Where does ‘the writing is on the wall’ come from?
For nearly four centuries, the phrase ‘the writing is on the wall’ has been used in English to indicate that clear signs of something unfortunate or disastrous have appeared. One of the earliest instances of its use comes from a 1638 text by a Captain L. Brinckmair, which tries to show that reports from across Germany of frightening events like comets and rivers turning to blood were signs of the horrific violence and disease that would soon mar that country during the Thirty Years’ War. Brinckmair writes, ‘Remarkable Prodigies..are in themselves like the writing on the Wall in Beshazzars Palace, which Sooth-sayers, Astrologians, and Chaldeans could neither understand nor reade’.
What Brinckmair has in mind is an episode from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. In it, a feast thrown by the Babylonian king Belshazzar is suddenly interrupted by a disembodied hand inscribing four words on the wall of the banquet hall. When the prophet Daniel is called to interpret the words, he reveals that they foretell the imminent end of the king’s reign and the conquering of the kingdom by the Persians and the Medes, which is precisely what happens later that night.
The popularity of this phrase is not that surprising, when we consider how almost every element of this story lends itself both to intriguingly esoteric, even mystical, interpretations and to a powerfully suggestive vision of political change. Despite their immanent suitability as writing surfaces, walls that have been written on are typically considered unsightly, if not vandalized, in most parts of the world today. For many, it is difficult to interpret the inscription of a momentary message on something permanent and powerful like a load-bearing wall as anything other than a stain on the social fabric of a particular place or community. Conversely, when a wall serves as a means of exclusion or social control, as the wall dividing East and West Berlin did for almost thirty years, writing on its face can serve as a powerful means of undermining the forces that erected it.
The walls of Wall Street
In the tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Belshazzar is the latter sort of wall-builder. The walls of his palace serve to house the gold and silver vessels his father took from the temple of Jerusalem and to provide a place for him and his courtiers to ‘praise the gods of gold, and of silver’, that is, to worship wealth instead of God. Even when the words appear on the wall itself, Belshazzar sees fit to reward whoever can explain them with a robe of scarlet and a chain of gold.
Sometime in the early 1700s, the Irish writer Jonathan Swift brought out the modern implications of this idea when he invoked ‘the writing on the wall’ in his poem ‘The Run Upon the Bankers’. Because banks fundamentally operate by borrowing more money than they are able to pay back at any given time, when a run on the bank occurs the bankers face the wrath of the people, likened to a tidal wave and then to an earthquake, which destroys the walls, doors, and counters of the banks in pursuit of the money owed. In this desperate situation, Swift recounts two separate pleas, one made by the indebted bankers and the other by the lenders they deceived, both of which resonate with the biblical story in very interesting ways.
In a classical tragic register, both pleas express a desire to return to a state of ignorance, to unlearn a horrible truth. In the case of the bankers, they are forced to accept that someone in their position could ‘foresee his fall’ ‘from his own hand’, which is itself ‘like the writing on the wall.’ Just as the disembodied hand foretold the future in Belshazzar’s banquet hall, the bankers’ own actions were an omen of their later downfall. But when the day of the final judgment arrives, the bankers beg not to face the truth of their actions, crying out, ‘Ye shops, upon us fall! Conceal and cover us, ye counters!’ That is, they beg for a return to the chaos and destruction of the people’s wrath, that they might disappear beneath the ruins of their walls than face eternal judgment for their exploitation of others’ wealth. Even as the word of God has brought these walls down and ‘lets in the light’, the bankers still cling to the lost hope that their walls will protect them.
The letter of the law
By contrast, the lenders deceived by the bankers don’t beg to be directly shielded from the consequences of their actions but, perhaps somewhat curiously, to return to a state of illiteracy. When, because of the money owed them by the bank, the creditors in turn become debtors, Swift observes, ‘The wish of Nero now is theirs, “That they had never known their letters”’.
Writing at the height of the Enlightenment, a time when literacy and education were increasingly recognized as essential tools for the betterment of European societies, this invocation of Nero turns ancient Rome, one of the Enlightenment’s key ideological blueprints, against it in typical Swiftian fashion. The reference is to an essay on clemency written by the statesman and stoic philosopher Seneca, in which he makes the surprising claim that Nero, an infamously cruel emperor, once muttered to himself ‘Would that I had never learned my letters!’ as he signed a document sentencing two criminals to death. Seneca calls this ‘a speech worthy of the days of human innocence, and worthy to bring back the golden age.’ Thus, according to the philosopher, Nero’s cruelty is actually the product of the world of written laws and contracts that bind him as the imperial caesar, thereby stifling the mercy he feels in his heart.
