Of Commonplaces

An Essai
To Montaigne

As it is said,
“Possessed with hellish torment,
I master magics five.”

Where are the Commonplaces of my generation? This universal, perhaps conversational, well of references and information, is it gone? I could call it culture, but if Commonplaces are gone, then that would imply we have no culture, and clearly we do.

Do we lack universal Commonplaces, or Topoi? Is Topoi the right word? Perhaps not. There have been common contexts, things culturally assumed, in the past. Etiquette, manners, may have been one. Television, I have been told, used only to have a few dominant channels, so everyone was familiar with a certain set of shows. Certain religious folk had common stories, and did such-and-such once a week. Many cultures had common folklore, be it gnomes or elves hiding under mushrooms. Toadstools.

The Commonplaces of my generation seem to have disintegrated. Perhaps postmodernism truly permeated the culture and grand narratives are all gone. So all we were left with was the fragmented and unrelatable childhoods. Now, technology-assisted isolation.

Anthropologists and Communications scholars speak of “Low Context,” and “High Context” cultures. In high context cultures there is a lot of assumed etiquette, behaviour, and knowledge. They can be inaccessible to outsiders. Examples include France and Japan. Low context cultures are the opposite, they tend to be very direct because no information is assumed. America is a prime example, but it seems that even up here in Canada, things are similar. There is a lack of Commonplaces.

Even in education, nothing of interest is made universal. Perhaps high school Shakespeare, though my peers and I dozed through it (and thus fail to remember). And so, lacking universal Commonplaces, for I cannot; as past figures like Montaigne, Cornwallis the Younger, or Bacon did; reference what were at a time Commonplaces. Aristotelian assumptions, Seneca’s assertions, Solomon’s Proverbs, Cicero’s arguments, Homer’s longwinded epics; I cannot expect to get away with quoting such figures—especially uncited—without frustrating my reader (though apparently, I can get away with an early print style page-long sentence, as good Cornwallis did).

So where do I find my Commonplaces? What words of wisdom have I absorbed, memoria? I can pull mostly from…song lyrics. Perhaps that is a Topoi of our age; as the music industry auto-tunes art, lyrics become a universal of sorts. Isn’t there a phone number that people of a generation previous to mine have universally memorized? Is “Eight six seven five three oh nine” a modern Commonplace? I digress. I personally can cull mostly from heavy metal songs, which already puts me in a minority (which incidentally includes a lot of men in their 50s).

And so as I struggle throughout the year and watch my sleep slide later and later until I sleep through morning classes, or reading week; or end of term comes to (however briefly) ruin my life, what Commonplace wisdom literature can I proclaim?

“Possessed with hellish torment,
I master magics five.”

Yet there are problems here too. First, and most egregious, there is the “inside-joke,” where only those familiar with “Five Magics” by Megadeth will understand where this is coming from. Then—worse—there is the inside-joke. What are the “Magics Five?” The song does list them, but I tend to extend the idea beyond its original intent. This is an “inside joke” where only those familiar with the inside of my head will understand where I’m coming from. Quite the opposite of a commonplace.

Artistically, I like to fancy that, as an English Literature (and therefore Humanities, and therefore, in some sense, partial Liberal Arts) major, I do study many things. A broad education. The original Liberal Arts were made up of quite specific subjects. The Trivium were the “humanities,” grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The Quadrivium were the “sciences,” arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and…music. The Trivium and Quadrivium made up the Liberal arts.

So, but the simple logic of counting, I conflate the two subjects thusly: Trivium, Quadrivium, Magics Five. So, I study broad education, parts of the Trivium, not quite the Quadrivium, but certainly the “Magics” five, whatever “magic” happens to be in the context. Perhaps poetry, perhaps philosophy, or transcendentalism, romanticism… Magics Five, like Liberal Arts, is a broad term. Thus, as I struggle with my own personal problems whilst also working through my education,

“Possessed with hellish torment,
I master magics five.”

But to return to the topic a hand, Megadeth is hardly a Commonplace. So without my excessive explanation, I can’t assume a person knows certain lyrics off hand, and then use it as a launching point for inspiration. And certainly, I cannot use it as a proof for a statement in my essay. Unlike the essayist Montaigne, I have not memorized bits of Plutarch or Homer. I’ve memorized bits of Mustaine. I know of what the old Renaissance Humanists used to reference, but I’ve barely read any of it. They, the educated classes, had these Commonplaces of knowledge.

Have we lost such Commonplaces? What about in university, where I currently sit? Even in my own education, I have managed to dodge Shakespeare so far, and yet I could tell you all about the madman William Blake. What a strange time to be educated.

Certes then, the Commonplaces of our age must be Trump, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones. People know these things, or know of these things. And yet, they are not sources of education or wisdom, they are all forms of entertainment.

Daniel Triumph.

This is quite messy at the moment, but it is in the style of the original essay. Essays as a format or genre really began in 1580 with Michel de Montaigne’s publication of his “Essais.”

He states they were for”some traits of my character and of my humours.” After being translated to English, British figures like Francis Bacon and Sir William Cornwallis the Younger picked up the form.

It was used for internal thought and dialogue; to bring the reader into a conversation rather than to answer or solve a question.

I think my essay is quite rough at the moment, but it does show a certain train of though I had a few days ago. I may clean it up while trying to maintain that sense of “thought” in the future.

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