By Wm. Anthony Connolly
Because of its permanency, the written form exerts a conservative influence on language: it may brake, prevent, or even reverse changes. In contrast, the spoken form is ephemeral and the source of all change.
– Laurel J. Brinton and Leslie K. Arnovick in The English Language
Anything of importance should be written down to be conserved. Not everything is traceable, not everything has a flashpoint, a crater; a flag planted, a voice in the incessant chorus of history. Chatter dies, syllables on the page last, if only longer. So much is lost, if there are no attempts at conservation. I am a conservationist and I am in the conservation business. But of what exactly, other than language, am I preserving I’m unclear, other than I record that which speaks to me in a tug, or a whisper, a repetitive presence perhaps or simply a yearning to make sense of time.
I conserve because not everything leaves its mark, a trail of dicta, of paper or bone. Traces are easily erased by memory and by might; some marks are merely assimilated into the thing that swallows it. I find that we ourselves, in the end game, of creeping normalcy, unexpectedly find ourselves apart of something entirely different and by the time we know this our trail has disappeared, over grown in weeds, smothered in shadow, dim and viscous. Try as we might the way back – in thought, in person – has vanished. Unless there is some accounting, some record brought down upon the constancy of history. Or, over time we find all is gone and irretrievable. It is important too, to understand exactly who pens the accounts; and who exactly collects the potentially ephemeral; and who selects what to save and what to sacrifice.
I conserve the written word, the customs of my own and of those around me; to remember our ways; to preserve what memory will shred and time will obliterate; to conserve a little of ourselves and of our faith. Susan Sontag writing in Against Interpretation says, “The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer himself.” (gender choice Sontag’s).
In her own journal, published after her death, Sontag writes:
On Keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts – like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.
The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather – in many cases – offers an alternative to it.
There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 Bd. St-G to check for her mail) in H’s journal about me – that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant and humiliated. We rarely do know what people think of us (or, rather, think they think of us).. . .Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes? No. One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest only in the journal. Will H. ever read this?
When I began to seriously keep a journal – never a diary – it was at
the behest of my drunk of a college creative writing instructor John H.
The journal I chose was the exact same one he held up in class that day
in 1987 and told us burgeoning writers to keep in their back pockets;
my first journal was a black leatherette “Blueline,” 7 ½ by 4 ¾ inches
of 192 pages. This journal, bought at office supply stores, was a
precursor to the contemporary journal, the ubiquitous, and resurrected,
Moleskin. The very first entry in this journal, from 1988, is a
perfectly preserved, peeled off, beer bottle label. The first written
entry is a farrago of etymology, song lyrics, phones numbers and this
little ditty: “You notice at times that in talking to others you become
For four years I kept a version of a Blueline in my pocket; it
went everywhere I did. Over the years my journals have multiplied
greatly – almost at two a year – and of course, have changed in size
from the ridiculously small and fey to the gigantic and immobile.
Digging through my journals there is evidence of dry periods, and there
is a clear indication that in 1991 I began to journal almost full time,
a practice I continue to this very day. In fact, this entire essay,
save for the historical self-references and entries, comes from entries
in my present journal.
To me, my journals have become slate in the stratification of my
being; records of my being in time, and place. There are the PlaP
Papyruses – a collection of journals written while I lived in Portage
la Prairie, Manitoba, my hometown. There is the Calgary Codex, a few
meager volumes of erratic, alcoholic diatribe. The Texas Texts are
quite impressive in heft and sober tone and my period of late erudition
comes through in the Missouri Manuscripts, of which the present volume
is to be included. In total these, and the ones to be added in the
future, constitute my oeuvre – Dead Me Scrolls.
In 2000, when my brother Kevin died unexpectedly and his “story”
ended abruptly, I wondered what would happen to his story, who would
tell it now that he was dead, and how could that version be at all
accurately preserved being that it would be a biography of another, and
as always with our beloved dead, careening toward hagiography? I began
to view my journals differently then too, and in fact came to see them
as my own apocryphal writings, the kind found in clay pots in Egypt or
near the Dead Sea. My scribbles kept alive part of my life, of me, that
might outlast me. Kevin was in them, of course, but also the saints of
my profane life, my parents, my wondrous sisters, my other brother
Michael; the friends I’d had the blessed fortune of knowing; the
journal contained paeans to my wife, Dyan, and intercessionary words to
God. It was as if I was a Bedouin boy, and I’d stumbled upon something
that had been preserved, and for a reason not yet certain.
There have been numerous discoveries of ancient, spiritual texts, but
the two largest and most significant are the excavation of the Dead Sea
Scrolls and the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library.
