The world is changing very fast indeed. There are times when I wonder whether we will even be able to keep up with the technological transformations being thrust upon us by all the multi-media companies, through the internet, in our workplace and, of course, in our homes, as more and more of the ordinary things we use every day become networked, linked one to another and, by one means or another, to a great big machine somewhere over which we have no control. It used to be that we turned a knob on the side of our toaster, and trusted the bread would be burned just enough to be edible. We adjusted then settings on our coffeemaker manually, experimenting with this strength, that consistency, until we managed to produce something drinkable. Today our toaster remembers what we enjoy, and always produces exactly the same result every single time we use it, and coffee comes in small plastic packages, strength, taste, consistency programmed at the factory. There is little left for us to do, and so we turn to social media to share our woes with others, through exactly that medium which is ruining our lives.
And, as a result, since we are sitting in front of a computer, or holding a smart phone in our hands, a tablet or laptop balanced wherever we happen to be in order to stay in touch, to communicate with our friends, we have lost the personal touch, and the only thing we have is a certain level of loneliness which, because we believe we’re talking with friends, we haven’t seen, let alone accepted yet. But how many of those people on our long lists really are friends? How many are just bolstering the numbers so that we look popular when, in reality, we’ve met and talked to, perhaps, ten percent of those people, and have never met up with anyone else. Are these other people real, with the numbers and their status updates, or just bots produced by the social network giants to enhance our egos and make us even more fixated on their products?
And then there is this idea about strangers, about people who are different to us because we don’t know them. It amazes me, sometimes, that we will accept almost any Friend request online, and publish all of our details, including some of the most intimate, for people to see who we do not personally know, but have a problem talking to a work colleague or someone in the same class. Online: no problem; but when we get to see them in person, not knowing them in real life, we back into our shells. This is where, to my way of thinking, the loneliness creeps in and takes over our lives. Eventually everyone comes to realise that life is not online, friendships aren’t formed exclusively over the internet, and it is good to sit with real friends in a physical world and just chat.
Back in the days of yore, long before even I was born, letter writing was considered one of the great arts and an absolute necessity for anyone with a social life. Families and friends communicated with one another, copied and shared their letters, lived their lives through the written word. We can look back over worlds we will never see again through the letters of some of the greatest artists in the world, and those who accompanied them – because, of course, the woman’s place in those days was decidedly in the house if not the kitchen, despite the fact that many were far more intelligent and better educated than their male counterparts, and could most certainly write a better letter. It was these letters which kept families and friends close together, even when they were physically far apart.
Today no one has time to sit down and compose a message of more than two sentences, and certainly not one which could take a week to get to its destination. I’ve been told by many – online and offline – that letter writing is a waste of time, and that they don’t have the time to waste: they are far too busy scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. An hour spent writing a letter to one person? It’s not going to happen, because in that one hour they can be reading the status updates of all their friends and know what they’re doing all the time; something not to be missed. We bring our loneliness down upon ourselves, to a certain extent, by believing all the hype and the marketing people who tell us how wonderful our lives will be when we add this product or that application to our already overloaded schedule. What’s missing is the chatter, the laughter, the bumps one against another as we walk down the road, the confidential whisper of one friend in the ear of another followed by giggles as we look at people strolling past the café where we’re enjoying a cup of coffee. I may well be long past my sell-by date for many, but I have a good memory and, even at my age, I’m not above pointing and laughing at someone or something I consider to be funny, or ludicrous.
The images I’ve enclosed epitomise the theme of loneliness for me. Both of them are of people who are connected to the outside world and, undoubtedly, have many friends in their network. The young woman, in a picture by Leyre from Madrid, hunches up alone in her room lit by the glow of her laptop, but clearly alone and at an age when she should / could be out enjoying life. The second image, by Amalas from Germany, of a young man, fashionably dressed, out on the streets of his town, but drawn by the call of his smart phone, no friends with him. The first picture shows the enclosed world of the girl, cocoon-like, with no real contact to the outside world. The second shows a man with minimal surroundings, enough to tell you he is outside, as nothing else is more important but that which is happening, or not happening, in his cell phone right now. These images shout loneliness at you, quite literally, from the very way they have been drawn right down to our own personal recognition: are we one of these two, at least some of the time?
