Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word

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Binding the Ghost: On the Physicality of Literature

“Homer on parchment pages! / The Iliad and all the adventures/ Of Ulysses, for of Priam’s kingdom, / All locked within a piece of skin / Folded into several little sheets!”—Martial, Epigrammata (c. 86-103)

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” -—John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)

At Piazza Maunzio Bufalini 1 in Cesena, Italy, there is a stately sandstone building of buttressed reading rooms, Venetian windows, and extravagant masonry that holds slightly under a half-million volumes, including manuscripts, codices, incunabula, and print. Commissioned by Malatesta Novello in the 15th century, the Malatestiana Library opened its intricately carved walnut door to readers in 1454, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The nobleman who funded the library had his architects borrow from ecclesiastical design: The columns of its rooms evoke temples, its seats the pews that would later line cathedrals, its high ceilings as if in monasteries.

Committed humanist that he was, Novello organized the volumes of his collection through an idiosyncratic system of classification that owed more to the occultism of Neo-Platonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, who wrote in nearby Florence, or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who would be born shortly after its opening, than to the arid categorization of something like our contemporary Dewey Decimal System. For those aforementioned philosophers, microcosm and macrocosm were forever nestled into and reflecting one another across the long line of the great chain of being, and so Novello’s library was organized in a manner that evoked the connections of both the human mind in contemplation as well as the universe that was to be contemplated itself. Such is the sanctuary described by Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History, where a reader can lift a book and test its heft, can appraise “the fall of letterforms on the title page, scrutinizing marks left by other readers … startled into a recognition of the world’s materiality by the sheer number of bound volumes; by the sound of pages turning, covers rubbing; by the rank smell of books gathered together in vast numbers.”

An awkward-looking yet somehow still elegant carved elephant serves as the keystone above one door’s lintel, and it serves as the modern library’s logo. Perhaps the elephant is a descendant of one of Hannibal’s pachyderms who thundered over the Alps more than 15 centuries before, or maybe the grandfather of Hanno, Pope Leo X’s pet—gifted to him by the King of Portugal—who would make the Vatican his home in less than five decades. Like the Renaissance German painter Albrecht Durer’s celebrated engraving of a rhinoceros, the exotic and distant elephant speaks to the concerns of this institution—curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and commonwealth.

It’s the last quality that makes the Malatestiana Library so significant. There were libraries that celebrated curiosity before, like the one at Alexandria whose scholars demanded that the original of every book brought to port be deposited within while a reproduction would be returned to the owner. And there were collections that embodied cosmopolitanism, such as that in the Villa of Papyri, owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the uncle of Julius Caesar, which excavators discovered in the ash of Herculaneum, and that included sophisticated philosophical and poetic treatises by Epicurus and the Stoic Chrysopsis. But what made the Malatestiana so remarkable wasn’t its collections per se (though they are), but rather that it was built not for the singular benefit of the Malatesta family, nor for a religious community, and that unlike in monastic libraries, its books were not rendered into place by a heavy chain. The Bibliotheca Malatestiana would be the first of a type—a library for the public.

If the Malatestiana was to be like a map of the human mind, then it would be an open-source mind, a collective brain to which we’d all be invited as individual cells. Novella amended the utopian promise of complete knowledge as embodied by Alexandria into something wholly more democratic. Now, not only would an assemblage of humanity’s curiosity be gathered into one temple, but that palace would be as a commonwealth for the betterment of all citizens. From that hilly Umbrian town you can draw a line of descent to the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin, the annotated works of Plato and John Locke owned by Thomas Jefferson and housed in a glass-cube at the Library of Congress, the reading rooms of the British Museum where Karl Marx penned Das Kapital (that collection having since moved closer to King’s Cross Station), the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with its chiseled names of local worthies like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau ringing its colonnade, and the regal stone lions who stand guard on Fifth Avenue in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.

More importantly, the Malatestiana is the progenitor of millions of local public libraries from Bombay to Budapest. In the United States, the public library arguably endures as one of the last truly democratic institutions. In libraries there are not just the books collectively owned by a community, but the toy exchanges for children, the book clubs and discussion groups, the 12 Step meetings in basements, and the respite from winter cold for the indigent. For all of their varied purposes, and even with the tyrannical ascending reign of modern technology, the library is still focused on the idea of the book. Sometimes the techno-utopians malign the concerns of us partisans of the physical book as being merely a species of fetishism, the desire to turn crinkled pages labeled an affectation; the pleasure drawn from the heft of a hardback dismissed as misplaced nostalgia. Yet there are indomitably pragmatic defenses of the book as physical object—now more than ever.

For one, a physical book is safe from the Orwellian deletions of Amazon, and the electronic surveillance of the NSA. A physical book, in being unconnected to the internet, can be as a closed-off monastery from the distraction and dwindling attention span engendered by push notifications and smart phone apps. The book as object allows for a true degree of interiority, of genuine privacy that cannot be ensured on any electronic device. To penetrate the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Book requires the lo-fi method of looking over a reader’s shoulder. A physical book is inviolate in the face of power outage, and it cannot short-circuit. There is no rainbow pinwheel of death when you open a book.

