Once again it is that time of the week when I am able to sit down in peace and quiet, with no fear of being interrupted by outside forces, and put thoughts and inspirations to paper. It is a time I greatly enjoy, one which I look forward to throughout the week, no matter what I have been doing, no matter what I have planned for the rest of the day, or even the coming week. Sometimes I plan my letter over an entire week, willing the time to go by quickly so that I can sit and write; sometimes I wish that it would pass slowly, so that I can take in every single moment of an experience and then, at the end of the week, have even more pleasure in writing. We are, however, not at the stage of grand descriptions of what is happening here in Germany or on the bigger stage of Europe; that will all come later, I hope. We are, to my mind, still at the introduction stage, since I have only written one letter to you so far, and one is not enough to explain or introduce the complexities of a complete person. I am sure you would also be hard put to explain yourself in just a few sentences, at least, not without doing yourself considerable injustice.
I wrote last week that letter writing is a challenge, and I am sure you appreciate that having read my letter with all its quotations, changes from one theme to another, meanderings through a wide variety of thoughts. It is, to be honest, a form of conversation – one-sided, but still a conversation – which two people hold: the only difference is that one person holds a monologue for as long as they wish and the other, who is, after all, not present, is silent. Then, after a certain length of time, the second person has a chance to hold his or her own monologue; answering what has been written; formulating their own thoughts and, again, for as long as they wish. No interruptions from the opposing side; no distractions with other thoughts from the outside world once you are writing; no pauses necessary to listen when the other person objects to what you have written. Letter writing is the ideal means of putting your thoughts and opinions on paper, of working your way right through them, finishing all your arguments without anyone – at least, anyone you are writing to – objecting to a phrase, an idea, a word.
At the same time, though, it is a challenge because you are writing alone, because no one is there to input their thoughts or to spur you on with new impulses. You are forced to put your own thoughts and opinion out there and, for some, that can be very difficult indeed; especially when they are not used to it. Did I mention that we were required to write letters home when I was in school? Once a month our English teacher had us take out a letter writing book – blank pages, no lines – and write to our parents. This letter, which was supposed to be open and frank, was then graded. I can guarantee, no one in my class, or even in my school, would have written an open and frank letter to their parents, and certainly not one which would be read and graded by a teacher first. It was much harder to write the monthly letter, fully aware of the route it would follow, than any other letter I have written in my life. No freedom of expression, no real honesty, just words to fill up a page and, hopefully, get a good grade at the end of the term. Every letter should be written with thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography in mind, where he wrote as the opening line:
I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator.
We can possibly disagree with him about never finding an imitator, there are enough people in our world who take the words of someone else and pass them off as their own. But, on the other hand, there was no one who could write an autobiography as Rousseau did, and his was accepted and reviewed as one of the first ever. Up until then it was considered correct for a biography to be written by a good friend, a relation or a professional, and certainly not by the subject themselves. The word autobiography came into use as a category or description very late in the history of works about specific people. Not that no one had written an autobiography before then, but there is always someone who wishes to claim the fame and limelight for themselves, and always someone who is prepared to give it. I would be prepared to accept Michel de Montaigne’s monumental collection of Essays as an autobiographical work, since it gives the reader so much of him as a man, a thinker and an intellectual, but it is less autobiographical and more opinion by our modern standards.
What we can agree with, however, is the uniqueness of a piece of writing, in this case a letter. Unless a person is something of a fraud and writes to a large selection of people with the same text all the time, like a certain kind of businessman, a fund-raising politician or an evangelical preacher, every personal letter should be unique. It should be tailored to each individual, both the writer and the recipient. It should be designed, so long as it is a personal letter, for the eyes of just one person in particular, and not for the general public. Personal, unique, intimate. Whereby intimate, as I am sure you appreciate, means just between two people and does not necessarily have to contain sexual connotations.
This personal, intimate form of conversation is fast disappearing with the increasing number of smart phones and the use of Facebook, Instagram and all the other websites which claim to be social media: whereby there is nothing social about them whatsoever. They separate people one from another by trying to convince them personal communication is no longer necessary; a conversation can be held through a series of status updates, and everyone is happy. Except, of course, that this happiness is an impossible form of Utopia; friendship can only be created and maintained in person or through personal contact, and the idea of staring at a small screen all day, waiting for someone to update their status and thus prove their friendship is, for me, abhorrent.
Kisses he gives, and thinks they are returned
as Ovid wrote: virtual kisses have no meaning, the same as a virtual friendship. Some people Like a status on social media just to be seen, or because of the person posting it, and not because they are truly friends or even truly like what has been written or posted. If we really did have all these friends – and some claim over four thousand on Facebook and heaven knows how many elsewhere – can you imagine being available to them at all times of the day and night? Think of it as being similar to your present situation: the whole facility. Now double it, with everyone together in one room, all the time.
