The Font of the Hand

by Joshua Cohen

On the processing of words, from scriptorium to LongPen™.

"The Font of the Hand" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the New York State Council on the Arts and the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

I began learning to write English just before learning to write Hebrew. My Hebrew handwriting is still better than my English handwriting, not because my Judaism is so fluent and natural but, conversely, because it takes me more time and concentrated effort to form the characters of the Aleph-Bet. Two memories. Third grade. Hebrew Academy. The rabbi said you should form the Aleph, Hebrew’s first letter, as you should test a pen nib: by making two diagonal slashes that, if the nib is good and sharp, will be of equal thickness. This same rabbi was also a fanatic about the name of God, the Tetragrammaton. Every class he’d impress on us how taboo it was to deface or toss any paper that contained that name. Now, in the basement of my parents’ house outside Atlantic City, New Jersey, the only papers I have from my early schooling are in Hebrew, with God’s Name all over them: Yod, Hey, Vov, Hey.

BEFORE THE INVENTION of the printing press, when chirography began to be usurped by typography, handwriting was a quest for ecumenical perfection. Monks, practicing manuscripture, worked toward the perfection of a hand in which the authority of the collective was privileged over the personal achievement. This sublimation is evident in the Carolingian hands, which introduced majuscules and punctuation to writing, and the later Gothic hands, which reflect the seriousness of the religious texts being copied; their cathedral struts, finials, and minims seeming carceral, as if bars imprisoning monks in cells of lonely literacy.

Fragment of the Codex Sinaiticus.

The ink of antique writing tends to mire words in vagary and doubt, giving rise to multiple print interpretations that in turn have acquired their own truths, and a species of religious disputation. Reproduced here is a portion of the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete Christian Bible, in the collection of Egypt’s Saint Catherine’s monastery, at the foot of the putative Mount Sinai. The Aramaic maranatha is found only once in the New Testament, at the conclusion of 1 Corinthians. Due to its obscurity, the word has always been transliterated, not translated, into Greek, Latin, and the English of the King James Version. There has been immemorial confusion as to whether maranatha should read marana tha—“Come O Lord”—or maran atha—“Our Lord Has Come.” Had the New Testament originally been written on computer and that space unicoded in its proper place, we would know whether the phrase is a call for Christ’s Second Coming or merely a creedal decree. God would be satisfied, though our experience of the text would be poorer.

Antonio Sinibaldi’s handwriting.

HANDWRITING SHOULD BE legible enough to be read by all, yet it will always bear the mark of the individual. The modern recognition of distinct personalities in the formation of consonants and animation of vowels dates to the Renaissance. Paradoxically, this new writing hand, which was more fluid and so more suited to individual expression, became, with the advent of the printing press, the first font. What started as an italicism—or “cursive,” from the Latin for “running”—soon became the standard setting for Renaissance publishers, especially for the translations of Latin and Greek that turned classical texts into classics. Antonio Sinibaldi, scribe to the Medicis, had an elegant, gracile hand. He was put out of work by Gutenberg’s press in 1480, but found a sinecure as a writing instructor and calligrapher. The usurpation of Sinibaldi—the first major scribe pensioned by machine—personalizes the rift between humanity and technology.

JUST AS IN OUR DAY a fervid minority denounces the digitization of literary experience, fifteenth-century literati responded to their own depredations. In 1492, Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, wrote De Laude Scriptorum, "In Praise of Scribes,” a polemic addressed to Gerlach, Abbot of Deutz. Trithemius’s intention was to uphold scribal preeminence while denouncing the temptations of the emerging press: “The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear. But the scribe working with parchment ensures lasting remembrance for himself and for his text.” Trithemius asserted that movable type was no substitute for solitary transcription, as the discipline of copying was a much better guarantor of religious sensibility than the mundane acts of printing and reading. As evidence he offers the account of a Benedictine copyist, famed for his pious perspicuity, who had died, was buried by his brethren, then subsequently (though inexplicably) exhumed. According to Trithemius, the copyist’s corpus had decomposed but for three fingers of his composing hand: his right thumb, forefinger, and middle finger—relics, like manuscripture itself, of literary diligence.

From Johannes Trithemius’s Polygraphiae.

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS and poems have survived; his handwriting has not. The only specimens of writing we have are his signatures, of which six exist. One is appended to Will’s will, his final testament of 1616, in which he left his “second best bed” as his sole bequest to his wife. All these signatures are somewhat different in appearance, and even somewhat differently spelled—disparities that have done much to encourage the Shakespeare Did Not Write Shakespeare industry. The signature is the writer’s outer expression or face (tellingly, there is only one confirmed likeness of Shakespeare); and it remains the primary representation of our authenticity today—even with the dawn of retinal and thumbprint scanners and other biometric devices—though that affirmation is given over mostly to job applications and credit-card receipts.