But if I can cop to some of what the critics of us Luddites impugn us with, there is something crucial about the weight of a book. So much does depend on a cracked spine and a coffee-stained page. There is an “incarnational poetics” to the very physical reality of a book that can’t be replicated on a greasy touch-screen. John Milton wrote in his 1644 Aeropagitica, still among one of the most potent defenses of free speech written, that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.” This is not just simply metaphor; in some sense we must understand books as being alive, and just as it’s impossible to extricate the soul of a person from their very sinews and nerves, bones, and flesh, so too can we not divorce the text from the smooth sheen of velum, the warp and waft of paper, the glow of the screen. Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare must be interpreted differently depending on how they’re read. The medium, to echo media theorist Marshall McLuhan, has always very much been the message.

This embodied poetics is, by its sheer sensual physicality, directly related to the commonwealth that is the library. Battles argues that “the experience of the physicality of the book is strongest in large libraries”; stand amongst the glass cube at the center of the British Library, the stacks upon stacks in Harvard’s Widener Library, or the domed portico of the Library of Congress and tell me any differently. In sharing books that have been read by hundreds before, we’re privy to other minds in a communal manner, from the barely erased penciled marginalia in a beaten copy of The Merchant of Venice to the dog-ears in Leaves of Grass.

What I wish to sing of then is the physicality of the book, its immanence, its embodiment, its very incarnational poetics. Writing about these “contraptions of paper, ink, carboard, and glue,” Keith Houston in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most powerful Object of our Time challenges us to grab the closest volume and to “Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.” The exquisite physicality of matter defines the arid abstractions of this thing we call “Literature,” even as we forget that basic fact that writing may originate in the brain and may be uttered by the larynx, but it’s preserved on clay, papyrus, paper, and patterns of electrons. In 20th-century literary theory we’ve taken to call anything written a “text,” which endlessly confuses our students who themselves are privy to call anything printed a “novel” (regardless of whether or not its fictional). The text, however, is a ghost. Literature is the spookiest of arts, leaving not the Ozymandian monuments of architectural ruins, words rather grooved into the very electric synapses of our squishy brains.

Not just our brains though, for Gilgamesh is dried in the rich, baked soil of the Euphrates; Socrates’s denunciation of the written word from Plato’s Phaedrus was wrapped in the fibrous reeds grown alongside the Nile; Beowulf forever slaughters Grendel upon the taut, tanned skin of some English lamb; Prospero contemplates his magic books among the rendered rags of Renaissance paper pressed into the quarto of The Tempest; and Emily Dickinson’s scraps of envelope from the wood pulp of trees grown in the Berkshires forever entombs her divine dashes. Ask a cuneiform scholar, a papyrologist, a codicologist, a bibliographer. The spirit is strong, but so is the flesh; books can never be separated from the circumstances of those bodies that house their souls. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel confesses as much, writing that “I judge a book by its cover; I judge a book by its shape.”

Perhaps this seems an obvious contention, and the analysis of material conditions, from the economics of printing and distribution to the physical properties of the book as an object, has been a mainstay of some literary study for the past two generations. This is as it should be, for a history of literature could be written not in titles and authors, but from the mediums on which that literature was preserved, from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia to the copper filaments and fiber optic cables that convey the internet. Grappling with the physicality of the latest medium is particularly important, because we’ve been able to delude ourselves into thinking that there is something purely unembodied about electronic literature, falling into that Cartesian delusion that strictly separates the mind from the flesh.

Such a clean divorce was impossible in earthier times. Examine the smooth vellum of a medieval manuscript, and notice the occasionally small hairs from the slaughtered animals that still cling to William Langland’s Piers Plowman or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Houston explains that “a sheet of parchment is the end product of a bloody, protracted, and physical process that begins with the death of a calf, lamb, or kid, and proceeds thereafter through a series of grimly anatomical steps until parchment emerges at the other end,” where holding up to the light one of these volumes can sometimes reveal “the delicate tracery of veins—which, if the animal was not properly bled upon its slaughter, are darker and more obvious.” It’s important to remember the sacred reality that all of medieval literature that survives is but the stained flesh of dead animals.

Nor did the arrival of Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press make writing any less physical, even if was less bloody. Medieval literature was born from the marriage of flesh and stain, but early modern writing was culled from the fusion of paper, ink, and metal. John Man describes in The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History how the eponymous inventor had to “use linseed oil, soot and amber as basic ingredients” in the composition of ink, where the “oil for the varnish had to be of just the right consistency,” and the soot which was used in its composition “was best derived from burnt oil and resin,” having had to be “degreased by careful roasting.” Battles writes in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word that printing is a trade that bears the “marks of the metalsmith, the punch cutter, the machinist.” The Bible may be the word of God, but Guttenberg printed it onto stripped and rendered rags with keys “at 82 percent lead, with tin making up a further 9 percent, the soft, metallic element antimony 6 percent, and trace amounts of copper among the remainder,” as Houston reminds us. Scripture preached of heaven, but made possible through the very minerals of the earth.

