“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same things as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” —Simone Weil, “Attention and Will” (1942)
“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them.” —Flannery O’Connor, private “prayer journal” (1946)
Murmuring fills the stone halls of Mt. Athos’s monasteries, exhaling like breath into a cold and clear morning. With its thousands of monks, there is not silence—there is the opposite of silence. Excluding the sounds of nature—the cooing of turtle doves and the swooping of Dalmatian pelicans; the sound of rain hitting the granite paths of the isle; the lapping of the ocean upon the jagged rocks—there is the omnipresent shudder of thousands of men’s faintly mumbled devotions, called to prayer by one of their brothers hitting the metal of a semantron with a wooden mallet. Like chill dew condensed on green leaves still black before the dawn, prayer clings in the atmosphere of this place. Prayer is the ether of Athos through which light must travel; the dun of monks chanting at every hour of the day and for all days is like a holy cosmic background radiation.
At the tip of that rocky peninsula, jutting like a limb into the wine-dark Aegean, are the 20 communities of the Orthodox Monastic Republic of Athos, an outcropping that has been continuously home to ascetic, celibate, reverential monks for 18 centuries. There, overlooking the Greek sea, sit buildings like the blue onion-domed mirage of St. Panteleimon Monastery, filled with Russian monks keeping their liturgy, and the Byzantine castle that constitutes the Stavronikita Monastery in honor of St. Nicholas. That holy bishop looks down on his novices with black eye from gold icon; St. Nicholas is joined by companions such as St. Gregory, St. Nektarios, and the gentle Virgin of Theotokos, as painted by the great artist Theophanes the Cretan. In their otherworldly position, what do the icons see? There they watch scores of dark robed monks, who with lips covered by black and grey and white beards repeat the same prayer as if breathing, over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Such a process, the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer until it begins to lose coherence, in the same way that a continually uttered word begins to sound like nothing if you do it long enough, lends the words a different sort of significance. Any true hearing of the prayer has to consider the words beyond the words, that which it gestures toward in dictionaries that exist beyond literal statement. Meaning is sacrificed for mystery, and in the process an infinity is gained. Many who use this approach, known as Hesychasm, do so “not just as a philosophical device for indicating God’s utter transcendence, but also, and much more fundamentally, as a means for attaining union with Him through prayer,” notes Timothy Ware in his classic introduction The Orthodox Church. The spiritual cosmonauts who are Hesychasts engage in this extreme repetitive prayer, chasing the literal semantic meanings out of words like souls departing from dead flesh, because such “negations…acted as a springboard or trampoline whereby the mystical theologian sought to leap up with all the fullness of his or her being in the living mystery of God,” as Ware explains.
As superficial attributes are burnt away, the sinner is to encounter that noble silence that is at the core of all of us, the ineffable utterances of prayer. A process whereby those enraptured in the liturgy will subtract that which defines their externalities; a prayer so fervent that it will blind your eyes, mute your mouth, and deafen your ears. This is prayer at its most extreme—absolute, indomitable, and unceasing. Philip and Carol Zaleski explain in Prayer: A History that the “roots of the Jesus Prayer lie in the traditional belief that names contain power…and that repetition of a name concentrates and focuses this power.” The famed utterance is based on these contemplative principles of Hesychasm formulated within Eastern Orthodoxy, whereby the individual empties her soul out so as to make room for those defusing molecules of holiness. In such a space, it is not just the spirit, mind, heart, and mouth that utter the anchorite’s prayer, but indeed the elbow and ankle, the eyelash and earlobe, the knuckle and wrist also. Writing in the fourth century, the Church Father John Cassian said that the Jesus Prayer is to be one that you think upon “as you sleep, as you eat, as you submit to the most basic demands of nature…You will write it upon the threshold and gateway of your mouth, you will place it on the walls of your house and in the inner sanctum of your heart.” For if the Jesus Prayer is a narrative, it is one into which those who pray must descend; if it is a poem, it is one where the words themselves become indistinguishable from the reader, where the recitation becomes life.
