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Saturday, March 14, 2009

X-ing out

I've been bad at typing and general interfacing this week; basically, I've been erring all over the place. My typing skills seem to deteriorate by the day, especially when I'm copying stuff out and overestimate my speed and precision capabilities. A hundred such errors occurred when I was typing out a couple of passages from a novel about error correction called The Calligrapher. Another error, which readers of this blog may have witnessed, was hitting the publish button when I meant to hit the save now button as I was typing a post about The Calligrapher. I deleted it but of course it's still there on RSS feeds, which led to this adorable e-mail from my friend: "You post on letters (and my favorite character from morality plays) -- astonishing. ... Now it's not there." She was then kind enough to send me the text of what I had typed, corrected, and then incorrectly posted. Bloggerum est errarum or whatever.

Here's a few paragraphs from the preface to Edward Docx's The Calligrapher, which I've been describing to people as being about a promiscuous calligrapher. Then they say, "does he illuminate just any old manuscript or what?" The narrator has been commissioned to work on an edition of John Donne's poems, and each chapter has a summary and reading of each Donne poem. The readings are smug and too clever by half because he's an unreliable narrator and smugness is always a tip-off to a narrator's being unreliable, especially when it's coupled with an introductory tale about making a deal with the devil. It's almost over-determined. Titivillus is the patron demon of calligraphers:
Best of all he likes those errata that neither monks nor proofreaders notice and that survive in the new manuscript unchecked to be reproduced by the next generation of scribes; but slips of the pen so big that the calligrapher must start the entire page again are also welcome--because these set back the Work of God. Every night, after it has become too dark for the monks to continue and they have left the scriptorium for vespers, Titvillus carefully collects all the mistakes into his sack and drags them down to Hell, there to present them to the Devil so that each sin can be registered in the book--against the name of the monk responsible--to be read out on Judgment Day.

These unsatisfactory (some would say unfair) arrangements continued for more or less a thousand years--until the Renaissance flared across Europe and the calligrapher's lot began to turn from bad to worse. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the monks found themselves being forced to work at a furious pace, on and on into the darkness in order to meet the ferocious demand for manuscript copies from the newly founded universities. Before long, sick of the blind rush, the brothers were desperately looking for ways to evade responsibility for the burgeoning number of flaws in their work and so save their ever more imperiled souls.

Now Titivillus saw his chance.

He offered the holy scribes an eternal bargain: personal absolution from their sins in return for a secret guarantee that the number of mistakes would continue to increase dramatically. As the errors were already out of control, the monks gladly agreed. Thus Titviullus became the patron demon of calligraphers; he kept their sins hidden and he rescued them from Hell.

Human endeavor, however, was having one of its periodic sprints, and by 1476 William Caxton (who learned his filthy disgusting ways in Cologne) had set up his printing press in Westmnister. All too soon, it looked as though Titivillus's deal was worthless.

You might have thought that such a development was pretty much the end of tour the ugly little runt. You might have thought that one of Lucifer's slicker lieutenants would have called Titvullus in for a personal assessment meeting and explained how, regrettably, some personnel were no longer required. But the Devil never fires his staff; he simply demotes them, drops their wages and forces them to carry on in ever-worsening conditions.

The irony of the error of my blogging ways became especially apparent when I typed out (and then had to correct all my typos painstakingly) this delightful satire from 1652 on universal languages and their attempts to enable some sort of millenarian perfectibility. The unreliable narrator Thomas Urquhart's Ekskybalauron is trying to write a manual for his own universal language to counter John Wilkins' project. He and the printer have a printing press mind-meld:
He and I striving thus who should compose fastest, he with his hand, and I with my brain, and his uncasing of the letters and placing them in the composing instrument, standing for my conception and his plenishing of the galley and imposing of the form, encountering with the supposed equivalence of my writing, we would almost every foot so jump together in this joynt expedition and so nearly overtake other in our intended course, that I was oftentimes (to keep him doing) glad to tear off parcels of ten or twelve lines apeece and give him them till more were ready; unto which he would so suddenly put an order that almost still before the ink of the written letters was dry their representations were, out of of their respective boxes, ranked in the composing-stick; by means of great haste, I, writing but upon the loose sheets of cording quires, which (as I minced and tore them), looking like pieces of waste paper troublesome to get rallyed after such dispersive scatteredness. I had not leisure to read what I had written till it came to a proof and sometimes to a full revise: so that, by vertue of this unanimous contest and joint emulation betwixt the theoretick and the practical part, which of us should overhye other in celerity, we into the space of fourteen working-daies compleated this whole book, such as it is, from the first notion of hte brain till the last motion of the press....

