Monday, January 5, 2009

Lessons From a Pen

Since the first of January, I've been writing with a new pen.  

A gift from a thoughtful friend, it's unfortunately inconstant and a bit rough.  It skips, scratches and does so irregularly.  

(It's not my writing, as I've the same pen in steel.)

This is one of the virtues of fountain pens.  They're useful tools, but they've their own eccentricities.  They work, but they're stubborn, resisting, imperfect.

Of course this can be a distraction: because they don't obey, they stand out. 

This is what Heidegger, in Being and Time, called 'present-to-hand': a kind of relationship we have with things in an analytic, scientific work.  We end up standing back from them, and consciously noticing their texture, weight, and the other details of their design. 

(I've spent far too long holding the nib up to the light.)  

But a disobedient tool can also be valuable.  

First, it allows me to appreciate my tool's qualities, and the skills I need to use it.  I realise why I value a working pen, with its well-balanced handle, flowing nib and smooth ink bladder.  And I'm reminded of the virtues I need: precision, discipline, patience.  A broken pen can help recall the craft's demands.

Second, it's a chance for gratitude and ambition.  Because I'm thankful for the gift, I'll make the best of it.  And this requires a kind of ambition: Ito live up to the tool, and the qualities it offers.  Perhaps I need to be a more disciplined, elegant writer?  Can a fussy pen improve my hand?  We'll see.

Third, my stubborn Sonnet is a break from pragmatism.  The technological impulse is a good and necessary one, but it can be all-encompassing and totalitarian.  I easily get used to a world of seamless, ceaseless functionality.  This can breed passivity and unquestioning deference.  A broken, beautiful pen can be a good reminder of life's little liberties. 

Of course, a working fountain pen offer similar lessons and opportunities.  But a broken one is more generous - for a little while, at least.


Emma Kirsopp said...

I don't know if its any help, however, Neil Gaiman's blog ( often relates his holy grail - like search for the most perfect of imperfect pens... he often mentions the Namiki Falcons...

Damon said...

Thanks, Emma - a fascinating blog.

I'll have a poke around for his pen posts...