Medieval scriptoriums were dominated by scribes, calligraphers, and clerics; Guttenberg was none of these, rather a member of the goldsmith’s guild. His innovation was one that we can ascribe as a victory to that abstract realm of literature, but fundamentally it was derived from the metallurgical knowledge of how to “combine the supple softness of lead with the durability of tin,” as Battles writes, a process that allowed him to forge the letter matrices that fit into his movable printing-press. We may think of the hand-written manuscripts of medieval monasteries as expressing a certain uniqueness, but physicality was just as preserved in the printed book, and, as Battles writes, in “letters carved in word or punched and chased in silver, embroidered in tapestry and needlepoint, wrought in iron and worked into paintings, a world in which words are things.”

We’d do well not to separate the embodied poetics of this thing we’ve elected to call the text from a proper interpretation of said text. Books are not written by angels in a medium of pure spirit; they’re recorded upon wood pulp and we should remember that. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes claimed that the spirit interacted with the body through the pineal gland, the “principal seat of the soul.” Books of course have no pineal gland, but we act as if text is a thing of pure spirit, excluding it from the gritty matter upon which it’s actually constituted. Now more than ever we see the internet as a disembodied realm, the heaven promised by theologians but delivered by Silicon Valley. Our libraries are now composed of ghosts in the machine. Houston reminds us that this is an illusion, for even as you read this article on your phone, recall that it is delivered by “copper wire and fiber optics, solder and silicon, and the farther ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Far from disenchanting the spooky theurgy of literature, an embrace of the materiality of reading and writing only illuminates how powerful this strange art is. By staring at a gradation of light upon dark in abstracted symbols, upon whatever medium it is recorded, an individual is capable of hallucinating the most exquisite visions; they are able to even experience the subjectivity of another person’s mind. The medieval English librarian Richard de Bury wrote in his 14th-century Philobiblon that “In books I find the dead as if they were alive … All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”

If books are marked by their materiality, then they in turn mark us; literature “contrived to take up space in the head and in the world of things,” as Battles writes. The neuroplasticity of our mind is set by the words that we read, our fingers cut from turned pages and our eyes strained from looking at screens. We are made of words as much as words are preserved on things; we’re as those Egyptian mummies who were swaddled in papyrus printed with lost works of Plato and Euripides; we’re as the figure in the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 The Librarian [above], perhaps inspired by those stacks of the Malatestiana. In that uncanny and beautiful portrait Arcimboldo presents an anatomy built from a pile of books, the skin of his figure the tanned red and green leather of a volume’s cover, the cacophony of hair a quarto whose pages are falling open. In the rough materiality of the book we see our very bodies reflected back to us, in the skin of the cover, the organs of the pages, the blood of ink. Be forewarned: to read a book as separate from the physicality that defines it is to scarcely read at all.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

God Among the Letters: An Essay in Abecedarian

“When they ask what [God’s] name is, what shall I tell them?” —Exodus 3:13

“Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas.” —Dr. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Attar of Nishapur, the 12th-century Persian Sufi, wrote of a pilgrimage of birds. His masterpiece The Conference of the Birds recounts how 30 fowls were led by a tufted, orange hoopoe (wisest of his kind) to find the Simurgh, a type of bird-god or king. So holy is the hoopoe, that the bismillah is etched onto his beak as encouragement to his fellow feathered penitents. From Persia the birds travel to China, in search of the Simurgh, a gigantic eagle-like creature with the face of a man (or sometimes a dog) who has lived for millennia, possesses all knowledge, and like the Phoenix has been immolated only to rise again.

In the birds’ desire to see the Simurgh, we understand how we should yearn for Allah: “Do all you can to become a bird of the Way to God; / Do all you can to develop your wings and your feathers,” Attar writes. An esoteric truth is revealed to the loyal hawk, the romantic nightingale, the resplendent peacock, and the stalwart stork. There is no Simurgh awaiting them in some hidden paradise, for the creature’s name is itself a Farsi pun on the phrase “30 birds.” Attar writes that “All things are but masks at God’s beck and call, / They are symbols that instruct us that God is all.” There is no God but us, and we are our own prophets.

As a dream vision, The Conference of the Birds appears to be borderline atheistic, but only if you’re oblivious that such mysticism is actually God-intoxicated. And as with all mystical literature, there is (purposefully) something hard to comprehend, though a clue on interpretation when Attar writes that “The shadow and its maker are one and the same, / so get over surfaces and delve into mysteries.” Equivalence of shadow and maker—it’s a moving understanding of what writing is as well, where the very products of our creation are intimations of our souls. My approach to these mysteries, plumbing past the surfaces of appearance, is in an illustration of the epic’s themes done in the characteristic Islamic medium of calligraphy. Alongside the intricate miniatures which defined Persian art, there developed a tradition whereby ingenious calligraphers would present Arabic or Persian sentences in artful arrangements, so that whole sentences would compose the illusion of a representational picture.