It's like a satire of The Gutenberg Galaxy avant la lettre.

I raced through The Calligrapher to a surprise ending that's hinted at many times, but I've been thinking about what the relationship might be between my annoyance at the belaboring of the unreliable narrator device and what I really wanted more of in the book: description of how calligraphy works. The John Donne readings aren't particularly illuminating, so to speak, because they don't do anything special; I probably skimmed a lot of them. But what if you could attribute the long-windedness to the narrator, and that habit was supposed to add to his unlikeable character? When he's talking about his skill, he's pretty charming at first, but he tries a little too hard, as you'll see below. Here, Jasper reveals that his favorite letter is X. His girlfriend replies:
"That's rather predictable, isn't it?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Because it's the most glamorous letter." And then, with a stage sigh and in a deliberately breathy voice: "The letter of love and anonymity."
I shook my head. This was my turf. "I don't agree. The most glamorous letter is definitely Q. Both in terms of its shape--in particular the wonderful potential of the descender, the tail--and in terms of its refusal to stand in the presence of any other character but U beside it. What other letter would dare such arrogance? There's a catwalk quality to Q--pure untouchable glamour. Certainly more so than X."
"OK, fair enough--so why X?"
"Well, of course there is the love and anonymity thing. But actually the reason is that it's the only letter which requires a counterstroke."
"How do yo mean?"
"If you imagine that the basic and most fluid line of the quill is from left to right--and the quicker the scribe works, the more he want to stay in this pattern. OK? And then think about the alphabet..."
"The only letter that consistently demands a stroke running against this flow is X. Discounting nonintegral dots and crosses, every other letter can be negotiated. But you have to come back for the X--even when you are in full flow, as it were."
She nodded slowly. "It must be weird thinking about letters all the time."
"It is, a bit." I considered for a moment. "The nearest I think most people get to it is playing Scrabble. You know how it is when you pick a letter out of the bag--you have an individual relationship with that letter. You think, Oh great, a P, or Oh fuck, another A--you no longer think about words as the basic unit but letters instead. You look forward to X's and Q's and so on, and you start to think of the alphabet as twenty-six characters, each with its own personality. In fact, now that I come to think of it, characters is a much better word than letters. It's no coincidence that the Chinese are the best calligraphers--they understand the difference."

The only part of that conversation I was excited about was the description of how the X's are drawn and how they can throw the calligrapher off his game. The other parts get on my nerves--the heavy-handed flirtation, the weird comparison to Scrabble which bears no resemblance to my Scrabble playing, in which I'm more engaged with finding patterns than with a particular character of a letter. Then I realized that I had a desire for the book to be more about the technology of calligraphy than a character study of an unreliable narrator. Maybe Ekskybalauron will have to be that book for me, or The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (described as a printer's exercise in correcting one's errata) would be another cool version of it.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Mar 26, 09:49:00 AM:
Titvillus, Titivillus, Titviullus, Titvullus: one post, four spellings. And just for fun, I checked the original, in which the spelling of the imp's name is consistent.

And so, I'm left to wonder. Is Alice being too clever by half, perhaps even slightly smug? Or is our demon friend at work?
Blogger Alice on Thu Mar 26, 11:27:00 PM:
My medievalist friend insists, "Titivillus would be totally OK with you misspelling his name. He'd be into it."

If we don't want to bring a demon's opinion into it, we'll go with my being a bad typist.