I went to el Museo del Oro in Bogotá, Colombia in August. Everyone said that my trip to Bogotá would be incomplete if I didn’t go. So I did.
The museum is full of things made of gold; the sheer quanitity of it is overwhelming, disturbing. As a person of European descent, I felt like a voyeur walking around there even though my Scots ancestors had nothing whatsoever to do with the brutality of the so-called Conquest. But this is really a museum of metallurgy that narrates the story of tools and metals in Colombia since prehistoric times and in that lies its importance and charm.
The museum was jam-packed with people and, given that we are still very much in a pandemic, that made me uncomfortable. I scurried around from room to room, stopping only occasionally when a piece particularly fascinated me and I wanted to take a picture. The security guards looked relaxed, perhaps too relaxed for people who are guarding a building full of gold.
The work that attracted me most was a 1,500-year-old stone cylinder engraved with anthromorphic and geometric figures. No one else cared about it because it wasn’t made of gold, so I could stand there for a long while without anyone pushing me or getting too close. The informational tag said that it was made for printing on cloth. I quickly saw it as a preindustrial printing press. The symbols and figures started to look like words to me. I wanted to read them, I longed to hear the voice of the person who carved it.
The urge to create tools to replicate things is so human. We love the neatness of identical objects in a series: McDonald’s food, houses in Levittowns, Andy Warhol’s art, Buddhas in a temple, waving cats in an airport. There is a kind of indestructibility and immortality in sheer repetition.
We are desperate to leave our mark, something that won’t die like we must. Replication is an escape from oblivion.
Writing is to leave a mark. I think that’s why a lot of people do it. That’s probably part of why I do it. When I kept a diary as a ten-year-old, it was important to me to fill every page completely every day. I kept it up until I completed the book. Sometimes I had nothing to say and I still filled a page with my loopy, girlish writing just because I had made a deal with myself to write on every page until it was done. I still fill up books, except now I call them journals instead of diaries. I keep them all lined up on a shelf in my office. I like best the ones that look the same.
We romanticize writing and writers as if what we do is unusual. But nothing is more ordinary than a human being writing on a wall, carving their initials into a tree, painting a graffito, engraving a stone.
We started with stone and a metal pick. Then we used paper and pen. Now I write with light and it is so easy that sheer velocity is its worst flaw. I want to carve a book into a rock. It will be so concise that it fits on a single stone cylinder. Then I will print it on cloth. It will take a very long time to finish. Every word will count.