Saturday, November 19, 2016

Exploring Commonplace Books

My Early Modern Literature and Culture course (aka Shakespeare's Sister) at Marylhurst University introduced me to commonplace books this term.  These books have been around for centuries, and they may be a great choice for you to record important passages from books, personal reflections or observations, or the occasional sketch or two.  Thinking back to diaries of family members that I remember coming across as a child, I suspect I've seen these before without recognizing them for what they were.

I love the idea of the commonplace book, and I will certainly recommend the practice.  In fact, people often ask me how to become a better writer, and this may become one of the tools I talk about in the future--e.g. reading, writing, and living.  For years, I did used to carry a writer's notebook.  I remember taking mental notes of characters or dialogue from public places, and these daily snapshots would usually find themselves added to my trusty notebook.  (When I considered a law enforcement career in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pocket notebooks took on a whole different kind of purpose in recording notes on techniques and...people.)  Today, I tend to rely on my camera to remind me of important scenes or landscapes.  Conveying a solid and sharp sense of place within my fiction is tremendously important to me, and this method tends to work well.  When it comes to recording dialogue, I usually record notes on electronic devices, but I do occasionally use old fashioned notebooks or journals.  The digital audio recorder can also be useful.

For taking notes of passages of writing that are personally important, there are many different approaches I use on a daily basis.  Much to my mother's disappointment, I'm afraid, I tend to highlight important passages in traditional books.  I also enjoy using the "highlighting" feature found in eBooks.  For a writer, even published articles can be a way to remember favorite quotes, as this article is a single example.  Applications such as Evernote are also a great way to record important information along these lines.  (You can even record You Tube videos!)  In short, then, I probably won't be changing how I take notes insofar as this experience is concerned, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a valuable experience.  I would add that the commonplace exercise is helpful in enhancing attention to detail within works.  For me, it also offers an interesting insight into where my own note-taking methods could be improved and strengthened.

So, when it comes to commonplace books, these are great tools for the present, and they have the potential of providing glimpses and insights of the "hidden transcripts" of those who lived before us.  Are they something I will personally continue?  Probably not, but the fault lies with me alone.  You see, I really can't stand my own handwriting.  If this doesn't present a challenge for you personally, go for it!  

(Here are some additional examples of commonplace books from Pinterest.)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Samuel Beckett's Faith as Reflected in Belacqua

Every once in a while, I like to share essays from my academic side here.  Here's a short academic response essay I recently did with regards to Samuel Beckett.

4.  Belaqua is described as “a dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow”, and is clearly alienated from the society around him. Beckett himself was born into an Anglo-Irish Protestant family; do you think Belaqua’s alienation is specific to the Irish context, or is Beckett making a larger point about human alienation beyond a specific culture?

     I should preface this with a confession that reading Samuel Beckett did not come naturally for me.  More Pricks than Kicks posed a daunting challenge at times, but one thing it reminded me about was the life of C.S. Lewis, who was raised in Belfast.  I recalled Joseph Pearce's remarkable book entitled C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church.  While my Pearce collection, along with most of my Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, remains to be unpacked in the garage after a recent move, I did find what I feel is an illuminating interview response about Lewis' Irish upbringing from Pearce.
One of Lewis's closest friends, the great Catholic writer, J. R. R. Tolkien, believed that Lewis failed to become a Catholic because of the deep-rooted and ingrained prejudices that he inherited as a Belfast Protestant. As the Troubles in Northern Ireland have shown, Belfast is one of the most sectarian cities in the world. It would indeed be a rare occurrence for someone raised in such an anti-Catholic culture to overcome the prejudices of his upbringing and there is no doubt that Lewis's discomfort with the position of the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition and his unease with the institution of the papacy are typical of the prejudices held by Ulster Protestants. On the other hand, as my book seeks to demonstrate, Lewis seemed to be moving ever closer to Catholicism as he grew in his faith. It is this tension between Lewis's ingrained opposition to Catholicism and his rational attraction to Catholic doctrine which makes the study of Lewis's relationship with the Church so fascinating.  (Pearce, Web)
I suggest that Lewis' own troubled feelings from being a young Protestant in Belfast can shed further light on the Samuel Beckett's ambivalence and alienation with regards to Protestantism in Ireland--and religion in general.  The shared faith experiences of Beckett and Lewis are interesting as both turned away from organized religion for a period.  While, of course, C.S. Lewis returned to the faith with a passion, the alienation experienced by Beckett permeates his work.  
     Religion seems to occupy the mind of Belacqua Shuah primarily when he is alone, however.  In the presence of others, his mind seems less drawn to reflect on the eternal.  In the opening of "Walking Out," there is a short, but telling observation from the character.  "It was one of those Spring evenings when it is a matter of some difficulty to keep God out of one's meditations."  This implies not only an indifference to God, but an active opposition to the presence of the eternal.  When Belacqua is in public settings, however, he seems less prone to this kind of introspection.  In this way, then, we could aruge that noise and bustle is perhaps partially pursued as a means to drown out the other, more troubling thoughts.  
     The introspection appears to also catch Belacqua in his nature escape at the opening of "Fingal."  "He began to feel a very sad animal indeed."  When he wistfully refers to a distant sight as "magic land," Winnie corrects him reproachfully; his meandering mind gets him into trouble.  Again at the conclusion of "Walking Out," he seems caught off guard by the silence and stillness of the forest as he waits in vain for Lucy.  (I still don't understand his battle with the "Tanzherr.")  Silence leads to an increase of noise in the mind, one again can argue.  When shadows of the eternal nature of things begin to invade his thoughts, he seems to seek out ways to escape.
     I think it's also helpful here to point out that the protagonist of these tales by Beckett, shares a name with a character from Dante's Divine Comedy.  (Bold added to excerpt below.)
I came to him he hardly raised his head,   Saying: "Hast thou seen clearly how the sun   O'er thy left shoulder drives his chariot?" His sluggish attitude and his curt words   A little unto laughter moved my lips;   Then I began: "Belacqua, I grieve not For thee henceforth; but tell me, wherefore seated   In this place art thou? Waitest thou an escort?   Or has thy usual habit seized upon thee?" And he: "O brother, what's the use of climbing?   Since to my torment would not let me go   The Angel of God, who sitteth at the gate. First heaven must needs so long revolve me round   Outside thereof, as in my life it did,   Since the good sighs I to the end postponed, Unless, e'er that, some prayer may bring me aid   Which rises from a heart that lives in grace;   What profit others that in heaven are heard not?"  (Dante, Divine Comedy)
     So, is Belacqua perhaps a sort of secular pilgrim?  Instead of searching for the spiritual, I suggest he's doing his best to avoid any hint of the supernatural in his pursuit of secular knowledge and experience.  In this determination to avoid the spiritual dimension of Irish life, he is further alienating himself from his countrymen (not to mention God).  This paints a picture, then, of someone who is timidly committing to the secular, turning his back on all associations with faith, yet unable to avoid the occasional backslide back to reflections upon the nature of faith and reality.  He is in a self-imposed exile.

Beckett, Samuel. More Pricks than Kicks. New York: Grove, 1972. Print.
Dante Alighieri (2011-03-24). Divine Comedy, Longfellow's Translation, Purgatory (p. 21). Kindle Edition.
Pearce, Joseph. "C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church - CNA Columns: Guest Columnist." Catholic News Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.