Writing in awe

The earliest evidence of human writing deals with the practicalities of life: accounts, lists, concern for the daily life. In every culture and society, the beginnings of writing take us back to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. It would appear that the earliest scribes only thought of the practicalities of life, the record of the most basic needs, food, shelter, equipment, etc.

Or it may just be that this kind of record was far more widespread than any other, religious, artistic, magical, the kind of writing which leaves the world of the body behind and seeks the transcendental. For this reason, more of the former type would have survived.

The Bronze Age invention of writing was doubled by a mythology of writing. A Sumeric poem from around 1800 BC recounts how writing emerged to save words from oblivion. Later myths put the gods right at the centre of the writing revolution.

The earliest remains of writing systems may be about conveying trivial information, but there is no question that writing was seen, from the start, by those who practised it, as the most advanced technology that mankind has ever possessed. In many ways, this is still true. Writing has given rise and shaped almost all aspects of our lives and culture. The only difference between us and the earliest practicians of writing is that we underrate the miracle of script. If Chomsky is right and we are endowed with a natural capacity for language, it doesn’t mean that we are born with a sense of script. Writing remains a contingency on the stage of human culture. So next time you write something, even if it’s a mere shopping list, do it in awe for the thing that could very well not have been.

Cut, Copy and Paste

Most of us using the cut, copy and paste function of digital word processors have never actually cut, copy and pasted bits of paper inscribed with printed text. One of the conveniences of the typographical age was translated, via metaphor and catachresis, into one of the essential editorial tools of the electronic age. That is because, as with other things, the digital world developed too fast for its architects to consider vocabulary too deeply. As is the case with most inventions and technological developments, terminology obeys the rule of familiarity. It makes adoption easier.

The typographical practice of cuting, copying and pasting was a series of physical operations dealing with physical text. Text may be a vehicle for disembodied ideas or abstractions, but it exists in physical, tangible space. Editing is a rearrangement of that physical space. It is the limits of that space and other physical constraints that led to the development of copying, cutting and pasting bits of printed text from one medium onto another. It is precisely because text has a claim on space that this editorial convenience saw the light of day.

Cutting copying and pasting (CCP) is violence done to the text. From a fundamental point of view, it’s not different from the pre-typographical practice of erasing or scraping a vellum manuscript. The wounds of this violence are indelible, both in the medium which has been cut and in that onto which the cut has been pasted. CCP, in this pre-electronic context, makes a textual archeology possible. That’s not the case, however, with CCP in a Word processor.

The electronic CCP is a purely disembodied application. It is made possible because text is itself disembodied. Its existence is physical but not tangible, to the effect that its form is always at risk of metamorphosis. Seen from this perspective, electronic text is like sound, ephemeral, provisional, subject to constant editing. Editing electronic text is not violence, it is pre-creational modelling. Once CCP has been done, the text can assume its pre-incarnational self. Until printed or inscribed, it floats in an indeterminate space, however much we click save and make copies of the document file. Text is not ‘saved’ until it’s been allowed to be born.

Sign your name across my art

Screenshot 2020-08-28 at 3.59.29.png
A fragment of a cup from ancient Ischia (Pithekoussai) inscribed with the artist’s name (…-inos), reproduced from Jeffrey M. Hurwit, Artists and Signatures in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 2015), p. 72

The oldest artist’s signature in Europe comes from a little fragment of a krater cup from the island of Ischia off Naples made in the 8th century BC. The Phoenician letters inscribed on the shard read, from right to left: INOSMEPOIES[E]. Expanded, the inscription says that someone whose name ending in -inos ‘made me’ (-INOS ME POIESE). The earliest surviving signature gives voice to the created object, not the artist. It is the creation talking, not the author. It is hard not to think of Pygmalion and Galatea, the statue becoming human in the skilled hands of the artist, the object leaving its objectivity behind to become a personable subject. For the ancients, art was truly creative, and had the power to animate, to breathe life into lifeless matter.

For antiquity and most of the medieval period, the object would often tell the story of its creation. A 10th-century sword found at Sigridsholm, Sweden bears the inscription INGRLRII ME FECIT, Ingrlrii made me. On a sixth-century brocaded tabletwoven band, the words ‘Alienor regina me fecit’ suggests that Alienor of Aquitaine fashioned the embroidery herself. Each time, the object testifies to its author. The message is clear: authorship is not an abstract category floating in creative space, but it is understood as part of the creation itself. The artefact breathes, speakes, proclaims its autonomy, its history, its pride.

