A Salute to the Empty Page

Diary of John Ruskin (1819–1900), 1876–84. The Morgan Library & Museum; bequest of Helen Gill Viljoen, 1974
As our lives become filled with an endless stream of content and commentary, what is the value of the glaringly blank page?

Handwritten diaries are full of words on paper, but they’re often full of intriguing blank spaces as well. A page unfilled can mean many things—a day so rich there was no time to write; a day so empty it seemed there was nothing worth saying. Perhaps the forward march of life simply outpaced the writer’s commitment to self-documentation. Virginia Woolf expressed this dilemma best: “Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.”

With all the powerful new ways people can document their lives on screen—in blogs, on Facebook, in Twitter feeds, in private diaries kept electronically rather than in physical notebooks—we no longer confront the blank page. Sure, a blank screen glows before us as we collect our thoughts, but once we start writing, no physical trace is left of the emptiness that came before.

As I looked through the many handwritten notebooks that made their way in The Diary exhibition, I was struck by one instance of blankness in particular: the space John Ruskin left to mark the period during which he was incapacitated by mental illness. After he recovered, he deliberately left two pages unwritten in his diary before continuing to document his life. All he wrote, on a double-page spread left otherwise dramatically empty, were the words “February to April—the dream.” (Read and hear more about Ruskin’s diary here.)

I am reminded of the extraordinary culminating scene in The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth (as King George VI) struggles to present the address of his life, his halting delivery speaking volumes about his emotional life while underscoring the gravity of the words on either side of the pauses. In between decline and health, Ruskin, too, left an eloquent pause, a physical marker of his emotional passage—an empty space for reflection and remembrance. So today I salute both John Ruskin and Colin Firth (an unlikely pair, perhaps!), for reminding us of the power of the void. The empty page in the diary is equivalent to the moment of silence, which can sometimes resonate just as loudly as the best-chosen words.

Christine Nelson is the curator of The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.

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