When Lost For A Few Suitable Words
Firstly I must admit that I have a copy of the complete works of Michael de Montaigne permanently on my writing desk and, when lost for a few suitable words, glance in its direction to remind myself that there is always something to write about or, as Pliny the Younger admirably demanded when Fabius Justus told him that he had nothing worth writing about:
Well, you can at least write that.
So it is always a pleasure to come across someone else who has read his works, and who knows how and when to quote so that it not only makes sense, but also enriches the conversation. I have always marvelled at those writers who were able to pepper their letters with suitable extracts from the classics, from the masters of almost any genre, and who knew that the recipient of their letters would not only understand the context, but also know who was being quoted having read these works themselves. This is a glance back to the past in many ways, since quotation is now considered to be not only dead in the water, but is also often a useless waste of time; too few know what is being referenced; too few write in such a style that a quotation would even fit. But I am old-fashioned, love literature and the use of words, and have no problem being called an old man stuck in his ways simply because the means of expressing myself I employ probably died out with Longfellow, and haven’t been resurrected by any modern writers, including those of scholarly dissertations who cannot quote properly, or purposely take the words of others to enhance their own chances of success, and perceived worth, without giving credit. I mention this more because I am reminded of a conversation I had some time ago where I quoted Khalil Gibran – the author of a spiritual work called The Prophet – several times simply because my correspondent had claimed him to be one of his favourite authors. In his next letter there was the complaint that I had not included who I was quoting from, which made it difficult for him to see a connection or find the references in order to reply, and I wasn’t being fair, and life isn’t fair anyway, and everyone is out to get him. The book is perhaps three thousand words: I write longer letters.
I’m not really obsessive about quotations, but I do enjoy them, not so much to show a certain level of learning, but more because there are so many wonderful literary works in the world, if we forget them we will all be that much poorer. Our culture – the Arts and everything surrounding our lives – are built on what has happened in the past, and we still use many of these precedents in everyday life without realising it. I often quote from whatever I happen to be reading at the time of writing, and the rows of books in my small library are distinguished by hundreds of small slips of paper, sticking out of book tops, marking those passages which have interested me at some time or another. Whether I will ever get to use them or not remains to be seen, but I often flick back through one volume or another and remind myself of what is there, what is available. They also give me good themes for articles and talks and, of course, for some of the letters that I write, although it is good to be careful at times and not overdo some things.
I think a writer’s first duty is to read his title, to keep on asking himself what he set out to say, and to realise that he will not say too much if he sticks to his theme, though he certainly will if he brings in extraneous matter.
Pliny the Younger again who, as you’ll probably have guessed, I have been reading recently, and with great pleasure. In fact, it was to this passage that my thoughts turned as you mentioned rambling – which I had mentioned in an earlier letter – and the style in which Pliny wrote. He tried to keep himself to one theme in his letters, although the technique employed at the time was the Rule of Three; three being regarded as the perfect number and, therefore, the perfect style to be employed in writing, in oration, in life. I have also attempted to limit myself to one theme, working through a long string of related subjects until I manage to get back to the original idea and conclude, but probably with less success than he had. The Rule of Three I often use within my texts, giving a small list of alternatives designed to enhance an idea; you’ll probably notice it quite employed a few times, but hopefully not used to excess.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; there are some people who need to have a wide variety of themes to keep them alive, or to keep their art alive, and who manage to bind them all together into one long succession of history. Here I am thinking not so much of writing but more of an exhibition I saw in Bremen today comprising a very broad selection of works by the artist Franz Radziwill, whose main inspiration came from the city of Bremen and its surrounding area. I’m including the flyer for the exhibition, even though it is only available in German, so that you can gain a visual idea of what I mean and despite the fact that the widely diverging styles he employed over his lifetime cannot be truly appreciated from the five examples shown (you will already have seen that the sixth painting is by van Gogh). I must first of all admit that I should not have been at this exhibition: I sneaked in to the press preview when all other members of the public, keen to get an early take and thrill their friends, were being turned away at the door. This is easier than some may suspect, sneaking in, it just needs a certain amount of self-confidence, of giving the impression that you belong, and it is something I have been taking advantage of for many years with varying results. Sometimes I am lucky and manage to get in, sometimes they are suspicious and suggest that I come back another day.
It’s not so much the variety of themes here – I’m using Radziwill as an example more than anything else, since he is fresh in my mind – but the difference in styles that he used across several decades of painting. Some of his works – not shown – are very naive, almost childish in their execution, reminding me of Paula Modersohn-Becker, but that is another story for another letter. Others are very precise, such as the central piece in the flyer: the water tower. Some, such as the cover work for the flyer – of a colourful gas container in Bremen – seem to mix naiveté with precision; it is almost as if there is a line along the length of the wall, with precision behind and childish simplicity in the foreground. The different styles taken across these several decades, though, are mixed: there is no set pattern to his art as such, which surprised me. I had imagined he would begin with one style and gradually move, learn, evolve to a more perfect one. His artistic styles, the manner in which he progresses from the beginning of his painting career through to the end, the jumps almost as if from one genre to another, are exactly what I would not wish my letters, my writing, my talks to reflect. There is a certain pleasure in being able to imagine, to write, to create and take people with you on an adventure through myriad landscapes, finally bringing them, almost seamlessly, to their destination; as if you are driving a car and do not wish your passengers to notice each time you have to brake, change gear, accelerate. This, however, is not the impression I got from Radziwill’s work, which means that I was disappointed with the overall exhibition, but would happily have taken one or two of the works – such as the water tower and another cityscape – with me given the chance. Or a work by one of the other artists exhibited in the museum, such as the one of two sisters on the postcard I’ve enclosed.
