The Silva Rerum, the Weblog, and the Journal

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

In many of my courses, I have students keep journals where they log their reading and keep notes. Looking back at my description of the journal reminds me of the ancient practice of commonplacing. Weblogs, Tinderbox, and other tools are methods of commonplacing, which plays a role, I would have to say, in the history of hypertext, hypertextuality, and the concept of the memex, since readers, such as Locke or Milton would read, reread, and recall and collect ideas based the numerous works they might have been reading at any given time.

The “silva rerum” refers to a forest of things. The commonplace book has been referred to as a reflective journal, where, in practice, sections of work would be written down by the reader and commented on in a notebook, now, of course, in a weblog or a note tool.

In the first dialogue exchange between Satan and Beelzebub in Paradise Lost, we have Milton employing dramatic language, either self-directed or to his comrade. It goes like this:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light
Cloth’d with transcendent brightnes didst outshine
Myriads though bright: If he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope,
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fal’n, so much the stronger provd
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? (84-94)

The first words uttered are significant because they expose the magnitude of change that has occurred after the war in heaven. Just those few lines, spoken slowly, and in amazement (to suggest the kind of utterance it actually is) are key to the relationship the reader may have with Paradise Lost. “If thou beest he; But O how fall’n” can be read in all kinds of interesting ways, numerous affects, speeds, and expressivity, given the readers take on the situation.

This would be a commonplace entry, involving reflections on the theme of reading, drama, and performance. Typically of the commonplace is its organization. It’s not just meant to collect thoughts, but those thoughts are meant to be found, revised, and rethought. Why collect otherwise; why should we write notes at all unless those notes serve some larger purpose?

Oppositions are important to Milton, to religion, and to polemic. Hell, for example, as place, state, and staging ground will rear back at the end of the text after Adam and Eve are removed from the place, state, and staging ground of Paradise. For Satan, hell is both a place to fall into, physically, sensually, and a state of mind or frame of reference. Satan will not repent. He says:

. . . Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. (249-254)

Satan possess hell and refers to the mind as a “place,” habitable, motile: the state argument.

On his decent to Paradise, Satan observes the beauty he will never have back, this in Book 3. The idea of hell as mind follows the action. Thought follows Satan and all the torture that can bring with it:

Satan from hence now on the lower stair
That scal’d by steps of Gold to Heav’n Gate
Looks down with wonder at the sudden view
Of all this World at once. As when a Scout
Through dark and desart wayes with peril gone
All night; at last by break of chearful dawne
Obtains the brow of some high-climbing Hill,
Which to his eye discovers unaware
The goodly prospect of some forein land
First-seen, or some renownd Metropolis
With glistering Spires and Pinnacles adornd,
Which now the Rising Sun guilds with his beams. (3.540-51)

Satan’s wonder is like a scouts, who, tapping a hill sees a new landscape. This passage, much like the expression to Beelzebub, recalls that sense of observed change and surprise.
In Book 4 we read doubt in Satan and identify the surfacing of regret:

Yet not rejoycing in his speed, though bold,
Far off and fearless, nor with cause to boast,
Begins his dire attempt, which nigh the birth
Now rowling, boiles in his tumultuous brest,
And like a devillish Engine back recoiles
Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
His troubl’d thoughts, and from the bottom stirr
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more then from himself can fly
By change of place: Now conscience wakes despair
That slumberd, wakes the bitter memorie
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue. (4.13-26)

The commonplace observation should reveal the structures of the work. This last passage closes the state argument, at least for now and in this section. “The Hell within him” is an echo of “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Satan carries “himself” with him no matter the place.

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