*Penumbra Report owes its creative genesis in part to the delicate midwifery of an anthropomorphic machine. I was at Blue Moon Camera and Machine developing film and visiting my friend Christie Spillane, when my partner in slime, Lady Quackery, noticed the elegantly framed poster of NAKED LUNCH above what appeared to be a shrine / display of beautifully refurbished typewriters. We became hysterical. In a frenzy we rushed to the display and began typing on the mahines. After caressing and groping each and every one of those beautiful machines, we tucked in our shirts, pulled up our stockings, fixed our hair, decided we had somehow descended into some sort of temporary madness, and promptly left the store. We were mere feet from the car when that hot, typological fever took hold of our loins and dragged us back inside hysterically screaming until an early 1930s Underwood No. 5 was purchased. It’s been true love ever since.
When most people think “typewriter,” they picture something much like the Underwood No. 5. Why? Because this is the most successful typewriter design in history. When the Underwood was first introduced, it was only one of hundreds of competing and extremely varied typewriter designs. But by 1920, this machine, succeeded in defining the stereotype of a typewriter: a machine with four rows of keys and a shift, typing with typebars through a ribbon onto the front of a cylindrical rubber platen. This is the form that still determines our concept of what a typewriter is — or “was.” The No. 5 was the quintessential Underwood.
The CURE for modern machine angst resides within. Does our disposable culture leave you worried? Fed up with squandering your hard-earned equipment budget on devices rendered obsolete before they are even broken in? Searching for a companion machine with which you might actually have time to become intimately familiar?
Within our Portland, Oregon based facility you will discover a veritable treasure trove of functional, durable, fully warranted mechanical devices, from tried-and-true photographic apparatus to the west coast’s largest selection of refurbished and eager mechanical typewriting machines.
::Blue Moon Camera and Machine::
In some ways typewriters are fascinating because they are the predecessors of the electric processors used today. As Walter J. Ong puts it, “Since writing came into existence, the evolution of the word and the evolution of consciousness have been intimately tied in with technologies and technological developments.” Although, the most alluring characteristic about these machines is that they can be seen not only as tools of a bygone era, but independent psychological entities autonomous of human will. There is something inherently different about a MacBook Pro and an Underwood No.5. The MacBook is like an inanimate terminal, sterile and often cold to the touch. On the other hand, the Underwood is pulsating, arousing, virile… almost sentient. It comes down to the feel of these machines. A typewriter can be a guiding tutelary spirit or, contrastingly, a demonic presence or pet-like familiar. The only difference between familiars and demons are the specific ways in which a familiar possesses an individual. In contrast to demons, familiars do not possess the body. They rather possess the personality, the soul, the human affective relations and the psychological processes of a victim, but the familiar spirit maintains a differentiated personality with those who attack. Sometimes the familiar spirit entices the human spirit by appearing friendly and comforting when things go wrong, thus developing a progressive dependence on the spirit and the diminishing reliance of one’s individuality. Akin to a mercurial spirit, the typewriter acts as a medium (think both senses of the word), that creates a vortex and tearing a hole into other realms. It has magical powers because it is, in fact, a window — a hole in the wholeness of our world (which is never a seamless wholeness), through which our imagination may come in contact with the symbolic dimension.
The invention of the typewriter changed the course of Western culture, forever mutating the topographical landscape of literature. Many authors and writers have had unusual relationships with typewriters. Friedrich Nietzsche used a typewriter in an attempt to stem his migraine headaches and his incipient blindness. Mark Twain claimed in his autobiography that he was the first important writer to present a publisher with a typewritten manuscript, for Life on the Mississippi. E. E. Cummings may have been the first poet to deliberately use a typewriter for poetic effect. Jack Kerouac, a fast typist at 100 words per minute, typed On the Road on a roll of paper so he wouldn’t be interrupted by having to change the paper. Within two weeks of starting to write On the Road, Kerouac had one single-spaced paragraph, 120 feet long. Another fast typist of the Beat period was Richard Brautigan, who said that he thought out the plots of his books in detail beforehand, then typed them out at speeds approaching 90 to 100 words a minute. Ernest Hemingway used to write his books standing up in front of a Royal typewriter suitably placed on a tall bookshelf. Tom Robbins waxes philosophical about the Remington SL3, a typewriter that he bought to write Still Life with Woodpecker, and eventually does away with it because it is too complicated and inhuman of a machine for the writing of poetry. After completing the novel Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen is said to have flung his typewriter into the Aegean Sea. William S. Burroughs wrote in some of his novels that “a machine he called the ‘Soft Typewriter’ was writing our lives, and our books, into existence,” according to a book review in The New Yorker (the image to the right is Claes Oldenburg’s eponymous sculpture).
