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.

Baikie’s book was published in 1925, at the height of Egyptomania in the Western world. A mere three years earlier, Howard Carter had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the discovery of the tomb, along with rumors of a deadly curse afflicting those who had opened it, stoked the interest of an entire generation.

Baikie himself was the author of a number of books on Egypt, including the absolutely delightful children’s book Peeps at Many Lands: Ancient Egypt. Baikie’s account of Egyptian life in this book is vibrant, detailed and utterly immersive, and his obvious passion for Everything Egypt seeps out of every page. In his book Glamour of the Near East Excavation, Baikie argues:

“The aim of modern excavation is not to unearth dead kings, and so to enable us to see over again what we knew already…it is to recreate for us the life of those long-dead days, and to show us how living men and women, not kings and queens and nobles only, but far more the common people of the time, lived, what they thought, what they hoped for in this life and the life to come, and how, under such inspirations, they wrought their part in the long story of human progress.”
In Peeps at Many Lands, Baikie succeeds in this mission so well that I can’t help but quote a passage, one where he describes the bazaars of Thebes:

At one moment you rub shoulders with a Hittite from Kadesh, a conspicuous figure, with his high-peaked cap, pale complexion, and heavy, pointed boots. He looks round him curiously, as if thinking that Thebes would be a splendid town to plunder. Then a priest of high rank goes by, with shaven head, a panther skin slung across his shoulder over his white robe, and a roll of papyrus in his hand. A Sardinian of the bodyguard swaggers along behind him, the ball and horns on his helmet flashing in the sunlight, his big sword swinging in its sheath as he walks; and a Libyan bowman, with two bright feathers in his leather skull-cap, looks disdainfully at him as he shoulders his way through the crowd….

A little farther on, the Tyrian traders, to whom the cargo of our galley is consigned, have their shop. Screens, made of woven grass, shelter it from the sun, and under their shade all sorts of gorgeous stuffs are displayed, glowing with the deep rich colours, of which the Tyrians alone have the secret since the sack of Knossos destroyed the trade of Crete. Beyond the Tyrian booth, a goldsmith is busily employed in his shop. Necklets and bracelets of gold and silver, beautifully inlaid with all kinds of rich colours, hang round him; and he is hard at work, with his little furnace and blowpipe, putting the last touches to the welding of a bracelet, for which a lady is patiently waiting.

In one corner of the bazaar stands a house which makes no display of wares, but, nevertheless, seems to secure a constant stream of customers. Workmen slink in at the door, as though half ashamed of themselves, and reappear, after a little, wiping their mouths, and not quite steady in their gait. A young man, with pale and haggard face, swaggers past and goes in, and, as he enters the door, one bystander nudges another and remarks: "Pentuere is going to have a good day again; he will come to a bad end, that young man.”

By-and-by the door opens again, and Pentuere comes out staggering. He looks vacantly round, and tries to walk away; but his legs refuse to carry him, and, after a stumble or two, he falls in a heap and lies in the road, a pitiful sight. The passers-by jeer and laugh at him as he lies helpless; but one decent-looking man points him out to his young son, and says: "See this fellow, my son, and learn not to drink beer to excess. Thou dost fall and break thy limbs, and bespatter thyself with mud, like a crocodile, and no one reaches out a hand to thee. Thy comrades go on drinking, and say, 'Away with this fellow, who is drunk.' If anyone should seek thee on business, thou art found lying in the dust like a little child."
This is Egyptian history as only a lover of Egypt could render it. But lovers are not necessarily the most objective of writers. Their loyalties are split between, on the one hand, faithfully recording the specific details that make their loved one unique, and on the other, conveying the special relationship they have with the loved one in a way that makes that relationship present to the reader. It’s easy to end up exaggerating this or that aspect in order to make what you’re describing as attractive to the reader as it is to you. It might have been hard for Baikie to resist making Egypt sound as fascinating as possible, even if that meant blurring the facts a little. Add to this a public demand for an outlandish and mysterious Egypt which was encouraged by Theosophists and Spiritualists such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and you have conditions under which even a committed historian might make a sloppy claim.