The scientific turn in European culture at the very end of the medieval period represented a shift from art as embodiment to an understanding of the artistic object as removed from organic ties of paternity. The object’s clear, authoritative voice dissolves into the modern signature as we know it: the artist’s name inscribed, as possession, on the heart of the artefact.

Ages in literary nutshells

Our age has witnessed great achievements in all areas of life. But it seems to me that late modernity hasn’t yet been able to produce a literary work capable of encapsulating the spirit of our age, a single work of essential synthesis, a synopsis of all the knowledge, vitality, concerns, fears and passions of the world we live in. It might be because our age is more fragmented than previous ones, or that we have lost the ability to represent ourselves in meaningful ways. We are like atoms floating in molecular space unable to form molecules and form a coherent picture of themselves.

Distant ages were successfully captured in literary nutshells. The preclassical period of capricious gods and fearless heroes was distilled in Homer’s epic poems. The restraint and rationality of the classical period found a home in Virgil’s Aeneid. The complexity of the Western medieval period found a convergence plane in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Each of these works constitutes the DNA of the age that produced them. Engaging with them is like rolling out a tightly packed carpet, unlocking the fragrances of an entire age. They are compelling precisely because of this unique quality they possess. They are like essential oils, concentrated particles preserving the secrets of lost worlds, waiting to be unravelled, broken and dispensed.

Ancient bestsellers

Screenshot 2020-08-27 at 10.00.06.png
A 12th-century copy of Virgil’s Aeneid preserved in Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 165

It has been estimated that a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid cost the equivalent of 160 litres of wine in the Roman empire in the 4th century AD. The Aeneid was an instant bestseller, not least because it had been commissioned and sponsored by Octavian Augustus, the first emperor, himself. It doesn’t matter, the epic poem which was going to be on every pupil’s desk for nearly two thousand years, was an expensive item to possess. If you were on a budget and happened to love wine – and most Romans did both – you would think twice before purchasing such an extravagant object.

In our time, bestselling books are the cheapest. Popularity cuts the price down. It’s always cheaper to make two items rather than one. Of course, unless you’re making a book in the age before the printing press. Then one book is as expensive to produce as the next one, and a bestselling work, although easier to procure, doesn’t necessarily carry a lighter price tag. Developments in bookmaking in the West during the last centuries of the medieval period (12th-15th centuries) saw the emergence of a new economic model for bestsellers. Even before the mechanisation of writing enabled by the printing press, it became cheaper to purchase books – and the more popular a work was, the cheaper it tended to be, not because it was more expensive to make a book out of it, but because the text was more available and the scribes could copy the same text more efficiently.

As universities emerged in the West in the 13th and 14th centuries, the bestselling works were, for a while, university books. It was perhaps the only time in European history when bestsellers were schoolbooks rather than works aimed at a more general readership. But in time, as literacy spread to all the layers of society, the bestseller left the schoolyard to join the marketplace – and the most popular books were also the cheapest ones.

Tabula rasa

Screenshot 2020-08-26 at 9.01.03.png
Write your name on this tablet, please! Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, 838

The smart tablet may be smart, but it’s a tablet after all. The ancients and the medievals also used tablets, which were often the size of an iPad mini. The wax tablets were also pretty smart. They were not powered, except by human energy, but they packed some impressive technology: erasable wax, which is to say that the hard drive was hard only for a while as the scribe inscribed letters with a metal pointed tool called a stylus. Once the wax surface was completely covered with the traces of letters, the tablet’s memory reached maximum capacity and had to be transferred unto another surface. The tablet’s mobility was high, but its memory was fairly low. In some cases, multiple tablets were attached together like the pages of a book and thus the memory was extended. Most surviving tablets are foldable. 

It is unclear when wax tablets were invented and who first had the idea of writing on erasable wax. That wax may be written on is not a huge leap of imagination. After all, wax seals were used in the earliest civilisations. The plasticity of warm wax and the solidity of it when cooled down make it perfect for impressions. If writing can be engraved in stone, it can certainly be impressed in wax as well. It is when we move from the permanence of a writing medium – like writing in clay, stone, or on softer material like papyrus – to the ephemerality of reheated wax that we see the genius of the wax tablet invention. Tablets such as these could be reused by warming up the wax surface and rearranging the wax using a spatula-like tool. Once the text had been copied onto a more solid medium, then the tablet could be reheated, smoothed, erased and reused. The tablet, tabula in Latin, was made rasa, meaning blank. A reused wax tablet was a tabula rasa as it preserved no memory of its earlier ridges. 


