Sunday, 28 February 2010

How to Make Pens and Ink in Prison. By the Count of Monte Cristo

The ingenuity, the ingenuity. Pens made from whiting head bones? Ink of soot and wine? Not to mention the ol' blood. In Alexandre Dumas père, Count de Monte Cristo, Abbé Faria details to an astounded Edmond Dantès, incarcerated as well in Château d'If for being a Bonapartiste traitor, how he makes his writing instruments and ink.

 Château d'If where Edmond Dantès, 
the future Count Monte Cristo was imprisoned 
in Alexandre Dumas père novel.
Photo ChrisO

"But if they did not give you a pen, with what did you manage to write this huge treatise?"

"I made very good pens, which would be found superior to ordinary ones if the substance was known, out of the soft bones from the heads of those big whiting that they sometimes serve us on fast days. In this way, I always looked forward to Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, because they offered me at least a hope of increasing my stock of pens." (...)

"But ink?", Dantès asked. "How did you make ink?"

"There used to be a chimney in my dungeon," Faria said. "This chimney was doubtless blocked up some time before my arrival, previously, fires had been built there many years, so the whole of the inside was coated with soot. I dissolve the soot in part of the wine that they give me every Sunday, and it makes excellent ink. For particular notes which must stand out from the text, I prick my fingers and write with my blood."

 Abbé Faria by Paul Gavarni

Friday, 26 February 2010

Whatever Happened to Sofia Tolstoy's Pens?

"I have served a genius for almost forty years. Hundreds of times I have felt my intellectual energy stir within me, and all sorts of desires - for education, a love of music and the arts . . . and time and time again I have crushed and smothered these longings".
Victimizing herself? Perhaps. The master of Russian literature was also Sofia Tolstoy's master and she served him dutifully over the years rearing his 13 children, cooking his meals, transcribing his manuscripts, enduring his infidelities, and more. Her diaries were not deemed suitable reading material for the 1970s Russian public - and with good reason. Sofia Tolstoy's writings subverted the venerated persona of Leo Tolstoy and this would not do.

 Whose history, whose story survives? Leo Tolstoy told his-story in his books and in his letters and diaries. His dip pens, his ink stand, his famous electric pen were preserved like sacred relics to feed the fans appetite for historical fetishes: writing instruments once touched by the hand of genius; ink willed to form words by the mind of genius; a chair with shortened legs custom-made to accommodate the genius' holy posterior at the right height; a desk, the holy tabernacle that once hosted the genius' bodily presence - one could imagine the creative mind aethereal juices hovering above it, the white-bearded ascetic face leaning over papers and pens.

Tolstoy's study in Yasnaya Polyana

For every great story that is preserved there is another untold. And for every pen and inkstand displayed there is another destined to obscurity. The contributions of Sofia Tolstoy were consumables for the most part: breast milk, meals, clothes. Devoured, munched, worn, disposed of. When the era of venerated geniuses passed, the diaries of Sofia Tolstoy came to light again to tell their alternative story. Whatever happened to Sofia Tolstoy's pens?

The drawing room in Tolstoy's house where Sofia Tolstoy 
did her needlework, taught her children 
and copied her husband's manuscripts. Tolstoy House in Yasnaya Polyana

Sofia Tolstoy Diaries are published by Alma Books. Helen Mirren is Sofia Tolstoy in Jay Parini's The Last Station, released 19 February 2010.

Sofia Tolstoy by Nikolay Gay

See the interior of Leo Tolstoy's house in Yasnaya Polyana on Memorial collection: The Tolstoy House.
On the Sofia Tolstoy Diaries see Alison Flood, "Sofia Tolstoy's diaries paint bleak portrait of marriage to Leo" in The Guardian, 2 June 2009; my Historical Sources for Biography Essays: The Sofia Tolstoy Diaries on Suite101.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

How a Fountain Pen is Made (from InkyJournal)

InkyJournal, a haven for the fountain pen and ink enthusiast, has found this great clip from Aurora about how fountain pens are made. I find the making of the nib particularly fascinating.
Have a look back in the 19th century for a similar commentary (in print) about the famous Gillott's Pens: How to Make Steel Pens and a vintage nib slitting machine.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Pen is Mighter Than the Sword? Percy Jackson.

