It Is Written
In many cultures, there is a tradition linking the idea of a person’s fate with the concept of something being written down. In Jewish society, a favorite New Year greeting is the wish: “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year.” A Persian poet, who lived about a thousand years ago, did not become well-known in the West until the Nineteenth Century, when one of his works, known as the Rubaiyat, was published, in a very free translation, by an English writer named Edward FitzGerald. Among the most famous passages, were these words (as I remember my father often quoting them):
The moving finger writes, and, having writ, moves on –
Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line –
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
But we have to go back much farther to learn the origin of the expression, “The Writing on the Wall.” According to the Old Testament Book of Daniel, there was a Babylonian King named Belshazzar, whose father, Nebuchadnezzar, had conquered Judea, and forced its inhabitants into exile in Babylon. One of these captives was a man named Daniel, who acquired a reputation as an interpreter of dreams and omens. One night, Belshazzar held an elaborate feast celebrating his conquests, which was disrupted by the appearance of a hand, writing some enigmatic words on a wall. Since none of the King’s own diviners could interpret the message, they sent for Daniel – who correctly forecast the destruction of the Kingdom – presumably a just retribution for their treatment of Judea.
But we find a much happier story – again with a Middle East setting – in Leigh Hunt’s poem about a man named Abou Ben Adhem, who wakes one night to find in his room “an Angel, writing in a book of gold.” What is he writing? The names of those who love the Lord. “And am I on it?” “No,” says the Angel. That kind of put-down might have subdued many of us. But Abou is made of sterner stuff and has a ready come-back. “I pray thee, then,” he says, “Write me as one who loves his fellow men.” The next night, the Angel comes again, and displays his book – “And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”
This splendid statement, that regard for one’s fellow-creatures is the supreme virtue, has made the poem a permanent favorite. I don’t know what language the Angel was writing in, but inscribed words have been a feature of popular mythology ever since God himself (according to the Book of Deuteronomy) wrote his Ten Commandments on two stone tablets and gave them to Moses.
More recently, it was words on a single piece of stone (basalt), found in 1799 at a place called Rosetta, at the mouth of the Nile, which enabled modern scholars to unlock many secrets of Ancient Egypt, until then hidden in what were thought to be the indecipherable signs and symbols called hieroglyphics. This discovery, by a French Officer, would never have happened but for the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had led an invasion of Egypt, thinking of it (very mistakenly) as a step towards the conquest of British India.
The Stone, which wound up, as a sort of war trophy, in the British Museum, had the same text in three different scripts, one of which was hieroglyphics – but it still took decades for that mysterious writing to be successfully decoded.
As often seems to happen in cases of this kind, the meaning of the text itself turned out to be of less interest than might have been hoped. Many thousands of ancient clay tablets, bearing the script known as cuneiform, have been unearthed and translated, but it seems that most of them were very dull business documents. The Rosetta Stone inscription is essentially a message of tribute, praise, and loyalty from an assembly of Egyptian priests to their King, Ptolemy V.
Nowadays – at least before the advent of the computer age, which has made all writing “virtual” – the “writing on the wall” has morphed into “graffiti,” a concept to which I myself give major credit for originally inspiring the kind of brief writing which I first published on postcards, and which I learned, only years later, could be classified as “epigrams.” The whole genre may perhaps be well exemplified by the one which says: “WHY AM I WRITING THIS? – AND WHY ARE YOU READING IT?”