Death and the Diary, or Tragedies in the Archive
Carter, Kathryn, Journal of Canadian Studies
The privately held diary of Myrtle Gamble Knister, wife of modernist author Raymond Knister, stands as a touchstone document, used as evidence to substantiate her husband's drowning as accidental and to contradict Dorothy Livesay's claim that it was a suicide. Exploring the controversy around his death, and using Myrtle Knister's diary as an example, this essay seeks to evaluate in a more general way the diary's currency in the economy of the archive, especially the currency of those diaries that face evidentiary demands when called upon to function as eyewitness reports. The essay assesses the similarities and differences between diaries of tragedies and autothanatography, a term developed by Nancy K. Miller in 1994 to describe a genre of life writing that explicitly confronts death.
Le journal personnel de Myrtle Gamble Knister, épouse de l'auteur moderniste Raymond Knister, est un document important utilisé pour prouver la noyade accidentelle de son époux et contredire la déclaration de Dorothy Livesay qui affirme qu'il s'agissait d'un suicide. En étudiant la controverse soulevée par cette mort et en utilisant le journal personnel de Myrtle Knister comme exemple, cet article essaie d'évaluer de façon plus générale l'importance du journal personnel dans l'économie de l'archive, spécialement les journaux personnels qui doivent être prouvés lorsqu'ils servent de témoins. L'article évalue les ressemblances et les différences entre les journaux personnels de tragédies et d'autothanatographies-un terme formulé par Nancy K. Miller en 1994 pour décrire un genre d'écriture sur la vie qui confronte expressément la mort.
The privately held diary of Myrtle Gamble Knister, wife of modernist Canadian writer Raymond Knister, has been used as evidence to substantiate her husband's drowning as accidental and to contradict Dorothy Livesay's claim that it was a suicide. Using Myrtle Knister's diary as an example, this essay seeks to assess in a more general way the diary's currency in the economy of the archive, especially the currency of those diaries that face evidentiary demands when called upon to function as eyewitness reports. Knister's publicly oriented diary, as distinct from a public diary, carefully constructs in writing a death mask for her husband. I read her diary as a variation on the genre of autothanatography, a term developed by Nancy K. Miller (1994) to describe a kind of life writing that explicitly confronts death, whose shadow hovers over many acts of life writing and of archiving. The point of the investigation is to understand what happens when death confronts the diary.
In his final hours, Raymond Knister was swimming alone a long way out from a reedy shore at Stoney Point on Lake St. Clair. He and his young family had been enjoying a vacation at a cottage just before he was to take up a new posting as editor for the Ryerson Press. His wife, Myrtle, could not join him because their young daughter was still napping, but when little Imogen woke up, they went to the beach. Myrtle saw her husband out where there was a sudden drop off; it was a spot she had worried about earlier in the week, but she turned away to intervene as her daughter and another toddler struggled over an umbrella. Then she opened her sketch book. When she looked up, he was gone. In the following hours, she summoned boats to go and look for him, but it eventually took divers three days to recover the body held in place by an undertow. When he died at the end of August 1932, Knister was 33, the critically acclaimed author of a novel entitled White Narcissus, a successful poet and short-story writer, and an award-winning biographer of Keats. He planned a new novel, Via Faust, and looked forward to his new editorial position. In their last conversation, he told his wife, "I feel just like Keats did when he was just coming into his powers. I feel as though I am just coming into mine. The world is before us, Myrtle. We have everything we want and we are happy" (Givens 1980, 11). Just like Keats, Knister's career ended all too soon, and we are left with only his wife's report of his final words recorded in her diary and later featured in a biographical article published by their daughter Imogen Knister Givens in 1980 in a special issue of Essays on Canadian Writing.
Whereas Myrtle Knister's diary portrays the tragic drowning of a happy and successful writer, memoirs and letters from Dorothy Livesay assert "that Raymond committed suicide" (1987, 15). The first published source in which she strongly hints at this conclusion is Right Hand Left Hand, where she states that Knister was failing to earn a living in the summer of 1932, wrote a desperate letter to Lome Pierce, and then drowned (1977, 55). In addition to implied marital troubles, she assigns to Knister a morbid fascination with Rilke's theory about the immortality of artists who die young, leading her to conclude, "one cannot help wondering what extraordinary effect [lines from Rilke's Elegies] may have had on the overwrought, oversensitive spirit of Knister" (1977, 57). Livesay and Knister met only a handful of times, but in this memoir Livesay describes their most substantive meeting, which took place about two weeks before his death, when she was 22. Here, she records a discussion between the two of them about the proper impulse in poetry and whether it should be oriented to aesthetics or politics; this apparently lasted "five or six hours" (1977, 56). Ten years later, she published a more dramatic account.