And so with quotations as much as with themes: there are some which fit and which everyone wants to take note of, and many – the vast majority I would say – which cause not the slightest flicker of interest, but only seem there to hold the interesting parts together. We all have our favourites or, to be more accurate in our modern times, those of us who read do. For others, if it’s not Harry Potter – and I have nothing against Rowling whatsoever – then it’s not literature and hardly worth noticing, if anyone has even heard of it. Our society is gradually becoming a status-update society – I tend to ditch the idea of Generation X and Millennial in favour of more literary terms such as dunce, dunderhead and one-forty-characters for those who cannot get a sentence together other than that which fits on Twitter – more concerned with letting their followers know about their bowel movements than getting out into the world and experiencing it for themselves. We laud those who travel and take Instagram photographs, forgetting that we could be doing this ourselves; experiencing what there is in the world rather than living a dull life in the shadow of someone else’s posts. Of course, when I saw ‘we’ I mean modern society as a whole – the type who get mentioned as frontiersmen in the gutter press simply because they’ve travelled abroad – and not those who really do have interests, hobbies and things to fill their time without the small screen and a share button.
I believe you have hit the nail on the head: our modern society is being dragged down by the convenience of everything, but ready accessibility, by a false need to always be at the forefront of fashion and technology without having to do anything physical or demanding. You can take the simplest of examples and see how far we have sunk into the abyss of destruction: a cup of coffee, complete with milk and sugar, which only needs hot water adding and it is ready to drink. No grinding of beans, no brewing, no careful measuring of milk and sugar according to taste. We do not have time to prepare a pot of coffee anymore and yet, despite all this time being freed up by convenience products, we are still not doing anything new, still not taking advantage of what we have and what we could be doing. We sit in trains and complain at the length of the journey, rather than using the time to read and learn – or even sleep so that we are fit for the exertions of the coming day – to prepare ourselves for our eventual destination, to plan ahead. Worse, we sit in trains and stare at our smart phones, waiting for someone else to update their status so that we can reply, and through replying feel a part of civilisation, part of a group of people who are also, sad and alone, waiting for someone else to do something noteworthy.
Letter writing has lost its allure simply because of these technological advances which make everyone available at all times of the day and night. That wouldn’t be so bad, if only society hadn’t also added the demand that this availability be used, that everyone has the right to expect everyone else to be available, to answer their phones immediately, to be there for them at all times of the day and night. In France it has been necessary for the government to pass a law forcing employers to leave their employees alone when they take vacations; telephone calls and requests to do work-related things are now illegal, a sad state of affairs that the legislature needed to act in the first place. Since we are all immediately there, there is no need to spend time writing a long letter with all the news of home and family. Aside from which, writing a letter takes up so much precious time, which we could spend wondering why our status update on Facebook has been Liked by ten fewer people than we have a right to expect; what we are doing wrong; why our lives, so ordered and pigeon-holed, set according to the demands of our cliques, are going down the drain faster than a spider caught in a downpour through a lack of followers and communal interaction.
No one has the time to waste on writing letters today, since they have to be available for their online friends or, more likely, are too busy staring at the small screen waiting for someone else – who is also staring at a small screen and waiting – to do something they can react to. It is a waste of time putting words down on paper when the world can be rescued from impending disaster through a video game which has just come on the market and which, in order to stay ahead of all the other people with this same game, has to be mastered as quickly as possible in order to achieve fame and glory. Not that I believe our letters – as good and enjoyable as they might be – will achieve fame and glory, but they are more tangible than the massed armies of some fantasy land charging across a flat screen and controlled by one or two left, right, up and down buttons or a joystick. Twisting Pliny’s words slightly, but certainly not his meaning:
This is rare in the young people of today, few of whom will yield to age or authority as being their superior. They are born with knowledge and understanding of everything; they show neither respect nor desire to imitate, and set their own standards.
I wonder whether, in years to come, someone who has made it to my age despite the loss of countless virtual lives will look back, see the years that have flown, and wonder what they have left as tangible memories, what they have to show their grandchildren, or even to show that they once took a breath or two upon this planet, that they lived. I cannot, not even with the widest stretch of my imagination, see anyone reaching for their smart phone, scrolling back, and indulging in memories of that Tweet they sent out in March 2017.
