Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Commonplace Book Time Machine #1:
Novus Ordo Seclorum

One of the two chapbooks I initially proposed creating in conjunction with my Aggregate Space & Featherboard Writing Series writing residency will not be produced. Because the residency is only five weeks long, I've decided I must devote the lion's share of the period to the more substantial of the two projects, a meditation on my childhood comprehension of death and killing. Still, rather than let the preliminary work I'd done for the commonplace book chapbook go to waste, I thought I'd share a few of the scanned pages here, on Hungry Hyaena, along with some editorializing. The first of these posts follows.

2-page spread from one of my commonplace books, 2000

Just after my twenty-second birthday, I began a new commonplace book. At the time, I was living in the basement bedroom of an Alphabet City apartment in Manhattan, laboring five days a week at a Soho art gallery and, nights and weekends, drawing and painting in my bedroom or working on a solipsistic vampire novel titled, appropriately, Me. My income was meagre; I'd grown used to dinners of white rice (generously seasoned with soy sauce) and I socialized just one night a week (not counting too many hours spent watching recorded episodes of Mr. Show with my roommates). Necessarily thrifty, then, I elected not to purchase a new journal to use for the commonplace book; instead, I picked up a journal that I'd cast aside a couple of years prior after filling its early pages with adolescent agitation.

Before I began adding new material to this book, I revisited the earlier poetry and diary-like entries…and was mortified. So mortified, apparently, that on the first spread of the "strange journal for 2000," I clarified for my future self (and, unwittingly, for future Hungry Hyaena readers), that the embarrassing rants and poetry that precede the entries of 2000 were written by a person in a very different place. Yet, just as my twenty-two-year-old self took stock of his eighteen- and nineteen-year-old incarnation, so, too, do I now contemplate the observations and selections of a younger man, one who may have cut his hair and removed the earrings of his late teens, but remained delerious with ambition and sexual angst.

As so many of us do, I displaced my personal frustrations onto politics. At the time, I was particularly incensed by the pernicious influence of corporations in Washington. With that in mind, the pairing of the Mark Vonnegut quotation and the Mel Ramos painting reproduction is curious. On the left page, we have Ramos' Pop Art critique (or celebration) of branding and the male gaze, while, on the right, we read Vonnegut's keen insight into the psychologically perilous demands of good citizenship in a democracy. I felt strongly that citizens of the Western, developed countries needed to be more vigilant in their dealings with corporations. It wasn't Iraq that I was worried about so much -- what's a nation-state threat when corporations are really pulling the strings, I wondered; instead, my pantheon of baddies included ExxonMobil, Ford, and, the retail Prince of Darkness, Walmart. But, as Vonnegut's observation suggests, whether your enemy is a Middle Eastern autocrat, Big Brother, or Coca-Cola, the hyper-awareness and deliberation required to keep oneself both truly informed and honest is a Sisyphean, maddening task. Devouring publications like Harper's and Adbusters, I'd become, to some degree, paranoid. In the face of so much inequality and malfeasance, what could I do but seethe. I felt essentially impotent, and a malignant cynicism is reflected throughout much of the "strange journal for 2000."

Perhaps this anger and gloom was the catalyst of the burned page? I don't know. Was I high, perhaps, or drunk, and attacking the notion of a "new order of the world," a swipe at the repeat failures of Utopian idealism? Or perhaps I was reacting against the use of the Latin phrase on the Great Seal of the United States, believing, as I then did, that the great hope our country represented at its inception had evaporated, and that we citizens had betrayed our aspirations? Or maybe I was merely trying to make a beautiful, elemental mark on the page, something to stand in opposition to Ramos' S.O.S.?

Today, looking back at this spread and so many others in my old commonplace books, what matters is my interpretation. What do I make of each collection of drawings, notes, clippings, and photographs? The constellation I discern reveals more about who I've become than who I was then. I'm pleased that the cynicism has waned and that I'm no longer an ideologue; I'm more interested in grey musings than I am in black-and-white positions (e.g., Walmart's influence and role in the lives of contemporary Americans is too complicated to condemn outright, even if I continue to react against particular company policies and dealings). Still, I wonder if the price paid for this more measured perspective is political passion?

Image credit: Christopher Reiger, 2000


Terry said...

This is gorgeous!

Misrule said...

May I use your image in a lecture presentation to illustrate a contemporary example of a commonplace book? Full attribution of course.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Hi, Misrule.

Yes, you may do so. Please use the simple attribution below.

Christopher Reiger, 2000

Best wishes with the class!

Misrule said...

Thank you so much! It's actually a course in children's literature, and I want to encourage them to be thoughtful readers, and keeping a commonplace book is one of the techniques I'm going to suggest. Cheers!