Even today we prefer to think about learning to read and write in terms of the power it gives to a person more than the power it brings to bear upon them. But in this regard, it needn’t surprise us that two of the most basic components of written communication, the word and the sentence, are each the essential elements of civil and criminal law: you give your word in the first and the state imparts a sentence in the second. Written communication and the law are overlapping allies precisely insofar as both seek to create logically consistent systems for analyzing, organizing, and intervening in human societies. And for this reason it is never quite possible to fully separate learning to read and write from internalizing and perpetuating the logic and principles by which a particular community regulates itself. Nero makes this fateful discovery, as we all do, only when it is too late, when the possibility of returning to the innocence of illiteracy is lost forever.
Likewise, for the lenders of Swift’s poem, learning to write is not a means to personal liberation, but an indoctrination into the morally dubious world of paper-pushing and deal-making that has left them empty-handed. What distinguishes their situation is that, whereas the law makes words too real for Nero, amassing them into an unstoppable bureaucratic machine, for people like Swift’s lenders, what is guaranteed to them by the law can always ‘fly like bats on parchment wings.’ The exact same legal system whose logic demands the indifferent, merciless prosecution of justice in one matter can find itself powerless to enforce its own words in another. The word of law can suddenly transform from a venerable institution with real social power into a puff of obfuscatory hot air, like a demon turning into a bat to fly off into the night. In these moments, it can almost seem like these unenforced parts of the law have become illegible, or as if the people to whom they apply have achieved the impossible wish to return to a state of illiteracy.
Taking the lenders and Nero together, then, the writing on the wall is not a sign of the imminent downfall of an autocrat or an avaricious banking class but something altogether much darker. The written word is not a way to let the powerless speak truth to power but a contaminating stain that spreads slowly and imperceptibly across every part of a community, eventually adding so many layers of agreements and rules and exceptions to the network of societal regulations that the logically consistent application of justice is no longer possible. In one and the same moment, the law becomes a wall of words that entraps the weak and a conveniently confusing cloud that protects the powerful.
Mene, mene, tekel, parsin
What makes this desire to unlearn how to read and write all the more interesting is that illiteracy is also at the heart of the original biblical story. When the words appear on the wall at Belshazzar’s banquet, everyone recognizes that they are in fact writing, but when he calls his advisors and interpreters to deduce their meaning, none can do so. The biblical account does not elaborate on exactly what this means, but at least part of the problem seems to arise not from the fact that the words have no discernible meaning but that they have too many.
This is because the text is in Aramaic, a language which only used written characters to indicate consonants. In this case, the consonants written on the wall can be vocalized in two different ways to arrive at two different meanings. The more straightforward of these meanings is to read the three different words as an enumeration of three monetary weights, mene, tekel, and parsin. According to biblical scholar Choon Leong Seow, the tekel was an Aramaic equivalent to the Hebrew shekel. The mene was worth sixty tekels and the parsin, literally a ‘half-piece’, was most likely worth thirty. Though the text doesn’t say so, it doesn’t seem wrong to think that Belshazzar’s advisors got this far and then were stumped. Why write these ordinary words? Why in this non-numerical order? And why repeat the first word?
Daniel’s prophecy crucially hinges on ignoring this obvious interpretation that the characters represent gold, a reading that Belshazzar’s glittering court is naturally inclined to, and to imbue them instead with a different spirit. He solves the riddle of the prophecy by reinterpreting the characters not as a string of nouns but as verbs, which effectively translates to counted: numbered, weighed, divided. He elaborates these words into the message that God has measured Belshazzar’s kingdom, that its days are numbered, that Belshazzar has been weighed in the scales of justice and found wanting, and that his kingdom will be divided between two peoples from present-day Iran, the Medes and the Persians. Of course this is just what comes to pass.
Optimistically, we can note that by replacing nouns with verbs Daniel recapitulates at a formal level the sense of ‘writing on the wall’ that is symbolized by an event like the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The condensed fixed meaning of the rich and powerful is ultimately eroded by the dynamic activity of its opponents and their patient, persistent words. But to do so also demands acknowledging that Daniel is not fully obliterating the original fixed meaning; he is complicit in it (accepting Belshazzar’s reward of gold, as he does), and his prophecy really only adds another layer of meaning to it. What seemed at first like one wall now is two; the living, vital verbs Daniel pronounced have passed in their turn into the lifeless past participles that entombed the murdered king.
Now, in the spirit of open democratic decision-making, this can lead on, naturally enough, to the work of discerning which of these two walls will shelter us when we need shelter and which will let us pass when we must flee. Except in drawing up that plan we’d then find ourselves faced with two more walls, four walls total, sometimes running parallel, sometimes intersecting, forming neither a private room nor an open passageway. Somehow trapped and exposed at once, we might finally feel we have no choice but to build one last wall separating ourselves from all those previous walls whose merits and dangers we couldn’t seem to make any sense of. But by that point, it should be noted, we’re definitely not adding on to the palace banquet hall any longer. We’re just retreating farther inside a maze.