The Jesus Prayer is not mere supplication, rather it’s a variation on what Walt Whitman intoned in Leaves of Grass whereby “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” When one transforms themselves into an evocation, it matters not whether we’re speaking of “prayer” or “poetry,” for in heaven those categories are the same thing. Prayer is like poetry in that the greatest examples of both take as their greatest subjects themselves. All true prayers are about prayer; all beautiful poetry is really about poetry. Like all divine utterances, the Jesus Prayer is also narrative and rhetoric, capable of being read critically. This is not to diminish the import of this celebrated Orthodox prayer; we must avoid collapsing the liturgical into the aesthetic, the profundity of ritual into the mere marketplace of art. But the Jesus Prayer—all 12 words, four clauses, three commas, and one period that constitute it—wouldn’t be as effective were it not also poetry, if it did not also have an endlessly regenerative story at its center. A script into which any penitent could imagine themselves.
For those who aren’t Orthodox, but are familiar with the Jesus Prayer, it’s perhaps read less as literature itself and more a concept that may have been encountered in literature. The prayer plays a large part in the plot of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zoey, whereby the former of the two Upper East Side Glass sisters becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer after reading an account of it in the 19th-century anonymous Russian tract called The Way of a Pilgrim. As Franny recounts to her college boyfriend, when considering unceasing prayer as is practiced on Athos, one must emphatically ask if they had ever heard “anything so fascinating in your life, in a way?” Far from mere neurotic scrupulosity, the Jesus Prayer is a melding of the person with the poem, whereby the author of The Way of a Pilgrim could say that “Sometimes my heart would feel as though it were bubbling with joy; such lightness, freedom, and consolation were in it.” The repetition of prayer is like wheels turning in the wind, equally dispelling meaning and its malignant sibling worry. Franny was right to be fascinated.
So, let’s close read the Jesus Prayer as poetry. It begins with that invocation, a calling upon Christ as if Homer entreating the muse; it transitions into the statement of identity for the Son of God, whose majesty is contrasted with the narrator of the lyric who is in need of saving grace. The plaintiveness of requesting mercy has the weighted heaviness of its simple declaration. So much is held in those last two words; the indefinite article indicating the universality of sin, the confession of that condition the material for all great drama. The Jesus Prayer is a microfiction written in the present tense, where the main character is whoever should be speaking it. The great tale it tells is that of unearned salvation. The peroration is inconclusive, the ending yet to be written.
God will hear any prayer as poetry—even the recitation of the alphabet or guttural nonsense syllables may be recognized by the Lord as prayer, but humans require prosody to stick in the brain. Too often prayer is dismissed by the secular because it’s reduced to mere plea for intercession; it’s slurred as being a cosmic gift-card, and not recognized for what it actually is—the only poetic genre defined by its intended audience being the Divine. Not enough attention is paid to the poetic aspects of prayer, scarcely more attention is paid to the prayerful qualities of poetry. Prayer is just as deserving of critical analysis, of close reading and interpretation through the methods of literary interpretation as any verse is. Such is the position of The New Yorker’s esteemed book critic James Wood, who in his introduction to the Penguin Deluxe Edition of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 The Book of Common Prayer argued that the Church of England missal marked “one of the great, abiding works of English literature.” There are a handful of anthologies that treat prayer with the literary interest expressed by Wood. The Oxford Book of Prayer is an ecumenical anthology compiled by a group of scholars that goes beyond Christianity to explore the varieties of the poetic numinous, with the committee member George Appleton explaining that their desire was to express admiration for “all who value the religious experience of mankind, and are seeking the Eternal Mystery and Transcendence.” Religion popularizer Karen Armstrong offered her own selection of prayers as poems in the collection Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, which is sadly out of print. But for the most part, there is an endemic critical fallacy separating prayer and poetry.
Theologians frequently divide prayers into five categories: adoration, petition, thanksgiving, contrition, and confession; in an act of Episcopalian parsimony the essayist Anne Lamott collapses those categories in her new-age guide Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Certainly prayer as a genre has multiple uses, with petition for the Lord to redress our needs and desires but the least of these. That’s not to diminish the importance of supplication; there are few things more understandable, universal, and human than the individual crying out to God in helplessness. Even God Himself supposedly does it as He dies upon the cross. If poetry is to be an expression of the breadth of humanity in its full experience, than the various purposes of prayer are a helpful encapsulation of what it means to be a person; running the gamut from ecstatic wonder to humble gratitude, desperation to guilt. The most powerful of prayers arguably embody all of those reasons for praying in the first place, because it’s not always easy to separate the terrible wonder toward God from our desire for redemption or our cries for help.
