In reaction to a few lines from the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar I have been meditating on the phenomenon of letter writing – the epistle, an old love of mine which at this juncture of history has unfortunately become discredited. I jotted them down, her lines, now having forgotten the source and too lazy to start digging into the mess of what once was a library.

“A letter, even the most comprehensive one, forces you to simplify what should not have been simplified. After all, as soon as you try to be complete one becomes so unclear!”

Not really all that clear, this phrase – Chère Marguerite! Are you advocating, yes or no, ‘clarity’, or rather ‘completeness’? Or both? And what is a letter able to perform? Calling this ‘a post-epistolary era’, as the German philosopher Sloterdijk did, exudes something sad. The letter is indeed capable of performing so much that no other medium will allow us. Well-chosen words for well-considered thoughts, intended for that one other person.

But, indeed: e-mail; the increasing info-corruption of our language; its instrumentalisation did manage to strangle letter writing. How do we converse, how do we exchange what we think and what we feel like?

This can be done verbally. It can be done through the written word. We may also display or portray something for another or just point at it – or even try to imitate something. For example, you can create a drawing or you may add a photo to a text. Nothing prevents us from doing all this at the same time – the books of W. G. Sebald are a beautiful proof. The likelihood, however, that all these media truly merge is small.

Only an oral dialogue allows you to immediately ask the other for an explanation or to criticize what has just been said. Interruption is the essence of all spoken conversation. Without a moderator, however, there arises the problem that the speaker might not want to be interrupted yet, for the reason that he thinks that he has not made himself sufficiently clear yet. Then monologue threatens.

Without a moderator the spoken dialogue demands from its participants self-restraint and mutual sympathy – thus self-criticism. Not only interruption, but also self-interruption is needed, as well as allowing the other a digression, now and then. This is all part and parcel of the soul of true conversation.

The spoken dialogue, once you look back on it, is always drawing traces, yet never constructs a railway. Digression, detour and a return to previous positions make all dialogue Shandyan. As the reader may know, Laurence Sterne described the life of his protagonist Tristram Shandy in an almost endless and incoherent series of chapters that string together like the hit-and-run, shifting and promiscuous couples in Schnitzler’s Reigen.

The concurrence of two people conversing remains asymptotical and may last into infinity.

Is a ‘written dialogue’, then, an oxymoron? The written word does indeed allow us to explicate extensively, but all too easily this may become monomaniac. Written conversation with the other often fails to become a real exchange. However rich the perspective of the writer may be, he never coincides with The Other – his reader. And of course vice versa. Eye contact is missing, direct interaction isn’t there.

The ideal, perhaps, might be an exchange of short, written notes with a prescribed maximum length, this in the presence of that person, thus on location. I quote my letter to a chess acquaintance – a psychologist, sadly enough long gone – written prior to his visit to me in France, someone with whom the spoken debate in Amsterdam not always went smoothly:

“Caro P.,

Reminder: Thinking is ascending from the abstract to the concrete, a beautiful and, I think correct statement by Comrade Hegel. In that respect, the psychologist is the wrong partner for the sociologist or the ethicist. Our meeting may once again become exciting, but risky.

You always argued from individual ‘cases’ to general statements; by contrast, I think you can only think about those cases – say: ‘construe’ them – once you have figured out a the issue conceptually, i.e. in a general sense.

Perhaps, we should debate via written notes; handing the other a proposition on paper as if moving a piece on the chessboard; the other reads, thinks, then puts his claim on a piece of a paper in return. That way you bypass the pitfalls of poor memory and complaints about having said this or that at an earlier time, or having defined something so and so, without anybody being certain about it and the two of us not any longer in a position to ascertain it accurately.”

Now I realize that this solution of an exchange via short, written messages is also full of pitfalls. A decade ago things between me and a mistress of long standing went terribly wrong. In a hotel room in Malaga I discovered that she had e-mail correspondence with hundreds of others. Before this, I had already the impression that her ‘reactions’ to my deliberate and possibly well written e-mail letters were somewhat hasty and sloppy – now I knew why. One I was, amongst countless millions…

Playing epistolary chess with short messages, whether or not in the presence of the other, calls for attention and intensity. At most you play a few games at once, preferably only this one. On leaving her room, by way of a good bye and in despair, I cried out:

“You – you are a laptop woman!
I – I am a fountain pen man.”




Meanwhile, a friend who has emigrated to far Scotland and is now, after Brexit, running the risk of having left for an Other World, wrote to me in response to one of my letters:

“E-mail or a written letter – as you noted – can not replace eye contact. Probably so… A soul mate I do not have and never have had, I do have friends, good friends, and those friendships I retain […] We write each other more, something which you do less likely when you see one another regularly. Writing as a confession…”

This is true, though partly so. And I answered:

“But my experience is that letters finally grow less intense. See the countless books of letters – it dries up. At least, I think so.”

To try and ‘solve’ this problem I spend one half year in France and the other in the Netherlands. This way you write letters more intensely, then come back and sit down face to face – at the chessboard and at the talking table.

Then again, this is not always a solution. To the loved one in France, with whom I had a serious Krach last year, a falling out believed to be final, I wrote again:

“About adventures: Do you also feel a bit afraid of our new meeting? We now make love in the abstract, through words; but we must surely be the same two people that had our Krach…”

She answered:

“Dear Man -You have the wonderful philosopher’s trait of questioning everything and saying the unsaid – yes I am the same person as before our Krach…”

Professing one’s love in a continuing series of letters, for one faraway and out of reach, tends to become abstract and eventually perhaps even dry. To practice that love once again, all of a sudden, face tot face and in the flesh, is a whole different ballgame.

Of what help, then, are letters?

Sierksma, 2000/2017


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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