The Ugly Writing

by Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In Western thought, much rests on Greek precedent. “Calligraphy” or “beautiful writing,” to give one example, descends from the condition of κάλλος “beauty” and -γραϕος “written” (“calligraph” and “calligraphy,” OED Online 2018). To notorious extent, “beauty” exists in the eye of the beholder. For the ancient Greeks, its meanings might slip and slide between “noble,” “well-done,” and “virtuous,” if with “the kind of appeal that inspires desire” (Konstan 2014:170). The aesthetic dimensions of “beauty” would await the Renaissance, for the Greeks of Classical times rarely applied the term to a work of art (Konstan 2014:179). When aesthetics took over, critics like Pierre Bourdieu came to see “beauty” and “taste” as “ascetic, empty…the renunciation of pleasure,” a withered husk of delight (Bourdieu 1984:493; see also Konstan 2014:186). Or, as a concept, “beauty” became a quality divorced from “sensual, practical, and ethical issues” (Nehamas 2007:3).

Calligraphy as “beautiful writing” makes sense on many levels, if couched within different traditions of practice. In China, the focus on brushstrokes led to joint evaluations of text and painting.  A vast corpus of critical literature assisted that endeavor, including glosses added to the paintings themselves (Bush and Shih 1985; Cahill 1997:5–6). The Aztecs, for their part, thought of good scribes in terms of their internal properties (“honest, circumspect, far-sighted, pensive”) but above all as “judge[s] of colors” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28).

But what of “ugly writing”? A suitable term, “cacography,” derives from a Greek word for “ugly,” “vile,” “useless,” or, by evocative, etymological link, to excrement (Liddell and Scott 1940:124)? The Aztecs knew of such works too, made by scribes who were “dull, detestable, irritating” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28). Painting “without luster,” a bad scribe “ruins colors, blurs them, paints askew” (Dibble and Anderson 1961:28). Interior failings resulted in bad work, sloppiness betrayed an unworthy maker. Some ugly writing might reflect biography: arising at times of apprenticeship, when learning takes place, or in old age as the hand loses muscular control. Neophytes create uneven, awkward displays of signs (Fig. 1). Or, quite simply, more general standards might lapse when larger shifts happened to convulse society. Mastery of execution, regularity of sign use, a disciplined placement of writing in relation to picture, careful choice of color, sustained evidence of confident practice—perhaps these become less important when the minds of patrons or readers weigh down with other challenges. Their discernment atrophies or fails to develop in the first place.



Figure 1. Writing board of an apprentice scribe, Dynasty 11, c. 2030 BC, wood, whitewash, and ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 28.9.5.


These are the attributes of some Egyptian writing during Intermediate Periods (Figures 2, 3). Hieroglyphs: baselines that swoop, askew in layout, each sign variable, lop-sided, nary a straight line in sight. Resembling crude ostraka, the underlying stone bulges or fractures with inadequate preparation and smoothing. Epigraphers usually suspend judgment. As in wise parenting, there can be no favorite children, no period better than any other. In fact, a Classic Mayanist learns this to their peril when talking to specialists in other periods. At the Brooklyn Museum, one such text is said to be, in upbeat description, “simple but lively” (Brooklyn Museum 39.1). Yet these examples distill the essence of ugly writing. The patrons must have been satisfied, for they had accepted the work and affixed them to their tombs. But broader comparisons give them failing grades. They illustrate aesthetic and scribal decline, a systemic lapse in standards, problematic writing for problematic times.



Figure 2. Stela of Khuu, Gebelein area(?), First Intermediate Period, c. 2100 BC. Turin, Museo Egizio, S.1276, acquired by Ernesto Schiaparelli about 1905 (photograph by John Baines). 



Figure 3. Stela of Tetu and Nefertjentet, First Intermediate Period, El-Assasif, Thebes, Egypt, c. 2124–1981 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Rogers Fund 1919, 19.3.33. 