One such image is nothing but the word “Simurgh” itself, yet the way in which the artist has configured letters like the ascending alif, horizontal jim, rounded dhal, and complex hamzah presents the appearance of a bird rearing with regal countenance—all feather, claw, and beak. A beautiful evocation of Attar’s very lesson itself, for as the avian penitents learn that there is no Simurgh save for their collective body, so, too, do we see that the illusion of the picture we’re presented with is simply an arrangement of letters.

Pithy demonstration of the paradox of literature as well. If the Simurgh of The Conference of the Birds is simply composed by the fowl themselves, and if the image of the calligrapher’s art is constituted by letters, might there be a lesson that divinity itself is constructed in the later way? Just as each bird is part of the Simurgh, may each letter be part of God? For as images had been banned, they still can’t help but arise out of these abstracted letters, these symbols imbued with a fiery life. Little wonder that incantations are conveyed through words and that we’re warned not to take the Lord’s name in vain, for it’s letters that both define and give life. A certain conclusion is unassailable: God is an alphabet—God is the alphabet.

“Bereshit” is the word by which Genesis is inaugurated, and it’s from that word that the name of the book derives in its original language. No text more explicitly deals with the generative powers of speech than Genesis, and in seeing the Torah as both product of and vehicle for God’s creation, we get closer to the sacredness of the Alphabet. Bereshit begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet—bet—which looks like this: ב. Something about the shape of the abstracted letter reminds me of a tree with a branch hanging out at an angle, appropriate when we consider the subject of the book.

There’s something unusual in the first letter of the Torah being bet, for why would the word of God not begin with Her first letter of Aleph? Medieval kabbalists, adept in numerology, had an answer: It was to indicate that reality has two levels—the physical and the spiritual, or as Attar called them, the surfaces and the mysteries. But if the surface of the sheep vellum which constitutes a physical Torah is one thing, the actual reality of the letter is another. A deeper truth is conveyed by the mystery of letters themselves, the way in which abstract symbol can make us hallucinate voices in our heads, the way in which entire worlds of imagination can be constructed by dying the skin of dead animals black with ink.

We dissuade ourselves against magic too easily, especially since literacy itself is evidence of it. That language is sacred should be an obvious truth. Even as the old verities of holiness are discarded, the unassailable fact that language has a magic is intuited at the level of an eye scanning a page and building universes from nothingness. Jewish sages believed that the alphabet preceded that initial Bereshit; indeed, that was a requirement that letters existed before creation, for how would God’s accomplishment of the latter even be possible without Her access to the former? As the kabbalistic book Sefer Yetsira explains: “Twenty-two letters did [God] engrave and carve, he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.”

Chiseled onto the sandy-red shoulder of a sphinx found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula is evidence of the alphabet’s origins that is almost as evocative as the story told in the Sefer Yetsira. As enigmatic as her cousins at Giza or Thebes, the Sinai sphinx is a votive in honor of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, guardian of the desert, and she who protected the turquoise mines which dotted the peninsula and operated for close to eight centuries producing wealth for distant Pharaohs. The Serabit el-Khadim sphinx is only a little under 24 centimeters, more than diminutive enough to find her new home in a British Museum cabinet. Excavated in 1904 by Flinders and Hilda Petrie, founder of Egyptology as a discipline, the little Hathor lioness lay in wait for perhaps 3,800 years, graffiti etched into her side attesting to alphabetic origins.

The sphinx was carved by laborers whose language was a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew (and indeed some have connected the inscription to the Exodus narrative). In Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World, John Man describes how these “Twelve marks suggest links between Egyptian writing and later Semitic letters,” for though what’s recorded at Serabit el-Khadim are glyphs like “an ox-head, an eye, a house, a snake, and water,” what is found on the haunches of Hathor’s sphinx are the abstracted “roots of our own a, b, v, u, m. p, w, and t.” By 1916, Alan Gardiner used the decipherable Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription between the sphinx’s breasts, which read, “Beloved of Hathor, Lady of the Turquoise” to translate the 11 marks on her side, making this one of the earliest examples of a script called “Proto-Sinaitic,” the most ancient instance of alphabetic writing to ever be found. Gardiner hypothesized that this was an alphabetic letter system, arguing that it was either a form of simplified pidgin Egyptian used by the administrators, or that it was a simplified system invented by the workers. By simplifying the process of communication, the alphabet’s purpose was pragmatic, but its implications rank it among the most paradigm-shifting of history.

From In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman explains that if it’s “easier to learn the tens of hundreds of symbols required for syllabic system than it is to learn the thousands required for a purely logographic system,” than to learn easier still consonantal systems (as both proto-Sinaitic and Hebrew are), as these system “generally require fewer than 30 symbols.” Vowels may be the souls of words, but consonants are their bodies. The former awaited both the Greek alphabet and the diacritical marks of Masoretic Hebrew, but the skeletons of our alphabet were already recorded in homage to the goddess Hathor.