Can you imagine someone believing that you are lonely simply because you are sitting alone and reading a book? I have it all the time: people come up to me, generally ones who I know, and just sit down and start talking as if they are helping me through a severe crisis. That I am reading, doing one of the things I get the most pleasure out of in life, and that they are dragging me away from another world, seems to completely escape their sensibilities. I find, aside from real conversations with friends, reading books and writing letters to be two of the most social aspects of being alone, and neither one of them has anything to do with being lonely. To immerse yourself in a well-written novel, or slip back in time with a biography or someone’s personal letters is one of the great pleasures of life. And being able to share those pleasures, being able to put words down on paper and send your impressions, an accounting of your experiences across the globe to someone else; it is hard to think of anything more enjoyable, especially when a reply comes and you can lose yourself in their world for a while. There is an amazing childlike joy possible whenever a new letter arrives, and I have seen the shining smiles on many faces, from their lips right through their eyes, as younger children have received their first letter from overseas, as part of a school project or similar, and I know that this glittering light is still there in mine, even after all this time.
But still people wish to claim that letter writing is dead, that the modern has overtaken it and that the length of time we need to write, the cost of a letter, the time it takes for one to be delivered, has helped dig its grave. Not for the first time:
I used to think that the glory of the Muses, the eloquence of women, and every kind of rhetoric that was womanly (if one is allowed to use that word) had all but disappeared in our modern age, and I didn’t believe that there was any woman now who could match either Hortensia’s skill at composition and her talent as an orator or, for that matter, any of the ancient Roman women orators.
The words of Ludovico da Schio of Vicenza, writing to Cassandra Fedele possibly in the 1480s. In our modern age. Hard to believe that anyone else has considered any period of time that isn’t now – our time – as being modern! This from the days when letter writing was coming back into its own in society, and when women were gradually being allowed a small part of it in the public forum, not just in private; something which was unthinkable in our more modern Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where letter writing for women – as much as writing books and learned articles, learning in general – was a family thing and certainly nothing to do with intellectual prowess or any form of deeper thinking. You could easily equate it with the belief by some, sadly very vocal, elements of society who do not believe that women have any part in coding, the creation of games, or even comics.
It’s a well-known fact that smart phones weren’t used a great deal when Cassandra Fedele was alive, nor during the decades of Charles Dickens’ life, or even, going back further, Marcus Tullius. How did they manage to keep themselves occupied? How did they manage to make friends and stop themselves from being lonely? That we have a wealth of letters from the opens of these three, and many others of equal or higher worth, goes to show that there was life before the telephone, before the internet, before electronic mail. Sartre and de Beauvoir wrote many of their most famous works in a street café, and held court there too, for friends and acquaintances. Their relationship needed no instant communication by wireless means, they spoke to one another. Sadly, despite the philosophical workings of both, despite the excellent and wide-ranging example of countless others, we have learned nothing as a society.
I have the advantage of living in a small town caught between three major cities here in northern Germany: Bremen, Hannover and Hamburg. If I really wish I can slip out of the area completely and visit Berlin, Magdeburg, even down to Munich, but the big city lights attract only when I know I can travel back home again. For many years I lived and worked in the centre of London, but then managed to get away and travel, see something of the world before it became embroiled in too much strife and now, finally, I have settled down. It is a small pleasure to see the world rush by as if there is some important appointment everyone is just a little too late for, and relax over a cup of coffee and a good book. Now and then I allow myself the pleasure of travelling in to town and just watching the people, wondering whether all this rushing back and forth is worth it, whether they come home at night so exhausted, that there is nothing more they can do but fall on the couch, switch on the television, and fall asleep in front of some boring reality show.
And yet: I still believe it is good and enjoyable to meet up with other people, to exchange experiences with them, to just generally chat without any pressure. And I most certainly believe that letter writing is one of the best ways of doing this: the chance to express yourself fully, without fear of interruption, and know that whoever is on the other side is going to read, think, consider their own opinions and experiences, and write back. Although, that isn’t true either, since writing back for some is far too hard, and they get cold feet when one of my letters arrives, or when there are too many people replying to their profiles. Sometimes I am lucky and someone replies, a person with interesting ideas, depth of mind and the ability to think before they talk. A rarity these days, admittedly, but there are still a few about. And then the wonderful challenge of writing again, of taking their words and experiences and bringing my own ideas out, my own life in a manner of speaking; getting to know someone without ever having met them. But at least knowing that it is a real person, and not just a bot which has signed up to my Twitter feed or Facebook timeline to increase my figures and make me look popular.
At the very least I hope that this letter and the enclosed images have brought a smile to your face, and show you that there is no need to feel lonely, even when you’re on your own. There is a wonderful world out there, right at your feet, waiting to be explored. Perhaps, through letter writing, we’ll take a few paces through life together, each in our own world, with our own view, our own perceptions, and the knowledge that we can share them.