- Hieroglyphic Modernisms: Writing and New Media in the Twentieth Century by Jesse Schotter
Jesse Schotter’s Hieroglyphic Modernisms: Writing and New Media in the Twentieth Century joins a host of books that seek to understand modernist writing in relation to emerging media such as photography, phonography, and film.1 These books return to what Michael North has called “the scene of the modern” in order to demonstrate the rich ways that modernism—its own occasional postures or myths of autonomy notwithstanding—was always self-consciously part of a larger media ecology.2 Indeed, modernism, according to this argument, has to some extent been constituted by its very relationship with overlapping or competing media. The novelty of Hieroglyphic Modernisms lies in Schotter’s examination of the modernist media ecology through the early-twentieth-century discourse surrounding the Egyptian hieroglyph. Schotter argues that hieroglyphs offered to the imagination of fiction writers and film directors new ways to conceive of possibilities for “linguistic and cultural interconnection” and served as “metaphors for the relationship between writing and new media” (17). [End Page 477]
In the early nineteenth century, Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone and demonstrated that hieroglyphs were phonetic, akin to the Latin alphabet, and not primarily visual or pictorial as had been long believed.3 Although he thereby dispelled the promise of unmediated reference and the air of mysterious essence that had long clung to hieroglyphs, Champollion’s discovery did not prevent some modernists from reverting to older understandings. Schotter’s claim is that although hieroglyphs were often misunderstood by writers and directors (comparable to Ezra Pound’s well-documented misconceptions about Chinese ideograms4), modernist myths and fantasies about the hieroglyph nonetheless prove to have been enabling and creative acts of misreading. Indeed, the book begins by invoking Vachel Lindsay’s hieroglyphic vision of cinema as unmediated expression (1),5 and dwells throughout on modernist desires to “bridge the gap” or “blur the line” (two of the most frequently used phrases in the book) between, for instance, image and writing, present and past, nation and nation, nature and language, one language and another, language and body, body and image, and writing and digital technology: all arch-utopian impulses.
So while Schotter historicizes hieroglyphs in the context of Egyptian nationalism and western orientalism in the 1920s, the modernist legacy of misreading and appropriating hieroglyphs means that hieroglyphs in this study are approached primarily as metaphors through which modernist fiction writers could imagine both the hybridity of their own medium as well as writing’s ability to incorporate the visual and the aural in ways comparable to, and even preferable to, film and phonography (3). Virginia Woolf, for instance, imagines external reality as a hieroglyph that must be translated by writers into texts (7) in order to overcome the distance between nature and language (64). Indeed, a key claim of the book is that the necessary interpretation of the hieroglyph generates modernist narrative. As a hybrid emblem of vision and sound that seems to hint at some elusive essence, the hieroglyph also allows Woolf to imagine new ways of understanding character (63). Joseph Conrad similarly derives new narrative techniques from the hieroglyph in the hope of traversing the distance between writing and speech (3). In different ways, Marcel Proust and Sigmund Freud decipher an internal world of hieroglyphs into narratives.
Film theorists such as Lindsay and directors such as Orson Welles, meanwhile, saw the hieroglyph as an emblem of possibility for their own medium to incorporate both the textual and the gestural, to become a universal language of a kind that exceeded the capabilities of language. Schotter also shows how Egyptian writers such as Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq al-Hakim and, later, director Shadi Abd al-Salam argued for a distinctive Egyptian essence, in part mediated through the pyramids and hieroglyphs, in order to link an ancient [End Page 478] past to a nationalist present and a projected future (129–31). The final chapter turns to American postmodern...