Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

The inquiring Pharaoh

Recently a large statue of a Pharaoh was unearthed in Egypt. The find caused great excitement. After some study the idea gained ground that it was not one of the more famous pyramid-building Pharaohs, but Psammetichus I.

This Pharaoh is himself far from forgotten or anonymous. We know about him from Herodotus, who reports several stories about him. Psammetichus lived in a troubled period of the late history of the Egyptian kingdom, but he managed to establish himself as ruler of the whole country with the help of Greek mercenaries. After this, he rewarded the mercenaries with grants of land. But he was concerned that the Greeks would not integrate properly with the Egyptians. So he commanded Egyptian children to be recruited and fostered out to the Greek residents. They would become a caste of bilinguals who could mediate between the peoples in future.

Another story is told of him. He wanted to know what was the most ancient language, the first language spoken by humanity. He commanded two babies to be fostered out to an isolated shepherd and his wife, who were to raise them but were not to speak a word to them in any language. After two years, the couple reported that when they arrived, the children would greet them with cries of “bekos!” The Pharaoh inquired of his learned men what this meant. After some consultation they told him this was the Phrygian word for “bread”. So he acknowledged the Phrygians as being the oldest nation – not the Egyptians as he had of course hoped.

These stories speak of a keen inquiring mind at work. Of course, being Pharaoh he could commandeer youngsters at will for his linguistic experiments. He realizes the importance of bilinguals for intercultural communication, as we would call it today. He realizes, too, that this is a biological matter: you need to start them young if they are to have a chance of being truly bilingual. He also wonders about the roots of the speech faculty in man. He clearly thinks it is innate, because he thinks he only has to wait before the children come out with language themselves. And when they do, whatever they produce will be the oldest language. Man, he reasoned, would still speak this language if he was left to his own devices. To put it in modern terms, ontogeny repeats phylogeny.

The story of Psammetichus reminds us that language, although the glue of social life, is something biological; and culture, like language, also has its roots in the biological. His idea about there being an original language buried in the unconscious was fanciful, of course; but on the whole, he wasn’t doing too badly for an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh.


Writing per se

From the 1920s on, the Surrealists in Paris cultivated écriture automatique, automatic writing. This meant that, as a poet, you just wrote whatever came into your head. You tried not to think any thoughts, much less of anything in particular to say. The idea was that thoughts can arise from the depths of your unconscious when your conscious brain is occupied at some task that still does not require your full attention. The action of writing itself, rhythmic and automatized as it is, functions as a distractor, like tapping your fingers while you speak or repeating a mantra while you perform some other action.

André Breton and the Surrealists got the idea of automatic writing from spiritualist mediums, who wrote supposedly under dictation from the Other World. But these poets thought automatic writing would tap the resources of the unconscious for poetry. They never thought that the handwriting itself could amount to Surrealistic art; that it could become not just the means of writing, but the end.

Yet just about any behaviour that can be automatic can be made voluntary, and just about anything that can be voluntary can be automatized. Writing is a case in point. Usually, when you write, you don’t think of forming the letters or words one by one – even less so when you type on a keyboard. You are just thinking of the message you want to communicate.

Is there any time we think of the physical act of writing and how it looks on the page? There is: calligraphy. It strikes me that calligraphy is écriture volontaire, voluntary writing, the polar opposite of automatic writing. This means that you forget about the meaning of what you are writing, the message you are trying to communicate, and instead focus on the action of writing itself. You express all that the handwriting can express – yourself, your mood, your energy. The means (handwriting) becomes the end, and the end (communication of content) becomes merely the means. Chinese and Japanese calligraphers have long had an exquisite awareness of these possibilities.

Christian Dotremont, who started out as a Surrealist and became interested not only in art but in Asian calligraphy, used handwriting in this way. In fact, in his later logogrammes he was standing the Surrealist programme on its head. He wrote something spontaneously, but with a brush, exaggerating the mannerisms of the handwriting so that it became illegible; but it still expressed something. It was not just the content of the writing that came from Somewhere Else, but the physical action of the writing. As a kind of footnote, he rewrote his text in tiny legible handwriting at the bottom of the page.

Dotremont was a writer who took the vocation of writing literally. Few Europeans have done this.

