Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Complete Purple Notebook Part Seven

 What is my purple notebook? A notebook of inspiring memories, of various kinds. I describe it here, and list the first few entries, explaining what they mean to me.

Thomas Nagel, blue flame. Nagel is a philosopher-- an atheist-- who writes about fundamental matters of metaphysics and reality. Once, when I was reading a quotation from him, I found myself picturing the blue flame on a gas oven. When someone questions the very nature of reality, everything solid and taken-for-granted seems as evanescent as that blue flame-- and it's intoxicating.

Single-panel cartoons. "Tell them I died unrepentant". When personal computers began to go mainstream, I find myself reading an issue of a general-interest magazine entirely devoted to the subject. There was a cartoon of a man on his death-bed, saying to those around him: "Tell them I never bought a PC. Tell them I died unrepentant." I love single-panel cartoons lik that. They encapsulate a whole cosy world in one frame. I also find death-beds a cosy idea. As an idea. I'd rather not occupy one any time soon. But, "to pass upon the midnight with no pain..."

Cosy, chunky jumpers. No comment needed.

Steam rising from tea. Ditto.

Data's poem in Star Trek. In an episode of Star Trek, the android Data recites a poem he has written, for the benefit of another crew member, whose opinion on it he seeks. Can you imagine that in any other grown-up TV show? Poetry is the ultimate luxury. It's completely unnecessary. And wherever anyone finds time to make it a priority, life is exalted.

Political campaigns, thesis and book dedications, film productions. Excitement, focus, cameraderie. I always want to be 'on the ground floor' of something big. Or even something small.

Jeremy Paxman, The Victorians, brandy and Coke. Brandy and coke is my tipple-- it tastes like Christmas pudding. My brother bought me a DVD about the Victorians presented by the British broadcaster Jeremy Paxman. It was absorbing, and made me thirsty for more ideas and more brandy and Coke.

 Seeing out a back window through a front window. The most evocative thing in the world. Somehow the world filtered through those two frames is transformed.

Curtains make a house a home.  From a previous post I wrote: "I remember a book of stories I had in my childhood, which included a few ghost stories. In one particular ghost story, there was one passage where a boy looks at a new house and feels a chill, then reflects that it will look less spooky with curtains up, since-- as his mother always says-- "curtains make a house a home". The phrase, hardly profound in itself (but new to me, back then) had a powerful effect on my mind, and still does.

If anyone were to ask me to summarize my social philosophy in one phrase (which seems, unfortunately, highly unlikely to happen), I might answer: "Curtains make a house a home". The curtains in question being ceremony, tradition, ritual, convention, chivalry, custom, politeness, taboo, community and all those other intangibles that (to adapt Burke) economists, sophisters, calculators, radicals, revolutionaries, progressives, libertarians, feminists, and one-track minds of every sort will never understand. 

Russian dolls toy, early childhood, Star Trek monitor.  A very early childhood memory-- dimmer than dim. I was playing with some Christmas gift, some set of toys that fit into each other like Russian dolls. And somehow my mind was on Star Trek-- the original series, which I've never liked much. I was thinking especially of the monitor on the bridge, through which the crew see the cosmos around them. A sense of slightly spooky wonder.

Corridors of my invented world. In the aforementioned book about writing fantasy, horror, and science-fiction, one (female) novelist said the ultimate thrill of writing was having the reader enter her invented world; something like "the fields, chambers, battlegrounds, and corridors of my invented world". But it was the word 'corridor' that electrified me. It has always seemed one of the most exciting words to me. Anyone can walk down a corridor at any moment. And the fact that corridors are relatively mundane somehow made the idea of an invented world that included them more solid and convincing and entrancing. An invented world that even has corridors-- how magical! I suddenly wanted to invent a world with corridors. SO badly.

The books on the shelf. Sober, magisterial. Image of old men with big glasses.

Moment in Eason's with parents, Turlough, CDs. My parents were wonderful and my upbringing was fortunate, but we rarely DID things all together. This is a happy memory of a quarter of an hour we spent browsing CD's in a shop in the city centre-- my brother, my mother, my father and me. Just browsing CD's, not going anywhere or doing anything or having any serious purpose. So rare, and so happy.

