Epistolary arts

A young man of my acquaintance belongs to an interesting club. The members communicate with each other in an unusual way. They write letters, by hand, and fold them into envelopes, onto which they affix postage stamps. They eschew email — except for communication with institutions and strangers. Telephones might also be used in emergencies. They also meet, physically, from time to time, when their busy young lives allow it. (Being generally Catholic, and much blessed with children, they tend to be busier than most.) But their conversations are sustained by letters. Urban members of this “cell” may live within a few miles of each other, but still, pen and paper is preferred, along with coherent, linear thinking. Gentle reader might want to know more about them. So would I, but I’m not in their loop.

On the other hand, I am now so old that I can remember when such behaviour was normal. One received a letter in the mail; one replied with another letter; and often these were kept; which accounts for the wonderful correspondence of Charles Lamb I was recently reading, surely meant for the ages. Today it would all be lost.

When my father died, and I inherited what was left of his files, I discovered all these letters written by his son, from far and exotic places. Being that son, I had an almost unhealthy curiosity about them. What had I written twenty, thirty, nearly forty years before? Much came back to memory that I had not forgotten, simply not thought about since. On balance it was an unpleasant experience, as with the eyes of a greater maturity I could see myself posing one way or another, selectively omitting relevant facts, or boasting of things that make me cringe today. But there they were, these letters, to my perpetual benefit, in preparation for the Last Day. … “Father, forgive.”

Faces came back to me, with their names. Had I recalled names only, the faces might be lost, and vice versa. But from a letter, people are recollected whole, and come back to mind with the poignancy of the relic in one’s hand. I cross myself and pray. What has happened to this man, this woman, this child? Lord, keep them, whom I will not see again on this Earth; be with them in their hour of trial. Fates that meant nothing to me then, mean something to me now, as I see a human soul more clearly for the distance.

Much of the substance of letters — physical letters on paper with ink, kept in envelopes with the old stamps and the scent of past time; handwriting that was once familiar — is not “rational.” (I am using that word as it is abused today.) But the academic term, aesthetic, will not serve either. Something larger is systematically eliminated by computer. Iris Murdoch invented the term, “touchment.” It can be restored from raw text only by memory and imagination, but these are crippled when all their stimuli are stripped away. We lose details that go beyond words.

People write to me because of this Idleblog, whom I have never met, never seen; and they leave no clue even to where they are writing from. Seldom do they sign their full names, and if the email is full of abuse, all clues to source will be missing. Several times I have asked, “Who are you?” — then been told, smugly, it is none of my business. My reasoning was, you know who I am, why shouldn’t I know as much about you? Even with the friendliest correspondents, I should like to know, am I dealing with Charles in Melbourne, or Charles in Topeka, or Charles now working in Dubai? I must search for clues in a (highly mutable) electronic archive.

These “accidents” of location are thought, by the implicit rules of globalization, to be of little consequence. But they are of consequence as more than mnemonic. A man is more than computer coding.

And besides, there are practical reasons to revive the epistolary arts. In the world to come — our world, not Eternity — it will be useful to master forms of communication that cannot be computer searched, nor recovered from hard drives. The post office may also become too dangerous for Christians to use. But by means of trusted messengers, and secret document stashes, we may once again, as in former times, be able to convey humanity and truth — through space and time — right under the noses of the “progressives” and their thought police.