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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Idiot and his Penmanship

Let's start with Dostoevsky -- a very good place to start.
"Oho!" cried the general, looking at the calligraphy sample the prince presented. "That's a model hand! And a rare one, too! Look here, Ganya, what talent!"
On the thick sheet of vellum the prince had written a phrase in medieval Russian script:
"The humble hegumen Pafnuty here sets his hand to it."
Manuscript of a Russian hegumen source
"This," the prince explained with great pleasure and animation, "this is the actual signature of the hegumen Pafnuty, copied from a fourteenth-century manuscript. They had superb signatures, all those old Russian hegumens and metropolitans, and sometimes so tasteful, so careful! Can it be you don't have Pogodin's book, General? Then here I've written in a different script: it's the big, round French script of the last century; some letters are even written differently; it's a marketplace script, a public scrivener's script, borrowed from their samples (I had one) -- you must agree, it's not without virtue. Look at these round d's  and a's. I've transposed the French characters into Russian letters, which is very difficult, but it came out well. Here's another beautiful and original script, this phrase here: 'Zeal overcometh all.' This is a Russian script -- a scrivener's or military scrivener's, if you wish. It's an example of an official address to an important person, also a rounded script, nice and black, the writing is black, but remarkably tasteful. A calligrapher wouldn't have permitted these flourishes, or, better to say, these attempts at flourishes, these unfinished half-tails here -- you notice -- but on the whole, you see, it adds up to character, and, really, the whole military scrivener's soul is peeking out of it: he'd like to break loose, his talent yearns for it, but his military collar is tightly hooked, and discipline shows in the writing -- lovely! I was recently struck by a sample of it I found -- and where? in Switzerland! Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl: this is perfection: but here is a variation, again a French one, I borrowed it from a French traveling salesman: this is the same English script, but the black line is slightly blacker and thicker than in the English, and see -- the proportion of light is violated; and notice also that the ovals are altered, they're slightly rounder, and what's more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it."
"Oho! What subtleties you go into! the general laughed. "You're not simply a calligrapher, my dear fellow, you're an artist -- eh Ganya?" (The Idiot, trans. Pevear and Volokhnosky, (New York: Vintage Classics, 2002), 33-34.)
Sometimes I think that what I really want to do is become an expert in ancient books and be the head curator of a rare and precious manuscripts collection. That particular dream took definite shape the summer before last when I spent several days admiring such texts in silent wonder in Santiago in northern Spain. The day after I arrived there, the oldest written guide to the Camino pilgrimage, the Codex Calixtinus, was stolen from the museum's collection. Luckily it has since been recovered, but you can imagine, if you did not hear of it at the time, that people were very upset. Here's a page from that 12th century manuscript:

S. Iacobi Apostoli (St. James the Apostle) is written on the left page. His tomb is the end of the Camino pilgrimage.

The beauty in medieval manuscripts is incomparable. The general's exclamation in The Idiot, "You're not simply a calligrapher, my dear fellow, you're an artist," certainly applies to the painters of those old books. Of course, for them, it wasn't just about the words themselves; they meticulously worked in artistic details surrounding the letters and filling the margins of many of the pages with intricate pictures that helped further illuminate the text of each page. The Book of Kells is one of the most impressive examples of their art. Here are two pages of it for you, but really, you should google image it yourself to get a wider idea of the artistry, and see some images that you can zoom in on:


Of course, typing is now a much more common medium of words than physical writing, but I've always found the simple motion of writing, even if it's just copying something, very calming and soothing. I used to practice using my left hand when I found myself stuck in classes that were particularly boring, pointless and, as such, infuriating. It's meditative and relaxing in a way that few things are. And I like to think of all those monks who, for centuries, worked in their scriptoriums so painstakingly and beautifully preserving the Western Cannon for future generations. If you want to read more about that particular part of this story, find a copy of How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.


