Eddie Christie – “Writing in Wax, Writing in Water”

Writing in Water, Writing in Wax

I. Writing in Water
 In mari via tua et semitae tuae in aquis multis et vestigia tua non cognoscentur
Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the many waters: and thy footsteps shall not be known
(Psalm 76: 20)

[1] Speech is ephemeral but writing endures.  This was a standard story in the early middle ages and had been since antiquity.  But despite their frequent repetition of this story, Anglo-Saxon literati didn’t quite seem to believe it.  They knew that books were subject to the vicissitudes of fortune: damage by fire and water, capture and destruction by Vikings, the hunger of the book moth and the errors of scribes.  Writing, like all the material artifices of man, inevitably passes.  The ultimately ephemeral nature of writing is a result of the transience of its material support in a substrate, a medium on which or in which writing emerges.  Imagining a writing that is immune to the inevitable corruption of time has historically taken the form of imagining a substrate of special endurance. In some cases this is simply a matter of writing on the most durable substance currently imaginable. For example, the “rock” that Hrabanus Maurus imagined when he wrote that dei digitus sulcabat in apta rupe, suo legem cum dederat populo (the finger of god made furrows in the rock with letters when he gave the people law). In other cases, eternal writing is imagined by figurative means that evoke a mystical substrate that participates simultaneously within and beyond time.

[2] If vestigia are understood as St. Augustine understood them, as a kind of sign, a way of tracing material signals towards the transcendent realm of knowledge, then the path through the waters described by Vulgate Psalm 76 suggests a problem of great significance. Water is a substrate in which signs are necessarily momentary, and thus the vestigia Dei remain ungraspable.  Writing raises questions of materiality and embodiment with far ranging implications: a fact recognized by Jacques Derrida, who writes both that the problem of writing is the origin of the problem of soul and body (Of Grammatology 35) and also that the “history of the road and the history of writing” should be written together (Derrida “Freud” 214; Of Grammatology 107-8).

[3] Despite the powerful impetus to think of the materialist dilemmas of writing as derived from the metaphysical problem of soul and body, the problem of writing – the presence of signs in the absence of their author, the transmission of apparently transcendent information in specific matter – nevertheless archetypally expresses the dualistic paradigm through which the soul and body appear irreconcilable. While the road, the “tracing of a path against resistances” (“Freud” 214) is similarly the foundational moment of inscription: the establishment of difference by cutting into a surface, and the emergence of social meaning in nature. These Derridean observations guide the investigation that follows.  In combination, the concern for material manifestation of signs and the possibility of tracing a path in water suggest a potent symbolic history for the “writ in water” metaphor. More than either a figure of ephemerality or of futility, this metaphor is an ancient expression of our most enduring philosophical desire about media.

[4] That “information is disembodied” is one of the dominant metaphors of the posthuman world (Lenoir 203). This notion facilitates a faith in digital imagery to present its subject with a kind of mathematical perfection that, as Johanna Drucker notes, participates in a “long-standing Western philosophical quest for mathesis [mathematical representation] … in which there ceases to be any ambiguity between knowledge and its representation” (“Digital Ontologies” 141).  Like the assumptions about disembodied information that govern the discourse about digital media, representations of writing in water (along with other medieval contemplations of writing in wax, earth, the ocean, and the firmament) wrestle with this crucial metaphysical problem of “whether an idea can exist outside of material form, and yet appear to human perception” (141).

[5] This essay examines the figures of transience that haunt the more familiar medieval idea of writing as the durable guardian of history or safe extension of memory.  I trace the history of the metaphor of “writing in water” and juxtapose it with imaginative configurations of writing through metaphors that derive from the ancient practice of composing in wax tablets. The metaphor of writing in water is an archetypal metaphor, one that attempts to represent the theological paradox of mediation; sacred writing produces the absence of the truth whose presence it is designed to guarantee.  Recent, more literal, attempts at writing in the medium of water tap into the ancient figure of ephemerality, symbolizing a reinvigorated fascination with mediation, scientific surety of mastery over the material world, if not over time itself.

I.1 The “Writ in Water” Metaphor

[6] Recently, writing in water has become a literal endeavor.  In 2006, Shigeru Naito, a professor of marine engineering at Osaka University collaborated with researchers at Mitsui Engineering to complete a prototype machine called an AMOEBA, or, Advanced Multiple Organized Experimental Basin (“A New Wave”).  In this prototype, fifty wave generators produce cylindrical waves that act like pixels to form letters on the surface of a small circular pool.  To professor Naito, an expert in the sea keeping performance of ships and in the utilization of wave energy, the AMOEBA is no doubt a fascinating exercise in the materialization of Bessel functions.  To Akishima Laboratories and their clients the main purpose of the machine seems to be to develop amusing installations for hotel lobbies (“A New Wave”).  At first glance this machine appears to have solved an ancient riddle and, with a suggestion of technological triumphalism, negated the potency of a long-standing metaphor for ephemeral, if not impossible, writing.

[7] In the information technology community, writing in water is currently a widely used metaphor for the ephemerality of information.  The metaphor crops up across the internet in papers on backing up data, creating transient cell-phone networks, and producing an information infrastructure that might avoid the many shortcomings of either the World Wide Web or various physical storage media like Digital Video Disks. Ecologically-minded humanistic projects deploy this metaphor too: a recent collection of essays creative non-fiction about the preservation of wetlands (by definition “ephemeral” natural phenomena) entitled Writing on Water puns by means of the multivalent preposition.  This is a book about water as a natural resource and at the same time, its title suggests, about the scarcity of such resources.

[8] Perhaps the most certain evidence of this metaphor’s widespread presence in our culture is that the capital building of the state of Colorado is graced with a plaque bearing verses by Thomas Hornsby Ferril (1896-1988). The monumental epigram begins “[h]ere is a land where life is writ in water.”  A romantic poem about the water-dependence of a beautiful, but also forbidding, western landscape, these lines to a degree eliminate the metaphorical force of the phrase.  Life in this environment is literally dependent upon water, yet the civilization that rises around water resources is fragile, as the poem’s protagonists know as they follow a river through the land “[n]aming tonight a City by some river, / A different name from last night’s camping fire.”  Though Ferril’s poem evokes the transience of human existence, it co-opts the metaphor of transience as it had previously been used and shifts it to a different philosophical realm.  Rather than the impossible attempt to write lasting characters in water that fascinated premodern thinkers, it is in Ferril’s version the water that “writes” its way across the landscape, opening that landscape to human interpretation.

[9] In other words, the phrase “written in water” remains a popular one, a useful pun circulating in ecological and information technology discourses, characterizing contemporary civic vexation over water-management and the practical problems of data storage. Despite the perception of its aptness, however, contemporary uses of the phrase seems largely oblivious to the complexity of the metaphor.  Ecological uses, attuned to the water, mean writing in only the least problematic sense.  In the sphere of information storage, the phrases signals the transience or ephemerality of information, but without recognizing that writing in water represents the still deeper epistemological aporia described by Drucker: the attempt to conceive of information not manifest in matter, yet still perceivable by humans.

[10] The immediate source of this metaphor for the modern world is undoubtedly the self-penned epitaph of the Romantic poet John Keats: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” For Keats, the tenor of the metaphor was ephemerality. His fame, and his life, are as fleeting as the letters you might try to inscribe in malleable water to have them immediately erased again by the formless, unresisting surface returning to fill the trace of your finger. But Keats’ famous epitaph stands at the end of a long line of “writ in water” metaphors. Its most immediate precursor is Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (1620), a successful Jacobean tragicomedy in which the titular disinherited king of Sicily accuses his usurper of tyranny: “As you are living, all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ, but this in Marble: / No Chronicle shall speak you, though your own, / But for the shame of men” (l. 81-4). Philaster places the ephemerality, or indeed the impossibility, of writing in water in direct opposition to the material of monumental writing.  In this instance water is the medium of a legacy of an illegitimate regime, one that will be wiped away.

[11] This political use of the metaphor is not as common as its deployment to accuse women of inconstancy in love.  In an elegy that seems to have been attributed to both John Donne (XVI “The Expostulation”) and Ben Johnson (“Elegy: To Make the Doubt Clear that no Woman’s True”), a contemplation of the fickleness of a woman’s love bears a close similarity to an epigram by Catullus (84-54 BCE) which claims that “what a woman says to her lover is fitting to write on the wind and on fast-flowing water” (sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti, in vento et rapida scribee oportet aqua, Green 180). Just as the metaphor appears to have been part of a common stock, quick to the minds and pens of poets in the early modern period, it was also a staple of the poetic repertoire in classical antiquity (See Lahr, Woodman, Doyle).

[12] Writing in water is a profound counter-example to a standard medieval characterization of writing as the safeguard that “saves memory from oblivion”.  It points to the caveat that “writing” is only as durable as the medium that bears it.  It’s political inflection aside, modern uses of the “writ in water” metaphor like Keats’ epitaph and Philaster evoke particularly the transience of fame.  More ancient manifestations of the figure suggest deeper paradoxes.

