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Acta Diurna

Literature has always been an escape for me; and always an escape away from one thing, and that thing is myself.

– Karl Ove Knausgård

What is it that drives man to write? Personally, I’m convinced that there is no universal answer to that question. I think everyone who has ever put pen to paper has had their own reason for doing so. But I also believe that there are patterns; patterns that occur again and again, and slowly but surely erode the story as water erodes the bedrock.

It is conceivable that one of these is something as base as outlet. Or expression, if you will. Here the art of writing shares a lot with the visual arts; it is difficult to imagine that the first humans in the Stone Age could have begun to slash line drawings in cave walls because they wanted to create art. They probably didn’t know what art is, and probably didn’t have any bigger ideas about that. Chances are greater that they sought an outlet. Maybe they simply had an urge to document their daily activities, or to document their hunting exploits. If the latter, one might think that what they were doing was a form of art. Documentational, self-referential art, admittedly, but still.

Another pattern that seems to repeat itself is escape. Escape from reality, escape from oneself, escape from others. Could it be that Stone Age people, the very first to put pen to paper (or stone to cave wall, to be more precise), did what they did simply because they needed a hobby? In other words, a sort escape from their harsh lifestyle? They most likely didn’t try inviting people to escapism, given the fact that most cave paintings seem to consist of documentation of the battle between man and animals out on the hunting fields.

Acta Diurna
Acta Diurna

Then there’s philosophy. This is probably one of the oldest patterns. Ever since humans developed the ability to think big thoughts, there’s been a need to store them somewhere. Oral delivery is fine, but it’s sort of more precise and timeless when you get to write stuff down. René Descartes came to the conclusion that “I think, therefore I am.” This has been a fundamental element in all of Western philosophy; had it been so if not Descartes had been able to formulate the sentence on paper in his Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire said raison, a chercher la vérité dans les sciences? Hardly. And if that were the case, we certainly wouldn’t be aware that it was precisely Descartes who came to the simple but brilliant insight.

Documentation is also among the oldest patterns. This pattern has much in common with the first, outlet. But there is a significant difference; Documentation is about something that has happened or is happening here and now. One of the most famous literary examples of documentation is the Bible – the world’s best-selling book. The men – for some reason or another there were only men – who wrote what would eventually become the Bible, probably felt that they got an outlet for some form or another of creativity as they wrote. But the main purpose was apparently another: to document what they had seen or heard while they lived their lives in the Ancient Middle East. Little did they suspect that they were to end up being the authors of the best selling book in history, but I’m guessing they would have been happy with the result if they could have experienced it nearly two centuries on.

Dissemination of information is another ancient pattern. Ancient Rome had its Acta Diurna, which were placed in public places and contained information about ongoing litigation, the outcome of litigation, later also prominent deaths, marriages and births. Today we have newspapers and journals – many of which have still acta in their names. This produces a fundamental question; what is most important – information itself, or the act of spreading it?

Even in ancient Rome, philosopher and historian Cicero complained that Acta Diurna favored gossip about gladiators rather than real news. The question is relevant today, even though we may have found some kind of solution; division of tabloid magazines and “serious” newspapers. Perhaps writing about sensational or superficial things isn’t neccessarily all about reaching out to as many as possible, but boils down to joy or interest of sensations? Professor Mitchell Stephens, author of the book A History of News, writes:

I have never found a time when there was not a form for the exchange of news that included sensationalism – and this goes back to anthropological accounts of preliterate societies, when news raced up and down the beach that a man had fallen into a rain barrel while trying to visit his lover.

If that’s the case, sensational news become popular in their own right, because they contain a greater intrinsic value. This means that all of a sudden the motivation of those documenting the news no longer matter all that much.

Anyway; it’s impossible to ignore the fact that some people prefer sensations and superficial information, while others prefer information about the society they live in and in-depth information. It isn’t impossible that this difference also affects those who deliver the news.

That’s why the next time you sit down to write, you ought to spend a minute or two thinking about why.

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