In the world, yet not in it

Carte-de-visite of Henri-Frederic Amiel, 1870

Born in Geneva in 1821, Henri-Frédéric Amiel was a poet and philosopher who found little in the way of recognition during his lifetime, perhaps due to the introspective nature that fuelled the journal for which he posthumously found fame. Always reaching for perfection and refusing to compromise left him feeling out of step with the world, an unending conflict that led to a solitary existence ripe for reflection in the pages of his now-revered Journal Intime. The following entry was written in May of 1880 and sees him contemplating his lifelong struggle. A year later, aged 59, he died.

The Diary Entry

May 19, 1880.—Inadaptibility, due either to mysticism or stiffness, delicacy or disdain, is the misfortune or at all events the characteristic of my life. I have not been able to fit myself to anything, to content myself with anything. I have never had the quantum of illusion necessary for risking the irreparable. I have made use of the ideal itself to keep me from any kind of bondage. It was thus with marriage: only perfection would have satisfied me; and, on the other hand, I was not worthy of perfection…. So that, finding no satisfaction in things, I tried to extirpate desire, by which things enslave us. Independence has been my refuge; detachment my stronghold. I have lived the impersonal life—in the world, yet not in it, thinking much, desiring nothing. It is a state of mind which corresponds with what in women is called a broken heart; and it is in fact like it, since the characteristic common to both is despair. When one knows that one will never possess what one could have loved, and that one can be content with nothing less, one has, so to speak, left the world, one has cut the golden hair, parted with all that makes human life—that is to say, illusion—the incessant effort toward an apparently attainable end. 

Further Reading

The Journal Intime of Henri-Frédéric Amiel was originally published in 1882, translated and with an introduction by Mrs. Humphrey Ward. The second edition of the journal can be found and read at the Internet Archive. It’s a fascinating book, overflowing with thought-provoking entries that demand to be mulled over and digested slowly. Bleak at times but highly recommended.

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