[13] In the scholarship of writing, literacy, and media, the Phaedrus has long been recognized as an anchor for the western world’s ambivalent relationship to media as both substitute for authentic experience (including speech and presence) and as the externalization of memory.  Although Derrida famously critiques Plato’s vocabulary, which designates writing a degraded and supplementary role, he says little about the guiding metaphor of water in this important scene.  Socrates compares the knowledge of a philosopher with that of a husbandman, implicating his critique of writing in an extended metaphor of generation and growth that will also permeate medieval texts about writing.  Like a good husbandman, who plants his seeds only in appropriate ground, he who knows what is “just, honorable, and good” will adhere to the discourse “of unquestioned legitimacy … written in the soul of the learner … the living speech of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image.”  Opposed to this kind of “writing” in the soul, Socrates suggests, it would never be that “with serious intent that he writes them [the just, honorable, and good] in water or that black fluid we call ink using his pen to sow words that can’t either speak in their own defense or present the truth adequately” (Phaedrus 275d – 276d, Hamilton and Cairns 522-4).

[14] For Plato to write with pen and ink is to write in water.  All writing is ephemeral, this metaphor implies, though Plato goes on specifically to criticize the ambiguity of written language rather than its transience.  Because they do not speak for themselves, or respond to inquiry as a teacher might, written words must be interpreted, inviting uncertainty.  Writing, regardless of its material substrate, is a medium for thought in which the message deteriorates.

[15] The metaphor of writing in water as a figure for ephemerality has enjoyed a long after-life. Its nuances in the postmedieval world can teach us about one of the pre-occupations most intimately shared by medieval and postmodern thought: our reflection on “the functions and the limitations of the verbal sign as a mediator of human understanding” (Vance x). Its presence in Plato points to the great antiquity of this metaphor. Cratyllus’ use in verse in the first Century BC to describe the inconstancy of a woman’s love suggests that the metaphor had a certain colloquial currency.  It shows up with a similar purpose in the philosophy of Porphyry, the Greek Philosopher and interpreter of Aristotle to the Middle Ages, who passed it to St. Augustine.

1.3 “Writ in Water” in the Middle Ages

[16] If there were a seminal expression of the “writ in water” metaphor for the Middle Ages, you’d expect to find it in St. Augustine.  Augustine records in The City of God, that Porphyry deploys this metaphor in connection with a woman. This time not to represent her inconstancy in love, but rather to represent the impossibility of recalling to respectable paganism a wife fallen into Christianity. In Philosophy from Oracles, Porphyry puts this advice in the mouth of Apollo, who says that

[17] You will, perhaps be more able to write enduring letters on water, or open light wings and fly through the air like a bird, than bring your defiled and impious wife back to her senses.  Let her continue as she likes, persevering in her vain delusions, singing lamentations for a god who died and deluded himself …

(XIX.23, 954)

This example notably conflates strands of the metaphor: not simply a metaphor of transience in general, nor of a woman’s infidelity in human love, Porphyry’s use of the metaphor connects the figure of an impossible writing to the moral weakness ascribed to women by later medieval misogynists.  Regrettably, Augustine fails to make the obvious defense of Christian women implied by Apollo’s pagan disgust: the impossibility of recalling them to paganism is simultaneously evidence of their exemplary Christian faith.  Despite Augustine’s unparalleled influence, however, this late antique example marks the beginning of a dry spell for the “writ in water” metaphor.

[18] Medieval manifestations of the “writ in water” metaphor are rare, yet they do occur. Wycliff’s sermons (Oxford, Bodley 788) use the Cratyllian comparison, for example, claiming that “wymmen ben as freel as water” (MED “Water” 3.f) while his translation of Joshua 7:5 transmits a similar Biblical-scientific image of the people who, in their fear, “at the lickenesse of water is molten” (cor populi et instar aquae liquefactum est).

[19] Despite the scarcity of the direct image of writing in water, other uses of water imagery constitute a symbolic staging of the problem of writing, albeit in oblique or displaced forms.  Water was a richly symbolic element for the Middle Ages; in its many forms and functions it signified an especially diverse group of spiritual and literary ideas (See Ribémont 95). As Wycliff’s sermon indicates, water remains proverbially representative of all that is mutable, yielding, or liable to become formless and slip away.

[20] The water of baptism and the torrents of the deluge represent both the physical and spiritual power of erasure – erasing sins one Christian at a time, or en masse.   Ælfric of Eynsham’s homily for the Second Sunday after Epiphany explains that the water of baptism signifies the “inner meaning of holy writ” (getacnað ingehyd haligra gewrita). Yet the Biblical deluge looms in medieval literature as the cleansing flood that erases the accumulated errors of the antediluvian world.  The waters of the flood, as “Cleanness” describes, “schall wasch alle þe worlde of werkez of fylþ” (l. 355).  These two examples juxtapose the symbolic, spiritual resonances of water as that which contains divine mysteries on the one hand, and that which threatens, destroys, erases on the other.

[21] Throughout scripture the oceans are invoked as metaphors of vastness and inconceivability (Ecclesiasticus 1:2, 18:8; Job 11:9, 28:14; Psalms 68:3, 103:25); the ocean is a sublime peril  (Lamentations 2:13; Isias 57:20) whose mysterious depths might yet hide secret wisdom  or terrors like Leviathan (Ecclesiasticus 24:39; Job 28:11-15).  These figurative connections between knowledge and terror all weigh on the ocean of Psalm 76, which figures the inscrutability of God as the inability to perceive his traces. A footprint in the ocean is no footprint at all.  The physical properties of water ensure that anything temporarily displacing it is again replaced by water when the object is removed, leaving only the fluid, motile, and uninscribed surface.  This is, in other words, a metaphor about writing. That God’s way is in the sea makes it at once profound, frightening, and hidden.

[22] In his essay demonstrating how the “scientific mythology” of water promulgated by the traditional encyclopedias permeated literature, Bernard Ribémont argues that, perhaps more than any other symbolic role, it is the capacity of water to create boundaries that stimulates medieval symbolic thought.  The boundary of the ocean, where water meets the land, takes on a defining role as the “vecteur de l’enfermement” (95) is an especially potent symbolic frontier.  This is a zone whose intermediary character, as Ribémont writes, authorizes the emergence of the sign (“Ce caractère intermédiaire, mixte, autorise l’émergence du signe, du symbole …” 8).  In this capacity, as a progenitor of difference, water continues to participate in the staging of scenes of writing.

[23] No text demonstrates this more powerfully than St. Ambrose’s Hexameron.  “Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters and let it divide the waters from the waters,” proclaims Genesis (1:6), and Ambrose examines in close philosophical detail these divisions of matter that gave birth to the world.  An important source of natural philosophy in Anglo-Saxon England, Ambrose’s commentary on the Creation invokes mythico-scientific ideas about the qualities of water as a way to refute pagan interrogations of the Book of Genesis. Ambrose frequently invokes the physical properties of the elements in composing his arguments, even as he accuses sophistical interpretations of scripture as infelicitously applying laws of nature to the work of God (Moses, after all, “did not follow the calculations of the Egyptians and the conjunctions of the stars and the relations of the elements when he stretched out his hand to divide the Red Sea” 47).

[24] In Hexameron, water that is literally the sustainer of life is the enemy of meaning, precisely because it precludes difference or distinction:  Before creation the earth was “unformed” and “inundated by a deep flood” (30).  The process of creation in Genesis is itself represented as a series of distinctions – between land and water, light and darkness.  The passages in which Ambrose explains Creation abound with descriptions of the obscuring qualities of water. Before creation is before distinction, when water is the key element, and its symbolic mode is the “abyss”. Ambrose, however, explains this by analogy to husbandry.  The unformed nature of the world for him constitutes a kind of fruitlessness – a lack of growing plants, grass, or vineyards – through which God shows that the value of the world is in fact produced by cultivation (31). Ambrose concludes his commentary on the separation of land and water by considering the meaning of Genesis 1:2, where “the spirit of God” moved over the face of the waters.”  He invokes the Syriac version of this text, which he claims is closer to the Hebrew in using the verb “brood” rather than move: thus the spirit moving on the water is an image of germination (33).

[25] According to Ambrose, the waters at the moment of creation are a primal and elemental abyss, but also a sodden ground, potentially cultivated, but inaccessible to the plough.

