What did Nietzsche's typewriter say?

If the medium is the message, the typewriter lends itself less to stories than to dictation, according to the book, "The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting" reviewed by the New Yorker.

In addition to a descriptive history of the typewriter, its societal import and the QWERTY keyboard, the review says the books' author, Darren Wershler-Henry, is primarily interested in the typewriter's "discourse," the idea that as far as art went, what was typewritten was true, and what was truly said had somehow been dictated.

That suggestion fails to persuade.

The reviewer also wishes that Wershler-Henry had spent more time on the differences between the typewriter and the computer, and in particular the auditory pleasure of a machine that has for the most part disappeared.

It is a shame that Wershler-Henry, so willing to generalize about our experience with the typewriter, does not spend much time on the difference between that and our relationship to the personal computer. Consider, for example, our physical involvement with the typewriter, which stands in relation to our connection with the P.C. as a fistfight does to a handshake. On the P.C.... we run our fingers lightly over the keys, making a gentle, pitter-patter sound. On the typewriter, by contrast, we had to stab, and the machine recorded our action with a great big clack. We liked that. (As Wershler-Henry tells us, a silent typewriter was put on the market in the nineteen-forties, and nobody wanted it.) The noise told us that we had achieved something. So, in larger measure, did the carriage return - another line done! - and the job of changing the paper - €”another page done!

In so many words, art requires sacrifice, not submission. Returning to Iron Whim's ghostly theme at the end of the review:

In the cool climes of the book there is one burning ember, and that is the notion that typewriters made writers feel they were being dictated to. Wershler-Henry returns to this idea again and again. He says that not only Burroughs but also Paul Auster and others felt haunted, controlled, by their typewriters. This makes sense, if only as a modern version of an ancient poetic theory. (The muse spoke to Virgil; the nightingale spoke to Keats; the typewriter spoke to us.) It may also be a species of wish-fulfillment. Most writers don't know where their ideas come from, or whether they are any good, really. How nice, then, to imagine that they were produced by some independent agency, which, if rather spooky, seemed to know what it was doing.

Sounds a little bit like the premise for a Stephen King story (and it might have been. Sorry, I'm not a fan). Despite the oh-so-French tone toward the idea of artists channeling art, the review did remind me how much the senses contribute to the making. In my wood shop, the best days are marked by the calming and satisfying scent of licorice on the saw, which does tend to soothe the mind and encourage the hands.

And yes, Friedrich Nietzsche apparently used a typewriter later in life.

I suspect it kept him company.

Wayne