The Kathrine Rundell cluster reading continues. This from her book Super-Infinite.
Here she gives a brilliant breakdown on the practice of common placing through the eyes of John Donne.
The practice of commonplacing – a way of seeking out and storing knowledge, so that you have multiple voices on a topic under a single heading – colours Donne’s work; one thought reaches out to another, across the barriers of tradition and ends up somewhere fresh and strange.
Hoarding can have negative connotations, but for commonplacing it’s required:
Because, simply, Donne wouldn’t be Donne if he hadn’t lived in a commonplacing era; it nurtured his collector’s sensibility, hoarding images and authorities. He had a magpie mind obsessed with gathering.
Commonplacing isn’t chewing up ideas and spitting them out. It’s combining disparate ideas into five course suppers.
Crucially for Donne, though, the commonplace book wasn’t designed to be used for the regurgitation of memorised gobbets: it was to offer the raw material for a combinatorial, plastic process.
From scraps to wholes. Also Dr. Johnson wasn’t a Donne fan.
For Donne, apparently unrelated scraps from the world were always forming new wholes. Commonplacing was a way to assess material for those new connections: bricks made ready for the unruly palaces he would build.
Donne’s heterogeneity, which so annoyed Johnson, wasn’t a game: it was a form of discipline. Commonplacing plucks ideas out of their context and allows you to put them down against other, startling ones.
Donne used the term “commonplacer” first?! Of course.
It’s telling that the first recorded use of the word ‘commonplacer’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is Donne’s.
The Dutch scholar Erasmus was also a commonplacing forefather. He codified the practice:
The commonplace book allowed readers to approach the world as a limitless resource; a kind of ever-ongoing harvesting. It was Erasmus, the Dutch scholar known as ‘the prince of the humanists’, who codified the practice. The compiler, he wrote, should ‘ make himself as full a list of place-headings as possible’ to put at the top of each page: for instance, beauty, friendship, decorum, faith, hope, the vices and virtues. It was both a form of scholarship and, too, a way of reminding yourself of what, as you moved through the world, you were to look out for: a list of priorities, of sparks and spurs and personal obsessions. Donne’s book must surely have had: angels, women, faith, stars, jealousy, gold, desire, dread, death. Then, Erasmus wrote
whatever you come across in any author, particularly if it is especially striking, you will be able to note it down in its appropriate place; be it a story or a fable or an example or a new occurrence or a pithy remark or a witty saying or any other clever form of words…Whenever occasion demands, you will have ready to hand a supply of material for spoken or written composition.
Who is the ideal commonplacer?
The ideal commonplacer is half lawyer, building up evidence in the case for and against the world, and half treasure hunter; and that’s what Donne’s mind was in those early days.
Rundell, Katherine. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. ( see pages 36-39)