Observe that even now the earth has become unsightly with marshy mire and is not subject to the plough where water has everywhere covered the land…The very heavens, when seen covered with clouds, often inspire men with dread fear and with sadness of heart.  The earth, when saturated with rain, arouses our aversion.  Who is not moved to fright by the sight of stormy seas?   (31)

Ambrose attempts, through these analogies to relatively mundane experiences of water, to convey the cosmological properties of the primal element. The final line also invites Ambrose’s reader to imagine the fear of the abyss that we will see again, below, in Anglo-Saxon poetry. But, he especially evokes the images of husbandry that were also present at Plato’s rejection of writing.  Ploughing in this scene involves writing in the symbolic matter of water since, as we will see, “ploughing” was the writing metaphor par excellence in both in Latin grammar and in Anglo-Saxon literature.  Ploughing expresses the “tracing of a path” that links roads and writing, through literal cultivation to abstract culture.  The crucial symbolic question of creation at this moment of Hexameron is thus, as in Psalm 76, how to make a path in water. How to see in water both God’s primal medium, the dark “abyss” that can nevertheless form the medium of human culture.

[26] After dealing with the separation of the land and the water, Ambrose similarly explains the creation of light by an analogy to the physical properties of water as a medium of light (and thereby vision). “Why do we marvel,” he asks, “at the fact that God simply said ‘light’ and flashed forth brilliance on the darkling world, when we know that, if a person immersed in water should emit oil from his mouth, all that which is hidden in the deep is made clearer?” (39). Ambrose gives us a lesson in refraction: the changing angle of light as it passes from one medium to another, in this case from water to oil, becomes a metaphor for the perception of divine realities, of the knowledge that is “hidden in the deep.”

[27] Ambrose’s Hexameron is a learned text that represents itself as a rational rather than mystical interpretation of creation.  Ambrose invokes Plato and Aristotle, discussing the nature of matter, and depicting the physical properties of water in order to explain the Biblical cosmogony. The waters of the primordial ocean in his account provide a complex and potent set of symbolic ideas about water as a medium: it is abyssal darkness and depth represent the unknowable, its calm surface a power of undifferentiated signification, a suppressor of distinction and meaning (it cannot be ploughed). Yet if the boundaries of water authorize the emergence of symbolism, as Ribémont suggests, the primal separation from land, sea, and firmament constitutes an archetypal act of differentiation. As a medium for the “seed” of the Holy spirit, the differentiation of water and land in Genesis is also the birth of tracing a difference.  The waters of Genesis, at least in Ambrose’s treatment, provide a dense symbolic backdrop against which to read the vestigia Dei of psalm 76, and also other literary depictions of paths through the water.

I.2 Anglo-Saxon Paths through the Water

[28] Anglo-Saxon literature ubiquitously deploys compound metaphors that describe the ocean as a road.  Such compounds as hron-rad, swan-rad, segl-rad, hwæl-weg, flod-weg, characterize the ocean by giving it direction: as a road it has a beginning and an end, a purpose and a possibility of destination, an extension in time, a narrative.  If, as Derrida claims, the history of the road and the history of writing are the same, then these paths through the water represent another opportunity to consider the “emergence of the sign” in a transient substrate.   Since the metaphor of life as a spiritual journey was similarly widespread in Anglo-Saxon literature, the ocean is almost always seen with this added spiritual significance that opposes is alternative use as a symbol of profound and awesome depth and chaos.  The ocean is an intersecting and perhaps contradicting symbol of the terrifying mystery of knowledge beyond human ken, and the meaningful path that might be cut across it.

[29] The parting of the Red Sea is surely the most dramatic instance of “cutting a path” in Biblical narrative, and one captured in Old English poetry.  The versification of Exodus in Bodleian Library MS. Junius 11 dwells in descriptive detail on the terrible danger of the ocean in contrast to the “seapath” (wægfaru) that God, by means of Moses’ hand, cuts through this hostile medium.

[30] In this poem the ocean portends terrible doom for the Egyptian. The “deep menaced them with death… the sea spewed gore …” and “the terrible tumbling of waves brought darkness upon them” (l. 447, Trans. Bradley 62).  In the present context, as we consider the ephemerality of information, legibility, erasure, and oblivion, the crashing of the waves over a path previously trodden by the fleeing Israelists takes on particular significance.  Lines 458b-59a note that the ocean now raged, “where paths had previously lain” (þær ær wegas lagon, mere modgode) before the poem moves on to describe further the violence of the sea. The ocean takes on qualities at once natural and metaphysical in lines 474-476a, where it comes “from deviant ways seeking its wonted state, its eternal foundations  … a hostile vagrant thing” (æflastum gewuna, ece staðulas … neosan come, fah feðegast).  The first part of this description evokes an understanding of water in natural philosophy –  or Ribémont’s “mythologie scientifique” – its movement to seek an “accustomed state” (gewuna), while the latter anthropomorphizes it as a fah feþegast, a bloody foe.

[31] Although the ocean, at God’s command, is animated with a divine wrath especially directed at the Egyptian host, yet this poem’s description suggests waters invested with the experience and the symbolism of Anglo-Saxon culture: the icy, ever-present danger of the Northern seas that formed the plain of exile for many other heroes. Before god’s intervention the Red Sea had similarly terrorized the Israelites. The sea had “threatened the journey of the seafarers with bloody-terror” (blodegesan hweop, sæmanna sið) before Moses’ hand cleared away its anger (l. 480). Yet, to these travelers this same ocean formed the medium of a “wondrous passage through the waves” (wrætlicu wægfaru, oð wolcna hrof c. l. 298).

[32] If these two ideas of the ocean, as a wondrous highway and a vast, inscrutable, and endlessly threatening mass are opposed, yet a third idea about water suggests its attraction of writing metaphors.  For water (aqua), according to Isidore is so named for its even surface (aequor). He elaborates, pointing out that “although the surging waters may swell up like mountains, when the storms have quieted the sea-surface returns to flatness.  The depth of the sea varies, but the appearance of its surface is unvarying” (Barney et al. 277).

[33] The “accustomed state” of water suggests an enticing medium for the writing mind – a smooth and unvarying surface.  Yet the very properties that make water enticing also doom it forever to remain a medium of fantasy, for these properties simultaneously entail that water is incapable of retaining a trace, as history’s many “writ in water” metaphors attest.  If these metaphors have appealed throughout the intellectual history of the West, as attempts to conceptualize not merely an ephemeral but an impossible signification – “ideas that exist outside of material form, and yet appear to human perception” – they also demonstrate something equally obvious though less frequently considered: that ancient minds actually thought about writing in water.  As a medium, water is an exemplary failure in offering writing the quality of timelessness perceived in the middle ages almost to define it.  Yet the smoothness and receptivity of its surface, the ease with which one might only temporarily inscribe it, suggested an unparalleled substrate. Perhaps, as the biblical metaphor of psalm 76 suggests, even mystically so.

II. Writing in Wax


[34] “Writing on wax tablets,” Roger Chartier observes, “was necessarily ephemeral” (4). In Biblical uses, wax is almost exclusively an image of mutability and instability, just as water is. So much so, in fact, that wax and water frequently occur to this purpose together. For example, where “[t]he mountains shall be moved from the foundations with the waters: the rocks shall melt as wax before thy face” (montes a fundamentis movebuntur cum aquis petrae sicut cera liquescent ante faciem tuam, Judith 16:18; cf. Psalm 21:15, Micah 1:4). If writing in water is a venerable metaphor for ephemerality and impossibility, writing in wax is an equally venerable practice that gave rise to its own cadre of metaphorical observations, lending characteristics to writing, communication, and memory, in the perception of early writers. Conversely, metaphors based in technologies of writing can take over the perception of other processes. Rouse and Rouse provide a pointed example of how the material culture of writing in late antiquity profoundly affected passages of the Vulgate.  Where Second Kings 21:13 has God warning he will “wipe Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down”, Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew also converts the metaphor to make writing its vehicle: “I shall erase Jerusalem just as tablets are erased, and I shall turn it as I erase, and shall rub the stylus across its face repeatedly” (“The Vocabulary” 230).  While water was a mysterious, or paradoxical, medium – an excellent vehicle for metaphysical metaphors about knowledge and inscription – wax was a far more real substrate that nevertheless lent qualities to the medieval perception of the materiality of writing, and by extension to more abstract processes of inscription and erasure.

[35] Mary Caruthers describes how the wax tablet as a metaphor for memory, and the impression of a seal in wax as a model sign, fostered a perception of interiority as a kind of writing, or written-ness. Medieval writers on memory, furthermore, did not strictly distinguish between “writing on the memory and writing on some other surface” (30). She concludes that “[w]riting itself … is understood to be critical for knowing, but not its support (whether internal or external) or the implements with which it is performed” (30).  The lack of distinction between internal and external writing, that is writing in the metaphorical wax of memory and writing in other literal substrates, obscures or completely voids the figurative relationship between the two.  This is a telling conflation, but indifference to the substrate of writing does not necessarily signal its dismissal as non-crucial.

