MEDITATION   ON  MY   BARCLAY  NOTEBOOK

I write these words on a late  August morning at Baiting Hollow, in the bright, serene
aftermath of a hurricane,  with the beach and sky swept clean for  the tentative forays of  
returning shorebirds.  

I write, I do not type, enjoying the grip of the pen and the variegated  motions of my hand,
delighting in the formation of an inimitable hieroglyphic scribble, half print and half script,
that betrays now my haste, now my hesitation, and that  only I, among all scholars, am
capable of transcribing to a standard font.

The smooth white paper on which I compose, with its cool blue lines, “college – ruled,”
and thin red margins, is bound in what we used to call  a Barclay notebook.  (The current
edition says “Top Flight Composition Book” but it’s exactly the same thing.)  I purchased
this item, despite vague misgivings, in preference to the more common spiral–bound
notebook, simply because it was on sale for a dollar.  (I would not compromise where it
matters, and would always (for example) pay a higher price for a better brand of
spaghetti, but paper is paper, and with writing, unlike cooking, it’s the thought that
counts.)  And so, through this endless summer, this summer of “heavenly length”, to use
the term Schumann applied to Schubert’s expansive and sunlit  C major symphony when
he found it, languishing  unknown to the world, among the deceased composer’s articles
– throughout this summer of heavenly length my little Barclay notebook has served, like
those two dozen other notebooks I have stored away, as a sketchbook for a range of
projects from music to poetry, from scholarly articles to fiction, from journal entries to
philosophical meditations.

Philosophical meditations?  In modern literature it is common for the author to choose, as
his subject, the act of writing itself.   Wallace Stevens, for  instance,  composed poems
on the subject of poetry, and (to trace this practice back  further) it is thought by some
that  Prospero’s magical manipulations in
The Tempest symbolize Shakespeare’s
theatrical art: the play’s about writing a play.  Continuing and extending this practice, I
desire, in this essay, to turn that which I write  upon – this Barclay notebook – into that
which I write about.

Now, who among us does not remember the thrill of encountering, as a child, some
object, such as an ashtray or a tablecloth, that experience will later teach us is ordinary,
common, but which is as yet unmediated by any context, thus seemingly remarkable?  
We are at that  moment like some lifelong inhabitant of a dense forest, emerging for the
first time from foliage and mist, stumbling upon the spectacle of the sun rising over the
sea, and I think it’s something like this that the student, nine years old, must feel as he
contemplates, in the strangeness of his new, September classroom, his first Barclay
notebook.

What strikes us first?  (Later on, when we turn to the inside back cover, we will discover
those inscrutable tables of cubic measures,  avoirdupois weights, Troy weights (24
grams = 1 pennyweight) and liquid measure ( 2 barrels = 1 hogshead) – arcane
information whose acquisition seems to promise initiation to some esoteric society or
Gnostic  cult.)

But what strikes us first? Might it  be the pleasing tension we sense between the simple
geometry of the black background and the disheveled chaos of those randomly shaped
and randomly distributed flecks of white,  like a work of modern art, combining the
“allover” style of Jackson Pollack with the austere palette of Franz Kline?

Or is it an image of outer space that comes to the young mind, the suggestion of
countless scattered lights afloat in the void?  For like the stars of the night sky these little
white patches and dots seem unevenly distributed but nearly so, failing, on the one
hand, to present a perceptible regularity, while refusing, at the other extreme,  to afford
any significant contrast, resulting in the impression of “consistent inconsistency” and
reminding me of one of those long (I was going to say meandering) sitar improvisations
by Ravi Shankar,  perhaps an “evening raga” (whose nocturnal context would validate
my yawning, would make of my intermittent snores  a sign of acute sensitivity).

But is it truly random?  My nine year old mind was already cynical enough to suspect
that, for purposes of mass production (all my friends had Barclays) it would be
impractical to require an artist painstakingly to create an endless proliferation of
changing designs.  So I began to search, beneath the impression of the surface, for a
hidden pattern.

Forty five years later  I have found it.  (I recognize that this achievement pales before the
development of the theory of relativity and other  modern discoveries: it is a small victory
for a man of modest mental means.)  

Here’s the solution:  First, choose any shape on the Barclay cover and move your finger
vertically, up or down from that point, until you encounter the same shape again.  The
distance will always be 3.5 inches.  Next, from the same shape, move your finger
horizontally, left or right, until you encounter the same shape again.  The distance will
always be 2.5 inches.  

If we were two-dimensional inhabitants of the surface of the Barclay notebook, and if our
definition of  “universe” is “everything that is,” we could conclude that the universe is a
rectangle, 3.5 – 2.5 inches.  This universe, unlike ours (which is described as
unbounded (since its horizon is receding) but finite is, on the contrary, bounded (having
the precise form of a rectangle, 3.5 – 2.5 inches)  but infinite (containing within itself no
repetition, no pattern, no design).  

But what (as curious inhabitants of that little rectangular shape will inquire) is beyond the
universe?  The answer is: beyond the rectangular universe, 3.5 – 2.5 inches, is the same
universe, repeated
ad infinitum, which makes the Barclay notebook a kind of multiverse,
spectacular to contemplate but valueless, laden with redundancies, for to escape, in
some future incarnation, or through some miracle of science, the confines of the present
world, would only be to arrive at the same reality, neither more nor less transparent than
this one, and so, effectively, to get nowhere at all.

In addition to this,upon further study it becomes apparent that our 3.5 – 2.5 inch universe
is a veritable microcosm of the larger reality comprising the entire Barclay notebook
(whose precise dimensions are 9.75 – 7.5 inches).  And so (on the positive side) we
could derive from this information the principle that a thorough investigation of what’s  
available to our scrutiny can offer us insights into the nature of that which is beyond us;
and by analogy we could conclude that knowledge of the world is possible through
contemplation of the self.    For man, like our smaller rectangle, is not merely a fragment
but a unity, a totality, a smaller, self-contained world whose completeness makes him an
image of the larger world without.

And as, by invoking life, in speaking of humanity, of existing things, I am led from the
abstract toward the warmth and solidity of the real, I am persuaded to reconsider the
significance of those repetitions of the rectangle which (perhaps too hastily) I dismissed
as “valueless, laden with redundancies.”  Perhaps it’s neither laziness nor the
constraints of mass production that led the creators of the Barclay cover to invent an
internally patternless design but then repeat it endlessly, filling up the space of the larger
rectangle: perhaps it is the altogether commendable desire (I almost said divine
inspiration) to reconcile form with infinity.  For mere form, finite and fixed, is lifeless, while
the infinite, by its nature, can never actually be.  And is this not what we are – infinite
desire, bright chaos, enclosed in frail, elegant bodies?  Is this not the mystery of the
world?  Is not this tension, between the boundlessness of our feeling and the limits of
language, what makes beauty, that intuition of an indestructible order glimpsed, in our
fleeting existences, against the shadow of death?