October 16th, 2004


There's a place for us

Yesterday's word of the day was "quotationipotent", which I mention mainly because it's so rare that anybody offers me a 6-syllable compliment. However it does also lead conveniently to today's word of the day, which is "commonplace-book". The gloss given is as follows
Formerly “book of common places”. A book in which “commonplaces” or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement [1500s-1800s] ... Commonplace, to enter in a commonplace-book.
      - Sir James Murray's New English Dictionary, 1893
Commonplace was a term used in old rhetoric to represent testimonies or pithy sentences of good authors which might be used for strengthening or adorning a discourse.
      - Albert Hyamson's Dictionary of English Phrases, 1922

It's only really the first sentence of the definition which interests me: the idea of a book of common places.

Words, as little Dorothy Gale discovered, have the power to transport us to different places. All we have to do is say there's no place like home and we're back in the safety of wherever it is that we call "home" at the moment, wondering why on earth we ever thought we wanted to leave it. Of course, Dorothy's experiences in Oz, like Alice's adventures in Wonderland, are nothing but a dream: a palimpsest of half-remembered names and faces, words and images, built up like papier-mache into something approximating to a real location...

Ah yes, a real location. How easy it is to take it for granted that while the glorious technicolor Oz is nothing but the imaginings of a fevered mind, Kansas is real -- Dorothy's Kansas and our own. But I have never been to Kansas; my own Kansas, Kansas-as-I-experience-it, is barely more real than the dream of a fictional character: it's a patchwork of L. Frank Baum's Kansas, Geoff Ryman's Kansas, the lines and colours that make up Kansas in my atlas, and so on, and so forth.

So let's take a place closer to home. I've had my base-station in Cambridge for nearly 4 years now; I've driven around it, walked through it, raised my blood-pressure by attempting to cycle through it; for four years I've been living, working, playing, shopping, dreaming, reading, drinking, and all the rest here. It's real to me, and it seems to be real to the other people who live, work, etc. here (and there's a lot of et cetera goes on in Cambridge). But is it a common place, a place we actively share?

We've all had the experience where somebody else's reaction to a place we know and love is so completely antithetical to our own that we're left thinking Are we talking about the same place? -- particularly true with places whose physical location and configuration is probably not their most important aspect: for example, few people see a school as just a collection of buildings. Holiday destinations, too, are places to which we take so many preconceptions and expectations (often packed in our bags without our knowledge, despite our innocent belief that we have rien à declarer) that our respective experiences of the place might differ as much as those of the fabled blind men encountering an elephant.

There is, however, an unspoken trust in the independent existence of an elephant; that is, we assume that there is one objective truth and our different perceptions are just that: the same thing viewed from different angles. But is that necessarily the case? To what extent do places as we experience them exist anywhere but in our own minds?

And where do commonplace books come into all this metaphysical tourism?

Most of us spend most of our time somewhere other than home. Some of us aren't even sure where to call home. We are tourists wandering in a landscape and a mindscape which, to some extent, we must experience in isolation; walking through Cambridge I have no way of knowing what the other passers-by feel when they see the rain-soaked streets. Is this place home? A place to work? A place they want to leave, a place they're delighted to have come to? The fact that I see them as "passers-by" highlights the problem: to them, I am the passer-by. We are all merely passing through each other's lives.

Words have the power to transport us to a mental 'place' -- sometimes the mental place correlates with a physical place, but that's a second order effect, at least for me. (But then, I'm words all the way down, like a big sugary stick of Brighton rock.) To happen across a shared text -- a point of shared cultural reference -- is to suddenly hear somebody speaking your native language in a country where everything seems alien. The words that you heard when you were young will always stay; but when you discover that somebody else has treasured the same words all these years, it's like meeting an old friend when you're far from home.

A commonplace-book is a photo album of the places you've been: the restless nights in one-night cheap hotels; the coastal town that they forgot to close down; the motel that you pull into to shower off the dust; the vast tracts of unenclosed wild; the dark towns that heap up on the horizon; the bluesilver places where the boundary's undefined; the still point of the turning world.

When you meet somebody else in one of these common places, for a moment somebody shares your space, shares your thoughts, stands together with you in a place that can seem more real than any physical landscape or building. When somebody else knows the shape of a phrase that you've worn like a talisman, knows the response to a cry that you've uttered time and time again, knows the words to the soundtrack to your life, they can reach into your heart and mind and -- even if only for an instant -- see the world through your eyes.