Summer 2008

Four Leaves from a Commonplace Book

Cut and paste

D. Graham Burnett

Reading is perhaps best understood as a peculiar form of writing, and vice versa. Renaissance thinkers took this paradox very seriously, giving it concrete form in their “commonplace books,” manuscript journals of passages copied from assorted texts and organized under various headings. The origins of the practice lay in the preparatory methods of classical oratory and medieval sermon composition, but commonplacing achieved the status of a true art among humanists like Erasmus and Montaigne, who used these notebooks to maintain command over an ever-expanding body of published texts, while culling material for their own correspondence and literary compositions. Never merely a means to those ends, the well-wrought commonplace book—an elaborately configured bibliographical collage, capable of making new meanings out of juxtaposition and excision—eventually became a way of thinking about thinking itself. What started as an aide-mémoire began to look like a theory of mind.

For the apotheosis of this tradition, consider the 
illustration here, which shows an arca studiorum or scrinium literatum, a “literary chest”of commonplaces, penned on cards and impaled on subject-heading hooks (this one hails from Vincent Placcius’s De arte excerpendi vom gelahrten Buchhalten liber singularis of 1689). These devices—mobile, expandable, easily rearranged, and cross-referenced—were the cognitive prosthetics of the early modern period.

Following are excerpts from a project by D. Graham Burnett, who has worked for several years on a set of departures from the tradition of the commonplace book.

Courtesy The Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. Thanks to Ann Blair, Department of History, Harvard University.

“Homo ‘sapiens’ regards Homo faber through the frosted casement and decides, ‘I am like a smith who must forge his own tools.’ But this is not quite right. Up in his freshly painted room with its Delft-tiled stove, guarded by his faithful hounds, bolstered on plump and downy pillows, dreaming now and again of the inside of exotic fruits (the Lee-Chee, the Passion-Melon, the tiny Star-Berry brought from Banda), this philosopher does not need any tools.”

—Anacharsis, a worker, 

Callused Tradition, or The Repair of Self-Made Men, 1849

“The tree house, I can assure you, had windows made of 
hardened sap.”

—Fabrizio Delmano,
A Tour of the Apricot Stone
, 1873

“If we put the problem of aseity on too long a leash, we will discover very quickly that the creature we intended to exercise has made itself filthy chasing bullfrogs in the wet rushes and digging termite nests in an old stump. On a short leash, however, or, indeed, kept gnawing at a salty bone beside a good fire, a more stalwart defender cannot be imagined.”

—Arthur Smith,
Hounds and Heaven: Metaphysics in the Kennel, 1905

“When you pull on the two strings, the little castle will build itself, complete with an orchard in the courtyard.”

—Refugio Soltero-Cane,

Iron Bellows, Paper Forge, 1922

“The region abounds in a marble having very much the appearance of fatty bacon. In the chapel an aged curé showed me the local wonder, a relic much venerated by the blind crones of the valley—it consists of two small cylinders of this peculiar stone, fragments of a broken column which, until the great earthquake, supported an unusual nielloed monstrance about the bigness of a common archery target. Snapped cleanly in two by that plutonic discharge, the pillar revealed the anatomy of a human thigh in cross section, for which reason it came to be known to its devotees as the ‘leg of Saint John Francis’ (a title which occasions lewd comments from impious sailors in the port). Taking the opportunity to examine this petrific curiosity, I was surprised to discover that the slab would do as well as Gray’s Anatomy for the student of medicine, and, to speak truly, brushed with ink it might serve to print the lithographs for that volume: fine details of the Sartorius and Gracilis muscles are clearly marked, not to mention the larger formations; indeed, a small eye-like crystalline intrusion precisely specks the locus of the Ischiadic nerve. The monstrance itself was recently stolen.”

­—Max Dash,
On Foot in Ischia, 1902

“In 1899, while still at Harvard, Frost audited Nathaniel Shaler’s theologically robust lectures on historical geology, but less than six months later, degreeless, he found himself incubating two hundred chicken eggs and endeavoring to reinvent himself as a poultry farmer.”

—Lucius Surd,

“‘To peck herself a precious stone’: Robert Frost at Amesburg,” Lot’s Wife, A Quarterly, 1969

“If by truth we mean something like equivalence (if, that is to say, truth resides in the double traits that indicate equality), then, admittedly, transubstantiation will be difficult to defend as true. However, the dialectical notion of truth-as-unconcealing—which we might symbolize with a hyphen-like vinculum, here representing the horizon line—may afford us a renewed approach to this matter.” 