Man writes that three features mark the alphabet as crucial in the history of communication: “its uniqueness, its simplicity and its adaptability.” Perhaps even more importantly, where pictograms are complicated, they’re also indelibly wed to the tongue which first uttered them, whereas alphabets can “with some pushing and shoving, be adapted to all languages.” The alphabet, a Semitic invention born from Egyptian materials for practical ends, “proved wildly successful,” as Hoffman writes, with proto-Sinaitic developing into the Phoenician alphabet and then the Hebrew, which was “used as the basis for the Greek and Latin alphabets, which, in turn, along with Hebrew itself, were destined to form the basis for almost all the world’s alphabets.” Birthed from parsimony, proto-Sinaitic would become the vehicle through which abstraction could be spread. Still, the blurred edges of our letters proclaim their origin in pictures—the prostrate penitent worshipping prayerfully in an “E;” in an “S,” the slithering of the snake who caused the fall.

Every single major alphabetic system, save for Korean Hangul developed in the 15th century, can trace its origins back to this scratching on a sphinx. The Phoenicians, a people who spoke a Semitic language, developed one of the first proper alphabets. Michael Rosen, in Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, explains that the Phoenicians “used abstract versions of objects to indicate letters: a bifurcated (horned?) sign was an ‘ox’ (in their language ‘aleph’), and on down through the words for ‘house,’ ‘stick,’ ‘door’ and ‘shout’ up to ‘tooth’ and ‘mark.’” The alphabet is universal, applicable in any cultural setting, and yet the immediate context of its creation is of sailors and turquoise miners living in the Bronze Age.

An epiphany when some turquoise miner abstracted the intricate pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but used them not for ideas, but rather units of sound. The sea-faring Phoenicians, clad in their Tyrian purple cloth dyed from the mucus of clams, would disseminate the alphabet around Mediterranean ports. It’s the origin of elegant Hebrew, which God used when he struck letters of fire into the tablets at Sinai; the genesis of Arabic’s fluid letters by which Allah dictated the Qur’an. The Greeks adapted the Phoenicians’ invention (as they acknowledge) into which the oral poems of Homer could finally be recorded; the death-obsessed Etruscans whose tongue we still can’t hear appropriated the symbols of Punic sailors, as did the Romans who would stamp those letters on triumphant monuments throughout Europe and Africa in so enduring a way that you’re still reading them now. Languid Ge’ez in Ethiopian gospels, blocky Aramaic written in the tongue of Christ, Brahmic scripts which preserved Dharmic prayers, the mysterious Ogham of Irish druids, the bird-scratch runes of the Norseman, the stolid Cyrillic of the Czars, all derive from that initial alphabet. Even Sequoyah’s 19th-century Cherokee, though a syllabary and not technically an alphabet, draws several of its symbols from a Latin that can be ultimately traced back to the mines of Serabit el-Khadim.

Matthew Battles, in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word, writes how this “great chain of alphabetical evolution collapses in a welter of characters, glyphs, and symbols, mingling in friendly, familial and even erotic enthusiasms of conversant meaning.” We sense familiarity across this family tree of alphabetical systems, how in an English “A” we see the Greek α, or how Hebrew ח evokes the Greek η. But as the French rabbi Marc-Allain Ouknin explains in The Mysteries of the Alphabet, all of our letters were ultimately adapted by the ancient Canaanites from Egyptian pictures, for before there was an “A” there was the head of an ox, before there was “H” there was an enclosure. Ouknin writes that the “history of meaning is the history of forgetting the image, the history of a suppression of the visible.” In the beginning there was not the word, but rather the image.

During the 17th century, the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner was bedeviled by the question of how image and word negotiated over dominion in the Kingdom of Meaning. Kirchner is an exemplar of the Renaissance; born not quite in time for the Enlightenment, he was fluent in conjecture rather than proof, esoterica rather than science, wonder rather than reason. His was the epistemology not of the laboratory, but of the Wunderkammer. In The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Alphabet in History and Imagination, art historian Johanna Drucker writes that Kirchner’s studies included that of the “structure of the subterranean world of underground rivers, volcanic lava flow and caves, an exhaustive text on all extant devices for producing light,” and most importantly “compendia of information on China, [and] Egypt.”

Kirchner is both the first Egyptologist and first Sinologist, even as his conclusions about both subjects would be proven completely inaccurate in almost all of their details. His 1655 Oedipus Aegyptiacus was both an attempt to decipher the enigmatic symbols on papyri and monuments, as well as a “restoration of the hieroglyphic doctrine,” the secret Hermetic knowledge which the priest associated with the ancients. He concurred with the ancient Neo-Platonist Plotinus, who in his Enneads claimed that the Egyptians did not use letters “which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing … Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.” Kirchner thus “translated” an inscription on a 2-millennia-old obelisk which sat in the Villa Celimontana in Rome, explaining that the hieroglyphs should read as “His minister and faithful attendant, the polymorphous Spirit, shows the abundance and wealth of all necessary things.” Not a single word is accurate.

