Le rouge et le noir

Consider, gentle reader, if you will, two ink colours. One of them is black, and the other red. My fellow Catlick traddies may be familiar with the motto: “Say the Black. Do the Red.” It is on one side of our coffee mugs. (And on the other: “Or Else.”) This alludes to the Roman Missal, from the days before fatuous “options.” It was printed invariably in two colours: red and black.

Or in some Bibles, mostly Protestant, the words of Christ are printed in red. This is especially arresting when one encounters them in the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle.

In the missals, and sometimes elsewhere, the parts in red type are called “rubrics.” This is because they are in red (Latin, rubrica, for a red ochre.) They give directions. Or if you will: red is for the blood of the saints; black is penitential. For it is, The Sacrifice of the Mass.

Consider, if thou wilt, the ancient texts of Egyptian scribes, written with stylus on papyrus. One finds two colours: red, and black. The scribes used them in a similar way. This was many hundreds, thousands, of years before Christ. Fragmentary examples are still washing up, from the desert sands. Unfortunately papyrus is excessively biological; and not as permanent as parchment or rag paper. For they are only the bits inscribed upon fragments of lime and plaster that still look as if they were written yesterday. Some give liturgical texts; with, as it were, rubrics.

And in Chinese brushwork, both calligraphy and painting in monochrome, we have black, always black. But completed by the red of a seal, or seals, as a conference of ownership and authority. The black could not be so black without that small square stroke of waxen red.

Ditto in the graphic works of many other cultures, displaced from each other is space and time. We did not need to learn from anyone that black goes with red in this way. It is written into our DNA: to say the black, to do the red. Were it ever suppressed, it would be recovered.

For every day, as from desert sands, babies emerge from their mothers’ wombs, already knowing the red and the black. It is hard-wired. You could not remove it without killing the child.

The red need not be glossy and sparkling. In fact, as every capable graphic artist knows in his bones, it should be toned down: matt, and earthy; ochre, not bright. Drill sergeants to the contrary, orders should never be screamed. Instead, they should be quietly obeyed.

I was myself first mesmerized by the typographical beauty of the red and the black, as a child with a newspaper. It was a copy of Die Zeit, borrowed from a neighbour. A teaser along the top of the front page, above the title, was in earth red. So were the kickers: short words or phrases above the headings, denoting topics. If memory serves, there was, too, a one-point line rule across four columns, separating a long feature article from shorter articles above. The memory is a little hazy; I must have been quite young at the time. But how vividly I remember the thrill, the deep existential thrill, of this earth red. For in consequence, the whole page was dancing.

Similarly, the red excise stamp, like a Chinese seal, on any ancient copy of The Times. It was a brilliant device, from the revenue officials. The page would look empty, so grey, without it. Everyone would want to pay the tax.

Today, I think, I would criticize the layout, not of The Times in the 1790s, but of Die Zeit in the 1960s  — for too much red. “One should sow with the hand, not with the whole sack,” as the poetess Corinna explained, to the young Pindar.

But, as Corinna would readily agree, no red would be too little.