My friend Marilyn has been trying to get me to buy a fountain pen. I’m tempted. When she takes out her sleek implement with its gold and platinum nib, I love the way her hand grasps the chunky stem and the ink emerges in a smooth, velvety line on the page. It would be nice to own such a lovely thing, which turns writing into a sensual experience and makes the writer look stylish. A little research yields additional advantages: Fountain pens don’t wear out but get better with use; they decrease the likelihood of writer’s cramp; they are marvelous objects to collect and learn about; and they bring you into contact with like-minded enthusiasts. All of this appeals to me. And yet I have resisted buying one.
It helps to begin by positioning the fountain pen in the context of its history. Although now a quaint, even archaic tool, the portable fountain pen was a novelty 100 years ago. It only came into its own in the early 20th century, when automatic feeding mechanisms became less complicated, and designs to avoid leakage had been perfected (a particular problem in an era before dry cleaning and Xerox machines). It remained the implement of choice for on-the-spot writing during the 1950s, as the ballpoint was still a crude, erratic device. When I was a teenager in the late `60s, the joke about the bar mitzvah boy who addressed the assembled throng — “Today I am a fountain pen” — was already out of date, but could still draw a laugh. I don’t think it would today. The joke would have to be: “Today I am an iPod or a Playstation 3.” (Note how writing has been superseded — the shift is not to a technological upgrade but to another mode of communication: from writing to music and video.)
The fountain pen has thus evolved from being the sort of thing one might give as a conventional gift to being a specialty item, replete with the patina of a romantic past. As a result, it has acquired a cultish following. There are numerous Web sites for those who wish to learn more about fountain pens (nibs.com is perhaps the most complete and useful) as well as Web sites and blogs where one can trade, sell, expound on minutiae, and generally extol one’s implement. As with all cults you’ll see aficionados making extravagant claims: that fountain pens build self-esteem, develop better eye-hand coordination, create more enthusiasm and dedication in the student writer, inspire greater creativity and originality, etc. I would not be surprised if some wacky billionaire were to underwrite a “fountain pens in the schools” program. Marilyn tells me that Japanese school children are required to use them — or so she was told by a Japanese Kierkegaard scholar, possibly a dubious source.
Like all cult objects the fountain pen makes its user pay, both literally and metaphorically, for the privilege of its use. A serviceable fountain pen costs about $40 or $50, but the price can jump to hundreds, even thousands once you start to get serious or move into vintage pens. From my brief survey, most fountain pen owners proceed quickly from the baseline of the cheaper pen to more and costlier implements. They start checking out eBay, trolling Web sites, dropping hints to loved ones, or obsessing about some coveted pen outside their price range: “I was kind of down and saw this Parker Lucky Curve in a little shop in Chicago. I couldn’t resist,” explained one enthusiast, an impoverished academic, who sometimes doesn’t have enough money for lunch. I feel like telling him: “Get on methadone, buddy, buy a package of Bics.” But I also feel for the speaker’s obvious love for the object, which he keeps like a sacred talisman in his breast pocket, close to his heart.
On one fountain pen Web site, the writer expounds on the subject of his pens with an ideological fervor:
In my own little way, I’m striking back against that world out there, the one that says ‘Bigger, faster, you’re already too little, too late!’ I collect fountain pens, and I do it in a leisurely fashion, finding one here, one there, and another somewhere else. I don’t have thousands of pens, as some collectors do, or even hundreds; it’s occurred to me that building a big collection might be just one more way of giving in to the pressure … My collection’s a small one, only about three dozen. I’ve picked out a few pens that have something special about them. I have that Moore; a Conklin’s Crescent Filler, the first successful self-filling pen; a flat-top Sheaffer’s Jade Radite Lifetime, the first plastic pen; several specimens of Sheaffer’s Balance, the first ergonomic pen; a Wahl-Eversharp Skyline, designed by Henry Dreyfuss; and so on …
You can hear the crazed, evangelical strain in this exposition. It’s exciting — and a little scary.*
Good fountain pens are not just expensive; they are difficult to use and maintain, complicated in their parts and operation. The diagrams on the Web sites are daunting. In the case of, say, the Sheaffer Snorkel and the Parker Aeromatic, you’d think you were dealing with a submarine or a rocket that ought to demand top secret clearance from the State Department.