For Kirchner, what made both hieroglyphics and Chinese writings so evocative was that they got as close to unmediated reality as possible, that they were not mere depiction, but essence. In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco explains that Kirchner’s enthusiasms were mistaken, because his “assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram … was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset,” for contrary to his presupposition, neither Mandarin nor ancient Egyptian operated like some sort of baroque rebus.

Still, Kirchner’s was a contention that “hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world,” as Eco writes. Pictograms were as a window unto the world; fallen letters were simply scratches in the sand. Where Kirchner and others faltered was in letting abstraction obscure the concreteness of the alphabet. If you flip an “A” upside down, do you not see the horns of the ox which that letter originally signified? If you turn a “B” on its side, do you not see the rooms of a house? Or in the curvature of a “C” that of the camel’s hump?

Iconoclasm explains much of our amnesia about the iconic origins of our letters, but it’s also that which gives the alphabet much of its power. Imagery has been the nucleus of human expression since the first Cro-Magnon woman blew red ochre from her engorged cheeks onto the cave wall at Lascaux so as to trace the outline of her hand. But the shift from pictographic writing to alphabetic inaugurated the reign of abstraction whereby the imagistic forebearers of our letters had to be forgotten. Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains that “Behind each of the letters with which we are so familiar lies a history, changes, mutations based on one or more original forms.”

Since Gardiner’s translation of Serabit el-Khadim, there have been a few dozen similar abecedariums found at sites mostly in the Sinai. From those sparse examples, scholars trace the morphology of letters back to their original, when they brewed from that primordial soup of imagery, their original meanings now obscured. From our Latin letters we move back to the indecipherable Etruscan, from those northern Italians we trace to the Greeks, and then the purple-clad Phoenicians, finally arriving at the ancient Semites who crafted the alphabet, finding that the our letters are not a, b, and c, nor alpha, beta, and gamma, or even Aleph, Bet, and Gimmel, but rather their original pictures—an ox, a house, and a camel.

Philologists and classicists have identified all of the images from which the 26 letters derive. In proto-Sinaitic, “D” was originally a door. If you flip an “E” on its side you see the arms outstretched above the head of a man in prayer. “I” was originally a hand; the wavy line of “M” still looks like the wave of water which it originally was. “R” still has at its top the head above a body which it originally signified; “U” still looks like that which an oar was placed upon in a boat. Kirchner thought that hieroglyphics were perfect pictures of the real world, but hidden within our own alphabet absconded from the courts of Egypt are the ghostly after-images of the originals.

The alphabet spread something more than mere convenience—it spread monotheism. Man argues that the “evolution of the belief in a single god was dependent on an ability to record that belief and make it accessible; and that both recording and accessibility were dependent on the invention of the alphabet.” God made the alphabet possible, and it would seem that the alphabet returned the favor. What first had to be forgotten, however, were the meaning of the letters’ original shapes, for in pictograms there lay the risk of idolatry, of conjuring those old gods who birthed them.

At Mt. Sinai, the Lord supposedly used fire to emblazon Moses’ tablets with his commandments, the second of which demands that none shall make any “likeness that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” When writing those letters God very well couldn’t use ones that happened to look like a man, or an ox, or a camel’s hump. Ouaknin conjectures that “iconoclasm required the Jews to purge proto-Sinaitic of images,” for the “birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the receiving of the law.” The rabbi argues that it was “Under the influence of monotheistic expression [that] hieroglyphics began to shed some of its images, resulting in the first attempt of an alphabet.” Accessible abstractions of the alphabets were not a fortuitous coincidence, but rather a demand of the Mosaic covenant, since the newly monotheistic Jews couldn’t worship God if the letters of their writing system evoked falcon-headed Horus, the jackal Anubis, or baboon-faced Thoth with stylus in hand. Man writes that “both new god and new script worked together to forge a new nation and disseminate an idea that would change the world.”

A skeptic may observe that the alphabet hardly caused an immediate rash of conversions to monotheism in Greece, Rome, or the north country, as Zeus, Jupiter, and Tyr still reigned amongst their respective peoples. Yet alphabetic writing’s emergence occurred right before a period which the Austrian philosopher Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age.” Jaspers observed that in the first millennium before the Common Era, there was a surprising synchronicity between radically disparate cultures which nonetheless produced new ways of understanding reality which still had some unifying similarities between each other.

Monotheism in the Levant, Greek philosophy, Persian Zoroastrianism, and the Indian Upanishads can all be traced to the Axial Age. For Jaspers, a paradigm shift in consciousness resulted in abstraction. What all of these different methods, approaches, and faiths shared was enshrinement the universal over the particular, the reality which is unseen over the shadows on the cave wall. In The Origin and Goal of History, Jaspers describes the Axial Age as “an interregnum … a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.”