Introductory handwriting analysis.

At the time of Shakespeare’s death, however, common law held that a testator’s signature was not necessary to the validity of a will, nor were signatures required, or even admissible, on business contracts and marriage agreements; a provision due both to pervasive illiteracy and to ease of forgery (there being, of course, no incentive to regularize one’s signature). Only in 1677, when English Parliament passed An Act for the Prevention of Frauds and Perjuries, did the signature become the official formal gesture, though it was popularly regarded as flawed. This Statute of Frauds, as it came to be known, passed throughout Europe to America, where it became the basis for the Uniform Commercial Code, the body of law governing interstate trade.

During the English portion of my school day—what was called “General Studies”—I used to copy the famous signature of John Hancock. I didn’t do this from any patriotic pride—at the time I had a very unformed idea of who Hancock was—but because I thought I was supposed to copy it. I thought the appearance of his name something of a model or test—a guide to proper handwriting, at least to proper self-representation. Hancock’s certainly seemed the most formidable example of a literate identity, his loops, turns, and fifty-five-degree slant the ideal presence in the world one’s name might assume. Still, I don’t remember any class discussion of Hancock’s person, only that his appellation was the first affixed to the Declaration of Independence. There seemed to be a controversy as to why his signature was so large, with the teacher relating then dispelling the myth that Hancock had remarked he wanted to make his sedition legible to myopic King George III. Hancock was obviously either asserting his role in Independence—the representative of Massachusetts also served as president of the Continental Congress—or else he merely misjudged the space available on the vellum, thinking there would be plenty of room for the equally capacious “Hancocks” of his peers. Though the Declaration is titled with the theological austerity of the Gothic, the signatures are in Copperplate, a hand named after the etched copper plates from which handwriting-instruction copybooks were made. I would place a sheet of loose-leaf over the pages of the textbook devoted to reproducing the Declaration, press down and trace the contours, the loops and bights, the snake trails and dragon tails. The hope was that John’s J would become Joshua’s—dipping low only to defy gravity in a swift return to an invisible fundament—and that, by developing a signature, I would develop a self: half instinct, half “strict construction.”

A notecard from Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished The Original of Laura.

JOSEPH CONRAD, landlocked but reliving the sea, wrote much of his work with a favorite pen. Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novels one paragraph per index card, each a structural necessity in the programming of the final bound product. (His cards call to mind the hardware of nascent computing, punchcards, which themselves derived from punched railway tickets.) Jack Kerouac typed his raucous novel on a digressive road of a scroll. Richard Powers dictates his books to a computer using voice-recognition software. One friend of mine is writing a memoir entirely on a password-protected blog. Marcel Proust, who wrote in bed under the just-invented electric lightbulb (which perhaps can be partially credited with his prolificity), committed his younger pretentious thoughts to violet stationery with newfangled gold ink, pausing in one correspondence to apologize for his cacographic fanciness, saying that he would write again soon but with “a more convenient ink.”

Compared with these writers Herman Melville was a conscious antiquarian, if not a covert Luddite. He refused the steel-nibbed pen—introduced by Englishman John Mitchell in 1822 and quite popular during Melville’s lifetime—electing instead to use a quill. He records this preference, along with a tendency toward self-dramatization, in Moby-Dick: “One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms!” But Melville’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw, also served as his copyist, and made a habit of frustrating his regressive tendencies. In her hands those thousands of words about a silent eternal whale—quilled with a feather not from a condor but from a goose—eventually found fair-copy expression by pen.

Nowadays I write in longhand on subway trains, buses, airplanes, and at my desk, and then boot my computer and transcribe the mess, as if offering sacrifices to a gray and antiseptic god. Before arriving at this method I experimented with just about every available writing machine: that preteen week writing with quills, a month with my bar mitzvah fountain pen, disaffected late-adolescent typewriting, PC, Mac. What seems most important to not just writing but writing well is the maintenance of a metaphysical ductus: a “flow.” Just as letters are connected in clear cursive, thoughts must also make their coherent connections, and it is here, amid the mental ligatures, that the computer, with its programs and access, influences practice by radical fracture: distraction, diversion. Our attention is a fragile state or faculty, being either a passive receptivity or an active engagement, or alternately or simultaneously both. The myriad fractures of the computer so negate the necessary unicity of the writing act that computerwriting can never be a sole enterprise but rather a component, competing, “application.” Words on paper possess less utility than do words stored, coded binarily on a computer’s drive. Now the quest for automaticity—meaning the most efficient way by which ideas become writing, by which the mind can be transcribed—has become the quest for the transitive, for use. What was formerly a dialogue between writer and page is now a polylogue with every option of connectivity. The audience is no longer an ideational second self, the occasion and context of composition no longer the stuff of pure intention.

