I was delighted with Mr. Mason's recent article Mixology 101, on the pleasures of mixing ink.
To me, fine inks are like fine wines. To each a blend of character, and to many a particular season. The color, the clarity, even the aroma of inks are appealing. Have you ever sniffed a vintage dried inkwell. The aroma lingers after so many years.
Standing on my desk in a sun-glistened crystal-cut inkwell, is the libation of my pens, waiting to put my thoughts on paper and showing like a fine piece of jewelry, adding a distinctive touch of sanity to my organized mayhem. Mixing and playing with inks is so relaxing. Often my wife hears…"not now, dear…I'm mixing."
….now comes the monkey.
A few years ago it was announced in the London Times, the astounding news that…"a tiny monkey weighing just seven ounces and thought to be extinct has been rediscovered in southeast China."
According to the People's Daily, the little primate, a traditional pet of Chinese scholars, has been found in the mountains of Fujian province. The newspaper gave no information about the species of the creatures and did not say how many had been discovered.
The animals are known as "ink" or "ink pen" monkeys, because they were kept to prepare ink, known in China since at least 2,000 BC, and trained to pass brushes and turn pages. They slept in desk drawers or brush pots. Zhu Xi, the 12th century philospher, is said to have kept one.
The reputation of the monkeys as scholar's helpers accords with the traditional tastes of scholars for the exotic. Their desks were cluttered with impractical but tactile things made of roots, jade, bone and woods; they wrote and exchanged tales of deformed or mutant human beings or animals, and they loved unusual trees and plants. To add a tiny and rare monkey to the business of writing would increase a scholar's pleasure and his reputation for eccentricity.
Ink was regarded as one of the "four treasures of the artist's studio" along with paper, the brush and the inkstone. Inks were compounded from precious materials that included gold, rare herbs and barks, pearls, sandalwood and musk.
What Zhu Xi's ink monkey may have done was to grasp a stick of ink in the shape of a flower or a fish, likely decorated in gold with trees, cranes, dragons and landscapes. The monkey would grind slowly in an elaborately carved and perfectly smooth inkstone with especially pure water until the solution reached the desired consistency and shade for a particular kind of writing.
Even today, no Chinese leader would wish to show ignorance of the art of using properly ground ink.
And so my friends, should you have the pleasure to visit the writing desk of Mr. Mason, do keep a sharp eye, and cock your ear to listen for the scurrying of little feet or the flick of a primate tail in the shadows.
Heaven knows, we can learn from all the sources we can.