A Woman in Conversation with Herself: Reading the Diary of Alice James

A Woman in Conversation
with Herself: Reading
The Diary of Alice James

A Commonplace Book
by Anne Dalke


May 31st, 1889: I think that if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn't happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me...I shall at least have it all my own way and it may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass...

July 12th: my mind was suddenly flooded by one of those luminous waves that swept out of consciousness all but the living sense and overpower one with joy in the rich, throbbing complexity of life, when suddenly I looked up at Nurse, who was dressing me, and saw her primitive, rudimentary expression…as of no inherited quarrel with her destiny of putting petticoats over my heat; the poverty and deadness of it contrasted to the tide of speculation that was coursing thro’ my brain made me exclaim, “Oh! Nurse, don’t wish you were inside of me!”--her look of dismay and vehement disclaimer—“inside of you, Miss, when you have just had a sick head-ache for five days!”….however great we may seem to our own consciousness, no human being would exchange his for ours….

August 5th [on a suicide]: how heroic to be able to supress one's vanity to the extent of confessing that the game is too hard.

December 1st: I shall learn to cork myself up again before long and return to my state of "bottled lightning"....

December 12th: I wonder, whether, if I had had any education I should have been more, or less, of a fool than I am. It would have deprived me surely of those exquisite moments of mental flatulence which every now and then inflate the cerebral vacuum with a delicious sense of latent possibilities--of stretching oneself to cosmic limits, and who would ever give up the reality of dreams for relative knowledge?

January 12th, 1890: What a curious nature...that of the reactionary, deliberately turning his back upon opportunity, refusing to handle the tools of his moment and stamping himself failure. Being to the mind as some diseased vegetable growth which nips efflorescence, and burrowing all his days in a cul-de-sac instead of floating with the current of expansion and getting all the fun he can grasp at in the passing.

January 13th:...when most sympathetic, the well let fly their wildest shots. A while back I was greatly enjoying a friend from home who went far back and in whose presence the past revived for a bit, when suddenly she removed herself to the planet Mars by asking me whether I was in pain anywhere at that moment. She stood at the foot of the sofa, but she had no gift to divine that pain was as the essence of the Universe to my consciousness and that ghastly fatigue was a palpable substance between us. How could she?--We were emotionally blended, but what common ground had we physically...

February 12th: What expresses more perfectly the folly of the philanthropic mush of this age than this contempt of the sympathetic man felt 2,000 yrs ago by the adorable Chuang Tsiu? -- "the sympathetic man being simply a man who is trying to be someone else all the time and so misses the only possible excuse for his own existence."

February 21st: How profoundly grateful I am for the temperament which saves from the wretched fate of those poor creatures who never find their bearings, but are tossed like dryed leaves hither, thither and yon at the mercy of every event which o'ertakes them...who never dimly suspect that the only thing which survives is the resistance we bring to life and not the strain life brings to us.

March 22nd: the women...here constantly...marry again. 'Tis always a surprise....I am only too glad to see creatures grasp at anything...from which they fancy they may extract happiness, but it reveals such a simple organization to be perpetually ready to renew experience in so confiding a manner--playing the old tune with variations, simply.

April 7th: I remind myself all the time of a coral insect building up my various reefs of theory by microscopic additions drawn from observation, or my inner consciousness, mostly.

May 20th: I had an almost Gallic sense of the injustice of Fate the other day, unusual with me...for practical purposes surrender, smiling, if possible, is the only attainable surface which gives no hold to the scurvy tricks of Fortune....What a tide of homesickness swept me under....What a longing for...the ugly, raw emptiness of the blessed land...the embodiment of a Huge Chance for hemmed in Humanity! Its flexible conditions stretching and lending themselves to all sizes of man; pallid and naked of necessity; undraped by the illusions and mystery of a moss-grown, cobwebby past...a heart of hope for every outcast of tradition!