My letter today, however, shouldn’t just be a homage to letter writing, nor a put-down of social media despite all its faults and problems. Sometimes I get into a subject, and then just write through as if there is nothing else in the world and it is more like a thesis or dissertation than a conversation, which is not really the point of a personal letter to anyone unless, of course, the subject matter is one which interests both sides. And therein lies, initially, the problem: I know all of my interests, of course. I have been immersed in my life, my travels, my hobbies and work for many decades and not yet had a chance to discover your interests, plans and dreams. Although letter writing is always one-sided to a certain degree, that makes this even more one-sided, and I would hate to assume that a subject is of particular interest, or force one upon another person. I recall the story of an English couple who were married for forty years. Every weekend they would set themselves up with binoculars, warm clothing, a flask or two of coffee and a few sandwiches, travel out into the country and watch birds together. Then, one day, they had an argument over something trivial, as most arguments are, and it came out that the wife had absolutely no interest in bird watching whatsoever; she had never been interested. For forty years she had simply followed her husband because it was his hobby; his interest. And the husband, I am told, replied that it was not his hobby at all. He had gone out bird watching every weekend because it was his wife’s hobby, and he wanted to support her even though it was of no interest to him whatsoever.
Forty years is a very long time to not know someone you’ve effectively promised your life to. Perhaps this is from the time when people were expected to just accept one another, but not necessarily talk, not learn about the interests of the other. Women stayed at home and saw to the household and children while men went out and earned their daily bread. Times have changed, I sincerely hope, although there are still some who believe that this is the right order of things, and the equal rights movement should never have stuck their collective noses in to the business of other people. Not that it was all civil rights people; many individuals have come to see that there is more to life than a nine-to-five office job or standing in front of a sink and a stove all day. Some of the best minds in the world are inside a woman’s head, and it is only right that we allow them to use their brains and, naturally, enjoy the same rights and privileges as everyone else. It is fascinating, reading older books, to see what was expected of women in years gone by, and what they expected of themselves, or hoped from their position in society.
I should say from their relegated position in society, since women were never considered equals, rarely educated and certainly did not come to enjoy anything like the same social or business status as men. That has, over the last hundred years or so, changed to a certain extent, but will never be fully through until women are accepted as individuals and, above all, also have the right to decide over their own lives in every single matter. Having recently watched a major discussion in the United States over women’s rights, over abortion and education, I know that we have a long way to go: the discussion was moderated by a man, and all members of the panel discussing these issues were also men. Clearly a well-balanced and carefully thought through event.
Perhaps in a later letter I will write about some of my thoughts on equality, and the stories I have come across on how women were treated over many, many centuries. I can assure you, it is nothing compared to what we experience today, and could almost make your hair stand up on end: things which were considered absolutely normal, which we would never even dare think about today. Emily Dickinson asks:
How do most people live without any thoughts? There are many people in the world, – you must have noticed them in the street, – how do they live? How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?
And in some cases I would ask how they can live with themselves. I keep on diving into Dickinson’s letters rather than taking the time to sit and read them through. I am highly attracted to her works, and to the private writings which have only been published and commented on in recent years, but this book of letters is not top of my To Be Read pile, and so I have a sneak a few moments to browse when no one is looking. I think I have two more books before this, and then I can settle down to an evening dedicated to Dickinson and her letters. Admittedly my TBR pile has only eight titles awaiting my attention, which is somewhat sparse. I shall have to go out and explore a few more bookstores or, perhaps, write to a few publishers and ask – being somewhat forward when it comes to books and literature – the to send me free copies. Many years ago, in the bloom of my youth, I reviewed new books for a small selection of monthly periodicals, which was a dream come true: doing that which I love; getting paid for it, in a manner of speaking; and getting to keep the books too.
Right now I am reading a new work by the German crime-writer Elisabeth Herrmann called Der Schneegänger which, I think, is her latest work and brings me all up to date. I am also annoyed at myself – and the publishers Bantam – because I ordered and received the new Lee Child book – Night School – which is his twenty-first Jack Reacher title, and it is in a different format to all twenty other books. The wonderful lines of my bookshelf have been ruined by an outsize edition. Perhaps I should call it a plus-size and then castigate myself for book-shaming.
I notice that you have access to a library and also an educational facility. Do you make use of them? Are there any authors you particularly enjoy, or an educational course which has sparked your interest? I keep on meaning to sign up for educational courses online, there are a wealth of subjects which interest me and which are available, but never seem to get around to it. Hopefully I won’t be one who regrets this later in life!