Longing for Letters

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Tumblr_manixgHkQc1qhk04bo1_1280On July 15, 2013, after a hundred and sixty-three years of witnessing birth, death, revolution and marriage, the Indian telegraphic service sent out its last telegram. I felt a small sense of loss, but truth be told, the telegram was already a thing of the past to my communicative repertoire. In all my life, I had neither sent nor received a telegram. Also, with all my Hindi film infused understanding of the world, I assumed that all they ever brought was bad news. I would however be more than heartbroken if some day the postal service stopped sending letters.

The first letter I ever received was from my father. Truth be told, it was a postcard. He was away in faraway lands and had sent me a one-line missive with a picture of some Disneyland minion in Mickey Mouse costume, looking both avuncular and eerie. I remember feeling a distinct happiness at the sight of his handwriting, all beautiful, cursive, and grand. People wrote me letters for a large part of my life. My father, my grandfather, two cousins, friends that moved away, and friends in foreign lands. I have letters bearing dates right up until the nineties. I wrote back letters and in the process, accumulated beautiful pens, inkpots, and thick, fancy letter-writing paper. Also, for those who remember, I owned blotting paper; inspite of that, my hands were permanently ink-streaked. I always owned what used to be called a China pen even though it bore the brand name “Hero”. The need for good handwriting was drummed early into my head. Pages of pages of cursive writing have rendered permanent the callus on my middle finger.

Two things show up regularly on my reading list these days; one, the daily habits of artists, scientists, thinkers, and writers, and two, their prolific and thoughtful correspondence. As others have argued so forcefully, letter writing was for writers, not merely a distraction but a way to find some breathing space from their craft while also allowing them the possibility of re-infusing it with vigor and vitality. Through letters they made manifest their orientation towards life and the world, but also communicated and cleansed new ways of thinking about their craft. Writing about writing to empathetic interlocutors seems to also been also about finding community, and laying the foundations for a new world.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings has curated a beautiful set of these lively and charged letters. Read, for example, Freud's elaborate and thoughtful response to Einstein's call to thinking about the menace of war, where he begins thus, “All my life I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old, I certainly do not want to fool them.” Vincent Van Gogh writes heartbreakingly to his brother, “Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.” In another creative take on letter-writing, Anna Deavere Smith composes thoughts to an imaginary audience, “I am trying to make a call, with this book, to you young brave hearts who would like to find new collaborations with scholars, with businesspeople, with human rights workers, with scientists, and more, to make art that seeks to study and inform the human condition: art that is meaningful.” And in one of the more joyous defences of letter writing Italo Calvino declares to his best friend Eugenio Scalfari, “A fine thing it is to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel; fine not because I like to plunge into captious polemics nor because I enjoy getting certain ideas into the head of some idiot from the Urbe, but because writing long letters to friends means having a moral excuse for not studying.”

Teaching university and college students, I am always struck by their tender age and its susceptibility to alienation and anomie. When I read letters from famous parents to their children, I marvel at how they seem to be able to offer wisdom and love in the same breath, while also tethering the child to some form of parental surety, phantasmic albeit. In an age when community comes far more from friends and colleagues than family, and empathy is sought only from the like-minded, these parental missives offer hope for empathy within the family and a world not so necessarily overdetermined by the generation gap. My favorite from this list is Nobel laureate John Steinbeck's 1958 letter to his son who is in love. He begins thus, “First — if you are in love — that's a good thing — that's about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don't let anyone make it small or light to you”, and ends thus, “And don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

This brings me to my other favorite genre of letters, the love letter, chief architect of the epistolary romance. How can love ever be love without love letters, I have often wondered. How does love persevere in the absence of material instantiations of its declaration? If one were to follow Badiou and understand love as he does in “In Praise of Love”, then how does one turn a chance encounter into a pursuit of truth if not through the love letter? If love must be constructed and understood as destiny, then the raw material of this construction must necessarily construct letter by letter the edifice upon which it stands. I read love letters to convince myself of the possibility that love can indeed stand both in and outside the world. When I think about Frida Kahlo writing to Diego Rivera these lines, “Your presence floats for a moment or two as if wrapping my whole being in an anxious wait for the morning. I notice that I'm with you. At that instant still full of sensations, my hands are sunk in oranges, and my body feels surrounded by your arms”, I wonder at the paucity of feelings that do not feel like this.

Diego Rivera Frida

Frida Kahlo letter to Diego Rivera, 1940; (c) 2014 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian

Articles like The Death of Letter Writing or The lost art of letter-writing rehash arguments in favor of the beauty of the letter, but then lament the force of technology and a new way of life taken over by speed and that animal we call communication. We say more and more, and communicate less. We favor speed and instantaneity as substitutes for spontaneity, and prefer regularity and availability over presence. Emails stand in for everything, and texts, facebook status updates, and twitter shoutouts seem to be our small and temporary ways of stating self in the world. We neither know nor necessarily care about interlocutors unless they are consumers of this self. These days, I might have to pay someone to either write me a letter or respond to mine. Letters are now artifacts. They lie dusty in my attic and are petrified objects offering nostalgia, and a seemingly slower, less communicative, but more attentive time.

My longing for letters however is not merely nostalgia. The last letter I received in recent times takes pride of my place in my living room. Abuelo Sam wrote me letters. Abuelo Sam is my friend Susy's grandfather. When I theorize love and its machinations, I think of this man who lived in the desert, awaited UFOs and talked to the stars. He built things and he looked at the world anew everyday. He sparkled and his eyes sang as he held my hand and pinched my nose. He wrote me letters, in envelopes with wings drawn to seal the flap. And I wrote him back because I wanted more of his letters. Abuelo Sam was to me the continued possibility of a different time, space, and pace. His letters bore testimony to such possibility. In these strange times, we need such testimonies.

Even as I do not anymore bear the capacity for writing long pages, or unedited content, I try every now and then to pull out a page and sit at a desk, ink pen in hand, willing a few thousand words into material being. Envelope in hand, I fold carefully fold my letter and tuck it in, just so. Gluing the flap into place, I hunt for stamps, spit on one and write an address in bold, black ink. (My obsession with stamps and my thoughts on philately I will save for another article). At the end of this process, I feel slightly accomplished. But I also feel that I have given away some of myself, and this unexpected capacity for generosity both surprises and warms me. The ability to save some piece of myself from the compulsions of everyday communication allows me the fantasy of a different self.

It is therefore not merely in nostalgia that I believe in the need for a return to letter writing. I think we ought to be made to inhabit a different time and space in lieu of lament. I think it's time we were forced to think ourselves complete thoughts, write complete sentences, and regrow our calluses.