Monday, January 7, 2013

Kierkegaard on Steel Nibs

For centuries, people wrote with goose quills, high maintenance items that constantly had to cut back because their edges frayed after they had been used for some time. During the early nineteenth century, goose quills were replaced by steel nibs and pen holders. It appears that Kierkegaard made the switch from quills to steel nib around 1835.[1]

In his one and only play "The Battle Between the Old and the New Soap-Cellars" of 1838, he included a scene in which one character, Wadt, says to the other, Hurryson: "But as far as style and expression are concerned, there is always something that grates. Your pen is not soft enough, if I must say so." Hurryson knows the reason right away: "Then you think it's because I use steel pens." He is right, of course, and Wadt re-assures him that "there is nothing that corrupts the hand and the heart as does the steel pen. What will become of love letters when they are to be written with steel." Hurryson retorts that it is "of profound practical significance that steel has been transferred from the lance and the spear to the pen," that we are now men and must "arm ourselves with steel gauntlets." Anyone who does not see this lacks high-minded feelings. Wadt has "a soul like a goose quill's."

Kierkegaard's satire seems to address a not infrequent objection to the new technology. It seems to me the right sort of response to this kind of hankering for the past. The idea that a change in writing instruments crudely determines the writer and what he writes is ridiculous. It's just as ridiculous when it concerns the change from had writing to the typewriter or from the typewriter to the computer—or so I would claim.[2]

1. Steel pens were apparently not cheap. A pen holder and twelve steel nibs cost one Rixdollar. Nor did the early steel nibs last long, as they wore out and corroded from the acidity of the ink. For all this, see Written Images: Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals, Notebooks, Booklets, Sheets, Scraps, and Slips of Paper. Ed. Niels Jørgeb Cappelørn, Joakim Garff, Johnny Kondrup. Transl. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 169f.
2. It's probably entirely irrelevant, but I did learn how to write first with a chalk board (first grade) and then pencils (second grade) and finally graduated to pen holder and steel nib (third or fourth grade). Later, I used Pelican pens.

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