June 2nd: The impish passion displayed by that "Unknowable Realty behind Phenomena," for making the creature self-destructive...is delightsome to watch from a sofa for an unsentimental spinster. Can it be, perhaps, that the Unknowable Reality simply jokes with Phenomena?

June 18th: I perpetually come across in my reading just what I have been thinking about, curious...because my reading is so haphazard....I wonder what determines the selection of memory, why does one childish experience or impression stand out so luminous and solid against the, for the most part, vague and misty background? The things we remember have a first-timeness about them which suggests that that may be the reason of their survival....I remember so distinctly the first time I was conscious of a purely intellectual process...the higher nature of this appeal to the mind...and I can also feel distinctly the sense of self-satisfaction in that I could not only perceive, but appreciate this subtlety, as if I had acquired a new sense...whereby to measure intellectual things...

July 18th: By taking a very small dose of morphia...I was able to steady my nerves and experience the pain without distraction, for there is something very exhilarating in shivering whacks of crude pain which seem to lift you out of the present..and ally you to long gone generations rent and torn....

August 18th: There has come such a change in me. A congenital faith flows thro' me like a limpid stream, making the arid places green, a spontaneous irrigator of which the snags of doubt have never interrupted or made turbid the easily flowing current...altho' intellectually non-existence is more ungraspable and inconceivable than ever, all longing for fulfillment, all passion to achieve has died down within me...the long ceaseless straining and tension have worn out all aspiration save the one for Rest!...one is fitted to every limitation through the long custom of surrender.

October 26th: William...says in his paper on the "Hidden Self" that the nervous victim "abandons" certain portions of his consciousness....altho' I have never unfortunately been able to abandon my consciousness and get five minutes' rest. I have passed thro' an infinite succession of conscious abandonments....As I lay prostrate after the storm with my mind luminous and active and susceptible of the clearest, strongest impressions, I saw so distinctly that it was a fight simply between my body and my will, a battle in which the former was to be triumphant....the moral power pauses...and refuses to maintain muscular sanity, worn out with the straining of its constabulary functions....it used to seem to me that the only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity but the duties of doctor, nurse, and strait-jacket imposed upon me, too. Conceive of never being without the sense that if you let yourself go for a moment your mechanism will fall into pie and that at some given moment you must abandon it all, let the dykes break and the flood sweep in, acknowledging yourself abjectly impotent before the immutable laws. When all one's moral and natural stock in trade is a temperament forbidding the abandonment of an inch or the relaxation of a muscle, 'tis a never-ending fight....violent revolt in my head overtook me so that I had to "abandon" my brain...so it has always been, anything that sticks of itself is free to do so, but conscious and continuous cerebration is an impossible exercise and from just behind the eyes my heads feels like a dense jungle into which no ray of light has ever penetrated.

November 24th:
Tt must be a strangely muddled moment when it begins to dawn upon the Personage that they are not all there. I trust that matters are conducted humanly, and the poor soul let down easily. Imagine having to begin to learn there that you are simply an atom and not in your essence a future Prime-Ministress of the Great Little Kingdom.

January 16th, 1891: William says in his Psychology: "Genius, in truth, is little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way"....more felicitous than the long-accustomed "infinite capacity for taking pain," but what length of tether does it allow....is a Yankee...soul ever more rejoiced than when he has made the next man "sit up" by some start into the open, linguistic or ideal?

January 23rd:
Let us pray that our unconscious benefactions outweigh our unconscious cruelties!

January 28th: What ephemerae we all are; to be sure, experience leaves no permanent furrow, but like writing on sand is washed out by every advancing ripple of changing circumstance...man lives not to assimilate knowledge of the eternal essence of things, and only craves a renewal of sensation.

