On Letters: The Presence of Absence

by Joan Harvey

Ariana Reines and Terry Tempest Williams, writers one would never expect to be buddies, but who bonded at Harvard Divinity School, are having a public Zoom discussion in order to sell books. It’s a lovely, friendly discussion, but I’m shocked, shocked to hear that they send each other AUDIO letters. Audio letters? When they are so good at writing? When they have the chance to write to each other? Though, okay, why not? Henry James famously dictated his novels. Reines is amazingly articulate talking off the top of her head. Still, how is the pleasure the same? Williams does mention loving to actually write letters, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge.

I think it extraordinary that letters are called letters, the name of that small denomination with which we build our words.

Mary Ruefle (in a lecture on letters that she first wrote, then spoke, and finally published in written form).

Of course there exist letters that talk of letters:

Many thanks for both letters, which arrived two days running, a tremendous treat for Kalamata, a town nobody writes to. I think people are subconsciously repelled by the letter K. It’s the reverse of the letter X, which always goes to people’s heads. Perhaps if sex were spelt seks or segs there wouldn’t be half so much fuss about it: nothing very glamorous about seks kittens or seksual intercourse but write ‘sex killer slays six’ and you’re in business.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, to his former mistress, Ricki Huston. So probably he was thinking of sex (or seks).

Most writers like to write letters. Or used to. Possibly not today. I too have been lured by texting’s immediacy. But for many of us older folks, there is still something seductive about addressing a particular person and sensibility on the other end whom you try to entertain and yet remain yourself as often as possible, and doing this at some length. And then, of course, the pleasure of getting something different but similar in return. Reciprocity. Response. There is also something enticing about the way you can put everything in, including the kitchen sink, and the clog in it, and the dog, and okay, maybe the Trogs. As well as the wind and the snow, and the election, and wish you were here. You can even complain about your bills and your health, as long as your complaining doesn’t have a demand.

Example. A random letter from Samuel Beckett to his long and faithful correspondent Thomas McGreevy. Beckett is in Hamburg. It is November, 1936. He begins asking, as so many letters through the ages do, to be forgiven for not writing. He then proceeds to the weather (not good), health (not good), people he has met (friendly, interesting), art, the Nazi war on art, what might happen to Murphy which he’s just sent out, a translation of Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat he has made that was bumped out of a poetry magazine by a letter that Ezra Pound had written against surrealism (footnotes help here), a review of a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic (lovely, mistimed, exquisite), news from home (good), mentions of other guests in the pension where he’s staying (an Icelander, an Irishman from Peru), how Germany no longer tolerates brothels, meeting with a disappointing and pedantic Proustian, and at the end the wish to be forgiven for this “dry letter.”

. . .the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle.

T.S. Eliot on letters

The Marquise de Merteuil tells us “when you write someone, it is for that person and not for yourself, so you must be sure not to say what you think, but rather what will please that person.”

But Vanessa Place, no doubt paraphrasing Lacan, tells us all letters reach their destination, because they are first written to their writers.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you

Fats Waller

Email obliterates the need for an envelope, stamps, a post office, of making a certain effort. I love getting the actual pieces of mail a few people still send, some which are real works of art, but I am also grateful for the immediacy of the Web. For years, a fairly well-known writer and I wrote to each other every single day, long letters through email, which would not have happened with postal delays. Because I was younger and in awe of him, I put too much into the letters and less into creative work. Still, I miss that ongoing exchange.

A friend tells me of a love affair that died because a letter her lover wrote to her was never delivered, so naturally she thought he dropped her, and then getting no response, he thought she’d dropped him. With email that would probably not happen.

Letters have been written since ancient times, on various materials including metal, lead, wax-coated wooden tablets, pottery fragments, animal skin, and papyrus. Wiki lists 28 different types of letters including the Dear John letter and the poison pen letter.

Roland Barthes distinguishes between letters and love letters. The first, he says, are correspondence, and have tactical value, whereas the second are in the category of relation, and purely expressive. But surely in love letters tactics are often involved, though perhaps less so if the love is mutual and assured, while in writing to certain friends a quality of love and expression comes in. Letters to sisters and brothers are perhaps in yet another category. Here familiarity, trust, and shared history can allow a freedom that may not be shown otherwise.

Virginia Woolf writes to her sister Vanessa, whom she addresses as “Beloved,” about going to hear Parsifal in Bayreuth:

Between the acts, one goes and sits in a field, and watches a man hoeing turnips. The audience is very dowdy, and the look of the house is drab; one has hardly any room for ones knees, and it is very intense. I think earnest people only go—Germans for the most part, in sacks, with symbolical braid.

Woolf is a wonderful letter writer, intimate, funny, descriptive. There is great humor in her letters that is less apparent in her work. Much later she used the phrase “between the acts” as the title of her last novel. Perhaps letters are what goes on between the acts of novel writing.

One can have a kind of greed for letters. Emily Brönte describes this perfectly in Villette. Her heroine, Lucy Snowe, knows that the letters she so craves from the handsome, warm, but slightly shallow Graham are merely an expression of his general good nature, whereas for her they elicit pure happiness. She is entirely clear that Graham won’t be her lover, yet she lives for his letters. So when she writes back to him she first pours out a draft full of passion, and then writes another to actually mail, “a terse, curt missive of a page.”

