Berfrois

How I Lost My Pen Pal; or, Toward a Luddite Manifesto

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by John Crutchfield

Several months ago, I wrote a long letter by hand to a young woman I barely knew. That sounds pretty dubious, if not to say creepy; and it will not put matters in any better light when I say that she and I met at the New York Fringe Festival, where I was performing, yes, a one-man show of my own creation.

But in truth, it was all quite innocent. My one-man show was less vile and exhibitionist than is conventional for that genre (if anything, it was sweet and sentimental, which, now that I think about it, is probably a worse crime); and she approached me after the performance merely to thank me for my efforts. She was from North Carolina too, she said, and a lot of the show had really spoken to her. For me, as a first-time Fringe Participant and bona-fide Hillbilly in the Big Apple, that meant a lot.

Sometime later, she wrote me a friendly email. I responded in kind, and every week or so thereafter, there’d be another email exchange. It turned out we had attended the same university (albeit ten years apart), had taken poetry classes with the same professors. I asked what she was reading these days, what she was writing and thinking about. Her answers were always thoughtful, articulate and carefully formulated. I liked what she wrote about herself, and how she wrote it.

Then as I was sitting down one afternoon to write a reply to her most recent email, I was inspired. Well, really, it felt more like remembering. I asked her if she’d mind if I wrote her a letter instead. I explained that I had always been, since my adolescence, an avid letter-writer, and would prefer to shift our correspondence into that medium, since it seemed better suited to substantive matters. She agreed.

I broke out my writing materials from the small wooden box where I kept them: good cotton paper and matching envelopes, a sheet of commemorative stamps, and my Cross fountain pen, which I carefully flushed with water until it ran clear, and loaded with a new cartridge of blue-black ink. I made a fresh pot of coffee, cleared my desk (no small task), and wrote my letter in a state of quiet euphoria. It ran to about three pages.[1]

Probably anyone reading this essay would be able to imagine with some accuracy the style of my epistle. But the content I honestly no longer remember, and have no way of finding out. To be sure, there were melancholy reflections on the Mysteries of Time and Experience. The scarcely endurable pathos of such reflections, however, would have been tempered by one or more mock-heroic asides on the absurdities of the Artist’s Life. Nor is it at all likely that Nature escaped being praised in terms that very nearly crossed over into lyric. And what of my favorite theme, i.e. the pleasure of having a good pair of cowboy boots, especially when walking up Biltmore Avenue in the morning? Doubtless that too found its way into my letter.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t heard from the young woman since.

There are many plausible explanations for this: perhaps I said something presumptuous or stupid or (more likely) insufferably pompous; perhaps my letter got lost in the mail; perhaps she couldn’t read my Jeffersonian script, and was too embarrassed to say so; perhaps the whole thing was a lark on her part; perhaps she’s been too busy — the standard New York excuse; or perhaps she has a boyfriend who’s just not too keen on the idea of her becoming pen-pals with some random older guy from Southern Appalachia.[2]

None of these possibilities is as interesting, though, as the one that occurred to me today: our heretofore-easy correspondence was actually annulled by the fact of the letter itself.

* * *

What I mean is this: In the age of email and text-messaging, of Twitter and Facebook and their spin-offs, and of whatever has already come next that I don’t yet know about, hand-written letters have become a bit like dropping in on your neighbors unannounced: the idea sounds wholesome and warm and humane in a Leave It To Beaver kind of way, but the reality freaks people out. We have entered the Era of Complete Self-Representation Management. No one need ever encounter anyone else without the neutralizing mediation of digital technology, and hence never without the power to control, to a degree unimaginable before, how one presents oneself to the world — and also how one is perceived.[3]

By contrast, even analog machines like typewriters still allowed a tremendous amount of “perlocutionary” information to seep through to the recipient. A typed letter is still a letter, i.e. a material object. The corrections, the quality of the paper, the creases and fingerprints, the coffee-stain on the envelope, the faint odor of clove cigarettes or cologne, the selection and placement of the stamp itself — all of this contains a wealth of information about the writer. We all know this, though we may not know that we know it. At the very least, these details point us imaginatively to the material reality of the sender, his life, his body, his circumstances, his spot of inhabited earth, his mortality.