Ugly writing exists among the Maya. Rich in content, basically, even fully, legible in its deciphered signs, the Codex Madrid in the Museo de América has its admirers but also some detractors (Fig. 4): David Kelley (1976:15) described its “frequent errors” and many a “dyslexic lapse” across its lime-sized, Ficus-bark pages. Several scribes, perhaps up to 9, were involved in its making (Lacadena 2000:56). One, labeled “Scribe 5” by Alfonso Lacadena, is seemingly unbothered by sagging glyph-lines, and another two, his “Scribe 3” and “Scribe 8” respectively, invert spellings (mu-ti > ti-mu, nu-tz’u for tz’u-nu-*nu). A “hand” is, of course, an invention of connoisseurship (Houston 2016). If cautiously defined, it presents a reasoned hypothesis, a statistical chance, that certain attributes mark a particular artist or scribe. Here, Kelley’s “dyslexic” lapse affects at least two scribes and probably more, indicating that these “errors” of reading order reflect a variant, more opaque pattern of spellings in the place and time when the Codex Madrid was composed. Heavy, almost disproportionate lines mark some pages, the ink poorly or erratically controlled (M19, 21), and sign or glyph block size varies widely (M35). This differs strongly from the taut, minute execution of the Dresden Codex, also by more than one scribe (Coe and Kerr 1997:178–179). Again, the point does not concern the message, which might be perfectly serviceable. It is the vehicle of transmission that wants for disciplined regularity and able execution.



Figure 4. “Errors” and compositional irregularity in the Codex Madrid, with scribal “hands” discerned by Alfonso Lacadena García-Gallo (2000).


Book-writing involved an intimate act. Much hinges on the use of brush or quill and their steady control by the hand in artful pose, pinky aloft (David Stuart has called this the “pretty hand,” an exquisite gesture that might also be used by dancers; personal communication, 2014). Monumental carving had a different, far more muscular dynamic, and was far slower in execution. It could be ugly indeed. A carving from Chuncan on display in the Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad Museum [Museo de la Arquitectura Maya] in Campeche shows a distended body, one outsized hand doubtless casting incense, the other holding a pouch for that offering of pellets (Fig. 5). The stone is not exceptionally well-preserved, but the glyphs sag, exhibit variant sizes—they almost certainly named the figure, but one wonders if they were ever crisply sculpted or appeared as more than suggestive shapes. Long-gone paint might have clarified some of the signs on other sculptures in the Baluarte Museum—not a few, as in a scene of a deity riding a skeletal deer, appear almost to block out glyphs yet supply no discernible detail. The one readable sign is an Ajaw below, possibly tied to a katun (20-year) ending of 2 Ajaw 13 Tzec, in AD 751.



Figure 5. Chuncan Stela 1, Museo Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad [Museo de la Arquitectura Maya], Campeche (photograph by Stephen Houston). 


A later example is Calakmul Stela 50, said by its discoverers to be “rather crude” (Ruppert and Denison 1943:111). That is an understatement. The lower torso has been drastically reduced, the glyphs made surprisingly large given the size of the main figure. A face on the belt is scratched out or lightly incised, as is a pectoral. This must be one of Calakmul’s latest monuments, at the tail end of its royal line. Irregular spacing famously occurs on another late carving, Yaxchilan Lintel 10 (Graham and von Euw 1977:31). The sculptor crammed glyphs into the final passages of the text, and its overall grid of signs curved away from any neat regularity. As at Calakmul or with the Codex Madrid, the evaluative milieu had changed from earlier times. Ugly writing is not solely about execution—it is also about reception. Earlier readers would have recoiled from Stela 50 at Calakmul; clearly, at its time of carving, patrons and viewers did not. Or, if they did, they no longer enjoyed access to the carving standards of Stela 51, a masterwork of modulated surface and light (ironically enough, this carving is reproduced on the same page as Stela 50; Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 50c).


Calakmul Stela 50.png

Figure 6. Calakmul Stela 50 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 50b).  


