Sitting at my desk after the morning foray through town, to the small free library, along the promenade by the banks of the river and with all the sights and sounds still reverberating about me. Had I closed my eyes, I could have imagined myself at the seaside, as a motorboat raced up the river and, as soon as it was gone, the flow of waves began hitting the banks. The almost endless sound of ducks calling out, one to another, some in a hurry to get to another place, others in a group, tussling over bread a child is throwing them. After days of what we would call bad weather, with pouring rain and clouded skies, the sun has re-emerged for our pleasure, and for the last few days of summer. The only sounds now, as I write, are the sirens of fire trucks moving off from the town towards some emergency elsewhere; the volunteer fire force giving up their time to ensure the safety and well-being of other as best they can. The wailing sounds move off into the distance, and all is quiet once more.
Where would the world be today without brain candy? Many of the books we read today, and which we count as being the classics of modern literature, were once the brain candy of their own times: Jane Austin, Charlotte Brontë, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens were all people who wrote for the masses in their own society, and achieved the same sort of success as a Follett, Holt or Rowling do today, bearing in mind the differences in how many people have access to books and the level of education we have achieved compared to over a century ago. Whether some of the works we see published today will be considered classics in the future remains to be seen, but there is a good chance we, should we still be around to experience what is to come, would be surprised at some of the choices made. I can imagine the Harry Potter stories becoming classics, since they effectively are now, for the same reason as George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll are listed today: the stories speak to people and excite their imaginations; they transport a person out of their normal world and into another, without needing to force anything. They are, for the ripe imagination, realistic, even when we appreciate there is no reality. But that is much the same as the judgement of C. S. Lewis’s books set in Narnia, until the more observant readers began to notice the poignant and biting references to modern (his modern) society, to politics and religion.
Even Shakespeare, writing for the popular theatre-going masses of his time, was often criticised for his writing, and judged to be a mere flash in the pan hardly worth following up on, and that in later years too. He was generally seen as a plagiarist – for King John – and, as we know today, often vilified as being merely a name other people, such as Francis Bacon, took on in order to hide the origins of the works and their true author. Still, he has survived despite being labelled as a populist writer, despite the political problems his plays could have caused – and sometimes did cause – for him and those who acted on the stage. And I doubt very much that anyone then, or in the following two or even three hundred years, could ever have imagined how important these popular, for-the-people commercial plays would become in education. And the reason?
The thing many people forget about good literature, as with the most complicated philosophical thoughts, is that there is depth: the words make us think, bring us into ourselves and pull out memories or understanding which might not have surfaced otherwise. They do to a large number of people what a letter is capable of doing for one on their own: bring interest, pause and contemplation. Not that all letters do this, as not all works of literature are capable of enlightening, but many. Sometimes these memories, these thoughts brought out from the very depths of our being, are not quite what we would have wished for, but are clearly something we need to address, something we need to work our way through in order to find the necessary peace of mind to continue with our daily lives. A form of inspiration, if you will, brought by someone who is not necessarily thinking of inspiring beyond the tale they have to tell, but whose words strike a chord and begin a chain reaction.
But not just on the reading side. For many people the art of writing letters is the ability to express themselves, not just to draw people out of their shell through their words, but also find the words and the emotions inside themselves and, through their letters, work their own magic on themselves. Writing is, for many, as much of a therapy against modern life and troubles as reading as, as letting yourself be transported into a different world. Here we work through our thoughts and worries by expressing them to a stranger, to a friend, to a family member regardless of whether there is the chance of a reply. The usual ‘I Love You’ comes across the lips of some without a second thought, but their thoughts should be with you when the words are said or written, and being able to write them yourself, being able to put down on paper what those words or the manner in which those words have been said means to you, is a therapy in itself. We often don’t realise how little a person considers us, how much the style of their reaction affects us until the chance comes to really consider more than the three words – and in so many other instances too, not just with I Love You – by concentrating on them, either in reading or writing.
And what about them, those other people? Do they see it in the same manner? Do they appreciate what pain the shallowness of their words can bring when they utter something which should mean so much, but is clearly hollow and without deeper meaning? Sometimes it is hard to tell. Sometimes we have to be prepared for the worst, accept that what we had hoped for, what should be there, simply isn’t. True loneliness comes, then, when we only work through our thoughts half-heartedly, or begin and then stop before reaching the conclusion because we have heard the words, understand that there is nothing emotional or feeling behind them, and do not work right the way through to find a justification and closing.
