I finished my last letter to you with a reference to the long conversation carried out over one hundred and twenty years about the value of Cicero’s Latin. What I didn’t point out was that this conversation began considerably earlier, but was not considered part of the whole; not waged between Renaissance Humanists trying to recreate the Latin of the past. Rather, it was a matter of discussion amongst Latin writers of (almost) Cicero’s times, with Pliny the Younger being one of them. I mention this merely because I have been enjoying the light style and often dark subject matter of his letters, which were published in an excellent translation by the Loeb Classical Library back in 1969. Pliny the Younger – or Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus to give him his full adult name – was born in about 62 BCE and is interesting not just because of his position in Roman society, but also because he witnessed the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius on 24 August 79 BCE, where his uncle died and the city of Pompeii was destroyed, and he wrote about it. He wrote about a great deal more than just that one incident, of course, but this event is probably the one most people remember when they hear his name. That is, of course, most people who have something of a classical education or who read the classics.
The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both.
I sometimes wonder, in passing but not as a serious consideration, whether anyone will read any of the letters I have either sent or received in centuries to come. That doesn’t mean to say I am looking to collect them, but there are people who save letters which have been written and put together a form of social history from what they can glean. I have a small selection of hand written letters, for example, dating from between 1650 and 1820 which came up, individually, for auction many years ago, when I was still trying to decide where my collecting interests lay. That I decided not to stay with collecting original letters lies less in a personal interest, and more in the prices some people demand for their wares. I had originally been interested in collecting postcards of this town – since it seemed to me that no one else was interested in the history of the region, and certainly not those with a connection to the local museum! – but what had begun as an interesting hobby quickly became a race to find the best examples available at the cheapest prices. Postcard collection suddenly became a hobby everyone wanted to be involved in, and the prices I had initially paid for some of the earliest lithographic works seemed to increase forty-fold and more almost overnight.
Much the same happened with collecting letters: a variety of online auction houses began to gather customers and grow in size and reputation; more people came onto the market to buy in the hopes of making a profit later – but rarely as real collectors – people who had cleared out their attics of their grandparents possessions saw an opportunity to make a massive profit. Where people would once have had to go out and visit a shop, allow their treasures to be assessed by an expert, they could now simply upload an image onto the Internet and everyone was an expert. Although I should not complain, I find many of the older photographs which come into my collection on the Internet; it isn’t all fun down at the flea market on a Saturday morning.
I can, however, thank the Internet for making books easier to buy. This may be a strange thing to write, since practically every town in every civilised country has at least one bookshop and this one is no exception, but there are limits. Living in Germany, if I want an English-language title I have to either travel and find myself a university bookstore, or order. Ordering means going through a wholesaler, and they are not as quick and efficient with English books as with German ones. On Friday I ordered a copy of Wittgenstein und Heidegger: Die letzten Philosophen by Manfred Geier and collected it from the store at ten yesterday. If I want an English-language book an order can take two weeks or more: my orders for works by Emily Dickinson a few weeks ago being the best example; one title couldn’t be supplied and the second took two weeks. The book which our wholesaler couldn’t deliver I ordered through Amazon and had it two days later.
There is a massive difference between collecting books and postcards, or letters for that matter. The author of a book hopes his or her works will be bought and read for the rest of eternity, where the writer of a postcard or a letter is aiming for a brief moment of concentration on the part of the recipient and no more. Few people construct their letters in such a manner that they can be thought of as perfect for publication later, unless they happen to be a politician and are already planning on the profits of a book deal before being elected to high office. Even Pliny, when he started putting together his works for publication, admits to going through, being very selective, and changing what had been written originally. I cannot for the life of me imagine any politician today not doing the same: a little change here, a new sentence there, all depending on which way the political wind blows as they recollect their time at the helm, and how they wish to be remembered. Whether it is always the truth that creeps in remains to be seen and judged by those reading.
There is also some sadness in found letters, I feel; not only for the fact that time has gone by and the people are often no more, but also because of some of the stories, the lives you can dig out from just a few words. I have one letter hidden away in a box somewhere, dated 1965, where a young woman breaks off her relationship with a young man, telling him that it cannot work out between them. I often wonder why, who they were, whether either one of them found happiness later in life. But they are just ordinary people, not politicians, royalty or celebrities, and their lives disappear with the memories of those who once knew them. In one of his letters, to Clusinius Gallus, Pliny writes:
We are always ready to make a journey and cross the sea in search of things we fail to notice in front of our eyes, whether it is that we are naturally indifferent to anything close at hand while pursuing distant objects, or that every desire fades when it can easily be granted, or that we postpone a visit with the idea that we shall often be seeing what is there to be seen whenever we feel inclined.
