Pyrexia by Ray Ogar
>>> COPYRIGHT 2007/2010
A Typeface response for Sibylle Hagmann.
Your everyday action is a gilded feint, more like a slippery stitch placed on elbow after scrape or tear. The fact that your hands are worn after working in the garden always delights. But I realize now that your garden, your outdoor retreat, is secretly your own organic babel. When I look at your face I know you used to complain of the moist dirt under your nails. Sometimes you even fretted the aphids that hid in the cave of your palm. What were one nuissance are now legion to your cause.
I watched you when I was a child; you in the garden near the rotted shed, me, next door, sheilded, screened by the house—my fortress against your kingdom. My excuse for not playing outdoors was an allergy to nature; your excuse for excavating the back yard was an allergy to sedentarianism. Tools are laid along the ground in front of your garden—a battalion waiting to be deployed on special assignment. The scariest impliment is the 3-pronged weeder. It ratchets into your hand when you begin to work into the ground. Soon the tool opens space, creating cavities to place some form of new life. (Maybe from the alphabet of seeds you hide in your front left jeans pocket). Your movements into the dirt are at first violent, perhaps an overview of the invasion to come.
Initially you hack rather than caress. Soon though, the action becomes fluid, more akin to a sketching process. You are getting a feel for the material, trying to understand the poetry of the soil. As your arm shakes the land retaliates. Every time you plow into the dirt something under-ground communicates back. A dilaog for the quickly errupted. I watch in facination as the message, this vibration from within the garden soil creeps up your arm and into your ear like a cobweb excommunicated to the wind.
I use binoculars to zoom in on your more subtle actions. Sometimes you get so lost in the foliage that I make believe that I see you using the most advanced form of x-ray technology. There you are, in the back, near what resembles an exotic Phaius Tankervilleae. Calm hands probe each blossom, soon rearrange the petals of one flower. With fingers like bees, you attempt to germinate your botanical offspring like a English dog breeder culling the pack for strength and stamina. In your organic babel are you more a genetic artist than a gardener? A tastemaker perhaps? Who does
You dig and scoop and plant and seed. Sewing the land and tailoring the season. Yet, I am your only spy. Today I am mounting an invasion. Retraction—my tack is more of a visual reconnissance. You are gone, perhaps to the local flower shop, maybe gathering seeds or exchanging recipies for erradicating malignant insects. So I creep quietly. Now, through the desert of my own backyard, kicking aside moss encrusted bricks and the occassional rock you’ve thrown into our yard. I shuffle over the wire fence, glancing to the monogrammed curtains in your back window. The usual rhythm of your air conditioner keeps the curtains busy with a cyclical motion. Back to your world. My hands push aside orange and red, sometimes an offshade of blue. When I arrive in your botanical frontier, the obsession you hide becomes apparent in the finest detail. Binoculars have never let me see the minutia of your work. I have never seen so deeply into you—never the ridiculous obsessive fixation of your green ego. Boldness. Insanity? How can I ever comprehend? A microscope is what I need to fully appreciate your command.
I creep inside flower, near anther, aside pollinia. Next touching stipe, brushing stigma, and soon I caress the rostellum. A rush overtakes me. Everything is designed by you. Fright descends between my shoulders. Deeper into the garden I realize how right I was to joke to myself that this was your organic babel. These plants, if not each flower, appears uniquely tailored. Granted, each plant appears more in tune with a variation on a theme. Still, description fails me!
Imagine if you will that each plant has an master flower, what you might call its initial capital. The suceeding flowers from tip to soil are smaller, slighter, variants of the initial. Each plant is a string of letters, maybe a word in the book that is this garden. Except each word is spelled using a unique flower. Flowers as typeface? Perhaps. Could the rows of plants be words or sentences? Each flower is an ornament functioning as the expression of the gardener.
In my own life as a computer programmer, secluded, living indoors and always away from the sun, I can only wonder at the discipline it takes to design on this level. She is a bookmaker and I can only stand still in awe. That is until she grasps my wrist.