In the beginning there was Cardinal Richelieu: the world's first Prime Minister, man of power, owner of a superb manuscript collection, patron of the arts and founder of the Academie Francaise. Wait, no. In the beginning there was Edward Bulwer-Lytton. And he wrote in 1839, a play called Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. It was opened in London's Covent Garden theatre and William Charles Macready, as Richelieu, uttered the following:

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

 But wait! The good Wikipedia informs me that Bulwer-Lytton was not the first to compare the pen's might to that of the sword. There were others: Islamic prophet Muhammad  has reportedly said that the ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr; Spanish 16th-century chronicler, Antonio de Guevara had compared a pen to a lance, books to arms and a life of studying to a life of war (I like that); Shakespeare had Hamlet proclaim that "many wearing rapiers [i.e. swords] are afraid of goosequills"; Thomas Jefferson compared the pen with the sword in a letter to Thomas Pain in 1792; the great man Napoleon Bonaparte himself is reported to have said that "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets". 

"This is a pen". Photo in fanpop

And now prophets, chronicler, men of letters and men of war have passed the pen relay to teenage demi-god hero, Percy Jackson. In the teen kitch flick, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, the hero having learnt that he in fact is the son of Poseidon is given by Chiron (Pierce Brosnan in a wheelchair) a weapon to defend himself against all evil that is about to break loose. And lo! it's a pen.

Chiron: Use this to defend yourself. It's a powerful weapon
Percy Jackson: This is a pen.
Chiron: Only use it in times of severe distress.
Percy Jackson: This is a *pen*

A pen that in times of severe distress is transformed into a sword. Reversing centuries of tradition, demi-god Percy Jackson hailing from the legendary shores of Hollywood in the company of oversized Greek gods dressed in ancient souvenir garb and residing in Olympus (none other than the Empire State Building) proves once and for all that indeed the sword *is* mightier than the pen. And he saves the world. Like a true American.

You can buy it and see for yourself.

The Pen is Mighter Than the Sword. Or is it? Find out in Toys 'R Us
or watch Percy Jackson, if you dare (I was forced).

Monday, 22 February 2010

Can you render my pencil?

In 1858 Emily Dickinson produced her first fascicle, four sheets containing 27 poems. Thus started a huge production of "little volumes" or "little manuscripts", gatherings of poems arranged on individual unbound sheets of stationery. Her peak year was 1863 when she copied or wrote around 300 hundred poems. But in 1864, Emily had problems with her eyesight. She went to Boston in 1864 to see Dr. Henry Williams and returned in April for treatment.

I was ill since September and since April, in Boston, for a Physician's care. Dr Williams forbade the use of pen and ink. Can you render my Pencil? The Physician has taken away my Pen,

the pen "she had been feverishly employing for nearly two years. Her letters at this time are entirely in pencil, as are her poetry manuscripts...". She went back to Cambridge for further treatment in 1865, and while she continued to send pencil messages to friends, she returned to transcribing her poems in ink onto fascicle sheets. She done most of her writing, both in pen and pencil, in her bedroom at the Homestead, on a small work table with a single drawer.

Unauthenticated daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, ca. 1848-1853

See The Poems of Emily Dickinson, volume 3, 1998, where the quotes come from; On Emily Dickinson manuscripts and her work routine, see the Emily Dickinson Museum

Saturday, 20 February 2010

And through these things my pencil pushes softly

You see me moving, then, as one who moves
Forever at the circle of his circle:
A circle filled with light. And into it
Come bulging shapes from darkness, loom gigantic,
Or huddle in dark again... A clock ticks clearly,
A gas-jet steadily whirs, light streams across me;
Two church bells, with alternate beat, strike nine;
And through these things my pencil pushes softly
To weave grey webs of lines on this clear page.

Conrad Aiken, Palimpsest: A deceitful portrait from House of Dust

Thursday, 18 February 2010

If I had no pencil

If I had no pencil,
Would it try mine -
Worn - now - and dull - sweet,
Writing much to thee.
If it had no word -
Would it make the Daisy,
Most as big as I was -
When it plucked me?

Emily Dickinson

Manuscript: About early 1861, in pencil, signed "Emily" and sent to American journalist and editor of  the Springfield Republican, Samuel Bowles, pinned around the stub of a pencil. In The Poems of Emily Dickinson, volume 3, 1998.

Black and white daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson ca. early 1847

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Pen and the Hand

In Being and Nothingness, considered as the philosopher's greatest work, Jean-Paul Sartre writes on the issue of the pen, and the hand:

I do not apprehend my hand in the act of writing but only the pen which is writing; this means that I use my pen in order to form letters but not my hand in order to hold the pen. I am not in relation to my hand in the same utilizing attitude as I am in relation to the pen; I am my hand. That is, my hand is the arresting of references and their ultimate end. The hand is only the utilization of the pen.

