U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Inarticulate by Choice: the Decline of Letter Writing and the Future of the Intellectual Past, Part Four

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Letter-writing and kindred practices that involve at least a minimal degree of contemplation, even if it is only the momentary breath before folding, sealing, stamping, addressing, and mailing a real letter, can remind someone of nothing less than the existence and importance of the inner life. They are emanations, indications, signs of an inner existence that is paradoxically the only pathway to any real connection with another person.

Horace Pippin, Interior, 1944
If that’s all such practices were-signs of an inner life-maybe one would not need to worry unduly about the demise of any particular ones. The inner life endures and is revealed in other places too, after all. But what if the realm of thought and feeling is more fragile than many, seemingly in thrall to the engines of “creative destruction,” seem to presuppose today, and what if each event that occurs in it is unique and not replicable?

What if practices like letter-writing are not just signs and reminders that the inner life is real, but are preconditions for it, the very materials and means from which the inner life is forged in the first place? Or, barring that, what if they tend to produce interiority of a particular kind, nature, or quality some, if not all, of us cannot dispense with?

But wait. I can hear them already, the echoes of the usual, exhausted post-post-modern (or did I miss another post when I blinked?) alleged critique. Hasn’t the veil been removed and all such practices revealed to be just so many adornments with which members of the elite decorate their palaces?

Why don’t we ask all those living lives in constant drudgery, from slaves to sweatshop workers, whether the inner life matters? Perhaps they would drop their prayers and work songs, their aspirations to read the Bible and classic works of history and literature, their heroic efforts to learn to write so they can keep in touch with loved ones wrenched from their everyday environs by joblessness, war, or the sale of human  beings, upon learning from latter day progressives that letter-writing and allied practices are functions only of Leisure, accoutrements of the pampered classes. Well, we have asked them. Historians who have traced their intellectual history have found the inner life alive and well among the less privileged.

Even if the charge of elitism were true, that letters and the inner life they represent are the sole preserve of the well-off, it would be a heartless argument. Not everyone who has it all, as they say, necessarily has anything of real value. Even those among us with wealth, material luxuries, and education are hardly by definition untroubled. Letters sent and received could actually mean something in their case too.

Letter-writing has been practiced by those from all walks of life, whenever possible, in many places and times before our own. It is not only the social elite who has kept such practices alive, but also those who were shut out of the corridors of power and financial gain. Those who dismiss the practices of the inner life as frills mistake the chimera for the real thing–the life-saving phenomenon I have in mind, the activity that has kept so many of those mired in the complexities of their own thought process from the abyss.

In these posts, what I have been trying to get across is perhaps best seen as an existential-spiritual case for the state of mind letter-writing as a serious mode of sustained communication between two people tends to foster. A way of living intentionally, perhaps in tune with the current notion of mindfulness, which seems like one of the more promising developments on the therapeutic horizon. My concern is about whether treating letter-writing as merely a frill that can be unthinkingly dispensed with in our rush to embrace whatever computer salespeople want us to embrace next not only demeans an activity many have found deeply meaningful but brings more alienation to people showing rather significant signs of alienation already.

Arguments dismissive of letter-writing as merely another mode of communication that can be superceded without conscience or improved upon with electronics may prove to be right. But they may also be a product of a way of thinking promulgated by those with a direct investment in casting the inner life as an agent of the status quo rather than something that is, potentially anyway, a radically free space uniquely resistant to the incursion of direct politicizing or marketing. It is possible that complacency toward the therapeutic consumer capitalism of these times blinds us to the way that the inner life might be something that is perhaps only ever forged in struggle, in resistance, in opposition. What if the inner life is always an act of total desperation? What if the forming of a self is only ever an attempt to cast out a lifeline, à la Whitman’s “noiseless, patient spider”? In the potentially soul-destroying realities human beings face even in the best of times, to say nothing of the sheer terror and ugliness of the time in which we live, with total annihilation always just a push button away and goodness too often denied, dismissed altogether as something off the grid, or trivialized as a commodity like everything else, meant only for consumption, the death of the inner life is, I would contend, simply not an option. Its death is the luxury that we cannot afford.

Those most eager to embrace today’s “speed of light” pace in all things, even in regards to that most precious of all reasons for living and staying alive-the quality of our interactions with fellow human beings-seem all too happy to dispense with contemplation and meditation as though these were character flaws out of sync with our new post-post-post-ness, signs of hesitation and weakness of will. If anything, they may be the very opposite. The aforementioned paradox, that it is through a rich inner life that we reach out to others most completely and consummate our desire for true connection, reveals practices such as letter-writing, or anything else that makes us keen more toward articulating our innermost thoughts and feelings and less toward suffering in our solipsism or spiritual and intellectual death, no frill. Anything that makes this possible is no luxury; it is a life and death issue. Indeed, ask the suicide in all of us: this is the direst of needs.

To put it more simply, lest I be misunderstood: the conditions for thinking in this way, a way that leads us so directly to others, should be cultivated at all costs. In many letters, a gift of a part of ourselves is conferred. Can the same be said of electronic communications, as we know and use them today?

Image Credits: Horace Pippin, Interior, 1944, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin.