10 July 2010

The Empty Mailbox

Twenty years ago I spent a year studying abroad at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Nineteen years old and homesick, I would wander down every day, sometimes a few times a day, to the mailboxes at Taft Hall where I was staying, and open my own little mailbox, a thin little opening amongst the hundreds of others.  I was desperate to see the blue & red of an airmail envelope tucked in there.  Sometimes there was more than one.  Sometimes, often, there was nothing.  I would check again, the mailbox could be deceptive, sometimes there was something hidden in there.  But if there was nothing, I would feel a stab of disappointment and wander away.

Nowadays, my experience as a homesick student abroad would be radically different.  The mechanisms of the internet would give me the possibility of constant communication from friends who would previously been obstructed by geographical distance and international postal systems.  I don’t really write letters much any more, or expect to receive them.  But every time I click send & receive on my email now, and nothing happens, I feel a fainter virtual version of that older disappointment.

A letter, at least in theory, offered an experience of completeness and structure. In practice, the letters I received were often composed across days, and rambled across subjects, but they usually managed a saluation, date and signoff, and some coherence of theme and subject.  They arrived (again at least in theory) at set times – though sometimes the last post was much later than expected and held a fantastic surprise.

Emails, by contrast, can arrive at any time, and the anticipation for their arrival gets fragmented throughout the day (and indeed the night).  The content too tends far more towards fragmentation, with the twitter feed fragmenting further.   So the disappointment & anticipation & excitement of receiving or not receiving correspondence has become fragmented, virtualised, dispersed – though also intensified, and with the underyling impulse to communicate in no way diminished.

Then there’s the issue of storage: old letters in the attic, or emails and tweets stored in transient digital space, subject to the purges of disinterested administrators?  There are some emails I wish I still had, but they’re gone and there is no chance I will happen upon then.

I’m not trying to be an old codger about this, or to assert the superiority of the letter over its successors.  I love emails, and I’m gradually getting converted to Twitter.  But its interesting to wonder how great letter writers of the past – and I’m thinking about Herman Melville and William Burroughs, whose letters I love – would have adapted themselves to the newer forms of communication.

What is striking about the letters of Melville and Burroughs - and I was re-reading Burroughs letters 1945-1959 last night with slightly too much wine - is the sheer intensity and desperation of the letter writing, and the level of dependence on their letter writing partner. Take Melville’s letter to Hawthorne dated November 17, 1851:

Your letter was handed to me last night on the road going home to Mr. Morewood’s, and I read it there.  Had I been at home I would have sat down and answered it.  In me divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous – catch them while you can.   The world goes round and the other side comes up.  So now I can’t write what I felt.  But I felt pantheistic then – your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours and both in God’s.  [...] I can’t stop yet.  If the world was entirely made up of Magians, I’ll tell you what I should do.  I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk, and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand – million -billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you.

Or Burroughs’ letters to Allen Ginsberg dated April 7th 1954:

Dear Allen,

I have written and rewritten this for you.  So please answer.

Routines like habit.  Without routines my life is chronic nightmare, gray horror of midwest suburb. [...]

I have to have receiver for routine.  If there is no one there to receive it, routine turns back on me like homeless curse and tears me apart, grows more and more insane [...] and fragmentary like beserk pin-ball machine and I am screaming: “Stop it! Stop it!”

Would these letter writers had reached these heights of intensity if Ginsberg had been a tweet away rather than a thousand miles and out of contact, if Melville and Hawthorne were the sole members of the Divine Magnanimities Facebook group.

Burroughs’ dependence on his correspondence brings me back to the horror of the empty mailbox, and makes me wonder: is our vast communications infrastructure fulfilling or fuelling our need for contact?   Burroughs’ letter writing, and some of our own frantic communications, are compulsive, and to quote another great letter writer, Paul Bowles, “compulsiveness is doom.  And any wind in contrast smells of God”. (letter to Alec France, March 2, 1975).