Filmmakers often understand the innate dramatic potential of a prayer, whether it be John Cazale’s stoic Fredo calmly reciting a Hail Mary in the seconds before his brother Michael, as played with reptilian efficacy by Al Pacino, shoots him in the back of the head during an ill-fated fishing trip in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II; bellowed out in horror and sadness like Harvey Keitel’s tortured scream within a cathedral at the conclusion Abel Ferrara’s gritty noir depiction of a corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant; or Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield reciting scripture (hubristically invented by director Quentin Tarantino) before executing someone who has run afoul of him in Pulp Fiction. If crime drama seems heavy on prayer, then it’s because prayer isn’t only for quiet meditation, but exists at those places where sin and the sacred must by necessity occupy the same space. Such is the explanation as memorably delivered by Jackson, who reflects that when it comes to his scriptwriter’s pseudo-scriptural inflection, “I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker…But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice…The truth is… you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying.”
Prayer must by definition be extreme; to make oneself a conduit for the transcendent by words artfully arranged is, in a materialistic culture dominated by ruthless pragmatism, a transgressive practice. For those who reject prayer as maudlin affectation, more Thomas Kincaid than Caravaggio, know that the later has been at the forefront of the sacred a lot longer than the former. Not surprisingly, but strangely under remarked on, is the understandable facility with that poets themselves have in composing prayers. The 19th-century novelist Anne Brontë wrote her own subversive supplication in 1844, asking “My God! O let me call Thee mine! / Weak, wretched sinner though I be, / My trembling soul would fain be Thine, / My feeble faith still clings to Thee.” The poem is perfectly orthodox (lower-case “o” emphasized), for there would be nobody in the Church of England at the time who would look askance at confession of their faith’s fallibility. Yet there is also an eroticism in Brontë’s lyric, the romantic connotations of asking the beloved to be the speaker’s, the desire to cling to the beloved. In her language she calls back to the 17th-century Metaphysical tradition of George Herbert, or especially John Donne; in her punctuation she calls forward to Whitman. The forwardness of her confession that “Not only for the past I grieve, / The future fills me with dismay” is Brontë’s alone, however, the universality of such an observation paradoxically belying its personal nature.
Some of our greatest modernists have penned prayers as captivating as anything written in a patrist’s cell or jotted in the margins of a Puritan’s notebook, and not even necessarily the obvious figures who had religious fascinations like T.S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. Broad-shouldered Carl Sandburg of that hog butchery capital of the world Chicago wrote an unlikely prayer, appropriately enough for his proletariat subject-matter entitled “Prayers of Steel.” In a manner that evokes the Holy Sonnets of Donne, Sandburg asks the Lord to “Lay me on an anvil, O God. / Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar./Let me pry loose old walls. / Let me lift and loosen old foundations.” If prayer is erotic, then it’s also violent—it’s instrumental. Such a practice is to be a technology for transformation, and Sandburg’s desire is to be made into something with all of the heft, energy, and grit of sheer matter, so that God would “Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike. / Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together. / Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.” For such is a fundamental tension, a beautiful paradox of prayer—that it requires a profound humility, but is based upon the belief that a simple human can casually compose verse for the Infinite, so that he who is in repose may “be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.”
Another modernist psalmist is the Jamaican-American poet and seminal Harlem Renaissance figure Claude McKay, who composed a melancholic and intensely personal meditation in 1922, writing that “’Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling; / I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling,” a declaration that is perhaps that which most sharply differentiates prayer as a subset of poetry—for unlike the later the former is always obligated to be honest (for its Reader would know if it wasn’t). In a theme that has motivated religious narrative from Paul to Augustine to Hank Williams Sr., McKay tells God that the “wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul; / In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.” The rhyming couplets, as critically out of fashion as they were and continue to be, give the prayer the sing-song quality of hymn; their formal innocence add to the sense of helplessness that motivates the most intense of prayers.
That great wit and raconteur Dorothy Parker, more famous for her cutting gin-and-vermouth fueled quips at the Algonquin Round Table than piety, penned a beautiful and sad prayer in 1930 that James P. More Jr. described in One Nation Under God: A History of Prayer in America as “conveying a rare tenderness in the midst of personal loss.” Written in light of infidelity, miscarriage, and the omnipresent companion of alcoholism, Parker pleaded, “Dearest one, when I am dead / Never seek to follow me. / Never mount the quiet hill / Where the copper leaves are still, / As my heart is, on the tree / Standing at my narrow bed.” Parker’s sadness is a rejoinder to those who see in prayer only the myopia of personal contentment, for the asking of a cosmic favor. Rather, her prayer is an artifact of the broken ego that defines the tragedy of any prayer uttered truthfully—that prayer, if it’s to be heard, must be a ritual of ego extinction, of Hesychasm. “Only of your tenderness, / Pray a little prayer at night,” wrote Parker, “Say: ‘I have forgiven now – / I, so weak and said; O Thou, / Wreathed in thunder, robed in light, / Surely Thou wilt do no less.”
