When I was at the British Museum in London, I got to visit the Rosetta Stone, something always of great interest to word and language enthusiasts. It affected me a lot more than the rest of the must-see sights, not only because of its amazing history, but also because I got to experience it in a truly tactile way. That is my own humble hand against the backdrop of ancient writing, although the surface beneath is an amazing replica of the original, which is tucked safely behind glass several galleries away.
Language is, of course, normally an abstract thing that can’t be touched—unless you’re sight-impaired and use Braille, or lived in the centuries when important things had to be inscribed onto rocks or carved into wood. Writing used to involve a great deal of effort. Even if you only go back a few centuries, you still had to carve the quill out of a bird’s feather, mix the ink to the right consistency, then carefully form your letters to avoid unsightly blotches on the very precious linen-based paper or even sheepskin you were filling with something that was presumably important, worthy enough to be set down permanently. Penmanship was an art form, and once a vital part of elementary school curriculum. I’m old enough to have suffered through several years of it, but it did my careless scrawl little good. Later, in high school, I had to take a full typing course in order to begin composing on the keyboard—not a computer, mind you, but one of those old-fashioned machines where you cranked the paper in, had to keep changing the ribbon and hoped the letter ‘e’ wouldn’t stick or the letter ‘o’ wouldn’t punch actual holes in your manuscript. Want to do some editing? Get out the scissors and Scotch tape.
I remember the arguments a few years ago, when computers became widespread, that they made writing too easy, and writers too careless. Does the physical act of writing somehow affect the quality of it? I don’t personally think so, but nowadays we have the Internet, which some say makes publishing that writing too easy, and thus leading to the degradation of literature in general. Would you even bother to attempt that novel if you had to chisel it onto a rock? Probably not, but if you really, really wanted to, or needed to, you’d probably try.
Maybe the acid test for writing should be: Would I want to see this on a piece of stone? My husband came up with a wonderful witticism a few years ago, when he was working in a difficult workplace with changing rules: “Everything is carved in stone; but every day, there’s a new stone.” Which makes me think that maybe our kind of writing isn’t meant to be permanent, but just something to be thrown out there, with hopes that it sticks—in a kind of permanent way—to someone’s brain. Preferably, many brains.
Still, it was a treat to caress the Rosetta Stone, even if not the actual rock itself, and not too hard to imagine the creator’s satisfaction at completing what, even at the time, must have been a monumental project; and the discoverers joy at finding it; the decipherers’ delight in understanding it. And it’s the perfect physical metaphor for the conjunctions of history, mankind, culture, language and discovery.
Despite this I was able to resist the various Rosetta offerings in the gift shop: Tea towels and t-shirts and fridge magnets. My photograph, and the memory of the consistently bumpy texture of the letters and characters beneath my fingertips was the best souvenir of all.