Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Drinking Words

Sometimes a story is so good, you wish it were true. And sometimes a story is so true, it seems unbelievable.

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.

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.”
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.

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.

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.”
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.

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.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Eating Books

One of my favorite stories about books occurs in the New Testament’s bravura final section, the Book of Revelation. This section is a crazy-quilt collection of intense religious hallucinations experienced by the author, John of Patmos. To this day it remains one of the most controversial and widely read books of the New Testament because Biblical scholars are still arguing about what it means. John’s revelations are cryptic and often confusing, but for sheer imagery it’s hard to think of another book ever written that surpasses its vivid strangeness.

The part of Revelation that captured my interest more than any other occurs at the end of the 10th chapter of the Book of Revelation, but I’m going to quote the whole thing here just because it’s so awe-inspiringly wild and weird.

Revelation 10

[1] And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:

[2] And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth,

[3] And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

[4] And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.

[5] And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,

[6] And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:

[7] But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.

[8] And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.

[9] And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.

[10] And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.

[11] And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.

What struck me immediately upon reading this section was the oddness of the voice’s request. Eat the book?

But after a moment, it made a lot of sense to me. Reading a book is an act that we recognize as being related to the process of eating:

That’s why, if we finish a book quickly, we say we devoured it. If we need time to think about it, we say we're still digesting it.

In Revelations, the book that John eats “was in my mouth sweet as honey” but “as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.” Reading this with a mind full of gustatory metaphors I immediately thought of licorice, perhaps because my first taste of licorice, at age 4, was so surprising that I’ve never forgotten it: for the first second I gobbled it up, and then the full taste hit me and I cried and cried. I felt like I had been tricked by that momentary sweetness.

There are books like that, too; books that are so well-written that they draw you in with their sweetness, only to convey a difficult or upsetting message. Biblical scholars have interpreted this scene as a description of the process of reading and understanding the New Testament itself: initially, the descriptions of God’s love and care for individuals as expressed by Jesus are exciting and make the reader feel deliciously happy, but as the reader comes to realize the personal responsibility and commitment that spring from the recognition of that all-encompassing love, it turns out to be much more difficult and much less pleasant to truly live up to Christian values. This is the bitter medicine that the honey hides.

But of course, that’s just one interpretation, and there are many kinds of nourishment. In the following poem, Galway Kinnell develops a metaphorical relationship between the “black art” of writing poetry and the taste of blackberries.

Blackberry Eating
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Here, Kinnell gives us the reverse of John of Patmos’ experience: the berries might be difficult to pick, but they are undeniably tasty and soul-satisfying when eaten.

These reflections on reading and eating made me wonder how I would describe some of my favorite books as meals. Here are some of mine: what kind of meal would your favorite book be?

Moby Dick: A rich, creamy seafood chowder, washed down with a pint of exceptionally strong and bitter beer.
This one is a no-brainer; Melville actually has his narrator, Ishmael, describe exactly the chowder I mean in Chapter 15 of the book (a chapter called, naturally, “Chowder”): Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.”

 Waiting for Godot:
After you order, the waiter brings you a small, warm piece of brown bread with a delicious pat of kerrygold Irish butter and a refreshing glass of ice water. Then he disappears into the kitchen for an hour. When he finally comes out again, he tells you your food is almost ready and asks whether you would like some more bread and water until your meal arrives. He brings you some more bread, but this time it is cold and hard and there is no butter and the water is room temperature. The waiter disappears into the kitchen again. After another hour, the lights in the restaurant are suddenly turned off and you realize that everyone else went home a long time ago and all the doors are locked.

The Phantom Tollbooth:
An assortment of jellybeans of startling flavors: olive oil, lavender, aluminum, paste, Granny Smith apple etc.