Monday, September 5, 2011

BETWEEN YOU AND ME - Musings on Letter-writing

[T]here is something magical about letters, both in its writing and in its reading that cannot be captured by any other form of prose. It is my favourite genre. Not even the memoir can replicate the tone of a letter-writer composing for the benefit of a single pair of eyes –or a few pairs at most. Writing to one person evokes a voice that cannot be harnessed by a larger audience, especially an unnamed and anonymous one.

I often ponder over the allure of letters: Traditional letter-writing may be a dying mode of communication, but judging by the number of books of the collected letters of various public figures, letter-reading, thankfully, isn’t likely to perish anytime soon. What is it that makes letter-reading endure even in the face of extinction of letter-writing? Is it the voyeur in us that enjoys being privy to information that was meant for someone else’s eyes? Even with the implicit permission that comes with published correspondence, reading other people’s letters is like taking a guilt-free bite of the forbidden apple. It provides a primal thrill.

The abundance of books of published letters, recent and old, of the correspondence of rock-stars and presidents, writers and chefs, actors and comedians, affirms our voyeuristic nature and our appetite for fundamental thrills. While it may be voyeurism that fuels the consumption of such communication, there is, on the other side of this arrangement, the concomitant vulnerability of the letter-writer. E. B. White (who was a regular contributor to Harper’s Magazine and the New Yorker, and most known for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and Elements of Style) attests to this feeling of being exposed. In a letter written on June 11th, 1975 to the editor of Harper, he says:

“It never occurred to me, when I got into this thing, that it was an entirely different kind of exposure from the ones I had been used to as a writer of prose pieces. A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist - nothing shields him from the world’s gaze except his bare skin. A writer, writing away, can always fix things up to make himself more presentable, but a man who has written a letter is stuck with it for all time.”

The permanence of what is said in a letter is easily appreciated in today’s world of WikiLeaks and virtual immortality. While all other writing can be forgiven on the grounds of faulty technique or inadequate substance, what is revealed of the writer in his letter draws from a source that goes beyond and deeper than the mechanics of writing. It can neither be explained away nor forgiven. Gottfried Leibniz explored the idea of ‘language’ being a mirror to the mind; it is not a far stretch, then, to say that letter-writing is one of the windows to the soul.
In a variation on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, the poet John Donne articulates, in the beginning of his epistolary verse to Sir John Wotton, just how powerful letters are in navigating the soul:

“Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak...”

This brings me to the ‘love-letter,’ - what the French call the billet-doux, but not to be confused with what the English call ‘French letter!’ Of all the elements in our repertoire of verbal expression, technology has changed the nature of the love-letter more than any other form of communication. Among whatever that might be lost or gained by the shift from the physical pen and paper mode to the automated and virtual medium of communication, nothing endures a bigger loss of character than the love-letter. Here is a poem bemoaning that loss:

Love In The Time of Cyberspace

Fermina Daza of modern day
gazes into the distant array
of shedding trees and autumn leaves.
It’s a spectacle that season weaves
in yellow, red and orange of hue so keen
they overwhelm the fading green.
It’s a tapestry where colour spills
into a compilation of megapixels
that converge on her computer screen.

The heart is not equipped
to deal with the sterile drill
of Times New Roman or Ariel.
Of words with meaning but no tone,
a one-dimensional message with voice unknown.
Formatted words devoid of the breath
Of her Florentino.
For Love in the time of cyberspace
has lost the charm and stately grace
of Old World expression.

Only the hand-written note
carries the soul of its writer:
As the letters meander - an unsteady boat
cruising the stream of ruled lines.
The crossing of ‘t’s and dotting of ‘i’s
in a familiar scrawl or writing style,
of letters that plunge down, and once again rise.
The slant of the hand, as if blown by a breeze,
to make angles with the ruled lines:
Obtuse, acute or ninety degrees.

If receiving a letter can be compared to receiving a gift, some interesting differences emerge between the two transactions. While there is pleasure to be derived from being generous, and being the giver of the gift, the greater delight lies with the person who receives a desirable present. The same logic, however, does not hold true for letters. One cannot say that the letter-recipient gains greater pleasure by reading the letter than the letter-writer has gained by writing it. In the case of letter-writing, the distribution of happiness seems to be more equitable between the writer and intended reader. Or perhaps, it is possible, as Jawaharlal Nehru suggests in one of the more than 200 letters from prison to his teenage daughter, Indira, outlining world history, that the greater satisfaction belongs to the writer:

“What a mountain of letters I have written! And what a lot of good swadeshi ink I have spread out on swadeshi paper. Was it worthwhile, I wonder? Will all this paper and ink convey my message to you that will interest you? You will say, yes, of course, for you will feel that any other answer might hurt me, and you are too partial to me to take such a risk. But whether you care for them or not, you cannot grudge me the joy having written them, day after day, during these two long years……I have sat here, writing to you and thinking of you, and watched the seasons go by…..”

One of the more entertaining collections of letters I have read is ‘The Groucho Letters - Letters from and to Groucho Marx.’ While it is expected that the comic personality of Groucho Marx is also visible in the letters he wrote, what is not so obvious is that just the act of writing to Groucho brought out the humour in other people. Groucho was, in effect, “the cause of wit in other men.” Poet and Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot corresponded with Groucho over several years, leading up to a meeting in London a few months before T.S. Eliot’s death in 1965. In a note sent to Groucho outlining the arrangements made by the Eliots to entertain their guests, Groucho and his wife, Eliot writes:

“The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, amongst other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”

The idea that the audience can influence the voice of the writer is not insignificant. The more specific the audience and the more familiar the writer is with the intended reader, the more unique the voice. The word ‘unique,’ in this context does not imply superiority to the voice of general prose. It only means that the writing to a pre-determined and specific audience, as in the case of letters, reflects the relationship between writer and reader. In the case of general prose, there is an unnamed and anonymous audience. Thus, there is no explicit alliance that can be reflected by nuances in the writing, by tone of voice and other stylistic parameters that derive from distinct human relationships. What will happen then, to our collective range of linguistic expression, when gradually over time, there are fewer and fewer instances of this unique writer-reader relationship?

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