A notebook I was given as a present, many years ago, contains words other people wrote. It’s an old habit of mine to copy passages from books which I’ve read. I write down bits of text I found meaningful or simply beautiful, but most often, I copy those words which mysteriously speak out my own experiences. Much like Johannes Brahms and his notebooks of citations, as I recently found out.
It has a hard cover, my notebook, and an inner pocket, where I keep a list of the quoted books as a table of content. Each entry begins with the title and author, followed by the current month and year, all underlined with a festive straight line. I use the spine of the book I am about to quote as a ruler. The thicker the book, the better it works.
Upon noticing a potential citation I fold the corner of the page. When I reach the back cover, I return to each folded page to read through it once again. The cutting-floor rule is simple: if I can’t remember why I folded the page and which words did I intend to keep, then they shouldn’t have made it to my notebook in the first place. And so I curate an archive of those moments, when I slowed down the reading-voice in my head, only to repeat a phrase and let it resonate with my own thoughts.
The ritual of revisiting the text and collecting poetic relics, is like saying farewell, and I’m left with a chest of souvenirs from far away lands.
“Like a diary in other people’s words” as Jan Swafford says in his biography of Johannes Brahms, referring to the latter’s notebooks of citations.
As someone who thought in tones and felt clumsy with language, he was willing throughout his life to let writers articulate ideas for him. Thus the quotes of “Des jungen Kreislers Schatzkästlein” that filled several notebooks from his teens and twenties.
– Jan Swafford / Johannes Brahms: A Biography
Truth must be said, it is quite impossible to proof how exactly Brahms thought. I imagine biographers must be challenged by the need to put facts on paper, while still creating literature… A biography which doesn’t “tell a story”, candid as it might be, is, to most, unreadable. And thus artistic ambition might allow mere assumptions to be offered as facts. Such might be the case with Swafford’s explanation of those notebooks. All in all, it is an excellent biography.
I personally doubt Brahms’ habit to collect citations attests to his “clumsy” feeling towards language. His letters (to his parents, to the Schumanns or to Joseph Joachim – to name a few), suggest anything but clumsiness with words. In any case, I believe the practice of safe-keeping other people’s words illustrate quite the opposite than lingual discomfort.
I picture myself Brahms sitting down to his desk, an open book before him, and his notebook ready to be fed. How romantic, to think that we have something in common. For there are endless ways to absorb art and intellect, yet Brahms and I chose a similar way to document our ventures.
He named his notebooks “Des jungen Kreislers Schatzkästlein” – The Young Kreisler’s Treasure Chest. Young Kreisler being Brahms himself, in his alter ego – an identity he borrowed from E. T. A. Hoffmann, one of the most quoted writers in his collection. “I remain Your faithful Jos Brahms Kreisler jun”, writes Brahms to Joachim, ending a letter from June 1853. As a young man he used this pseudonym so often, that even his friends sometimes referred to him as Kreisler. Styra Avins writes:
[…] one may learn something about the young Johannes Brahms by forming a more complete acquaintance with Johannes Kreisler, the fictional Kapellmeister with whom Brahms felt such affinity.
– Styra Avins / Johannes Brahms: Life and Letter
That the great composer chose to bestow ownership of his “diary in other people’s words” to a fictional persona, seems only natural. While the words of others evidently had the virtue of expressing his inner world, the invention of an author he admired gave him a name and identity. The treasure chest is a summation of Brahms’ personality, represented by some of the finest writers of his age. An anthology of cultural references shedding a light over his own taste, ideals and general approach to life. Show me your quotes and I’ll tell you who you are… I also see myself in my pile of citations.
“It is astonishing that thoughts are invisible” – these were the very first words I wrote for this magazine, and they refer to the difficulty one feels every once in while, to express ideas in a way approachable to others. A genuine thought might feel crystal clear up until we attempt to put it out there, realising how big of a challenge it is, after all. More than often, it is in other people’s voice that we find material to express ourselves. Our own humble story is, indeed, the continuation of a tale told before, and most likely, the preface for more to come.
Behind every ‘Once upon a time’ there is always another. Have you ever tried standing between two mirrors? You should. You will see a great long line of shiny mirrors, each one smaller than the one before, stretching away into the distance, getting fainter and fainter, so that you never see the last. But even when you can’t see them any more, the mirrors still go on. They are there, and you know it.
– E. H. Gombrich /A Little History of the World