How my heart longs for a few friendly words from your pen, some brief news of your life, your health, you love, your state of mind! . . .Why do I hear nothing from you? Are you alive?

Heinrich von Kleist to Wilhelmine von Zenge

T.S. Eliot wrote so frequently to Emily Hale that she had to beg him to desist, while he desired and demanded frequent letters from her. At the same time he did not want either to marry or to live with her.

Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life. Katherine Mansfield, in a notebook.

I am writing to you from a far off country. Henri Michaux in a poem.

Dear Dick, Chris Kraus writes in I Love Dick.

Dear Angel of Dust, writes Nathanial Mackey.

Ralph Ellison apparently wrote five or six drafts of some letters. And never finished his second novel.

Perhaps all those wonderfully witty Tweeters are writing thousands of tiny letters to their many thousands of fans.

A problem with many books of letters is that we only get one side—that of the great person. When what is desired is an exchange. Reciprocity. The letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell have this quality of reciprocity; Sarah Ruhl made a very nice play consisting of nothing but their letters. On the other hand, in his book The Dolphin, Lowell not only used Elizabeth Hardwick’s grief-stricken letters to him after he betrayed her with Caroline Blackwood, but he even altered them to suit his poetry. A terrible violation and theft.

For some writers, letters are practice and prelude to song, as Anthony Lane says of Berryman. Others, like Freud, have used letters to work out their ideas. For some they are purely emotional escape, for some a chance to show off. Of course novels often contain letters, film as well. Poems sometime take the form of letters.

dear Georgiana,

i’m sorry i haven’t written till now

but I’m terribly embroiled

and I’m having these headaches caused by grinding

my teeth in my sleep, plus all the bullsquat

as usual. i want so much to be involved

in worthy causes, but i can barely manage to

keep the hand to the mouth.

Wanda Coleman, from “Letter to my older Sister (4)”

We have different uses for letters—some maintain touch, some create an erotic spark, some reassure or combat loneliness, some just allow us to freely be ourselves, sloppy and silly (though most writers are still composing in their letters, so doubtless they are not as sloppy as they appear). Letters can reveal and illuminate personality strengths and flaws, create friendships, sustain friendships, or become a shared passion.

Darling Pad,

Our Sunset Home have departed. Woman brought four dogs (one of which was incontinent) and her days are spent cooking for them, feeding them what she has cooked, then going out to make messes. I know this is a natural cycle, but it’s repeated in such quick succession that there was no time to do anything else. It must be a strange life.

Deborah Devonshire to Patrick Leigh Fermor.

There are letters that apologize for past misdoings, and plead for understanding. Most often these are letters to children, though sometimes to ex-spouses and lovers. Kathleen Collins writes to her grown daughter about “Daddy:”

There are no amends possible.  No forgiveness, really. The toll was too tremendous, the insensitivity too extreme, my inability to stop it too fragile.

In the next paragraph Collins apologizes for writing the above. She believes she shouldn’t say negative things to a daughter about her father, but this belief is overruled by her need to explain.

Unsent letters are another category. We can read an unsent letter of Beethoven’s to his “Immortal Beloved.” At least eight different women have been postulated to be the addressee. Yiyun Li writes that an unsent letter is a kind of cruelty, withheld out of cowardice or control. This seems to me far too harsh. Unsent letters are often forms of protection, either of the self or the other, and, just as many poems should not be published, neither are all letters meant to be received.

Another form of letter is written to someone who doesn’t answer. S. D. Chrostowska writes to a filmmaker whose work she admires, a man who never once responds. She makes a book called Permission out of these letters. She isn’t writing love letters, but she needs to write to this very specific person about herself. She explains:

Your attention, my presumption of your occasional attention, the attendant risk that what one gives might be not received but discarded—they are really this writing’s epicenter. . . .It is drawn to the creation of meaning à deux, but resists the intimacy that would destroy it. It is a unilateral struggle for and against complete communion, much like a moth’s dance around a source of light.

Instead of a letter back, Chrostowska craves the absence of response, an absence that gives her permission to write what she needs to say.

Letters, like gifts, are often kept. Saved letters can remind one of a past one has forgotten. A poet mentions finding an old but forgotten cache of love letters, and realizing after all that she was lovable. An ex of mine says he has saved a letter from me from 30 years ago among his “important” papers. He thinks I’d enjoy reading it. I seriously doubt this. I have some letters my grandmother wrote in the early 1900s to her mother when she was a small child. They’re in tiny envelopes, in very childish handwriting, full of charm and misspellings. One goes like this:

Dear Mother:

And Father:

I am not going to school today,” for I have a little cold! To pas-time I wrote a letter. Ruth is getting dreaste now. Why do you not write Mother dear: I am very lonsome for you and Father too and a letter too. but I would rather have you and Papa here I think we will take Katherine and Marion to the matinee

Lovingly _____

P.S. hope you are well.

Perhaps because her mother did not answer these longing letters, or certainly not frequently enough, as an adult my grandmother never spoke warmly of her mother even once.

For what is a letter, but to speak one’s thoughts at a distance? …that the presence of absence be palpably felt—that consciousness create consciousness…. [S]uffice it to say that it is a very powerful act.

Mary Ruefle