An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments

On my love of fountain pens
Roland Barthes at his desk
'Take the gesture, the action of writing. I would say, for example, that I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments. I often swtch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones. I have far too many pens - I don't know what to do with all of them! And yet, as soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them.'

Roland Barthes, 'An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments'
Last week I underwent the trauma of unreconcilable loss. My fountain pen went missing, and my world fell apart. Like the character of Malone in Beckett's Malone Dies, when the pencil disappears so does the subject, so does the narrative, and a large gap erupted in my diary: a whole week of empty white space. Cultural critic and philosopher Maurice Blanchot has said that we cannot witness the catastrophe, the disaster, because it is beyond the language of human experience and expression; for me, the disaster could not be witnessed or recorded because there was nothing to record it with.

Needless to say, I was beside myself. I've been using a fountain pen since my days at university, attracted by the way that they looked and the way they hark back to a bygone era. They also have a certain graceful quality that I think is appealing, and give my handwriting a slant and a flow of maturity. (Perhaps I'm imagining that last part, but whatever the case I enjoy writing with them.)

In an interview with Roland Barthes, originally published in Le Monde in 1973, the theorist informally outlines the more practical and mundane aspects of a writer's weekly schedule. But rather than dwell on a 'methodology', as such, Barthes elaborates instead on the every-day character of his working habits. For Barthes, there is nothing so significant as the seemingly insignificant, and it can be enlightening 'to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level.'

Blue Pelikan M215 Fountain Pen

Barthes goes on to helpfully elucidate his point, explaining that for centuries writing as been 'attended by great ceremony', from ancient Chinese society to the practices of medieval Christian monasteries. The very act of writing, it seems, has always been accompanied by a specific set of 'rules' which predetermine the work.

In Barthes 'almost obsessive relation to writing instruments' there appear to be two factors at play. The first relates to the unique pleasure of obsession, and the endless search of an obscure object of desire - in this case, a particular brand or type of fountain pen, or other such writing instrument. (For a more detailed exploration of this kind of obsession, and of Barthes in general, the Ink Quest weblog is certainly worth your attention.) The second factor is based around the structure and rhythm of writing as an act in and of itself.

When I was a student, the quality of my work was often dependent on a comfortable and relaxed state of mind. Well, perhaps anxious and frenzied is closer to the truth. But there is certainly something to be said of Flaubert's recommendation to 'Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.' Barthes' obsession doesn't just reflect an interest in aestheticism, but in its own eccentric way is diligently practical.

It's refreshing to hear from a writer who does not speak of his position in the cosmos, his place in the privileged upper-classes, or his position in history; but rather, simply his position at a desk, and the joy that writing can bring.

To my great relief, I have since found my beloved fountain pen and normality has been restored. But things are not quite the same as they were. I am now caught in the grip of another object of desire: another pen, a kind of 'upgrade' from my trusty Parker. It's a simple but classic fountain pen of German design: the Pelikan M215. I think I'll go for the blue one.