Do you think that Cicero and Pliny, two thousand years ago, imagined that their letters would be preserved and be of interest to coming generations? Cicero certainly not: he hoped that his other written works would be preserved and had them published for the greater good. Pliny the Younger, on the other hand, was very much into the idea of immortality through publication, through having his name not only on works he had penned, but also within the histories of others. Neither one of them would have been able to imagine how their works would be read in the future, of that I am sure. But our letters? Perhaps, in two thousand years, people will want to look back and see how the last stubborn dinosaurs of a changing, technological world managed to survive despite the advance of other means of communication, despite artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the ability to order pizza online. They will marvel that humans actually took compressed wood pulp and cotton waste in their hands and managed to decipher markings pressed into the surface, let alone created such things. And somewhere, perhaps on the Steppes far away from civilisation, a small, select group of people will recite the books they have learned by heart and are keeping alive for the benefit of future mankind.
I think, if I was going to put my collected letters together and make something for the future, I would choose those letters I have written which have never received a reply.
If anyone who happens to read this work judges it to be useful, that will be my reward for the work I have done, and I shall regard it as a precious prize. But if otherwise, let my offspring return to me, its begetter. With its stammers may it remind me of these Holy Places, so that I can recreate their memory in my mind. For that too will be a sweet delight.
So wrote John Phocas, back in 1185 CE, with a sentiment I believe few other writers would have: the acceptance that, perhaps, no one would ever read a word he had written. This is, of course, anathema for writers: they write to be read and for no other reason – or at least claim it to be so, naturally all hope to make their fortunes and be able to live a life of luxury – but Phocas was writing a short guide to visiting the city of Jerusalem, which had just been recaptured by the Christian armies, and there had been so many other similar travel guides at the same time, his would easily have slipped down the pile and remained, unread, unseen by others, unremarked by those planning their own trip to the Holy City. The idea of having unanswered letters in a collection is thought of in memory of Emily Dickinson as much as anything, although I am sure there are many others who have held the same sentiments. She wrote:
This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me
and is a sentiment I can well understand, and almost call my own. That said, the pleasure of receiving one letter, such as yours, far outweighs the time and effort expended on writing to other people who did not feel the need, or perhaps were too overwhelmed, to reply. Admittedly, many of the letters I have written this year have been to institutions rather than individuals – and I include politicians in this institutional sum – so there is not an individual person I could turn to and point an accusatory finger at, but even so, the number of letters taken over the number of replies (double figures over single figures) would make anyone else wonder whether the time and effort, even the cost of postage, had been worth dedicating to the art. Personally, admitting that I am very biased in such matters, I think it has been. If you don’t use a skill you have, it rusts. Many people today would be incapable of writing even a thank-you note to Grandma for the unwanted Easter pullover received last December, let alone stringing together several pages packed with news and intrigue which entice the reader to plunge further in, or reply. And then, as I mentioned, having just the one good reply makes all the other failings drift off into the darkness of a forgotten realm where, I sincerely hope, they will rot in peace, alone. No, I’m not a bitter person; cynical perhaps, but not bitter. I enjoy writing, and that is my journey.
Perhaps I can also be happy in the thought that, even if many people do not reply, at least I have been able to give them a moment away from their normal routine, something which they had not expected. Possibly, I must admit, also something they did not particularly want – I mean, how many people are going to feel comfortable reading a letter written in the style of an eighteenth century man? – but that is a decision each must make for themselves. Although, it is somewhat strange when a person you’ve written to takes the trouble to read your letter, then pack it in a brand new envelope, stick a few stamps on the outside and address it, and send it back again. No comment, not annotation, no reason. Humans are strange animals.
And humans are strange in their ability to make friends without the need to have shows of force or superiority, which is one of the things that I enjoy about letter writing: we can communicate; we can say all that we wish to say, all that is in our minds at any given moment in time, and be certain that the person we are writing to will not interrupt. You might find this a strange thought, but you have no idea how many times I have been involved in a serious conversation, a debate or been giving a talk, and there is an interruption which brings me – or anyone else in the same position – right off course so that it is almost impossible to recapture the moment, go back to the thread which was being followed or recreate the images which had been there for everyone else before. Letter writing is as much about ego, when you look at it this way, as anything else: all about me. In fact it isn’t, of course, it is all about the ability to communicate completely, and a good writer, which I hope one day to become, does not simply write about themselves, but incorporates much more of real interest and real value on the page. This is probably why writers such as Cicero or Pliny, Dickenson and Walpole are of such great interest so long after they have gone: what they have left behind is still alive, still speaks to us after all these years, and that despite the fact that we cannot put ourselves completely into their times, into their world. So perhaps our letters will be of interest to those, in a few thousand years, who stumble across the sheets of paper lovingly preserved in a shoebox and tied together with fading ribbons. My only hope is that any letters found are not dug out of the ruins of a town such as Pompeii: that is not my idea of eternal preservation or immortality!
What will the readers of the future think, coming across our words? Will they know who Carlos Fuentes is / was, or even Pliny the Younger? Come to that, aside from we two, does anyone else living today know who they are? There are only a select few who can tell us who Michael de Montaigne was, when and where he lived, why we remember him; but at least they are not living in a small group on some isolated Steppe, memorising texts, to keep them alive for the future which is some small consolation.