As the year 2000 approached, literary critic Frank Kermode, author of The Sense of an Ending (1966) wrote a new epilogue to his book. He returned to the idea “that within human time one can distinguish between the chronos of mere successiveness and the kairos of high days and holidays, times or seasons that stand out (red-letter days, as one used to say) as belonging to a different temporal order” (192).
The texture of every diary is woven from the warp and woof of these contrary experiences of time—the ordinary passage of minutes, hours, days, and weeks (“humanly uninteresting successiveness” ) on one hand, and exceptional “crises, kairoi, decisive moments” (49) on the other.
In his millennial epilogue Kermode clarifies that the root meaning of kairos is “season,” which implies that some (though not all) distinctive moments that sharply stand out from everyday routine can be predicted and anticipated: “Birthdays, anniversaries, saint’s days [are] distinguished from all other days” (192), a practice commonly followed when marking entries a diary. Even a unique, once-in-a-lifetime event or deed—whether celebratory or horrific—can be commemorated for years afterward by the diary keeper. (In a thankful spirit Samuel Pepys rarely failed to note the anniversary of the day on which he successfully underwent surgery to remove a bladder stone.)
“When we celebrate these transitional moments,” Kermode explains, we recognize how they “punctuate and measure our time and our lives. For to make sense of our lives from where we are, as it were, stranded in the middle, we need fictions of beginnings and fictions of ends, fictions which unite beginning and end and endow the interval between them with meaning” (190).
Though he was writing about Biblical and fictional plots, Kermode helps us view the “middleness” of the diary in a new light. Alternating between chronos and kairos, the diary makes room for recording both everyday activities and life-changing events. The cyclical nature of clock-time and calendars means that we regularly come back around to the same point in the cycle, and can seize the chance—suggested especially at the turn of a year—to reflect on what has changed since last time.
That spiral of time embedded in a journal may seem to run perpetually, with no beginning or end other than the intervals we choose to mark out and commemorate. But if we acknowledge that the form of the diary reflects a deeply human state of being, “stranded in the middle” of time, we write out of a keener sense that there was a time before our birth and the world will continue after our life’s end.