Jaspers noted the simultaneous emergence of these faiths, but proffered not a full hypothesis as to why. I wonder if the abstractions of the alphabet were not that which incubated the Axial Age? In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud claimed that this “compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see … meant that as a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea—a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.” This triumph of abstraction included not just the prophets Isaiah and Elijah, but the philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus, and the sages Siddhartha and Zarathustra, all of whose words were made eternal in the alphabet.

From the Aegean to the Indus River, the common thread of the Axial Age was alphabetic writing, with the one major exception being China. In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, Leonard Shlain observed that the rise of phonetic letters coincided with the disappearance of idol worship in the Levant, writing that the “abstract alphabet encouraged abstract thinking,” a progeny born from the curve and line of the Word. Yet old gods can always be born again, their voices barely heard, yet still present in sacred phoneme, their faces peaking out in the spaces between our letters.

In the Babylonian desert, excavators frequently find small bowls, ringed with Aramaic and designed to capture demons. Molded by magi, the demon bowls are a trap, a harnessing of the magical efficacy of the alphabet. These talismans combined word and image to tame the malignant lesser gods who still stalked the earth, even after God’s supposed victory.

Appropriate that God’s alphabet is that which is able to constrain in clay the machinations of erotic Lilith and bestial Asmodeus. One such bowl, which depicts the succubus Lilith at its center as an alluring woman with long hair barely obscuring breasts and genitalia, incants that “60 men who will capture you with copper ropes on your feet and copper shackles on your hands and caste collars of copper upon your temples.” Israeli scholar Naama Vilozny is an expert on the images of demons painted on these bowls by otherwise iconoclastic Jews. In Haaretz, Vilozny says that you “draw the figure you want to get rid of and then you bind it in a depiction and bind it in words.” There is control in the alphabet, not just in trapping demons, but in the ability to capture a concept’s essence. Writing’s theurgic power of writing, where curses against hell are as strong as baked clay.

Magic and monotheism need not be strictly separated; a sense of paganism haunts our faith as well as our letters. The psychologist Julian Jaynes, in his The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, posited a controversial hypothesis that human beings were only “conscious” relatively recently, since shortly before the Axial Age. The alphabet perhaps played a role in this development, theoretically eliminating the others gods in favor of the one voice of God, the only voice in your head. But Jaynes explains that the “mind is still haunted by its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities.” Certainly true when a frightened Babylonian places a bowl in the earth to capture those chthonic spirts which threaten us even though their dominion has been abolished.

The alphabet facilitated a new magic. Consider that the fourth commandment, which reads “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” is not an injunction against blasphemy in the modern sense, for surely the omnipotent can abide obscenity, but that in historical context it specifically meant that you shouldn’t use God’s name to perform magic. To know the letters of someone’s name is to have the ability to control them; there’s a reason that the “angel” whom Jacob wrestles with refuses to be named. The four Hebrew letters which constitute the proper name of God—יהוה—are commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, there being no clear sense of what exactly the word would have actually been pronounced as.

These letters have a charged power, no mere ink-stain on sheep-skin, for the correct pronunciation was guarded as an occult secret. Hoffman writes that the letters were “chosen not because of the sounds they represent, but because of their symbolic powers in that they were the Hebrew’s magic vowel letters that no other culture had.” The yod, hay, vov, hay of the Tetragrammaton demonstrated both the victory of monotheism, but also the electric power of the alphabet itself. God encoded into the very name, which in turn was the blueprint for our reality. A dangerous thing, these letters, for just as demons could be controlled with their names painted onto the rough surface of a bowl, so, too, could the most adept of mages compel the Creator to their bidding.

Incantation is sometimes called prayer, other times poetry, and occasionally the alphabet can substitute for both. As acrostic, alphabetic possibilities have long attracted poets. In Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, he writes about “Abecedarians,” that is, verses where each line begins with the respective letter of the alphabet. As all formal poetry does, the form exploits artificial constraint—in this circumstance, so as to mediate upon the alphabet itself. This is an “ancient form often employed for sacred works”; Hirsch explains how all of the “acrostics in the Hebrew Bible are alphabetical, such as Psalm 119, which consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew of the alphabet.” The “completeness of the form,” Hirsch writes, “enacts the idea of total devotion to the law of God.”

St. Augustin, the fourth-century Christian theologian, wrote an abecedarian against the Donatist heretics; nearly a millennium later, Chaucer tried his hand at the form as well. Centuries later, the English journalist Alaric Watt wrote his account of the 1789 Hapsburg Siege of Belgrade in alliterative abecedarian: “An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, / Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade. / Cossack commanders cannonading come, / Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.” There are, to the best of my knowledge, no major examples of abecedarian prose. Perhaps somebody will write something soon? Because as Hirsch notes, the form has “powerful associations with prayer,” the rapturous repetition of the alphabet stripping meaning to its bare essence, emptying both penitence and supplication of ego, in favor of the ecstasies of pure sound.

