Summoning that light within

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The characters of the text are finely drawn, embellished with peacock blue, red, and gold. The entire page is perhaps only four inches wide and six long; yet the surface is tightly controlled by the artist. This particular illuminated manuscript is Persian.

I can't read this ancient language. And I was not so fortunate as the two women I'd seen in the Japanese collection. They were leaning over a narrow case containing a delicate scroll. With their noses against the glass, one traced the calligraphy with her finger while the other translated.

With no interpreter, I can only appreciate this page for the statement it makes about line, color, and order - as form rather than content. This is a shrine to the word. Not even the printed word but the hand-formed word.

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This manuscript is not the most striking illumination I've seen. But it happens to be particularly significant to me, because it's the first I've seen since I began writing and editing with a computer. The two images - the page and the computer screen - are playing a punster's game: Illumination of parchment vs. illumination of a screen. If I want to read my screen more clearly, I turn a knob. If I want a clearer reading of a parchment, I must return to an ancient culture.

I remember in art historian Kenneth Clark's Civilisation films an Irish illumination containing a primitive image of a human being. While Clark called it ''a poor figure of a man,'' he praised the pure ornament of these manuscripts that ''carried the word of God all over the Western world.'' To me illuminations of the Gospels are evidence of hope, a light showing at the edge of the Dark Ages. They were a child of their time - acts of celebration, flares held up against the doom.

I imagine a monk bent over a page. The object he decorates will be touched with reverence by the few who know the mystery of reading, who know how to turn script into the mind's images.

When I bend over my computer, I have millions of light dots to arrange and rearrange. Each time I write I must survive my own personal dark ages. I, too, prepare a celebration. But the beginnings of my celebration are tentative. And I am glad my machine requires of me no complex calligraphy or fine steady hand. I write and rewrite. I move and merge the dots as I arrange and rearrange word images.

The light dots accommodate my commands. But they cannot bring up images for me. For that I must begin as the monk did, searching for light within.

I am sure that even the new generation of computers with their promise of artificial intelligence will not make celebrating in word images easier for me. Writing will always have its false starts, its desperate silences, its paltry stores of vision.

Or worse, there will be the pretentious images that collapse like some fancy pastry when the heat of the oven has gone. It's easy enough to tame the barbaric in our creations. To tame the grandiose requires more courage. It means facing oneself, giving up the little indulgences: the high-sounding over the high-minded and the images done just for imagery's sake.

Perhaps this making of word images is so elusive because, artificial intelligence or no, we, like the ancient calligrapher, are forming and reforming images of ourselves. Whether we put these images in stone, in ink, or in computer circuit boards, we are talking to and questioning ourselves.

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