Some ugly writing must have come from faltering, initial steps in training. While excavating the Acropolis at Piedras Negras, a team led by Linton Satterthwaite uncovered masonry blocks that, on closer look, proved to have trial designs on them (Fig. 7, Satterthwaite 1965:figs. 2, 6). These would have been reused not long after their carving, hinting that monumental work did not take place in ateliers but on-site. Several scenarios suggest themselves. This might have been an opportunistic gathering of apprentices at a location where flattened stone was abundant. Or, perhaps, the training was motivated by another task nearby, the carving of wooden lintels over doorways in the Acropolis. Their wide span could only have been covered by wood, now long-gone, their decay causing most of the masonry vaults to collapse. Yaxchilan is celebrated for its sculpted lintels; Piedras Negras might have had just as many if not more, but of a material that did not last.

Miscellaneous Stone 3 shows a laborious incision of a grid—one can nearly hear the master: “start with this!” The glyphs, perhaps placed later, out-of-grid, occur in varying sizes. One sign might just be a term for “strong youth,” keleem, a suitable autograph for a young carver. Did this self-absorbed man-boy incise his own name? Miscellaneous Stone 8 labors with a grid, if one that is poorly aligned. The sequence seems secure, commencing with the grid, then come the major glyph outlines, and a trial excision of recessed areas. The most finished block, at C2, experiments with suffixes that are out of proper position, the ni, wa, and AJAW topsy-turvy in relation to glyphs in other blocks. The carver might have pivoted around the stone, probing different lines of attack and alternative ways of handling a chisel or burin. The haptics of sculpting may be on display here. There were no disappointed patrons with this piece (although maybe an annoyed master), only slabs that would soon pass into the bulk of a palace.



Figure 7. Trial pieces at Piedras Negras, mid-8th century AD (Satterthwaite 1965:figs. 2, 6), both from Court 2, Acropolis (MS 3, Structure J-9; MS 8, Structure J-12). 


By any measure, the Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway, now under intensive study by Barbara Fash and David Stuart, contains glyphs of the highest quality. Those in the first-phase, bottom risers are especially accomplished (Houston, Fash, and Stuart 2014/2015:26–27). They may not have been carved by the same person—their sheer number makes that unlikely—but they do exhibit a tendency towards “homography,” a uniform style in riser after riser. By contrast, the upper stairway is highly “heterographic,” with a multitude of different hands, possibly as many as 45 (Houston, Fash, and Stuart 2014/2015:35). There is much to admire in those blocks, and one glyph that inspires a contrary emotion: a day sign, properly pedestaled, but with a singularly inept Ajaw-face (Fig. 8). Was this a trial piece by an apprentice or the results of a rushed commission? There is a perceptible disparity between the lower part of the day sign cartouche, plus the adjacent wa under the month name Tzec, and the cramped, slovenly, flat parts above. Did two different carvers operate within a single glyph block? General standards were competent-to-high at this time. The day and months signs occupy the bottom reaches of that range.



Figure 8. Day and month sign on the upper Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras (Gordon 1902:pl. V, F2).


Scholarship is seldom advanced by subjectivity. Yet, in all probability, for Maya writing, declines in standards are perceptible and isolable. Socially meaningful, they also reveal much about training, conduits of access, and evaluative milieux. The beholding eye can detect some of their defects: a thorough-going irregularity in glyph size or shape of grid; signs that lose their capacity to establish contrasts; in painting, a poorly controlled charge of the brush; and, when compared with other examples, an idiosyncratic variation that reduces the influence of precedent or scribal tradition. These are not the same as “pseudo-glyphs,” signs that become pictures of texts, a stylistic evocation, an ornamental place-holder with little to no content (Calvin 2006, 2013; Houston 2017). A decline in standards expresses, probably, a broader fraying in the transmission of information, a problem in society itself (Houston 2008). Ugly writing offers lessons worth studying. By their indirect example, they define achievement and rare excellence. By awkward stumbles, they help us to discern shifting standards and the reasons behind them.



Acknowledgements   John Baines was most helpful with an image of regrettable writing from Egypt. Karl Herbert Meyer supplied a lead about the stela from Chuncan.



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