Māori ‘tattoo writing’

February 6th was Waitangi Day in New Zealand.  It is both a celebrated national holiday and day of protest, a way to discuss old issues … and possibly raise new ones:

But that’s why it is a source of pride for kiwis (New Zealanders).  As one news commentator said this year – many other national days are bland and boring – at least ours is a chance for a real, up-front (and non-violent) look at our national identity!

And the most important forum of the day is a verbal one.  The Māori culture is an ‘oral’ culture, and also one that puts as much energy into protocol as the average Victorian-era dinner party host.  While the surface conversations may seem silly to an outsider – who will/won’t or can/can’t stand and talk where, or at which stage of which meeting on which specific day – there is a huge undercurrent about what these arrangements say about the relationship, and the attitude between those involved.  Sense and Sensibility Antipodean style.

This post is not about that type of detail.  Needless to say, the reason for Waitangi Day is to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and most (not all) Maori tribes in New Zealand in 1840.  The common, modern, description of the Treaty is about ‘partnership’ between the Crown and Māori in decision-making, ‘participation’ to empower Māori communities, and ‘protection’ by giving Māori the rights of British people and giving them the right to practice their own culture.  The way that (again… most, not all!) Māori tribes agreed to this Treaty was by signing one of nine documents that were sent around the country.

This type of signature was clearly fairly new to many of the Maori chiefs.  While many of them had by then begun to learn English, many ‘signed’ the Treaty with a drawing of their ‘moko’, their facial tattoo.

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From http://www.teara.govt.nz – signatures gathered from Ngāti Porou chiefs in the East Coast of New Zealand.

It is normal to talk about Māori culture being an “oral” one.  True enough, but it begs the question about what is a “language”?  The Maori moko was a written language, one that others could use to identify the ‘whakapapa’ (lineage) of the bearer, and one that was good enough to translate to a signature. You could say the same about the elaborate carvings of the marae (meeting house).

Here is a famous signature, the unfinished moko of the Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha.  So much more than a simple English scrawl, the drawing shows the care and importance the man placed in the act of transferring a part of himself onto a page.

Below is a link to an interesting paper about the use of moko as signature.  It’s well worth a flick through.

Quote from the paper (cited as Henare 2007 – see references): “The moko mark was consideholy and binding, because it was taken from the skin of the head, believed to be the most sacred part of a leader’s body.  The ‘tohu’ or sign, was the recognised signature of the leader… Subsequent generations of descendants of the signatories would refer to such moko marks as ‘taonga tapu’, a most sacred treasure and commitment.”

That quote says so much about the intersection between the British and the Maori, coming from very different worldviews but arriving at basically the same result.  It’s a shame some people on both sides still refuse to see each others’ perspectives, but as long as we can really “get it all out in the open” in a forum like Waitangi Day, there’s hope for the country yet.

Ki tō ringa ki ngā rākau ā te Pākeha? – Drawings and signatures of moko by Māori in the early 19th Century – Ngārino Ellis, University of Auckland: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/docs/Volume123/JPS_123_1_02.pdf 

 

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It’s in the writing..?

When you read a transcription instead of the original written page, how much of the meaning do you lose?  And how much of the magic?

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(from Commonplace book of T Austen of Rochester (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Here is an interesting article from the Spectator (Matthew Parris – December 2014) about “Why it’s time to revive the commonplace book“.
The article hooked me with its by-line, which is basically the reason for my own blog.

“A [commonplace book] often tells us more, unwittingly, about its compiler than a self-description would.”

Basically – historical letters and (most) diaries are self-curated, a type of manual Facebook.  While you can look at other ephemera – scrapbooks, professional notebooks, marginalia – these resources focus on a small range of topics.  Commonplace books are a catch-all for what the creator thought was worth remembering.  Therefore, it is the curation, the time and care spent in the record, and the formatting of the book that is just as important as the text itself.
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Tells you so much more about the writer than a transcription ever could (image from ‘Minced meat for pyes’ – commonplace book of Hester Lynch Piozzi (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

The main topic of Parris’ article is “More Rags of Time”, the limited edition, printed commonplace book of Kenneth (Lord) Baker (now only available through specialist booksellers).
The book appears to be mainly a collection of transcribed quotes, with the odd quote from Lord Baker (“It is no good telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof”).
Parris delves into the subject by talking about Baker’s notes showing “a lovely sense of self-mockery, a small dash of vanity, and a keen critical appreciation of satire”.
I completely agree with Parris that the commonplace book is a ‘lost art’ that is well deserving of revival.  On the other hand, I have the nagging thought that a transcribed “commonplace book” – such as you see cropping up every now and then – somewhat misses the picture.
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Often the format and style of the writing tells you as much about the personality as the text itself (from Commonplace book of T Austen of Rochester (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

At most, these kind of books give a summary of the author’s likes and dislikes from borrowed text.  That is where the magic – in my opinion – is lost.
More than a journal or a diary, commonplace books were meant to be carried and used.  It is one thing to read the quotes that someone decided to copy into their book.  It is another to see the frayed edges of certain well-thumbed pages, to see the quotes that were scrawled compared with those carefully transcribed.
Some commonplace books have an index a-la Locke.  Some have folded pages, crossed out quotes (once used by the author at a dinner party or book?), text running lengthwise, across the seam, in the margin, vertically or in a box.
Was a comment clustered in with others of the same type, or did an author dedicate an entire page of precious paper to the thought?  How does the handwriting change over time, and does the marginalia point to the author reviewing and revising the original text years later?
All of these are also clues to the mind of the owner.  Just as much as the choice of words.  How much would we lose the magic of Da Vinci’s notebooks if we saw only the printed text and some cropped images?
There are many amazing, digitally scanned collections of commonplace books online – check out my reference page for more links.  Yes, the handwriting is often hard work and for an amateur like me much of it is almost unreadable.  But half the fun of looking at these books is getting to know the author through their own pen scratches rather than a neatly typed and bound book.  It’s a lot of effort and many people won’t have the patience, but lets be honest – the printed versions aren’t exactly flying off the shelves in the Top Sellers section of the bookshop!

Quote – Thoreau on journals and life

I have been thinking a lot about this Thoreau quote.  I seem to get something new from it every time I read it…

“My Journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap.  I must not live for it but in it for the gods.

“They are my correspondents, to whom daily I send off this sheet post-paid.  I am clerk in their counting-room, and at evenings transfer the account from day-book to ledger.  It is as a leaf which hangs over my head in the path.  I bend the twig and write my prayers on it; then letting it go, the bough springs up and shows the scrawl to heaven.  As if it were not kept shut in my side; it is vellum in the pastures; it is parchment on the hills.  I find it every-where as free as the leaves which troop along the lanes in autumn.  The crow, the goose, the eagle carry my quill, and the wind blows the leaves as far as I go.  Or; if my imagination does not soar, but gropes in slime and mud, then I write with a reed.”

H.D. Thoreau – 8th February 1841

It’s funny.  Someone who could not write so elegant a quote is someone who could not claim to truly feel the sensation he describes, since the kind of personality that dictates a lifetime of compulsive journaling is a pre-requisite for having that type of feeling.

That’s why I read it with awe and not a little hidden envy, since I know I could never have that pure a feeling about the art of writing.

It is a great example of the commonly read but not-often followed refrain of “if you want to become a good writer, write a lot, every day.”