Liyesays second published account of the meeting appeared in Books in Canada and in Journey with My Selves and offered more sensational details. According to this version, Knister came to visit at her parents' home in Clarkson, Ontario, and then drove her to her parents' other house in Toronto. Livesay states that he pursued her that night, pressing upon her his manuscripts, and revealing sexual frustration with his wife and adoration of Livesay. She let him borrow Lady Chatterley's Lover, she says, so he could think through his wife's frigidity. He appeared at her door again the following morning to return the book, having finished it in a night. After further refusals from Livesay to consummate the relationship, he allegedly gave up and drove her to a restaurant. This version first appeared as an excerpt in a 1987 issue of Books in Canada. Under the headline "Death by Drowning: The Suicide of Raymond Knister," the byline reads "Leon [Edel] broke off to turn and tell me that Raymond Knister was dead. I remember screaming out ? killed him! I killed him!'" (Livesay 1987, 15). Livesay received word of the drowning while in Montreal, and felt personally responsible because she had rebuffed his advances in Toronto. Even at the time, she says, Edel tried to "put some sense into" Livesay by talking her out of this theory, but she did not recant (Livesay 1987,16). The memoir in which this episode eventually appeared, Journey with My Selves, arrived in 1991 with a full chapter devoted to her "strange encounter" with Knister.
This version seems closer to events as she explains them on 9 May 1944 in a letter to Lome Pierce in at least one regard. In 1944 and 1945, she and Pierce exchanged letters as they discussed the preparation of a "memoir" to act as preface to the 1949 Ryerson Press edition of Knister's selected poems, which Livesay was then working on. Livesay writes to Pierce in the letter, "I do not know whether I ever mentioned to you the nearly 24-hours talk I had with Raymond, two weeks before his death." The 24 hours she mentions here do not match the four or five hours she refers to in Right Hand Left Hand but are closer to events as portrayed in Journey with My Selves. In the letter to Pierce, she states unequivocally "that his marriage was unhappy," "that he was mentally off-balance," and "that his death was no accident" (1944). Livesay's convictions about Knister therefore colour the resulting memoir where she portrays him as a stuttering farmer-tumed-poet and hints at financial troubles. In 1974, Livesay sent a letter in reply to one from Knister's daughter to indicate that she did not mean to imply suicide in this preface but a marriage breakup (which is, in fact, not hinted at), and she admits that insinuations about Knister's money troubles turned more easily into myth than she imagined. She also describes the letter to Lome Pierce as "very, very private" (Givens n.d.). Portraying Knister as a starving artist driven to desperation could have been calculated to stir up sympathy. Livesay may have been motivated by a desire to "be a hero to those who were agitating in the 1940s for Canada Council Grants and Writer-in-Residence positions" according to Knister's daughter (Givens n.d.).
Whatever the motivations, Dorothy Livesay's account of Knister's life and death carried sway for some years. For example, in the 1962 introduction to the New Canadian Library edition of White Narcissus, Philip Child cites "Dorothy Livesay's fine biographical and critical introduction to The Collected Poems of Raymond Knister" (1962, 9 nl) as the basis of his own biographical outline. In a 1945 letter to Livesay, Leo Kennedy relates the story of encountering reporters from the Montreal Herald who believed in 1945 that Knister was "a suicide of course" (Kennedy disagreed) (Kuropatwa 1983, 78). When interviewed for a 1964 CBC documentary on Knister, Myrtle Knister told the story of his drowning as she knew it, but Morley Callaghan and Wilson MacDonald, also interviewed for the program, unquestioningly accepted Livesay's suicide theory. In 1975, scholar Marcus Waddington speculated about these inaccuracies: "When a man, especially such a gifted man as Knister, dies unexpectedly and accidentally, many people experience a need to explain his death, to dramatize it, to give it meaning," wrote Waddington. "Both Dorothy Livesay and Morley Callaghan saw Knister's death as a kind of confirmation of his personal problems, of the desperation and lack of direction they claim overwhelmed him in the end" (1975, 189). Underlying these speculations is Livesay's account of his death, which feeds quite comfortably a set of myths about the early demise of gifted artists.
Livesay's autobiographical stories continue to circulate in print, and even those not in print seem destined for long life because she was a keen archivist of her own papers. The finding aid for her archival collection runs to 420 pages (Banting 1987, 119). Her voluminous papers are described by the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections as "among the most important records in Canadian literature," not only documenting her career but "tell[ing] the story of Canadian literature itself" (University of Manitoba). Livesay's papers are gathered primarily in one spot, but Knister's papers are dispersed in four archives. The Victoria University Library in Toronto acquired the first Knister collection, placed there in 1949 by his wife. Another large Knister archive was donated at the same time to Queen's University. In 1950, Imogen Knister Givens acquired a trunk of her father's papers from her mother and spent a great deal of time reading and listing each item before placing them at McMaster University in 1981. It is a large collection of published and unpublished material that includes Knister's correspondence from 1919 to 1932, his reading list from 1915 to 1925, and copies of 19 letters between Knister and Frederick Philip Grove. The originals of the Grove letters are at the University of Manitoba. Givens tells stories of researchers who manage to overlook one or more of the sources, partly because the McMaster collection does not make mention of the other Knister collections. Despite the fact that the Knister collection is large and accessible, his name is not as well known in Canadian literature (undeservedly so given the fact that he is an extensively anthologized writer), and it is possible to imagine that Livesay's version of his life might prevail.
