Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.
In 2010, I was working on my first exhibition of endangered alphabets carvings — Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 13 different minority scripts — when a trick of the light entirely and literally changed the way I saw writing.
I had started work on my Balinese carving, printing the text out, taping it over the wood, slipping a piece of carbon paper between the two, and then going over the text using a cheap blue ballpoint.
Just as I finished, the sun came out from behind a building, and by some quirk of optics, the ballpoint ink, catching the light, glowed gold, like a river at sunset. The whole text looked like a medieval illuminated manuscript in gold leaf.
Until that moment, I had thought the word “illuminated” in the phrase “illuminated manuscript” meant something like “decorated.” But this was a different kind of illumination: the letters were illuminated by light.
Until then, I had only ever painted my letters in black, but this transubstantiation into gold seemed to represent an entirely different writing impulse, a kind of glowing, look-at-this spirit of discovery, or of teaching. The letters seemed less stamped against their environment by an act of human will, and more revealed, as if drawing one’s attention to some source of wisdom or inspiration. As such, they represented illumination in another sense — to be enlightened, to be filled with the sense of divine message, illumination leading to illumination.
Two other thoughts struck me. One was that the act of certain kinds of writing is an act of devotion. The act of praying, kneeling with shoulders forward and head bent, involves almost the same posture as the act of writing, especially when we think of the scribes and copyists of the medieval monasteries hunched over the desks in their scriptoria. Devoting one’s life to one’s god and spending every hour of daylight or tallow-light to writing out the word of one’s god — the two callings clearly have a great deal in common. Both involve focus and dedication, a stilling of the body to allow a concentration of the mind.
The other had to do with the act of creation. Shakespeare’s Theseus says that poets give “to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” As such, it is like the divine act of creation, coalescing matter out of pure thought. The precipitation of thought into symbols on the page is not unlike the precipitation of spirit into the visibility and three-dimensional reality of flesh. Writing becomes a means of transforming something invisible, inaudible, immaterial — a thought — into something visible, comprehensible, tangible. Which, in turn, has the ability to change.
Ten years later, I was reading the most beautiful book I own — Illuminations: The Writing Traditions of Indonesia — and came across an essay by Raechelle Rubinstein on the devotional writing practices of Balinese scribes working on lontar, or palm-leaf manuscript books.
“Belief in the divine origin and the supernatural potency of writing,” she wrote, “has also produced a web of rituals that surround literate activity including writing, reading, discarding lontar texts, storing lontar texts, and paying homage to the Goddess Saraswati, the patroness of literature, knowledge, and eloquence.”
For example, mantra must be recited when carrying out the following activities: “Writing; requesting a boon to write; crossing out consonants (this must first be recited over the tip of the stylus); crossing out vowels, the mute symbol, and numbers; opening exalted writings; reading; closing and storing lontar; absorbing knowledge quickly; [and] burning lontar.” Damaged lontar cannot be just thrown away; they must be cremated, like the human body.”
Lontar need to be stored in wooden chests, woven baskets, or cupboards, which in turn need to be in a sacred space within the house, according to the principles of geomancy.
On the day dedicated to the goddess Saraswati, which takes place once a (210-day) year, the entire day is scripted by ritual. During that day, nothing written may be destroyed, or even a letter crossed out for fear of punishment by the goddess Durga and malevolent spirits. All the lontar in a household are gathered and act as the representation of the goddess, to whom 18 offerings are made — one for each of the letters of the Balinese alphabet.
To those of us in the 21st-century West, this may sound like mere superstition, and in fact, the late Cambridge anthropologist Dr. Jack Goody coined the dismissive word “grapholatry” to mean the actual worshiping of a script as though it were an idol. Yet when I read Rubinstein’s account, I came to it not as an anthropologist, but as a writer. And I thought, How do we learn to write at our very best?
As a writer for all my adult life and a teacher of writing for more than 25 years, I had never come across this fundamental question: How do you access the very best you have to offer?
The conventional advice — plow through a terrible first draft and then put yourself through the ghastly process of reiterated revision — strikes me as the best way of cutting yourself off from the sources of inspiration and imagination. By contrast, traditional Balinese scribal practices encourage the highest possible sense of mission. They demand the greatest degree of forethought both before and during the act of writing, a recognition that every change and edit must be as considered as the initial writing impulse, and more respect for the finished product than we can conceive.
I tell you: Whether or not you think of inspiration as spiritual in nature, if you have worked on a book for, say, two years, and have tried to get it to represent the very best you have to offer on the subject, and one day you see it marked down in sharpie on a supermarket remainder table, or have seen someone casually toss it to one side, you catch a glimpse of how much of your own spirit you have invested in that work, and how far reverence for writing has fallen in the West.
Far from being an exception, Balinese practice has a great deal in common with writing practices and beliefs in many other cultures. The gnostic Mandaeans regard writing, and their alphabet itself, as not merely a way of describing enlightenment, but embodying enlightenment itself. Traditional Islamic belief sees writing as the word of God in a similarly literal sense. The script’s importance goes so deep in Cham culture that, among some Eastern Cham, learning this script is a rite of passage in funerary ceremonies. As part of a four-day cremation ceremony, one of the rituals that a priest will perform is to kneel down and teach the deceased how to read and write Cham. Only after the human spirit has acquired skills in reading and writing may they become cremated and pass on to the afterlife.
Literally dozens of cultures have scripts that originated in dreams or visions, whose written characters are indistinguishable from their spiritual practices. In each case, there is a veneration for the act of writing — and for writing itself — as a visible manifestation of thought or spirit, that, in my opinion, is worth taking very seriously.
Far from calling this grapholatry, I’d like to flip the perception around and propose that this understanding of the spiritual potency of writing is something that we in the West have lost. I suspect that every culture goes through, or has gone though, a period of seeing writing as a mystical process. For us, though, writing has been a mechanized process for centuries, increasingly impersonal, increasingly disposable. We dash off a shopping list or shoot off a text with a maximum of haste and a minimum of reflection. The nature, act, and meaning of writing have changed for us in ways we never consider, and can barely fathom.
Yet the effects are clear. In the 1980s, a friend of mine, a fine poet and short-story writer, bought one of the first desktop computers, and within six months had fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition and cranked out his first novel. He sent it to his publisher, who invited him down to Boston, took him out into the countryside where they could be alone, and told him, “Not only am I not going to publish this novel, I’m going to recommend you don’t send it out to anyone else.” The PC had allowed him to skip over his own equivalent of all those Balinese mantras and produce something that combined the maximum length with the minimum reflection.
Here’s what I propose. Writing represents an enormous human ambition, the ambition to conquer time and space by getting visible signs to speak on our behalf. We don’t even have a word for this graphic ventriloquism, the amazing process whereby something as invisible and intangible as a thought or a mood can be made visible and tangible and comprehensible to such effect that it can go out into the universe and contribute to someone else’s thought or mood. The symbols we create are a way of mediating between the material and the immaterial worlds.
Our understanding of writing has become secularized as our understanding of the universe has become secularized. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.
And actually we do have a word in English that expresses the modern secular view of writing while showing its roots in a belief of its mysterious power to affect others over time and distance.