Skipping, Jumping, Twisting and Untwisting:
Reading the Oldest and Newest of Writing Styles

Cass Dalglish

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997

About the Author
Table of Contents

I read an Op Ed piece the other day in which a writer claimed that things are better today than they used to be because the computer, for all its trouble-causing potential, gives us a far better means of writing than our ancestors, who had to etch signs into stone, had at their disposal. When people talk about etching signs into stone they're really talking about a writing method called cuneiform--the oldest writing style in history. This writing was done more than 4,000 years ago by scribes who sometimes etched stone but who often simply pushed pictographic signs into soft clay with a wedge-shaped reed. I am fascinated by comparisons of the oldest and the newest forms of writing because I often make these comparisons myself. I have a scholarly hobby of dabbling in the translation of texts written by women in cuneiform, and I teach a computer-assisted reporting class. Sometimes one pattern of writing is still hanging in my thoughts as I begin the other, and this dual literacy has helped me to see that patterns of writing and reading in the newest language environment--hypermedia--are echoes of writing and reading models practiced in the oldest language in history--Sumerian cuneiform. And when I describe the style of reading and writing that I find in both hypermedia and cuneiform, I find myself using metaphors which have been central to imagery used by women writers since before the turn of the second millennium BCE. As I scroll along from image to thought to sight to sound, I am behaving as other weavers of texts have behaved in the past--skipping and jumping, leaping from one idea to another, tying and untying, twisting and untwisting threads of understanding.

This is a virtual dance that poets, mythmakers, and mystics have been dancing throughout history; it is also an activity that women have practiced since at least 4,000 years ago, when the first writer to claim authorship pushed the cuneiform signs into soft Mesopotamian clay. That writer's name was Enheduanna and she composed the first signed text in history, nin-me-sarra, a song to the female deity Inanna. Enheduanna wrote her hymnal verse by combining Sumerian pictographic signs which carry multiple meanings, creating a work which can be read with all the ambiguity that poetry demands. Ambiguities and possibilities are copious in poetry and teeming in Sumerian, as they are in hypertext.

Recently, when I was skipping through the web during the same time period that I was working on a translation of Enheduanna's text, I noticed that I was carrying out the same poetic/mystical practice in both cases. The meditative similarities are apparent when hypermedia texts and cuneiform poetry are compared. Nicholas Negroponte describes texts in the hypermedia environment "as a collection of elastic messages that can stretch and shrink in accordance with the reader's actions. Ideas can be opened and analyzed at multiple levels of detail" (70). Jerome McGann likens a "hyper" edition to "that fabulous circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." There is no fixed text at the center because it is the reader who focuses, and refocuses, and refocuses. "One is encouraged not so much to find as to make order--and then to make it again and again, as established orderings expose their limits." McGann also notes that "the word 'text' derives from a word that means 'weaving' " (jefferson.village.virginia.edu/public/jjm2f/rationale). Of course, the reader is always free to resist the temptation to dance off the page, to read a hypertext at its face value only, missing the possibilities inherent in its ambiguously twisting threads.

The same open or closed possibilities for reading exist when Sumerian cuneiform texts are decoded. Sumerian is written in signs which have multiple values. A single sign may have five, ten, twenty or more values. Openness and elasticity are essential to understand what the Sumerian poet Enheduanna might have intended when she pressed signs into clay, for the signs themselves, multivalent as they are, make the poem. One strategy I use in reading cuneiform texts as poetry is to allow myself to skip and hop among possibilities of meaning, freely combining and recombining signs. Once again, cuneiform texts can also be read with a traditional eye. The traditional method of reading cuneiform involves the building of a transliteration--a reading in which specific fixed meanings are assigned to each of the signs establishing a definitive or "Ur" text. This transliterated reading forces the allusive signs to a single focused center.

Fixing interpretation in the newest or the oldest of writing assigns specific readings to specific signs and words--and removes any opportunity for me as reader to play amidst the text. It takes away my power to do the skipping, jumping, and leaping; it erases my judgments about what to tie and untie, twist and untwist.

On the other hand, in reading the expansive versions of either hypermedia or cuneiform, I find myself approaching the meditative habits of the poet and the mystic, free associating, and making those associations quickly, leaping as Robert Bly would say, or in the style of the Hokhmah ha-Tseruf of Abraham Abulafia, skipping (dilug) and jumping (k'fitzah). In Abulafia's Science of the Combination of the Letters, the Kabbalist ordered and reordered the letters in the name of god to attain a mystical state. This skipping and jumping "brings to light hidden mental processes and liberated the Kabbalist from 'the prison of the natural spheres and leads to the boundaries of the divine sphere'" (Armstrong 251). Abulafia taught that this leaping, jumping and skipping were methods which would help us find god, help us "unseal the soul, to untie the knots which bind it" (qtd. in Armstrong 250).

I am not able to use this metaphor, to consider this tying and untying, without remembering that this power is a godly attribute associated with the deity Inanna in Sumerian belles lettres. Samuel Noah Kramer has translated the following lines from "Enki and the World Order":

You twist the straight thread,
Maid Inanna, you straighten the twi[sted] thread
(Kramer, Sumerians 183)

This picture of Inanna twisting and untwisting threads also reminds me that weaving is an image central to women's writing. Mary Daly has described women's ability "to weave and unweave, dis-covering hidden threads of connectedness" (Daly 400). When I weave texts on the World Wide Web and when I tie and untie multivalent cuneiform signs I am reminded of Anis Pratt's view that feminist scholarship "delight(s) in leaping from one field to another, circling each one to gather the best fleece and then spinning out and interweaving our gatherings into an interdisciplinary fabric" (94).

This model of interactivity that fits the "spinning and interweaving" of feminist scholarship also fits HyperText, and it fits the study of myth as well, since myth is, according to Estella Lauter, a "part of the dynamic of history . . . part of the ongoing process of constructing a livable world instead of being records of a completed process" (3). In other words, we are constantly re-weaving our myths and stories, twisting and untwisting the strings of our world. The newest writing form, like the oldest, is an enticing tool for the weaver of texts, the poet, the mythmaker, the mystic, and the woman writer like myself, especially one who is interested in home pages made of dried clay.




Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1993.

Bly, Robert. Leaping Poetry. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1975.

Daly, Mary. Gyn Ecology. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1978.

Enheduanna, nin-me-ůsar-ra.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Lauter, Estella, ed. Women as Mythmakers--Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth-Century Women. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

McGann, Jerome. "The Rationale of HyperText." IATH WWW Server, last modified 6-May-95, 17:55 EDT.

Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.

Pratt, Annis V. "Spinning Among Fields: Jung, Frye, L»vi-Strauss and Feminist Archetypal Theory." Feminist Archetypal Theory. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1985.



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