I’ve spent the last four hours researching a claim which I read years ago in a source I can’t remember. It’s a tidbit that I’ve shared with my World Literature Class many times over the years. The claim relates to papyrus, the thick fibrous material on which Ancient Egyptian scribes did their writing. I wasn’t able to find the original source -- I think it may have been an interview with a writer – but I was able to find another source, Egyptian Papyrus and Papyrus-Hunting by James Baikie, which tells the same story. According to Baikie, scribes would reuse papyrus by washing the ink out with a liquid:
“In spite of the admirable quality of the ink used by the ancient Egyptian scribe, the process of washing-out was apparently quite an easy one. It was frequently resorted to, not only for the purpose of preparing a sheet of new writing, but for quite another purpose. The ancient Egyptian had a profound belief in the magical virtue of the written word, and one of his favourite ways of possessing himself of knowledge was to wash off in beer the writing of any roll whose contents he wished to make infallibly his own, subsequently drinking the beer. He thus literally absorbed the knowledge which he desired to possess.”
This is a charming story on many levels. It is easy to imagine the poor scribe, toiling away inside the a massive and impersonal Egyptian bureaucracy, being asked by his boss to wash out a papyrus containing some beautiful poem in order to reuse it to copy out some pedestrian account of grain holdings or the sale of cattle from one noble to another. He became a scribe because he loved words and yet, here he is, being asked to destroy the very things he loves. How can he honor them? By taking them into himself and letting them become a part of him.
The fact that he dissolves the words in beer is a nice touch too. It speaks directly to the feeling of intoxication that can overcome us when we read something truly inspiring or strange or well-written, especially when we read these words out loud. The other day I entertained my class of high school seniors during a lull by reading to them from the beginning of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Read them out loud yourself and see if you don’t start to get a buzz:
“rivverun past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.This is language inspiring and strange and almost impossible to read without stumbling, but if you succeed, its sense of flow, the winding way its riverish words overwhelm simple meanings and spill out over the page, is unparalleled. Just look at that glorious onomatopoeia Joyce created to capture the sound of Humpty Dumpty’s fall off of the wall. As I understand it he’s also referring to Adam and Eve, Jesus, and the Irish folk song character Finnegan, all of whom experience a “fall” of one kind or another – that’s the virtue of watery words: they can fit to fill many different vessels all at once.
Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntro-varrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and lateron life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy.”
True lovers of language, whether they’re poets or rappers (who “spit” rhymes) or writers like Baikie’s Egyptian scribe, don’t just love language for what it means: they love it for how it sounds, for how it looks on the page, and for how it feels in your mouth as you speak it. They love the fact that there is a word, mouthfeel, that precisely captures this quality. The moment I fell in love with Moby Dick wasn’t the moment that it told me a great truth or imparted interesting information. It was the moment that I read the following description of a bar:
“within are shabby shelves, ranged round with old decanters, bottles, flasks; and in those jaws of swift destruction, like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they called him), bustles a little withered old man, who, for their money, dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death.By the time I hit that final splash of alliteration and assonance: “villainous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards,” I wanted to submerge myself in Melville’s words and never come up for air. Every child knows the pleasure of a tongue-twister, and there are some writers, like Melville and Joyce, who seem not to have forgotten. They elevate the tongue-twister to a legitimate art in its own right.
Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without - within, the villainous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom.”
But as fun as intoxication can be, clarity of thought is an important corrective. The beer the Egyptians drank wasn’t necessarily like the beer we drink today: in the centuries before water purification, alcohol of one kind or another, usually heavily diluted, was the drink of choice for people all over the world. So the scribe’s beer may not have been so intoxicating after all.
And clearly considered, Baikie’s story starts to evaporate.