For 40 years after Knister's death, Livesay's story went generally unchallenged, but it unleashed a small flurry of letters directed at her. In one strongly worded example, Leo Kennedy expressed surprise that so many accepted the suicide, "a legend ... that is as utterly cock-eyed as you'd expect one to be in a century" (1945). Kennedy, along with Walter Muilenberg and Elisabeth Frankfurth, tried to convince Livesay that her theories of suicide were wrong in the 1930s and 1940s. Beginning in the 1970s, a new generation of scholars discovered Knister and began to question Livesay's interpretation of his life and its ending. Michael Gnarowski's preface to the 1972 edition of the Selected Stories of Raymond Knister signals the new approach with words calculated to dispel from the start any notion that Knister was despondent and desperate at the time of his death. He begins, "Raymond Knister drowned in the late summer of 1932. He was then on the threshold of a new career, and his life as an artist and man of letters was, seemingly, at an important crossroads" (1972, 11).
Treading more carefully in the midst of this controversy is Alice Munro, who met Imogen Knister Givens when they were girls. Her comments appeared in a letter written in response to Livesay's 1987 Books in Canada excerpt. Years earlier, Munro had read a few pages from Myrtle's diary covering the day of the drowning and acknowledged that they "showed the strength of the marriage at that time from the wife's point of view" and "made a strong case for accidental death" (Munro 1987, 38). Munro then tactfully suggests that truth is not a fixed entity: "There is more than one truth about most lives and most marriages. The famous person's 'truth' gets broadcast and believed, and the obscure person's 'truth' doesn't" (38). She is thinking primarily of Livesay's sexual allegations, and she introduces the important point that there may be more than one truth in this tangled story. More importantly, she correlates "truth-telling" and power, reminding us that a "truth-teller" with social currency will likely have the inside track to posterity.
Published and unpublished documents by Livesay and those who rely on Livesay's version of Knister's death almost drown out the story told in the diary of Knister's wife, privately held by Imogen Knister Givens in Waterford, Ontario. Knister's wife was an accomplished artist in her own right who had been trained by Arthur Lismer and who left behind a diary, letters, two memoirs, a commonplace book, and several sketches. Of this, almost nothing has been placed in archives, though the papers will eventually go to McMaster University. A few of her letters are currently at McMaster, and some sketches are scattered in other Knister collections. In 1939 Myrtle met her second husband, and life went on apparently without documentation until she wrote (unpublished) memoirs in 1970 and 1982. There is also a book of art, titled My Eye Is in Love, that she used as a kind of commonplace book to collect copies of her favourite poems with notations; the book itself was published in 1957, so her notations must have been written after that year.
If Livesay's impressive archive "tells the story of Canadian literature," Myrtle Knister's papers are situated at the opposite end of the archival spectrum; in fact they almost fail to register on the spectrum at all, and as such their potential contribution to Canadian literature is virtually nil. This is unfortunate. To ignore these documents means that Canadian literary history might not know that Myrtle Knister collaborated on her husband's award-winning biography of Keats, My Star Predominant, published after his death in 1934. While they lived in Port Dover from 1929 to 1930, before the birth of their daughter, the Knisters worked together. Her 1982 memoir, written longhand in a spiral-bound "Science Notebook," remembers that she was expected to read Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Shelley, and Byron in preparation. "I learned more in the seven years I knew him," she writes, explaining the tenor of their days: "I was not allowed a newspaper or magazine. Just immerse myself in English literature. We spent a lot of time walking, reading, arguing about that particular period in English history." This is a story of Canadian literature that needs to be recorded but is currently not available in the archive.
Imogen Knister Givens hopes to fight against an archival tide that would cause her mother's contributions to disappear and her father's legacy to be defamed. She previously shared one part of her mother's diary with Alice Munro and Morley Callaghan and myself; that is the part now published in Essays on Canadian Writing. I am the only one who has been allowed to read the entire diary. She says that not even her own children have read the diary. Givens has at her home in Waterford a number of unarchived treasures: an unpublished manuscript of a novel titled "There was a Mr Christi" by Raymond Knister, a ledger of books read by him between 1914 and 1929, and several unpublished stories and poems. Starting in the late 1970s, Givens herself began publishing, writing an afterword to the collection Windfalls for Cider and the article published in Essays on Canadian Writing titled "Raymond Knister-Man or Myth?" Givens continues to write accounts about how Livesay's version of her father's death is misinformed. She continues to fight against the inaccuracies that plague her father's story.
