Monday, October 26, 2015

This page intentionally filled with words

I love a blank page.

A deadline is a question, but a blank page is a promise. You can stare at it. It will stare back at you.

On a blank page I do my best work. So long as the page is blank, that is. Then I put down the words, one after the other, and it's never great, but it’s my best effort and it will have to do until the next blank page comes along.

I'm a strict postmodernist in this: as soon as the blank page is written, you are no longer the arbiter of what it says. You’re just a reader now. I don't care what your intentions were. I don't care that you think you know what the thought process behind it was. There is only the page now, no longer blank, and that if you’re lucky enough that someone else wants to read it, you'll have to fight about its meaning along with everyone else.

A blank page, when stumbled upon unexpectedly, can be unsettling, which is why sometimes it comes with a warning: ‘Page intentionally left blank.’ Except that makes it no longer blank so the warning makes no sense.

I like the word blank because it comes from the French word for white but it no longer means white. In English I can say that a pink piece of paper with no markings on it is ‘blank’. There is no equivalent word in my language. I’d have to call it a white piece of paper, in spite of the fact that it’s obviously pink. A white pink page. Or a pink page left white.

At school we did these regular in-class written tests for which we had to bring our own special legal-ruled paper. First you had to print your name at the top and then fold the page in half, down the middle, and only write your essay on the left side. The right side, after the fold, was reserved for the teacher’s remarks.

I enjoyed these tests, even though most of the suggested topics were like conversation starters on a panel radio show. But the actual task was to construct an argument inside of three hours. Premise, reasoning, conclusion. I still think of it as the educated person’s most useful skill. And I still enjoy the challenge, although it no longer begins with a legal-ruled blank page folded down the middle.

First you did your draft (la brutta, literally the ugly copy), allowing yourself half an hour or so at the end to produce la bella, ‘the fair copy’.

When she was at school my mother was very good at translating Latin. Sometimes she would let some of her class mates copy from her draft while she worked on her own fair copy, yet invariably their marks were higher than hers. She always put this down to favouritism (or sexism, which was rife). It wasn’t until she got pregnant with me that her doctors diagnosed a congenital meningioma which had gradually shrunk her field of vision. When she copied from those drafts, she would have left words out at the rightmost end of each line – words that her eyes saw but her brain overlooked.

Mum became an Italian teacher, and always valued above all in her students clarity of writing. She never wrote anything after her Master’s thesis, aside from teacher reports. But this is common: it’s easy to forget how much credit goes to the internet for reasserting writing as an everyday means of communication. Only our blank pages are of a new kind. Some are just small boxes, no more than 140 characters long. Some we sometimes still call pages but are gleaming scrolls of near-infinite depth. A succession of pages in a book suggests progress. A web page is really a long descent.

I love a blank page, most of the time. But then sometimes I hate a blank page. The page that resist being filled. The page on which words slide down and fall off, or are gobbled up by the

I asked my youngest child to draw this monster, and he gave me two options. This is the other one.

I love that blank pages for him are full of nothing but possibility. He reminds me that there is no such thing as a ‘blank’ page, really. The page, as a technology, as an object, already contains the intention of future meanings. It exists to be filled, therefore is already filled.

If the colour white is the sum of all colours then maybe the blank page is the sum of all words (and pictures). Borges understood this: there is no possible combination of letters and orthographic symbols that won't have meaning for someone, somewhere, at some time. A blank page just happens to contain all of them.


francesca said...

La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir ! là-bas fuir ! Je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres
D’être parmi l’écume inconnue et les cieux !
Rien, ni les vieux jardins reflétés par les yeux,
Ne retiendra ce cœur qui dans la mer se trempe,
Ô nuits ! ni la clarté déserte de ma lampe
Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend,
Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.
Je partirai ! Steamer balançant ta mâture,
Lève l’ancre pour une exotique nature !

Un Ennui, désolé par les cruels espoirs,
Croit encore à l’adieu suprême des mouchoirs !
Et, peut-être, les mâts, invitant les orages,
Sont-ils de ceux qu'un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots…
Mais, ô mon cœur, entends le chant des matelots !

Mallarmé, Brise marine

(Niente, neppure gli antichi giardini riflessi negli occhi, potrà trattenere questo cuore che nel mare si immerge. O notti! Neppure il chiarore deserto della mia lampada sul foglio vuoto che il candore difende, e neppure la giovane donna che allatta il suo bambino.)

Just to fill also the comments with words.

Philip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gianfranco said...

I see your son wrote english words. how do you deal with the double language?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Badly. For complicated reasons, the attempt to run the home bilingually had to be abandoned.

Sadie said...

Belatedly read this article and thought I might actually comment for a change, just to say that I love it, especially the last para.