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A Note on the Type


Notes: This text was originally published in: Shifter Magazine 16 special issue on Pluripotential. Edited by Sreshta Rit Premnath & Warren Neidich

When I was first confronted with the typeface in which this publication is set I felt as though I were in an elevator that was falling without resistance from a great height. It was a clear June day and I had gone to meet a friend in order to hand him an essay entitled “Modern Typography and the Hermeneutic Circle,” which I had begun writing the previous autumn and had completed only that morning. My friend was spending the afternoon at a local printing house of great reputation run by an old friend of his. When I entered the long sunlit hall with its rows of black presses and its smell of metal and grease and ink the two men were so engrossed in their discussion that neither greeted me or even took notice of my arrival.

They stood over a small oak table on which lay a single sheet of paper in the standard size that was then coming into use. The page was printed with a block of type asymmetrically placed in the right two thirds of the page and which had skillfully been set in the form of a rectangle echoing the silver ratio of the page in which it was contained. Above the text was a heavy black rule, and above this in larger, heavier letters the title: Die Schrift unserer Zeit. From my vantage I could not read the body of the text, but I apprehended in an instant the totality of its significance. The form of the letters both announced and demonstrated their achievement. The debate concerning typography had recently engulfed not only specialists such as me, but everyone concerned with the fate of culture and, increasingly, those involved in international affairs and domestic politics. The right championed the gothic script which had long ago been abandoned in other countries. For these people, broken script spoke to the greatness of our culture. To bolster their arguments they invoked the inviolable names of Goethe, Schiller and even Martin Luther. More internationally-minded voices advocated the roman lettering which was already in wide use and which was the dominant writing in the rest of Europe, and they ridiculed the conservatives as lederhosen wearing provincials.

A radical few, mostly artists, had attempted to devise a writing devoid of historical association, fit for the machine age which they believed would free us from the old social order. To create this they made use of only the most basic geometric forms. What they created, while noble in intention, was as practical as the latest fashions from Paris, and about as likely to stand the test of time. I had seen printed in a journal a paragraph set in letters made only of rectangles, with no curves or diagonals. The effect, while stunning in its lack of compromise, had all the charm and legibility of cuneiform. Just as cuneiform was enslaved to
the reed with which it was created, so these dogmatic experiments were bound to the compass and ruler.

For the past seven years I had worked in secret on a project which I believed to be of great importance. What I hoped to achieve was a definitive typeface for the modern age. It would be as eternal as the geometry of Euclid, as noble as the inscription on a Roman pediment, as elementally constructed as a child’s writing exercise, and as transparent as an architecture of pure glass. Text rendered in this type would be to the reader as pure thought unadorned by decoration, unmediated by style, unfettered by history. In achieving this I planned to poach the best ideas of the avant-gardists while avoiding their mistakes. The problem was that actual geometry was unfit for actual writing. In their zeal to leave history behind, the idealists who built their alphabets with only rectangles had perilously ignored the millennia of minute technologies which have accreted to the art of lettering. Just as the mind seeks meaning, the eye seeks pattern and will find this even where it is not intended. When assembled into anything more than a few words, purely geometric type begins to form channels of white paper interrupted by clumsy areas of black. A well-formed printed script, when viewed from a distance, will appear as neutral gray. Undistracted by form the mind becomes attuned to the meaning of the word and not its shape. In order to achieve this balance I had to embed all the wisdom of the scribes of Charlemagne in letters which were purely geometric in appearance only. Too much color and my letters would become mere imitations of historical forms, too little and I would once again be lost in the muddy plains of Sumeria. The solution lay somewhere in the gap between the truth of pure form and its imperfect reception by the senses. It was here that I had struggled fruitlessly for seven years.

Behind me now was the small press from which the momentous leaf had just emerged. The type was arranged in a block and was still wet with ink. Turning back to the table I saw the perfect realization of everything I had failed to achieve. The artist had devised letters which seemed the embodiment of pure geometry. The capital “D” was a half-circle perfectly joined to a vertical. The following lowercase “i” was simply a rectangle topped by a square of equal width, the lowercase “e” another elemental compound of perfect circle perfectly bisected. But on close inspection I could see that all of this appearance was artifice. Each new letter was a minutely engineered wonder of subtlety. What seemed only a circle and a rectangle was in actuality an ingenious compound of varying widths and curves perfectly calibrated to the vicissitudes of the human eye. The proof was in the block of text below the headline. Taken in its totality it appeared as grey and still as a bolt of silk woven with alternating black and white threads. The three of us fell silent.

My friend picked up the paper and handed it to me with a smile, asking for my thoughts on the design. I feigned indifference, and summoned a dispassionate comment, but my mind was a tempest of jealousy and bewilderment. Walking out of the printing house the summer sun felt as cold as if it were January. I wandered through the garden city without pleasure or direction. I could see my drafting table next to the small press, purchased at great expense with my meagre savings, and the hundreds of drawings of variants of the lowercase “g” and the uppercase “W” which filled my cramped studio. I had no reason ever to return. Standing on a footbridge I realized that I still held in my hand the essay whose completion had only that morning brought me such pleasure. It had been intended as a sly prelude to the masterpiece which I hoped soon to reveal, and which I had fantasized would secure my reputation in the new age to come, but revealed itself now as a mere vanity which burned in my hand. I let it go and watched without feeling as it was carried over the rocks in the clear current.

Authors Website: www.danlevenson.net
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