The diary of Myrtle Knister emerges as a kind of touchstone in this campaign, excerpted in Givens's publication as a way to verify the facts and the details of what happened. Her diary signifies as a site of unadulterated truth among other "truth-telling" documents such as letters, autobiographies, and memoirs. Because of the tragedy, Myrtle Knister's diary becomes a witness to history, a testament, a piece of evidence. It might have gone there anyway as diaries often do, but by containing the record of a fatal tragedy, the diary is nearly guaranteed to be read for historical facts. In addition, by offering a record of Knister's final words, the diary tries to ensure his mortality by calling forth his authoritative voice from beyond the grave in a rhetorical gesture that Paul de Man would classify as prosopopeia, the restoration of mortality by invoking voice and name (de Man 1984, 81). Carrying the freight of Raymond's last words and running counter to Livesay's version, Myrtle Knister's diary carries an unbearable weight as it attempts to deliver unmediated authenticity and evidentiary truths.
Myrtle Knister's diary bears the appeal of the private diary, unpublished and unarchived. It tantalizes the archival researcher in search of "Truth." Sometimes this truth is thought to be found in the subtext of the diary, in places where the diary betrays itself with "the trace, the residual remainder, the inconsistent detail, the wild deviation from the usual response, the point where correspondence falters, where documents have been lost, destroyed or otherwise concealed" (Banting 1987,120). The private diary-and here it does not differ too much from what one expects from archives-seems to promise a natural hunting ground for the inconsistent detail, the residual reminder, the wild deviation, for a truth not otherwise accessible from the accretion of the ordinary, the mundane, and the regular that are in fact the hallmarks of the diary genre. Remaining external to the archives invests Knister's diary with even greater potency as a potential "wild card" ready to upset conventional histories with new "truths"; however, the promise of the diary as a "wild card" heralding new truths seems at odds with its practice of recording and shaping the mundane and the everyday. Scholars have noticed before the gap between the diary's promise and praxis. Bernard Duyfhuizen describes the diary as a "myth of genuineness, an allegory of writing and reading the world" (1986,178). Laurence Rosenwald says it best when he writes that "the myth of the veridical diary ... is founded irremovably because founded on a void, founded not on an error of fact but on truths we hold to be self-evident" (1987, 101). I assign diaries a truth-value like that of photographs, as described by the photographer Richard Avedon who writes, "There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is truth." The genre of the diary (especially those unpublished and unarchived) is unlikely to relinquish any time soon its close connection with "truthfulness" in the popular imagination; it performs a crucial cultural function in that it speaks to a deeply felt desire to have some kind of writing retain a close connection to unmediated truth.
While readers may instinctively approach the private or archived diary with different expectations, the private diary in fact does not differ too significantly from the published memoir in its relationship to readers. Diary scholar Andrew Hassam reflects on this issue when he contemplates the ethical implications of reading someone's diary. He draws a line in the sand by arguing that only the published diary opens itself up to becoming "a unit in an intersubjective network of readings" (1987, 440). He does not, however, consider the possibility that the archives are a form of publication. I would go one step further and undo this binary of public and private altogether because the unarchived diary that I read while sitting in a living room in Waterford is equally open to, in fact is always already a part of, that "intersubjective network of readings" that Hassam names because of its invocation of another reader, even if that reader is a daughter, future family members, or literary historians. Its relation to being read is no different than that of Livesay's memoirs except that the researcher hopes for more truth-value from the private diary.
These points about the diary's uneasy relationship to genuineness, truthfulness, and authenticity are applicable to diaries in a general way, but Myrtle Knister's diary teases out a difference within the genre when it crosses a boundary from diary as chronicle of the everyday to diary that explicitly faces the end of dailiness, death. I call it a diary of a tragedy, because the sudden death of a spouse is an awful but in some senses an imaginable possibility on life's menu of unexpected events. Of course, there has been a rich body of literature on autobiography and trauma, but in my opinion trauma refers to the truly unexpected, to unimaginable horrors like the Holocaust. For this reason, I prefer to call Myrtle Knister's diary the diary of a tragedy. It is the diary of an unexpected death, and as such it is pushed beyond narrating the everyday, pushed into narrating a series of events that are not at all routine or quotidian. Under these circumstances, the diary writer becomes keenly aware of the inconsistent detail or the residual reminder (a small spat before his final swim), and they are foreclosed upon (the spat is diminished), so that one interpretation prevails, so that one meaning, one version of truth is fixed in a form of writing that already has an unstable relation to truth-telling. This can be seen in Myrtle Knister's diary. It is a publicly oriented diary where she consciously constructs a death mask for her husband.
