I had been drinking, but as I drank quite often I built up quite a corpus. Keeping a diary serves all sorts of purposes and one of the main ones is to allow you to create a rational narrative of your life out of the chaos of existence, all the better for reflecting on it when you are drunk in the future. This requirement to artificially create a coherence out of our own life-events is quite a modern one, a result of our inability to find this coherence in the ever-changing world outside of us. Kafka knew this and, demonstrating admirable self-reference, he wrote in his own diary: "He has discovered the Archimedean principle, but he has turned it to account against himself; evidently it was only on this condition that he was permitted to discover it."
Keeping a diary, or at least a good diary, is much more of an art than it is a science. The difference is analogous to that between modern histories and the chronicles of medieval monks; the latter are a dispassionate record of everything that happened within set limits, but the former are syntheses of fact and conjecture and polemic. The historian and the diarist take reality as their subject-matter, consume it voraciously and output a limited literary product; one famous historian compared the process of writing history to that of a man who drinks an ocean and pisses a teacup, and a diary is the same. Diaries used to be dispassionate records of business transactions, but in the last few hundred years they became something much more: they became the search for meaning in our lives. The good diarist, like the good historian, is a poet.
But the desire to create a written coherence out of your life is also a conceit, as if every literary dropping that you excrete is worthy of saving for posterity - even just to be read again by yourself in the future. The vast majority of people, who do not keep diaries and would not see a reason to do so, may have thoughts just as profound or experiences just as worthy of retelling as those who do, except they are quite content to allow them to disappear into the ether and into memory, which rots faster than paper. The diary is a testament to self-love insofar as it demonstrates that you considered everything within it to be worthy of preserving; and to boot, you probably did not preserve the life-events truthfully, but embellished them even more effectively than memory can, with your rhetoric and your quotations and your simplifications (who ever simplifies in a way injurious to themselves?) Nietzsche wrote in his diary: "In that which moved Zarathustra, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, Plato, Brutus, Spinoza, Mirabeau - I live, too". Quite so, Nietzsche, but in what else did you move?
And I wrote once, in mine:
On the poet and the scientist. The scientist – and science in general – accumulates progress throughout life, tackling and breaking down problems so that they are universally understandable to all humans. Their laws are true everywhere. But the poet raises more questions than he answers, he deals in ambiguities and what is true for this person, at this time, in that place. A life of the most productive musing might not then result in his life moving forward; even if it does, his products do not necessarily move humanity forward. What they do move forward is a particular culture, a people's body of artistic achievement and moral refinement: so are they anything more than use-objects, acts of fabrication rather than reflection? Or use-objects produced by reflection?
Now this part at the end, about use-objects and fabrication and reflection, we are free to disregard, at least for now. But I do not feel we are free to disregard the rest; far from it.
If you trace the history of art, you can see the point at which the scientist's animating principle - the doubt of everything - became paramount. Art used to be a celebration of national or religious myth, or the appreciation of something profound and external to the artist like Truth, or Beauty, or Virtue. These truths - the glory of God, or the virtue of Rome - were givens, external verities which it was left to the artist merely to replicate as closely as he could in his creation. It was not the artist's job to create truth or meaning, but to reflect the truth that already existed; for after all, though the artist's act of creation might most closely mirror Genesis out of all of the human activities, he is no God but still a man.
Then struck doubt. Crippling, painful, enabling, constructive, doubt. Crippling and painful to the poet, but enabling and constructive to the scientist and his natural constituents, those who live and suffer and slave in the real world. Most people, after all, are neither diarists nor poets. The scientist tells us to question everything that we cannot prove and to prove everything that we can, moving the focus of our endeavour to the mastery of the physical world and all the material benefits this brings. And while the scientist cannot categorically disprove the existence of God, or of Truth, or of Beauty, he can infect us with his doubt and, much more insidiously for the poet, the scientist's material successes call into question the whole relevance of the poet's immaterial endeavour to begin with. History giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.
What has happened to the poet in the modern age is that he has become entirely disconnected from his tradition by the scientist. The scientist turned out to be much more skilled at imitating Genesis than the poet, creating new worlds in the blink of an eye. The economic and technological revolutions of the last few centuries paid their dividends by lifting whole countries out of poverty, eliminating whole categories of human misery, and laying the framework for mass education and democracy. The world started to move so fast and became so intermixed that tradition - cultural, political, religious, social - vanished. No longer could we be sure of the old truths - for science appeared to disprove them, offering previously unimaginable comforts in their place.
We can see with some precision the point in the history of art where the decisive change occurs, and we recognize it because it is the point where the artist is thrown back on himself and his own experiences as the only thing which is knowable to him beyond doubt. Previous art was largely undergirded by certainty on matters of truth which were external to the art itself. Shakespeare and Homer are largely invisible entities as they spin their yarns, and we know very little about either of these two from their body of work: their focus is on mythical stories external to their own life-events. It never occurred to Shakespeare to provide a justification as to why his stories deserved to be heard, nor to Homer to justify the Greek culture that he expounded - just as it would never have occurred to Michelangelo to explain why The Last Judgement was a scene worthy of painting.