Of course, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch, is perhaps the greatest example of the morbid and perverse relationship between man and typewriter. In the film, Burroughs’ typewriter is a living, insect-like entity (voiced by Canadian actor Peter Boretski) and actually dictates the book to him.
Onscreen Naked Lunch recalls both The Sheltering Sky and Barton Fink in its respective evocations of the life of the literary exile and the torment of trying to write. Mr. Cronenberg’s hideously clever contribution in the latter realm is the insect-cum-typewriter that supposedly assists Bill in his efforts but clearly has a mind of its own. Both the writing bug and the Mugwump, a man-sized and rather soigné strain of monster, are capable of registering their approval by oozing viscous, intoxicating substances from various parts of their anatomies. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” Bill is told upon encountering his first cigarette-smoking Mugwump on a bar stool in Interzone. “He specializes in sexual ambivalence.”
::Janet Maslin, Drifting In and Out of a Kafkaesque Reality::
Cronenberg and Burroughs share a biologist’s detached view of humans as species. They view the species in evolutionary terms. A post-humanist stance that visualizes man as being in a brave new denatured world of permeable boundaries. Technology reaches directly into unseen depths, stimulating the ganglia and the viscera, caressing and remolding the interior volume of the body. In this way, Kafka’s Metamorphosis of industrial man into primordial insect parallels the current transformation of mediated man into futuristic machine.
In this video, a robot re-enacts the typing of a love letter from Franz Kafka to Felize Bauer, in which Kafka makes reference to typing the letter on a typewriter and expresses the impact the new writing device has on his train of thought:
The link between insects and technology is not new. To quote Virgil’s Aeneid, “And now Aeneas saw in a side valley a secluded grove with copses of rustling trees where the river Lethe glided along past peaceful dwelling houses. Around it fluttered numberless races and tribes of men, like bees in a meadow on a clear summer day, settling on all the many-coloured flowers and crowding round the gleaming white lilies while the whole plain is loud with their buzzing.” The souls of the dead draw from the rivers of forgetfulness to re-format their hard drives and enter a new life back on earth. Virgil, the son of a beekeeper, makes the comparison between human and bee society throughout his verse. As in the Roman ideal, the world of the bee depends on the rule of a single monarch, and members are ready to sacrifice their lives for the whole. Insect colonies offer themselves up as mirrors for their human hosts. They provide a symbolic language for arguing between the needs of the collective and the individual. Like insects themselves, these representations mutate over time and evolve into exotic models of human behavior. McLuhan spoke of the mission of humans to ‘fecundate’ technology. It was a tenuous metaphor to begin with. Today it barely rates as a metaphor – more like a description. The industrial nature of insects have made them the perfect symbol for the modern age.
Ladislaw Starewicz (1882-1965), born in Russia from Polish parents was a stop-motion animator who used insects and animals as his protagonists. Biologist, in 1920 he became director of the Natural History Museum in Kaunas. Inspired by the stop-motion animation work of Emile Cohl he began producing nature documentaries about the lives of insects, experimenting with the use of live insects at first and then the animation of small articulated puppets created with the carcasses of dead insects. His insects’ nimble gestures lead one through an array of human emotions, and to a heightened sense of sympathy and forgiveness. This may be why his insects and animals are so easy to relate to, and why they are so notably Eastern European. Important author, had a great influence on the cinema of animation following up to authors such as Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is a story of betrayal and jealousy, artistic struggle, with a bit of recursive humor too.