The Friday Fillip: The Surface of Things

There’s a kind of pleasure you can get from contemplating an unopened parcel. I think of it as the “brown paper packages tied up with strings” phenomenon. Of course part of the delight is in the anticipation of what might lie within, the knowledge of (and control over?) a coming discovery or surprise, as though you’d called a time-out after the set-up and before the punch line of a joke in the way the best comics can work their timing.

There’s enjoyment, too, in attending to the wrapping itself, I find. That’s easy when the wrapping is artful in some way, as it is, for instance, in the Japanese practice of … “enrobing” gifts, where indeed the outside can be more important than what’s within. But even when there’s no particular beauty in the covering, there can be a sort of pleasure in deliberately turning away from the expected goal of revelation to dwell on the surface of the mystery. It might be a perverse sort of pleasure, I admit, a turn on the Protestant kick from delayed gratification perhaps.

I used to find that odd surface satisfaction in a list I maintained of words I came across the meaning of which I didn’t know. Oh, I would in time open up the dictionary and learn — after all, even children like me were allowed the marshmallow eventually. But until I got into the big book I’d gaze at these units of covert meaning, wonder at their strangeness, perhaps admire the way they sounded, if I could guess at their pronunciation, or simply hang on to them like the happenstance pebbles I’d kept in my pockets as a kid for no conscious reason.

I don’t do that any longer. It’s ever harder to find a decent unknown word. (I don’t count the myriad made-up scientific agglomerations or most of the “obscure” concoctions thrown up by the OED from time to time.) But there’s no dearth of mystery in language generally. For one thing, there are supposedly 6,500 languages spoken by my neighbours,1 so I could spend that number of lifetimes contemplating objects like abric and igi and raamat. I find, however, that I’ve backed off one remove even more — to the wrapping of the wrapping, as it were. And I now admire and take pleasure from the scripts in which some languages are written. I’ve always been fascinated with Roman alphabet typefaces, of which there’s a seemingly endless stream,2 far too many of which live in the pockets of my computer generally weighing things down. However, non-Roman scripts are currently my choice objects for the scrutiny of a simple gaze, and particularly Arabic.

I find written Arabic an especially beautiful thing. No matter that I don’t understand a letter, let alone a word, of it. No matter that my gaze likely takes it in backwards, that is, from left to right rather than the correct direction, right to left.3 The flow and flutter of it, the curves, the evident (to me) thrust of it, all please me.

Arabic, I learn (see how eventually I’m driven to the “big book” to sophisticate my simple mysteries?) has five main “calligraphic cursive styles”, as you see in the not very clear image below:

Arabic suits itself to cursive writing, being a little refractory where printing is concerned, because of the way in which letters spring and fold over their neighbours and are variously diacriticized (Okay, I made that word up. But what else would a diacritical mark do?) and restyled depending on their place within a word. Refractory, but not impossible, of course, and even susceptible of European stylings, as this interesting video on the design of an Arabic typeface shows. It is this intertwining, this proclivity to nestle with neighbours, apparently, that can lead to some truly lovely designing with Arabic. Take, for instance, the composition of this elegant logo for Al Jazeera. Click on the image to see an animated GIF courtesy of Wikipedia, in a popup, showing how that unfolds into the words.

There are, of course, many other lovely scripts in use. This article will give you a good rundown of some of them (including Arabic), letting you pick your favourite collocation of incomprehensible and immensely powerful scratches.

  1. The Beeb ups that figure to 7,000. ↩︎

  2. See, for instance, the excited announcement on Wired that Tobias Frere-Jones has just released a new typeface. ↩︎

  3. How powerful the tools of language are in arranging thought. Movement to the right seems natural for the progress of things to those employing a Roman or other left to right script. It’s the way graphs proceed, the way time goes, i.e. the way of the future. Do Arabic graphs run “widdershins”, I wonder? ↩︎

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