But after the collapse of such external certainties, along came the Romantics and the modernists, whose life-events are at the core of their work: from the self-indulgent melancholy of the womanizing Byron ("woman, thy vows are traced in sand") to the despair of Eliot ("I will show you fear in a handful of dust"). At their core is self-reflection and the struggle of an individual to survive in a modern world that changes so rapidly that tradition is no guide and each man must remake himself anew. Whole new art-forms - the novel, popular music, the autobiography - exist due to the collapse of restrictive tradition and the opening up of a new cultural space which concerns reflection on the social and the personal. The early, blistering reactions to such publications as Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Eliot's The Waste Land and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show how novel this idea was.
And Kafka, who with great justification is called the modern Shakespeare, took this trend to its logical conclusion: if we cannot be certain of anything, we become aware of a great abyss at the centre of our existence. His greatest work, The Trial, depicts a man who gradually becomes aware of the inherent meaninglessness of his existence and the fact that he can derive no comfort from the traditional sources of religion, nationalism, art, or philosophy. He has reason to doubt all of them to such an extent that they cannot help him. Kafka makes explicit what so many of his predecessors and successors merely implied: to demand of yourself the answer to the Why? of your own existence is not a fit task for us moderns. The only satisfactory answer we have is, Why not?
The scientist is unconcerned by the collapse of tradition and happy with his work because it has practical results for his fellow man, allows him to employ the full power of his intellect in addressing the fundamental questions about how reality works, and because it allows him to stand on the shoulders of giants. A man can die after a lifetime of scientific research knowing that he has left something tangible behind; men know more about the universe as a result of his endeavours, and that knowledge will only become obsolete or useless when some future scientist - probably by building on it - proves it so. In the meantime, his efforts, if they have technological applications, pay dividends in making life more pleasurable. He stands as a link in an unbroken chain of progress, progress towards our understanding and subsequent mastery of the physical world.
The poet has no such comforts.
The poet has been robbed of his traditional sources of truth, and unlike for the scientist there is no truth out there for him to discover. Nor is the poet part of a chain of progress that stretches from the past into the future, for the chain has been broken and for his own purposes the only shoulders he has to stand on are those of pygmies. There is no concrete progress for the poet, no comforting role in a society where he has gone from the glory of being a bard to the marginal ignominy of being an eccentric dreamer. And a lifetime of the most productive musing will not solve any of life's riddles, will not insure him against a broken heart or a ruined friendship or a misplaced political hope. Each time, he must begin anew, with all the risk that brings; in this respect, poetry is the truest reflection of life.
The scandal of the poet is that he is never so perfect as the art he produces, and whatever he learns by his art he will eventually forget; even if he remembered it all, it would not save him. For truth is not his business, only the recording of what was true for this person, at this time, in that place. By definition, as a mediation of his own life-experience, it will not be true tomorrow - or even today, for those who do not share his experiences. Nor does there exist any objective standard of truth or beauty to which we can refer the work of art, meaning that the line between art and trash is more blurred than it has ever been; for the true artist, this problem manifests itself in the widespread appreciation of trash. The true poetic genius, like the Second Coming of Christ, would be unappreciated, unloved, and labelled an eccentric by our society; for similar reasons we have produced no original philosopher of note since Heidegger.
Poets used to be the safekeepers of a nation's body of artistic achievement and moral refinement, just as our philosophers were the safekeepers of the legacy of Athens before they savagely turned upon it. And the poets turned, too. Eliot provides the perfect example of the shunning of this tradition in The Waste Land - in the first line even, where he turns the traditional appreciation of Spring on its head and declares that "April is the cruellest month". The burst of modernist violence which Eliot participated in was still truly art, profound and original, but it burned almost too brightly. We entered the age of irony because we could no longer take our art seriously. Our art was evidently confused, unsure of itself, and brooding, whereas the scientist was cocksure, practical, and helpful. The poet went into eclipse.
But in eclipse he does not have to remain. In a society animated by science, we need those with the capacity to generate culture more than ever; for never before have we had a greater capacity for good or evil or a greater uncertainty about how to deploy it. The poet must stand on the shoulders of the scientist, for he cannot and would not wish to undo the world that the practical men have created. But from there he must survey the world and evaluate it with a sensibility that is exterior to it. The poet may suffer uncertainty in his quest to give meaning to this world but he does not suffer it in vain. And while the cultural treasure trove of the past may not provide the answers, it is as good a place as any to start. It is crucial that we not lose the link to our great tradition, or imagine we can survive without truth, or beauty, or virtue.
The poet needs to stop brooding on his own shortcomings and address the scientist, lovingly, with the words of Eliot, who at the end of his poem surveyed the tradition he had simultaneously denigrated and yet plundered for his own comfort and said: "I have shored these fragments against my ruins". "I suggest," the poet might add to the scientist, "that you do the same."