Michelle Fletcher: The writing’s on the wall. Something bad is going to happen. We know that. But Daniel 5 is the place where this all started. It’s a story of a king: King Belshazzar. He’s having a feast with a thousand of his lords, and he asks for the implements from the temple in Jerusalem to be brought. And he, his wives, his concubines, and his guests drink from them. And they praise the gods of stone and wood. And what happens? The fingers of a human hand appear and they write on the plaster of the wall opposite the lamp. The King doesn’t know what it says. What is this strange writing? He summons his wise men, but they can’t read the writing or tell the interpretation either.
And it’s this moment that we find in Rembrandt’s rendering of this scene. Rembrandt has shown the moment of ultimate terror for the King.
He’s looking at the wall and he doesn’t know what it says. Everybody is transfixed by the writing, but what does it say? Well, Rembrandt has given us an enigma.
At this time in Amsterdam when Rembrandt painted this work, somewhere between 1636 and 1638, we know that there was a Portuguese rabbi living there called Menasseh ben Israel. And Menasseh ben Israel published a work saying that the writing was not read as the Aramaic traditionally was, from right to left. Instead, the writing reads top to bottom, and we can see Rembrandt following this form in his painting. If we look in the Aramaic, it says, reading top to bottom, right to left, mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. And we know that these are the words that Daniel, when he is brought in to tell the King what the words say, reads on the wall. But Daniel hasn’t been brought in yet in Rembrandt’s rendering. A totally different moment, or way of thinking about this scene, appears in John Martin’s painting.
Gone are cryptic words. Instead in the top left we have the writing stretching out on the wall in characters unreadable to everybody.
But what the writing tells us is going to happen is clear. Something terrible is happening. Stretching out in amazing architectural precision, we see the city of Babylon. We see Daniel as the centralized figure brought to tell the King the message. Not just to read the writing, but say the explanation of the writing. And Daniel in the text, when he is brought before the King to read the writing, explains in a very free interpretation, translation, what mene, mene, tekel, upharsin means.
He says: ‘mene’—your days have been counted and your kingdom is coming to an end. ‘Tekel’—you have been weighed and found wanting. And then a pun, ‘peres’—your kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians; a pun with peres on Persians. It’s a free translation using passive forms of the verbs. But what we can see in Martin’s rendering is what this means. Destruction is here. It is happening now. And as the text tells us at the end of the chapter, Belshazzar that very night is killed and his kingdom given away. And this is undeniable in Martin as we see the tower falling down, ready to fall upon the people. But what if we press the pause button before this destruction, and we move into the work of Susan Hiller.
There’s something about this vision of unreadable writing that gets forgotten. It is unreadable. We know it spells destruction, but what if we take it back before we know what it says? Susan Hiller’s installation, 1983–84, takes us into the domestic; the strangely familiar, the unheimlich, the un-homely, the unsettling, the world of the uncanny. In her installation we see at the centre a television, and playing on the television is a looped video of a fire. And spoken over the fire are three different sections of the video. One: strange unworldly singing. Two: Hiller’s son Gabriel struggling to remember the story of Daniel, and also an experience of looking at Rembrandt’s painting. And finally, reports found in newspapers where people fell asleep in front of the television and awoke after the programmes had finished (back in the day where TV didn’t go 24 hours) and they saw people on the television. And where’s the writing in this? The title of the installation is Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall. And in the installation we see twelve different portraits, or pictures, that Hiller has taken of herself in photobooths, and then she’s inscribed over the top automatic writing. Automatic writing is a process that is often associated with the feminine, spiritualism. It was also central to the Surrealists, in the sense of finding the inner muse. Hiller positions herself between these ideas; writing that comes from within that can’t be read. [10:45] She gives us no translation. In our twenty-first century we’re so used to being literate, to being able to read countless images, signs, words. How do we get back to knowing what it’s like to encounter something that cannot be read and translated? Hiller does that.
Daniel 5 is, in the end, a text about power. And the community that it was for are a community without power. In Daniel 5, the tables are turned. It’s the King who is out of power, out of control, in the position of unknowing. And in the end, that’s what the writing on the wall is about. It’s destruction. It’s doom. Something bad’s going to happen, but you don’t know what it is. And at the moment, you can’t read it. All you know is that there’s something out there you can’t explain.
5 King Belshazʹzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in front of the thousand.
2 Belshazʹzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver which Nebuchadnezʹzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. 3Then they brought in the golden and silver vessels which had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. 4They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
5 Immediately the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand; and the king saw the hand as it wrote. 6Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. 7The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeʹans, and the astrologers. The king said to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” 8Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. 9Then King Belshazʹzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed; and his lords were perplexed.
10 The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall; and the queen said, “O king, live for ever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your color change. 11There is in your kingdom a man in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezʹzar, your father, made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeʹans, and astrologers, 12because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazʹzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.”
13 Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king said to Daniel, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah. 14I have heard of you that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you. 15Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and make known to me its interpretation; but they could not show the interpretation of the matter. 16But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple, and have a chain of gold about your neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.”
17 Then Daniel answered before the king, “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another; nevertheless I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation. 18O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezʹzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty; 19and because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him; whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive; whom he would he raised up, and whom he would he put down. 20But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him; 21he was driven from among men, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild asses; he was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of men, and sets over it whom he will. 22And you his son, Belshazʹzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 23but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven; and the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.
24 “Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. 25And this is the writing that was inscribed: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. 26This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; 28peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
29 Then Belshazʹzar commanded, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put about his neck, and proclamation was made concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
30 That very night Belshazʹzar the Chaldeʹan king was slain. 31And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.