Sunday, September 21, 2014

Netiquette IQ Blog of The Day - The Almost Extinct Love Letter

For those of you old enough to remember love letters, this will really evoke some memories and feelings. Our world today has dramatically changed in this respect!

At the age of 18 I left my partner in Australia to backpack around South-East Asia. The world back then was an email-less, skype-less and mobile-less place; travelling meant passing months without talking, made mute by a trackless sea.
But in place of speech or unattractive skype chin-shots, we had letters. Letters that would find their way across oceans of distance into a dusty poste restante mail-box until they were claimed, torn open, read, re-read, carried everywhere during the day and placed underneath your pillow at night.
Letters were the medium for lovers par excellence.
I can still remember the thrill of spying the bundle of letters with my name painted on them in drippy purple ink. They were tied in silk ribbon and inside would be snippets of my partner’s soul: paintings, poetry, tear-stained pages bursting with frustrated passion, wilted flowers and sprinklings of glitter (it was the 90s – everything came with sprinklings of glitter.) I experienced these letters as a physical visitation; I held them as I would have once held her.
These letters contained a torturous paradox: both a reminder of separation and a defiance of distance. They spoke of her absence but created a tactile presence.
There is no form of communication today that can compare to the delight of a letter: emails are urgent, phone-chatter is thoughtless and skype banishes imagination. They are fleeting mediums for a fleeting world.
And so I suppose I should not be surprised to learn that by the end of this year Australia Post will probably have scaled back its delivery services to only three days per week. The reason, quite simply, is that we no longer write letters. In fact, last year there were one billion less letters sent than in 2008.
Of course this will mean devastating job losses to an already skeletal organization. And it will mean the privatization of yet another publicly consumed resource. But I am convinced that the loss is not just economic. 
In losing letters we are losing the art of translating our souls into words.
Lest this sound grandiose, let me outline three ways that letter-writing will improve your life.
 1)     Letter-writing will slow you down: Like slow-cooking or slow-eating, letter-writing is a plodding and ponderous art. Historically people would often have two letter books, one (tempestuous) book of drafts and the other (restrained) final product. Sitting down to write a letter had a ritual about it: smoothing the paper, shaking the fountain pen and thinking. It had to be done in a quiet place away from the children or family. Today we call this mindfulness. Letter-writing required you to reflect upon yourself and the person to whom you are writing, to halt the hurtling emotions of everyday life and take time to put them into words. There is nothing efficient about a letter. It defies the spiritual impoverishment of capitalist time as you while away an afternoon in pleasurable reflection.
2)     Letter-writing produces self-knowledge. Writing a letter is nothing less than an exercise in autobiography; it demands emotional intelligence as you turn the chaotic events of your life into a narrative for the receiver. And in so doing, you write yourself into history. How often have you downloaded emails or copied out precious text messages? Historians reconstruct the everyday lives of past people through the boxes of letters that ancestors have found in attics. And as an historian, each time I look at Matthew Flinders’ letters with the flowers that his wife pressed on the back pages, I wonder what our generation will leave behind?
3)     Letter-writing improves your love life.  Philosopher Roland Barthes says that each love letter is a version of ‘Je pense a vous’, which has been unpacked to mean: ‘I have nothing to say except that you are the one to whom I want to say nothing.’  Or ‘I think of you now and not always because if I thought of you always then my life would descend into chaos.’ The very fact of writing a love letter is often this simple. But the emotions expressed within it are vast and complex universes of desire.
Firstly, the fact that they are written is an act of exposure and vulnerability. Speech melts into air. Writing leaves an indelible trace. Once sent, a letter can not be taken back. You have left your heart open to judgment. 
Secondly, as every letter written is an exchange, then it means that love letters are nothing less than a jointly-scripted love story. Writing compels lovers to write, to elaborate upon their sentiments. Words don’t just mirror our feelings, they expand upon them, let them grow large and abundant and dizzying. The story we write through love letters is a story of two souls intertwining in inky delight; the creation of a future world.
Finally, love-letters transform the banal into the heroic. When we talk to someone before us we have no capacity to imagine them as anything other than what they are. A letter, on the other hand, is a wakeful dream. It’s an address to an idealised object that hovers on an imaginary plain. There is plenty of time to learn that your lover is hopelessly human. Love-letters prolong the fantastical. And in years to come they can be read and re-read and held and wept over as a reminder of something quite magical.
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