Notes on Notes


Arts & Culture

August Müller, Liebesglück – der Tagebucheintrag (Detail), ca. 1885, oil on canvas, 12 3/4″ x 10 1/2″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When I think of books or works I love that reference the “note” in their titles, I begin to realize that it’s not the note as such that is the defining feature of these books, but the preposition that accompanies the word: Notes OF a Native Son; Notes ON Camp; Notes FROM Underground. In the first case, the weight falls on the particular subject position of the writer. What makes the note signify is the “Native Son,” James Baldwin, whose notes these are. In the second case, the phrase deflects our attention away from polemic even though the essay overflows with assertions. There is a certain authorial insouciance that becomes possible when I deign to publish my “notes on” anything, as if to say one can only claim such indefinite a phrase for a title if one is feeling very definite about oneself. But, then, to combine the “note” with “camp” is to ironize the note itself, decked out as an Oscar Wildean aphorism, and Sontag’s “notes on,” in this case, is more audacious than strictly philosophic. In the case of the marvelous Dostoyevsky title (and I have to say I don’t know how it sounds in the original Russian), the place from which the notes issue takes top billing, and this requires that we heed the type of notes these are (like those secreted in a bottle or furtively slipped through the chink in a wall); their intended recipient (surely not me, not you, but some accidental or imagined Other); and the ambiguity of their authorship (are they those we’d rather suppress, sent from unconscious to conscious? those scripted in a hand not our own but issuing through us? those that will tarnish the minute they hit the light of day or the piercing eye of the wrong recipient?).

Notes are never neutral.

Take the “extreme literary empiricism” of Georges Perec’s post-Holocaust, post–May ’68 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (translated by Marc Lowenthal) alongside Dziga Vertov’s post–Bolshevik Revolution manifestos on the camera eye as an exceptionally attentive note taker. Both projects are underscored by a distinctive politics of noting, in the first instance of the “infraordinary,” or as Lowenthal describes it, “the humdrum, the nonevent, the everyday—‘what happens,’ as [Perec] puts it, ‘when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds,’” and in the second instance, of what Vertov calls “life caught unawares.” The constraint that Perec gave to himself was to return to the same Parisian locale over the course of three days, and to record “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance.” A fastidiously observed record of quotidiana, the book erupts into a subtly divined poetry of all that slips past the surveying gaze of the omnipresent police.

Perec is always working within and against the de-realization of the Holocaust and its diabolic inventories. In this, I am reminded of Osip Mandelstam and how those few who survived him (at least fifteen hundred writers died under Stalinism between 1924 and 1953) held fast to the belief that someone had scrawled onto a labor camp wall a line from one of his poems, even though it was never clear where and when exactly Mandelstam died. That sentence read: “Am I real and will death really come?” Like Vertov working in a much earlier period, Perec’s hyperrealism is never hard-edged—it matches atrocity with ebullience, playfulness, and even laughter. For a politics of noting, there was none better than Vertov, whose dedication to visual phenomena only accessible to the camera eye had as its self-expressed aim “so that we not forget what happens and what the future must take into account.”

We come into the world handled, carried, and, it is hoped, caressed, passed from hand to hand to hand, and gaze to gaze, a life-giving relay that yields in time a painstaking and laborious self-configuration arrived at via endless forms of representation, all of them historically grounded and politically imbued; we learn, if you will, to see, and by extension, to know, think, and feel. Imagine having the audacity to try to alter characteristic modes of perception and discourse by way of your notational art as Perec, as Vertov, did, convinced that this is where political change begins.

Imagine how this requires that we do some noting about noting, that we study our relationship to how and what we note. To do that, let’s put to one side all the things we know about notes—for example, that they range in registers of mere mention to emphases, from enumerations to underscores—then climb a winding stair of counterintuitions, like:

