In her wonderful book, Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, Karen Sanchez-Eppler examines the culture-making functions of literacy journals in which early-nineteenth-century children practiced their “penmanship and composition” (21). Sanchez-Eppler argues that nineteenth-century children’s journals are sites of imitation through which children simultaneously learn to internalize “adult behaviors and forms” and “form these strictures into a source of power, self-validation, and even play” (33).
If historically the child’s private journal has functioned as a site of resistance to adult authority, or at least a medium through which children might exercise some degree of power over their interpretation and reproduction of grown-up culture, might Sanchez-Eppler’s insights also apply to a journal written under circumstances in which the child is not being asked to incorporate into the dominant culture, but rather is defined as the exception that makes the idea of the human possible?
I am thinking about An Interrupted Life, the Journal of Etty Hillesum, written in the Netherlands during the Second World War and first published illegally—and on her request—in 1943 (the same year that she died at Auschwitz).
One of the things I have always admired about this book is how in spite of the fact that Hillesum pens her journal in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, with the knowledge that she will probably soon die (and, as the journal progresses, from her family’s hiding place in a friend’s apartment), she is able to engage in everyday thoughts and activities while barely mentioning the historical circumstances that frame her existence. In other words, even as Nazi ideology classifies Hillesum as inhuman and therefore unfit to live, and even as this ideology determines her living conditions, she writes entries in her diary that are full of the simple details of everyday life and expressions of the mind-in-movement. Her journal entries in fact seem to capture the activities and thought-processes define the “human.”
For instance, in the entry for Monday Morning, 10 March, 1941, Hillesum writes:
“Come on, my girl, get down to work or God help you. And no more excuses either, no little headache here or a bit of nausea there, or I’m not feeling very well…You’ve just got to work and that’s that. No fantasies, no grandiose ideas, and no earth-shattering insights. Making a translation exercise and finding the right words are much more important. And that is something I have to learn and for which I must fight to the death: all fantasies and dreams shall be ejected by force from my brain, and I shall sweep myself clean from within, to make space for real studies, large and small” (7).
Not only does this passage embody the wandering of the mind and the self-talk that every human being experiences, but it also points to something that Hillesum continually returns to: that meaning inheres in the small acts and details of everyday life.
I wonder if Hillesum didn’t focus on these details as a means of survival, because to ruminate on the racist theories that motivated the Holocaust would serve as a challenge to her mental stability. Even though she rarely talks about the political events through which she is living (the diary mostly records her relationship with a man named S.), the act of writing seems to function as a means by which she gains hold over these events. In this sense, Hillesum uses journal-writing as a form of “power and self-validation” similar, I think, to how Sanchez-Eppler theorizes the subtleties of journaling. In one passage, Hillesum actually reflects on the act of writing as a form of survival, when, trying to fight off a bad mood and a headache, she writes, “I shall try to ‘compose’ myself a little over a sheet of writing paper” (74).
Even more amazing to me is the way Hillesum, when she does choose to reflect on the political events of her world, refuses to succumb to despair in her treatment of them. She writes,
“I believe…that I could be truly happy, for true happiness is an achievement as well…They are such a sad lot, the human race today. So little real radiation and joie de vivre. Instead, masses of minor complexes and trivial worries and petty envies and unhappy marriages and disappointing children, etc., etc. But even if you live in an attic and have nothing but dry bread to eat, life is still worth living. And if this period proves too difficult and prevents us from living our life to the full, well, we shouldn’t take it too tragically, or go somewhat wistfully to pot” (44).
Here, Hillesum is reflecting on the possibility that she will be killed by the Nazis, and yet she continues to insist on enjoying the moments she has left. Perhaps, again, it is her knowledge of impending death that enables Hillesum to appreciate the time-wasting nature of negativity. Yet what strikes me even more powerfully (or rather, struck me originally when I read this book as a teenager) is Hillesum’s definition of God as a spirit within herself. Like other survivors, Hillesum could not imagine a transcendent God in the face of the events of the Holocaust, but in the spirit of the romantics, finds God within herself--a concept that has always remained appealing to me.
When I first read this book, I was a teenager, and like others at this age, I was trying to discover what my own approach to God was going to be. I was attracted to Hillesum’s views not only because they emerged out of a real reckoning with the possible and unspeakable horrors of life, but also because instead of focusing on daily horrors, she finds solace in the deceptively insignificant details of everday life. Hillesum confesses that she hopes she might “perform a thousand daily tasks with love, but let every one spring from a greater central core of devotion and love” (165). In this passage, Hillesum's definition of godliness seems to mimic the form that many private journals take: the listing of one's daily tasks and thoughts about those tasks. This embrace of the quotidian seems a much more useful understanding of the human than that defined by Nazi ideology, the often-silent demon that Hillesum's optimistic journal repeatedly occludes, but occludes as a means of survival.