Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Fast Writing Became Far Writing

Lately I’ve been reading Le comte de Monte-Cristo and came to a reference to the telegraph at a time, 1815, when the telegraph did not exist. How could such a glaring mistake blemish a work of such outstanding historical accuracy? I was quite certain the telegraph did not come into use until the late 19th century, putting the Pony Express out of business, and ditting and dotting the excitement of presidential elections and the arrival and bluster of dignitaries amid the excesses and pandemonium of the Gilded Age.

The telegraph was frequently an important prop in westerns, serving to stress the distances of the American west and symbolize its fragile connections to the more civilized east.

In Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, bandits beat up the telegraph operator, and in High Noon Gary Cooper’s wedding is interrupted when the telegraph operator runs to tell him that outlaw Frank Miller has been pardoned.

So what’s a telegraph doing in France in 1815, warning Louis XVIII that Napoleon, “the usurper,” has left the island of Elba and landed at a small port, near Antibes, in the Gulf of Juan?

Because it is a different type of telegraph altogether than the device usually envisioned, the staccato tapping of a key that transmits electrical signals through wires strung from pole to pole for hundreds of miles. The telegraph to which Dumas refers does not use electricity. It is more of a semaphore, or series of semaphores. In essence, an optical system composed of black movable wooden arms, the position of which indicated alphabetic letters. The arms were equipped with counterweights, called “forks,” and were controlled by two handles, with a capacity of producing different angles for a total of 196 symbols. Each device was called a station, and the stations were arranged in a series to convey messages via relay. Napoleon carried a portable semaphore with his headquarters.

Claude Chappe, the inventor, called his system a tachygraph, meaning “fast writer.” A friend suggested a better term: telegraph, which means “far writer.”

Far writer is better because it combines signage with strategy, icon with flight. It involves code and collusion and vastness and dance. These contraptions must have appeared to be dancing as their bars were jerked and bounced into different patterns. Each repeating the next. It must have seemed a little eerie to see these things in action, conveying news of historical events, eruptions, convulsions, treacheries, celebrations. The world had begun to shrink. It marked the fecundity of figuration, the triumph of pattern. The semaphore had become a metaphor. Language had become a dragon, a creature of flight and fire.

The word ‘semaphore’ comes from the Greek, sema meaning sign and phore meaning agent, bearer, or producer of a specified thing.

Likewise metaphor. The Greek word meta is slippery, hard to pin down. It means, variously, "after", "beyond", "with", "adjacent", "self". In the case of metaphor, it would be natural to assume that meta means “beyond.” But in the case of metalanguage, language about language, or metaemotion, an emotion about an emotion, it would clearly mean “self.”

A personal favorite is metaphysics, which comes from the title of a work by Aristotle, Ta meta ta phusika, meaning “the things beyond physical things.”

In Aristotle’s time, metaphysics referred to any phenomenon outside matter. This would include ideas about existence, being, essence, objecthood, property, space, time, causality and possibility.

Ghosts, eidolons, shadows, Doppelgängers, banshees, werewolves, demons, fiends, seraphim, cherubim, angels, dreams, prophecies, premonitions, omens, good, evil, immaculate conceptions, dirty conceptions, archetypes, compassion, intuition, Furies, afterlife, bliss, nirvana, Beulah Land, ascension, apotheosis, Asgard, Elysium, thisness, thatness, whatness, Zarathustra, Marilyn Manson and Iggy Pop.

Everything for which one would require the function of far writing, or far out writing, rather than fast writing, which is for stenographers, court reporters, bop spontaneity, and fevered surrealists.

In which case fast writing metamorphoses into far writing.

Lines cast far and distant into streams of glittering chatter.

No comments: