Issue #42, Summer 2011
In a Disorder on Purpose
The Diary and the Status Feed
In a Disorder on Purpose
Samuel Pepys just tweeted me.* His commentary on Charles II’s return to English soil landed in my idea-box from a distance of 350 years: “Infinite shooting off of the guns, and that in a disorder on purpose, which was better than if it had been otherwise.”
It’s not really Pepys, of course, just an amusing act of cyber-puppetry by an admirer in London named Phil Gyford. Yet, the blog and Twitter feed Gyford has created in Pepys’ name are elegant evidence of how lustily the 17th century’s most famous diarist might have embraced the Internet, tapping up its opulent charms deep into the night, Googling the secrets of ships’ riggings, women’s undergarments, music, disfiguration and disgrace in death, political blunders and politicians’ indiscretions, the search for a cure for the plague, the morning routine, the evening repast, the strange children’s games of France and the English custom of gathering maydew. Even more, the gregarious, curious Pepys—a man who described himself as “with child to see any strange thing”— would have harnessed the Web’s vast networks to show what he saw to the world. Imagine his music files on the social sharing site Box.net, his views of London by water or bootleg footage of Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn on YouTube, his quips and pics and tags and links on Twitter, Flickr, StumbleUpon, Delicious. Oh, how Sam Pepys would have loved to StumbleUpon and Delicious.
His sharp eye and acid wit would be perfect for the restless Internet, with its thin, glowing scrim between life and audience, its illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy. His brief, methodic diary entries, with their frank, daily truths, fit well with Twitter’s 140-character capsule, especially the funhouse reflexiveness of the self documenting the self documenting the self:
I staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window as I was writing this very line, and cried, ‘Past one of the clock, and a cold, and frosty, windy morning.
Would Pepys’ journals—famous for their remarkable frankness, even crudeness at times—have survived the transition from the diarist’s furtive cribbing to instantaneous tap and send? Pretty likely, yes. After all, Pepys frequently burned his papers to protect his privacy, yet he never burned his diaries. In fact, sometimes he couldn’t resist reporting in his diary on what he’d just destroyed, as when he burned a scolding letter his wife had written him along with the love letters he’d once written her. "… the truth is I am sorry for the tearing of so many poor loving letters of mine from sea and elsewhere to her.” The very act of destruction prompted his urge to record.
“A Christian that would be more exact hath more need and may reap much more good by … a journal,” wrote the Protestant minister John Beadle in 1656. That was four years before Pepys penned his first entry at the age of 26, joining a generation of young men responding to the dawning Enlightenment, which emphasized self-reflection and accounting to God even in ordinary life. In Beadle’s words: “We are all but stewards, factors here, and must give a strict account in that great day to the high Lord of all our wayes, and of all his wayes towards us.” Pepys’ unique position as a witness to the Restoration of Charles II, as well as his private inclination to observe life in great detail, inspired him to maintain an unprecedented 10-year documentation, which remains one of the finest sources of information on everyday life and key events during the last half of the 17th century.
It began, as it begins for many of us now when we start a blog or a Facebook account, as a simple record of days. “Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain, but upon taking of cold,” Pepys wrote in his first entry on Jan. 1, 1660. He wrote all his entries using the Shelton system, a common shorthand of the day—not, as it is usually portrayed, a secret code—and he clearly acknowledged an audience, albeit only of two at first: himself and his personal Savior. A sense of posterity came later, as Pepys realized how many key events he had witnessed: the return of the King to English soil, the coronation, the Great Plague and the Great Fire. As he discovered his talent as a chronicler, the tenor of his entries—his status updates—shifted.
"What to remember, what to say and what to let go? This is the daily material of the diarist. In our age, it is the work of virtually everyone. Just as plentiful paper and Protestant imperatives opened the floodgate for diarists in Pepys’ day, so now the ubiquitous flutter of the Internet engages us all in posting and publishing, tagging and collecting, building records of our lives from one seemingly small moment to the next."
The content shifted and deepened, too, until his diary became a repository for his nearly inarticulate dreams, his fascination with the occult, his marital troubles and professional squabbles, and, seemingly, his every last sexual experience (including the ones that didn’t go well), catalogued as lovingly as his bank accounts, clothing purchases, meals or books. What began as a simple accounting ended by engaging the body and its passions—a full-throated reflection of a young man’s life.
If you have a blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter account, chances are you have experienced this shift yourself. You start out with your proprieties in hand, and over time, they soften or slip. Innocuous dinner updates or baby announcements give way to acid commentary about a colleague, a frank expression of sorrow at the loss of your hair or a video of the moment the baby first reached for a toy (recreated for an audience, perhaps, as the first moment surprised you without a camera). You post a favorite song, and in the comment thread, you tell strangers where you were, and with whom, when you first heard it. You put a little spin on your words, nip a fact here and tuck a name there, not exactly lying, but portraying yourself in a new light while using the old truths. You create yourself.