. . .
I am caught in the cavern of her hands. Her name is Rosetta. And she is teaching me how to design flowers. Before, when her hand enveloped my wrist, the blood cut off, and her eyes were punctuation—they commanded me leave. It was obvious that I was a soldier on foreign soil. To her I didn’t speak the language, nor was I allowed to even glimpse further her world. But I explained my vigil and my years of secret watch by the window from child to adult. This seemed to soften her aging face. Her features became less stone and more compatible with speech, though still she didn’t say a word.
My first lesson is to conduct a simple comparison. As if to both test me and perhaps weed me out, Rosetta asks that I make visual comparisons of each bud on just one plant. The fretted beast stands from soil to shoulder. Rosetta is not concerned with me naming the plant, it is obvious that this is her own breed. The flower stands regal, upright, swaying only slightly in the breeze. It possesses curves more condusive to script handwritting than the colder, mass produced flowers I have seen at the local garden shop. Speaking with calm and calculation I explain what I see, how each flower appears as a variation on its initial. How the curve of each petal on successive flowers, down the stem, seeking soil, expresses a similarity to the initial—a particular slight alternate expression.
Her eyebrows raise. Have I figured it out? Before her arm points I reveal my belief
She nods slightly. Rosetta hints that my guess, my meager calculation, points me in the right direction. So again, she grabs me by the wrist. This time with a gentler firmness. And gathers me into the rotting hull of her shed.
Inside I squint to see anything at all. Cracks in the wall let through only slivers of sunlight. At first my imagination has trouble filling in the gaps of my hindered sight. Rosetta pulls on a string hidden in the center of the room. A single bulb clicks on and uncurtains the space. Thousands of dried flowers are pinned to the walls like insects collected from exotic locales. She lets me look at my own pace. From the left side of the room the flowers seem simpler, less articulated. They are white, almost denuded of a flower-like nature. But as I move row by row and column by column, the flowers, the variety, the sheer exuberence of form prescibe attention. It is a vast botanical network seeded from one flower variety, bred by Rosetta into a near infinite range of expression.
As I gaze about the room, always moving to my right, Rosetta explains the significance of her labeling system. She suggests that my book analogy is somewhat correct, but that for practical purposes I have lost the poetry of the situation. In here, in this room is the letters from which she chooses to write her words. She keeps all the older varieties as well as keeping track of the newer types. Her noting system, to me, is invisible. All I see are threads sewn through various flowers, woven over and through each other. At first I counted only 26 strands. Further around the room new strands crop up. Lowercase letters? Punctuation? Rosetta ignores my questions and continues with her own explanation. She breeds an alphabet from a single variety of flower. This alphabet, this typeface, is her script, her indellible mark on the world. But I remind her that no one knows about her achievement. She seems not to care. For her it is the work, the act, the making that gives her meaning. She says this is her way of experimenting with language. Breathlessly I catch a mumble from her lips, “Someday I will ornament the world.”
That night I sleep deep in the soil of complex dreams. I fall like Alice through the looking glass into pages of Jorge Luis Borges' book The Library of Babel. In the dream though, the etchings of Erik Desmazières come to life. Except instead of a library of books, I am lost in a labyrinth of Roman archways and columns thickly entwined with vines, flowers and insects. In Borges’ story the wanderer becomes lost in a world where books exist ad infinitum to express every possible combination of words that then contain every possible story. A recursive algorithm of language and book. The Babel I am in instead consists of every variation of every letterform. Eight foot walls chiselded with the letters A through Z. Columns of slightly altnernate forms for each letter leading to my right. I can touch the letter R with my fingers. Feel the groove of the chisel that once marked the wall. Now porous stone, warmed by my own body heat. Dust settles on my shoulders and hair. I look up and only see darkness surrouding a sun-like glow—a pinpoint. What ceiling, if any, must extend kilomenters above me. Calm overtakes me and curiosity the better of me. I know not what to do except examine the evolution of letterform on the walls.