Paul de Man connects death and autobiography in his consideration of prosopopeia. Death, he argues, "is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament, and the restoration of mortality by autobiography (the prosopopeia of the voice and the name) deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores. Autobiography veils a defacement of the mind of which it is itself the cause" (de Man 1984, 81). Although Myrtle Knister does not write a standard autobiography, the central predicament for her diary is one that has more in common with autobiographies and is catalyzed by the fact that her diary must confront death. The central predicament is that seeking to restore the final words of her husband only serves to erase him further from memory. Knister's diary, while seeking to establish the truth, works to deface it.
The diary is contained in a mock-up for Raymond Knister's book of Canadian Short Stories. It has leather binding with ornamental stamping. Photos are pasted on a few pages of the galley proofs, though diary entries themselves are handwritten on the blank pages. The writing that covers perhaps the first third of the pages is by a woman whose narrative voice shimmers with the confidence befitting a young artist of the 1920s. She is a besotted new mother when she begins the diary looking back retrospectively to her child's birth on 4 June 1930. In fact, the title page proclaims this to be the diary of Imogen Roberta Knister, her daughter, and what follows takes the form of a letter written by a mother to her daughter, beginning when the baby is about two months of age. The first entry records baby's first reactions to the world and her introduction (recorded as a ceremonious event) to writers such as Duncan Campbell Scott, "Mrs Florence Livesay," and Charles G.D. Roberts. This and the following entries vary between present and past tense. Three subsequent entries on 12 August 1931, 20 March 1932, and 29 December 1932 are written some time after events have taken place. Four entries may not sound like much, but they go on for pages and cover a lot of ground, and the major shift in the narrative comes between the third and fourth entry, before and after Knister's death.
Myrtle Knister characterizes herself as very happy in the days before the tragedy, though the long fourth entry (dated 29 December) describes a time of some upheaval in the months leading up to the drowning:
we were having money worries all through the spring as the Graphic still owed Raymond $1100. In June we had a fuss over a debt of 30 dollars [and] we had a lawsuit over breaking our lease. The sheriff came one day when only you and I were home. Daddy had gone for the mail. They broke open the door when I did not answer it and came in and made a seize of most of the stuff.
The details of this event are explored in their full complexity in Knister's short story "A Brush with Quebec Law." He was not in breach of the law and the tone of his story indicates wry bemusement with the whole affair, but the events clearly unsettled his wife. More moves followed, and Myrtle writes, "we have no money left [to lease another house] and cannot collect from Graphic," referring to the fact that Graphic Press was going bankrupt before delivering to Knister some prize money they owed him for his biography of Keats. The Knisters did, however, have money to put brand new furniture in storage and travel back to Ontario. While the state of their finances was in flux, such difficulties do not necessarily suggest that the marriage was in trouble or that Knister felt desperate.
Knister and his wife were then presented an opportunity to take a cottage for two weeks at Stoney Point before moving to Port Hope. The cottage, however, brings a sense of foreboding. Foreshadowing her husband's death in the diary, Myrtle Knister relates the story of scolding him for being too cavalier about a drop off in the lake. She reports herself saying, "Now Raymond what would you have done if you had let go of the boat? You would have gone right down to the bottom of that hole and from pure surprise you would have opened your mouth and taken in a lot of water" (Givens 1980, 10). Then she relates the details of Raymond's drowning, screaming for help while being "fascinated by the horror of that fast-disappearing boat, bobbing up and down like a cork on the waves," and then, when finally reaching his boat hoping against hope that he was asleep on its floor, being stunned by the terrible detail of his bathrobe rolled up in the prow of the boat (Givens 1980, 13). The language of this entry is powerful and shares much in common with a letter she wrote to writer Thomas Murtha. Both are imprinted by a strong sense of guilt or culpability, that something more should have been said or could have been done, that Myrtle should not have let him go out alone, or that bystanders could have been more helpful. Colouring all is a sense that the writer has been marked, divided, for life by this terrible event.
The diarist never completely loses sight of her audience. Direct addresses to her daughter turn more reflective and personal and then back again, so the entries waver between two registers: the autobiographical and the epistolary. The fact that it begins with an address to another violates what diary critic Andrew Hassam calls the "secrecy clause," the tacit agreement that a diary in its purest form should be "a text closed to all but the diarist, a private communication with oneself" (1987, 436). The epistolary framework further undermines the status of the diary as a site of unmediated truths. A diary writer's ability to tell the truth is said to be eroded by the presence of readers. To categorize in a way suggested by Lynn Bloom in her article "Private Diaries as Public Documents," this diary is "public" because it is explicitly shaped for an audience. While I disagree to some extent with Bloom's taxonomy (aren't all diaries shaped by an imagined audience to a greater or lesser degree?), it is helpful here for drawing attention to diaries that are particularly conscious about their audience. Moving among the genres of diary, letter, and autobiography, Knister's diary loses its status as "pure diary" (and any attendant claims to a particular relation to truth-telling) and instead must be labeled a publicly oriented diary.
