Friday, 1 August 2014

The Journal of a Disappointed Man

Backdated at random: The Journal of a Disappointed Man. This is the pseudonymous diary of Bruce Frederick Cummings (7 September 1889 – 22 October 1919), who wrote as W. N. P. Barbellion an account of his life and decline due to multiple sclerosis. There are more than a few things I didn't realise about the account: particularly that MS was diagnosable in the early 1900s without the scan you'd expect nowadays. Also the standard story of who knew / didn't know about the diagnosis is increasingly under revision.

I don't think I'll be reading it now: a) as depressing, and b) TLDR (Too Long, Didn't Read) territory. Like many works (such as the poetry of Henley) it has been mined for its most inspirational passages, notably this one ...
To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible—and eternal, so that come what may to my 'Soul,' my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part — I shall still have some sort of a finger in the pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me — but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you.
... but for me I find it of interest as the work of a kindred spirit, a rather geeky man whose themes crossed naturalism (he worked at the British Museum in the Department of Natural History)  but later inclined toward a few specific areas of art. This makes it a refreshing change from the consciously artistic belles lettres genre, whose authors go to great pains to let us know the sheer breadth of sources they've read (or claim to).
      Nevertheless, Cummings writes some real drivel at times. Alongside powerful personal passages like the much-quoted one, he has very stereotypical views about the War and the "Bosches", and nor is he immune to silly rants about people he hates for trivial reasons ("I have grown so ridiculously hypercritical and fastidious that I will refuse a man's invitation to dinner because he has watery blue eyes ... I hate elderly women who mention their legs. It makes me shudder").
      But there are darker parts that'll be uncomfortably familiar to anyone with a declining chronic illness, as with the time he crawls upstairs in unsuccessful search for bottles of morphia. As of June 2015, I'm so deeply regretting not properly planning and/or acting on an 'out' option while I was fit to do it.
- Ray

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