Such was the wisdom of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, who was inspired by the ecstasies of Pietists to return worship to its emotional core. He sought to strip ritual of empty logic and to re-endow it with that lost sense of the glowing sacred. Sometimes prayer need not even be in words, the sacred letters themselves function well enough. The Baal Shem Tov’s honorific means “Master of the Good Name”; he who has brought within the very sinews of his flesh and the synapses of his mind the pulsating power of the Tetragrammaton. So much can depend on four letters.

The Baal Shem Tov, or “Besht” as he was often called, lived in the Pale of Settlement, the cold, grey Galician countryside. Drucker writes that the Besht exhorted the “practicing Jew to make of daily life a continual practice of devotion,” whereby “each of the letters which pass one’s lips are ascendant and unite with each other, carrying with them the full glory.” The Besht taught that letters were not incidental; the alphabet itself was necessary for “true unification with the Divinity.”

According to Hasidic legend, one Yom Kippur, the Besht led his congregation in their prayers. Towards the back of the synagogue was a simple-minded but pious shepherd boy. The other worshipers, with fingers pressing prayer book open, repeated the words of the Kol Nidre, but the illiterate shepherd could only pretend to mouth along, to follow writing which he could not read. Emotions became rapturous as black-coated men below and women in the balcony above began to sway and shout out the prayers. Finally, overcome with devotion but unable to repeat after the rest of his fellow Jews, the shepherd boy shouted out the only prayer he could: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” through the rest of the 18 Hebrew letters.

There was an awkward silence in the sanctuary. Embarrassed, the young man explained, “God, that is all I can do. You know what your prayers are. Please arrange them into the correct order.”

From the rafters of the shul, decorated with Hebrew letters in blocky black ink, came the very voice of God, leading the entire congregation in the holiest of prayers, repeated from that of the simple shepherd: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” And so, in the court of the Baal Shem Tov, in the early 18th century in a synagogue upon the Galician plain, God deigned to teach women and men how to worship once again, in the holiest prayer that there is. The alphabet, repeated truthfully with faith in your soul, is the purest form of prayer.

Alphabets are under-theorized. Because it’s so omnipresent, there is a way in which it’s easy to forget the spooky power of 26 symbols. Considering how fundamental to basic functioning it is, we frequently overlook the sheer, transcendent magnificence of the letters which structure our world. Disenchantment, however, need not be our lot, for there is a realization that letters don’t convey reality, but rather that they are reality. Ecstatic to comprehend, the way in which stains on dead tree are the conduit through which all meaning traverses, much like the electrons illuminating our screens. Fundamentally, what I’m arguing for is not just that our alphabet is a means of approaching the divine—no, not just that. God is the alphabet, and the alphabet is God. Heaven is traversed through the alpha and the omega. I argue that the alphabet betrays its origins, for word and image are joined together in symbiosis, no matter how occluded.

Just as Kirchner believed hieroglyphics contained reality, so, too, is the alphabet haunted by pictures obscure; as Ouaknin enthuses, it’s in “unearthing the traces of the origin of letters and understanding how they evolved” that provide occult wisdom. Knowing that letters shift back and forth, so that they can return to the images which birthed them, as in the calligraphy which illustrates Attar’s Simurgh, is a demonstration of their fluid nature. Literal though we may misapprehend Egyptian pictograms to be, their abstract progeny in the form of our 26 letters are still haunted by their origins, and we can imbue them with a sense of their birthright now and again.

Moreover, the mysteries of the alphabet subconsciously affect us, so that as Battles claims concerning letters since “whether alphabetic or ideographic, they start out as pictures of things,” the better to explain “why writing works for us, and why it has conserved these signs so well over these three millennia.” Nevertheless, the haunting of previous incarnations of letters’ past shapes can’t alone explain their strange power. Only something divine can fully explicate how some marks on Hathor’s hide charts a direct line to the letters you’re reading right now. Perhaps “divine” is a loaded term, what with all of those unfortunate religious connotations; “transcendent” would be just as apt. Questions can certainly be raised about my contentions; I do not wish to be read as airy, but with every letter of my sentences I can’t help but believe that the kabbalists and Gnostics were right—the alphabet constitutes our being.

Reality, I believe, can be completely constituted from all 26 letters (give or take). Sift through all of them, and realize that the answer to any question lay between Aleph and Tav, not just as metaphor, but those answers are simply uncovered by finding the proper organization of those letters. The answer to any inquiry, the solution to any problem, the very wisdom that frees, can be discovered simply by finding the correct arrangement of those letters. Underneath the surface of these shapes are indications of their birth, but also that fuller reality just beyond our gaze. Vexation need not follow such an observation, but rather embrace the endless transition between image and word which is the alphabet. We need not pick between letter or picture, there is room enough for both. Xenoglossic is what we should be: fluent in language unknown to our tongues, but rather spoken in our souls. You need only repeat the alphabet as if you’re an illiterate shepherd in the assembly of the Baal Shem Tov. Zealots of the alphabet, with those very letters carved by fire into our hearts.

Image: Temple of Hathor remains in Serabit el-Khadim by Einsamer Schütze

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