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CalligraphicImperative

Beauty has a power all its own. Neal Stephenson's 1995 sf novel The Diamond Age offers a charming example, about a third of the way into the story:

The door opened. One of Judge Fang's constables entered the room and bowed deeply to apologize for the interruption, then stepped forward and handed the magistrate a scroll. The Judge examined the seal; it bore the chop of Dr. X.

He carried it to his office and unrolled it on his desk. It was the real thing, written on rice paper in real ink, not the mediatronic stuff.

It occurred to the Judge, before he even read this document, that he could take it to an art dealer on Nanjing Road and sell it for a year's wages. Dr. X, assuming it was really he who had brushed these characters, was the most impressive living calligrapher whose work Judge Fang had ever seen. His hand betrayed a rigorous Confucian grounding — many decades more study than Judge Fang could ever aspire to — but upon this foundation the Doctor had developed a distinctive style, highly expressive without being sloppy. It was the hand of an elder who understood the importance of gravity above all else, and who, having first established his dignity, conveyed most of his message through nuances. Beyond that, the structure of the inscription was exactly right, a perfect balance of large characters and small, hung on the page just so, as if inviting analysis by legions of future graduate students.

Judge Fang knew that Dr. X controlled legions of criminals ranging from spankable delinquents up to international crime lords; that half of the Coastal Republic officials in Shanghai were in his pocket; that within the limited boundaries of the Celestial Kingdom, he was a figure of considerable importance, probably a blue-button Mandarin of the third or fourth rank; that his business connections ran to most of the continents and phyles of the wide world and that he had accumulated tremendous wealth. All of these things paled in comparison with the demonstration of power represented by this scroll. I can pick up a brush at any time, Dr. X was saying, and toss off a work of art that can hang on the wall beside the finest calligraphy of the Ming Dynasty.

By sending the Judge this scroll, Dr. X was laying claim to all of the heritage that Judge Fang most revered. It was like getting a letter from the Master himself. The Doctor was, in effect, pulling rank. And even though Dr. X nominally belonged to a different phyle — the Celestial Kingdom — and, here in the Coastal Republic, was nothing more than a criminal, Judge Fang could not disregard this message from him, written in this way, without abjuring everything he most respected — those principles on which he had rebuilt his own life after his career as a hoodlum in Lower Manhattan had brought him to a dead end. It was like a summons sent down through the ages from his own ancestors.

He spent a few minutes further admiring the calligraphy. Then he rolled the scroll up with great care, locked it in a drawer, and returned to the interrogation room.

(cf. GuYaJia (27 Dec 2002), ...)


TopicLiterature - TopicArt - Datetag20051128


(correlates: OnFailure, MustLoveDogs, GuYaJia, ...)