February 8th: To the American born to "rattle round" in space, who can have no representative value for his own consciousness or that of any one else, the sense of their place possessed by all sorts and conditions here is very instructive, and the skill they attain in keeping the balance of the exact measure of their worth...is most remarkable..such an impression of an indestructible essence in proportion to...being a mere human shadow....Can there ever be an international point of view? feeling themselves to be, primarily, members of a class, and only secondarily, human beings, they are free from the responsibilities that the floating Yankee is under to his individual dignity...

March 22nd: How amusing it is to see the fixed mosaic of one's little destiny being filled out by the tiny blocks of events, the enchantment of minute consequences with the illusion of choice weathering it all!
Through complete physical bankruptcy, I have attained my "ideel"...

March 23rd: In arranging and fitting yourself here, you have always to remember and count with the far-backness in which the simplest evolution retroacts, and in the manner of doing, the rigidity imposed by the long burden of Time, whilst in Yankeedom it is simply tomorrow that you must stretch yourself to.

...as an animal form my insatiable vanity must allow that my existence doesn't justify itself, but every fibre protests against being taken simply as a sick carcass....This winter has been rich beyond compare...the spirit broadened and strengthened...by a clearer perception of the significance of experience, whilst from the whole has flowed perpetually those succulent juices which exude at the slightest pressure from the human comedy.

March 27th: It fills one so, at moments, with gratitude, that fate has placed one just above the line of intellectual penury, ...[with] little scraps left over, as we have for a further movement... stored for the new to catch onto and lodge....Think of having to grub and grind all the long days...with...none of the joys of reflection!

April 12th: H...listens to my outpourings on Questions...from which he is so detached, and which absorb my rawboned, relentlessly moral organization. I can hear, as of yesterday, the ring of Father's voice..."Oh, Alice, how hard you are!"...alas! through all these years, that hard core confronts me still...

April 24th: Truly nothing is to be expected but the unexpected!

May 7th:
How fortunate it is that we have so many aesthetic stomachs, so that when lying in a shaded room, we can chew and re-chew the cud of past contemplations...

May 9th: what more than anything else makes this estimable race seem so completely foreign, as if we could not have had, possibly, a common descent, is the microscopic subdivision of their knowledge. It is impossible to predicate that supremacy in one accomplishment will...raise to the simplest level of intelligence the whole man, for he carries his gift, which he so often has in great perfection, in an airtight compartment through the walls of which radiates no germinating ardour, and he leaves the rest of himself with a touching, childlike candour, just as Nature made him....the established law, that a child's mind should be dedicated to and perfected in some one study alone...whilst all other fields are left fallow to the seed of accident. This is why things end so short off when you are talking. You ask some question cousin germane to the subject, when all the machinery stops....it discourages and interrupts the social flow to a greater degree than the hit-or-miss flutter and flap we give to the wings of imagination when we feel under foot the distressful ooze of doubt...whilst the quivering Yankee catches up, in the ravelled edges of his culture, simply an approximate knowledge of many things. You are so impressed, at first, when you come by the rounded smoothness of intellectual interchange, and are amazed until...you see that you can make no call of any sort upon the individual for a movement of inspiration....an excresence of one order of knowledge rarely dissolves itself into the practical wisdom of life.

May 31st: To him who waits, all things come!...Every since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease...but I was always driven back to stagger alone under the monstrous mass of subjective sensations which...I was personally responsible for...but a lump that I have had in one of my breasts for three months...is a tumour...nothing can be done for me but to alleviate pain...it is only a question of time, etc.

June 1st: To any one who has not been there, it will hard to understand the enormous relief...uncompromising verdict, lifting us out the formless vague and setting us within the very heart of the sustaining concrete....

Having it to look forward to for a while seems to double the value of the event, for one becomes suddenly picturesque to oneself, and one's wavering little individuality stands out with a cameo effect and one has the tenderest indulgence for all the abortive little stretchings out which crowd in upon the memory. The grief is all for K. and H., who will see it all, whilst I shall only feel it....Poor dear William with his exaggerated sympathy for suffering isn't †o know anything about it until it is all over.

June 5th: I am as much tortured as ever to decide as to the degree of anguish as compared to all other tumourous victims I must undergo before I can apply the pacifying anesthetic....I cannot make out whether it is an entire absence or an excess of humor in Destiny to construct such an elaborate exit for my thistle-down personality...life is so hopelessly grotesque with its disproportions and inconsistencies!

June 24th: Half a dozen times a day I find myself saying,..."I must find out about this," with the idea that some day I may need the knowledge, when suddenly I am stopped off by the thought that the "some days" are over for me; a thought natural and simple, and of a most desirable complexion. It seems more like the gentle dropping of natural things, than the taking up of spiritual ones....Owing to my...complete absence of intellectual curiosity...living emotions and moralities...possess me with such an unquestioning and sustaining force, that they function unconsciously..and I don't have to pick them up now....

This turning away one's mind so persistently from what bores it, and allowing one's being to absorb itself in one motive...show a restricted nature...highly practical and time saving, in so far that...one soon learns the bearings of one's little compass.

July 15th: I have a delicious consciousness of wide spaces close at hand...Imagine the emancipation that it will be, after seven years of this stifling land, where "form" is the god of gods!

September 3rd: These long pauses don't point to any mental aridity, my "roomy forehead" is as full as ever of germinating thoughts, but alas the machinery is more and more out of kilter.

December 1st: It is curious to see "subjects" and "questions" slipping from out of the mental grasp, as the physical degeneracy advances...those slight topics to which I felt myself so adequate and tossed about so lightly, lie dormant under their present colossal expansion.

December 4th: I might pose to myself before the footlights of my last obscure little scene, as a delectably pathetic figure, for ... this vast field of [hypnotic] therapeutic possibilities is opened up to me, just at the moment when I have passed far beyond the workings of their beneficent laws ... the secret, of suspending for the time from his duties, the individual watch dog, worn out with his ceaseless vigil to maintain the sanity of the modern complicated mechanism.

December 11th: The difficulty about all this dying is that you can't tell a fellow anything about it, so where does the fun come in?

January 1st, 1892: As the ugliest things go to the making of the fairest, it is not wonderful that this unholy granite substance in my breast should be the soil propitious for the perfect flowering of...friendship and devotion...all the pain and discomfort seem a slender price to pay for all the happiness and peace...

When will men pass from the illusion of the intellectual, limited to sapless reason, and bow to the intelligent, juicy with the succulent science of life.

February 1st: It isn't in the sorrows and the pains, but in the inexorable inadequacy for happiness that the tragedy lies....The success or failure of a life...seems to lie in the more or less luck of seizing the right moment of eclipse.

February 2nd: This long slow dying is no doubt instructive, but it is disappointingly free from excitements: "naturalness" being carried to its supreme expression. One sloughs off the activities one by one...one revolves with equal content within the narrowing circle until the vanishing point is reached, I suppose...

I take satisfaction in feeling as much myself as ever, perhaps simply a more concentrated essence in this curtailment....I have been dead so long and it has been simply such a grim shoving of the hours behind me as I faced a ceaseless possible horror...that now it's only the shrivelling of an empty pea pod that has to be completed.

February 29th: Of what matter can it be whether pain or pleasure has shaped and stamped the pulp within, as one is absorbed in the supreme interest of watching the outline and the tracery as the lines broaden for eternity.

March 4th: I am being ground slowly on the grim grindstone of physical pain....whilst moral discords and nervous horrors sear the soul...Oh the wonderful moment when I felt myself floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation....

Final Entry by Katharine P. Loring
All though Saturday the 5th and even in the night, Alice was making sentences...the dictation of March 4th was rushing about in her brain all day, and...she could not get her head quiet until she had had it written: then she was relieved....

Comments

jayashree's picture

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evry part of her diary really touches my heart.i can really feel the pain of hers.........

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