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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Signatures of Faith


The shape of a signature, its style and form, does not matter when it is applied to a legally binding document such as a CV. Why, then, are we so concerned with the identity and style of other confirmatory signatures: religious visions, statements of faith, the names of authors of fiction and drama?


When I finished writing a Curriculum Vitae last week, as usual I signed on the dotted line at the bottom. Despatched to a recruitment agent, he or she will have opened the envelope, scanned through my qualifications and verified their truth by the presence of the autograph which signifies that I am legally bound to have accurately represented myself in the document he or she has just read. The signature demands a remarkable leap of faith on the part of the reader. The recruitment agent will have believed what I had written because it was signed, but surely if I was prepared to alter my qualifications, to enhance or spin my work and academic experience, I would scarcely balk at forging my signature? The signature is a unique linguistic act because it has no meaning beyond the other linguistic act (the CV, the cheque) that it seeks to support. The signature refers to the one document below which it is written, a document which can, we assume, have only been written by one writer, who both scripts the text and places his or her name at the bottom.

The signature, then, is a unique form of language which relies on the trust of the reader in the writer, not in the objective word he or she writes. When I say 'dog' the majority of people educated in English will know I am referring to a domestic animal with four legs. Because the three letters of the word can be identified with a corresponding solid object, the word powerfully contains within it a significant degree of truth - in the sense that 'dog' does mean canine - no matter how disreputable its speaker. I say dog, and most likely mean dog, whether I am an honest vicar or a crooked second hand car dealer. But when I place my autograph on the page, the reader has no way of knowing if it is mine or not, whether the jumping serifs of the first word followed by the flat scrawl of the second really refer to my first name and surname. The recruitment agent reading my CV trusts that the signature is mine, because if it is not I am breaking the law, and that it signifies that I am who I claim I am. I may be a trustworthy individual or a man with a predilection for deception, but without knowing me the reader assumes that the signature, because it is an act with the weight of public law behind it, verifies the truth of anything I have written.

Its very presence, not its form, is enough to allow it to be understood and interpreted as meaning: 'I confirm that the information given on this form is correct and complete and that I am legally bound to present accurate data.' In normal language form matters: change the first letter in the word 'dog' and it no longer refers to a canine but to a pig. But change the shape of a signature, and it still asserts 'I am telling the truth'. Even if the pen was held by some one else, or even if it was written by my hand but in a different style to that which I use on cheques and bank cards, it still makes a claim for the veracity of a preceding statement. The signature could take any shape: an X, a smiling face, or, on my mobile phone, a colon followed by a closed bracket. The naive reader does not mind what instrument I choose to write with - an electronic font or a fountain pen - or with what style - a swift dash or a careful capitalised initial - its existence alone is enough to convince of authenticity. It is not the shape of the scribble, but the very touching of pen on paper, which matters. Thus signatures automatically suggest the fidelity of their writer, but they reveal nothing about the writer's identity, about the object or person it represents in the way the word 'dog' does, about whether that writer is me or Joe Bloggs or the person down the road who is genuinely called 'X'.

To extend the theme beyond the everyday world of the CV or cheque, we place a similar faith in gods who use signs which, in isolation, reveal little about their own being. For the ancient observer of the skies the comet which descends at a certain time of the calendar is an indicator of a coming apocalypse delivered by a deity; for the scientist, who may be an equally religious believer in the same god's existence, the comet which descends at a certain time is at a visible stage of its solar orbit and consists of rock and ice. Whether written in the stars or on a page, whether it is seen in its poor resolution by the naked eye or at high definition with its geological features through a telescope, it is the fact that it has been delivered from above which matters and which must be interpreted, not its physical shape, not whether it is an incomrehensible streak across the black canvas or a measurable, classifiable phenomenon.

Yet even though it has no significance what shape a signature takes, whether it bears any resemblance to a name or identity or not, a signature is uniquely difficult to forge. Try picking up a pen and paper and writing your name at signature speed 20 times. It will likely conform to your normal standard. And if not, try over the next week of marking cheques, letters and cards to use a different form just once. It is nearly impossible to alter one's signature without deliberate effort. The signature is a subconscious act, as natural and personal a response to a given situation as is tuning your ears into one particular conversation at a crowded party when the two talkers mention your name. In Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, signatures and handwriting are important indicators that the two egos are not as distinct as they would appear. Hyde's signature is simply the reverse slope of Jekyll's, thus implying - and adding to the terror of the monstrousity within man - that good and evil are not distinct categories, but variants on each other. Likewise, for me to write my signature in its unique shape (a particular squiggle for my first name, a flat scrawl for my last) is natural, personal, and to forge it requires the conscious effort to exist momentarily as someone else, to assume a false identity, which is not me yet which is knowingly a derivative from me.