Another factor complicating Myrtle Knister's diary as "pure diary" is its retrospective structure. Writing in the past tense allows room for editorial shaping and marks the text's literariness, aligning it perhaps more closely to autobiography. Critic Kalliopi Nikolopoulou names the kind of gaps that open up in retrospective telling, a function that Myrtle's diary shares with memoir and autobiography. Nikolopoulou writes, "The demand to write about oneself alienates the writing subject from itself; it opens up a gap between the subject who has undergone a life experience and the subject who translates this experience into written words, thus splitting it in two, creating its Doppelgänger" (Nikolopoulou 2004, 6). This kind of gap is evident in Myrtle Knister's diary when she tries to relate the story of the drowning; the gap is modified if not exacerbated by the fact that there has been a violent breach in her life. Such a gap is inscribed when she interrupts the story of their last disagreement to write, "How very true have all his words proven since! I have written these words between heart-rending memories and tears. My poor little girl wonders why her mother doesn't sing and dance anymore and sometimes scolds her unjustly. If I am crying she looks up at me and weeps too. But to continue the story ..." (Givens 1980, 11). In narrative interruptions like this, Knister's retrospective diary entry navigates between the two people she is: the woman before and the woman after the accident. Even at the beginning of the entry Knister constructs a bridge to connect the two selves, "I have neglected to write in this diary for so long first because I was too happy and last because I was so sad," and assumes, in effect, a third voice removed in time that must narrate on behalf of the other two. In addition to navigating between two or three selves, the entry must also juggle multiple temporal perspectives because the horizon of the diary's narrative possibilities changes once her husband dies.
Juggling multiple temporal perspectives is where the diary differs from autobiography. Unlike autobiography, diary writing-even a retrospectively written diary entry like this one-more explicitly faces the future. A "diary is turned to the future," writes Phillipe Lejeune, "so if something is missing it is not the beginning, but the end that changes in the course of writing it" (2001, 103). Knister's diary changes course after the death of her husband, and she faces a new life predicated on her status as widow and single mother. Retrospection is then only one of the temporal aspects in this diary; anticipation is another, creating a subject who faces her own Doppelgânger not only because she translates her experiences into words, but because she is attempting to align the horizons of narrative possibilities located on different temporal trajectories. These gaps open a hermeneutic moment. What happened? How can the breach be healed? The reader wants to know; the diarist wants to know. The point of diary writing is to seal the gap, but it cannot achieve this.
At some point, the December entry ends and begins again without dates; the two-year-old daughter is eight by the time the entry ends, meaning it must end around 1938, the year before Myrtle's second marriage. Literary interventions made necessary by the structure of the diary as letter and as autobiography become evident as the entry proceeds. Myrtle starts commuting to Toronto to learn dressmaking but returns on weekends to visit young Imogen, who is staying with her grandparents in Port Dover. Explaining this period of her life, Myrtle writes that her daughter began to long for a brother or sister, so they looked about until they found a little boy named Johnny and then they brought him home from the hospital. The reader belatedly learns that language is used to soften an unwed mother's pregnancy for a young daughter (who is not even reading the diary at this point). The last entry contains several elements to alert readers to the fact that the diary is prepared for a daughter who, with no childhood memories of her father, must piece together her father's life and her parents' marriage on the basis of the documents left behind.
The last entry covers some six years and closes with a phrase that echoes Pepys's classic diary closing "and so to bed." When Knister writes the last line"the fireplace is dying now so I'll crawl in beside you"-she intimately connects herself to her sleeping daughter by pen, illustrating the kind of immediacy that gives diary and letter writing such appeal. The nicely crafted ending also exhibits, in the words of Lejeune, a "taste for wrapping up" (2001, 111), a desire for the neat closure that evaded Myrtle Knister elsewhere. Bringing closure to the diary in this way again aligns the diary with memoir or autobiography because diaries generally finish in random ways. Says Lejeune of the special predicament of diary writing: "The diary is virtually unfinishable from the beginning because there is always a time lived beyond the writing ... and one day this time beyond will take the shape of death" (2001,103). Myrtle Knister finds herself writing on the wrong side of the ending, on the other side of death, and her diary must find its way through a generic predicament. Bringing gentle closure to the diary in this way works to counteract the tragic and disruptive content the diary has been forced to contain; it is another attempt to seal the gap opened in this diary.
