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The Aura of Autographs

D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin (seated), and Douglas Fairbanks at the signing of the contract establishing United Artists motion picture studio in 1919. New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.
Fig. 1. D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin (seated), and Douglas Fairbanks at the signing of the contract establishing United Artists motion picture studio in 1919. New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Always mornings. Early. And there should be coffee. Breakfast will come later, but the best hours are now—when the world is still blanketed, the mind “puddled in dream melt.”[1]

There are particular parameters for the page. The margins must be wide. The font Goudy Old Style or Garamond in a squeeze. Carriage returns between paragraphs. No indentation. I once justified my text; now I like the ragged edges. To write The Names (1982), Don DeLillo had to change his method. He began typing single, numbered paragraphs, each on its own leaf: a microclimate that allowed him to “see a given set of sentences more clearly.” This is a logic that makes sense to me. I learned to write from my mother. She taught me to revise a sentence aloud before putting it into print. To move from breath to inscription can be a mystical practice. The look of letters has long astonished, inviting cryptic explanations. The 22 paths connecting Kabbalah’s Sefirot—emanations of the divine Ein Sof—correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Latin “A” is an abstracted, phonetic descendant from an Ox hieroglyph. Flip it over and you can still see the creature’s horns: ∀. These ideas are important for the writers I study. They reveal a profound longing—the desire to rekindle a relationship between text and the body, at once archaic and arcane, and to locate the origins of writing in the sensual world.

A version of this impulse shows up in my daily life, drained of its mythic élan. I like to know what writers eat and drink, the bodily routines that enable production, the material flows that glaciate into letters. We are especially hesitant to discuss these factors in academic writing. But if we read with the depth of our beaux idéals, why not follow their other appetites too? I search prefaces and introductions for hints of process, but often find little more than a list of libraries consulted. Am I a deviant for wanting to know if your manuscript was fueled by gorgonzola or fed on crusts from the humble sourdough? When I learned, as an undergraduate, that Oliver Sacks subsisted on sardines, I lined my shelves with oily tins. Samuel Beckett visualized the front nine of Carrickmines when he could not sleep. Did you find relief in kettlebells? Or was it gin? Do Agatha Christie novels really compliment economically-inflected research, as John Lanchester reports in a recent London Review of Books? For a while, when writing about DeLillo, I drank soy milk and ran the metric mile, like Nick Shay in Underworld. Let me save you some trouble in this regard: those activities pair better when reversed.

Despite our own reticence, successful writing cannot be separated from these questions. The lure of the archive is the chance to peer into process. I find it hard to read a novel by Beckett without envisioning a pale green exercise book, his EKG scrawl stretched wide across the page. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own opens with a meditation on Oxbridge’s cloisters, how her own body is made to feel unwelcome when she walks across a grassy court, a privilege reserved for Fellows. Later, after an underwhelming dinner in College, Woolf finds the postprandial chat equally wanting.

The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.[2]

A literary corpus is contingent upon the state of its author’s corpus, the walls that contain it, and the nourishment present (or lacking) in its surrounding environment. It is one of the first questions I ask students undertaking dissertations: what are your writing routines? Sometimes the word ritual enters in. I am not prescriptive, but I do believe writing should involve some kind of ceremony.

If my palette is primed for these questions, it is because I am writing a book on signature and literature. Autography is a place where the body is in close contact to the text it produces. Have you ever thought about the difference between a name and a signature? Names are denotative—they point at things in the world—and are upheld by arbitrary convention. They can be abstracted, spoken by others, seamlessly copied. Signatures, however, are closer to fingerprints than alphabetical signs. In the nineteenth century, graphology was thought by some to be a physiognomic science, which could derive a person’s moral character from the shape of her handwritten characters. While names are imposed from without, often before birth, signatures emerge from the unique movements of an individual’s hand, subject to internal and environmental forces. Had more than your usual dose of coffee? The jitteriness may surface somewhere in your script. Emerged from an hour’s meditation into newfound calm? Surely this relaxation extends into your hand. While it takes an imaginary science like graphology to decipher the correspondences between written characters and a person’s character, the promise of correlation has fascinated criminologists, mystics, and paramours for centuries. It is telling that the word “polygraph” indicates both an early machine for graphic reproduction and a device for measuring physiological changes during interrogation: the human body is inexorably linked to the bodies of text that it signs, lettered or otherwise. When we emboss names as autographs, the onomastic element is in many ways unnecessary. It is a graphic excess that verifies identity. An ideal signature is a mark that only your body can make.

