Manuscripts and Tattoos

Recently I did a thing which I have planned for a long time, but never quite found the confluence of time, money and motivation to complete: I got a tattoo.

It’s a quote in a cursive Cyrillic typeface, reading “Рукописи не горят” (“Manuscripts don’t burn”) from the book The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Nick, one of the artists at Mos Eisleys Tattoo Studio, did the inking.

“But John,” I can hear you say, “Why?”

Why, indeed.  Here are my thoughts on the subject, framed as a conversation with an imaginary me, a technique which I steal, with attribution, from one of my favorite writers, John Scalzi:

Why get a tattoo?

Short answer: ‘cause.

Full answer: I’ve been meaning to get a tattoo for a long time, probably a decade. Of the many ideas and impulses, few felt right for more than a few months or a year, which is not a great basis for getting inked.

Earlier this summer my girlfriend Zyra got her first tattoo, a traditional Filipino pattern done in the traditional style by Lane Wilcken, one of the very few practicing traditional artists in the world. Lane and Zyra invited me to participate in the tattoo ceremony, and I help stretch Z’s skin while Lane inked her leg. This experience tipped me over from “might” to “will,” and now I have a tattoo.

Why in Russian?

I was a Russian Studies major in college, and spent a semester studying in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. In that time and since I have read many book by many Russian authors. For a time in the early 1990s, I was nearly fluent. I have in my house dozens of books of Russian literature, poetry, plays, philosophy and artwork. Russia, or at least the literary parts of Russia, have been quite influential in my life for decades.

I don’t remember if I first read The Master and Margarita when I was in college, or after I graduated. I do know that I was not at all ready to be in the real world when I did graduate, so I immediately went to work at a local bookstore. There I had my fill of Russian literature. So it was sometime in the early to mid- 1990s.

In early 1994 my former Russian Studies professor, Christine Rydel, hunted me down and coerced convinced me to rejoin the RST program for a semester in Russia. During that trip I learned a great deal of Russian, drank an ungodly amount of vodka, and visited the studio of artist Andrei Kharshak (Андрей Александрович Харшак, see also), who had created a series of illustrations for an edition of The Master and Margarita published in Russia in 1994. I came home with two prints – one of Golgotha and one a sort of collage which includes a scattering of pages around a stove, echoing the scene where Satan, in the guise of Woland, tells the despondent Master “Manuscripts don’t burn.”

Over the intervening years Russian literature as an influence in my life has waxed and waned. With my (relatively) recent and (apparently) ongoing interest in literature in translation, Russian Lit is now ascendant. And with Russia influencing American politics, and thus the American zeitgeist, getting the tattoo in Russian just felt right.

Why that particular quote?

The quote, in context, appears at the beginning of the tenth line in the above photograph.

“Manuscripts don’t burn,” in the context of the book, carries the connotation that a work of art, once created, lasts forever. The Master’s book is censored by Soviet bureaucrats and he burns the manuscript. Later on, Woland and his entourage produce via sleight of hand the unharmed manuscript, stating “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The physical artifact may be destroyed, the artist may disown and disavow its existence, but for good or bad, a thing created cannot ever be un-created.

I find in this sentiment echoes of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, in these lines:

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.

Once an act is performed, the universe is now one in which the act was performed. Or as Buddhists would put it, only our actions are permanent.

In a larger sense, Bulgakov wrote his book at a time when official government censorship (and censureship) prevented the publication of many works of art and literature. The Master and Margarita, written between 1928 and 1940, wasn’t published in full until 1967, and even then first in France. Yet Bulgakov persisted, and now The Master and Margarita is counted among the most important works of Russian literature.

Aren’t you kind of overthinking this whole tattoo thing?

Well maybe, but it’s a tattoo. It’s kind of permanent.

Permanent?

In the context of my corporeal existence, or at least that of my left arm.

Are you going to get another tattoo?

I think so. This was a great experience. Assuming time, money, health, etc., I will probably get at least one more before the end of the year. I have a few more ideas, and I have thought about them long enough that having more words on my skin will be neither impulsive nor disruptive. At least one will be on more visible skin.

Thank you for sharing.

Thank you for listening!

Links and Notes for the Week of August 19, 2018

New Books This Week

pile of books

This was a good week for books. From top to bottom: Selected Poems of Sergei Yesenin, Voronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam, First Love and Other Stories by Ivan Turgenev, Selected Poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts, Celadon by Ian Haight, Granta issue #144, Apex Magazine Issue 110, and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.

For links to these authors, books and publishers, please see their listings on my 2018 Reading List page.

Thanks to a small gift card from work, I was able to pick up the four Russian authors from Amazon.com. They are unusual-enough titles that I didn’t want to burden the local bookstores with hunting them down. The Watts and Roanhorse books I ordered from Books and Mortar here in Grand Rapids, and I have ongoing subscriptions to the two journals. I picked up Ian Haight’s book at a small signing in Lowell this past Monday. It was great to finally meet Ian, after publishing him in Issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review, back in early 2016.

Since I just finished reading At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell and Paternus by Dyrk Ashton, Trail of Lightning is currently at the top of the to-read pile, and I can’t wait to dive in.

Links and Notes for the Week of July 15, 2018

Between work, vacation, and illness, and recovering from all three, I have missed a few weeks. I have also missed you-all! Welcome back.