A quiet place to go mad

Geneva is definitely not Paris. There is a quiet about the place, dare one say a provinciality, which remains untouched by the élites and oligarchs of many nations passing up and down the fashionable streets. Geneva was always quiet and sober, like its most famous citizen, Calvin, wanted it to be. Before the two world wars, which brought the League of Nations and later the United Nations and its various organizations, Geneva was really a backwater. It was a place to be alone and to do your own thing – perhaps brilliantly, perhaps eccentrically – or to go mad. Or both. As the poet said,

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Rousseau was definitely mad. He spent more time in Paris than in his native Geneva, but as the years went by he became convinced that he was the victim of a gigantic plot that included almost all his contemporaries. This, however, led to some of his finest writing.

Another among the great Genevans was Ferdinand de Saussure, who belonged to an old patrician family there. His great-grandfather Horace had been a scientist involved in the conquest of Mont Blanc, which he measured to be the highest mountain in Europe.

Ferdinand was a brilliant student of Indo-European philology and achieved fame with his Master’s thesis, in which he discovered an intricate pattern in the vowels of the language family with implications that were only grasped later. However, he did not fit in either in Paris or in the German universities, and he eventually got a job as professor in Geneva. Thereafter little was heard of him in the learned world; yet, all alone, he was devising a completely new science of linguistics and the movement that later became known as structuralism.

Saussure was also working on an eccentric project of his own. He became convinced that the Latin poets had been using a system containing secret messages – the coded names of gods. He was very excited by the discovery of this pattern. Trouble was, he also found it in an English late-Latin poet. Could the tradition have been secretly passed on down the centuries? Then he found it in a contemporary Italian professor who wrote Latin verse. He wrote to him and asked if he was using the code. The other professor, it seems, never wrote back.

At this stage Saussure must have been confronted with the illusory nature of the grand pattern he had detected. He lay low and didn’t try to publish his findings. This was not hard, because he never liked writing or publishing anyway. He didn’t even publish his masterwork, the Cours de linguistique générale. His students put the book together from their lecture notes and published it in 1916, after his death. The rest, as they, say, is history.

Behold, an egg

As we all know, the major Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas replaced pagan festivals for Midwinter and Spring respectively. Such festivals were ingrained the folk memory before the Christian era. They provided a substratum of folklore which could, with a bit of ingenuity, be incorporated into Christian observance. Today, oddly enough, with the waning of Christianity in the West, the folkloric elements, which are the pre-Christian elements, take centre stage again whereas before they were belonged to the periphery. Many people today will tell you that Easter has something to do with eggs. Well, it has.

The symbolism of eggs is obvious: it means new life. This symbol is universal, but it fits in with the Christian meaning of Easter straightforwardly enough. Yet growing up in the English-speaking world, I had little encounter with eggs at Easter. I mean real eggs. We were quite familiar with the chocolate variety, which, it seems, is entirely a modern invention.

All over Europe, however, the custom of enjoying real eggs, with decorated shells, is still strong. Here in Switzerland, for example. At the end of the Easter vigil in Chur cathedral, baskets of coloured eggs will be brought to the altar and the bishop will bless them. Afterwards, they will be handed out to the faithful as they leave. People will engage in Eiertütschen, which means that you knock them together to see whose egg will crack first. They all get cracked in the end, of course, whereupon you peel them and eat them. After the Holy Saturday fast, they taste particularly good.

Children have great fun in Holy Week painting and decorating the hard-boiled eggs. At Easter itself, or just after, these kinds of eggs, and especially the chocolate variety, are hidden in the garden, supposedly left in nests there by a creature called the Osterhase or Easter Hare, and the children have to find them.

As a child you “believe in” the Osterhase like you do in Santa Claus. Eventually comes the age of disenchantment when you no longer believe in it, but the new-found scepticism is often suppressed in the interest of finding these eggs, whoever is really hiding them.

This year Easter falls on the same date for the Greek Orthodox Church. A Greek friend was telling me that their eggs have to be dyed bright red, and that they bring them to church – each person has an egg and a candle – to be blessed, and the egg does not last long after the end of the fast.

There is a lot to be said for real eggs, apart from chocolate ones. Their symbolism is apparent. They mean new life. But the shells are fragile. In France they say proverbially
pour faire une omelette, il faut casser des oeufs. At Easter, to make the most of the egg, you have to crack the painted shell. New life has to burst upon the world, and our existing arrangements, however decorative they may be, have to make way for it.

Journey to the edge

As I wrote last week, the Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel in the 1950s called La Pierre et l’Oreiller, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and a sanatorium in the Danish countryside.

He talks about the “catastrophe” of his tuberculosis at the age of 30. But he wonders about what the illness means. He finds that the Catholic faith of his childhood, then Communism, then tuberculosis, were all stratagems to cover up life itself, and its ultimate emptiness.