 Girl putting poem with decorative border up on wall. In my teens, I found an anthology of poems chosen by teenagers, with written accounts of why they chose them and liked them. This transported me. One girl chose 'El Dorado' by Edgar Allen Poe and even said she had written it out on a nice piece of paper, put a decorated border around it, and put it up on her wall. I had never heard of teenagers putting up anything except soccer and music posters on their walls. Poetry is the ultimate luxury.

A Whole New World and the poetry in it. A school text book.

That red-haired Irish fan in snooker hall. I read a soccer magazine in which Irish soccer fans were recounting their memories of the 1990 World Cup-- Ireland's first World Cup, and a massive event in Ireland. One story was told by a thirty-something fellow with red-hair, who was (in the accompanying photograph) sitting in a snooker hall, holding a snooker queue. He struck me as being quintessentially Irish, an Irishman of a certain type-- gentle, manly without being loutish, respectful, educated, fun-loving but not a party animal. I wish I could get a copy of that magazine. Maybe it's better remembered?

Africa's space and silence.  The first poem we studied in the second year of my secondary schooling was called 'First Day at School' by Prunella Power. It wasn't a good poem, but I was excited by the attention the teacher lavished on analysing its lines. It was about a girl's first day at a new school. She had obviously come from Africa, because she wonders about the other girls; "What would they know about Africa's space and silence?" Those words stuck with me-- as a symbol of poetry, and of the drama of human experience.

Coke and Snopes and the Science of Christmas. I spent most of one Christmas reading article after article on the urban legends website I also drank a lot of Coke that Christmas. I'd also been given a book as a Kriskindle gift, at my first library Christmas party-- Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas. The magic of Christmas is how lots of experiences run together and form a chord.

It's also an example, to me, of how it's hard to tell whether any particular activity is worthwhile. Around then, I was also reading A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell-- a series of novels that is very celebrated. I remember almost nothing from those novels, which seemed such a laudable thing to read, while the memory of browsing articles on urban legends and swilling Coke remains a precious one.

US Airways, Two and a Half Men.  I hate the show, but somehow the memory of seeing it on the screen during a flight with my favourite airline is a very happy one. Maybe because sit-com sitting rooms are always so clean, and because it looked so strangely and intriguingly out of place.

 Rathfarnham Castle, RTE news, Rosary book. I went to a play staged in the rather unusual setting of Rathfarnham Castle, a castle in a suburn in Dublin. Before it started I had a drink in a local pub. The pub TV was showing RTE news-- RTE is Ireland's national broadcaster-- and the news was all quite insular. Only a few regulars were in the pub. I was reading a book about the rosary. It felt like a rural pub, and for a moment I could daydream Ireland was still Catholic Ireland-- a rather sleepy, holy, agricultural country.

 Great fire of London sticker, Kitty's. It was the summer of 1995. My parents, my younger brother, and myself were staying with my aunt Kitty and uncle Willy, on their farm in Limerick. This was the only time we were all there together. My parents were in the pub with my aunt and uncle. Me and my brother were in the farm-house. My father phoned me and quoted Browning, sounding ridiculously out of place, far away, and near, all at once. We had the run of the house. On the light-switch in the hall, my brother had stuck up a sticker that came with one of our comics-- it had some cartoon picture saying that only six people had died in the Great Fire of London. That didn't seem too bad. Nothing seemed too bad. Life seemed spacious and hospitable.

RTV rental ads. A huge cardboard cut-out ad in my local TV rental shop, in the eighties, showing a dazzling woman resplendent in a dazzling gown at a dazzling Regency ball. Once again, the contrast between glamour and the everyday-- making both seem more precious.

Portugese Africa and the West, The Jungle is Neutral etc. Titles of books on the shelf, at home, that awed me with their grown-upness, when I was a kid.

Dark Side of the Moon. Christmas morning, some time in the 1980s. Everybody awake very early, before daylight. My elder brother got a telescope from Santa. It came with a chart of the moon, and I encountered for the first time this phrase, which is one of the most poetic I know.

Big pictures of album covers in Celtic Music Shop. Everything seems to mean more when it's made bigger. The centrepiece of this shop's window display is the cover of some recently-released album blown up to a huge size. It gives it an air of great event and consequence.

RTE eighties ads. One of the most recent memories in my Notebook. I was working at my desk and listening to ads from Irish TV in the 1980s through headphones. The nostalgia!

Mystery of school texts in shops. When I was about thirteen I went with my mother to buy school textbook for 'big' school. I found myself looking at the text-books for the senior years and imagining what Everests of intellect they must represent. It was an intimidating but an inspiring thought.