Psychologist John Suler has articulated no fewer than six factors that contribute to the well-documented phenomenon of “online disinhibition,” from the feeling of anonymity to the disconnection of interactions from real time. Most of these factors are at work in a conventional diary, too, but the social thrum of Web 2.0 raises the ante considerably.
Pepys seemed aware of his own tendency to over-share with his invisible, yet-unborn readers. As unblushing as his diaries are, their immediacy masks careful craft. The ordering of pages and qualities of handwriting indicate that he took frequent notes all day and then transferred them to the journals. Some of his entries, like those chronicling the Great Fire of London, were recopied into the books in great clumps some months after the events, yet he seemed at pains not to alter them much, not to reconstruct the present moment. Like us as we tweet and update from our cars, offices and homes, Pepys obsessively pursued the double experience of living and documenting—specifically for an audience.
How do we know? For starters, he passed up many chances to edit out or destroy what felt too private. He had the volumes rebound over the years, and when he died, he did not consign them (as he did other papers) to be burned but, instead, placed them with his extensive library, willed to his college at Cambridge.
Some of the entries are so detailed they couldn’t have been captured except in medias res. His obsessively detailed dinner menus, for example: One can imagine him furtively copying these just moments before or after sitting down to eat, and one wonders what his wife and guests thought of the practice.
What to remember, what to say and what to let go? This is the daily material of the diarist. In our age, it is the work of virtually everyone. Just as plentiful paper and Protestant imperatives opened the floodgate for diarists in Pepys’ day, so now the ubiquitous flutter of the Internet engages us all in posting and publishing, tagging and collecting, building records of our lives from one seemingly small moment to the next. In Pepys’ diaries as in our blogs and on our Facebook pages, there is always choice: what to commit, how to portray and ultimately capture a day, a year, a life. In a purposeful disorder.
In January 2003, an energetic Londoner named Phil Gyford began a day-by-day retelling of Pepys’ diaries as a blog. The blog will end on May 31, 2012, corresponding with Pepys’ last entry on the same day in 1669.
Gyford, along with a tight-knit band of annotators and a few dedicated fellow bloggers, is creating an online social circle for Samuel Pepys. The daily unfolding of the diaries is fun, but the interaction and “2.0ing” of Pepys is no mere gimmick: By offering their own insights, personal stories, articles and graphics, Pepys’ 21st-century followers are permitting him a new kind of audience for a more nuanced, dimensional chronicle.
This is what I think Sam Pepys would have loved most: the simultaneous assembling and dissembling of self with the participation of others, and the addition of cascading associations, symmetries and juxtapositions based on passing interests, fleeting thoughts, teasing statuses, avatars, profile photos, GPS markers, likes, shares, re-tweets and comments. All contributing to an orderly disorder, a whole: the record of a life.
If Pepys had recast his diary for an interactive audience and reckoned with the complexity of individual identity that we understand as our lot in this century, he might have shifted his energy from creating a coded diary for the future to coding his identity for the present. After all, that is the new self-reflection in the age of social media: not an orderly accounting for self-soul and the Lord’s judgment, but an avatar advanced before the eyes of the marketplace of opinion, a thumbs-up-thumbs-down, rate-me reflection. An assembly of one’s own impressions, projected outward for feedback and for the accretion of time to tell the tale. In the moment, there is only the pleasure of immediacy and recollection commingled with a swift, fleeting clarity—a touch of impulsiveness, an update, a sharing of self:
But Lord! to see how much of my old folly and childishness hangs on me still that I cannot forebear carrying my [new] watch in my hand in the coach all the afternoon and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times.
When you read Pepys in a tweet or on the blog, he is alive again, as if sending dispatches from his phone as he strides around London, traveling “by water to Whitehall,” and “by water to Westminster.”Eldest son of a tailor, lucky find of the Cromwellian elite and still luckier defector to the monarchists in the nick of time, he is not yet 30 years old, just beginning his career, making his name—busy in the name-dropping, pub-hopping City of London, pursuing the King’s business and a bit of his own, waistcoats flapping neatly about him like the broad, loosely tucked wings of a black wasp. He is immortal because he rendered his mortal self so plainly, so immediately, update by update: “… the world do not grow old at all, but is in as good condition in all respects as ever it was.”
*Author's Note: Although I have indeed followed Sam on Twitter since 2010, I took anachronistic liberty with the specific "tweet" I mention. Since Twitter has only existed since 2006, Phil Gyford did not "tweet" from entries from before 1663. The "disorder" reference is, of course, on the blog.
Lisa Schamess lives in Washington, D.C. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Defunct, Antietam Review and Glimmer Train, among other... read more
Then & Now
To a copyeditor, mistakes are everything. How many professions are devoted exclusively to finding and eliminating human error? It’s... read more
In February of 2010, an e-mail popped into my in-box. It was from a friend and fellow writer who had a proposition for me: Would I like to... read more