The Epistolary Dilemma

I’ve been reading Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica,a book I coveted greatly,from reading the reviews.

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | New Delhi | Published:June 23, 2012 2:16 am

I’ve been reading Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica,a book I coveted greatly,from reading the reviews.

I’ve been reading Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica,a book I coveted greatly,from reading the reviews. When the book arrived though,it seemed like a bit of a let-down. These letters are nothing like his careful,poised poems — they are a welter of private references,anxieties,dreams and doodles.

But then again,I realised,I am not meant to be the reader of those letters,Philip and Monica are. And it’s incredible that these two people expressed themselves so deeply to each other,for over 40 years. That’s what long correspondences are — a private,recursive and rich form,sustained over time.

We don’t see much of that genre any more. Might this be the beginning of the end for that entire tradition of composed,leisurely,two-way communication? Anne Fadiman once wrote an essay about snail mail,and what a diminished thing an email is,in comparison — with a funny riff on the epistolary novel,Clarissa — had it been written through emails rather than letters. I am not sure whether to agree with her or not. Never having written or received that many real letters,I make no distinction based on the delivery format. They serve the same purpose,and email is as living an archive as any sheaf of crumbly ageing paper.

What do people in a long-distance relationship do now? They Skype or Facetime,talk about their day or their thoughts as they happen. Maybe they instant-message. Either way,the communication is spontaneous and off-hand. It’s not about saving up things to tell,writing it with art and humour,waiting patiently for a response. Letters and emails are crucially about writing,rather than talking. They are artefacts to be read and re-read,not fleeting scrolls.

As the writer Adam Gopnik said,it’s a good bet that in “two hundred years,people will be reading someone’s collected email the way we read Edmund Wilson’s diaries or Pepys’s letters”. It’s harder to imagine posterity reading a record of someone’s tweets.

And yet,email is already outmoded,according to Mark Zuckerberg and others. “High school kids don’t use email,they use SMS a lot,” said Zuckerberg. “People want lighter-weight things like SMS and IM to message each other.” Merely sustaining a friendship doesn’t require email any more — Facebook is a great way to stay “in touch” through pictures and comments,and the occasional private exchange.

Facebook,Twitter,and others include direct messaging options,but they’re a small part of that universe. And direct messages are nothing like letters — they’re brief and contained,and any excess of communication would be embarrassing.

Facebook and Twitter are social,not intimate. You simply send your thoughts to your world,and let whoever wants to respond. But they also introduce this weird rupture between expression and feedback. It’s not like that special,seamless loop between two people with their own private shorthand,their full responses to each other.

Social media also encourages different formal properties — pithy wisdom and epigrams are obviously what work for status updates and tweets. A good letter or email is baggier,more descriptive. One of my friends and I used to send each other gutspills about things we did and thought,places we went,bits from books — and her emails are the one thing I mourn about my old Hotmail account. That,and some agonised emails I wrote to this guy who rarely wrote back. (The advantage,in these things,is crucially with the person that writes the shorter email. And as Roland Barthes might say,to make someone wait is the prerogative of all power.)

Maybe I’m just a digital immigrant who doesn’t get the fact that people always find a medium that fits their needs. Maybe this whine is the equivalent of people who said that the telephone killed all civilised correspondence. Maybe,even though I rarely make time for a long email any more,others are doing exactly that,writing elaborate break up letters and look-how-clever-I-am letters and I-just-discovered-Milan-Kundera letters. I hope so.

PS: I’ve belatedly discovered a wonderful online archive called Letters of Note. Though they are single letters rather than serpentine correspondences,there are some real finds — like Richard Feynman’s letter to his dead wife,or the letter that upstart photographer Annie Leibovitz received from her boss at Rolling Stone.

amulya.gopalakrishnan@expressindia.com

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