IN RENAISSANCE EUROPE, the printing press learned from the hand, while in Puritanical America the hand learned from the printing press. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American writing, like everything else American and formerly handmade, became the subject of systemization. Platt Rogers Spencer’s Method (1848, refined but intricate, based on forms found in nature: leaf shapes, tree shapes) and Austin Palmer’s Method (1894, minimalist, based on utilitarian hand and arm motions) were both intended to inculcate through rote practice good character by good penmanship. The lesson imparted: You are how you write. While Spencer’s, which was taught in primary schools, sought to improve individuals to the highest moral and aesthetic standard, and Palmer’s, initially taught in commercial courses, sought to do the same for businesses, end-user results were the same: The democratic proliferation of standardizations precipitated the collapse of standardization, though mechanistic philosophies continued in technological iterations (i.e., typing systems).

Spencer’s Method’s greatest legacy is its employment in the most recognizable trademark of all time: that of Coca-Cola. John Pemberton, a druggist from Georgia, responded to Prohibition by creating a nonalcoholic brand of coca wine in 1886. The bookkeeper for the Pemberton Chemical Company, Frank Mason Robinson, lent more than his accounting skills to the venture: His measured loops and turns, once housed by ledgers, are now enshrined as vintage kitsch on billboards and screens. Though today Coca-Cola’s logo reads as an elaborate and formal pitch for a mundane staple, in its day the schematic script was considered exceedingly direct and even plain.

My school notebooks: full of logos (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, the sign marking the Margate Bridge), my own signatures, John Hancock’s, attempts at forging my parents’ signatures, girls’ names, scatology. My notebooks now: full of phone numbers, addresses and email addresses, lists, half-finished stories, notes for a novel. When it comes time to type what I’ve written, I often can’t read my own handwriting. It follows that revision is often a form of miscomprehension. When my father, when I visited home and was going through my old papers from Hebrew Academy, asked why I was so interested in handwriting, I told him he wouldn’t understand; he was from a handwriting-generation. He, a lawyer, still writes in longhand, too, on “legal tablets.” His mother’s diaries are still on the shelves, her German exercise books: “Mein Name ist Doris Maeir. Ich lebe in Köln”; then in the margin her approximation of German’s Fraktur, or Gothic, script, which had passed out of fashion a generation before her birth (and so her attempt at it either an homage like my Hancock or just her having fun). I told my father it was my own coupledom that led to this investigation. I’d found on a table at my apartment a paper with a few names and an address, meaningless to me; I did not know whose writing it was. I stared at the paper; I typed the names and address into, stared at the people’s photographs returned and at the street location of a falafelerie in Manhattan, but still did not realize whose scrap I’d found until later in the day when my phone rang. It was my girlfriend of the past four years—a woman I spoke to and emailed with daily but whose neat, nervous handwriting I did not recognize.

THE STUDY of the individual stamp in handwriting, graphology, is a science of profound speculation—such speculation, in fact, that contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists have discredited the discipline. Graphology involves having a person write freely, then subjecting that sample’s appearance and content to analyses both objective (how large or small are the letterforms?) and subjective (how neurotic or angry is this wordshape?). The laws of graphology are the rules of writing: There aren’t any. Being foremost a margin of interpretation—does this writing look rushed or leisurely? Does it appear aggressive or submissive?—graphology exercises taste, not diagnosis, and the graphologist must always entertain the suspicion that the writer is disguising his hand. Today, this pseudoscience has been mooted by what Microsoft Word calls “Properties”: that function that tracks which user-writer created (and subsequently altered) the document and when, ostensibly bringing writing closer to total accountability.

Perhaps the most infamous failure of graphology was the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935). The handwriting on a confidential dispatch, a bordereau, offering to pass French military intelligence to Germany was found to have matched a snatch of handwriting willingly provided by a detained Dreyfus, despite the fact that his slanted, modified Copperplate script was taught and required at every lycée and école. Lieutenant Colonel Armand Mercier du Paty de Clam, lead investigator into l’affaire and an amateur graphologist, confirmed to the General Staff tribunal that the two writing samples were identical, and Dreyfus, convicted by his own hand as much as by dint of his race, was branded a traitor to France.

Friedrich Nietzsche's Schreibkugel (writing ball).