Catholicism was a given in Belgium, where it was much stronger than in France. Dotremont  went to a Jesuit school and had the usual religious education. But he grew into a teenage rebel and got expelled for punching a Jesuit. During the chaos of the German Occupation, he abandoned his faith altogether.

Then at the end of the war, with Stalin occupying the whole of Eastern Europe, it looked like Communism was a winning formula, and so young intellectuals like himself got with the program and joined the Party. Dotremont quickly became disillusioned, however, and quit. Now that he had given up God, and given up Stalin, what was next, or what was left?

Dotremont had the bizarre creative insight that the new thing to occupy his life was tuberculosis. The illness was nothing but a hole in life, admittedly, but it was there to cover the bigger hole of emptiness. It really was taking the place of God and Stalin. Everybody, he reflected, is looking for something to hide that gaping hole. Even Ulla, his Danish girlfriend, was filling up her emptiness – with him. We are all looking for a life project to keep us busy.

Dotremont never really recovered from tuberculosis, and eventually died of the complications over twenty years later. But in the meantime he became an inveterate traveller. Turning his back on Paris, the intellectual and artistic centre, he travelled constantly, through Amsterdam up to Denmark, across to Sweden and Finland, and up to his ultimate goal where he found what he needed: Lapland, the Great Frozen North of Europe. As one writer says of him, he became “the black traveller in white spaces”. In Lapland he could sharpen his sense of three-dimensionality, grasped through the two-dimensionality of abstract brush calligraphy in his logogrammes. Was this really abstract, or was it his vision of the landscape of Lapland? The small black figures of men and animals in the vastness of the snow, the black ink shapes against the white of the paper – it was all one. Lapland was the ultimate emptiness. Out in the snowy wastes, there was no “chalice to hide the emptiness”, as he had written earlier.

So often we think, like Dotremont, that we have reached the limit, the end, nothingness, when in fact it is just a borderland, and there is something else on the other side. Although his strange artwork consciously recalls Chinese calligraphy, he did not realize Lapland could be for him a borderland – the borderland not just to Russia but to Asia, to a new departure for human culture. But he had travelled far enough for one short life.


The work of travel

The Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel, La Pierre et l’Oreiller, in the early 1950s, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and places in the Danish countryside, including a sanatorium where he was treated for tuberculosis and had as his room-mate the artist Asger Jorn.

The travels he describes are usually by train. In those days they had a thing called the “Nord-Express” that plied between Paris and Copenhagen. When Camus went to Stockholm to get the Nobel prize for literature in 1957, he took this train to Copenhagen and then went on by ship to Sweden. By that time there was a flight available, but his doctors advised him against it as he was tubercular too and in poor health.

At the climax of Dotremont’s novel, the narrator, instead of boarding the “Nord-Express”, takes the plane from Paris Le Bourget to Copenhagen.  It is an innovation. There are Danish journalists covering the flight, and he gets interviewed and photographed in his seat – smoking. This may have been the first time he had ever been on a plane, but he doesn’t let on.

In connection with this episode, Dotremont talks about the difference between air and land travel.  He gives an example of African porters accompanying a white missionary in a hurry, who complained after a while that they wanted to take a break because “they had left their souls behind” and the souls needed to catch up. Dotremont says that when you travel by plane instead of train you leave your soul behind in the same way. This is very true. I think also of the Australian aborigines travelling by car with Bruce Chatwin along the Songlines in the book of that name, and hurrying through the verses of the song to keep up with the unaccustomed speed of travel.

When you fly somewhere, even in Europe, it is all over so quickly that you do not feel you have arrived. We talk about “jet lag” in connection with transcontinental flights. This of course refers to the physical discomfort of being caught between time zones. You are still in the old time zone that you left, and you have not had a chance to adjust to the new rhythm of light and darkness at your destination. But there is a psychological aspect too. When you travel by commercial airliner, the whole experience is very artificial. You go up in the air, see nothing but clouds or sky for several hours, and then you land at your destination. You do not “cover ground”. You have not done what I would like to call the work of travelling. Note that the word travel is the same as “travail” which originally means work. Travel is supposed to be work, which takes time.

The best way to travel would be to imitate the nomads. Taking their inspiration from migrating animals and birds, they travel over land on a route they know, and take their time at it. They look forward to getting to their winter quarters or summer quarters, but they take the time to enjoy the journey as well. We do not do that. We do not take the time to travel. We leave our souls behind. Do they ever catch up?



