‘To this day my handwriting is practically unfamiliar to her. I have exactly twenty-five kinds of handwritings, the best (i.e. those I use most readily) being as follows: a round diminutive one with pleasant plumpness about its curves, so that every word looks like a newly baked fancy cake; then a fast cursive, sharp and nasty, the scribble of a hunchback in a hurry, with no dearth of abbreviations; then a suicide’s hand, every letter a noose, every comma a trigger; then the one I prize most: big, legible, firm and absolutely impersonal; thus might write the abstract hand in its superhuman cuff, which one finds figured on signposts and in textbooks of physics. It was in such a hand that I began writng the book I now offer to the reader; soon, however, my pen ran amock: this book is written in all my twenty five hands mixed together, so that the typesetter or some typist, unknown to me, or again the definite person I have elected, that Russian author to whom my manuscript will be forwarded when the time comes, might think that several people participated in the writing of my book; and it is also extremely probable that some rat-faced, sly little expert will dicover in its catographic orgy a sure sign of psychic abnormailty. So much the better.’ (Nabokov: Despair)

Without entirely ruining the plot, I’d like to give some vague context to the above quote which was written by one of my favourite authors. The story, ‘Despair’, centres around an aloof, potentially amoral, but brilliant man of means who comes in to contact with a destitute figure who he believes is his doppelganger and hopes to pair up with in order to exploit/enlist for purposes which remain imprecise throughout the early stages of the book. The protagonist has an obsession with doubles, resemblances, the twinning of images etc. and the reader is unsure as to whether or not the two men share the pointed likeness that our narrator, Hermann, believes to exist (certainly the tramp, Felix, seems unconvinced). The cited moment is essential, though, for, in indicating the inconsistency of his handwriting, Hermann reveals the inconsistencies of his character and we begin to wonder if the mocked ‘sly little expert’ wouldn’t be correct in his assumed assessment: Perhaps Hermann’s personality is perilosuly fractured. What interests me here, though, is the insinuation that there might be some equivalence between handwriting and character. In this respect, Nabokov’s intention is unclear. On the one hand, we might say that since Hermann clearly ironizes psychiatry, and in such defiant terms, the writer is doing so too and this would certainly accord with Nabokov’s negative colouring of psychology in general. But equally one might argue that two negatives make a positive in the sense that to have an evidently unreliable character denigrate some body of thought is to indirectly affirm it or, more specifically, to affirm its validity in this particular scenario (i.e. the analysis of handwriting).

Anyway, leaving aside the author’s intention, I want to consider the possible legitimacy of handwriting analysis as a common method employed by psychological/psychoanalytical profession. Could the ‘fast cursive, sharp and nasty, the scribble of a hunchback in a hurry, with no dearth of abbreviations’ be attributed to a paranoid schizophrenic? And, perhaps, the pedantic attention to detail required to create words which inflate like a ‘newly baked fancy cake’ could be used, some way down the line, to diagnose a writer with the same affliction that Paul Bousfield once ascribed to stamp collectors: ‘an auto-erotic sexual manifestation connected with the anal-erotic impulse’ (medical press and circular). Personally speaking, I’ve noticed that ever since I began embezzling money from my friends and loitering about by the docks at night my letters have followed suit, slanting along the lines like stick men grasping for the freedom of pagelessness and reality. I mentioned this to a friend and she made the astute observation that language and identity co-arise and, as such, it’s expected that some form of language (writing) might, at the very least, reflect some form of the self. Apart from determining character from writing, psychologists could use pre-written scripts to retrieve the buried thoughts of their patients that might come to light through free-association: ‘What does that spikey t bring to mind?’ etc. Perhaps, a long page of jagged-edged scrawl would eventually displace those wierd vampiric blobs that inevitably evoke sinsister imagistic comparisons in the analysed since they look like the dark matter that gains sentience and wreaks havoc in some Japanese horror film.

Anyone who pushed the idea forward would probably be attacked with claims of being pseudo-scientific. Possibly, if the idea caught on it would fizzle out like the practice of physiognomy which had a vacillating popularity until the twentieth century when it presumably became married to palm reading, crystal balls and all other sorts of dubious activities paid for behind soiled curtains in tents across the country. But maybe if physiognomy had been presented in a more balanced light originally its marginalization wouldn’t have been so final now. So, I’m going to put forward one, vaguely measured, way of deriving characteristics from handwriting in the hope that this activity might flourish, if only for fun. Firstly, you must be sufficiently well acquaintanted with the person in question so that, whether they are reading the script or writing it, you don’t just project qualities on to them but can correlate your impressions of their writing/reading of the text with your knowledge of their character. But if you already know the person’s traits isn’t this secondary means of evaluation superfluous? However, I think it’s safe to say that the most the psychologist, or friend etc. can gain from this process is a new awareness of pre-recognized tendencies in the other. Secondly, acknowledging the fluidity of identity, it would clearly be wrong to imagine that hand writing encompasses the entire character of the individual. Hermann’s twenty five styles of writing is modest when compared with the countless diverging aspects of each individual. Therefore, personally I’d confine my conclusions to one of the individual’s traits and all serious conclusions should be taken as supplementary and highly provisional. As an approach to understanding the psyche, it’s more of an art than a science, and less than both: Only excessive sincerity will consign it to the junk heap of fanciful promises that children now scoff at on Hastings Pier.