—Xavier Klasi,
Heidegger and the Accidents, 1976

“They seem to see about as well as we do with our eyes closed.”
—Peter Legg et al.,
“Disruptive hatching behaviors and retinal asymmetries in domestic chicks (Gallus gallus),” Developmental 
Psychobiology, 1987

“Logic may indeed oblige us to reject even the happiest general law in the face of a single counter instance, and this may permit some sifting among the true lunatics and the merely misunderstood—now mixed willy-nilly in our funny farms. Even so, it should never be forgotten that the fateful Black Swan must be carted from terra australis to save induction, and unlike the Mute Swan, which is white, Cygnus atratus has a sharp, hissing call.”
—Nat VonGriff,
Falsification among Organized Birdwatchers, 1959

“Be cautious concerning your selection of mnemonics, since they become in time both chapter breaks and titles.”

—Cullen Stroke,
Shorthand for All Seasons, 1923

“Example: While a motion ‘to place on the ponds in the public parks swan boats’ stands pending, along with an amendment ‘to add the words equipped with roller skates,’ Mr. X moves to amend the amendment by striking out roller and inserting ice. Here the question of priority hinges on the chairman’s judgment concerning the residual effect of the superseded word or phrase.”

—Isabel and Henry H. Robert,
A Parliamentary Practicum, 1902

“This is why everyone agrees that only a speaking being can ever be free.”

—Dr. Labalee Black,
Mutatis Mutandis: Cures for the Glossopetric, 1896

“For about the year 1686, a poet of rather ominous name (and who, by the bye, did ample justice to his name), viz. Mr. Flatman, in speaking of the death of Charles II expresses his surprise that any prince should commit so absurd an act as dying; because, says he,

‘Kings should disdain to die, and only disappear.’”
—Thomas De Quincey,
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1821

“It was in 1622 that the aptly apellated Gerard Malynes (jurist, alchemist, and assayer of the mint under James I—and in this last capacity by no means the equal of our sublime patron), in the course of elaborating his metaphysical allegory of free trade (wherein commodities were likened to the ‘Bodie of Trafficke,’ money to the ‘Soule of Trafficke,’ and bills of exchange, somewhat deceptively, to the ‘Spirit or Faculty of the Soule 
of Trafficke’), first adverted to the power of the passage from the solid to the gaseous state that concerns us here, writing:

‘and there remaineth a Paste in divers Balles, called the Almond Paste, which by a limbecke receiving fire, causeth the Quickesilver to Subleme, and falling downe the neck into the water, which is in the receiver stopped close, taketh his bodie again.’”
—Michael Faraday,

Three Lectures on the Chemical History of a Candle, 1859

“The question of whether the miniaturist Thomas Flatman (who died in Three Leg Alley on December 8, 1688) actually painted a portrait of Father Huddleston sometime after his notorious bedside ministrations to Charles II (whereby that monarch reigned more papistarum for a matter of minutes over England and Scotland) would seem, then, impossible to resolve with certainty; nevertheless, this thin-man’s appetite for such a commission, and his likely attitude toward the toothless Benedictine who presented the Merry Monarch with the protesting liberty of Englishmen to devour as his viaticum, are together made clear enough in Flatman’s supine verses ‘On the Much Lamented Death of Our Late Sovereign Lord King Charles II, of Blessed Memory, a Pindarique Ode,’ a pandering toward the posthumous which has elicited spasmodic pandiculation in a dozen generations of ultramontane schoolboys:

‘But Princes (like the wondrous Enoch) should be free 

From Death’s Unbounded Tyranny,

And when their Godlike Race is run,

And nothing glorious left undone,

Never submit to fate, but only disappear.’”

—Vatticus Wesley,
The Mirror of Satan, 1879

D. Graham Burnett is a historian of science at Princeton University, and the author of four books, most recently Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case that put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature (Princeton University Press, 2007), which won the 2008 New York City Book Award. This fall, he and Jeff Dolven will be teaching a graduate seminar on the practice of criticism in the arts titled “Critique and Its Discontents” for Princeton University’s Council of the Humanities.

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