In 2004 I attended a lecture series entitled “The Dead Sea
Scrolls and the Origins of Christianity,” given by a leading scroll
scholar, Dr. Matthias Henze, an associate profession of religious
studies at Rice University. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in a region
which borders Israel and Jordan, in a place called Qumran, in the
northwestern part of the sea, notes from my journal read. In 1947,
three Bedouin shepherds were in the area, playing, threw a rock into a
cave and heard the smashing of a jar. They went in to investigate and
found jars containing seven scrolls. Other caves were soon found,
eleven in total, with the last cave being found in 1956. Something like
900 fragments of papyrus scrolls were found, and the text translated,
preserved, into contemporary language book form available at your
nearest bookseller. Today, the Shrine of The Book in Jerusalem houses
the seven original scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are not Christian, but
Judaic. The discovery of previously unknown Christian texts came ten
years earlier in Egypt.
The Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in upper Egypt in 1945,
consists of twelve books, plus eight leaves removed from a thirteenth
book in late antiquity and tucked inside the front cover of the sixth.
These eight leaves comprise a complete text, an independent treatise
taken out of a book of collected essays. In fact, each of the books,
except the tenth, consists of a collection of relatively brief works.
Thus there is a total of fifty-two tractates.
The roll was the usual form of a book up until the first
centuries C.E., when it began to be replaced by a more economical
format that permitted writing on both sides, namely the modern book
with individual leaves. Technically speaking, a book in the form of a
roll is a “scroll” or “volume” (from the Latin verb meaning ‘to roll’).
But a book in the form of a modern book is a “codex” (plural:
‘codices’), the Latin word for a set of wooden waxed tablets tied
together as a scratch pad, which was the ancestor of the book with
papyrus, parchment, or paper leaves, writes James M. Robinson in The
Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of The Gnostic
Scriptures Complete In One Volume. It is in these tractates that
persons have faith have come to reassess their beliefs through the
gospels of Thomas, Mary and in such writings as the exegesis of the
Both the Judaic scrolls found near the Dead Sea, and the
Christian tractates in Upper Egypt were acts of preservation and
eventual resurrection. They were acts of faith, of hope that what was
written would one day be once again read.
[Journal entry, 11/03/97]
In this house, on this morning… [My routine journal entry beginning]
I get up to let the cat out and notice there is snow on the ground from
last night’s falling. For reasons unclear as I watch Beauregard tread
across the snow leaving his small imprints, I wonder about the
lingering things, the stuff we leave behind. Past passports.
Tax returns. I think of old pictures and older still promises
made. It’s like one day you woke up and there’s snow on the ground.
When did that get here?
A picture of my folks on the kitchen bulletin board. They look
happy and healthy, but very old now. They’ve always been older, but now
it is clear to me.
So knowing that, because you also know them not as forty-year-old
parents. You begin to wonder about lingering, cat trails in the snow.
The things we leave behind not so much as indications of trail, but little pieces of ourselves.
And in the end. What do these things say about us?
Mail. Conversations unfinished. Body gestures. Relationships
forgotten. Pictures on a wall. Books purchased, but not opened. Dreams
Maps of places never been.
Future passports, past passports expired. How to get inspired, to live, without frightening anyone.
This isn’t a mistake.
This is your life.
It snowed last night, and in the night my parents danced under the street lights.
As Beauregard continues his morning ritual, I stain to see the
footprints my parents left in the falling snow, the path that made them
dance or grow old.
Where shall I place my feet?
…Wherever you go, there you are. Today is today [my routine ending].
At the ecstatic onset of faith, or the profundity of morning and
coffee; in the tumult of battle, and nearing the conclusion of life
come our utterances, our hopes, prayers and our stories borne in blood,
lead or ink upon whatever avails itself – the pith of papyrus, the
terrain of memory, or disassembled cigarette packages flattened and
furrowed by pen; upon magnetic tape or starch white stationary
scratched black by fountain pen nib. Not all these missives, these
tractates and stories make it to their intended audience; some are
vanquished in clay pots and hidden in caves to be noshed by mold and
vermin, while some stories simply vanish in a quagmire of facileness
and mud or are erased, deleted or never recorded having simply been
composed with the scribe’s last thrumming, last breaths, pooling in
bone and cells spectacular sprites bound for fission.
But for these pages: My journal pages, these very leaves of
dubious and sometimes inspired writings, they will be my eight leaves,
stuffed into some preservation tome, to be read, to be noted, to be
known I was here, I was here, I was right here…this was my story.
Conserved against the chattering Lethe of change.
…and, Will H. ever read this?
Image: 2008 ABF All rights reserved