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE (1844–1900) believed, as did Martin Heidegger (in Parmenides) and Jacques Derrida (in Papier machine), that the way in which we write influences the writing itself. As Nietzsche put it (in typewritten correspondence): “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” Which would mean that Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi might be profitably read not just as bucolic autobiography but also as the first book delivered to its publisher in typescript (though Twain left its typing to an amanuensis). Jerry Pournelle, a science-fiction writer and later a speechwriter for Newt Gingrich, published the first novels ever written on a computer in the late 1970s. The 2008 Russian-language novel True Love, an algorithmic variation on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, based on that novel in addition to various uploaded works by seventeen other authors, was the first book written by a computer. Nietzsche suffered a series of mental breakdowns toward the end of his life; as his condition worsened, so did his hand, degenerating into a spiky hermetic script by the time he’d switched to the touch-typewriter—known as the Schreibkugel, the “writing ball”—and what was for him a new genre: the aphorism.

AS LAST CENTURY’S mode of production devalued its products, the handmade asserted a newer function. In the lexicon of Marxism, itself an oppressive commodity of its era, the handwrought object turned into a “fetish commodity”; its singularity argued for its economic worth, while its imperfections symbolized not just the hours of labor but also, as if a moral lesson, the years of skill and centuries of culture expended in its making. This mystic aura accumulating to the handwrought throughout the rise of the prefabricated can, after the innovation of the typewriter and the revolution of the computer, be transferred to the hand itself—to the handwriting of a single intelligence in opposition to this age of appropriation and collaborative creation.

When writing on the computer—“wordprocessing” in capitalist jargon—it’s not only meaning that can be moved and manipulated (the manual element of that word endures). and like sites offer the possibility of scanning one’s handwriting into a custom typeface, though it looks irregular for every handwritten letter to register the same in every iteration. More sophisticated is the work of Julia Sysmäläinen, a Finnish designer who lives in Berlin. She has fonted the handwriting of Franz Kafka (which has been used to write this annotation). By analyzing multiple instances of the author’s cryptonymous Ks, Sysmäläinen synthesized variant Ks that connect well to every possible previous and following glyph. Having done the same with the rest of the alphabet, she used OpenType technology to create a feature code, defining exactly in which character context each variant appears, and now any user can write her own disaffected prose in Kafka’s scuttling insectile hand.

Sysmäläinen’s is an art of both reinvention and betrayal: Once a writer’s hand has been fonted, her voice is in another’s hands. This power over another person’s intimate blottings and curlicues is no mere voiceover or overdub; it is the endgame of penmanship. Today, when software is being developed to automatically learn and reproduce a user’s handwriting, Marxism’s quaint concern for the individual has been compounded: Now the question is not whether the writing self has been revalued by technology but rather whether that writing self is “real.”

MARGARET ATWOOD IS CREDITED with conceiving of the LongPen™, a robotic stylus that enables users to sign documents remotely, whether autographs or legal papers. That apparatus, housed at the Toronto headquarters of its manufacturer, Syngrafii, was used to font this entry. According to Syngrafii, the LongPen™ is “the only digital document service which provides the ability to ‘Go Back to Paper’ at any time.” Atwood’s original intention was not to “become the trusted provider of ‘Identity on the Internet’ to the mass market,” as Syngrafii aims to do, but to relieve authors of their touring burden by allowing them to sign their newest releases for fans across the globe. Whether or not digital signatures are true signatures is as much an aesthetic question as it is economic or legal. Will books signed by Flesh Atwood garner more money in resale than books signed by Virtual Atwood? And will this note I’ve signed seeking a pound of flesh as a loan guarantee hold up in a Chinese court if both parties’ signatures were delivered via the Internet? Atwood’s version of that Benedictine monk’s disembodied hand is characteristic of the way technology has replaced religious magic. The Codex Sinaiticus, the work of an unknown scribe or scribes, was recently digitized in its entirety. Both variants of maranatha are available as translations online.

Digital or not, I don’t have to worry over my posterity. Acedia ensures that every relic of mine ultimately reposes here—in my parents’ basement, an unwilling geniza. Here are stored all my childhood possessions—outgrown clothes and toys, bundles of the disks we called floppy—stacked among adult acquirements, midlevel technologies of the middle-class: the bulky computers we didn’t call desktops because there wasn’t anything yet called a laptop; the bulkier TVs from the days before the screens, like the round world, flattened. And the notebooks I’ve been going through—piles spiral-bound, marble-covered; each labeled with name, titled by subject: Torah Study, Hebrew Lang. I was born in 1980. It’s a strangely comforting thought that the format of one’s juvenilia is obsolete. My sister, nine years younger, brings her laptop to every college lecture; her personal history, cloudy to me, is “on the cloud.” These pages of God’s Name surrounding me, filling the floor, they cannot be destroyed—they must be buried. But what about God’s Name buried in computer memory? How holy is a digital deity? Searching online I find a recent ruling: Rabbis have decreed that the name of God, as it appears on the computer, is not sacred and can be deleted at will. This is because the screen has no permanence but is constantly refreshed, light beaming at its surface approximately sixty times per second. The Name, then, is merely a projection, and exists only in light, which is everlasting.