Journal of a Disappointed Man

Another diarist who died young. ‘W.N.P. Barbellion’ (1889-1919), whose real name was Bruce Frederick Cummings, published his diary under the title The Journal of a Disappointed Man in 1919, a few months before his death arising out of multiple sclerosis. The diary – philosophical, observant, raw – is considered a minor classic.

There is a Barbellionblog which reproduces Barbellion’s text in blog format. The diaries covers the period 1903-1917 and have a few references to cinema. On 15 March 1915 he makes the intriguing observation: “I felt the same sardonic humour as a cinema film provokes, showing you, say, the Houses of Parliament with a ‘fade-through’ of Guy Fawkes in the cellars underneath.”

But the most notable reference is that for 18 August 1907, when he was eighteen:

When I feel ill, cinema pictures of the circumstances of my death flit across my mind’s eye. I cannot prevent them. I consider the nature of the disease and all I said before I died — something heroic, of course!

This may be adolescent morbidity, but it is a haunting transference of the fear of death to the screen, suggesting how the idea of cinema played upon the imagination of the audience. It may also be an intriguing variation on the idea of life passing before your eyes at the point of death.

3 responses

  1. As if in counterpoint, the other reference I can find is to cinematic preservation:

    The cinema is going to keep alive the persons and events of the present generation within the most sluggish imaginations of the next — for the benefit of those who perhaps don’t read history or visit Museums. This need not mean the gradual atrophy of the imagination as some Solomon Eagles portend — to discuss which would mean a digression. In any case, I fancy the most lively imagination would scarcely ignore the opportunity of seeing Dr. Johnson, let us say, walk down Fleet Street tapping each lamp-post with his stick, if an authentic film of him were in existence, or of listening to a gramophone record of Rachel or Edmund Burke.

  2. This passage does not come from his Journal but from a 1916 essay, ‘The Passion for Perpetuation’. It considers the human need for conservation, and the ultimate futility of this urge. Not surprising sentiments perhaps from someone facing oblivion himself (while all the while commemorating his thoughts in a diary which he was to see published within his lifetime). Sad to see the old slur that cinema was something to appeal to the meaner intelligence, though he does at the same time note cinema’s appeal to the lively imagination. Of course, the cinema has not kept alive many of the persons and events of his time – because we (thinking the medium to be suitable only for those meaner intelligences) let too many examples deteriorate or be thrown away.

  3. Sad also to reflect that the cinema which seemed so self-evidently universally accessible to Barbellion would in fact come to be viewed almost exclusively by the sort of people who do “read history or visit Museums.” Of course such temporal near-sightedness continues to plague us — it’s astonishing how many people believe web publications or DVD pressings will somehow by definition be forever at our fingertips….

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