If prayer was “effective” than people wouldn’t die young, alone, sick, spurned, and forgotten; if prayer was “pragmatic” than loved ones wouldn’t suffer and pass, people wouldn’t be in debt, homes wouldn’t be foreclosed; if prayer was “useful,” than we’d never be despairing and broken. That prayer’s purpose isn’t to be effective, pragmatic, or useful speaks to a far deeper thirst that the practice quenches. Prayer isn’t about avoiding bad things; it’s about how one approaches their inevitability in a fallen world. Because I am a broken person who once drank too much, and discovered that it was impossible for me to drink less without drinking everything, I decided that it would be easier to not drink at all. As such, there’s a perhaps predictable and cliched prayer that I’ve long been partial towards, but which has as much significance to me as the Jesus Prayer had to John Cassian. The Zaleskis write of the “Serenity Prayer” that “nothing in it smacks of ideology or sectarianism, and yet its demands, if followed faithfully and to the letter, require Solomonic insight and saintly fortitude.”
Commonly attributed to the liberal Protestant minister and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who claimed that he first preached it in a sermon at an Evangelical church in western Massachusetts during World War II, the prayer was attributed by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., to everyone from an “ancient Greek, an English poet, [or] an American naval officer,” as the Zaleskis write. As seen on coffee mugs, wall-hangings, key chains, and cross-stiches, the Serenity Prayer implores “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,/Courage to change the things we can,/And wisdom to know the difference.” This Stoic injunction is often misinterpreted as maudlin pablum by those who stop at the first sentence, misinterpreting the call to surrender as unthinking capitulation, whereas in reality it is often good sense. It’s the second sentence that has the pathos, however, and in the third there is the ingredient for all true narrative. When people are unable to know the difference we call it tragedy; when they can, we call it something else—even if tragedy remains forever a possibility.
The prayerful greatest hits have much to recommend in themselves as well, of course. Each of the great Abrahamic faiths is poetically bound by defining prayers, whether the Jewish Shema Yisrael, the Christian Pater Noster, or the Islamic Shahadah. The Shema’s blessing is both principle and poem, the short declaration “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” a statement of divine synthesis, unity, consilience. The imploration that the collected people must listen raises our profane realm into the transcendent. As with the Hesychasts or Whitman, humanity itself is transposed into the very flesh of the prayer. Melvin Konner describes the phylacteries used by observant Jews in the recitation of the prayer, writing in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews about “tefillin, the black leather boxes that hold the words of the Shema, fulfilling the commandment to place them as ‘a sign upon the hand’ and ‘frontlets between the eyes.’” The Shahada does something similar, presenting an axiom as a prayer, the drama implicit within it a statement about reality itself. “There is no god but God,” prays the observant Muslim, and part of the beauty of the statement lies in its tautological simplicity, self-referentiality only broken in English transliteration by orthographic convention regarding the capitalization of certain words. The Pater Noster has a similar sense of the ways in which heaven (and perhaps hell) dwell not in a beyond, but in the here and now, as clear as a poem placed in a box and affixed to the forehead. What could be more tangible than the forgiveness of debts and of our “daily bread?”
America’s greatest psalmist, Emily Dickinson, defined the genre as being “the little implement / Through which Men reach / Where Presence – is denied them,” the gap of that characteristic dash saying everything we’ve ever felt, thought, or wondered about the spaces at the center of that absent Writer we call G-d. Perhaps that old language of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and so on is limited, better to think of prayer as being the poetry that you internalize and take with you, a consumptive implement that burns away the detritus of personality to leave behind (w)holly ash. Prayer is the poetry that possesses the body, the kernel of a soul left over when everything else has been immolated. Poems are written for audiences, readers, the poet themselves, but only prayers are written for God.