* This is a great list of over 100 Russian writers, past and present, who are worthy of consideration.
* An excellent MetaFilter post from user Kliuless, offering a huge list of links concerning the concept of authority, narratives, cultural inertia who we allow to write the stories in which we live.
* Resisters of the Rust Belt
* Speaking of Metafilter, here is their latest post concerning the increasingly despotic and idiotic tenure of the fascist bootlick Donald Trump. Many worthy links and news sources in the comments.
* As a balm for living in this timeline, I’ve been listening to a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates lectures and interviews lately. Here are a few of my favorites:
** The Necessity of Tomorrow(s) – Ta-Nehisi Coates on Afrofutures
** Futureface: Alex Wagner and Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss racial identity
** Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at the Harvard “Universities and Slavery” conference
** Richard Rothstein, “The Color Of Law” (with Ta-Nehisi Coates)
** In Conversation With Ta-Nehisi Coates

Links and Notes for the Week of June 10, 2018

* The Calvert Journal is publishing Beyond the Game, a series of video vignettes exploring each of the cities in Russia which will be hosting the football during the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
* TOR.com has posted nice big long lists of the major genre releases for June 2018:
** All the new Fantasy Books Coming Out in June 2018.
** All the new Science Fiction Books Coming Out in June 2018.
** All the new Genre-Bending Books Coming Out in June 2018.
* Metafilter has posted the latest catch-all thread for links and commentary concerning the presidency and administration of Donald Trump, whose daddy issues exceed even those of George W. Bush, which is an astounding accomplishment. Baby Hands and Daddy Issues would be the title of the most accurate possible biography of our current and perpetually emasculated president.

Links and Notes for the Week of April 8, 2018

* White People Anonymous

* How nostalgia for white Christian America drove so many Americans to vote for Trump

* The Demise of the Nation State

* Mud season in Russia: Putin, Rasputin

* Two lists from Tor.com – All the New Fantasy Books Coming Out in April. All the New Science Fiction Books Coming Out in April.

* “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” – from this comment (#26, by Frank Wilhoit) on a post over at Crooked Timber.

* An excerpt from William T. Vollmann’s new book No Immediate Danger.

Links and Notes for the Week of January 28, 2018

* Some words: Dialogue. Monologue. Analog. Dialect. Lecture. Lector.

* After some years of using GoodReads, I am trying out LibraryThing as a way to catalog all of my books. I can’t say I prefer one to the other, but at first use the LibraryThing UI is easier for viewing large volumes of data. Thus I don’t need to build a custom app to do this for me. Plus plus, the LibraryThing Android App can scan barcodes, which VASTLY simplifies the cataloging process.

* [UPDATE] After a week of using LibraryThing, I can say this: LT is very good as a cataloging system. It lacks some of the “friendliness” of GoodReads, but that is not a criticism. LT also makes sorting, filtering, and categorizing extremely easy. I think I will end up using both in parallel – GoodReads for the more public-facing view of all things literary in my life, and LibraryThing for the catalog of my personal library. LT will also be useful for outputting data for any custom apps I might build down the road.

* I’ve been studying up on Baba Yaga and Russian history for a writing project. One of the odd bits of trivia I have uncovered is that there is a community of Old Believers in a tiny town in northern Minnesota. Old Believers — staroveri (старове́ры), formerly called raskolniki (раскольники), which has interesting connotations vis a vis Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment — have communities all over the world, with the primary U.S. populations being in Alaska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Funny, the way the pieces of a story come together.

Links and Notes for the Week of January 14, 2018

* Back in September of 2016 I took the Amtrak from Grand Rapids to Vancouver via the Empire Builder route. It was a wonderful, contemplative, transcendent experience (blog posts pending). Based on that, and based on this article in the Calvert Journal, I now want to experience the Trans-Siberian Railway. It will also give me an excuse to dust off my Russian skills.

* And speaking of that trip, while in transit, while not watching America roll by, I read Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano. It is an absolutely beautiful book, recalling all of love and beauty and intimacy and trust and heartache and the million tiny moments that bind people together and pull them apart. I just came across a wonderful review by Lauren Goldberg in Music & Literature which does justice to the most compelling book I have read in years. On a related note, I think I will now buy a subscription to Music & Literature.

* And speaking of Russian stuff, the Speak Russian Like Russians blog is both useful and fun.

* In the world of fandom and literature, author Jim C. Hines (may his beard grow ever longer) has put together an excellent post detailing the long history of Jon del Arroz’s trolling and harassing behavior toward authors, fans and organizations in the larger community. The comments on the article are mostly erudite and informative, though a JdA supporter/GamerGater pulls an impressive amount of sea-lioning to no significant effect.

* The 2018 State of the World conversation over at The Well has wrapped up. It, as well as the many previous conversations in the series, are well worth perusing over the upcoming weeks and months. A hearty thank you to Bruce Sterling, Jon Lebkowsky and all the other participants for opening this to the general public.

Dean Allen, creator of the content management/blogging system Textpattern, has passed away. Allen was one of the biggest influences in my early career as a web developer. I took his thoughts on design and typography to heart, though I was never a designer. His photo blog featuring his Weimaraner Oliver made me want to move to rural France. Allen, along with Eric Meyer and Jeffrey Zeldman, were huge influences as I began my career in web development.