Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Goethe and Quill and Pencil

Goethe said in Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit) that in moments of inspiration he
preferred to pick up a pencil which produced the strokes more willingly [than the quill]; for it had happened to me several times that the scratching and splattering of the pen roused me from my sleep-walking poetic mode, distracted me and strangled a brain wave at birth.[1]
This does make sense. Anything that distracts from expressing one's thoughts, calling attention to the physical process of writing, detracts from what it is to accomplish. It's one of the reasons why the quill was superseded by the steel quill and ultimately by the fountain pen. None of this means—at least as far as I can make out—that the writing instrument //per se// determines what is being said. It only shows that it can get in the way. That media can get in the way is well known. For most Americans reading Fraktur, for instance, gets in the way of apprehending what is being read. That is why even seasoned Kant scholars find Kant's Academy edition more difficult than reading his writings in Garamond or other typefaces more common typefaces. It does not change what Kant said, however. Nor even what they take Kant to mean.

But however that may be, he used a pencil when he was "in need and in a hurry."[2] He also used it for rough drafts and ephemeral notes.


1. Sonja Neef Imprint and Trace. Handwriting in the Age of Technology (London: Reaktion Books, 2011) called my attention to this passage (on p. 113). Actually, Neef quotes the passage from a secondary source see p. 321 and the quotation is not correct (though it might also be the translator's fault. Goethe does not say "distracted me and strangled a brain wave," but "distracted me and suffocated a little product at birth." He also makes clear that he preferred a pencil when he had an inspiration away from his desk and had to hurry to this place to write it down quickly, often not writing diagonally on any piece of paper, rather than turning it to its "proper" direction. "Ich war so gewohnt, mir ein Liedchen vorzusagen, ohne es wieder zusammen finden zu können, daß ich einigemal an den Pult rannte und mir nicht die Zeit nahm, einen quer liegenden Bogen zurecht zu rücken, sondern das Gedicht von Anfang bis zu Ende, ohne mich von der Stelle zu rühren, in der Diagonale herunterschrieb. In eben diesem Sinne griff ich weit lieber zu dem Bleistift, welcher williger die Züge hergab: denn
es war mir einigemal begegnet, daß das Schnarren und Spritzen der Feder mich aus meinem nachtwandlerischen Dichten aufweckte, mich zerstreute und ein kleines Produkt in der Geburt erstickte. Für solche Poesien hatte ich eine besondere Ehrfurcht, weil ich mich doch ohngefähr gegen dieselben verhielt, wie die Henne gegen die Küchlein, die sie ausgebrütet um sich her piepsen sieht. [Werke: Aus meinem Leben. Dichtung und Wahrheit. Goethe: Werke, S. 11010 (vgl. Goethe-HA Bd. 10, S. 80-81)].
Imprint and Trace is an interesting book, even though she relies far too much and insufficiently critical on différance and Kittler. But many of the examples she uses are of interest to me. As Walter Benjamin said: "And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index." I do not think this is true of every book. In fact, in really good books, there is a surplus of "what matters" that goes beyond my own "card index." But his indictment is certainly true of Neef's book—as far as I am concerned.


2. In another passage he relates how he wrote a poem with a pencil on the wall of a house. He also relates how he often sketched a picture in pencil and then wrote the poem right beside it (in ink—I suppose): "Drang und Eile zugleich nötigten mich zu einem wunderbaren Hülfsmittel: kaum hatte ich einen interessanten Gegenstand gefaßt, und ihn mit wenigen Strichen im allgemeinsten auf dem Papier angedeutet, so führte ich das Detail, das ich mit dem Bleistift nicht erreichen noch durchführen konnte, in Worten gleich darneben aus und gewann mir auf diese Weise eine solche innere Gegenwart von dergleichen Ansichten, daß eine jede Lokalität, wie ich sie nachher in Gedicht oder Erzählung nur etwa brauchen mochte, mir alsobald vorschwebte und zu Gebote stand. [Werke: Aus meinem Leben. Dichtung und Wahrheit. Goethe: Werke, S. 11126 (vgl. Goethe-HA Bd. 10, S. 152)]

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