By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
|Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664-6|
This continues my rumination on the influence of the demise of letter-writing on us and the future practice of intellectual history.
Questions for ongoing contemplation:
What will be the future of intellectual history without letters?
What will be the future of the life of the mind without letters?
Without letters, what will be the future of life, love, and learning between and among people who spend much of their time lost in thought?
What do letters provide that our current electronic communications cannot?
Can we picture a renaissance of letter-writing and the attendant emotional, intellectual, even spiritual practices that have often accompanied it?
Can we nurture what is best in electronic communications, helping to humanize them, but counteract what is worst? Can we aim for a blend of new and old practices that foster a certain richness of private intellectual exchange qua interpersonal communication, given the change in technology and daily habits we have experienced of late?
In my last post, I listed some unique aspects of letter-writing that strike me as too important to abandon recklessly: the length of a letter; the time it takes to write and read one; the role of composition in letter-writing, which fosters and accommodates changing mental moods; its deliberateness; its (initial) privacy and intention to speak personally to another unique, (usually) existing person; the eclecticism of its content; and, finally, the mode of meditation one finds with letters versus most email messages.
A picture of intellectual history in the future sans lettres:
We might wish, as one example, to get to the bottom of why USIH was formed. What were the historical circumstances in which it took root? When and to whom did the idea first occur? What exactly was the idea and how did it develop over time? What other ideas were circulating, and what happened to them? What different diagnoses and interpretations informed the paths taken and not taken? What ideas, works, and practices resulted and why…and on and on…
How will we find out about these things, and all the other things we might want to know about people’s thoughts in the past? For instance, say we are enchanted (or horrified) by a particular writer, idea, line of reasoning, school of thought, or portrait of the world, or that we have a desperate need to answer some question of burning personal or wider importance. We might want to know more than a particular published work can tell us about what a writer meant in a particular passage. Well, let’s go through our possible sources and their limits in the foreseeable future.
Randomness of who is willing and able to be interviewed, according to the vagaries of personality and fate. Limits of memory. Our tendency to embroider.
Published Articles and Books:
Limited scope of the formal topic at hand for informing a different, unforeseen inquiry. Our reticence about certain kinds of motivations when speaking to unknown readers versus people we know and (might) trust.
No permanent record, in most cases. Of records that do exist, randomness of sample. Uneven practices regarding saving or deleting emails. Vulnerability of written record vis-à-vis non-hard (soft?) copies. Rarity of email printing. Brevity of emails; their memo-like style more suited to bureaucracy than intellectual life or the world of scholarship, arts and letters, and deep and sustained relationships in which ideas play a central role. Unclear privacy guidelines. Law.
Personal Records (Journals, Notes): Absence of hard-copy sources. Disappearance of such a historical record beyond the life of a particular personal electronic device. Affiliation of practices that produce such records with the world of e-communications, which are currently affecting them too. Many problems they share with email (above), such as invasion of privacy in examining someone’s electronic note-taking.
Other: [you fill in please]
Until even the very recent past, the prime source for ferreting out the answers to questions like this, or just for exploring the context in which particular ideas or intellectual movements developed, has been letters.
As is well known by present readers, in the historical profession during the 1960s and ensuing decades a cry rang out not just for “history from the bottom up” but also for a “history of the inarticulate.” Jesse Lemisch began a 1969 Journal of Social History article called “Listening to the ‘Inarticulate'” by quoting W.E.B. DuBois: while “of kings and gentlemen we have the record ad nauseam and in stupid detail…the common run of human beings and particularly of the half or wholly submerged working group, the world has saved all too little of authentic record and tried to forget or ignore even the little saved.”
The widespread dismissal of intellectual history until very recently as history of, by, and for the elites, in convergence with the e-revolution, may be rendering those with rare gifts of expression–for all intents and purposes, in relation to scholars of the future–the new inarticulate. The world in this case seems again to be saving “all too little of authentic record.”
When history shuts a door, unlike God, it doesn’t necessarily open a window. In fact, so many doors of inquiry risk being slammed shut for good, and with them innumerable windows, it is frightening. Even in the best of times, the salvaging of a one-time insight or revealing connection borders on trying to capture the ineffable.
Yet my fears run even deeper than historical sources and preservation. Silence in the historical record has sometimes been surmounted, as we are creatures of inventiveness and tremendous moral imagination. Letters, though, are inseparable from a whole set of other behaviors and practices. Letter-writing traditions of course vary greatly and have their own histories. The one, or ones, that shaped the letters with which we are most familiar in our research or our own lives are tied to certain habits of sociality and particular notions of the project of selfhood as a vital pursuit.
You might say that other practices have taken over where letter-writing left off. If so, you may need, for people like me, to begin to count the ways.
What I wonder, of course, is whether the end of an entire approach to life itself–the collective life as well as the inner life, inextricably intertwined as they are–is now at stake.
Letter-writing, along with a poignantly limited number of other practices at our disposal, has the potential for limited repair of an otherwise fatal breach, for forestalling tragedy. Without such steps toward reparation there are not only no historical records of much of our thinking but possibly little thinking of which it is worth preserving a record in the first place. Or perhaps no thought at all, nothing that can count as thought.
This is because thinking and thought of the variety we traditionally have found worthy of devoting a life’s work to understanding require cultivation.
Maybe I am calling for a Slow Thought equivalent to the Slow Food Movement. Isn’t email the fast food equivalent of a letter?
One of the most noticeable effects of exchanging letters with my friend this last semester was the surge of hope that came from the very different experience of time that letters encourage, the reminder that the cultivation of the self is real and viable and life-sustaining. It can still certain anxieties intrinsic to our very experience of being human. It reminds us we are always in the process of becoming who we are, in relation to the one to whom we write, who is always in the process of becoming who she or he is. Communicating in depth with someone who is not there at the time creates a world apart from time as we commonly know it. And this is saying a lot. After all, time has the potential to be the very bane of existence.
A child discovers with horror that such a thing as death exists. Death, in time, takes away everything good around us. Time passes too fast and is the enemy.
A lover temporarily separated from the beloved agonizes over the absence. Every moment is an eternity. Time passes too slowly and is the enemy.
The act of writing a letter seems to me one of the valiant attempts we make toward repairing the breach of separation as made worse by the antics of time. Just as a knitter taking up a slipped stitch that threatens to unravel the entire garment, the letter-writer takes up the pen. Time circles around in a fold; wrinkles. Suddenly time is not linear, nor does it move too quickly or slowly. It stops. One is lost in a state of mind that is by definition at a remove from the immediate and, in so doing, redefines the immediate altogether in a new space of silence, contemplation, feeling, and thought.
In today’s culture–all (feigned) immediacy, pressure, urgency, and in-your-face interruption–the writing and reading of a letter is an act of resistance. But in any era it is already an act of hope and faith. Hope that the reader understands. Faith that what one says at one time will still have meaning at another. Perhaps one could argue this holds for any form of writing, and there is surely truth in that. But without the adornments of letter writing and other private practices that presume the kinds of things that letters do, adornments that might seem to some to so many unimportant frivolities, mere luxuries, or options, the contemplative life may not exist.
Letter-writing and its kindred spirits, like the keeping of a diary, reminds us that our thoughts matter, or, even further, that getting them right matters. Not just in general or for their use value but in themselves, in the fullness of their particularity. Letters place on a pedestal thoughts and their expression, with all the splitting of hairs their readers expect and the indelible signs of their emotive, life context.
The reading and writing of letters reminds us we are not alone. They work against loneliness, in the obvious ways, but also in their capacity to turn the tables on the isolation that is perennially after us, eager to usher in despair along with it, to ridicule our most heartfelt and earnest preoccupations, to reduce all of our pursuits to naught. But letter-writing requires solitude. Like all contemplative practices, it can turn absence into bounty, mandatory separation and time’s fearsome abyss into the forge of unimagined connection through genuine communication. It does this by cultivating a certain set of mannerisms, a disposition, sensibility. It is tied to the formation of a self, a being whose lifeblood is thought.
Without a notion of the self and self-cultivation, we might, if we are lucky and creative with new sources given the wholesale shift over to electronic communications, still be able to answer the question of how to explore the intellectual past. But will we have any answers as to why?
In the e-revolution, after all, information and what passes for expression abound. But just saying we are communicating does not mean we are. To express something really worth expressing don’t we need to give it some thought?
For longer than it takes to write an email?