Then there’s the subject of ink. From what I can glean, only wimps use cartridges — the handy, efficient method. True enthusiasts use bottled ink. Most cartridge pens have converters that allow them to bypass cartridges for a purer, more labor-intensive filling method. Some older pens have to be filled with eyedroppers. Marilyn explains that she is attached to customized inks (she has a mixing kit), and even where her cartridge pens don’t have converters, she fills empty cartridges with her own ink. She used to do this with a hypodermic needle, but lost the hypodermic and now uses a turkey basting needle. “It works surprisingly well,” she reports earnestly.
Finally, we come to the nib — the metal point on the fountain pen. If the filling mechanism is the fountain pen brain, the nib is its heart and soul. Fountain pen people can talk about nibs all day. I acknowledge that I am attracted to this part of the pen. The mix of metals, the delicacy of the point, the sometimes engraved words or graphics on the shiney surface are beautiful to look at and evoke a delicate, literary past. I’m told that rigid nibs are strong and reliable but also, well, rigid, while flexible nibs are more fun but also more “temperamental”— one of those anthropomorphic words that fountain pen people are fond of. As Marilyn explains: “A flexible nib makes a nuanced line and a lovely swishing sort of sound like a quill. But it also tends to dry out when there is ink still in it and needs to be cleaned frequently.” I suspect that to fountain pen people, a preference for rigid or flexible nibs speaks volumes about habits, personality, even sexual tastes.
The sort of devotion that fountain pens elicit recalls the devotion that other sorts of enthusiasts lavish on rifles and sports cars. In these cases, the object is infused with the owners’ sense of self, rather like the slightly irrational and highly personalized feelings parents have about their children. Get Marilyn on the subject of her pens and it’s like she’s talking about a rambunctious brood: her two Sailors with their rigid nibs, her two Namiki with their flexible nibs, her beloved no-name pen with solid gold flexible nib bought at an antique store for $6, her cherished vintage Waterman. She’ll apologize for the extravagance of owning a Montblanc (it was a gift) and confess her desire to own a Pelikan: “I feel it’s a real lack since lots of fountain pen people think it’s the best,” she says wistfully.
The rifle, the sports car, and the fountain pen can all be lumped under the rubric of the fetish — an object, generally construed as phallic, that serves to compensate the individual and provide a temporary sense of power and self-sufficiency in the face of a lack. But the fountain pen is perhaps more charged than these other objects in this respect, for it is a fetish of a fetish. After all, writing has traditionally been understood in Western culture as fetishized speech. The most resonant example of this idea is the Christian notion of the Word. God is the Word, Christ gave the Word, and this Word is supposed to be made available to us via the book of the New Testament, itself a presumed “revelation” of the Old Testament. The book is thus removed from its origin but also sacred, evoking its source in a fetishized way.
Writing, in this context, represents an effort to capture and encapsulate the ineffable. And the spiritual component opens out here to include the existential one. Writing is often seen as the transfer of ideas and sensations — amorphous, fleeting, fragmented — into an imagined finality and wholeness. Proust’s fanatical desire to convert his past into writing in his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time is an extreme example of using writing to fetishize experience. Like the collector who tries to complete the set of his collection, Proust tried to complete the set of himself by transferring himself completely onto the page. The fountain pen is a very Proustian sort of implement. It advertises durability, deliberation, and fixedness — it collapses the self, both as a highly prized object by the self and as an implement of transcription for the self.
And this is precisely why I have avoided buying one. Although a writer by vocation and someone driven to write almost continuously, I am nonetheless deeply ambivalent about the sorts of fixed choices that writing demands. As a teacher, I look with wonder at the colleague who places a grade with a flourish of the pen at the top of a student paper. I write the grade in a spidery pencil mark in the corner so as to erase it easily if I change my mind. My career as a writer is built to a disturbing degree on the opportunity to revise. I twiddle with words — a masturbatory image perhaps but also an impressionist one. I could never have written this essay without the computer, which allows me to change what I write up until that moment when I simply throw up my hands and decide to stop.
