commonplace book

D. S. Carne-Ross, from “Center of Resistance,” in Instaurations:

We cannot “go back” to the past. We may  nonetheless have to learn from its forms. What prevents us from doing so and makes the very idea seem distasteful and ridiculous is our way of thinking of the past as the used up and done with. We badly need, if we are to face the future with confidence, a new sense of the past. We might find it in German theology which likes to distinguish between to kinds of past; Heidegger has taken over this distinction and made it powerful. There is the past that really is over and done with, the Vergangenheit or passed, and can at most be reconstructed as an object of study. (This is the region the academy has claimed as its own.) There is also the past which Heidegger calls the Gewesenheit, the past that has been and still is (“ist gewesen”) and can enter fully into our lives. This past—we may think of it as a field of possibilities—does not lie inertly behind us. It stretches out ahead of us. It may be where we are going: if we choose to go in that direction.

Literature matters, more now than ever before, because it bears witness to something no longer found anywhere else, to what Pound calls “a lost kind of experience,” the letter that has silently fallen out of a line of type; because it points, with an evidence we cannot altogether to deny, to something that is missing, a gap or hole at the center of things. Literature matters because, housing the living past as nothing else (except language) can, it remembers and keeps reminding us, at a time when everything else tells us to forget and be content with what we have, that we are living without something that humankind has always had. Literature matters because it teaches us to resist society’s insistence that its reality holds the sum of all things possible. But it can do none of these things unless we devise stronger ways of reading. Reading that makes greater demands on the texts, and allows the texts to make greater demands on us.

Ivan Illich, in David Cayley’s Rivers North of the Future:

The possibility of meeting at the home of one of the hosts of Socrates has been weakened in our time; and for this reason the creation of a threshold, and the exercise of power to bring someone over it, must acquire an entirely new significance. Some people speak about a new monasticism. I reject this, just as I reject the idea that a return to the true spirit of the university is possible. I think I’ve taken another road—to a place where fools can gather.

Stanley Cavell, Senses of Walden:

The writer has secrets to tell which can only be told to strangers. The secrets are not his, and they are not the confidences of others. They are secrets because few are anxious to know them; all but one or two wish to remain foreign. Only those who recognize themselves as strangers can be told them, because those who think themselves familiars think they have already heard what the writer is saying. They will not understand his speaking in confidence.

A word has meaning against the context of a sentence. A sentence has meaning against the context of a language. A language has meaning against the context of a form of life. A form of life has meaning against the context of a world. A world has meaning against the context of a word.

Thoreau, Walden:

It is well to have some water in your neighbourhood, to give buoyancy to and float the earth. One value even if the smallest well is, that when you look into it you see that the earth is not continent but insular. This is as important as that it keeps butter cool.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.

Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning:

If one works out the thoughts, the perceptions that press upon him with the demand for completion, as they lead to one another, in time the actual themes of his philosophy may have a chance to define themselves. Such a philosophy will not be set up like the solution of a puzzle, worked out with all the pieces lying there before the eyes. It will be more like the clarification of what we know in our bones.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time:

Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial “sources” from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand.

Paul Valéry, Mon Faust:

Whatever is not ineffable has no importance.

Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West:

…depth is a representation of expression, of Nature, and with it begins the “world.”

Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”:

With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past. It could be that only now will the past open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear. But it cannot be denied that without a securely anchored traditionand the loss of this security occurred several hundred years agothe whole dimension of the past has also been endangered. We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lostwould mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.

Guy Davenport, Geography of the Imagination:

Knowledge to [Charles] Olson was a compassionate acquisition, an act of faith and sympathy. He meant primarily that knowledge is the harvest of attention, and he fumed in great rages that the hucksters prey on our attention like a plague of ticks. In his first thoroughly Olsonian poem, “The Kingfishers,” a canzone that divides decisively modern from postmodern poetry, the theme states that when our attentions change, our culture changes. He uses the firm example of the Mayan cultures, overgrown with jungles. The Mayan shift in attention was culturally determined: every fifty-two years they abandoned whole cities in which the temples were oriented toward the planet Venus, which edges its rising and setting around the ecliptic. The new city was literally a new way to look at a star (this is one meaning of “polis is eyes”).

There is history (Waterloo, Guadalcanal) and there is the history of attention (Rousseau, Darwin). The kind of knowledge that shifts our attention was Olson’s kind of knowledge. He was interested in the past because it gives us a set of contrasts by which to measure events and qualities.

Guy Davenport, Geography of the Imagination:

When Heraclitus said that everything passes steadily along, he was not inciting us to make the best of the moment, an idea unseemly to his placid mind, but to pay attention to the pace of things. Each has its own rhythm: the nap of a dog, the procession of the equinoxes, the dances of Lydia, the majestically slow beat of the drums at Dodona, the swift runners at Olympia.

Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations:

We sometimes go on as though people can’t express themselves. In fact they’re always expressing themselves. The sorriest couples are those where the woman can’t be preoccupied or tired without the man saying “What’s wrong? Say something…,” or the man, without the woman saying … and so on. Radio and television have spread this spirit everywhere, and we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. What we’re plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements.

Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics:

Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.

William James, in a letter to the wife of Henry Whitman dated June 7, 1899:

As for me, my bed is made: I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost: against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.

Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850):

Nor will it at all do to say, that the world is getting grey and grizzled now, and has lost that fresh charm which she wore of old, and by virtue of which the great poets of past times made themselves what we esteem them to be. Not so. The world is as young today, as when it was created; and this Vermont morning dew is as wet to my feet, as Eden’s dew to Adam’s. Nor has Nature been all over ransacked by our progenitors, so that no new charms and mysteries remain for this latter generation to find. Far from it. The trillionth part has not yet been said; and all that has been said, but multiplies the avenues to what remains to be said.

Melville, in a letter to Evert Duyckinck dated March 3, 1849:

I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down the stairs five miles or more; and if he don’t attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plummit that will. I’m not talking about Mr. Emerson now, but of the whole corps of thought-divers that have been diving and coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.