The constant standard

One thing leads to another, in the summer heat. From reading a memoir by an auld acquaintance (see here), I began to dig for other materials on my hack-writing, and hack-editing youth, until I could be credibly accused of nostalgia. I try to keep it clean. That is, I try to avail myself of my own memories, and correct them by the surviving evidence, not only to re-live past events, but to understand how things happened as they did. It is the hack-journalist in me, that aspires to be a hack-historian.

A topic among the others has been, the technology-driven history of typography, from the 1960s. The question: How much of it was inevitable? On first glance it all was, for the history tends to be reported that way — as a story of “progress” towards the present day. This “Whig version” of everything, supposedly long abandoned along with the idea of necessary progress, remains demonically alive and well. But the truth is a history of very consequential human interventions, not always for the best.

“Because, 2018” is still considered a clinching argument for any change to the way we do things, no matter how ignorant, stupid, and obscene the proposal happens to be. Our current prime minister (here in Cahnahdah) won the last election on the argument, “Because, 2015.” (His father once won with, “Because, 1980.”) I should think dear Andrew Scheer, leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, should try the slogan “Because, 2019” next year.

But let me return to typography, and the abandonment of typographical standards that made possible the over-quick replacement of hot metal with cool film in the world of half-a-century ago.

Among my heroes in that trade is a man now octogenarian, a certain Donald Knuth, author of the multi-volumed Art of Computer Programming, and of the great mass of algorithms behind the “TeX” composing system. A life-long opponent of patenting for software, and still not on email, he is one of the finer products of the Whole Earth Catalogue mindset of that era, though as a devoted Christian, he had it from older sources. (The mindset of: forget politics and do-it-yerself.)

Perfesser Knuth’s life journey was somewhat altered when a publisher presented him with the galley proofs for a reissue of one of his earlier volumes. They were, compared to the pages of the original hot-metal edition, a dog’s breakfast. In particular, even when technically correct, the mathematical formulae appeared to have been set by monkeys. He resolved to “make the world a better place” by doing something about this.

Knowing (pronounce the “k” as we do in this author’s surname) that computers can do many things that humans can’t — or can’t within one lifetime — he set about designing the computer processes to calculate beautiful letter and word spacings, line-breaks, line spacings, marginal proportions and such. He understood that civilization depends on literacy, literacy on legibility, and legibility on elegance. Ruthlessly, he recognized that things like “widowed” and “orphaned” lines of text are moral evils, and discovered algorithms that could exterminate them by complex anticipation. Too, he contributed to the counter-revolution by which the letters themselves could be drawn not pixelated.

I will quickly lose my few remaining readers if I go into the details. But here was a man (and still is) who discerned that nature herself is built on aesthetic principles, which men can investigate and apply. It is when something is ugly that we can know that it is wrong. Mathematicians, like poets and other artists, can embody the Faith at the root of this.

To my mind, or I would rather say K-nowledge, there is nothing wrong with technology, per se. We can often do things better with new tools. But we must be guided by the uncompromising demands of Beauty. Everything must be made as beautiful as we can make it: there must be no wavering, no surrender. All that is ugly must be consigned to Hell.