The codes that spell out our lives

A Japanese professor remarked that his people have Chinese writing “in their cultural DNA”, meaning that it is a part of them they are unlikely ever to give up.

DNA makes a good metaphor. It’s even better than saying “we have it in our blood”. Because our blood is indisputably part of ourselves, it courses in our veins, whereas DNA is somewhat more remote and ancient. It’s not really “us”. It comes from somewhere else, a previous stage of the game of life before it got interpreted by RNA and turned into proteins and actual organisms, and before it came down to what we think of as “us”. Yet it forms us, shapes us, determines us, so that if it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be here – we wouldn’t be who and what we are.

So it is with China and Japan in our metaphor. The code of Japanese writing, indeed the code of Japanese culture, is largely determined by the code of Chinese culture. You can’t really understand the Japanese code unless you understand the previous code that stands behind it and determines it. Any Japanese with sense can acknowledge this, while quietly congratulating himself: “we got all this without a Chinese invasion.”

When you go to live in another country, you bring your background code along with you, and it gives you a different take on things. This is the case of a European going to live in the New World. He finds the old preoccupations and the old quarrels playing themselves out in different circumstances, like Hamlet being acted by a new troupe of actors. But this is not surprising. It is because the code of the New World culture is determined by the cultural codes of the Old World from which the discoverers and colonists set sail.

Now think of yourself as an individual. You may have figured out that there is a “code” to your life. There are certain things that are important and meaningful to you, recurring motifs, experiences that keep happening again and again. Yet you may find valuable hints about these private meanings in novels or poems you read, say. You may then realize that above and behind the code of your own life there is the code of your culture determining it. The things that happen to you, the things that you feel and value, happen to other people in your culture, and have done so from time immemorial. If you are in love, you may think “no-one has ever loved the way I do”. But of course they have. The Ancients were writing love poetry thousands of years ago, and what they felt goes to shape what you feel now – this experience that feels unique. It is unique – as you yourself are unique – but it is “spelled out” by cultural DNA.




Alphabet need not have the last word (2)

There is a new approach to the evolution of written language, questioning the assumption that it depends on (spoken) language and that the alphabet is its inevitable culmination. Greater awareness of Chinese writing in the Western world has prompted this kind of thinking. The late French scholar Anne-Marie Christin has been an important source of ideas here.

It seemed necessary to Christin to work against the obvious assumption that written language is just a visual version of spoken language. In her view, written language, unlike spoken language, depends on visual experience – the whole world of patterns and pictures and representation – rather than the sound world of spoken language. It has to do as much with the coding of space (the space of the inscribed surface) as with the code of the characters or letters themselves. What makes pictures into writing is, she says, the use of space itself to mean something.

Spatial arrangement means ordering: depending on the convention adopted, the characters are to be read top to bottom, left to right, or right to left. This came to correspond to the earlier and later of time we sense in spoken language. Space corresponds to time. But we now know from the technology of sound recording and analysis that, in speech, features get bundled and overlap each other. Speech is not a neat regular output of separate “segments”. The letters each standing for a sound – even the adapted letters used for phonetic transcription – are an abstraction.

Christin has said that writing began with the interpretation of the starry sky at night. This vast display, which must have enthralled early mankind, does not stand still; it keeps changing with the time of night and the seasons, and the stars seem to rise and set at particular points on the landscape. So one could say that before early man learned to write, he learned to read. He learned to read patterns that were already there in nature. And he believed that those patterns were not due to chance, but were put there by the gods.

Writing as reading had to do with interpreting the will of the gods. When Chinese shamans took omens from animal bones or tortoise-shells held over a ritual fire till they cracked, the will of the gods could be read from the cracks. That gave them the idea that they could make their own meaningful signs. The shamans set down the interpretation in their own characters as a sort of marginal gloss on the meaningful patterns they were reading. The oracle bones and tortoise-shells with early written symbols scratched into the surface represented “value added” to the omen signs themselves.

So writing – or more precisely, reading – was divination. Writing belonged to the gods. For that reason, the early Chinese shaman could put his own writing, a message for the gods, at the bottom of a ritual vessel containing sacrificial offerings – only the gods would see it. In Christin’s view, spoken language was the world of man and a world of sound, whereas written language was the world of the gods and a world of the visual.  In order to appreciate this perspective, you have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a painter instead.

