Sunday, November 4, 2012

My Little Purple Notebook

I would like to admit to a rather odd practice of mine. I often wonder if other people do anything like it.

I have a little purple notebook, which I sometimes carry in my pocket. I acquired this particular notebook a few months ago, but it has progenitors of one kind or another going back to my teens.

If it fell out of my pocket and somebody discovered it, I can't imagine what he or she would make of it. This is the first few entries (with names omitted):

The Greek philosophy lecture with Dr. W---- D-----.

N---'s star-sign book.

Tea in Charlotte airport.

Reading Hollywood vs. America for the first time.

Reading Yeats and Von Hugel book in Richmond Airport.

221B Baker Street board game.

Well, I think they would probably throw it away. Either that or decide there was some elaborate code hidden within it and spend nights of black-coffee-fuelled study trying to crack it.

But there's no code. My little purple notebook simply exists to remind me of precious moments in my life, moments charged with inspiration and wonder and even a kind of ecstasy. The very memories of these moments fill me with a new zest. They swell the sails of my spirit.

It is very difficult to explain this properly. They are not (for the most part) the happiest moments in conventional terms. Some of them could hardly be described as moments at all, since they don't refer to anything that actualy happened. If I use the term "revelations", the reader should understand I don't mean it in a mystical or religious sense.

But I think everybody has probably had these moments.

Dear Reader, do you recognise this phenomenon at all? You are going about your everyday life, perhaps listening to the radio while chopping mushrooms, or sitting on a bus gazing out into the misty morning, or looking at the shelves of a toy shop. And then suddenly-- it happens. For no obvious reason-- or for no reason that seems adequate-- your spirit is filled with a kind of quiet ecstasy. Your soul breaks its banks. The world, in that moment, seems to glow. It appears to you as almost unbearably full of delight and promise. More than anything else, there is a sense of giddy abundance, of utter profusion.

Such moments are always unexpected. They come when they come. They can be absent from the happiest moments of your life. In fact, it is unlikely they would accompany the happiest moments of your life, since those moments are so self-conscious and (often) so eagerly anticipated, and this sudden transport invariably comes out of the blue. Opening the letter that tells you that you've got your dream job, holding your newly-born child, meeting your hero, kissing the love of your life for the first time-- these may be genuinely the happiest moments of your life, but they are unlikely to be this kind of happiness.

And furthermore, though it seems strange for me to say this given my description, sometimes you are not even aware of these moments at the time they occur. They seem to develop like photographs in the dark room of your memory.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about these moments, looking for echoes of them in what others have written. The moments of inspiration described by poets express it best, I have found.

This is how Philip Larkin explained the conception of a poem: "Poetry (at any rate in my case) is like trying to remember a tune you’ve forgotten. All corrections are attempts to get nearer to the forgotten tune. A poem is written because the poet gets a sudden vision-- lasting one second or less-- and he attempts to express the whole of which the vision is a part."

("One second or less" makes a lot of sense to me-- in fact these "revelations" are so instanteous that, in a strange way, they seem outside time altogether.)

This verse from Yeats, I think, also describes the sensation, though he describes the phenomenon as lasting for twenty minutes or so:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Wordsworth wrote a lot about these moments, and called them "spots of time". (They are mentioned often in his extended poem The Prelude.) This account of a conversation between him and Thomas De Quincey describes very well another aspect of these moments; that they often occur, not only unexpectedly, but in the moment of relaxation after the mind has been exerted upon something entirely different:

"At intervals, Wordsworth had stretched himself at length on the high road, applying his ear to the ground, so as to catch any sound of wheels that might be going along at a distance. Once, when he was slowly rising from this effort, his eye caught a bright star that was glittering between the brow of Seat Sandal and the mighty Helvellyn. He gazed upon it for a minute or so ; and then, upon turning away to descend into Grasmere, he made the following explanation : ' I have remarked, from my earliest days, that if, under any circumstances, the attention is perfectly raced up to a steady act of observation, or of steady expectation, then, if this intense condition of vigilance should suddenly relax, at that moment any beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection of objects, falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not known under other circumstances. Just now my ear was placed upon the stretch, in order to catch any sound of wheels that might come down upon the lake of Wythburn, from the Keswick road ; at the very instant when I raised my head from the ground, in final abandonment of hope for this night, at the very instant when the organs of attention were all at once relaxing from their tension, the bright star hanging in the air above those outlines of massy blackness fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehension, with a pathos and a sense of the Infinite, that would not have arrested me under other circumstances."

One characteristic of these moments, at least in my experience, is that, though they come out of the blue, and they can't be sought, the memory of them never loses its freshness or its galvanising effect. And the reason I jot them down in my notebook is because, in those moments, the world (in the words of the poem) seems to be "better than ever we thought it could possibly be". In those moments, it as though a film has been removed from our eyes, and we see the world with all the awe, wonder, excitement, gratitude and hunger that we should always feel.

