Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.
Although writing is an ancient invention, the Western tradition of personalised handwriting is essentially another product of the Renaissance's implicit agenda of subversive individualism. Before that time, the main writing establishments, the medieval scriptoria, allowed no latitude in letter forms: to learn how to write meant to learn how to reproduce exactly the local variant of the uncial script, for example. Variations were errors, not expressions of personality. For this reason palaeographers typically talk of schools of writing, centred around a particular monastery, rather than of scribes.
Gradually, as writing became more widespread through an increasingly secularised Europe, the Church's grip on literacy - hitherto one of its jealously-guarded mysteries and sources of power - weakened. With this centralised orthodoxy gone, personal writing styles began to evolve.
The teaching of writing in present-day schools mirrors this process. At first, we are shown precisely how to produce each letter: there is a premium on exactitude. Once the basic shapes have been learnt, though, there is a shift away from studying letters to using them. Thereafter, provided the handwriting style is reasonably unobtrusive children are judged on what they write, not how they write it.
Through constant practice we can bypass the mental mechanics of writing. Because the focus is on content not form, the latter evolves almost spontaneously and according to deep personal laws. Mostly the process is a gradual evolution, but it can change quite dramatically and disjunctively. One day as I was writing I watched with horror as I formed an 'x' not from a 'c' and its mirror image, placed back to back, but from two straight diagonal lines slashing through each other. I have never relapsed, and I often wonder what terrible psychic shift occurred then.
The Surrealists were therefore almost correct when they saw in automatic writing - words written without thought - a revelation of the soul's innermost nature, but they erred in regarding what was written as important; in fact, the shapes of the letters tell all.
People's handwriting, considered purely graphologically, seems so revealing in its diversity; the big, brassy letters of the extrovert, the tiny, self-effacing embroidery of the recluse; the extravagant curlicues, the vertiginous slants - both forwards and backwards - the bizarre open dots of 'i's - all seem to be such manifest and true expressions of their writers' personalities.
Frightening, then, those handwritings that seem almost typeset, with effortless and sensuous curves, balanced shapes and a neatness which suggests obsession. Such calligraphy bespeaks a perfection outside humanity, either angelic, or demonic. Frightening, too, those hands that look the product of a deranged mind, illegible, ill-formed, spastic in their irregularities, now a series of jagged edges, now meaningless waves. And doubly frightening for me who writes in just this way, exposing to the world the terrible implications of that blatant cacography.
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