Monday, January 30


A Meditation on Quill Pens

I've got my eye now on a little laminated holy-card of another oddly slim Thomas Aquinas, beatific and roseate like all the saints used to be, for better or worse, before 1967. He's looking up at a crucifix, and rather absently rests his quill pen on an open book before him. He's holding the goose quill--white tipped with black, just like his robes--the wrong way. He'd get ink all over the paper. I only found this out yesterday when I tried writing with one. It's strangely theraputic.

It would seem at first glance the most desperately antiquarian of measures, writing with a quill, so retrograde as to even shrug off the iron pens of Roman days, like those that purportedly--in the wildest hagiographic flights of fancy--stabbed to death the schoolmaster-martyr St. Cassian. Why not a steel-nibbed fountain pen, or even one of those calligraphy marker deals that you buy and forget to use and find them dried up like zombies in the back of your desk-drawer months later?

I'm in a drawing class right now where we're copying the techniques of the old masters--sanguine pencil, quills, ink-and-wash. Perhaps there's a certain magisterial nostalgia at work here, tapping into the methods that made men like Bernini and Borromini so great, but it's more than that. The quill, this thing that was walking around on a goose a few months ago, is actually pretty easy to use once you slice off the tip and fall into the regular rhythm of dipping and scrawling, tiny mucilagenous pools forming unexpected and delightfully serendipitous shadows at the edges of your sketch. Or you turn it sideways and the line goes down to a milimeter with absentminded, scratchy ease.

Three pens in one, thick, thin, thinner, and perhaps in the end a lot nicer than all the fancy rapidographs and micron pens you can get at the store. At least for some jobs. It could get to be a pain after a while, but like the tiniest of scalpels, it's good for those small, quick, delicate jobs. We look to the past not because of a mere love of ancient things, but because they knew what they were doing.

Perhaps we're not willing to give them credit. As with quills, so with a million other things, including old stories, old books, old tradition, or old philosophy. We invent superstitions like those nebulous Dark Ages to discredit Aquinas and Augustine or pretend the ancient Egyptians were too stupid to build pyramids on their own without construction foremen from Planet X. The ingenuity of the human mind is so easily forgotten in the days of push-button publishing. Perhaps things are too easy. The past is safely cordoned off, behind glass, to be studied in a safe and sterile laboratory. Medieval man lived face-down in the mud, and the cathedrals and castles came out of nowhere. C.S. Lewis speaks of the incredulity modern folk have when asked to read an old text--Piers Plowman, perhaps, or Boëthius. What does that have to do with me? Don't we have historians to deal with that? And so we continue to repeat past mistakes, in higher and more extravagant pitches.

At the same time, sometimes there's a reason the past is past. We may have Chartres, Florence, Reims, Louis IX and Leonardo, but we also have cholera, plague, buboes and the surreal occultism of alchemy. (And just like now, we had have vaccinations and the internet and also Hitler,, the internet). Just because Aquinas wrote with a quill pen does not make him an ignoramus, as some positivists would have it. And just because Aquinas wrote with it does not automatically make it better, as some nostalgics might say. Both souls lose out on the nuance of history, and God is in those details. (Aquinas is reputed to have had some of the worst handwriting in history, a fact which makes me realize there is hope even for myself). But perhaps the discipline and the care and the ease from which the ink flowed from his quill, or the rhythm--sometimes frantic, sometimes soothing--of the dip, scribble, dip, perhaps that got down into his orderly head, like the slow and stately pace of the liturgy.

So much of our Catholic culture is like that--something that seeps down into your soul, something medicinal that may not make sense the first or second or tenth time you do it, but subconsciously it changes and shapes you. Bow your head enough times at the Holy Name and you realize the awe-inspiring power of that Word, or that God is so holy that glory even clings to his name in our insignificant mouths. See a priest with his back to you every week and eventually you realize you're both facing the same direction, and while he may not be talking to you, you're both talking to the same Lord.

But I'm not saying to go back to candelight, quill pens and the, ahem, quaintly brief lifestyle of the medieval peasant. All the time, anyway. But at least the modern world ought to give them some credit, and appreciate the ingenuity they had. I'm grateful for indoor plumbing, and, of course, Blogger. Except, perhaps, in those cases where it works, and where it slips in that little grace-note which we've lost. Technology may have made us lazy, but if we're to get anywhere it will be by an integration of past and future--forcing us to outdo the ancients with modern methods rather than assuming, in the days of steel-and-glass curtain walls we can't use our mighty engines to produce beauty that comes over us by degrees, in the true spirit of Catholic culture. Though it's a task to undertake with humility, and a few scribbles with a quill might help us to remember that only God can make a goose.

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