No doubt the literary genre for which there is the greatest number of compositions, but for which the vast majority of them will never be heard or read by any living person. The only literary genre in which there need not even be words for it to be a poem. All true prayers have as their subject the drama of salvation, redemption, reconciliation, peace. Such was the request of the great Iranian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi who in the 13th century ecstatically implored us to “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of learning – it doesn’t matter, / Ours is not a caravan of despair. / Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, / Come, come again, come.” So that prayer is, even when it seems to despair, a fundamentally optimistic genre. What it presupposes is that every second is a portal through which some kind of grace may enter. What it hopes is that there is somebody on the receiving end, listening.
At some point during the 31st of May 1669, a learned if bawdy, witty if obscene, educated if scandalous, pious if irreverent rake, raconteur, and libertine who’d recorded over one million words about his life for almost a decade stopped his private scribblings, even though this gentleman named Samuel Pepys would live for more than another three decades. To the best of our knowledge, until that point no Englishman had ever provided such a complete accounting; such a scrupulous interrogation not of the soul, but of a life—a largely secular exercise in tabulating not just wars, but dinners; not just plagues, but nights at the theater. Beginning on January 1st upon the first year of Restoration, Pepys would record everything from when fire immolated the city of London to a particularly enjoyable stew of tripe and mustard. An entry dated March 10th, 1666 confesses that the “truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more in pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it,” and such a position could be the motto of Pepys’s diary. That document doesn’t reach the rhetorical heights of other 17th-century classics—it has not the poetry of William Shakespeare’s famed soliloquy in Hamlet, nor the intellectual sophistication of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets or George Herbert’s The Temple. Rather, what Pepys offered was something different, but no less impressive—a complete map of an individual human life and mind during that defined period of time. As novelist Philip Hensher notes in The Atlantic, “there is no precedent and no parallel for what Pepys actually did.”
Restoration was inaugurated with King Charles II’s triumphant return to London to avenge his father’s regicide, and Pepys would work as administrator of the Navy in the new regime. This was a fabulous era of theatricality after a decade of dreary Puritan Interregnum; when John Dryden’s and Aphra Behn’s elaborate set-pieces thrilled London audiences, when Isaac Newton’s New Physics transformed the very nature of motion, when wits from John Wilmot to William Wycherley injected English letters with a pump of aphrodisiacs. An era ruled by an aristocracy that Peter Stallybras and Allon White describe in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression as being “carelessly demonic, nonchalantly outrageous, cynical in the way that only a class which despises its compromises can be cynical,” all of which Pepys was able to document. Pepys observed both the plague and the Great Fire of London, the first which decimated the capital and the later which purified it, and the Second Anglo-Dutch War when the English traded the tropical paradise of Suriname for a small village named New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island. With large, soulful brown eyes, jutting lower lip, and curly auburn hair, Pepys cut a swath through London society, from the coffee houses and printers of Fleet Street to the book stalls at St. Paul’s, pushing the Socratic injunction to “Know thyself” to its extreme, the most self-obsessed man in a self-obsessed era. A man aptly described by Emily Cockayne in Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England as the sort “not to make too much of a fuss about being accidentally spat on by a lady in the theatre—providing the lady was pretty.”
Yet after nine years of privately recording his movement in regal circles, his observation of scientific and technological changes, his attendance at the splendid plays of the Restoration, his intellectual intercourse with the era’s great minds (as well as the other type of intercourse), Pepys made his last entry on that spring evening in 1669. Fearing that he was going blind (he was not going blind), the diarist signed off with “The good God prepare me,” and so after one million words Pepys would fall silent in the record of his own life. A funny thing which literary anniversaries we choose to commemorate or not. Certain authors come in for posthumous honoring more than others—Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. This year sees the 200th birthday of the great, grey bard of Camden, Walt Whitman, and his work will be rightly celebrated with events throughout his cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. Three years ago was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and it received a predictable amount of attention; 2023 will be the 400th year of publication for the first folio of the dramatist’s complete works, and it too will undoubtedly be commemorated with exhibitions, lectures, plays, books, and articles (I’m penciling such retrospectives into my own writing schedule right now). Pepys’s retirement as a diarist, by contrast, seems to largely be passing without much mention; the release of a commemorative coin from the Royal Mint (which he was associated with) notwithstanding.
