Even before I really get down to the pleasure of writing a reply, there is something that has been plaguing me, has been bothering my mind since I read your letter on Saturday, and it is best described as an intense feeling of disappointment. Letter writing is such a personal action, where a single friend or acquaintance – potential, longer-term, even family – dedicate themselves to spending time with another person even though they are absent, of putting their thoughts and emotions down on paper, or recalling all the noteworthy news and gossip which should and could be enjoyed in a manner and style which is exclusive to them. And then someone has the affront to criticise not the contents, not the subject matter, but the means in which it is conveyed? I find this, commenting on a person’s hand writing in such a fashion, to be less than civil; especially since your hand writing is clear, well-formed and a pleasure to see. I wish from the bottom of my heart that I could still write like you do, although I’d be lying to myself if I ever claimed that my writing was as neat and tidy, as readable: I had a spider’s scrawl, small letters hurrying across the page which were easy enough to decipher, but strained the eyes and sensibilities of many. My thoughts were faster than my hand, which tried to keep up but, as often as not, lost the battle and just scratched along behind. It is a greater embarrassment for me, even after several years, not to be able to hand write my letters, to be forced to use this modern technology in an area which demands a fountain pen, a firm script, and the impression that time has been taken to craft what is sent, thoughts have been given to fill the pages with interest and joy.
I have seen this elsewhere, though, especially in educational, political and work environments: where the message itself cannot be challenged, the means of delivery – worse still, the person delivering – is taken as an object for vilification and abuse. I have also experienced it, although my experience of such actions is probably considerably less traumatic, less frequent, than that of many women working in an environment that men consider their own. Not that this is necessarily the case with the person who complained about your hand writing, but if they begin early with such comments to me, I tend to see a very sparse future.
There is also the fact that we are all individual, with our own lives and thoughts, actions, loves, fetishes, whatever. There are things in our lives which can be criticised, often with justification, but that doesn’t necessarily change who we are, nor who we could become. If I expected – as you wrote – everyone who answered me to do justice to my letters, how many do you think I would still be writing to? But if I accept each person as an individual, with their own writing style and interests, the number increases dramatically, and I – regardless of whether it is me or someone else – gain considerably as a result. Added to which, I am old, and I cannot expect people who are considerably younger than myself to have gained the same level of life experience, which needs time, or to have read the same books, watched the same films, studied the same subjects. Life would be so boring if we were all the same, hardly worth living at all, if we had nothing else to learn, nothing else to look forward to in the years to come. And then, imagine if this short life we have is only one of many:
She [the immortal soul]has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things.
This is Socrates at his best, in Plato’s Meno, arguing that knowledge is less about learning and more recollection, when asked whether virtue can be taught or is ingrained from birth. Which, in theory at least, would mean we are all much the same, and merely need a buzzword to recollect all that we knew, and know, all that is hidden in our minds, in order to be able to regurgitate it at will. Fortunately, and without any need of philosophical arguments, or even delving into the classics – Roman, Greek or otherwise – to find examples, we can honestly say that this is not necessarily so, and follow Socrates’ other argument, that he knows nothing. Or, even better:
[…] For he cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case is in no need of inquiry; nor again can he inquire about what he does not know, since he does not know about what he is to inquire.
This, to my way of thinking, is one of the prime reasons, if not the best over and above all other reasons, why letter writing, this form of communication, is so special: we are showing other people what we have experienced, which they cannot have seen themselves and, therefore, cannot know exists. We are all, somewhere, foreigners, outliers, people who have no knowledge of one place, but plenty of another, sharing our experiences with those who are willing to listen, willing to share their lives and knowledge, their experiences, with us. And when someone turns that chance down, a once-in-a-lifetime chance, because a letter is hand written or, as has happened in my case, because it is not hand written, then more fool them. The knowledge we gain is not the method of communication, but that which is communicated. If we cannot get over our prejudices for a specific art of contact, then we will never be able to enjoy that which is being shared with us.
This is, of course, a small discourse in favour of Facebook, Instagram and all the other social media networks too, if one wishes to see them as capable of communicating rather than seeing them merely as data-robbing platforms making profit from an individual’s personal information. We choose our method of interaction, our means of exchanging ideas, according to our own needs, according to what we seek in life and what we have available to us, and only need to remember that it is the content which is important, and not the wrapping. And that is also why, when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty, no one needs to do justice to one of my letters, as I do not necessarily need to do justice to one or all of their missives, but to be themselves and offer up of themselves that which they wish to be taken.
So our first duty is to look to ourselves, and try to find somebody who will have some means or other of making us better.
It amazed some people I had written to in the past that words spoken and recorded two or three thousand years ago could still be relevant today. Many people see the older works as something to be taken out, dusted down, studied for a paper or discourse, and then returned to the shelves. They have Shakespeare in class, and never glance within those pages again, once the examinations are complete. They know of Plato’s cave allegory, but cannot either find it written down, nor explain it in modern terms. A book of poems is something fine, but not to be found on their shelves, and the only thing they can probably turn up that has anything to do with poetry concerns a small mouse (Robert Burns) or daffodils (William Wordsworth). And do they really need to have all this knowledge?
