Barbellion’s Journal

One of the fascinating things about Barbellion’s Journal is that it is contemporary with two works with which it has affinities, but which Barbellion is unlikely to have known: Rilke’s Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Rilke’s book was published in 1907, when Barbellion had already begun his Journal; Pessoa’s began during the 1914-18 war but was then laid aside and not revived until the late 1920s. However, both of these other books are more displaced towards fiction and, perhaps for this reason, less urgent that Barbellion’s.

The book Barbellion related most closely to his own was I Am the Most Interesting Book of All by Ukrainian writer and artist Maria Bashkirtseff, about whom he wrote: Oh, Marie Bashkirtseff! How we should have hated one another! She feels as I feel. We have the same self-absorption, the same vanity and corroding ambition. She is impressionable, volatile, passionate — ill! So am I. Her journal is my journal. All mine is stale reading now. She has written down all my thoughts and forestalled me! Already I have found some heartrending parallels. To think I am only a replica: how humiliating for a human being to find himself merely a duplicate of another. Is there anything in the transmigration of souls? She died in 1884. I was born in 1889.

Another fascination with Barbellion is the way in which his Journal resembles a weblog, nearly a hundred years before the form was invented. It is this aspect of his book which makes it seem so contemporary because, unlike many diarists, he is writing for a contemporary audience, for now, since he knew there was no sense in addressing himself to posterity.

I had to break off my reading of his Journal the other night, first because of the weirdness of his entry on the Three Johns (see below) but secondly, and more particularly, because of what he has to say about himself in the next entry but one ... In these moments of ecstasy my happiness is torrential. I have the soul of the poppy flaming in me then. I am rather like the poppy in many ways ... It is peculiarly appropriate. It must be my flower! I am the poppy!!

This was written in May, 1911, before the Great War, before Flanders, long before the poppy became the symbol of the dead in that war. It is – not only in this entry, but throughout the book – as if the war is taking place in Barbellion’s own body, not his body considered as metaphor, but in his actual flesh and blood; while his mind and soul rage against it.

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