In the act of writing it is the point of the pen which I look at in synthetic combination with the line or the square marked on the sheet of paper. But my hand has vanished; it is lost in the complext system of instrumentality in order that this system may exist. It is simply the meaning and the orientation of the system.

In this sense the structure of the world implies that we can insert ourselves into the field of instrumentality only by being ourselves an instrument, that we can not act without being acted on.

We do not use this instrument, for we are it. It is given to us in no other way than by the instrumental order of the world... I do not have to adapt myself to it nor to adapt another tool to it, but it is my very adaptation to tools, the adaptation which I am.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, first published 1943.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Bic (Greeks and Bics)

 No other writing instrument exemplifies the 1970s for me better than Bic. In the world of school supplies in 1970s Athens there were four options: Blue Bic; Red Bic; Black Bic; Green Bic. Black Bic for serious business. Red Bic for teachers. Green Bic for variety. Blue Bic for the people. A Bic was a Stylo, it was called a Stylo and it was the Stylo. I remember them as clear, hard plastic polygonal tubes enclosing thin, bendable ink holders that ended in a dull-golden tip. I am not sure. Memory does not serve me well these days.

The cap was designed to make sure a Bic stayed upright in one's shirt pocket. No Greek pupil worth the name and reputation would be seen with one sticking out of their pockets. Hell, we didn't even have pockets. The caps were often lost or chewed to destruction, their pointy bit used to extract, oh I don't know, stuff from places. Endless were the trials and tribulations of Bics, the school writing instruments par excellence. Bics for the Greeks (I like the sound of that).

Photo Bic by Trounce

Many a time the blue top of the plastic tube, designed to keep the ink holder in place, was removed by means of teeth action. It was a hard task. Some teeth got broken in the process. The tube itself was cracked, subjected to heat experiments, or crushed by careless feet leaving the bendable ink holder exposed like some defenceless worm creature out of its shell. The creature would refuse to write thereafter. If you decided to cut it in pieces, no ink would issue forth.

In cold weather there was this thing you had to do: heat the Bic tip with your breath, then shake the whole thing as you would a thermometer. The Bics occasionally took their revenge. For no apparent reason they would suddenly die, bleeding uncontrollably in one's pencil case, on one's finished homework or a surface they knew one would lean on wearing a freshly laundered shirt. The Revenge of the Bics on the Greeks.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Miss Waren's Large Pool of Ink by Graham Green

She had laid her writing-pad upon her knee, and her fountain-pen spluttered across the paper, splashing ink and biting deep holes.

Dear Cousin Con [she wrote] I'm writing to you because I've nothing better to do. This is the Orient Express but I'm not going to Constantinople. I'm getting out at Vienna. But that's another story. Could you get me five yards of ring velvet? Pink.

Miss Warren's pen ended the letter in a large pool of ink. She enclosed it in a thick line and wrote Sorry. Then she wiped the pen on her skirt and rang the bell for a steward. Her mouth was terribly dry.


Graham Greene, Stamboul Train, first published 1932.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Faber Pencil, Recipe for Success

Having secured supplies of Siberian graphite in the 1850s, Johann Faber advertised the "great purity" of the new material by publishing its chemical analysis. This was Faber's pencil recipe for success:

Kaolin..................................................... 3.1
Silicic acid............................................... 1.6
Oxide of iron........................................... 0.4
Chalk and magnesia................................. 0.2
Foreign matter......................................... 0.2

 The Faber Manufacture, ca. 1850. Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG.

Quotes by Henry Petroski, The Pencil. A History of Design and Circumstance. London & Boston 1989

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Red Pencil: Chekhov and Censorship

The red pencil of censorship has a long history in Russia. Tsar Nicholas I's censorship measures in the context of his "Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality" were notorious and although these were abolished by his son and successor, Alexander II, it wasn't long until the red pencil's reign returned. Following an attempt on Tsar Alexander II's life, censorship returned to Russia, and after his assassination, his son Alexander III (r. 1881-1894) intensified it. The security police, the infamous Okhrana, reigned supreme and those who did not conform were persecuted.