Reading Baikie’s description of the scribe absorbing some well-loved work, I note the slippery word “frequently.” How could Baikie possibly know how frequent this practice was? Even today, in a world where it is much easier to check the facts, it is possible to find examples of newspapers exaggerating the frequency of some trendy behavior, so even if Baikie somehow had a primary source attesting to a flood of scribes drinking ink, that assertion would have to be taken with a grain of salt. But Baikie doesn’t cite to an historical source at all, but rather to a mythological one:

“Thus when Prince Na-nefer-ka-ptah had got possession of the magic Book of Thoth, he made a copy of the whole book, washed off the ink with beer, and drank the beer ‘and so he knew everything that had been written in the Book of Thoth’; while at the close of the famous legend which tells how Isis stole the great name of Ra, it is written: ‘Let it be written down, and dissolve the writing in beer, and let the beer be drunk; or let it be written on a piece of linen, and worn for an amulet about the neck.”
It’s a real stretch to say that actions described in the dream-space of mythology reflect actual practices in the world. We might as well read the Book of Revelation and assert that people frequently ate books.

This is especially true in light of the fact that ancient Egyptians clearly saw a metaphorical connection between drinking and reading. In fact, the word am in old Egyptian means both “to swallow” and “to know.” Mythology is often a place where we make long-used metaphors literal.

In any case, the practice was unlikely to be frequent. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1910 notes in its entry on palimpsest (my favorite word, by the way):

“Papyrus could not be scraped or rubbed; the writing was washed from it with the sponge. This, however, could not be so thoroughly done as to leave a perfectly clean surface….[However], traces of earlier writing are very rarely to be detected in extant papyri. Indeed, the supply of the material must have been so abundant that it was hardly necessary to go to the trouble of preparing a papyrus, already used, for a second writing.”
Baikie’s wonderful story of the ink-drinking scribes was probably, like the story it derived from, a myth. But like all good myths, I think it expresses a deeper truth about our thirst for knowledge, about the torrential power of words, and about the slow flow of the stream of time that washes away all superficial verities while at the same time nurturing us with the truth of the ages.

A sonnet by Elizabeth Bishop on the subject:

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!
There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.
A toast to James Baikie and to word-lovers everywhere: may your waters be clear and your cup runneth over.

What are some of the most intoxicating words you've ever read?


  1. The most intoxicating words I have ever read was from a book called "Mockingjay". They are as follows:"There are much worse games to play." If you have not read the Hunger Games series, you might not understand what they mean.

  2. One particular song lyric has always stood out to me, both for its moutfeel and for it's brevity in summing up how I feel about the staggaring beauty of common place things.

    It's from Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al:"

    He sees angels in the architecture
    Spinning in infinity.
    He says amen! and hallelujah!

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  4. At the beginning of the quotes in the essay, it seemed to me like I was reading an EE Cummings style poem. I would actually like to read Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce because of such peculiar way of writing. It is sometimes understandable, but it is really complex, which gives an extra touch to interest for the reader. Oh! I would also like to do that type of research on Ancient Egyptian scribes; this made me think they are more awesome than I actually thought they were!

  5. thats a lot of info.... which expanded my head to some degree. the most intoxicating words that jump to mind right now are in a book by Brian Jacques, Taggerung i think it was called, but i dont have the book right now so i cant quote it to u. sorry......

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  7. The most intoxicating words was from Between Calm and Passion. It says, "True love never changes. If you loved her with all your heart, you will meet her agian."

  8. This essay was interesting. The fact that the egyptians would drink the beer with the ink is weird, but im glad i know that. The most intoxicating words i have read was from a book called Invisible I. The words are: "Is she doing that because she's worried about me or because she wants it to look like she's worried about me?" For me these words are intoxicating words because i like how they look on the book. I also like how it sounds when i read it out loud.

  9. There is a story about the king David’s ring. One day the king called a craftsman to carve a phrase inside of his ring. He was seeking a phrase that could make him neither frustrate nor be conceited. The phrase he found was “This, too, shall pass,” and this phrase was the most intoxicating words I have ever read.

  10. The most intoxicating words was from "To Kill a Mockingbird" that I read on 3rd Quarter. This quote from Atticus remained in my mind while I was finishing the book. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around it." I thought it was a good quote because I partly agree that you have to try to see from another person's point of view and it reminded me when I was being a selfish person and the quote was saying that you should have thought more in that person's point of view. I think it was the best quote and most memorable quote from the books that I have read through 9th Grade year! :DD

  11. This article was very weird at the first time, but later when I understood everything, it was interesting. However, most intoxicating words I have read was from a book called "Diary of Anne Frank" It says, "despite everything that happened, I still believe people are good at heart"
    I thought it is most intoxicating words because I liked how it feels and sounds when I read aloud the word "despite" and "good at heart". It sounds funny in a way and it sounds fancy.

  12. I usually get intoxicated by quotes from poems, specially from Emily Dickinson. Right now, I am investigating about her, and I have found some poems that have some intoxicating quotes. One of them is "Because I could not stop for death, he kidly stopped for me-The carriage held but just ourselves-And Immortality" I consider these as an entoxicating quote because it talks about death in a fancy way, and it makes think about it many times.

  13. Pablo, yes: Emily Dickinson is one of the most intoxicating writers I know. She's got a poem about a snake that starts:

    A narrow fellow in the grass
    Occasionally rides
    You may have met him - did you not
    His notice sudden is.

    I've always loved the way that she scrambles the syntax in that last line. It should be "His notice is sudden," but there's something so much more surprising about the word "sudden" jumping in from of the "is."

    I also like all the "ssss" sounds in the line. Very snake-y.

  14. Michael, Paul Simon is the king of great lyrics and that whole album is especially good:

    Staccato signals of constant information
    A loose affiliation of millionaires
    and billionaires and baby
    these are the days of miracle and wonder

  15. It does seem like a pity that they had to wash out pieces of papyrus and rewrite something else on those same papers but it might have been a representation of being reborn of an after-life. Who knows how many pieces of writing that were erased were a bit more lacking in quality than those written after? nowadays we use and throw away, and recycle a few things. The Egyptians were using what they already had.

  16. I read this essay at night so i had to read it a thousand times to get it stuck in my head that was a lot of info those are some great lyrics

  17. this essay made me think a lot about "drinking" words, and how the Egyptians lived backed then. i have been thinking for a while, "how wonderful, it would be if we could just drink a book, or quote, or essay and then being able to recall it from our minds and just read it there, instead of having a book with you." though later i realized, no, it wouldnt be good. i, myself like to READ books, as they are just wonderful to do so. but, i really like the essay about drinking words. also, the most intoxicating words i have ever read *that i remember, and only for now,* would be a quote from "i am number 4" *the book*, in the end. but sorry, i dont have the book with me right now and wont be able to tell you the quote at this moment. anyways, very nice writing and keep it up.

  18. The Egyptians most have really wanted a certain knowledge, like to ¨drink¨ words. It most have been really interesting to see them do that. If we could actually do that we could memorize whole books, but like always we would have some problems. A problem would be that if we do not share the knowledge that we acquired, no other person would be able to learn it. Aother problem would be that if we do not share it and we die, no one would ever know what was in the book, because I imagine that once you get it wet with beer or with somethign that contains water, the book would be destroyedand it would not exist anymore. I have found some quotes, books, songs, poems that have had really intoxicating words, that I liked but unfortunately I cannot recall them right know because once I have acquired knowledge I never forget it and it comes to be a part of me.

  19. The most intoxication words that I have ever read was from a writer called e.e.cummings.

    “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you just like everybody else means to fight the greatest battle there is to fight and never stop.”

    These words really had a great impact on me because what these words means is that people have goals or dreams and the only way people can accomplish it is by never giving up on it, even if there is minor set backs.
    These words impacted me greatly that I even wrote an essay on for the project Writing on the Walls.

  20. Hmmm... Nicole, it's weird how such a special writer like EE Cummings (because of his grammatical errors made on purpose, mainly on poetry)can write such wise and interesting words that definitely have a philosophical touch to them. I can certainly find these words very intoxicating since they have an outstanding quality of thought towards them.