Recently, it occurred to me that my relationship to writing pertains to the postmodern school of philosophy known as Deconstruction. In his almost- incomprehensible book Of Grammatology (ergo: everything I say here may be wrong), the French philosopher Jacques Derrida took issue with the underlying assumption of Western thought that positions speech as antecedent to writing. He argued that writing is not “lower” than speech in its relationship to truth. Truth, in the sense of the Word — or any absolute sort of originating idea — is an illusion, and that both speech and writing are equal and provisional forms of expression. In other words, there is no primal referent or transcendental signified — nothing at the beginning and nothing above to which words refer. Derrida coined the term differance — a combination of difference and deferral—to explain how meaning gets made. We only understand by context and comparison (hence, my tendency to assess my students papers only after I’ve read through the entire batch), and we understand only provisionally, never fully or fixedly in the manner that our logocentric culture, a culture predicated on the priority of the Word, would have us believe.
Get it? That makes one of us. But to return to the subject at hand.
The fountain pen is the logocentric instrument par extraordinaire. It places the word on the page with brio and authority. Of course, even with a fountain pen one can cross out — and for Derrida, crossing out, which he called writing under erasure, is a way of demonstrating that words do not carry fixed meanings. (His books contain deliberate cross-outs for this purpose, which, when I was in grad school, I thought was super cool.) But crossing out with a fountain pen seems a contradiction in terms. You use the pen to be neat and elegant, not to be sloppy and indecisive. A few cross-outs here and there can be endearing, I suppose, but if they get too plentiful they mar the effect that the implement is designed to bolster and promote. The cross-out goes against the grain of the fountain pen esthetic, which is clean, decisive, and fixed.
When I tell Marilyn that the fountain pen doesn’t fit with my psychological profile, that I oppose its logocentrism, and that, besides, I’m left-handed, mechanically ill-starred (even ballpoints tend to blot and leak on me), and have a chronic tendency to lose valuable things (pace: one of my mother’s diamond stud earrings), she is dismissive. She says that she has not been hampered as a writer of complex ideas by the fountain pen (of course, as a philosopher by vocation she operates in the logocentric tradition Derrida derided — though by the same token, so did he). She assures me that lefties can get their pens customized and tells me to query the Web sites. As for erasable fountain pens, she hasn’t heard of any (I don’t think she crosses out much), but notes, with typical “anything is possible” fervor, that that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. No doubt there is a chat underway about this on a fountain pen blog right now. By the same token, she informs me that my sense of fountain pen neatness is overstated. One expects fountain pens to leak and blot — her Namiki Vanishing Point does this all the time, and when it doesn’t, it dries up and she has to dip it in whatever she has at hand to get it going, often sacrificing a perfectly good Snapple. In short, fountain pens are unpredictable implements, needy and child-like, not the Gestapo of the pen world, as I seem to think. Finally, I won’t lose my pen, Marilyn assures me, because I’ll be mindful of it: I won’t lend it out or use it capriciously. I might even want to keep it at home, as she does her better pens. (I nix this option, however, since the exhibitionist element of owning the pen is a major part of its appeal for me.)
I must admit that I am beginning to be swayed. If nothing else, a fountain pen would give me something new to look for in my travels through thrift shops (see earlier column), and something new to hint that my husband buy me for my next birthday — not that he would take the hint (see another earlier column). Even if I never actually used the fountain pen (and for what would I use it, beyond writing supermarket lists and signing credit card receipts, income tax returns, and my last will and testament?), it would be fun to own one. I am charmed, for example, by a Sailor Sapporo Mini with a solid gold nib (“arguably the best nib made in the world today”) that comes in a number of bright enameled colors. I stumbled on it the other day on the Internet, where it’s selling for $108. It’s a cartridge pen without a converter, which is just as well. It’s adorable (I like the red one, though also the yellow). If I owned that pen, I could play with it in my pocket, admire it in idle moments, and show it off during a lull in conversation: “Hey, look at my fountain pen — isn’t it neat!” As I see it, a fountain pen is never just a fountain pen. • 29 January 2008
*For another variety of fountain pen enthusiast, take a look at the customized pens out there. One that caught my eye is the Jimi Hendrix Writing Instrument from the Think Limited Edition collection. It features ribbons of colorful resins, a clip in the form of a guitar neck (“representative of the right-handed guitar that was strung in reverse”), Hendrix’s signature engraved on the band, and “Are you experienced?” on the top of the cap. Billed as a collectible “too groovy to miss” and retailing at $225, it proves that fountain pen enthusiasts come in all shapes and psychedelic colors.