An irony in this, because Pepys is in many ways a prophet of our own self-obsessed age. Pepys’s fragmentary, digressive, contradictory, messy diary (which was as voluminous in its output as it was disorganized in its execution) foreshadows our own individual self-fashioning. In Pepys we see Facebook; we see Twitter. British actor and web-programmer Phil Gyford sees in the diary a forerunner of blogging, and as part of an online project he spent nine years posting Pepys’s entries in real time. Lisa Schamess, in a delightful essay for Creative Nonfiction, considers both Gyford’s project and the general compatibility of Pepys’s diary with our own digital moment, arguing this his prose itself is “elegant evidence of how lustily the 17th century’s most famous diarist might have embraced the internet, tapping up its opulent charms deep into the night.” With an admirable eye towards close reading and comparison, Schamess reads through several of Pepys’s entries to demonstrate how in their half-formation, their digressions, and their exhibitionism, they’re reminiscent of Facebook posts. Schamess writes that Pepys’s “sharp eye and acid wit would be perfect for the restless internet, with its thin, glowing scrim between life and audience, its illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy.”
Much is convincing in Schamess’s observation, yet it’s undeniable that even if his prose would be copacetic with the internet’s “illusion of anonymity and controllable intimacy,” Pepys’s actual writing was, at least while he was alive, completely private. Scholarly arguments abound about just how private Pepys’s expected his writings to ultimately be, and yet Gyford’s neat conceit aside, the historical diarist was not hitting “Post” after each one of his entries. Hewing to a more traditional interpretation of Pepys that sees him as a man of the late, late Renaissance, content to exist in wonder and curiosity, his editor Richard La Gallienne claimed that for Pepys’s “It is not so much himself that interests him, more merely the things that happen to himself, but the people about him and the things that are happening to everybody, all the time, to his nation as well as to his acquaintance.” Schamess’s and Gyford’s arguments about “social media Pepys” would be anachronistic coming from Pepys’s editor, a man old enough to have had an affair with Oscar Wilde, but perhaps La Gallienne would have concurred with them had he known what the internet was. Regardless, even in La Gallienne’s reading of the man’s character, there is something undeniable modern (or post-modern) in his vociferous appetites, his manner of absorbing, repackaging, and projecting his experience. In Pepys’s diary, there is an equivalence between his mind and the world, and what could be more contemporary than that, whether on paper or in 140-characters?
Written in a code-like short-hand developed in the 16th century, Pepys’s diary wouldn’t see publication until his writing was deciphered in the early 19th century; his previous reputation resting entirely on his role in civil government, ranging from membership in Parliament and being administrator of the Royal Navy to a position on the Tangier Council during the short years that the English governed a Moroccan colony. Pepys’s great colleague in self-introspection (or self-obsession), the Frenchman Michelle de Montaigne, may have invented the essay form more than a century earlier, but even he couldn’t match the Englishman for sheer magnificent, glorious, transcendent narcissism. The diary is what his name shall be inextricably linked with, not necessarily for the quality of the prose (though Pepys is often a fine stylist), but rather for the raw, honest, unguarded reflection on a sheer multitude of subjects ranging from politics to theater to medicine to sex. One of his 19th-century readers, the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, writes that Pepys’s style “may be ungrammatical, it may be inelegant, it may be one tissue of mistakes, but it cannot be devoid of merit.” With what seems like faint praise, Stevenson clarifies that the worthiness of Pepys lay in a style that is “indefatigably lively, telling and picturesque…[dealing] with the whole matter of a life and yet is rarely wearisome.”
At turns anxious and perverse, aroused and guilty, introspective and arrogant, horny and holy, Pepys’s diary was the most complete record of the Restoration era, and of the vagaries of a human mind in all of its splendid contradiction. Tolerant and humane, if skeptical, in his Anglicanism, Pepys was an often unconvinced enthusiast of church sermons, writing on January 19 1661: “To church in the morning, where Mr. Mills preached upon Christ’s being offered up for our sins, and there proving the equity with what justice would lay our sins upon his Son.” Yet he was also the author who was able to write of his wife discovering Pepys’s dalliance with her maid Deb Willet as “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl [with] my [hand under] her coats; and indeed I was with my [hand] in her cunny,” his indiscretions characteristically hidden in a hodgepodge of ellipses. Elsewhere he deploys a strange pidgin of English, Spanish, and French to mask his pornographic obsessions—idiosyncratic ciphers that if one can read his shorthand take most readers mere seconds to crack. That’s always been the enigma of Pepys, a man who spent so much time writing his apparently private diary, who took the most marginal of non-pains to cloak his indiscretions, and yet had the entire project bound in six volumes and categorized in his library’s bibliography with the apparent foreknowledge that it’d inevitably see posthumous publication.
