Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

15 August 2010

read the letter

I'm an absolutely miserable blogger.
When I write,
I write in abundance.
When I don't write it's because my mind is
a blank,

an empty page waiting for the words to form.
Blankness is frustrating.
Sometimes it's far more useful
when a creator at least has
a mold,
a model
of some kind
in which to shape
the message.

* * 

Remember when paper looked
like that?
When the challenge of writing was not
to produce meaning,
but rather,
to produce shapes within a prescribed space?

I really loved learning to print because
it was like artwork;
it was also a little like
playing bumper cars,
or something like that.
My pen was the car,
bumping from hard line to hard line
passing through the dashed line,
grateful that it was there to guide me on my course.

There were certain letters I loved 
to produce:





fabulous shapes that arched through those lines
in such interesting ways.

I loved looking for the points of balance:
the two corresponding curves in the
the slopes of the

There was something else about those letters
that I love the most: 
I really felt they were shaped
like the sound they made.
I felt that writing them was the act
of finding an exact graphic representation
on the sounds I made in my mouth.

So too was the case with


and of course



While I was in Greece
I had the pleasure of being with Greek people
who had some knowledge not only of how to read 
Modern Greek
but also
Ancient Greek.

It is interesting to stand at an ancient site
and hear people sounding out the letters there.
When the sounds and the shapes were put together, they even made sense to me.

And I had a little revelation.

Well, it was and is one of my funky little theories,
one of those things
that happens in my mind
when everyone else thinks
I'm zoning out.

It went like this:


( omniglot )

I recently met a Chinese woman who explained to me
the evolution of written Chinese.

Fundamentally, written Chinese is a series of pictographs --
each sign contains
a series of strokes
the work together to produce
an impression of a complete idea.

the script was more recognizably pictoral,
but over time it became more abstract:

( commons.wikimedia )

This type of writing is called hànzi and I'm a little afraid
to try to explain much else about it,
because it's such a different
system for me.  I'm just beginning
to understand it.
Follow the link on the word hànzi and it
will bring you to yet another site
that explains the strokes
and the writing a little more.

Keep in mind that within this system,
one block of strokes
represents an entire concept,
and as new concepts have emerged,
different combinations of existing signs
have been used to signify those new concepts,
as you can see below,
and the translations are

(the wikipedia article on this system
also appears to be
pretty helpful)

when a young Chinese student is learning to write,
she doesn't use that three-lined paper
that we in the West use.

She does have paper to help her,
but notice how it emphasizes isolated squares;
it's really much more like
a grid

( cantonese )

For anyone who
has dared to read other entries
in this blog,
especially those
where the keyword is
you can imagine I might
go a little crazy right now with the implications of this.
But I won't because that's not the purpose
of this entry.

Rather my purpose here
is to think about
the writing system itself,
how it is produced,
and the fact that it is,
at its very root,

Chinese writing began as an attempt to represent,
as an artist would,
the world that the writer viewed.
Its basis is concrete
and grounded in
observable outside phenomenon.
Unlike Western script.

or so we have thought, for a very very long time.


( ancientscripts )

I had had this rather fascinating introduction
to written Chinese
right before I left
on my trip to my own
ancient homeland.

And then I found myself wandering through ruins,
looking at an ancient script
that my guide claimed
any Modern Greek
could read today.

My own Greek
is long gone,
forgotten on the waves or torments
of time and history,
but I read along with my companions
as we looked at the worn inscriptions,
and I was amazed at how much
I could actually hear in my head.
My amazement continued
when I began to feel I knew why:
it was fairly easy.

Because of the way they were presented for me,
with each letter framed by a box,
I imagined that the box itself
was the frame for creating the form of the letter, and
I decided that those ancient letters were
But they did not represent
a cow, or a mountain, or a mother,
I decided that the boxy frame
defined the space of the mouth,
and the drawings within that box
represented where I was supposed to put
my tongue inside my mouth,
and how to hold my lips,
as I produced sound:

Θ, for instance,
told me to put my tongue
between my teeth
with my lips slightly open --
th is the sound it makes.

Γ told me to hold my tongue
pressed against
the top of my mouth,
and curve the tip of it
down to the bottom of my mouth
and press it there.

Do it, the sound you produce will be "g"
which is what that represents.

Δ is the tip of the tongue
against the front of the mouth,
a harder obstruction to that frontal space
than Λ,

Δ, by the way, is "D"
Λ is "L".

Now if you look at the chart above,
you can see the letters
changed from place to place,
but in general
my funny little rule applies,

and I began to think that writing,
as we know it in the Western World,
may actually be more representational
than we give it credit it for.

In fact, here is an alphabet
that precedes the Greek
that even more fully exemplifies
my thoughts:

( historian )

Many today may argue
(like Saussure)
that Western words and letters are
arbitrarily chosen,
and demand a high level of
abstract thinking.
I'd agree with the latter part of that
because clearly,
the Western alphabet,
just like written Chinese
has evolved over time
and moved so far away
from its original source
that  it is all abstraction and
seemingly random.
We don't so clearly
see the original pictures;

If you agree they are pictures.

And what I'm thinking is they are pictures
of the inside of the mouth:

( soundsofenglish )

graphically representing the face
and the contortions it must make
to produce the sounds
that make up words.

In a sense, reading languages that use this type of alphabet
is much more
than Chinese,
because you must be
much more patient
to read Western languages,
putting one sound after another
in a line, until words, then sentences,
then paragraphs
are decoded.

This type of writing dooms us to
linear thought.
(Linear writing and thinking
are two parts of a trinity,
and the third is

Yet, it also allows for more flexibility,
more words, and perhaps
more subtlety of meaning.


The other point my mind went to,
as I contemplated this theory
was the relationship between the scribe and the exterior world
suggested in both types of writing systems:

As I say above,
the Chinese system represents
concrete, identifiable
objects that exist
outside of the writer/scribe/viewer.
It is a system
where the writer
represents his ideas by showing the world
he observes.
There is little sense of the person doing
the actual writing.

 (Metropolitan Museum postcard)
( brooklyn.cuny )

Whereas in the Western system,
it's all about representing something
that is happening in the writer's body--
it's a very somatic and physical form of representation
located solely in the body
of the writer.
It has everything to do with the changes
that the outside world
does to the body of the speaker,
and has little to do
with representing the outside world itself.

If you get what I mean.

Historically, Chinese script is more about external objects,
representing them,
knowing about them;
Western script claims a subject,
and the subject is
the writer himself.

the first-person pronoun
in Greek


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