“All educationalists taught that reading was to be carried out pen in hand, ready to note in the margin metaphors, similes, exempla, sententiae, apophthegms, proverbs, or any other transportable units of literary composition. These were then to be copied out into one or more notebooks, divided either alphabetically or by topics, and to be reused in one’s own writing.”
Brian Vickers refers to the Renaissance humanists for whom reading and writing, learning and living, were joined in a dance of delight. He might also be glossing the dimming promise of digital culture (Vickers speaks of “notebook culture”), in particular the blogosphere. Many have likened blogs to the commonplace book, but the internet turns a blog into one page in an infinitely interleaved library of commonplace books. The passage above, for instance, comes from Vickers’ introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Major Works by Francis Bacon. The interested reader can go here to read the rest of it, including these subsequent sentences:
“The Renaissance was fundamentally a notebook culture, its greatest literary productions displaying what has been called a stile a mosaico. Many passages in Montaigne or Rabelais, Bacon or Burton, Chapman or Webster, are tissues of quotations held together by a thin thread of argument. Modern readers must learn to see quotations as simultaneously foreign, the result of an individual author’s reading, and yet an integral part of the text, having been appropriated for and indeed by it.”
Modern readers, at least seasoned modern readers, have already learned this by way of literary modernism and its legacies. What are the poems of Eliot and Moore but “tissues of quotations,” with or without “argument,” thin or otherwise? Think of Joyce, Pound, David Jones, Benjamin, Beckett, Bunting, Zukofsky, Davenport, Hill – formidably learned men who weave their reading through their writing, not always successfully or modestly but often with pleasure-giving resonance. In “Of Studies,” Bacon writes:
“Reading maketh a full man; conference [“consultation”] a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer [“consult”] little, he had need have a present wit [“quick, alert mind”]; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty [“Ingenious, full of ideas”]; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave [“serious, weighty”]; logic and rhetoric able to contend. `Abeunt studia in mores’ [`Studies affect our behaviour’: Ovid, Heroides, xv. 83; Promus, no. 1121.’] (glosses by Vickers)
Such confidence in human potential is breathtaking, and the opportunity to fulfill such potential has never been more convenient. Anyone with an internet connection can sit at the same table as the Renaissance humanists. Reading and learning have never been so collegial.
In preparation for writing an essay on Louis Zukofsky I’ve been slowly rereading the books of his I own – A, Complete Short Poetry, Collected Fiction and Bottom: On Shakespeare. In the final volume Zukofsky devotes pages 143-161 of the University of California Press edition to “tissues of quotations [from Bacon] held together by a thin thread of argument.” The entire book is like that, a modernist re-embodiment of the Renaissance ideal. I read the Bacon section Friday morning and was pleased to see Zukofsky had quoted the passage from Bacon’s “Of Beauty” I had cited in Friday’s post:
“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”