With its retrospection, anticipation, and direct address to another, Knister's diary exemplifies an instance of diary writing as archivization; it is a particular kind of publicly oriented diary, recalling the past for the benefit of the future. Myrtle Knister knew that her husband should be immortalized as a Canadian man of letters, and despite the difficulty of establishing this immortality in language, she took seriously her responsibility to shape her husband's death mask. This was an impulse at work outside of diary writing as well. For example, she carefully considered what kind of grave marker would best fit a man who should have been a major figure in Canadian letters and spent a chunk of the insurance settlement money on a six-foot grave stone in Port Dover. A sketch she made of his profile is carved on it along with one of his poems, "Change." Likewise, her diary is motivated by a desire to record the truth (however fraught that enterprise may be) and by the desire to preserve her husband's legacy. Her diary shapes the representation of his life and his drowning both for her daughter and for literary history. What Myrtle Knister hopes to accomplish is theorized by Lejeune, who describes the diary's desire to freeze time, "to build a memory out of paper, to create archives from lived experience, to accumulate traces, prevent forgetting, to give life the consistency and continuity it lacks" (Lejeune 2001, 107). A diary such as Myrtle Knister's produces as much as it records an event; she writes the diary as archive, and in so doing engages in a process marked by what Derrida would call archive fever.
Derrida writes of archive fever, or the archive drive, or the archiviolithic force, as being like the death drive in that it is aggressive and destructive, a drive that "incites forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory" (1996, 11). Pamela Banting's article on archives predates Derrida's work but similarly identifies a death drive at work in archives. Even more interesting is that she sees this death drive as being intensified by, made possible by, the currency of the diary: "In the archive," she writes, "the secret vault of diaries is unsealed to reveal the stripping away of masks, further masks, and the process of mask construction" (1987, 120). She names the pressures and promises of the diary as currency and concludes that all of these "are rehearsals for the death mask. In an archival vault, writing violently asserts its kinship with death" (120). Diary writing is both rehearsal and substitution for making a death mask; it is motivated by the desire to commemorate. "The archive," writes Derrida, "takes place at the place of the originary and structural breakdown of the said memory" (1996, 11), as does the diary. Diary writing takes place at the originary and structural breakdown of said memory; it is written to secure a particular moment against the oblivion of forgetfulness, which it also hastens. Derrida's comments make it clear that neither the archive or the diary (particularly the diary of a tragedy) can seal the gaps they are designed to address. Furthermore, the diary, like the archive, is poised on the shifting borders of public and private, marked by internal fractures precisely like those described in Derrida's deconstruction of the archive. He writes, "Nothing is less reliable, nothing is less clear today than the word archive ... the trouble of secrets, of plots, of clandestineness, of half private, half public conjurations, always at the unstable limit between public and private, between the family, the society and the State, between the family and an intimacy even more private than the family, between oneself and oneself" (90). The diary, then, holds particular currency in the economy of the archive drive, by being analogous to it and by the fact that transposing life into narrative introduces new configurations that erase and replace "said memory" in textual representation. If written representation in the diary actually hastens the oblivion of forgetfulness, then the diary shares something with death.
Diarists, as well as theoreticians, make the connection between death and the diary. French diarist Jean-Luc Nancy unambiguously names this connection in his own diary when he writes, "I write to be read after my death and that is why I do not publish.... While I am writing I think I see myself being seen by many others who are reading over my shoulder the words traced by a dead man's hand immobilised for eternity, the eternity of truth, in the instance of inscribing it" (quoted in Berger 1998, 556). Although he seeks to cement a connection between the writing hand and the inscription of truth in the fluidity of diary creation, the moment is always elusive, always just disappearing and unable to catch the mercury of truth he hopes to hold. Lejeune does not try to imagine the origlnary moment of writing but optimistically imagines the way in which the finished writing itself can outlive the diarist: "death can prevent me from continuing my diary but it can't undo the diary.... It will long outlive me. It will end up yellowing and crumbling, but the text it bears will have its own reincarnations, it can change bodies, be recopied, published. I will be incinerated, my body reduced from one to zero. I will be preserved, my diary will stay on a shelf in the archives" (Lejeune 2001,110). Like the diarist Nancy, Lejeune draws a connection between the diary, death, and the body, but in this case the diary-as-text seems to offer a reincarnation of the diarist's body. Lejeune emphasizes the posterity of publication in a way unlike Nancy, who seems to consider the finished diary akin to a small death (as ineffable and sadly pleasurable as Ie petit mortl), emphasizing instead the ephemerality of the hand and the body to which it is attached as it is captured in traces on a manuscript.