[36] Recognizing the medieval absorption of both mental “writing” and literal writing into the same symbolic activity is an important move in understanding medieval textuality.   But at the same time we can observe how profoundly concepts of writing are produced by the materiality of the tools, the substrate, and the physical context.  In fact, we ought to question the very idea that there is a “writing itself” independent of its material support.  Such an idea might turn out to be simply another expression of the notion that information is disembodied. The shape of a pen, or the resistance of wax, that dictate the ductus of a stroke or the shape of a letter also give rise to the prevailing metaphors and concepts of writing in medieval thought.  The classic metaphor of ploughing, for example, reported by Isidore of Seville, though still figuratively sensible in terms of ink on paper, forms a more overt analogy when the writing is scraped in wax by a stylus that furrows the substrate just as an actual plough furrows the earth (Rouse and Rouse “Wax Tablets” 185).

[37] This metaphor emphasized the corollary nature of inscription and erasure: because of the mutability of wax writing and erasure are not merely possibilities or opposites but part of the same activity.  “A writing stylus performs no lesser function when it erases,” writes Quintillian (Rouse and Rouse, “Wax Tablets” 179). Wax was a substance then in which inscription and erasure were mutually implied activities.  This is suggested by the fanciful etymological definition of “letters” put forward by Isidore of Seville.  Among other potential origins, Isidore reports, the word “letter” may derive from the word litura, “to smear”.  This etymology implies that writing does not exist independent of its substrate, but takes its very existence and identity from the matter and the manner of tracing lines in wax.

[38] As a pliable and receptive substrate that one wrote in rather than on, wax suggested analogies for writing that evoke antique medical theories of the womb as fertile but inert ground, the “matrix” into which the active principle of masculinity is injected.  In his Oneirocritica, an influential Greek work of dream interpretation from the second century A.D., Artemidorus Daldianus claims that in dreams “… a writing tablet signifies a woman, since it receives imprints of all kinds of letters. And in colloquial speech we also call children ‘imprints’.” (II.45, Trans. White 125).

[39] The plowing metaphor was frequently imbricated with extended imagery of fertility, birth, generation, and death.  This is the case in Aldhelm’s “Writing Tablet” Enigma (XXXII):

Melligeris apibus mea prima processit origo,

Sed pars exterior crescebat cetera silvis;

Calciamenta mihi tradebant tergora dura.

Nunc ferri stimulus faciem proscindit amoenam

Flexibus et sulcos obliquat adinstar aratri,

Sed semen segiti de caelo ducitur almum,

Quod largos generat millena fruge maniplos.

Heu! tam sancta seges dirts extinguitur armis.

My Origin was from (the wax of) honey-bees, but my other outer part grew in the woods.  Stiff leather provided me with my shoes.  Now the iron point cuts into my comely face with its wandering movements, and carves furrows in the manner of a plough; but the holy seed for the crop is brought from heaven, and it produces abundant sheaves from its thousand-fold harvest.  Alas, this holy harvest is destroyed by fierce weapons!

(Trans. Lapidge 76)

This extended figurative association of writing with ploughing, sowing, inseminating, and growing, has underpinned this scene of writing since the earliest texts:  in Plato’s Phaedrus, thoughts are likened to children that must be nurtured, and writing also seen as “sowing seeds”; in St. Ambrose’s Hexameron plants grow as the water divides from the land, and the Spirit of God “moving” on “held the seeds of new birth which were to germinate” (32).

[40] Next to the ubiquitous metaphor of plowing, notable wax metaphors were those associated with erasure.  In a practical sense, the wood bindings of wax tablets seems to have protect them from accidental blurring, but the final line of Aldhelm’s enigma implies an violent fate for such writings.  The enigma might be taken to mean that all knowledge is threatened by the chaos of war, like the many books destroyed in Viking raids at monasteries like Lindisfarne.  The “holy crop” of Christian knowledge is mowed down like a literal crop of wheat, extending the metaphor of plowing and harvesting.   Yet the line also alludes to the inversion of the stylus in erasure, viewed so positively by Quintillian, but which here becomes an act of violence.

[41] The implications of violence in writing are a constant theme in Anglo-Saxon riddles and their Latin counterparts.   The Exeter Book Riddle 26 (“Bible” or “Book”), for example, alludes immediately to the origin of parchment in the hide of animal when the book reports that “an enemy robbed me of life” (Mec feonda sum feore besnyþede, Krapp and Dobbie 193).   Similarly, Anglo-Saxon portraits of writers (usually the evangelists) invariably depict the writer holding both a pen and a knife with which to scrape the vellum smooth or erase errors.  The analogy between pens and swords is manifest in Old English language about writing such as writseax and writiren, compound metaphors for “pen” that employ the word for a sword, and a metonym for sword respectively.  Another of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Latin enigmata on a writing theme, namely “Elementum” or the letters of the alphabet, also evokes the origin and end of letters which “are born from iron, and by iron return to death” (Nascimur ex ferro rursus ferro moribundae, Lapidge 76).  It may be then, that the “fierce weapons” that destroy writing in the wax tablet are no more than the same “iron point” that, as a plough, gave them birth in the first place.

[42] Such depictions of writing as the plowing up or tracing a path through wax are especially sensitive to the simultaneous function of the stylus as the tool of both inscription and erasure.  The careful rhetorical balance of Aldhelm’s “Elementum” riddle suggests a certain philosophical pleasure in the full-circle of life and death playing out in the same symbolic sphere: the plough and the sword are both metonymically implied by iron, while the mutability and “fertility” of the substrate and its simultaneous susceptibility to erasure are reminiscent of the symbolic expectations about water suggested by “writ in water” metaphors.

[43] Writing in wax facilitates a conceptualization of oblivion as erasure, wiping out, obliteration.  The word “obliterate” was borrowed into English in the Early Modern period, its first uses appearing in the late sixteenth century.  Meanings specifically related to the blotting out, or wiping away are contemporary with those earliest uses meaning more generally to destroy, and the extreme sense of complete destruction, eradication, or destruction appear only at the close of the Eighteenth Century.  But the Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate’s oblitus is “utterly perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19). Oblitus is a part of the verb obliviscor, to become dark, to forget.  Different from oblitterare, to blot out, strike, or erase which took the transferred meaning, “to cause to be forgotten, consign to oblivion” (Lewis-Short).  While Jerome’s oblique uses of oblitterare in the Vulgate tend always to be some part of the verb “to forget” as sins, for example, are forgotten.  The prepositional ob- in Latin meaning “over” but also “completely” and the rest of the word formed from littera, that is, letter.  For something to be wiped from the memory, from recorded history, was for it to be overwritten, or even unwritten: gone without a trace.

III. Conclusion

[44] The prevalence of the “writ in water” metaphor in contemporary discourses about information, and especially transient information, raises interesting questions about the nature and perception of media in the history of this metaphor.  Katherine Hayles argues that in a media age dominated by new discourses like information theory and informatics, the “compounding of signal with materiality suggests that new technologies will instantiate new models of signification” (29) – a claim that seems to be symbolized by the revolutionary (entertaining but oddly useless) AMOEBA: a machine that by using wave-generating technology permits very literal writing in water, and thereby seems to challenge the ancient paradigm according to which “writing in water” is the metaphor not only of transience, but of the tantalizing (im)possibility of a sign that can “exist outside of material form, and yet appear to human perception.”  In this new age, Hayles continues, “[a]s writing yields to flickering signifiers underwritten by binary digits, the narrator becomes not so such [sic] a scribe as a cyborg authorized to access the relevant codes” (43).  Antique and Early Medieval texts that attempt to conceive of water as a medium in which paths can be traced, wrestle with the desire to see signs of divine reality manifest in a material world which, by its nature, could not express that reality.   The propensity of such texts to represent, or to bridge, the impossible divide between material substrate and transcendent sign often resulted in mystical explanations like St. Augustine’s, whose analogies about the impression of a seal in wax or the vestigia of God that can yet be seen in the world, are now well known.  They also resulted in scientific explanations like those of St. Ambrose, for whom the scientific discourses about water, and matter generally, only lend credence to the narrative in Genesis of the splitting of land from water, and even of water from water.   The parallels between the mystical and metaphysical substrate of water, and the mundane substrate of wax as it gave birth to metaphors about writing and erasure, underpin the ancient observation that the scriptability of a substrate went hand in hand with its impermanence.  Like birth and death, inscription and erasure are part of the same thing.  In this symbolic universe, in which the entirety of nature was one great hieroglyph through which knowledge must be perceived in a reality simultaneously “beneath” and coterminous with its substrate, it seems worth considering that the scribe was already “a cyborg authorized to access the relevant codes.”



E.J. Christie

Georgia State University




Works Cited


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Ambrose, St. Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel. Trans. John Savage. NY: Fathers of the Church, 1961.

Augustine, St. The City of God. Ed. and Trans. R.W. Dyson. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Barney, Stephen et al (trans). The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Beaumont, Francis and John Fletcher. Philaster, Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding. Arden Early Modern Drama. Ed. Suzanne Gossett. London: Methuen, 2009.

Caruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Christianson, Bill. “A New Wave: Scientists Write on Water.” Online. 7/26/2006. <http://www.livescience.com/4206-wave-scientists-write-water.html>  Accessed 7/20/2010.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

— . “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978) 196-231.

Doyle, Charles Clay.  “In Aqua Scribere: The Evolution of a Current Proverb.”  What Goes Around Comes Around: The Circulation of Proverbs in Contemporary Life. Ed. Kimberly J. Lau, Peter Tokofsky, and Stephen D. Winick (2004). All USU Press Publications. Paper 33.

http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/usupress_pubs/33, 20-36.

Drucker, Johanna. “Digital Ontologies: The Ideality of Form in/and Code Storage–or–Can Graphesis Challenge Mathesis?” Leonardo 34.2 (2001): 141-145

Ferril, Thomas Hornsby. “Here is a land.” Colorado State Capital Virtual Tour. Accessed 5/20/2011. http://www.colorado.gov/dpa/doit/archives/cap/murals.htm

Green, Peter (trans). The Poems of Catallus.  Berkley: University of California Press, 2005.

Hamilton, Edith and Huntington Cairns (eds). Plato: The Collected Dialogues. Bollingen Series 71. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers.” How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Krapp, G.P and E.V.K. Dobbie. The Exeter Book. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records III. New York: Columbia UP, 1936.

Lahr, Oonagh. “Greek Sources of ‘Writ in Water’.” The Keats-Shelley Journal 21/22 (1972/73) 17-18.

Lapidge, Michael and James L. Rosier, Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1985.

Lenoir, Timothy. “Makeover: Writing the Body into the Posthuman Technoscape. Part One: Embracing the Posthuman.” Configurations 10.2 (2002): 203-220.

Ribémont, Bernard. “Physique et  fiction: une mythologie ‘scientifique’ de l’eau dans les encyclopédies medieval.” L’eau au Moyen Age: Symboles et usages. Actes du colloque Orléans – Mai 1994. Orléans: Paradigme, 1996. 95-109.

Rothenberg, David and Martha Ulvaeus (eds). Writing on Water. Terra Nova Books. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press, 2001.

Rouse, Richard H. and Mary A. Rouse. “Wax Tablets.” Language and Communication 9.2/3 (1989): 175-191.

—. “The Vocbulary of Wax Tablets.” Vocabulaire du livre et de l’ecriture au Moyen Age: Actes de la Table ronde, Paris 24-26 Septembre 1987 Ed. O. Wiejers. Turnhout: Brepols, 1989. 220-230.

Vance, Eugene. Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages. Lincoln, NA: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Waddel, Helen. Medieval Latin Lyrics. London: Constable, 1951.

Woodman, A.J. “Greek Sources of ‘Writ in Water’: A Further Note.” The Keats-Shelley Journal 14 (1975): 12-13.




14 Responses to Eddie Christie – “Writing in Wax, Writing in Water”

  1. Great stuff, Eddie.

    You might consider including the Byblis muthos from Ovid’s _Metamorphoses_. Ovid works with a lot of wax and water language, and even Byblis’ name is onomatopoetic for the “bubble” of water and homophonic for “biblos.”

    And speaking of transformations, Catullus’ name takes on many forms in your paper, from “Cratyllus” to “Catallus.” Also, in your quotation from Catullus in I.1, “scribee” should be “scribere.” You might want to add parenthetically that it comes from poem 70.

    Thanks for a graphic read!

  2. Alex Mueller says:

    As a native Coloradan, I especially appreciate your analysis of the Ferrill’s line, ““[h]ere is a land where life is writ in water,” which appears on a plaque on the capital building (8). The irony of Colorado life being “writ in water” is inescapable, particularly in a state so arid and landlocked. If “life is writ in water” for Coloradans, life is a scarce commodity.

    Perhaps more helpfully, I found your survey of the “writ in water” metaphor to be very provocative and intriguing, especially since I wasn’t aware of its particular prevalence and persistence. When you examined its classical and medieval literary history, I expected you to address water as a mysterious medium, but I was surprised that you didn’t address its deceptive or accumulative qualities. The myth of Narcissus comes first to mind, but more relevant references might be found in medieval classroom texts, particularly Aesopic fables. For an example of water as a deceptive medium, you might check out “De carne et cane” (http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/walter/5.htm), which is about a dog who sees the meat he is carrying in his mouth in the river’s reflection, which deceives him into thinking a larger piece of meat is in the water. For water as accumulative resource, you should see the famous fable “de cornice et urna” by Avianus [also known as "The Crow and the Water Jar"] (http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/avianus/27.htm), as well as the medieval commentary traditions that often accompany it. A.E. Wright offers an excellent survey of these fable commentaries in his “Hie lert uns der meister”: Latin Commentary and the German Fable, 1350-1500 (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001), 23ff. He highlights the way this fable is interpreted as a kind of allegory of knowledge production and even the writing process itself. For an example of the latter, he cites a revision of the fable by “Novus Avianus” who interprets the fable saying “”Versus cev scribit, taliter arte bibit” [In the same way as the author writes verses, so the crow drinks by skill]. Wright suggests that this fable may be the basis for Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s discussion of rhetorical amplificatio, which he describes as “sic ex modica maxima crescit aqua” [And so, from a little water, much water arises].

    I hope these additional references may be of use to you – if not for this particular essay, maybe for your larger project? And if Old English is your primary field, these Aesopic references may have been especially palpable to an post-Alfredian readers, who may have known (if we believe Marie de France) Alfred’s translation of the Latin fables.

    Excellent essay. I look forward to reading more of your work!

  3. patconner says:

    Nice piece of work. I, too, didn’t know that this was so persistent a metaphor. I’d suggest, Eddie, that I suspect that not everyone who uses the metaphor in the modern world finds it in Keats (or even reads Keats), so I’d say, “most likely” in place of “undoubtedly.” And I’d say “ultimate” instead of “immediate.” I think.

  4. Terrific piece. I wonder about the relationship between writing ON water, and water’s power to erase all writing. I’m thinking about the question that sometimes arose in the Middle Ages about communication of knowledge from antediluvian times: how did music, necromancy, or nonbiblical histories survive that purging rush? Typically through inscription upon rock or metal, as it turns out.

    • mfoys says:

      JJC/Eddie – yes! I had the exact same thought on this (among others that I will post at some point), particularly the idea (which I’m familiar with from Andy Orchard’s treatment of it in Pride and Prodigies) of the Cain/Cham confusion, and how evil arts survive the flood only by being inscribed in either metal or stone (Cassian, Hiberno-Latin Reference Bible) – which in turn has been related to Beowulf (Orchard) and by relation the destructive and preservative senses of the Old English writan (Frantzen, Lerer). So you’ve got a great ambivalence here regarding the relation of signification and its own materiality.

      ~ Martin

  5. Eileen Joy says:

    Eddie: thank you for this very provocative essay; I’ve sketched out some random thoughts below, which I hope you might find useful as prods for further thought/writing:

    Par. 1: While reading about certain anxieties circulating in the Middle Ages over the longevity [or lack thereof] of human writing, whether spoken or written, I couldn’t help but think of The Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Stone “Disk” project–


    –and their hope that, by “micro-etching” over 1,500 of the world’s human languages on a 3-inch glass-and-steel spherical disk [it's been described as a nano-michrofiche and they've even included a stylus for people in the future, or on other planets, to add their own messages and languages] and also sending it into outer space on a specially-designed “Rosetta” orbiter, that they might preserve for a very long time human writing/languages [and also "communicate" them across vast stretches of time-space]. Somewhat ludicrously [or perversely-heroically], they aim to land their spaceship, holding the Rosetta Disk [one of many they've made], on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in December 2015 [they launched the ship in 2004]. Specifically regarding anxieties over the medium/media of writing, I love this claim of theirs [which asserts that a certain *physicality* of the writings' surface ensures its higher chances of survival and future readability]:

    “Since each page is a physical rather than digital image, there is no platform or format dependency. Reading the Disk requires only optical magnification. Each page is .019 inches, or half a millimeter, across. This is about equal in width to 5 human hairs, and can be read with a 650X microscope (individual pages are clearly visible with 100X magnification).”

    Obviously, worries over the transcendence of writing and its material substrate inhere in the futuristic Rosetta Disk project as well. And in its travels through space, it is also an envisioning of a “path against resistances.” In this sense, the Rosetta Disk project precisely does *not* embrace information that is dismebodied [many of the Long Now Foundation projects are like this--both futuristic and heavily oriented toward BIG material substrates].

    Par. 6: in relation to the AMOEBA project at Osaka University, you mention “Bessel functions,” as if we might automatically know what that is–I don’t. I looked it up and realize know that it is a mathematical term having to do with cylindrical equations and also electromagnetic waves, but I think it would be helpful to the average reader to explain what this is and why it matters in relation to the AMOEBA project and also to ships at sea.

