“God bless you, pen of work, pen of drudgery, pen of letters, pen of posings, pen rabid, pen ridiculous, pen glorified.” – Hilaire Belloc, On the Pleasure of Taking Up One’s Pen.
These days, to be a writer is to resign oneself to living behind a keyboard. The computer word-processor is unfortunately the portal through which all one’s work reaches the eyes of agents, publishers, and the lesser-spotted “common reader.”1
Even now, there are still those of us who, for reasons of sentiment, efficiency, or bloody-minded resistance to modernity, favour pen, paper and ink, at least to complete initial drafts before a work is typed up. I have been given to this habit for as long as I have been writing, partly because I attended a fine old-fashioned school, with fine old-fashioned teachers, who insisted upon us learning to write in a neat hand and doing it with a fountain pen. At the former I will be a lifelong failure, but the latter habit I will never abandon.
It follows then, that perhaps I stick to fountain pens and ink bottles because I am used to it, and cannot afford a reformation to occur in my sacraments for the bother of having to learn them all over again. More practically, I am someone who writes for a living and thus lives by writing deadlines, and since I was not taught to type like a secretary, scribbling furiously for the day will always yield a greater fruit (at least in terms of output) than anything born of the keys.
But there is a deeper significance to the ink and the pen so many people fail to consider – ink is a mark of my profession, and like many such marks, it has fallen into anachronism, which only makes it all the more noble. Even today, with their standards having fallen so tragically low, you would be hard pressed to convince barristers to give up their wigs and gowns, though such things are, in the eyes of the modern world, entirely an aesthetic affectation.2
The mark of profession might well be served then, if a scribbler is fond of the computer, by a “ceremonial” bottle of ink upon the otherwise sterile desk, but I believe, for the sake of my own joy, in taking it further. Let us examine a recent day in my own life: after fidgeting around for some time trying to match the right nib to the right pen to the right paper to the right ink, (all vitally important things) then scribbling for long enough that several pen refills were required, I was admirably daubed in black spots and smudges. My hands, arms, shirt, trousers and even my face bore the byproducts of a day’s work (I had prudently removed my waistcoat at the door). Emerging from what I might with a straight face call my “workshop,” I was spotted by an acquaintance, who laughed, and told me that for cleanliness’ sake I should quit the nib for the blinking cursor.
But at that moment, I felt an immense pride in being so filthy. After all, doesn’t a workman take pride in his honest sweat after a job? Didn’t the miners emerge from underground covered in coal dust but grinning brighter than their headlamps? Even the comparatively dainty barristers in their starched collars and lace traditionally toss the wigs of new practitioners into the street, because too white a wig indicates a lack of experience. The true Old Bailey-hack’s wig is faded and threadbare.
There then, is my crowning reason for revelling in the use of ink, paper, and fountain pen – because it reminds one that he is not an atom cast adrift from what came before, but part of a profession, and must act accordingly – working hard and thinking of nothing but the quality of his efforts. The black mark ink leaves upon the skin makes not only us, but those around us aware of what we do more surely than anything else, just as much as coal dust or a wig.
I was reminded of an article I once read of, first printed in the Chums boys’ annual (No. 256, Vol. V, 4 August 1897, page 798). An ex-colleague of Kipling’s stated that …”he never knew such a fellow for ink – he simply revelled in it, filling up his pen viciously, and then throwing the contents all over the office, so that it was almost dangerous to approach him”. The anecdote continues: “In the hot weather, when he (Kipling) wore only white trousers and a thin vest, he is said to have resembled a Dalmatian dog more than a human being, for he was spotted all over with ink in every direction.” This seems appropriate to me – one wouldn’t wander up to a busy metalsmith without taking caution of the flying swarf.
More broadly, I think this love for “inkyness” speaks to that deep-seated reactionary desire for rank, place and brotherhood. Nowadays, most jobs are simply that – jobs. Fungible, temporary, begrudging things done purely out of necessity and availability. In a healthy society this is not so. Not very long ago men had professions. Whatever they did was more than an occupation, but a life unto itself, with a uniform, character, particulars and bearing of its own. Entire guilds, entire aesthetics, entire codes and secret societies were invented off the back of professions. It was one of the many now-lost “invisible pillars” that maintained civilisation and gave each man his assigned place, in which there was no shame provided he did it well. Evola tells us that in the axiology of Tradition there is no shame in being a farmer who excels at farming, but much shame in being a king who cannot rule.
Without these seemingly affected and insignificant “marks” of our professions, classes, and character, we all fall adrift into the hideous mass.
“The “common reader” is as rare as common sense.” Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 406 – “El “lector común” escasea tanto como el sentido común.”
I say “in the eyes of the modern world” because in actual fact, wigs are said to have a mystic connotation: they place a divider between oneself and God when in the courtroom, similarly to the infamous black cap.