Here we can see that things have not changed in the two thousand years since he was writing, and the attitudes today. Who hasn’t put something off to another day, and then discovered that it is no longer there, closed, disappeared? Back in the days when I actively took photographs myself, when I would go out and seek images worthy of my lens – as I thought – this happened a great deal. I would be on my way somewhere, see something, and decide to come back to it. Coming back would, of course, not be quite so easy as I had imagined, there is always something else to be done, or someone else who needs a favour, whatever, and then: too late. A beautiful alley way of trees to either side of a main road, frosted against a clear blue sky: an hour later, as the weather warms their branches, they are frost-free and the moment is gone forever. Even worse, of course, when there is all the time in the world, and you don’t have a camera with you.
In Victorian times there was a trend to capture images of that which had already gone, not just in Europe but also in the Americas. Photography, having your photograph taken in a studio, was expensive but, at the time, until Agfa and then Kodak moved in, it was the only means of having a visual record of a person aside from sitting for hours for a portrait painter – and very few could afford that. People would dress up in their Sunday finest and travel into town, visit the local photographic studio, and have their portrait taken: individuals, families, lovers, children or even pets. It was a visual record which could then be sent across the world, showing relatives in far off lands what their extended family looked like. People even used them as calling cards: when the person they hoped to meet wasn’t at home, or wasn’t free to meet them, they’d leave a little calling card with a photograph of themselves to show they’d been there, to hope for a chance to meet up later. Being expensive, though, many couldn’t just quickly run down to the local photographer and have their picture taken, and so some of the strangest images came about, something which still happens to this day but is far from being accepted: photographs of the dead, with their families.
Today we see people taking so-called selfies of themselves next to the hospital bed of their dying grandmother, or in front of her coffin – open, so that she can be seen too – and hear the torrent of adverse feelings from those who believe this ‘trend’ is bad and should be discontinued as quickly as possible. It is, they claim, disrespectful to the dead and dying. And yet, only a few decades ago, it was the only way that a family could remember one of their loved ones: they called a studio and had the photographer come to their house, laid out their dear departed, and had a portrait made. Sometimes small children and babies were held by their mother, or siblings sat next to one another as if all were still alive. I’ve even seen a portrait – which I do not have, there are no post-mortem photographs in my collection – of a New York fire fighter in full uniform, standing awkwardly next to a few mementos from his life, as dead as the day is long. The only memory that his family had of his life.
I know that immortal fame awaits him if his death is recorded by you.
So wrote Pliny to Cornelius Tacitus when describing the death of his uncle off the coast of Pompeii when Vesuvius exploded. Such fame was important to the Romans, who erected statues not only to their gods, to the emperors who had themselves proclaimed as gods and to heroes of military action and even minor battles, but also to those who won at the Olympic games. But, as he says at the end of the same letter:
… there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.
We write our letters out of friendship – or in the hopes of building up a friendship – to keep in touch and to learn what is happening in the small world of each individual we know, and not for the general public, not for those who do not know us to pore over and dissect as if every word was a decision made that changed the world and could be evaluated, torn to shreds, condemned or praised.
But have we done something worth recording? Is there something in our daily lives which merits being put down on paper and shared with other people? We don’t all get to see a volcano erupting right on our front doorstep – even though there are many rushing to experience the power of Mount Etna at the moment – or have meteors crashing down in our front gardens which contain a fortune in diamonds or the genetic key to the creation of the universe, life, and our existence on this planet. It is highly likely that few of us have done anything which will go down in history – the viewers to events are so seldom worthy of mention, even when we live through interesting times – but we have done things of interest nonetheless. Those mundane little things we do each day which no one else gets to see, which are habit, but strange to someone else. Those things which other people have never experienced or which, even when they were standing next to us, they experienced in a different way. Letter writing is like a conversation, admittedly one-sided, but a conversation between two people all the same, as if they were talking about the most banal things in life, set down on paper and offered for consideration. And, no matter what Pliny may have claimed two thousand years ago, we are all fortunate, because we can all share, experience, converse and, through all of these things, live a meaningful life worth recording.