In 1889, Anton Chekhov writes to Anna Yevreinova, the publisher of Northern Herald, with whom Anton exchanged an affectionate and humorous correspondence:

Yesterday I finished and made a clean copy of a story, but it's for my novel, the project that is presently taking up all my time. Oh, what a novel! If it weren't for the accursed censorship situation, I'd promise it to you for November. There's nothing in the novel inciting anyone to revolution, but the censors will ruin it anyway. Half the characters say, "I don't believe in God," it has a father whose son has been sent to life-long forced labor for armed resistance, a police chief who is ashamed of his uniform, a marshal of the nobility whom everybody hates, etc. There's a wealth of material for the red pencil.
 Anton Chekhov to Anna Yevreinova, Moscow, March 10, 1889

Anton Chekhov, 29 years old, 1889

Of course to be censored by the "red pencil" was also an honour. One of the Northern Herald contributors resigned on November 1889 because the government censors did not mark any part of his reviews with a red pencil. He felt he was losing his touch.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Edison: Mark Making Between East and West

Leo Tolstoy puts Thomas Alva Edison and Attila in the same sentence. "Edison declared", writes Tolstoy in his treatise of 1895 Patriotism or Peace, "that he will devise such ammunition that can kill in an hour more people than Attila killed in all his battles". It was a shocking statement coming from Tolstoy but one that had a purpose. Tolstoy wanted to carve a new identity for Russia: it was not an identity purged from its "Tartar/tribal/Oriental savagery" associations and made to embrace the "civilized West"; and it was not an identity that equated Russians to "ferocious Asian nomads". Tolstoy wanted to stand between East and West.


In his "Tolstoy, Attila, Edison" Yokota-Murakami, writes that by reducing the technical innovations of Thomas Edison to inhumanity on par with Mongol vandalism, Tolstoy distances Russian identity both from "the barbarism of the Khans" and from the West. Mongol ferocity is not so much different to Western violence. By identifying Russia with Asian nomads and distancing himself "both from the vandal king and from the modern inventor", Tolstoy rejects the ideology of the nation-state over "fluid social structures based on a nomadic or tribal way of life" - a third way for Russian identity.

Thomas Alva Edison

Murakami goes on to suspect Tolstoy's nonviolent principles as insincere, pointing to the "persistent and constant association of the sexual and the violent" in his writings. Perhaps, he writes, his pacifist pronouncements concealed the unconscious desire for violence. Identities are fluid and constantly toppled by unconscious desire; national identities too: "they are constructs without 'essences', always tricky and evasive, created through a negative representational game which uses the images of the 'Other'":
But this situation may not necessarily mean that (incorrectly conceived) identities should be abandoned and replaced by the revealed real "self". Perhaps there is really no "true self" except in forms of construction and interpretation.
Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana

Indeed the same Tolstoy who equated Edison's inventions to barbarism had accepted Edison's gift, a phonograph, and complied with his request to record his (Tolstoy's) voice on it. Recounting the last year of Tolstoy's life in Yasnaya Polyana, Bulgakoff remembers:
Although Tolstoy denounced civilization and all that it had produced for man's enjoyment or otherwise, still he was interested in all the latest inventions. Once the gramophone was started to play songs by Mikhailowa and Panina and a balalaika piece. "I want to dance!" exclaimed Tolstoy when the "Trepak" (Russian National dance) was played. After a balalaika record "Scene de Ballet" was played and Tolstoy had shouted "Encore, encore!" ... the gramophone was placed outside a hut, the peasants were invited to come and the machine was set going.

Games, singing, dancing, masquerades and performances 
often took place in the dining room in Tolstoy's house in Yasnaya Polyana

Bulgakoff also refers to an "electric pencil" being sent to Tolstoy, I assume from Thomas Edison. Edison had developed an electric pen in 1875 which he patented in 1876. "It was the first mass-produced electric-motor-powered appliance ever offered for sale" and it was an immediate success. Tolstoy was like a lively boy, says Bulgakoff, who jumped for joy every time a new toy was around and wanted everyone to see.
An electric pencil having been sent him as a present, as soon as dinner was over Tolstoy sprang up and exclaimed in a solemn tone: "All who have not seen an electric pencil write, come along, please!" Three grandchildren and others set off to a dark room but unfortunately the pencil would not move. "It is a pity to disappoint the children", said Tolstoy in a tone denoting real dissatisfaction and disappointment.
Leo Tolstoy's study in Yasnaya Polyana

Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, "Tolstoy, Attila, Edison: The Triangular Construction of a 'Peace-Loving' Russian Identity across Borders", The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 45, no. 2 (Summer 2001);  "With Tolstoy during the last year of his life", The New York Times, September 1, 1912. You can see a drawing of Edison's electric pen here.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Sticky Letters

March 6, 1904
You ought to be ashamed of yourself writing with such awful ink, my little baby cachalot, my darling. You may not believe it, but I give you my word, I had to peel the envelope away from the letter, as if they'd been glued together on purpose. Masha has sent me the same sort of sticky letter. It's downright revolting. Not only are the letters sticky, but you use them to frighten me with your premonitions: "There's something horrible hanging over my head," etc. Our vile cold weather makes me feel bad enough as it is. There's snow in the mountains and a thin layer of snow on the roofs, and the air is colder than in Moscow.

Anton Chekhov writing to his wife, Olga Knipper, from Yalta. The Russo-Japanese war had just begun. Chekhov was terminally ill with tuberculosis. He died in July 1904.

Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper during their honeymoon in 1901
 From Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought. Selected Letters and Commentary. Edited & Annotated by Simon Karlinsky. Trans. by Michael Henry Heim. Northwestern U. Press, Illinois: Harper & Row Publishers 1973.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Ink Pots and the Book of Revelation

There is something alchemic about medieval ink: charcoal, tannic acids, copperas, Arabic gum, oak apples, fig sticks, and horns. The birth of ink itself almost touches on witchcraft. It is conditioned by the actions of a gall wasp that decides to deposit its larvae on this bud or on that leaf of an oak tree. A growth results. A cocoon secretly alive with metamorphic creatures feeding off its flesh. And when the creatures fly away, they leave behind rich deposits of tannic and gallic acids: the essentials of ink.

An Oak apple. Photo by Bob Embleton

 The oak apples, or gallnuts, are crushed and infused with rainwater. Sulphuric acid is poured over old nails and filtered with alcohol to make copperas. Copperas is added to the oak-apple potion and stirred with a fig stick. Arabic gum made from Egyptian dried-up acacia tree sap is added. Iron-gall ink is born. Shiny black, red, vermilion ink. Lose it and you're done. Especially if you are St. John.

Where is St John's ink? An all important question, for it is this ink that will reveal on paper the Revelations. Banished to the island of Patmos and deep in writing St John holds on to his ink pot, a pencil case dangling from it. Or is he? He is not. In the next painting the ink pot is held by an eagle - a godsend no doubt, which is just as well because by the Saint's foot rests a devil in waiting. And the devil eyes the ink pot for he knows that within in lie the potential of the Book of Revelations itself. With a grappling-hook he tries to whisk it away. But never succeeds. The ink pot remains. The Book of Revelation is written.

Travelling inkwell German Ink horn pennner 18th century
Photo by LessayCatus


Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Freedom Fries and Mirado Pencils

"What's in a name? 
That which we call a rose 
By any other name would smell as sweet".

Photo by R Stanek

 "So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title". But Romeo did not think so: "Call me but love and I'll be new baptized, Henceforth I never will be Romeo. ... My name ... is hateful to myself Because it is an enemy to thee, Had I it written, I would tear the word". 

The attempt to tear the word "French fries" from the American vocabulary occurred on the aftermath of 9/11 when France opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indignant US Representatives (having no regard whatsoever for Thomas Jefferson who had introduced the French delicacy in a White House dinner in 1802) wanted to ban the offending word. If the Americans' love affair with fries could not be avoided, the fries should be "new baptized". The patriotic bodies could not be seen to consume unpatriotic food.
The Mikado pencil. Courtesy of The Pencil Place

How do we reclaim something that has overnight become the "other", the "enemy within". Rename it. Remove the offending sign. Reclaim it sanitized. Let French toast become Freedom Toast. Let Sauerkraut become Liberty Cabbage. The attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbour called for a similar sanitization. 

The Mikado. A Yellow Pencil cashing in on Oriental images, like the Koh-I-Noor before it. Yellow as in  oriental. Mikado as in Emperor of Japan. Japanese-like lettering. But  as soon as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on the fateful day of December 7, 1941, the Mikado pencil was due for sanitization as well. No American Eagle could be seen next to a Japanese looking and sounding pencil. The country was at war. New words were needed. The Eagle Pencil Company renamed the famous Mikado into Mirado. "What's in a name?"

Mirado Pencils. Photo by jon.swanson