    Par. 7: ” . . . a recent collection of essays creative non-fiction” should likely be “a recent collection of creative non-fiction essays”

    Par. 15: Where you write, “The metaphor of writing in water as a figure for ephemerality has enjoyed a long after-life. Its nuances in the postmedieval world can teach us about one of the pre-occupations most intimately shared by medieval and postmodern thought: our reflection on ‘the functions and the limitations of the verbal sign as a mediator of human understanding. (Vance x)”: I wonder if you might not expand just a bit on this quotation from Vance in relation to how both pre- and postmodern thought are preoccupied with the functions and verbal limitations of the verbal sign. Might it be possible, in just 1 or 2 additional sentences here, before moving on to the next section, to maybe sum up what is most critically at stake for both pre- and postmodern thought in this “reflection” and why that [maybe] should matter to us, in terms of what might be called the staying power of this preoccupation?

    Par. 20: It is interesting to note that in the quotation from Ælfric of Eynsham, the Old English “getacnað,” which you translate as “signifies,” come from the Old English word for token/mark, and therefore is another type of “writing,” so in this case, the water itself writes.

    Par. 22: relative to the idea, in the Middle Ages, of water/the ocean as “boundary,” I am reminded of medieval mappamundi in which the oceans were depicted as one circular boundary surrounding the known world/earth:


    **Anglo-Saxon Paths Through the Water should be numbered I.4 [not 1.2]; to add to your examples of water as deluge/destruction in Anglo-Saxon writings, you might also think of the example in the Old English “Andreas” where God sends a flood to kill the Mermedonians [who are also engulfed in flames simultaneously], and then also restores them in order to have them converted by Andreas.

    Par. 32: I wonder if the Old English poems “Seafarer” and “Wanderer” [which don't appear in your analysis] are not interesting examples of the *merging* of “the ocean, as a wondrous highway and a vast, inscrutable, and endlessly threatening mass”?

    Par. 34: Where you write, “While water was a mysterious, or paradoxical, medium – an excellent vehicle for metaphysical metaphors about knowledge and inscription – wax was a far more real substrate that nevertheless lent qualities to the medieval perception of the materiality of writing, and by extension to more abstract processes of inscription and erasure,” I was wishing for a more detailed description of what you meant by “qualities.”

    Par. 36: I think this is a profound insight: “In fact, we ought to question the very idea that there is a ‘writing itself’ independent of its material support. Such an idea might turn out to be simply another expression of the notion that information is disembodied. The shape of a pen, or the resistance of wax, that dictate the ductus of a stroke or the shape of a letter also give rise to the prevailing metaphors and concepts of writing in medieval thought.” I also see here some rich connections with Eugene Thacker’s essay’s thinking on mysticism’s “wayless abyss” which is, at the same time, a “way” [path] through the abyss [also a "path without a path"]. And if, as Thacker writes, all thought is “preconditioned by relationality,” here in your essay we can see that, perhaps also, all writing is preconditioned by its relationality to its media?

    Par. 41: as regards the implications of violence in writing and comparisons between pens and swords, and also writing as carving/cutting, I think I would include in here a nod/reference to Allen Frantzen’s article, “Writing the Unreadable Beowulf: ‘Writan’ and ‘Forwritan,’ The Pen and the Sword,” Exemplaria 3.2 (1991), 327-57.

    I love the Conclusion, but I also would not mind seeing it expanded a bit to somehow loop back to [or hook up again with] a point made early on, via Derrida, that the histories of writing and roads should be written together.

  6. Ruth Evans says:

    A highly stimulating essay, rich with information and fantastic amounts of research. Complex and yet extremely accessible. What’s at stake overall in this essay, apart from tracing a history of the phrase “writ in water”? A more nuanced history of media? I appreciate you/one can’t be Derridean any more (i.e. the aim can’t be to chip away at the metaphysics of the binary implicit in the two substrates – writing on a permanent surface/writing on an impermanent surface) – and I’m glad you didn’t; do that. But I think you need to be more explicit near the beginning about the overall project. To my mind, understanding medieval textuality seems to be the best way of presenting your argument – and here you might like to refer to Bernard Cerquiglini’s Eloge de la variante (In Praise of the Variant), because of his theorization of medieval textuality as variance – and his argument that the modern analogy is computer inscription (which links to the Becoming Media topic and to your comments about the use of writing in water in modern informatics).

    What about Higden’s Polychronicon as a source for 14thC understandings of writing and water – and wax? And something on the Galenic humors?

    Para. 1 and 12 (on the transience of fame): cf. the ice foundation of Fame’s house in Chaucer’s House of Fame.

    Etymologies? e.g. permanence (to remain), durable (hard), etc.

    Paras 2 and 4: Derrida: add a ref. to Archive Fever, for the comments there about the ephemerality of email (pp. 17-18) – and the connection here with the unconscious: what constitutes traces? Do they have to be material? (and this complicates Drucker’s point, I think – how incidentally interesting that her name means “printer”) So the problematic you describe is not just soul/body but also engages questions of memory and conscious/unconscious. There’s also the question human/posthuman (I’m thinking of Foucault’s comments about man being a recent invention that will soon be “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea. …”

    There might also be some interesting links to artists who use non-permanent media for their artworks, because this raises some interesting questions about the “moment” of the artwork and about its persistence/memorialization in other media (e.g. recorded on video or in photographs), e.g. Andy Goldsworthy: http://www.rwc.uc.edu/artcomm/web/w2005_2006/maria_Goldsworthy/TEST/index.html. he also works in snow … Is snow water, for your purposes?

    Para 6: the AMOEBA project: fascinating. I didn’t know about this.

    Para 12: “Writing in water is a profound counter-example to a standard medieval characterization of writing as the safeguard that ‘saves memory from oblivion.’”: but when does this idea appear? Clanchy argues that memory practices, in England at least, only changed in the late 12th C, i.e. writing was looked on suspiciously before that – in legal testimony, anyway. It’s also fascinating that near where I live there’s a radioactive waste dump at Weldon Spring, MO http://www.greatriverroad.com/stcharles/weldonsite.htm where the US government has encouraged local people to pass on the history of the site orally, from one generation to the next, because writing can’t be trusted to last – where community memory is seen as the main means of preservation (of aspects such as safety as well as the site’s history). I can’t find this info online – but I read it at the actual site.
    Is writing “only as durable as the medium that bears it”? This would seem to be the commonsense view, but Derrida complicates this, if only in the sense that emails do leave traces in the memory – and they cannot be trashed completely.

    Para 18: it’s the *heart* of the people that melts at the simulacrum of water.

    Para 20: the baptism reference engages another medieval binary: Christian marking with water as opposed to (or overturning) Jewish marking on the body in circumcision / literal-corporeal v. spiritual, which actually suggest a distrust of the literal/material/physical that writing represents.

    Para 25: fear of the abyss: any links with Thacker’s essay (as Eileen suggests)?

    Para 28: expand on Derrida’s claim that the history of the road and the history of writing are the same: I take it he is talking about “communication”: this needs to be drawn out and elaborated in relation to the sea as a form of communication in the A-S period.

    Wax tablets: ref needed to Freud’s mystic pad essay and to Derrida’s “Freud and the scene of writing.”

    Paras 38 and 39: add ref to Margreta de Grazia’s essay “Imprints: Shakespeare, Gutenberg and Descartes” in Alternative Shakespeares, Vol. 2, on wax and type. Matrix and imprints are also metaphors from printing. De Grazia also makes the connection with children.

    Really like the conclusion and agree with Eileen about this.

  7. Steve Mentz says:

    A lively, speculative, water-soaked essay — just my sort of thing. Like Eileen, I thought the heart of the matter came a bit late @ #36, when you argue against any conception of “writing itself” as distinct from “material support.” I wonder, though, if that truism isn’t itself worth pushing on a bit harder: there is no writing w/o materiality, but different media appeal precisely b/c they provide felt experiences of different modes of expression. Writing on water (and on sand — another long “strand” to follow, if you like) remains a powerful fantasy b/c it pushes materiality toward an outer limit, in which the moments of inscription and erasure are almost, but not quite, simultaneous. (You’ve dropped Chartier from your bibliography, btw, though you make good use of his inscription / erasure model.) By contrast, wax’s influence on “metaphors and concepts of writing in medieval thought” (36) seems fairly well-understood as you lay it out. The case of water, despite elaborate games like AMOEBA, seems more interpretively challenging. I also wonder about the ancient and still-current practice of mariners “reading” of bodies of water through observing color, movement, wind-marks, etc. The appeal of “writing in water” may combine its patent impossibility and almost perfect emphemerality, with its closeness to other kinds of interpretation, esp of nonhuman actors in the world.

