Les plumes et la perfection / Fountain pens and perfection

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(A perhaps slightly misleading image, as the journal in this photo is very Italian. The pen, however, is my beloved, battered old Waterman, made in France and bought for a hundred francs, roughly 18-20 dollars – an amount that seemed a little shocking – when I was 18.)

The other day I went to a papeterie – a school/office supply store that sells “fournitures” (supplies) – on the Boulevard des Batignolles, where I’m currently staying. I was delighted and comforted to find that among the relatively small selection of writing implements were plenty of fountain pens designed for children, along with the effaceurs children would need – erasers for fountain pen ink (pen-shaped, imbued with some chemical). I had been told during one of my last visits to France, in 2005 or 2007, that children were no longer required to use fountain pens at school and that as a result it was harder and harder to find fountain pens and ink cartridges. I’d been able to find ink for my pen, but I stocked up – I have far too much of it even now – because there did seem to be relatively fewer stacks of cartridge boxes.

And indeed the papeterie the other day was selling nowhere near the amount of fountain pen ink that a papeterie would have been selling fifteen or twenty years ago. You see, when I was a child going to school in France in the 7th grade (referred to as 5ème), we were required to buy these sorts of training pens. We were allowed, even encouraged, to use erasable ink and effaceurs with them, which is of note because the obligatory use of fountain pens was tied to the culture of perfection.

The French are perfectionists. (I have things to say about the problematic category “French,” but I’ll let it go for now.) I think many people who are familiar with this country to any extent will have an idea of what I mean; you can see it in how much care is taken in making and presenting patisseries and confiseries (pastry and candy), for instance. It goes far, far beyond that, though. The French, as far as I can tell – this is certainly how I feel being one of them – are also among the most critical people in the world, a trait which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding and outright dislike (the old saw that we’re rude; the increase in the American perception that the French hated America because we refused to go to war with GWB in 2003 and criticized the US’ foreign policy vehemently; etc). There is an intense pressure in French culture, imbuing every single French person, to be perfect. This is of course impossible, so it leads to the desire, often vicious, to point out the imperfections of others in order to hide one’s own, to be critical, to judge — to fashion, dare I say it? I’ll take fashion as an example: it has very nasty sides (I should know; like every other woman alive, and for all I know every person period, I get weighed-up by other women here constantly, and inevitably found very wanting, as is obvious in the eyes). It also, at its best, speaks to an admirable desire to bring more beauty into the world via artifice (in the positive sense of that term) — to create perfection. French gastronomy would fall into the same category, but I’m tangenting.

My point is the drive for perfection. It imbues the culture, it leads both to the sublimely beautiful and the viciously base, and it starts, among other things, with pens. I was taught to read and write in France, aged six, attending CP (cours préparatoire, equivalent to 1st grade). We started off with slates and chalk — no fooling — to form our letters, then graduated to pencils — the erasers of which were never to be used, because we had to learn to form the letters perfectly from the get-go — and within a few weeks we were using ballpoints so that we couldn’t erase what we’d produced. Pencils… one of my most vivid memories of that period is of surreptitiously trying to use my eraser to correct a mistake, and of my teacher, who we were all very intimidated by, catching me. I will never forget the steady in-the-eyes gaze of absolute disapproval and vague threat she gave me as she slowly ripped the eraser off the pencil in one deliberate movement. (Have you ever tried to do that? I have. It’s impossible.) You have to learn to be perfect immediately, you see. This is reflected by the paper French students use… forget college-ruled. French paper (I wish I had a photo) involves approximately four-five lines to each bar of a US college-ruled sheet, so that children can learn to keep their letters in exactly the right proportions.

I’m rambling — but then, I warned you I’d ramble. It may sound like I’m resentful of this drive to create perfection in handwriting? Certainly it didn’t produce good penmanship in me – I wrote perfectly, like all the other children, and then I went back to America in 2nd grade, I was the only one who had been taught cursive (you are taught cursive immediately) so I had to switch to print, and the result was a sloppy scrawl that only temporarily improved (by French necessity) in 5ème before lapsing into even greater incomprehensibility. My handwriting is terrible, produced with a fountain pen or not. But I don’t resent the pressure I was under in CP and 5ème to present my work perfectly on the visual level, to write letters with perfect proportions and use rulers to draw lines, to change to different colored inks for headers, to learn to write with pens that I might otherwise have found difficult… to be perfect. The larger cultural questions surrounding the desire for perfection aside, it did me good to learn the pleasure of being responsible for a small thing done as well as possible, to learn the pleasure of writing as a visual art in itself and the attendant care and appreciation for the act of writing, to learn the pleasure and comfort of putting pen to paper in a boundaried way, and subsequently, to learn the pleasure of breaking the rules (I am, after all, an American too).

That said, the pleasures of rule-breaking aside, I often wish my penmanship had remained neat — while, at the same time, being very fond of my particular mix of print and cursive (I am actually incapable of writing in cursive now; I had a great deal of trouble writing out the honor statement in the required cursive on the GRE; and I don’t mind at all). I am happiest with my writing, my handwriting, when I feel I’ve found a juste milieu — a balance — between legibility and personality.

And to this day I write headers in different colored pen, at least in my journals, and I will never stop using a fountain pen, the tool that most puts en valeur (frames against a background, acts as a foil, brings to the fore) the beauty of the act of writing itself, the tool that represents all that is best about the drive to perfection in even the smallest of acts, even in the writing of a single word.

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