 Of course, as these manuscripts were written by actual people, they do have little mistakes here and there, which of course adds to the delight you can find in them. I mean, really, let's be honest; it's really fun to point out someone else's mistakes! Especially when they've been dead for centuries and are past all point of being offended by you. Handwriting has personality to it, gives you a sense of closeness to and understanding of the identity of the person writing (which is why letters are so important -- a subject currently stewing).

Prince Myshkin's excitement over the different types of writing (all of which are written by him!) is delightful. He understands the artistry of it, realizes the importance of variety for different occasions, and demonstrates how the personality of a certain style can affect the reader and inform his understanding of the writer's character and the information communicated. Of course, this didn't die away after Gutenberg; type settings and fonts, even computerized ones, still have a certain feel and mood to them. Comic Sans is, perhaps, the most widely used and thus misused of all. More on that here. And in the picture on the right. Of course, Helvetica is the font that one might say has taken the world by storm. It's the remarkably characterless font that simply informs without a color of emotion or personality. Road signs are in Helvetica. When I was in college I did an editorial internship with a publishing house, and I remember one afternoon we all stopped working to go watch a documentary movie about Helvetica. There was one rather unsavory individual whom they interviewed who said something along the lines of, "Some men get excited by looking at a girl's bottom, but me, I get excited about fonts." English wasn't his native language, so perhaps he might have expressed himself with more eloquence if he had known how. I think, though, without insulting Myshkin, that there is great deal of similarity between the two men. Myshkin loves the beauty in the shape and individuality of different styles of writing in the same way that this strange typeface designer loves fonts.

Now, much as I loved my students, and still do, I was horrified by their handwriting. I don't know what has happened in the last fifteen years (actually, yes I do -- thank you, computers), but back in my day, ages and ages ago, we had penmanship contests in school. We practiced cursive and print, and the best samples were put up on the classroom wall to inspire the rest of us to greatness. And I remember my mother giving me handwriting books, and having me practice tracing the letters over and over again. If I had had a little more liberty in curriculum design as a teacher (and by and large I was happy with what I had), one day a week in my English classes would have been set aside for penmanship practice. I don't know how often I had no idea what a student had written, and had to try to decipher it with the other teachers, all of our heads together and our eyes squinting to try to see it better upside down or sideways. If you don't think handwriting matters, have you seen a child's writing develop from when they are 10 to about the age of 14? Usually a girl's will get round and squat, and perhaps she'll start using hearts to dot her i's, while a boy's will start to get a little spikier and more dramatic. And these are conscious changes. Although hopefully everything mellows out as they make it through adolescence, these changes in their handwriting are very specific ways that they communicate their own characters and try to form a record of the identity of their personality. I'm not quoting any study or anything; this is merely what I've observed, both as a teacher and someone who once watched (in a not creepy way) her own handwriting and the handwriting of her classmates evolve. Junior High doodles on paper book covers do actually mean something. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that they're the beginning of young minds coming to terms with their immortality and trying to establish a written record of it, either in text or picture. And if you accept that hypothesis and follow it through, than you better bet you're going to care what your handwriting looks like.

Last year, in a fit of quickly burnt out resolve, I started practicing calligraphy, determined to learn different scripts and start decorating my classroom walls with famous quotations written up ancient manuscript style. Perhaps at some point I'll get back to that... until then, I'll work on making my everyday handwriting legible. Now, forgive me, but I can't help but conclude by leaving you with a sample of Jane Austen's writing (Remember Myshkin's words: "Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl: this is perfection.") and an abbreviated excerpt from her famous characters' discussion of penmanship:

Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter, and repeatedly calling off his attention by messages to his sister.
Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in unison with her opinion of each. "How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!" He made no answer. "You write uncommonly fast." "You are mistaken. I write rather slowly." "How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!" "It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours." "I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well." "Thank you—but I always mend my own." "How can you contrive to write so even?" He was silent. (text source image source)

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