Paradoxically, the forged signature on the fabricated CV is a also a statement of truth. By deliberately and consciously not signing my name as myself I admit to myself and (were the reader to fully investigate the circumstances in which I signed) to the reader that I am an actor, a different individual to my true and natural self, with greatly enhanced qualifications. The falsified signature is in unity with the falsified document; it verifies that everything I have said above the line is as equally untrue as the signature which supports it. Inversely, if I forge a record, my signature, even if it is identical to the one I use on bank cards and letters to friends, is also a forgery, because it is attached to, and gathers significance by being associated with, someone who is not me, someone who has eight, not five or four A-levels. Not only does my signature assert the truth (or the true fact that I am consciously presenting untruth) of my document, my document asserts the truth or untruth of my signature. Either my document is a collection of true statements about me and my signature is mine, an honest admission of the statements' reliability; or my document is false but my signature is mine, but this, because the forging of a signature (whether it is forged in the sense that it takes a different shape to usual, or forged in the sense that it is attached to an identity which is not my own) is an equally honest admission of the untruth of my text.

I am either totally honest or a complete liar but my finalised text (signature and CV), placed in its sealed envelope and sent to the eventual reader, is always totally true to its own system, always truly untrue (a total forgery) or truly true (purely honest). In a relationship in which the recipient (the recruitment officer; the sky watcher who worships an unseen god) does not know the writer's essential personality or his normal signature the marks matter for their symbolic value - what they say about my honesty - not for their shape - what they say about who or what I am. The presence is sufficient to make the truth of a document or the existence of a god certain. Wise men (handwriting experts, the eldest shaman) may try to infer something further in the signature about the psychology and identity of the writer, but they will not achieve much.

But what, then, of when we do know, intimately, the person signing? Now we become privileged graphologists, reading not only a signature's presence, but the form in which it is presented and the meaning or the emotional tone we can gauge from that form. Was it written with a biro (my preferred choice for careless scribbles) or a fountain pen (the way I would sign an official document)? Was it was written in blood and enforced with a handshake? Do I always sign my cheques with an 'x' at the end or is this a mark reserved for when I sign a letter meant for a lover? Suddenly a signature becomes less binary. It is no longer either a forgery or a truth and it does not make a sweeping and general claim for authenticity; it illuminates my personality in more ways than simply asserting my honesty. It no longer suffices simply that I have signed; the conditions in which I signed become equally important.

The most common example of a signature endowed with personal meaning rather than general legal significance, and therefore being an act with multiple meanings, is the signature of the marriage vow. When we say 'I do' (in a serious, considered sense, not in an impulsive Vegas gamble) we sign off into a future marriage. But that vocalisation in the present tense is one which looks towards the future and is also an admission of the failure of the past, an admission that an episode of the partnership needs concluding, finalising. To say 'I do' is to admit that 'I haven't' and to trust to the judgements and guidance of God and law that 'I will'. Also latent within it, therefore, is the very real knowledge that 'I might not'; within the statement of the positive is the admission of the possibility of the negative; within the statement of faith is the potential for non-faithfulness. The very fact that something needs proving, sanctifying before the eyes of God and audience, divine law and secular law, suggests that the record of achievement to date has been less that satisfactory. It needs wiping clean, a fresh start, a new point from which to index the realisation, or the failure, of one party to maintain the vows to love, to hold, to honour. Thus this signature witnessed (required by law) by a person or people who know the signatory is not a completion but an admission of open-endedness; it allows for deviations from the expected qualities or qualifications for an ideal partnership. This signature of abstract emotion, rather than asserting that everything declared is truth in a binary legality, actually embraces and allows for ambiguity and faults.

Religion (I will use the Christian example; other religions carry their own unique signatures) is often the source for ambiguous signatures. On its own, the comet says god exists. But when the comet streaks above a stable, a stable too which three wise men and shepherds are drawn, each leaving their own signature gifts for a child, this collection of symbols reveals something about the humility and glory of their newborn recipient. Miracles, visions, parables are all signs which combine to form a master narrative of signatures which say to Christians not simply that God exists, but that He wants his word to be interpreted for its moral meaning. Indeed, perhaps the most influential signature in the Christian world is that departing call, the final sign, of Jesus on the cross. Importantly, it takes the form of a question rather than a statement: 'My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?'. The rhetoric of challenge and non-comprehension forces man to engage with the Biblical text to answer the question for himself. The confirmation of faith, the closure of belief, thus becomes a personally initiated one, rather than one predefined by God or Christ. The visual statement of the crucifix confirms to the believer that God exists; but the ambiguities behind this potent symbol force the believer to constantly, and productively, question the nature, the meaning and the morality of his or her beliefs.