I would probably be tarred and feathered by all the teachers and professors I know, and a few others beside, when I say that they do not need to have the knowledge of all these fine poets, all the philosophers, all the writers of classical times. The ideas contained in many of these writings simply do not fit with the characters and personalities of every individual person, much the same as classical music or Old Masters depicting the different stages of life, religious or otherwise, does not fit in every case, no matter how much some people would wish it to be so. That they have a chance to learn, that they are introduced to these areas of knowledge and learning is a different matter entirely, here I am completely in agreement that such knowledge is of infinite value, but not necessarily any more than that. And if they wish to go further, then it is their choice, they are not being forced to do something which goes against the grain and, as a result, are likely to learn far better, think far deeper, benefit far more.
I’ve probably used far more words than necessary to say much the same as you did in your letter: if we allow ourselves to be trapped within one way of life, rather than taking a chance and venturing out on our own, what do we have at the end? Many social misfits, perhaps, who have never found the circle of friends they need, never been able to expand themselves and become of benefit to an extended society. I disagree with Socrates in some ways, that a person who knows has no need to further inquiry because he already knows, for example. Someone can know a great deal, but is still limited in what they know, as there is always so much more. And a person who does not know? Being able to go out and meet with people, to experience something you have never experienced before, to clamber into the arena, over the wall of no knowledge, and experience the flowering of new knowledge is one of the greatest things in life. Of course it is easy to be confined within boundaries someone else has defined, but is that what makes life worth living?
[…] his father chose to train his son in those feats, and yet made him no better than his neighbours […]
Or, in slightly more modern terms: a father pays for the education of his son, and then for him to go on an extended Grand Tour of Europe, often over many months or even years, to enrich his knowledge by learning from those outside his immediate family and social circles. Today we would see that as education completed on several different levels, perhaps right through university, and then a gap year to travel, to see, to experience, before the harsh reality of a life of work encloses us within its merciless grip, and all we have to look forward to are the weekends, and finally being old enough to draw a well-earned pension.
There are many who consider life to have been worthwhile when they are surrounded by close friends who they have grown up with and shared everything over many years. Whole communities exist exactly on this model, mainly outside of the major cities, where a common work environment exists, the same job, the same prospects, the same public houses and dance bars. For others this is simply not enough, as they come to see there is considerably more outside of the small metaphorical village in which they have been born and raised, and that community life can encompass a far larger community, a far more varied one too. You know what your family life was like, and the community that you lived in during your younger years, as well as the demands and responsibilities of belonging to that community – be it differing educational standards for men and women, selected marriage, or specific acceptable trades and employment – and I had much the same in England in the Eighties according to their ideas of community. Specific social circles, places that you went to or did not enter, standards of dress and deportment, right down to accent and the type of words one should and should not employ. Everything written down – without it being on paper – as a form of constitution for the social circle, the social environment in which I moved and lived, the expectations for the future. Moving to Germany was, for me, a breath of fresh air, and a chance to begin with a sheet of clean, unused paper of a size that I chose, of a colour of my choice, with a pen I had picked out from the mass.
Of course, in moving, as you know with your books, we have to shoulder some things, and discard others. It is often a very hard decision to make, but one which we rarely regret if, and only if, we’re allowed to get on with it and make our own lives. I couldn’t imagine, as an example, what sort of pressure there must be when an arranged marriage is still hovering over a person, like the sword of Damocles, as a possibility. Worse, I think, than parents immediately making plans for their future grandchildren when their daughter announces a new, potentially acceptable, boyfriend. I couldn’t do that today, I must admit: I couldn’t move and leave my books and my collected photographs and cameras behind. It would be like cutting off an important part of my personality, discarding the interests which keep me alive. I am most comfortable in my small library room, surrounded by books and plants – some of which have managed to stay alive despite my best attention – where there is a certain level of warmth and familiarity no other room in this house has. I can reach out and grab a reference from one of the shelves when writing, or delve into the history of almost any time by turning in another direction, marvel over the masterworks of bygone ages in another. What better way to write letters, for me, than in a room surrounded by the words and thoughts of others?
And that brings me back, in a roundabout way, to the idea of a letter that can do justice to another letter, to a book, to an idea or anything else. You see, perhaps, that your letter has brought me many thoughts, be they on one subject or two, and that the ideas which have sprung up within my mind, while achieving some form of substance on these pages, are certainly not complete. A few words can widen an area of interest, of friendships, of possibilities, and increase the idea of learning through knowledge created by thoughtful consideration, and delving into the ideas, words and works of others. Your reply, which was a joy to receive and to read, gave me the impetus needed to think, to explore and, with a certain amount of holding back, to write. Holding back because a letter is not the same as a thesis, I would hope, it is not a complete thing but, at the same time, it is complete. The former because it allows thoughts and expansions from others who receive and read it. The latter because it is the end of a first thought process, waiting on new input, new inspiration. I hope that what I have written does justice to the ideas your letter brought into my mind.