To Love And To Work

Revelations: Diaries of Women edited by Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter Random House; $10.00, 404 pp.

Why do women keep diaries?...Dissatisfaction with the way love and work have been defined for the female is the unconscious impulse that prompts many to pour out their feelings on paper and to acquire the habit of personal accounting on some more or less regular basis. --from the Foreword to Revelations

WHY DO women keep diaries? Listen to a shrink. Better yet listen to two. When asked what a normal person should be able to do, Freud answered "to love and to work." When asked about the relation of woman's mental health to her productive activity, Otto Rank replied that "when the neurotic woman gets cured she becomes a woman. When the neurotic man gets cured he becomes an artist." Many women's diaries were born of the madness of the double standard so preciously summarized in these musings.

Often, the diary proves the only haven for the "person" whose human status is abrogated by her absence of maleness. Denied expression in self-defining work (as in Rank's man-as-artist equation), woman is excluded from participation in half of Freud's definition for normal human existence. She is left in the inert limbo of existence as gender. Although women and men are both possessors of particular sexes and participants in human existence, a woman is defined in terms of her possession of a sex ("woman"), while a man is defined in terms of his human status ("artist"). With a psychological frame-up like that, it's easy to see why women turn to paper and ink for human companionship.

It is a remarkably little observed fact that women have been people as long as they have been women. Yet these conflicting demands have shaped women's fates as long as men have tried to determine them. The energy women have summoned in an attempt to integrate the human and the female within the bizarre distortions of male-invented roles has been awesome; and it has been as little-heralded as the conflicting conditions which gave it birth. Revelations begins a tribute to that awesome energy.

The genre of the diary is a particularly revealing record of woman's struggle for coherent self-definition. The diary is traditionally the ultimately personal, direct model of expression. Surely Revelations derives a measure of its power from the personal intensity of the diarists' experience. But it was the insight of editors Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter to recognize that much of woman's personal experience is often universal and always political, a recognition which gives the collection its over-riding force. "For all the differences in their individual temperaments, social circumstances, and historical periods," write the editors, "the...diarists sound as if they were in conversation with each other, asking the same question, 'Who shall I be?' in relationship to love and work."

The editors' organization of entries into sections entitled Love, Work, and Power provides for powerful articulation of this generic reality. The Love section deals with the contradictions inherent in the male vision of woman in terms of her function for others. This reduction goes to the extent of suggesting that love, whose essence is response to and support of another, is woman's "work," a concept of a fundamentally different order. However much sacrifice and abnegation involved, work has for the male remained a willful manipulation of ideas and material in the external world. The entries in the Power section are testimony to the perspectives of women who were able to attain sufficient distance from male distortions to examine life from a human perspective. Each section is an enlightening approach to the ever elusive "self," whose pursuit has fascinated the keepers of journals.

AND FASCINATED with good cause. Especially in the Love section, the diary entries form a vibrant and terrifying portrait of society's near overwhelming threats to a woman's right to her own self. With devastating poignancy, the women of Revelations describe the heavy-handed social negation of woman's right to authentic expression of independent personality, of her right to growth through personally challenging work, and even of her right to direct participation in the forces in her life. For Anais Nin, the diary itself proved her only haven of authenticity: "Playing so many roles, dutiful daughter, devoted sister, mistress, protector, my father's new found illusion, Henry's needed all-purpose friend, I had to find one place of truth, one dialogue without falsity. This is the role of the diary."

The search for an authentic self is deflected in many ways. One of the saddest stumbling blocks to self-definition is the needless and wasteful alienation of values presented to the 15-year-old Nelly Ptashkina. She writes:

In the plans of my future life, which does not seem to be cast on feminine lines, there should apparently be no place for love and such like tender and sentimental things, but it is not so at all.

I have written more than once that in my nature there lives a tendency toward that 'other' world. And with all my longing for social work and public activity, it hurts me to part from the beauty of life and the thought of love.

Society's message to this adolescent female seemed horribly clear: a woman could be a worker or a lover, but could neither be both, nor be satisfied with either. For Ptashkina at least, the choice got easier when reduced to essentials. Love being what it is, pure gambler's odds for survival put it out of contention. "I shall arrange it, so as not to depend on love...I shall live," she writes. Love lost out to survival for Hannah Senesch, too, when to love meant "to disrupt my plans, give up my independence."

The fears of these young diarists were hardly unjustified. Sophie Tolstoy chose love. And marriage and kids and everything else. Her diaries record a carnage of the human soul that will inspire the staunchest to nausea and terror.

Early in her marriage, Tolstoy began the hellish experience of life as an intelligent woman trapped in the stupidities of a sexist society. She could neither obliterate nor accept her insistently complex self.

I sometimes want to break loose from his somewhat somber influence, to ignore it--but I can't. His influence is depressing because I begin to think in his way, to see things with his eyes and I am afraid of losing my own self and yet not becoming like him.

Drifting without an identity of her own, Tolstoy fell prey to the nemesis of sexist marriage. The holy imperative to devote one's soul to another human being whose primary devotion is to work brought possessiveness, analysis, self-reproach and despair. As if this weren't enough, Tolstoy's perceptiveness forced her to see the vicious source of the entire fiasco--woman's exclusion from meaningful work.