Time and the Scribe
The Silk Road exhibition — Sulla Via della Seta — at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome is one of those shows that make a few items go a long way. It uses its space to place those ceramics and cloths in a context, conjuring for the visitor an evocation of Xi’an, Samarkand and Baghdad through image, replica, sound and smell. In other words, it belies its American origins, for it seems to me that a characteristic of the great museums in the States — in contrast with most in Europe, excepting (tellingly) the V&A — is that they wish not just to present objects but to capture a whole civilisation. That principle of display is combined, in this exhibition, with elements created especially for its Italian manifestation, and it is, to my mind, at its strongest when, in the first room, it gives a summary sense of the Italian merchants who travelled the extended trade route and, in the last room, it places specific ‘tartar’ silks beside late medieval Italian devotional paintings, making us look at familiar images with new eyes thinking how incongruous it is that, say, St Bartholomew should be wrapped in a cloak with Chinese decoration.
What, though, most caught my attention was one artefact from the section on Baghdad, there to represent the learned and technical success of that city. It was an example of the water-clock designed in the late twelfth century by Abu’ al Izz ibn Ismail al-Jazari. It works as an hour glass does with sand, though this measures a whole day, by the water dripping into the bottom basin and its movement turning the top of the clock which acts like its face. What struck me was that on the ‘face’ sat a turbaned scribe, a preternaturally long pen stretching before him, and it is the movement of his pen which marks the passage of time. What an association between time and writing! How alien from European mores, where a scribe can be the preserver of the divine or the royal — the essential workman of history itself — but where those activities rarely have a heightened temporal consciousness. Palaeographers look for the dated manuscripts in the hope that the can map for us the development of script but, even in the Renaissance where such specificity was more fashionable, only a small minority carry a year, let alone a day, of production. Even rarer are those books that record the passage of time incurred in their preparation — leaving us to guess how long it took a scribe to complete a folio. And these concerns hardly touch what al-Jazari’s turbaned scribe can represent. I wonder what he would say if he could speak to us:
Cursed be those who claim that because I sit cross-legged I am lesser than those men who stand tall. Can they trace the arc of time as I do with a pen that sits like an extension of my finger? Without my profession, there would be no certainty of law or memory; even the Holy Word would be intangible. The words I write entertain you, teach you, direct you — and define you. But more than any of those achievements is my mastery of time. Without the movement of my pen, you could not measure the parameters within which you live. You would be left squinting at the sun. You come to me and say ‘write down my words so they will last, so after I am dead I will be remembered’. You should also come to me to learn about the passing of the days — for with the movement of my pen so passes the time you have left alive.
Yet, of course, when this scribe is the recorder of time, he is least like an expert in script. For, in Baghdad, the round city, he denotates the passing hours by drawing a circle. This, it could be said, is beyond the expression of words: the circle holds the mystery of infinity. When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that only a madman or a genius (is there a difference?) can draw a perfect circle; it was, I was told, Leonardo da Vinci’s calling-card to chalk on a friend’s wall a circle to show that he had visited when his would-be host was not at home. The seated, unmoving scribe does this every day, and every day is defined by the fact the scribe does this. Thought of in this way, al-Jazari’s clock could stand as the victory of Plato over Heraclitus, the movement of the water becoming the servant to the sublime perfection of the circle.
Give me, though, the imperfection of words over this higher skill. However ephemerally words are recorded — on flimsy paper or even less tangibly on screen — they speak of a person. And the scribe who sits each day drawing that sublime circle is denying that which makes his work most intriguing: the individuality of the script. The drawing of the essential circle may be an essential task but, if you ask me, it is wasting time which could be better spent on the delights of the non-essential.