    I also was struck how often, esp in Keats and Fletcher, water’s role as substrate was linked to mortality. It’s the limit case, again. Reminds me of my own favorite juxtaposition of media technologies and salt water in early modern literature: when Don Quixote finally gets to Barcelona in Part II, he encounters several new things, but chief among them are the sea, “which he had never seen before,” and the printing house in which copies of his own history are being printed. The end of the adventure for our knight comes as he faces both the natural fluid body he can’t mark and the printed marks that define him. Though, in one last Cervantine twist, it’s the false Quixote, written by Avellaneda, that’s being printed in the Barcelona shop.

  8. Ben Tilghman says:

    First, Eddie, thank you for a stimulating essay that I’m sure I’ll be returning to in future researches. And one that was enjoyable to read, at that. I only have a few comments:

    There’s some slippage among the terminologies of “writing in,” “writing with,” and “writing on.” I think this slippage is inherent in how we talk about (and conceive of) writing, but it caught my eye and left me a little unsettled. You note it in Para 7, noting the multivalence of “on” in the “Writing on Water” collection of essays, but it might be worth thinking through more precisely. Does the AMOEBA project write in water, or with it, since it uses waves? Most writing involves the application of one material to another, or the removal of material to create a void. AMOEBA is different – it’s the manipulation of a material to change its appearance, in such a way that what was formerly the ground (visually speaking) now becomes a figure against the ground. I realize this may be hair-splitting, especially for an aspect of the introduction, but I think it could have some implications for your crucial point about the non-existence of “writing itself” in Para 36. The materials of writing are often something “written with” applied to something “written on” – it seems to me that the prepositions provide us with a tool to be more precise about the constituent materials of writing, and its essential materiality in general.

    Your observation in Para 36 also made me think of the Pauline trope of the Spirit, or the law, written in the “fleshly tablets of the hearts” of the faithful. I think Paul is playing productively with the materiality of writing – writing must be done on or in something, even in spiritual matters.

    Para 28 – I think you develop the intersection of road/sea/writing productively, but I think your characterization of the nexus could be refined. I disagree that a road “has a beginning and an end, a purpose and a possibility of destination, an extension in time, a narrative,” which implies (to me at least) that roads and writing both have a set and pre-determined ductus for the reader/wayfarer. But consider Aldhelm’s riddle 59, De penna scriptoris: “It is not sufficient to open up a single pathway through these fields – rather, the trail proceeds in a thousand directions (or byways) and takes those who stray not from it to the summit to heaven.” (trans Lapidge 1985, 82; incidentally, the riddle begins: “The bright pelican, which swallows the waters of the sea in its gaping throat, once begot me (such that I was) white.” The presence of the pelican had always puzzled me, but, in light of your essay, it’s starting to make a lot more sense.) One of the virtues of the sea is that it’s an indeterminate road – you can go many places, or wander on it. The narrative is not necessarily clear, or pre-determined. Again, I don’t think this impinges too much on your subsequent observations, but it may be worth thinking through anyway.

    And, to really nitpick: para 9, ln 6: should be not “phrases” but “phrase”? and para 27, ln 5: should be not “it is” but “its”?

  9. Katherine Rowe says:

    Like the readers above I found this survey of the history of “writing on water” and cognate metaphors tremendously enjoyable. Like several of those above, I think it would benefit from some foregrounding and sharpening of its core claims. The method here is comparatist but the payoff for thinking comparatively isn’t as clear as it could be. How does it change our understanding of our relationship to the materiality of writing to consider the cultural history of attitudes to that condition of writing, across long spans of time? I agree with those above who find paragraph 36 particularly compelling in this regard. If this is indeed the core claim that animates the essay, it might be valuable to re-frame the essay explicitly in those terms, as an investigation of the historical appeal of the notion that information is disembodied.

    In that context, is it important to also include the flip side of the story here? I.e., the historical value of ephemerality, untraceablity, erasability? One feature of wax tablets, as Shane Butler has shown, is that they persistently retained impressions even after they were erased (a fact that made them good documentary evidence for forensic purposes — see _The Hand of CIcero_). Such persistence could be a liability in contexts where erasability was at a premium. (That’s when Cicero switches to the landline, instead of email…) Similarly, forgetting is not always a liability or a negative function of social life. As Carruthers observes, medieval memory arts foregrounded the value of forgetting (you need to be able to clear the junk out of that memory palace, and it’s not always easy to do). One can look at the downsides of digital textuality precisely in these terms: that even as digital print begins to acquire salutary qualities of oral exchange that Plato would celebrate (as in this crowd review, where writers can correct and explain themselves in real time), it also archives otherwise ephemeral exchanges (as in this review blog, which raises the social stakes on peer evaluation). The rich survey of instances of “written on water” in this essay suggests that the metaphor nearly always lands on the negative side of the evaluative process, emphasizing the costs rather than the benefits of ephemerality. If so, would it be valuable to address that aspect of the metaphor explicitly? Spend more time on exceptions? Or even dwell on a Western cultural tendency to tilt towards limitations of a medium when meditating on the materiality of writing, rather than on its strengths?

    I’m curious about the data gathering behind your assertions in paragraph 7 and would love to hear more. Might some data mining of large corpora be valuable (I realize there are limitations to statistical analysis for semantically loaded words — it yields better results for linguistic patterns below our semantic radars). But it would be fascinating (and telling) to know if the various corpora one might mine computationally show rises and falls in the currency of the metaphor in different arenas of discourse. (Corpus.byu might be a place to start, perhaps, since it shows collocations readily).

  10. Liza Blake says:

    A very interesting and thought-provoking article – thank you for “sharing” it in this crowd. I especially like the fact that you don’t exactly work backwards or forwards when “tracing” the writing on water metaphor, but create (instead of a telos of the metaphor or an origin for the metaphor) a sort of crowd-like collection of instances. The organization of the essay, in this respect, seems almost like a reflection on its own (crowd-sharing) context. If this was not intentional, it is at least fortuitous, and might help to address the question of what *comes out* of all these examples when collected together. I agree with both Ruth Evans and Katharine Rowe that you could make the stakes of the argument a little clearer, but a meta-reflection on the difficulty of strong defining lines within a crowd might give you a chance to make the stakes clear without giving your argument an origin and end, but keeping it a little more “crowded.” That being said, I’ll give you my sense of what the stakes of the argument are, and what you could do to bring them out if I’m understanding them correctly.

    Like previous commentators, I think that you perhaps signal what is potentially at stake when you name as a “crucial metaphysical problem” the question of “whether an idea can exist outside of material form, and yet appear to human perception” [4] (and you come back to this in [36]). Here is my sense of how your essay begins to get at (or at least, get at a way to get at) that crucial metaphysical problem.

    1) Through the question of “immateriality”
    The idea underlying the idea of an “idea outside material form” (yet perceptible) is that which, as you rightly note, Hayles keys into in her How We Became Posthuman. The desire is for a mode of “immateriality”, in life, in thought, in writing; the duty of the critic (posthumanist, media studies studiers, Derrideans) is to show this desire to be utterly and completely unattainable. That’s the easy part, though: obviously, no writing without media, a medium, matter in one way or another.

    What I think your essay brings to this particular table is that it carefully tracks how the (largely) medieval fantasy of writing without media (qua writing in water) presented itself. This is interesting, and worth doing, in a couple ways. First, comparing your work to someone like the work of Hayles shows that even though the desire for immateriality persists before the digital age and through it, a *history* of the desire shows precisely what the desire wants to disavow: namely, that the form or particular (one might even say, material) instantiation that the desire takes at any given time influences the contours of the desire. In other words, the desire does not exactly persist unchanged: the medium in which it appears (in this case which metaphor, the liquid or the digital) influences, affects, and substantially changes the desire over time. A historical study of the problem reveals the unstable basis of the problem. This is cool.

    2) Through the question of media and what Deleuze and Guattari might call the haecceities of matter
    Your essay twists in a very interesting way what I understand to be a pretty important question in media studies (excuse me as a near-media-studies-virgin here as I presume): the question of some sort of “text” (as idea, as information) and the relation of that text to any given material form. The idea about writing in/on/with water simultaneously evokes the question of writing’s “materiality” (to mean here something like, physicality): medieval writers had the desire to escape media, so thought of the most ethereal medium they could, namely water. But *also* pushing the metaphor of writing in/on/with water causes us to rethink what particular properties of water become evoked when it becomes yoked with writing. The question becomes, is your article addressing the question of water, or of writing? I think, ultimately, neither one individually: it’s a question about how the “material” aspects of written media (to follow, sort of, on Steve Mentz) impinge on writing. For example: thinking together water and writing, thinking about writing in water, re-characterizes writing as an action instead of an object, an activity rather than a substantive. If there can be “writing in water” it forces us to no longer think of writing as a tangible, discrete thing, but as an action (like running a finger across a table-top in letter shapes is writing). The point is, and this is what I think your essay shows though not explicitly, that the material properties of “writing” have an effect on “writing itself”. A small bibliographic note: (the very Derridean) Juliet Fleming thinks about a lot of these questions in terms of writing that is not on paper, and the implications of that, in her Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

    To be perfectly honest, I would almost want you to throw out the wax altogether: the water stuff is new (at least to me), while the wax is all stuff I’ve heard before (maybe too much), and almost makes things too noisy and complicated. Plus, you don’t *need* it! They only reason to keep the wax in, in my opinion, would be to provide a (brief) counterpoint to the water. Water, as a material [this section as I imagine it would suggest], affects and redefines writing (and reflection on water-writing, in turn, newly interrogates the fundamental properties of water). But water is one illustration of this reflexive relationship, which might in fact be examined among many writing materials: wax, for example (with a brief sketch). Just my opinion, but I think what is really strong in the watery sections gets weakened and a little repetitive in the waxy sections; it feels almost like a catch-all at the end. Instead of multiplying metaphors for writing in the wax section, I’d like to see you focus instead on the “material” properties of wax. Maybe, instead of how metaphors of writing affects these materials, think about how the materials affect writing.

    As Ben Tilghman notes, the prepositions being used are tricky, not the least because you’re translating among languages where pronouns do not exactly overlap or coincide in translation. But this disjunct (or these disjuncts) could potentially be productive if given some reflection, and I want to combine Tilghman’s insight with Jeffrey Cohen’s idea of writing (on things other than water) that is designed precisely to withstand water and floods [this might go somewhere around your paragraphs 19 and 20]. You might even think about this as “writing against water”, in a way. I think here of the apocryphal stories of Eve telling her sons to write their story in such a way as to withstand precisely water’s destruction: “Make ye then tables of stones and others of clay, and write on them, all my life and your father’s (all) that ye have heard and seen from us. If by water the Lord judge our race, the tables of clay will be dissolved and the tables of stone will remain; but if by fire, the tables of stone will be broken up and the tables of clay will be baked (hard)” [In R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. Volume II: Psuedepigraphia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913): 152.] Later in the same volume we are told that “Seth made the tables” (153), and Charles notes that there is a long story in later manuscripts of Soloman finding ‘tabulas achiliacas’ (154). Could this writing *against* water be another way of thinking the material properties of writing and water together? In terms of writing against water, I’d also recommend Seth Lerer, “‘On fagne flor’: the postcolonial Beowulf, from Heorot to Heaney.” Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 54 (2005): 77-102.

    A small note: in [22], I need you to show a few more steps as to how water as a land boundary prompts the emergence of the sign (as opposed to, for example, writing in the sense that Derrida might use it). Not having read the text you cite, it’s not immediately apparent to me.

    Finally, a few typos to weed out as you move towards a final draft:
    [9] [you have:] contemporary uses of the phrase seems – [I’d replace it with:] (uses . . . SEEM)
    [28] the ocean is almost always seen with this added spiritual significance that opposes is alternative use as a symbol of profound and awesome depth and chaos. – (ITS alternative use)
    [32] For water (aqua), according to Isidore is so named – (Isidore,[comma])
    [34] and memory, – (and memory [no comma])
    [35] Caruthers – (CARRUTHERS)
    Works Cited: You don’t cite the Chartier that you mention and quote in [34]
    Works Cited: Caruthers – (CARRUTHERS)

  11. The image of writing on water also appears in the Dzogchen lineage of tantric Buddhism: when you reach a certain stage of allowing thoughts (gross or subtle, emotional or whatever) to self-liberate, like writing on water.

  12. lduckert says:

    `Your essay made quite a splash with me! Thank you!

    Coming at this a little late in the game, I’ll launch from a few provocative comments already left for you. Since I’m writing about early modern aquatic “assemblages” right now, I agree with Steve’s push for more “material support” and a “closeness to other kinds of interpretation, esp of nonhuman actors in the world.” For me, the most tantalizing part of your essay was the role of the nonhuman “crowd” in your paper; I see the “possibilities” side of your hydrographic metaphor most clearly here. I love Liza’s thought that “thinking together water and writing, thinking about writing in water, re-characterizes writing as an action instead of an object, an activity rather than a substantive.” From an ecocritical viewpoint, you’re approaching a kind of eco-/onto-/epistemology that addresses the question of agency full-on: *who* writes in these moments?

    As I read your essay, I kept thinking about Michel Serres’s play on page/pagus in The Five Senses (1985): “Pages do not sleep in language, they draw their life from the pagi: from the countryside, the flesh and the world” (238). For Serres, pages, flesh, and landscape compose together in a writerly coexistence. This leads him (and us) to think not only about media/medium but of *mediation*: “Who is writing? Water, snow, the return to gentler weather, ophite, granite, equilibrium, density, energy, sun, flora and fauna. This covers, that stains. On what do they write? On snow and water, on fauna or flora, on marble or ice. What the earth displays results from the wrinkles it gives itself. A page” (275). The critical payback of thinking about composition in this more distributed way (I hope) is that the nonhuman landscape — as a mediary, a participant, a site of connectivity — *questions* (obliterates, dare I say?) the divide between the substrate and the sign (instead of considering how we can “escape” from it, “bridge” it, etc.). Alf Siewers encapsulates the non-divide quite well in his work on medieval narratives/archipelagos as “rhizomatic networks…involving both grace from a theophany of landscape and earthly struggle to participate in it” (Strange Beauty, 37). Ambrose, I think, is definitely struggling with water but also on to something in this very sense — writing as process, as action, “with” the nonhuman world. A push, then, for ecosemiotics? Perhaps. But what happens when we (as human writers exclusively) don’t trace but *follow* nonhuman traces? What’s in the abyss of uncertainty? Thinking about water-as-writer in a (non)human compositional network might be a way to use the prepositions in/on/with to your advantage (Ben’s comments), for they trace the positive possibilities of having a road/ocean/writing with splashy connections instead of teleological endpoints. Lastly, mine is a slightly different take on (im)permanence, I know — to pay attention to the real “failures” and what connections could be strengthened with water. What’s at stake when writing “against” water, and the consequences, for these writers and for us?

  13. Martin Foys says:

    Eddie –

    Just to tack a few other observations onto the sizable body of responses this essay has prompted!

    In general, I would suggest thinking carefully about reorganizing the (substantially impressive) theoretical points you make here with some more consistent and immediate support in medieval materials – particularly Anglo-Saxon ones, as it is a focus of the essay. Much of the notions you explore are classically grounded, and you do a nice job establishing them, but I found myself yearning for more medieval material to help you make your case with regards to how this demands that we reassess the nature of medieval writing, specifically.

    Overall, one of the most exciting things for me about this essay is its critique of the perceived durability of medieval writing in its default form (manuscript) through its relation to (sometimes only slightly) more ephemeral forms of writing. It is essential to understand traditional writing on a material continuum of ephemerality to permanence. Ontologically, the manuscript is often closer to the former pole than we care to recognize, for all our anxiety about the fragility of medieval books.

    Following on section 1.3, I’ve wondered if you’ve thought about ice in all this. The House of Fame, of course, is the best known example, and there is something about the freezing of water into a substrate temporarily rock-like that strikes me as a perfect vehicle for some of your arguments here.

    In ¶ 22 (and ¶ 32) (building on Eileen’s comments here), your points about the ocean and boundaries merit a closer attention to the A-S maps tradition – especially zonal maps, where the fiery waters of the central zone serve to separate the world of the northern hemisphere from the unknown southern half. There is a fantastic zonal Map in Cotton Tiberius B.V. (where the more famous Cotton map also resides), where this uncrossable middle zone is filled with the writing that describes its nature, along with the description of the world that surrounds it. I can send you the image if you’d like to see it.

    LIkewise, in ¶ 29, the Red Sea in medieval maps (as in the A-S Cotton Map) is famously shown with a part *erased* to represent the Israelite crossing. Thus the cutting of a path here, as shown in writing, is here more manifestly both a representation of water in the mode of writing (ink, color, paper), but also the effacement of this writing – a passage of absence.

    In the wax section, (and also as Liza Blake notes), taking a look at Juliet Fleming’s arguments about the exteriority of writing in relation to a material continuum of expression will surely be a great use here. Your points in this second section constantly reminded me of her work.

    A small note: in ¶ 41, it would be good to reference (and maybe build upon) Allen Frantzen’s specific arguments about pen and sword in /Beowulf/ (“Writing the Unreadable Beowulf: ‘Writan’ and ‘Forwritan,’ The Pen and the Sword,”) that really overlap with what you have going on here.

    I love your conclusion (and want to think that there is a great, planned pun in “hand in hand” in the final sentence). Really, it boils down to reminding us that writing is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering and preserving – if it can be written, after all, it can be erased.

    ~ Martin

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