Monday, June 13, 2005

Blogs not as original as we might think

I've always planned to use my blog somewhat like the 19th Century Victorians (and some 20th Century holdovers like Alec Guiness)used "commonplace books". So, i will be posting more stuff regularly in this spirit. Here's a bit more explanation from the introduction to my annual solstice book (which many of you will have already read):

Gathered from my journals, my database of quotes, my archive of stories, my palmpilot notepad, my internet bookmarks and the countless handwritten notes that I am perpetually jotting down in the books that I read I have composed this selection for you. I might have called it a scrapbook of sorts until recently. But I have only just learned that something that i have been doing quite unselfconsciously for over 25 years is, actually, an ancient practice with a long and venerable history. Once again I am reminded that there is little new under the sun and we do well to remember in our 21st Century so so post-modern pride that humans have been solving the same problems for millennia. It is not because we do things first that we should be pleased with our accomplishments – this is merely one of the lies of the modern myth of progress. But I digress…

I've never considered my habit of collecting quotes and poems and aphorisms and so on as more than a curiosity of my nature - i've always suspected that this collecting habit is a thinly-disguised and carefully managed neurosis. It may well be so. But i have now learned that this type of collecting has been practiced since at least the days of the Greek and Roman civilizations. People - well, men, it would seem - kept a type of a journal - called hupomnemata, meaning “record of remembrances” – in which they recorded things that they deemed worth remembering. A curious practice perhaps, but what really fascinates me about this is why they did this. The French philosopher Michel Foucault explains it as a practice that people engaged in in order to develop better selves. (This Graeco-Roman practice gave rise to a later Christian monastic practice of writing to expose one’s inner self to scrutiny and both these practices are linked to letter-writing all of which are part of the history that our modern practices of writing emerge from.)

So all this writing was a way of ‘living in the open’ - exposing your process of self-reflection in order to test your ‘self’ against the perceptions of others. And I can’t help but compare this ancient practice to the more modern practices of ‘zines and blogs, both of which are used by people to share with others their thoughts and doubts and opinions and interests (and obsessions) and more. ‘Zines and blogs are only the latest means by which some people have chosen to practice ‘living in the open’. Ahhh… but in-between the ancient practice of hupomnemata and the modern ‘zine and blog was a brief flourishing of a nineteenth century Victorian practice of keeping a book of remembered items – the commonplace book. And so I come circuitously to my inspiration for this sort-of commonplace book that you hold now - my modest attempt at living in the open. More than a journal, more than a collection of quotes, this is a collection meant simultaneously to amuse, delight, reveal (though more often in the way riddles reveal) and, hopefully, provoke interest. But there is one more important inspiration to note.

Before learning of the male-dominated practice of hupomnemata I had already learned of an 11th Century literary wonder written by a Japanese woman. A lady-in-waiting in the court of Empress Sadako, Sei Shonagan, kept a personal journal that she filled with a wide range of observations and lists and poems known as The Pillow Book. I learned of this ancient wonder from my friend Nicole who was inspired by it to write a series of poems for which i designed and published a chapbook called Some of the Love. Amongst the 326 entries are included such things as: These Are the Months, Different Ways of Speaking, Things That Give a Pleasant Feeling, Things Not Worth Doing, Things That Make One Sorry.

So here's an odd collection of things: lists and riddles and stories and poems and more. Some will amuse, some will puzzle, i hope some will delight. I don’t know what to call this strange thing – an homage to The Pillow Book, the Commonplace Book, hupomnemata, scrapbooks and so on.

No comments: