When writing takes flight

As soon as they’re written down, words like to take off. My calamus and attempt at writing Greek letters on papyrus 15 years ago.

Spoken words fly. Verba volant. But written words may take flight too. Especially if they’re written with a quill, which is, as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once put it, ‘a small piece of bird’s flesh’. Writing is upward-facing, even when the words are written down. Writing is lift-off, the act of inscribing meaning on a hard or soft surface transcends the hand which does it. As soon as it’s written up, the text abandons its maker to start a life of its own. And that life begins up there, where no-one can grasp it, though everyone can see it. There is nothing more renegade than the written word, whose allegiance lies nowhere, as it leads a guerrilla war against time and decay.

We may pursue the metaphor of the flying quill to expose its rival: the reed pen, the calamus, a writing instrument we associate with the sands of Africa and the Middle East, with the papyrus plant at the edge of the water, with the ground and the dry heat. If the quill points up, the calamus points down, revealing the double motion of writing, its double nature, mineral and ethereal, permanent and evanescent.

Many authors exploited the metaphor of the written word at take-off, the quill painting the skies with words, the stones with other words, until every blank has been scribbled and every pause filled with words.

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