Writ in water

Verba volant, scripta manent, said the ancients. But as they knew well how little scripta are worth if they are not backed by the gold cover of the intentions striving to realize them, therefore what we call “word cried in the wilderness” they linked, with an elegant oxymoron, to the very writing: in aqua scribere, “to write on water”.

Erasmus also knew this when he included the proverb In aqua scribis (1.4.56) among the ancient adagia on useless things – Aethiopem lavas, whitewashing the black man, Ferrum natare doces, teaching the iron to swim, Cribro aquam haurire, drawing water with a sieve, Parieti loqueris, speaking to the wall, and so on – which fill out more than half of Centuria 1.4 of his Adagia, and were translated with one collective phrase in the Hungarian Adagia of 1598 by János Baranyai Decsi: Haszontalan dolgot czeleködni – Doing idle things.

Erasmus illustrated this adage mostly from Greek sources. In Lucian’s Tyrant (21) Hermes warns Charon, the ferryman of the underworld: You are kidding or, as they say, writing on water if you hope any obulus from Micyllus, and Plato in Phaidros (276c) says about “the expert of truth, beauty and goodness” that he will not write with his pen on black water. What is more, Erasmus quotes a verse from the commentary of Aristophanes’ comedy The Wasps as a separate proverb: Ἀνδρῶν δὲ φαύλων ὄρκον εἰς ὕδωρ γράφε - The oath of an evil man should be written on water. He also quotes Latin authors, primarily Catullus (70,2-3):

…Mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
In vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

…Whatever a woman says to her yearning lover
it shall be written in the wind and on rapid water.

We have already seen that condemnatory ancient proverbs often got a positive tone precisely in Erasmus’ century. This happened to the metaphor of “writing on water” as well. Erasmus himself had no small part in this, as he stressed that our Lord Christ was mentioned to write only one single time, and even then – in the dust. In John 8:3-11, the story of the adulterous woman – read in the Mass exactly today – the Pharisees ask Jesus whether they should stone the woman as Moses had commanded.

“Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them: If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her: Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? No one, sir, she said. Then neither do I condemn you, Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Photis Kontoglou: Christ writing in the dust, 1924

Renaissance humanists filled whole volumes with their conjectures about what Jesus wrote there in the dust. Several exegets pointed out that this scene contains a reference to Jeremiah 17:13: “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust, because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.” But all of them agreed that whatever Jesus wrote, it was certainly no idle thing. On the contrary, it is also included in the statement in Mt 24:25: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

The metaphor of the word written on transient material but lasting forever thus became a favorite image in literature. Rudolf Wittkower describes in detail in his Born under Saturn how the idea of the “divinely inspired” artist, the artifex and poeta divus developed since the beginning of the 16th century, also incorporating several elements of sacrality which earlier had been reserved to God only. These included the above motif as well, which was used by the new poets – oh, vanity! – to symbolize the eternity of their own works. The new metaphor can be found expanded in Sonnet 75 by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599):

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
“Vayne man,” sayd she, “that doest in vaine assay.
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
and eek my name bee wyped out lykewize.”
“Not so,” quod I, “let baser things devize,
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”

With the spreading of the metaphor – and especially in and after Romanticism – it was already enough to quote the first half of the full image, the text written on a transient or unfathomable material, and this already evoked the idea of eternity just as naturally as it had evoked that of vanity for the ancients. “Write on the sky if everything is broken!”, wrote in the lager Radnóti, concentrating in one single phrase both elements of the motif.

However, the best example of the adage’s new interpretation is Keats’ epitaph in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. This bitter epitaph announces that the young poet, embittered by his evil enemies, only wanted to have written on his tomb: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

“This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a Young English Poet, Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

English history of literature holds that this saying can be reduced to a verse in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (1611) – All your better deeds Shall be in water writ – and alludes to the vanity of all noble efforts. However, if we also take into account the complete history of the adage from classical times through Erasmus to Spenser, then the inscription suggests just the contrary: the eternity of the poet’s oeuvre, triumphing over everything transitory and evil in this world.

9 comentarios:

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

Yes, the power of the word. I think the latter interpretation is far more likely, given the circumstances of Keats's death. It's similar to the last lines of Shelley's Ozymandias, though Shelley was, of course, an atheist.

For a 12-page discussion of the Greek lyre on Keats's grave, see here.

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

A wonderful post!
How nicely you trace your path from the unreliable “pen on blackwater” to “writ in water” the metaphor of the word that lasts forever on a transient material!!!
And the pictures are wonderful! All of them. (Especially “Jesus writing on dust” of Kontoglou. I thought that Jorge Louis Borges was the only one that took notice of that scene in New Testament! I )

The medium of writing either by leaving marks (στίγματα) on carefully woven strips of Egyptian papyrus that carry the “text” (the fabric of speech) or by engraving them on waxtablets has its counterpart in all the metaphors for the reliability of writing.
I believe that, since writing is to blame for making the soul forgetful, or writing is shameful ( cf. Phaedrus “οὕτω μὲν ὄνειδος τῷ γράφοντι, εἴτε τίς φησιν εἴτε μή” (277e) ) the unreliable medium, the water, is closer to the writing in the soul, which is the only authentic writing ( γραφομένοις ἐν ψυχῇ περὶ δικαίων τε καὶ καλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν (278 e) ).