You quote Socrates in your letter, but miss out one important word:
The unexamined life is not worth living
It is quoted by Plato as being one of the justifications Socrates used at his trial for the manner of his life and for his delving into the innermost thoughts of people, of their motives, of their claimed and real knowledge. You may well recall, Socrates was the man who claimed to know nothing in order to draw other people out, to get them to think about their words and actions and force, by gentle means, a discussion where the other justified himself or, at the very least, argued in such a manner as to prove himself correct, or show the error of his ways. It goes considerably further than this, of course, with the quoted words since they do have far more meaning when you settle down to consider them. Every single thing we do, our innermost thoughts right through to what we show people around us, have something behind them. Nothing that we do is without some form of thought, some form of consideration over the possibilities and results of our actions. Gut, at the same time, there are some things which have become so ingrained in our characters, we utter them without a second thought, as if they are meaningful and well-meant regardless of the situation, regardless of the truth. These words, once expressing emotions and true feelings, have become platitudes. Someone utters them simply because that is what they have always done, the same as wishing another person a nice day as you turn and walk away. Does it have a meaning higher than I Love You? It certainly should not, but, being uttered in exactly the same manner time and time again, it has lost the emotion which used to be there, and become flat, meaningless, a mere sentence one utters, and finished.
And there are many other things which have changed too, which we don’t always notice in ourselves: the need to do something merely because it is an obligation, and not because we wish to do it from our hearts. It makes me sad to hear from many that visits are cut short, of that they are fewer and further apart, that letters come less frequently, that families grow and change without the news being passed on. Some really are so out of sight, in everyday life, in people’s thoughts, that they are out of mind, as the saying goes. Their presence is no longer felt, or their lack of presence. Friends move apart and make eternal promises to stay in touch, and things happen, the distance becomes too great, lives change, they lose touch. Sadly this is also the case with families, no matter whether it be with father and mother, son and daughter or distant relations, a distance grows and the work on maintaining closeness is pushed back, or put to one aside until a better moment and then, after a while, it is no longer there. This is also the point, when you see what is happening, that you follow exactly those words you wrote in your letter:
Embrace and learn what you can, then release them.
And if you don’t? If you continue with thoughts of all those people – family, friends, acquaintances, regardless who – as if they are still of prime importance? If you don’t shrug off the past, no matter how painful it may seem to do so, and leave your old baggage behind? After a while it begins to weigh you down, to drag your life downwards, and prevents you from evolving. You’re caught in the past and cannot see the future because of so many desires which will never be realised, memories which cannot be revitalised, relived.
And then you write that you have put your name out into the open in the hopes of finding new friends, of finding people who will share their world with you, as you share your thoughts and world with them. You’ve seen how other people have moved on with their lives, how their world has changed with time, with new friendships, new chances and, eventually, a change of circumstances. Here we see something that is often missing in other people, a massive step forward to combat loneliness, to reach out into the unknown and embrace that which could be or, in other words, following the plea of Socrates at his trial, in that we examine life and find all those things which make it worth living through knowledge, which cannot only come from the self, but must also come from outside to bring the knowledge from within, through consideration and internal debate, experiences and education, out.
Then thing is, and this is something which even a few college professors have not yet understood, you can read hundreds of books and gain no insight into a subject whatsoever. You can read one book, and then discuss it with friends, and find the light of the world. Perhaps not literally, but the level of understanding through sharing thoughts and knowledge is considerably higher than when you sit alone and do not allow any outside influences to temper your thinking. This is one of the problems I have with several philosophers – such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein – they spent a great deal of their time in solitude thinking, only able to follow a limited train of thought, which resulted in some theories hardly anyone can easily understand and which, despite the claims of their founders, are not conclusive. By sharing, by talking to others, by allowing your thoughts to be considered by someone else and their thoughts added to temper, or enhance, to colour, you are opening yourself up to a wonderful world away from that of seclusion and loneliness.
My old-fashioned strangeness: I like that. I’ve been called, and call myself, old-fashioned because of my letter writing, because I travel to experience rather than to have merely been, because I read for pleasure as much as for enlightenment and advancement and I have no problems with any of those. Strange perhaps because I am following a tradition many others, with their modern technology and education based on commercial needs rather than humane ones, have given up on? Quite possibly. Or strange because unlike other Englishmen I have learned foreign languages, travelled to foreign lands, and seen – and accepted – that there is more to life than the old nationalist viewpoint since, through a mere accident of birth, we are placed in one position and not another? Also possible. Or, perhaps, a mixture of all coupled with a love of life, of learning and of letter writing. Perhaps because I have seen the past – the good old days as you call them – and enjoyed them, hold onto the memories of those times, but look forward because that is where we are going, that is what is in front of us, and if we only hold onto the past then other people will come along, shape our future for us, and it might not be that which we would wish for ourselves.