A blogging adventure

Exactly a year ago I made the decision to revive this blog by posting a short article every day. My blogging adventure began with a promise: not to let a day pass without sharing a thought, an idea, a musing, however banal, about history, culture and the challenges of our late modernity.

The road has been long but gratifying. The challenge to find a topic each day, to build a readership, to captivate a few fellow travellers, has been more rewarding than I initially thought. There have been days spent staring at the blank screen, brief moments of creative panic as topics failed to present themselves or the fear of irrelevancy or triviality loomed large. But it paid off.

The process has also been a journey of self-discovery and growth. I learned about my readers as well as about myself. I understood what constitutes a gripping story and what doesn’t. I learned a lot about discipline and resilience, as I struggled to keep the dailies coming in every single day of the year, come rain or come shine. What began as a rather crude self-ativistic project ended in a desire to keep my readers interested, and I’d like to thank all of you who over the last 365 days have encouraged me to keep going.

So this anniversary post is dedicated to all of you who have subscribed, or who remember to visit this lonely corner every now and then. I couldn’t have done it without you, and I still can’t do it without your help, excitement and loyalty.

The adventure continues.

Living with the past

There are several ways of living with the past. One is to fetishize it and lock it in a museum, looking at it from the distance of an exhibit, a display which only serves to underline the gulf between ourselves and those who lived and died before us. The present is disconnected from the past, the past becomes untouchable history, to be studied, understood but kept away from. This is the past as patrimoine, an approach the French seem to be most skilled at.

Another way is to let it engulf us in ways in which it becomes unclear where the line between generations should be drawn, if it must be drawn at all. The ruins of the past are the garden in which we choose to build our house. There is no way of telling where our world begins and where theirs ends. This is the past as a decadent universe, which I find Italy to be one of the best representatives of.

Yet another way is to commodify it, which is to extract benefits from it, to turn it into a sightseeing tour, a mass of landmarks, a gallery of death masks for the sole purpose of entertainment. It is the past as theme park. It seems to be the British way.

One must also bear in mind the spirit of a society and the way in which the history of a place is understood by its inhabitants. Merchant societies tend to commodify the past, while those who may want to distance themselves from their past are more likely to museify their history, to look at it from the vantage point of a disinterested observer, the Romantic onlooker scrutinising the stormy sea from the safety of a rock.


The 12th-century church of St Peter of Portovenere appears before the unaware sailot

How many of us have witnessed the thrill but also the relief of spotting land in a sea of landlessness, of seeing the lights of the coast through the pitch-black night?

Lifelines are invisible but they are tangible.

They find us as much as we find them. And when we do find them, we hold on to them like sailors eyeing the landline. There’s nothing more urgent and more compelling than the assurance in the proximity of safety. This only makes sense when danger is real, when the end is in sight. Most of us don’t ever feel that, and none should. But at the same time, everyone must.

You look out for a stretch of land, the flickering of hope pushing your sails on, when suddenly you glimpse a broken line rising from the sea. The waves’ dominion has its limits, after all. A few moments later, you catch the din of bells of a distant church, and you wonder where you are, still on the sea or on your way beyond space and time. But the space is overwhelming, and you cling to that broken line like a rope thrown in the middle of the ocean. And you pull and pull and pull until you reach the shore. And then you look back and smile.

Tainted landscapes

The maquis overlooking the Golfo Dei Poeti outside La Spezia, Italy

For me, the quintessence of the Mediterranean landscape is the evergreen shrubland covering most of the lands around the sea, as well as those of its islands. This biome is known in French as ‘maquis’ and in Italian as ‘macchia’, hence the term maquis shrubland in English. In French, the word also designates metonymically the French resistance, whose rural guerilla fighters had initially taken refuge in the woods and the maquis during the Nazi occupation.

The maquis is everywhere, revealing and concealing the profusion of the Mediterranean’s natural energy. Its dark green tones are a welcome sign that the sea rules those lands. The wine-dark sea needs suitable chromatic companionship.

A cypress or a parasol pine tree breaks away from the maquis cluster on a hill or mountain top to remind us that one can make it on its own in those parts, that the Mare Nostrum has welcomes everybody.

The maquis is a brushstroke on the face of the earth, a stain made around the sea for the sake of beauty and contrast. The root of the word maquis is the Latin macula which means stain. The opposite of macula leads to immaculat, unstained, untouched, but it doesn’t really apply to the maquis, whose beauty is as unspoiled as it is enduring.

Your next caffe macchiato or morning maquillage will get you thinking about how stained (with shrubland, milk or makeup) the world really is.