Writing Art-like? An aesthetic wish

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Many of us want our writing to be beautiful in form as much as in content. That’s probably why we, if we’re poets and novelists, go through experimental phases, scratching shapes of words across the page in strange formations. Embellishing the content with unusual patterns and syntax as the words tumble up and down and across and askew as though a sketchwork.

When we think of the “art of writing,” how many of us are thinking about the actual shape of writing (as a picture seen) and not the content (as a voice heard)? Poets and novelists are concerned with visual presentation. But how beautiful as artworks are most of these efforts? Even in poetry, content is what provides most of what passes for the “beautiful” in language. May I lament this, finding in it not as much justification for writing as I would wish?

Language gets along fine without writing. Writing seems to me to be an excess, a luxury, something inessential to language itself. The essential is orality, not literacy. Language only needs writing if it wishes to become visible. To go beyond the audible. Writing en-visions language. That’s basic. By instantiating language in visual material, writing participates in that ancient artistic obsession with making language appear to the eyes.

Yet if the visible is such a writerly emphasis, why are so many works less than beautiful visually? It’s a wonder given our age of image-worship.

Hieroglyphs and ideograms are beautiful because their language is essentially pictographic. Egyptian script, Mayan glyphs, Chinese characters. These approach artistic status in a way that typography cannot. They are graphic, pictorial, painterly. I can see why someone would find writing in this way a form of art, a calligraphy. Beyond content, it feeds the desire for creating visual beauty.

Visually, then, typography seems destined to need the addition of illustrations to make the page aesthetically stimulating and appealing to the eyes. The Book of Kells. Or take Blake. Poetry embellished on the outside by pictures that aren’t the language itself, purfled and deckled around the actual writing. Exterior adornments associated with the writing, but by no means interior and essential to the writing. Meant to create an artistic impression, but superfluous. If you took Blake’s illustrations away, his writing’s value would be left untouched and unscathed. It would remain a visual disappointment, but that’s the fault of the writing itself. Adding pictures is attractive, but not essential.

So if the essential form of writing does not create the visually stunning artwork that could stand alone without content, what is it doing aesthetically?

For our visually unsatisfying language as I said, we tend to switch our focus to its content in order to justify writing’s existence. It’s the content, we say, that’s beautiful, not necessarily the form. As though orality can’t quite supply ample content for linguistic creation? As though the verbal needs visual content to satisfy the deep play of the imaginative? As though envisionment makes language more sacred and durable, even if it lacks pulchritude? Okay. So writing is about content, not appearance. I’m still not that impressed with this line of thinking.

I would say that if we need writing, if we have any inherent justification for doing it, it should be as a contributor to artistic form, not just to content. I feel disappointed that language, even when the content works, is often visually banal.

All this leads me to suggest that writing and our relation to it today is at heart a case of visual obsession that never goes far enough. Of the fascination with the visual that has been with us throughout history, but that we are not doing enough to advance by making the shapes and patterns of writing be themselves artworks. Our writing doesn’t achieve the height of artistry because it lacks the pictography it would need if it were to be much more pleasing to the eyes. More art-like.

Can we invent an English pictography? Can we translate English language into hieroglyphs or ideograms that would make for a beautiful calligraphy?

— J.C.S.