Pepys is the virtual font of an age for those of us who are weirdly enmeshed in the 17th century, attracted to a melancholic era of stunning contradiction, which White and Stallybras describe as being both “classical and grotesque, both regal and foolish, high and low.” To read Pepys is to inhabit his world, and while among the great prose stylists of that century he lacks the metaphysical acumen of Donne, the philosophical flights of Thomas Browne, or the psychological insight of Robert Burton, Pepys makes up for those deficiencies by simply being there—day after day, for the better part of Restoration’s first decade. Consider the eeriness of his first-hand account of the plague which leveled London in 1665, forcing the court to rusticate themselves as the buboes spread through the capital:
This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord Have Mercy upon Us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind… that I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension.
Such a fusion of the horrific and the prosaic
conveys an immediacy that is still present three-and-a-half centuries later, a
sense of “This must have been what it was like.” Or consider his account of the
Great Fire of London from that satanic year of 1666, which remains haunting in
its specificity, the small details of tragedy illuminating the experience more
than maps and demographics ever could hope to:
Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
Hensher observes that from a “seventeenth-century perspective, everything here is a deplorable breach of literary manners: the undignified interest in inessentials, the failure to assert any kind of moral about people’s scrabbling after their possessions, and the eccentric, unpolished syntax.” And yet Pepys’s is a novelistic sensibility, apt more for Dickens or Gustave Flaubert than for his own century; an empathy that understands that there is infinitely more to be conveyed in the image of singed pigeons than the sophistries of theodicy that impose false meaning on such tragedy.
In making record of the 17th century, there is certainly something innately attractive in gravitating towards those particular dates that loom large, but what’s most evocative in Pepys are the personal details, the mundanities but which by virtue of his having recorded them now belong to the annals of eternity. On April 4th, 1663 he makes record of dinner “most neatly dressed by our own only maid,” in which Pepys and his guest feasted upon a “fricassee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content.” There are, it should be said, numerous entries of this sort. Think of it as the Restoration equivalent of an Instagrammed food picture. He’s less charitable in his theater recommendations; writing on September 29tht, 1662 that he went to the “King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” But what’s Shakespeare next to a lamprey pie?
Or Pepys harrowing reminiscence of a surgical procedure, more than two centuries before anesthesia, which removed a kidney stone the size of a tennis ball from his bladder. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine that “invasive surgery was limited in scope; lengthy operations, or ones demanding great precision, were out of the question.” Nevertheless, “A brave man—Samuel Pepys was one—might risk having a bladder stone removed surgically.” We should be thankful that the physician was the rare 17th-century doctor who saw fit to wash his hands before venturing tasks urological, for had there been for a bit more grime upon his digits when he performed surgery on Pepys’s peep and we’d never have had the diary to read. Pepys had his anatomical memento mounted as a trophy, writing March 26th, 1660 that “This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone…and did resolve while I live to keep it a festival.” Supposedly Pepys would plunk the stone into glasses of wine.
Then of course there is all of the sex in Pepys, with squeamish Victorian editors deleting whole entries where the diarist both luxuriated and punished himself over perversions both imagined and enacted. Pepys enumerated the women, from aristocrats to maids, wives and daughters of friends and colleagues, whom he fucks; women united in the status of not being his wife. Obsessed with not only his own erotic adventures, Pepys spends ample time hypocritically chastising Charles II’s own notorious appetites, while fantasizing about the monarch’s mistresses, from the actress (and “Protestant Whore”) Nell Gwynne to the aristocratic Barbara Villiers, whom Pepys claims he had a sex dream of that was “the best that ever was dreamt.” Still substantially less problematic than the entry from May 21st, 1662 in which Pepys writes that he came across Villiers’s underwear being hung out to dry in the palace at Whitehall’s privy garden, being “the finest smocks and linned petticoats…laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them.”