A Norwegian naval officer writing his autograph for a boy scout during United Nations week. Photo by Marjory Collins. Oswego, New York, June 1943.
Fig. 2. A Norwegian naval officer writing his autograph for a boy scout during United Nations week, Oswego, New York, June 1943. Photo by Marjory Collins. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In my monograph, I try to square the bodily signature with ideas about style, influence, and reception, gathered under the term countersignature, after Derrida and Derek Attridge. I have noticed an exciting pattern. Reading works by Beckett, Seamus Heaney, DeLillo, Siri Hustvedt, and Zadie Smith, where allusions to Joyce are prevalent, you will often find a signature of some kind. Thinking thematically about the signature seems to be a way of thinking about Joyce. In Beckett’s “First Love,” the narrator restages Lynch’s inscription on the Venus of Praxiteles from A Portrait of the Artist by tracing Lulu’s name in a cowpat. In interviews and essays, Heaney credits Joyce with teaching him how to divine a sense of place from the phonetic signature of a place’s name. DeLillo’s The Names transposes Joycean ideas like metempsychosis onto a Greek landscape, finding in ancient epigraphy a cable that connects back to Adam’s naming of the animals. Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved (2003) brims with allusions to Ulysses, but also reveals a darker side of autography. Drawing upon research conducted by her sister, Asti Hustvedt, for Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris (2011), Hustvedt dramatizes how signatures have been used to subjugate the female body. I found Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man (2002) late in my research. It is a novel that carefully evaluates the aura surrounding celebrity autographs. After a prologue about boyhood, involving a razor and a shaving bowl, her first chapter opens with milk, kidneys, and a cat. Recognize that signature?

Joyce, always omnipotent, anticipated his reception. In Finnegans Wake, we find a passage that may become my book’s epigraph: “what do you think Vulgariano did but study with stolen fruit how cutely to copy all their various styles of signature so as one day to utter an epical forged cheque on the public for his own private profit . . . ”[3] If this is a process blog, then perhaps I should now reveal some rough edges: my own forgeries and scribblings.

Where do I draw the line between direct influence and a looser sense of inheritance? I have a section in my Dropbox on Piero Manzoni and his strange “living statues”: a performance piece in which the young artist signed naked bodies to transmute them into art. Joyce was certainly in the air recirculating around the 1960s Milanese avant-garde, but is that enough to justify a turn toward sculpture? Maybe not. Or what about Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996), a profound, filmic meditation on calligraphy, names, and the body? In an interview with Bomb Magazine after the film’s release, he bemoans that cinema has not caught up with literary experimentation. Later he elaborates: “most cinema is built along 19th-century models. You would hardly think that the cinema had discovered James Joyce sometimes. Most of the cinema we've got is modelled on Dickens and Balzac and Jane Austen.” For Greenaway, film becomes a way of balancing text and image, letter and body. But does that earn him a place in this pantheon? And what does the introduction of an auteur do to my own sense of balance?

I know how to write a dissertation, but the book is different. Standard advice involves pruning footnotes and introducing narrative: check. But to know that your structure and limitations are correct? In some sense, I am asking the same question that preoccupies those writing in Joyce’s wake. How do you forge your own signature, when surrounded by the enduring and potentially all-consuming marks of predecessors? Perhaps the answer lies in the double sense of forge. I can imitate sentences I admire. Or adhere to the habits, diet, and evening distractions that have worked for others. But the last step requires a leap of faith, which is different for every book. The shape of a work cannot be taught, only discovered in process. The woodworker knows this already: no matter her intentions, a statue’s final form emerges from the unique grain and knots of an uncarved block.


[1] Don DeLillo, The Body Artist (London: Picador, 2001), 7.

[2] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929; Orlando: Harcourt, 1989), 18.

[3] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939; London: Faber, 1971), 181.