by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
July 23, 2004
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Pasted to the mirror in my bathroom is a strip of paper with the typed words: "Object in mirror is exactly as far away as he seems." One of the things that make him seem less far, at least to himself, is his journal.
Do you keep one? And if so, what do you call it-journal, diary, or, like Capt. Kirk, log? I've never cared for diary, a word that suggests to me the little locked book kept by an adolescent girl under her pillow. The name that Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-99) gave to his jottings has always appealed to me: Sudelbucher, or Garbage Books.
But if he thought little of his journal, he thought even less of himself. He was a deformed dwarf with a hunched back, and it was probably his own life that he had in mind in the words: "A knife without a blade, for which the handle is missing." Summing himself up, he wrote: "Something might have been made of his ideas if only an angel had organized them for him."
He could also be very funny: "What is called the 'heart' lies much lower than the fourth button on your vest."
That he was much too hard on himself can be seen in the fact that the first German chair of Experimental Physics was established for him after he had discovered an electrical phenomenon still called "Lichtenberg's figures."
As for my own Garbage Books, I only wish that I had begun them much sooner in life. Not that I failed to jot down this and that-much of it now kept in a binder with the silly label "Before the Journal"-but the systematic recording day by day began only in the late Sixties.
It was usually being away from home that inspired me to write, and in 1969-70 I was away with my whole family in London for a year to write what became, in 1974, the book "Mandelstam" (Cambridge UP).
This produced two bound, unlined notebooks, written by hand, in which I record with some frequency my feeling that I'd never get the job done.
Frankly, one of the reasons for this feeling was my usual habit of trying to do many things at once. In London, this habit took the form of doing book reviews for the Spectator and then, miracle of miracles, a comic strip for the same distinguished weekly. Their running a comic strip occasioned a sharp intake of breath and raised eyebrows in certain other organs of the staid London press. The Times, I was told, was only slightly mollified to learn that the cartoonist was at least an American professor.
I see from this London journal that my daughter Kitty, then of Form One Alpha in the Camden School for Girls, also had a genius for titles. Her notebook was called "Rough Work."
The journal holds other evidence of what postponed my writing the book on
Mandelstam's poetry: my own poetry. Or "poetry." Here, to conclude is a
work with the grandiose title: "Theological Meditation on the Paradigm of
the Verb To Be"
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.