To this day, Chinese writing is associated with painting. Both are done with brush and ink. The written characters are always on the verge of crossing over into representation and the representation into writing. Such an art seems to say: never forget that these two things belong together.

Alphabet need not have the last word

It is interesting to follow the evolution of computer culture in the Sinocentric world, where folks remain attached to their traditional way of writing, surely one of the great cultural achievements of humanity. To be sure, this way of writing was developed by and for the Imperial élite, not for the masses, but it is clear that it can be and is being learned in the elementary classroom.

On the eve of the computer revolution, Walter Ong declared that Chinese writing would obviously have to go, because it couldn’t be fit on a typewriter keyboard. Well, in the meantime, it turns out that there are plenty of ways you can type Chinese on a computer keyboard, including input methods based on the shape of the character. They are even developing ways to write it “calligraphically” on a touch screen. (There is obviously more incentive to work on handwriting recognition applications in the East than in the West!) Anyway, it seems unfair to condemn a writing system because it does not immediately fit in with technologies developed for the Western alphabet.

The Asian developments in fact represent an opportunity to rethink our whole Western dependence on the alphabet, and our insistence on thinking of everything under the sun in terms of alphabetic metaphors. Scholars like the late Anne-Marie Christin have been questioning whether the alphabet is really the summit of human achievement as Western writers have invariably supposed. This is a line of thinking that started with Derrida and his criticism of the “logocentric” bias of the West.

These days, young Chinese are able to read popular fiction on their cell phones precisely because the Chinese text containing one character per word is more compact. This may sound trivial, but it is an example of Chinese characters being more suitable to a particular technology than the Western alphabet is.

As regards writing on a computer, using the modern input systems Chinese speakers are able to use more characters than they would otherwise remember, though this has a downside: it seems they need to make an effort to keep up their calligraphy skills – unlike Westerners who have cheerfully abandoned handwriting although this may not be good for their brains in the long run.

To sum up: the encounter between Western technology and Eastern writing culture, far from meaning the ultimate “triumph of the alphabet”, is an opportunity to rethink the issues involved and to develop new ways for the writer and the reader to handle written language.

First Nations of the Old World

The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung has been carrying reports about a conference in Trondheim, Lapland in early February. As it happens, the topic was reindeer raising and the challenges currently faced by those who follow this traditional way of life. It seems the reindeer are affected by climate change and by energy mega-projects, even supposedly green ones like wind-farms. But there was another reason this conference was notable. It commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the original conference at which Lapps, or Sami, the ethnic group living in the far north of Scandinavia, got together to campaign for their rights, which had long been trampled underfoot by all the governments in the region.

The Lapps are an indigenous people who have been there for ten thousand years, well before the Germanic Scandinavians and even the Finns appeared on the scene. They have their own distinctive way of life based at first on hunting, then later herding reindeer. They have their own language, their own kind of clothing, and cultural peculiarities such as a kind of throat singing.

The history of the Lapps in modern times has not been a joyful one. They were repeatedly driven off their lands by government-sponsored settlers, they were the object of church missions, they had their children sent to residential schools where their language was forbidden, and now they have a problem with youth suicide. This should sound awfully familiar – to Canadians in particular.

When the white man went to the Americas and was thoroughly mean to the red man, he wasn’t just improvising. He was doing the same thing he had been doing, and was still doing, to quasi-tribal peoples in the Old World. Because there were, and there are such peoples. The Lapps would be one example. The Basques would be another. The Highland Scots would be there too – you might say all the Celtic peoples.

It may seem strange to talk about “first nations” of Europe. Yet Europeans have always had the idea that before their civilization, before the glory days of the Roman Empire bringing civilization to the barbarians, there were indigenous peoples of great antiquity in Europe; and even after the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of great national kingdoms, these indigenous peoples on their ancestral territories tended to be stubborn holdouts ignoring or opposing the monarch’s authority. The folklore of many European countries also contains the motif of the “wild man” hiding out in the woods, a menacing sort of giant armed with a huge club. In the New World, of course, Europeans found plenty of “wild men”, or “savages” whom they proceeded to drive away or exterminate, just as they cleared the forests for arable farmland.

Now if you are a Highland Scot, you might consider it presumptuous of someone to tell you you have common cause with the North American Indians. Yet if you read, for example, the book by historian Colin Calloway* it makes you think. Anyway, I think it is time to talk about “first nations” in Europe.

*Calloway, Colin G.: White people, Indians, and Highlanders: 
tribal peoples and colonial encounters in Scotland and America: 
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press: 2008.