Like the religious narrative, secular narratives need to have an identifiable symbol of authorship, to be signed by creators whom we can identify, even though the texts to which they are attached may be deliberately ambiguous. The presence of an author enables our belief in the narrative action, so that the events described on pages become, through the power of the reader's intermediary psychology, real and physical. In the CV the writing of the text and the writing of a signature support the truth of the other; this means that when we gain external knowledge that the text or its author did not exist in the form presented the whole thing falls apart as truth and is revealed as forgery. Were the recruitment manager to check my qualifications on a database, and find them not accurate, he or she would immediately throw my CV to the rubbish bin. They are no longer real, no longer have legitimacy, and as such I no longer have a job.

The same act of acceptance or rejection by the reader occurs over the extended literary act such as the novel. For example, Robinson Crusoe is presented as a documentary evidence of something which happened:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner; Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oronoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself.

It is, apparently a true story, a fact enforced throughout by the presence of journals and diary entries. Yet the moment Crusoe swims naked to his ship and returns with a pocketful of biscuits the whole this premise of the text - its inherent factuality - evaporates. Everything in the text is exposed as being a lie or, to use the affectionate term we apply to lies which are designed to entertain, a fiction. The author is an imaginative Defoe (although drawing on the true story of Alexander Selkirk) and the narrative is primarily the product of his imagination; Crusoe is not real because pockets are not found in bare skin. This revelation of untruth contaminates everything around it - every word behind as well as every word in front - in a nuclear reaction, replacing reality with creativity. We may continue to read; we may enjoy reading; but we can not continue to read, or reflect on what we have read, without knowing that Defoe wants us to believe his statements, and therefore he cannot be believed.

The willing suspension of disbelief in the narrative's inherent untruth, its fictionality, occurs when we read any novel or watch any drama. We temporarily forget that at the highest level is an ultimate author, and we substitute for the ultimate author those narrators within the novel or drama the ultimate author has fashioned. For the period of reading or observing, the signatory of the story, the person with the responsibility for its delivery, is an avatar of the ultimate, a character within the story. We place our faith in the signature we perceive on the pages, and it is only when we close the book and look at the cover do we fully recall the fact that the actual signatory, the writer both of the text and its fictional teller, is some one different. Unlike the C.V., here it does matter what form the ultimate signatory takes - whether it is Mary Anne Evans or George Eliot. Literary critics enquire into the biography of the writer, and perhaps note why it is important that Mary felt the need to become a George of ambiguous gender, and through this lens examine how the text she has written reflects sexual concerns of her era. In this sense literary critics (except those of the strictest New Critical school) are also handwriting experts. We examine the signature of the writer in order to understand better the significances of the characters in print. However, like the handwriting expert, because we were not present at the signing to discover the precise emotional or psychological circumstances in which it took place, we can only gather so much information about the nature of the signatory. Ultimately, the narrative stands complete and integrated, regardless of nomenclature. The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot: change the title of the book, and the book still tells the same story; change the signatory, and the story remains whole. The political manifestos written into it may become more obvious, but the order of events, the characters, remains the same. Maggie Tulliver still 'exists' (although the political or sexual system within which she 'lives' may acquire a new importance), even when George Eliot changes gender to become Mary Anne Evans.

Does it matter then, whether The Iliad was written by many poets or a single genius called Homer? Does it matter if the plays we attribute to Shakespeare were not written by the identity we respectfully capitalise as The Bard? It matters in as much as we like to believe automatically in the truth of the signatory; in that when the signature is revealed as a forgery, the whole text loses its magical integrity. The forged CV has attached to it a signature which is also a forgery, because it corresponds with someone who is not me. In signing off my fictionalised qualifications, I admit to myself, in the conscious act of making a forgery, that I am really myself, not some elevated genius with fifteen A-levels whom I might like to be and whom I have presented as myself here. Likewise to feel that it wasn't Shakespeare or Homer writing their great works is to remember the constructed forgery of the text, its artifice, the fact that it knowingly seeks to create worlds which did not exist and characters who didn't live. It reminds us that the text was created to affect us rather than simply 'being' to be enjoyed; it makes us realise that the text has a pragmatic purpose as well as one of entertainment and enlightenment. The Shakespeare of the Elizabethan garb and thoughtful countenance (and here one can't avoid the famous Droeshout engraving, the iconic visual signature of the puff-collared Elizabethan, when thinking of Shakespeare) is writing the most eloquent and fluid lyrics of the theatre; the Earl of Oxford sat at his desk is making Juliet express love to Romeo, so that his author can sell a play for his living and enhance his own curriculum vitae.

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This page was published on June 15, 2008 | Keywords: signature, signing, legal, faith

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