My sincere congratulations!

Syr Wullam dijo...

I cannot but second the previous comment; it's a great post, indeed.

And now to business. Tamás asked me to re-post a comment of mine to the Hungarian version of the above post. This is what I wrote there:

In his De sacramentis Christianae fidei (2.5.2, PL 176: 440A-B) Hugh of St-Victor provides his readers with an implicit, albeit verbatim, quotation from a sermon of Ivo of Chartres (PL 162: 530D) around 1125. According to Hugh (Ivo, that is), bishops perform a curious ritual at the dedication of newly built churches.

The text runs as follows:

“incipit [i.e. the bishop] de sinistro angulo basilicae ab oriente per pavimentum scribere alphabetum [in the ashes spread on the ground] usque in dextrum angulum occidentis, atque iterum a dextro angulo orientis usque in sinistrum angulum occidentis.”

Subsequently, Hugh (ibid., 2.5.3, 441B-C) likens the church floor to the human heart, a metonym for “mind,” on which the form of the cross is impressed “per fidem Evangelicae praedicationis.”

The question I asked this morning was this: Did John 8:3-11 have some bearning on a mid 12th-century ritual? Tamás said that perhaps someone "in the know" would be able to answer my question here.


SW :-)

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks, Syr. It is already striking in itself, and very close to Jn 8:3-11 that the bishop “writes in the ashes” spread on the ground of the church. But even more striking – and you have not mentioned this in the previous Hungarian version of the post – that the floor at this moment is considered as a symbol of the human heart. This is so akin to what Poly quotes from Phaedrus 278a about the “living teaching written in the soul on righteousness, beauty and goodness”. And it bears an indirect witness to what Poly says about the “restitution” of the true vocation of writing, converting it from a tool of forgetfulness into a tool of eternal memory.

Let me also copy here from your previous comment also the very fitting quotation from Foucault’s Les mots et les choses:

“Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end ... one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

Thank you, Poly, for your bringing forward the original idea, which, as you see, found resonance in others as well. As to Borges, when I read his reference to Jesus’ writing, I felt it being inspired by Erasmus’ observation; but perhaps I myself was then just too much under the influence of Erasmus. And as to Kontoglou, I am a humble admirer of his paintings inspired by so many sources and nevertheless achieving a unique style and exceptionally forceful expression.

Thanks for the informative article, Megkoronázott. Apart from the host of further ancient loci on words writ on water, the iconographic analysis of the lyre and its sources was like a beam of light on a little spot of the past. Don’t you want to resume it in a post for Río Wang, as a continuation of the analysis of Keats’ epitaph?

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Although I am not a person “in the know” I have the impression that in the 12th century ritual of the Cathedral of Chartres the tracing of a labyrinth is performed.
Since in medieval architecture the symbolism of the labyrinth is dominant (Theseus – Christ, the believer – wanderer, descent and rebirth, complicate design – elaborate building) laying the foundation of the Church with a labyrinthine ritual is very plausible. I cannot read Latin, but I can guess a path from right to left and left to right…

Tracing labyrinths on sand was a ritual, that according to Paolo Santarcangeli in his “Livre des labyrinthes” was reported by many ethnologists in Africa and Oceania.

Studiolum dijo...

What a lucky coincidence: I have just translated to Hungarian the book of Santarcangeli. Yesterday I received my presentation copy which I open now for the first time to check his reference to Chartres…

It seems that the cathedral’s labyrinth is not identical with the path of the consecration. This latter, as described here by Hugh, took place in the sanctuary and traced an X linking its four corners, while the labyrinth was designed on the pavement in the middle of the nave and, often called “Chemin de Jhérusalem”, served for the purpose of “virtual pilgrimages” (usually on the knees).

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Dear Tamas!

A coincidence indeed! Unbelievable!!! In my (French) translation of the book of Santarcangeli, the labyrinthine tracings mentioned in my previous comment, are in Chapter VI, pp 164 – 178.
I have never meant – although it would be very interesting – that the tracing described in the manuscript “is” exactly the design called “the labyrinth of Chartres”. Nevertheless, there exist ritual paths followed by pilgrims in Great Britain, who in their way towards the top of a hill, they approach or walk away from the center following corridors 3,2,1, 4, 7, 6, 5 i.e. exactly as in a Cnossian labyrinth.

In the 12th century manuscript case, I have only assumed that it “might” be a labyrinthine tracing and not an imitation of Christ's writing.

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, certainly, I did not intend as if you identified the consecration path with the once existing pave labyrinth. It was my fantasy that was set on move by your proposal of a possible labyrinthine reference of the path, and wanted to check whether there was any common point between them either in location (both in the sanctuary) or function (the pave labyrinth as an image of the consecration path). But unfortunately there is none.

Nevertheless, it is not excluded that the path was a simplified scheme of walking through a labyrinth, as it indeed had several versions in medieval rituals, according to Santarcangeli. However, the most interesting point apropos of “writ in water” is: where does the ritual of writing in the ashes come from? or whether its symbolic explanation included any reference to Christ’s writing in the dust.

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

Thank you so much, how VERY kind of you to ask. Would that I were smart enough to undertake it, but just as I wouldn't drive an eighteen-wheeler truck without instruction I know my limitations as an analyst.