But what kind of thing am I talking about?

It is almost impossible to describe the individual experiences-- and I do think that this particular ecstasy is inevitably private, unless you are a great poet and can make the vision manifest through your words.

That is too hard a task for me, but I will at least try to describe some of the first entries from my little purple notebook, the ones that I listed at the beginning of this post.

The Greek philosophy lecture with Dr. W---- D-----.: This is a memory from the time I was pursuing an evening degree (abandoned in my second year) in UCD. Philosophy was one of my subjects and in this particular class we were learning about Plato's Symposium. The class was small, the atmosphere was relaxed, and I was drowsy.

And then, out of the blue as always-- it hit me. I seemed to be filled with the ideal of beauty and grace and nobility that animated the ancient Athenians. Names like Socrates and Alciabiades did not seem to be references to a vanished world but present, contemporary, right there in the classroom with me. However poor and inaccurate my idea of the Athenian ideal or the teachings of Socrates might have been, the sensation was one of being "plugged in" to them.

Tea in Charlotte Airport: This is a memory from my last trip to the States-- during which I proposed to my girlfriend Michelle. Of course, I was full of carried-over excitement from that event. I was catching a connecting flight from Charlotte and, as usual, I felt a good deal of anxiety about everything going smoothly. (I always have fears, perhaps irrational, of missing my connecting flight and being stuck in a city where I don't know anybody and have nowhere to stay.) I had found my boarding gate and I was plenty of time, so I felt a wave of relief and relaxation. (Remember Wordsworth with his ear to the road.) I decided to have a cup of tea (or perhaps coffee, I can't remember), and suddenly the fact that I was all alone, in a city where I was a complete stranger, thousands of miles from my home, seemed no longer frightening but liberating and exciting. I felt terribly grown-up, alone in a foreign country, hugging my big news to myself. And the simple pleasure of cradling a hot cup of tea (or coffee), and the exciting atmosphere of the airport, all came together to fill me with a wave of exhilaration, of sheer jubilation in life.

Reading Hollywood vs. America for the first time: This is a memory from several years ago, a time when I was going through a spiritual crisis and deep depression. I was struck with a profound yearning for God. I was searching for Him, but I was stuck in my atheism.

The reality of my atheistical worldview was lying heavily upon me, and nothing seemed to matter. Not only was everything transient, but nothing even mattered in itself. There weren't even any things, so to speak. Just a chaotic flux, lumps of which we arbitrarily named people, furniture, animals, and so forth. And everybody else seemed so mindlessly cheerful about this.

In this frame of mind, I found myself reading Hollywood vs. America, a polemic by the American film critic Michael Medved (who is a conservative and a practicing Jew). The general theme is that the entertainment industry of that time (it was written in 1992) had "broken faith" with the values of Middle America and cynically attacked religion, marriage, America and traditional values in general. The book is not a masterpiece, nor do I agree with everything Medved says (I agree with most of what he says). But all of a sudden I was flooded with comfort, since-- within the mental landscape of the book-- everything I craved was treated as a reality. The existence of God, the old-fashioned ideal of family life, the expectation that movies would be uplifting and life-affirming-- everything that I longed for, and that my society denied me, was not only accepted but argued for within the pages of the book. The sense of sanctuary was overpowering, and I still feel it whenever I open the book.

Well, that is enough. Either you know what I'm talking about, Dear Reader, or you don't. If not, the fault is with me. I think this post is more of a message in a bottle than anything else I have written-- it may be that it won't be of interest to anybody, that nobody who reads this will have shared this experience. But if even one person has shared it, and is pleased to see it described, it will have been well worth it.


  1. Yes, I think I know this. In fact, something like it happened to me last week, changing trains at Tulse Hill station in south London (of all places!). I had been thinking that it was to do with the slight chill, and the low sun - for the first time there was the melancholy, autumnal light shining as if out of the past, and the smell of the air ripe for bonfires.

    But since you mention the release of tension, and the slackening of nerves, that makes a lot of sense (I knew I was going to make my connection!). I wonder whether we know these moments of overwhelming delight by the overwhelming as much as by the delight itself. The strength of the feeling comes from its being beyond control. And also from the sensation that, in fact, our souls have been designed precisely to 'break their banks' like this?

  2. Yes, that's it! I like the image of you changing trains in Tulse Hill station and gazing wistfully at the melancholy, autumnal light-- shining as if out of the past, as you put it so poetically (and accurately). It's wonderfully English. I do hope you had Betjeman's Collected Poems in your book bag at the time!