The Library of Babel.
More James Castle. This one was recently published in “James Castle: A Retrospective” (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Yale Press.) The kind folks at the PMA invited me to speak at their “Alternate American Art Worlds” symposium on Nov. 15. I did a thing for the UPenn Humanities forum too. Anyway, enjoy (link to full essay below–it’s a big’un.)
“Characters More Comely to the Eye”: Text and Intention in the Art of James Castle
One book . . . consisted of the letters MCV perversely repeated from the first line to the last. Another . . . is a mere labyrinth of letters whose penultimate page contains the phrase O Time thy pyramids. . . . There is no combination of characters one can make—dhcmrlchtdj, for example—that the divine Library has not foreseen and that in one or more of its secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” (1941)
Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves: A Way In
Among those ancient scribes variously ascribed the invention of writing—the Egyptian deity Thoth; the legendary Chinese emperor Fu Xi; the Phoenician prince Cadmus, founder of the city of Thebes in Greek mythology; the Scythian king of Irish folklore, Fenius Farsa, who synthesized Gaelic and its Ogham alphabet from the Tower of Babel’s linguistic ruins; and the one-eyed Norse god Odin, to name just a few—few are available for historical verification and analysis through primary sources. However, certain culture heroes of premodernity and modernity alike emerge from mythological abstraction into the realms of contemporaneously recorded history to offer more tangible accounts of the actual process of visualizing language. The Byzantine monk Saint Cyril (Constantine, 827–869) and King Sejong the Great of Korea (1397–1450), like the Roman deity and Greek language guide Evander before them, adapted other systems—Greek and Hebrew for the former and Chinese Hanja, Mongol, and Tibetan Buddhist writing for the latter—to forge the foundations of the Cyrillic and the Hangul (Korean) alphabets, respectively. In fact, apart from the generally accepted independent development of scripts in Sumer and Mesoamerica, and also arguably in China, Egypt, and Easter Island, all written languages have followed similar diffusionist models.
Around 1820, in present-day Polk County, Arkansas, the Cherokee silversmith, veteran of the War of 1812, and visionary linguist Sequoyah (c. 1770–1843), despite his illiteracy in English, successfully modified that language’s Roman alphabet to arrive at a Cherokee syllabary. The first Cherokee writing system of any kind and the result of almost a decade’s work, his syllabary employs directly appropriated and graphically ornamented Roman letters alongside additional expressly designed characters, eighty-five in all, each of which corresponds to a specific speech sound, or phoneme (fig. G1). After initially accusing Sequoyah, his daughter, and his “talking leaves” of witchcraft, Cherokees quickly recognized the value of adopting the system, and they still use a nearly identical script today. Sequoyah provides a particularly dramatic example of a relatively rare, and recent, originator of a writing system—a grammatogenist—whose life and work were adequately recorded by contemporaries. His story is not unique. Modern missionaries, colonial authorities, authors, artists, and enterprising dreamers have occasionally invented so-called constructed or artificial scripts from positions of altruistic (or invasive) literacy, cryptographic stealth, literary world-making (in the cases of fictional scripts and languages), or monolingual illiteracy (like Sequoyah). But Sequoyah remains rightly renowned for his impressive independent achievement, an especially aesthetic innovation almost out of thin air and with a widespread impact. Described as an “American Cadmus and modern Moses,” Sequoyah attained celebrity at home and abroad, even granting interviews. A report of an interview by a Captain John Stuart of the U.S. Army in 1837 states that
being one day on a public road, [Sequoyah] found a piece of newspaper, which had been thrown aside by a traveler, which he took up, and, on examining it, found characters on it that would be more easily made than his own, and consequently picked out for that purpose the largest of them, which happened to be the Roman letters, and adopted [some] in lieu of so many of his own characters—and that, too, without knowing the English name or meaning of a single one of them.
Whether true or apocryphal, this tidy little account illustrates a possible appropriative derivation of the Cherokee syllabary, one couched in the condition of modernity’s proliferation of mechanically printed matter. To continue the story for us, we are lucky enough to have the firsthand 1829 testimony of an American man of letters, Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, who claims that, after drafting an efficient and suitable set of symbols, Sequoyah “then set to work to make these characters more comely to the eye, and succeeded” (italics mine). And therein resides a wonderful and exciting detail. At some point—and this is key—Sequoyah consciously transcended the practical bounds of linguistics to consider visual verbal aesthetics, a move doubtlessly made by numerous grammatogenists—not to mention calligraphers, typeface designers, and handwriting standardizers—long before his time, but rarely so explicitly described. By first appropriating and reshaping the linguistic refuse—a discarded newspaper—of the dominant culture, and then evaluating the “artistic” nature of the text and implementing substantial aesthetic alterations, a monolingual Cherokee speaker customized a preexisting alphabet to suit his own language’s needs as well as his personal and cultural aesthetic criteria. Beyond the obvious total disjuncture in sound, grammar, and syntax (and even in semiotic purpose, since used in a syllabary, not in an alphabet) between Roman letters as they function in English and in Cherokee, in purely visual terms Sequoyah thereby activated an appropriative transformation, a shift in the contextual meanings of the same signs.
Not so transparent are the runic inscriptions of the later American artist James Castle (1899–1977), which lack a legible lexicon. And yet a kinship, a kindred aesthetic aptitude, is clear. Both men devised their “comely characters” intuitively, regardless of their imputed illiteracy, and neither ever learned to speak English, though for different reasons. Both necessity and difference compelled them in their craft. As an unspeaking, profoundly deaf artist, Castle shared a marginal status with Sequoyah (the name literally means “Pig’s Foot”), whose reported “lameness”—a “white swelling” of the knee —prevented him from physically demanding labor. Perhaps both these “disabilities” have been overstated or distorted by most historians. And yet these two men independently achieved remarkable feats of linguistic artistry, in a sense performing their otherness through the appropriation and manipulation of the hegemonic language.