Cockayne writes that Pepys was “often led by his libido,” and indeed there is something disquieting about the author spending all of this time lusting after scullery maids and servants, duchesses and actresses. Critic Warren Chernaik writes in Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature that the infamously scurrilous theater of the period was “fundamentally conservative in its sexual attitudes.” Reading all of those lustily guilty passages of Pepys, and you can get a sense for the fundamentally reactionary nature of the diarist’s priapic concerns, where prurience and puritanism are twined pairs. Chernaik writes that “With nothing to rebel against, no taboos to be transgressed, blasphemy would lose its power to shock. It can be argued that society creates its rebels,” so that far from an exercise in liberation, Pepys’s orgasmic encounters were a type of prison, with nobody trapped in the neurotic cycle of release and guilt more than the author himself. Evelyn Lord in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies, writes about Pepys’s encountering, while perusing book-stalls with his wife, a lewd French volume entitled The School of Venus (infamous for its illustrations of society women purchasing prodigiously endowed dildos). Lord writes that after expressing disgust at the book, Pepys “put it back on the shelf. However, he was unable to resist it, and eventually went back and purchased it in plain binding, took it home, read it and then burned it.” One imagines that Pepys perhaps had more onanistic concerns with the book that even he wouldn’t put into record.
Denouncing The School of Venus to his wife, while later purchasing it in plain paper—was Pepys a hypocrite? Of course, he was a hypocrite. Did he feel guilt over his indiscretion? The ashes of his smut should leave little doubt that he did. Something modern in that position, the enigma of the neurotic. Pepys is our contemporary in that he dwells in a certain negative capability, a fractured ego strung as it is between the public and personal, the spectacle of accountability and the private web browser. In that manner, I see less of Twitter and Facebook in Pepys, less of the carefully manicured self-creation implied by our collective digital subterfuge, and more of a different post-modern literary genre—Samuel Pepys was the first writer of autofiction. That form, defined as it is by the presence of a narrator who is largely the same as the author but who dwells in the massive complexity of the individual, including all that is hidden (perhaps even from the author themselves). The true inheritors of Pepys’s ethos aren’t all of us clicking away on Twitter, it’s not the vulgarities of those writing status update while sitting on the toilet. Rather it’s those obsessive writers cataloging the minutia of their lives; poet Ben Lerner in 10:04, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Teju Cole’s Open City, and especially the Norwegian completist Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume My Struggle.
In that 3,600-page door-stopper, Knausgård contemplates both his conflicted relationship with his father, and the breakfasts he prepares for his children—with as much detail as Pepys once did. Knausgård writes of days that were “jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when ever opportunity filled me to the brim.” The task of My Struggle was for Knausgård to write deliberately and simply, to dwell in the prosaicness of detail. By comparison, Hensher describes the minutia of Pepys’s diary as being such that most of its entries couldn’t be “considered important in any obvious way; each has the quality, instead, of being interesting, which is much stranger and harder to achieve. We know about the socially aspiring dish of tripe and the randy morning because the man wrote it down.” That is the cracked wisdom shared by both Knausgård and Pepys, the understanding that we don’t write about things because they’re important, but rather things become important because we write about them. Jonathon Sturgeon claims in Flavorwire that the best description of the autofictional novel is a book where “the oeuvre is the soul. The artist’s body of work…has come to replace the religious ideal of the immortal spirit.” If that’s true, I’d venture that Pepys’s profane, grubby, earthy, secular diary is the first autofictional novel, in all of its over-determined detail, with all of its insignificant meanings, and especially with all of its contradictions of spirit, so very human in their deployment.
Writing of Pepys shortly after the diary had been rediscovered and published in the 19th century, Stevenson provided gloss for Pepys’s protean character: “We all, whether we write or speak, must somewhat drape ourselves when we address our fellows; at a given moment we apprehend our character and acts by some particular side; we are merry with one, grave with another, as befits the nature of demands of the relation.” Such a mercurial nature is our common birthright, and in the sloppy, imperfect, anomalous medium of a diary we can see a certain process made naked. A polished essay is like the woman or man dressed formally for a job interview, clothing dry-cleaned and hair perfectly coifed—the individual self-fashioned into the most presentable of versions. Diaries are how we actually are more or less all of the time—messy, confused, and impolite. Le Gallienne argues that “The record was a secret between himself and his own soul, not forgetting his God… whom he invokes on many curious occasions.” Written for the Lord and for posterity, Pepys’s diary is a record of the soul before editing and revision, which is to say a record of the soul as it actually is. No deletions, no rearrangements, no strike-throughs, but rather a manuscript as a man, all error and contradiction—and the more perfect for it.