Thursday, December 16, 2010

E. M. Forster on Commonplaces

E. M. Forsters Commonplace Book really is not a commonplace book at all. He used such a book, as he had inherited one, but he did not find it congenial:
Commonplaces My difficulty is that I shall not know what they are until they are finished. Bp. Jebb seems to have known and never to have been surprised by any development of his own thought. This, even more than neatness of handwriting and aptness of quotation, separates him from his successor, who continues his work after an interval of a hundred and twenty one years. Apparently, if he had an idea he could put it down as he had it. But perhaps what he had were not ideas but certified topics that could be carried about intact. I must know what is inside me before I can tell what I am after. Perhaps, if I get through a dozen pages of this book, I shall tell, and my New Ethic result. Each commonplace will be short: how pleasant it would to feel copious as well as fluid! the modern mind takes such small flights."
Forster knew the tradition. Commonplaces were indeed "certified topics that could be carried about intact" and they were meant to support writing that was "copious as well as fluid." He "must know what is inside [him] before [he] can tell what [he is] after." For the traditional commonplacer, the commonplace told him what he should be after or after what patterns he should mold his inner and outer life.

No wonder Forster soon gave up any pretense at commonplacing and consciously pursued the notebook method. He scraps the "awful" entry by topic and puts down whatever he likes.

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