  • that notes are the minima that constitute a life
  • that in the notebook everything is plagiarized and nothing is
  • that a note will never tell us if it aims to finish a thought or begin one, only that it wishes neither to complete nor conclude
  • that some notes are nothing more than desperate attempts to “latch” on (here, Melanie Klein has a field day)
  • that the writer is the person on whom nothing is lost but who also, in order to write anything, needs to act on what’s important, i.e., to choose
  • that the note is a diminutive genre or minor literature—I mean, would anyone’s claim to fame be that they were an accomplished note taker? That they had created in the little lives we’re given not the consummate book or film or painting but the consummate note? This is a good thing—too much pressure would kill the note and keep it from holding thought in suspension; plus, ask any essayist you know and they are always more happy to be listed as a “notable” essayist, and thus an essayist of interest, than be marred by the finality of a “best”
  • that though we consider the note the most natural recording device, it is hard to know whether we note to remember or note to forget
  • that to transcribe is just that—to bring a message across a threshold
  • that noteworthy is redundant
  • that the problem with the books that we write is that they are written in one language and one language only whereas our notes in every case represent a congregation of different types of signs and are rarely univocal
  • that footnotes, endnotes, and liner notes each are different types of steps on an Escher-esque ladder of knowing
  • that, in our current age, the worst form of noting is the trash genre, typically anonymous, called the “comment”
  • that there is possibly no note that doesn’t position the writer as amanuensis, requiring therefore a master text, out of view, that the notebook serves. I have found no way to get around this.
  • that if the notecard is the book’s filing system and therefore also its kernel or code, we might try translating it backward to see where it arrives rather than forward into fast-moving paragraphs of prose
  • that there are those who will consider this so much silliness—the notebook as impenetrable abstraction, often unreadable even by oneself—and others who will recognize it as the workshop of our appetites and our strivings, the oft-neglected tracings of the soul
  • that notes are a matter of life and death, as Audre Lorde reminds us, the nonperson is she of whom it will be said “no note taken,” while others we might say are duly noted and dutifully, too
  • that context is everything—like the question of what I noticed in the worst five minutes of waiting in my life, waiting for “the news” of a cancer diagnosis—and how I realized more than ever then how I wanted the impossible: for the world to notice that I was in it, while I was living, and to notice, just as significantly, that I’d gone
  • that the only definition of note worth retaining for our purposes is “any of the basic components of the fragrance of a perfume which give it its character: a component of aroma of food or a flavor, drink, esp. wine.” The best notes, the etymology instructs us, are those that combine the musical sense, a sounding, and the hidden comportment of a scent or flavor: a tinge or a tang.

My love of notes and note taking is essentially sensual, bound together with three memories of feltness from my satchel-clanging schoolgirl days. There’s that combination of care and longing I recall when, too young to read, we’d be sent home with “notes” pinned to the fronts of our plaid uniforms. I’d be out of breath from running or in anticipation of bolting through the door, when a hand without a face would pull me toward it and attach a piece of paper to my person with something written on it. It’d be a message to our mothers about a school assignment or a class trip. The hand was warm, the small, brass safety pin cold; the paper was white and cotton, the cloth was green and cotton; the press of their finger to my chest was somehow loving or at the very least knowing—it knew that the note would stay affixed in spite of any rough-and-tumble movements en route with it. I was and wasn’t aware of the note, part of it and apart from it; I wanted to know what it contained—to learn to read it—but I also liked the feel of being nothing more than a carrier pigeon and the moment of revelation when, delivering the note in the form of myself to my mother, she would hold it to a light, unfold and decipher it.

There were afternoons, never mornings, when a teacher would announce the occasion of a “film strip.” Then we might settle in for a good dose of boredom since “film strips” always also bore the label “educational.” The “film,” more like a series of slides that were lent the feeling of cinema by an accompanying soundtrack, would be fed into a contraption by one set of hands, while another set of hands dimmed the lights to nearly total darkness. The metal apparatus gave off pulses of warmth from its motor and the whole affair was accompanied by a fuzzy-sounding beep that signaled to the operator (also known as the teacher) to advance the “film.” I experienced, if you can believe me, the beep as a dot, or point or note, sometimes red, and sometimes black. The voices, on the accompanying cassette tape or record player, often crackled and sometimes gurgled as though suspended in some underwater place—they were never crystal clear, and the dot (I mean beep) would both wake me up and bid me sleep as it slid, Doppler-like, elongating, then contracting, its tone, always out of sync with the image that sometimes would get stuck between frames. It would feel to me then that the room had become layered with a kind of ectoplasmic cookie dough that, hovering around us, urged into being the most surrealistic naps.

Each memory of a note-filled feltness had to do with noticing, which had to do with missing—missing what we’d been told to pay attention to. I don’t remember a single piece of information from a slide reel, but I was forever impressed by its intervallic “dot.” So, too, with the educator’s instrument called “a pointer.” I’m not sure what it pointed at, what it aimed for me to see, but I do recall a feeling of experiencing it as a false finger, with a bendy rubber tip. I remember fastening on the way that it softened when it pressed into a blackboard, and smeared the chalk.


Mary Cappello’s six books of literary nonfiction include a detour on awkwardness; a breast-cancer anti-chronicle; a lyric biography; and the mood fantasia Life Breaks In. A former Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, she is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and Lucerne-in-Maine, Maine. Her most recent book is Lecture.

Excerpted from Lecture. Used with the permission of the publisher, Transit Books. Copyright © 2020 by Mary Cappello.