As I walk, days pass. Occassionaly I find scraps of blank vellum on the floor. Some of the more interesting letter changes I take rubbings of by using pollen from any of the flowers of the darker variety that drape the architecture like torpid veils. These same flowers that hang above also nourish me. Weeks pass and the letters begin to change more drastically from an austere Modernist characterization into a grotesque display. My pockets continue to fill with rubbings. Later I see F’s that sommersault into limber X’s and G’s that capsize only to resurface as regal U’s. Fascinated, I eat more of the flowers laced along the walls.
Lost always, I remain drawn to the vision and continue to journey along the barely sunlit corridors of what I have come to call the Rosetta Wall. As the varieties of letters wax and wane into new and unusual shapes I can’t help but ask what this means for language? If certain letterforms transform so extremely as to almost look like other letters how does this implicate meaning? Does this suggest that meaning will someday be wholey derived through context? And then I realize in the fever of my dream that I have regressed into a particular naїveté. Realization dawns that perhaps I am only witnessing a specific alphabet, and a specific typeface evolution based on form and not functional usage. This same fever negates the possibility that I will see other languages and their cultural ideosyncracies.
I begin to tear up the rubbings that stuff my pockets. As I do my weight slackens and what false gravity I had created for myself loosens my grip on the ground. I begin to float upwards, perhaps evacuating into wakefulness, and I see that the garden of letterforms I was in is only one of thousands of branches in an infinite network of culture, language and word. Eddies of alternate letterform gardens spiral off, tiling a spheroid, stacking, layering, weaving together. Backing further away, up, I float and the world is reaveled to be a palimpsest of different ages of type and letter. Some of the outer layers continually decay into dust. This is the air I breathed below. My mind races to understand.
If it is the outermost levels that are decay and the inner layers are the new what does this point to? My eyes focus and I see where some hooded engineer could construct new avenues and ramparts for artisans to chisel away future variations of type. A meta-canvas of letterforms on a canvas of stone. The artist is human. What are they working towards? Does this suggest that at some point all the variations of letter from all languages will perhaps converge into a single form? Is there some seedling letterform to the globe I am not able to see? This hidden core, I imagine, is where language becomes its most contextual and universal. With a network in place, form and language begin to average into a single point. There, at the center of the type-garden-sphere is a Universal Typeform. A Letter and all letters, chaotic and liquid—a letterform singularity that fits all circumstances of linguisitic need.
. . .
My eyes open to the blank ceiling of my room. Whatever dream I had fades like a firefly. A few winks of the insect’s belly illuminates my memory, but not enough to piece together a sensible picture. In futility I paw the air as if able to snatch back some of the dream, but I let it dissipate like eddies flung from a whirlpool. I suspect Rosetta is up now. 4:30 AM. Her hands tending to her botanical letters.
Despite the fact that I seemed to have discovered a piece of her secret, I suspect that is all I literally received. A fragment. After yesterday I try to understand my own role. As a computer programmer, do I really create or am I only ever cranking out recipies for efficiency? How do I embelish on my own canvas of code? Rosetta might ask me, how do I turn the way I program into a handscript that identifies me as the creator? For Rosetta, she uses the protocols of botanic form—breeding a beastiary of letter and flower. Me though? I have watched her perform specific miracles between her fingers. I have examined her work in detail. My canvas is protocol. My language is order and logic. Hers is pure creation.
My mind swims for a connection and I settle on the origin of the word at the root of my discipline—Protocol: derived from the French word prothocole via Medieval Latin, from the Greek prōtokollon meaning ‘first page, flyleaf,’ which comes from prōtos ‘first’ + kolla ‘glue.’ Most literally, how do I start? How do I begin? And I realize then that Rosetta is the first page and I am her footnote. Her age and wisdom have pointed me in the direction of a new sensitivity. She is the ornamented rubric leading me away from my myths. It is her visionary sight, blown like dandelions, that spins my sight into new sense.