The currency of the diary in the archives is that it promises to resurrect the body of the author; the diary acts as guarantor of the writing hand and the lived experience it inscribes. Because of this, the archive has a most particular effect on the body of the author, according to Pamela Banting. Writing about Livesay's archives, she notes that "in the archive, the text spills over in excess of the author. The text is beyond control. It perpetuates itself as if it were the very life tissue of the author. But the author herself is not wanted-dead or alive" (Banting 1987, 120). The author that the archival researcher might hope to encounter or reclaim "is erased in the proliferation of textual marks" (Banting 1987, 120). The archives of Livesay and Knister cannot, then, offer clarity, but rather a textual whirlpool of written claims and counter claims, personal accounts, letters, memoirs, and diaries that will not give up the body of Raymond Knister any more easily than the lake did. Knister is decidedly not the author of his own ending, and the textual presence he assumes in the archives comes to replace or superimpose itself on the real human body he once was.
Diary writing, like archiving, is motivated by commemorating impulses. It functions with an awareness of an end that must be death and so it shares much with autothanatography. The term, first used by Nancy K. Miller (1994, 12), has some usefulness for describing the publicly oriented diary writing of Myrtle Knister, who sought to shape future representations of herself and her husband. Likewise, critic Henry Berger discerns at the heart of diary writing a "narcissistic desire [that] may make a form of autothanatography, a kind of ars moriendi the aim of which is to write one's own epitaph; to shape the death mask that will control the future by representing the deceased as he or she wishes to be remembered" (1998, 583). Neither Miller nor Susanna Egan, who has also written about autothanatography, have drawn out its possible connections to diary writing. Miller and then Egan define this genre as a variation on autobiography, facing one's own death in writing. It is said to be characterized by an awareness of "time and space" and its limits (Egan 2001). In a chapter on "Death as a Departure Point," Egan notes in her book Mirror Talk that life is understood to be more intense, more fully lived for those who write while facing a terminal illness. A kind of clarity is produced, she says, by knowing for sure that the end will arrive (though we know that it hovers at the end of all life-writing projects). What Miller and Egan do not consider is that autothanatography already shares something with the finite, temporally aware genre of diary writing. Diary writing more than other kinds of autobiography draws attention to issues of time; it enforces an engagement with temporal perspectives. The diary genre carries with it a sense of finiteness (each daily entry is dated) and implicitly marks the inability of the author to finish this text adequately, whose real end-as Lejeune points out-is the death of the author. Autothanatography could be an even more suggestive term if we emphasize the "thanatos" nestled in the term in order to align it with the death drive that Derrida sees working at the site of archives. Autothanatography then names not only a kind of writing marked by a greater sense of clarity or a new intensity created by facing the limits of life, but also a kind of life writing that contains within itself the gap or the rupture that cannot be healed. It divulges an unanswerable desire, carried out primarily in diary writing but present too in the act of archiving, to commemorate and to seal, to foreclose on the hermeneutic moment it opens.
Just because I read Myrtle Knister's diary as autothanatography does not mean that I discredit the diary in this specific instance or in general. It does not mean that I agree with Dorothy Livesay's version of Knister's final days or her portrayal of his marriage. Reading Knister's diary as autothanatography does not diminish her diary; rather, it credits her for the important role she assumed in recording her version of Canadian literary history and for making sure her husband would receive the attention he deserved. Myrtle Knister is understandably haunted by the memory of her husband when writing her diary. It is Livesay, however, who describes herself as more acutely haunted by Knister: "Whether his spirit actually obsessed me, or whether the violence of his going made me feel burdened, I do not know" (1987, 16). Haunting both representations of Knister is a promise of truthfulness already erased by the linguistic predicament named by Paul de Man. Derrida offers the only way out of the conundrum, by offering another: "If testimony ... became proof, information, certainty, or archive, it would lose its function as testimony. In order to remain testimony, it must therefore allow itself to remain haunted" (quoted in Nikolopoulou 2004,1). Hauntingwhich usually describes the spectral traces of a body that once existed-remains as the unsatisfactory non-conclusion necessitated by the predicament of diary writing. Derrida's injunction insists that readers metaphorically leave open the cover of the diary, leave open the doors of the archive, and recognize that neither space is designed to seal in truth.
Many thanks are due to Imogen Givens who generously shared her home, her personal family papers, and her expertise. Her keen eye helped me avoid adding more errors to the story of her parents' lives.
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Kathryn Carter is an assistant professor of English and Contemporary Studies at Laurier Brantford where she specializes in Canadian women's literature, primarily the non-fiction life writing of nineteenth-century women. Her most recent book is The Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada: 1830-1996 (University of Toronto Press, 2002). Recent and forthcoming articles address the 1830 letter journal of Frances Simpson (in Australian-Canadian Studies) and diaries written by school girls in Canada at the end of the nineteenth century (in Canadian Children's Literature).…
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Publication information: Article title: Death and the Diary, or Tragedies in the Archive. Contributors: Carter, Kathryn - Author. Journal title: Journal of Canadian Studies. Volume: 40. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2006. Page number: 42+. © Trent University Fall 1996. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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