Cleaning Michelle's apartment, EWTN sermon on female martyr. One day I was cleaning out Michelle's apartment while she slept. I was watching a sermon on EWTN, on a laptop, about some female martyr of ancient times. I felt both useful and spiritually elevated. I rarely feel both useful and spiritually elevated.

Halloween party, Coultry. I love special times and places. When I was a kid I went to a family Halloween party. Fireworks, fruit and nuts, fancy dress. It has always seemed to be the example par excellence of a special time ever since. I've craved the world to be more like that.


  1. Thanks. It was a long day (starting with a catastrophic harddrive failure at the beginning), and I was just heading to bed feeling a bit discouraged and sorry for myself. Checked the RSS feed and devoured parts 1-3. Reminds me why I liked Sketches by Boz rather than some Dickens' novels. (Haven't read Dickens in years, but I can't deal with long narrative plots when I'm tired. I love disconnected sketches. Will read the rest later.)
    A few thoughts: 1) "mullioned" THAT's the word for those. I had forgotten. I like 'em, partly because they're never found here.
    2) "Fingers of fire are making corruption clean" I never heard it, but I agree it's wonderful. I will write it down...somewhere (at least in the top margin for next week's planner)
    3) Curtains make a house a home. So they do. And the lines that are similarly evocative for me (I could write a very similar gloss) are from Pope's Essay on Criticism: "True wit is Nature to advantage dressed / What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd." I could talk for weeks about "Nature to advantage dressed."
    4) I'm glad that cleaning Michelle's apartment made it in here--bodes well for your married life. Simple mundane domestic rounds that have to be done anyway can be shot through with love of God and of our neighbor and can help us and our loved ones gain heaven (and get a clean house besides). A good deal all round. I myself might be very seldom useful + elevated/elevating, but that's what the world of georgic poetry suggests to me, and that's why it's captivated me for so long.
    Lastly, why don't I have a purple notebook? Why have I had such a tremendous internal resistance to keeping a journal of present thoughts--and even so, surely with my personality, sketching out vivid old memories would be easier? I don't know. But maybe Samuel Pepys, et al. are to blame. I am more than deathly afraid of future scholars reading my journals, even if I put them in code. I do have a very vivid memory of learning about the Rosetta Stone and being very worried for months about what archeologists would find from our civilization and how they would figure out abbreviations and so on. And whether they found the "wrong" fragments that would give them a mistaken idea of what we are like [which would be any fragment, in fact]. A sense of responsibility weighed very heavily on my shoulders at the ripe old age of 6. Also, it's recollections like that which remind me that my psyche hasn't really changed since age 6; I'm fundamentally the same. Another memory around that time is cracking up at the line from Hamlet that Polonius is "at supper. Not where he eats, but where he is eaten." It was vivid, amusing, and a delightful inversion that was also completely true. I loved the language and the world that could contain that. Just taught that play a few weeks ago, and all that came back to me. My first paper on Hamlet (1991) has the line "There were some happy, funny parts but most of it was very sad." Well, I just wrote two entries or more that should go in my purple notebook (which would be a green notebook but I'll call it purple because I can. And because of "purple passages"). There, I just hijacked your blog with an absurdly long comment. It was cathartic, so thank you. And now I'll go to bed. TMR

  2. All comments very welcome, especially absurdly long ones! The absence of comments bothers me a lot, although on this occasion I wasn't sure whether anyone would plough through my very idiosyncratic post. I'm glad somebody did.

    The Laurence Binyon poem can be found easily on the internet. It's a peach.

    A purple notebook is a very personal thing and I guess there is no right or wrong way of doing it. But one important factor for me is that I don't jot impressions or ideas down as I go along. They have to be ideas and impressions that have marinated in my mind for some time and have staying power. They have an aura about them. Sometimes I write down something that is only weeks old but rarely-- usually it's years old, sometimes decades!

    Wow, that is quite the sense of responsibility!

    I don't really 'get' Shakespeare, unfortunately, apart from the marvellous speeches (I can never remember how to spell the right word for them). But I do think this quotation from Hamlet is also fun: "Slanders, sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams—all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down."

    I'm so glad you liked the post and found commenting cathartic!

  3. Part 7? So should I start here, or at Part 1?

    1. It's completely random access, believe you me!!