Very interesting article about Boustrophedon writing
by David L O’Hara.
This relates to research I am doing into the relationship between dance steps and the metrical foot in poetic scansion, with regard to the movement of the chorus in strophe and anti-strophe. More will be revealed when my book on the subject THE STEP IS THE FOOT is published by Grey Suit Editions later this year.
O’Hara comments on this 2500 year old inscription in Gortyn, an ancient site in Crete:
“The writing is in boustrophedon style. Boustrophedon means something like “as the ox turns.” Today we write in stoichedon style, in which all the letters face the same direction, like soldiers standing in formation. Boustrophedon is based on an agricultural, not a military ideal: the writer writes as a farmer plows. Write to the end of the line, and then, rather than returning to the left side of the page, turn the letters to face the opposite direction and write from right to left. When you read boustrophedon, your eye follows a zig-zag across the page — or the stone.”
Later in his article, he says:
“The code at Gortyn records (in Column IX, around the middle, if you’re curious) the presence at court of someone in addition to the judge: the mnemon. You can see by the word’s resemblance to our word “mnemonic” that it has to do with memory. The mnemon’s job was to act as a witness to previous judicial decisions, and to remember them and remind the judge of those decisions. The mnemon’s job was not to decide cases but to be a kind of embodiment of the law and therefore an embodiment of fairness.”
I write about Crete in my forthcoming book:
“With the emergence of the maze dances on the threshing-floor came the establishment of the chorus. Initially there may have been one lead singer, and the dancers linked to each other were the chorus, perhaps stepping in unison to the refrain voiced by the community. It’s here that we arrive at the fusion of the dance step with the foot of poetic metre. Linking hands, the chorus stepped out the rhythm of the strophe in one direction and the anti-strophe in the other, mapping the trajectory of a plough in a field, and it is worth noting that in the early versions of the alphabet, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician practice of writing from right to left with the letters having a left-facing orientation unlike their own archaic script. This was followed by a period of bidirectional writing, which means that the direction of the writing was in one direction on one line but in the opposite direction on the next, a practice known as boustrophedon – which means “the turning of the ox” – as when the ox-drawn plough reaches the end of a furrow. Such writing matches the left to right, right to left progress of the chorus line.”
So this is the background to a notion I wish to introduce, which is that of Boustrophedon Literature. Precedents in modern writing which might be cited should include Raymond Roussel and Bioy Casares, the “time plays”of J. B. Priestley, the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the films he scripted for Alain Renais, together with the cut-up novels of William Burroughs. This is a literature which only reads from A to B in the sense that one page follows another (as the plough gradually turns over the soil of the entire field). But, when we watch the movement of the team dragging the plough, we see that going back is the same as going forward. Progress and its reverse are in equilibrium. In this literature one paragraph may just as well precede another as follow it. Actual time and flash-back are continually juxtaposed. Yes, you might read any one paragraph from its first capital letter to its last full stop. But you could read the entire book backwards, paragraph by paragraph, and get as much out of it as you would if you read it from its first page to its last. It’s because memory is inscribed in the action of writing, or that the book is like a jig-saw puzzle, complete when the last piece is put in place – without requiring that the pieces be put together in any set order, for that is left to chance. It could also be described as mnemonic writing.
It defies the King’s dictum to Alice – “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” It suggests that a book may be opened in the middle, or anywhere. “Read as much as you wish to read, then close the book, re-open it and start from another page.”
Boustrophedon literature questions the ethos of progress. It suggests, rather, an ethos of timelessness, the share cleaving the turf as it has done for centuries, as it will do for centuries. It perceives “progress” as leading to Armageddon. Life is a Moebius strip, forever returning us to our beginnings. As a wave rises and falls, forwards incorporates backwards. Falls and rises, just as a wave does; backwards returning as forwards.
I have written three novels in this style The Distance Measured in Days (unpublished), Consciousness (with Mutilation) published recently by Odd Volumes, and The Lynx Effect (unpublished).