How much more is this true of a handwritten letter? Here the very words themselves, in addition to their lexical meanings, are the shaped inscriptions of an embodied mind. Someone’s actual hand held pen to paper, the flesh-and-blood fingers and thumb and wrist shaped the letters, the nerves and muscles and their corresponding bones acted in coordination to move the pen in the correct and yet at the same time utterly idiosyncratic way to make words and sentences. And these words and sentences are now the traces of a mind searching after thoughts and trying to wrestle them into meaningful expression – against not merely the usual subjective counter-forces of distraction, boredom, reluctance, fear, and other disruptive “passions” of one kind or another, but also against the objective resistance of the linguistic medium itself: cliché, ambiguity, obscurity, nonsense, the many blind spots of grammar. One needn’t be a trained graphologist to understand that in reading a handwritten letter, one is looking at a rich psychological portrait in symbolic form.

And letters do something else, too: they ask to be opened. Those of us with personal secretaries may not know this, but opening a letter by hand can be a peculiarly dicey affair. Do I try to jam my forefinger into the seam and tear it open at risk of getting a paper cut? Or do I use some handy implement, a kitchen knife, an apartment key, the pocket-clip of a pen, the edge of a credit card or driver’s license, or (heaven forbid) a “letter opener”? And what if I inadvertently sheer not only the envelope itself, but also the folded letter inside? Well, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it? And even once I’ve successfully, i.e. without collateral damage, opened the envelope, then I must (in many cases) extract the letter per se and unfold it so that its contents can be presented right side up to the eye.

Nor is this all. For then I would be well advised to seek out a suitable place in which to peruse the letter—perhaps at my desk, but by no means necessarily there. Depending on what I have guessed about the contents of the letter I am about to read, I might be moved to take up position in my favorite reading chair by the window, with my feet comfortably propped on the ottoman. Which in turn might require certain preparations, such as removing my shoes. By contrast, in extreme circumstances, I might forgo all ceremony, throw caution to the suburban breezes, and tear the letter open right there at the mailbox, devouring it like the rapacious narcissist I spend all year trying to convince the world I’m not. Or, in circumstances equally extreme, though essentially different, I might very casually tuck the letter into the inner pocket of my corduroy sport-coat and harbor it there warmly against my bosom all day long until evening, when all of a sudden and for no particular reason, as I’m standing in the lobby during intermission at the dance concert, I remember it there, tucked away beside my carefully-folded cotton handkerchief. And yet even then, I leave it untouched a while longer, relishing now the delicious sweet-and-sour of promise and self-mastery. So much to think about, and I haven’t even read the letter yet!

Be all this as it may, one thing is certain: reading a handwritten letter requires that you or your trusted personal assistant have a body.

Thus, if scary old Marshall McLuhan is right, and the medium really is the message, then writing someone a letter, regardless of its content, carries the meta-communicative meaning of: “I am a real person, and you are a real person to me.” An email or text-message, by contrast, because of its digital and hence abstract form, says only, “I am language.” Even the typos and bad grammar that characterize most emails and text messages cannot be taken as “expressive,” since they are generally considered to be side-effects of the digital medium itself, i.e. they are communicatively neutral. An email or text message is a priori written in haste, with an eye to speed rather than precision.[4] A certain amount of informational “noise” is accepted as conventional to the form; to the point that grammatically and orthographically correct emails and text messages raise the red flag of obsessiveness, or pedantry, or of having way too much time on one’s hands.

One could point of course to “emoticons” as offering, at least in theory, a way to bring something human back into digital communication; but they too are abstract, conventional, and in effect merely say, “Insert emotion here.”[5] Their current proliferation and enormous variety do nothing to change this. We can combine them in unexpected and even creative ways, to the point of composing entire text messages out of them. In the end, though, we’ve only exchanged one form of abstraction for another: fonts for ideograms. Both are simulacra: they are everywhere the same, and they empty themselves completely in the delivery of their message. Once again, the concrete and “insoluble” aspect of language, the lingering and richly expressive materiality, has been elided.

In other words, while the digital media are perhaps well-suited to conveying information, they do to meaning what translations, according to Mr. Frost, do to poetry: they leave it out. They strip it away. Hence the proverbial susceptibility of emails and text messages to misunderstanding, especially in personal matters, where meaning is essential. Woe betide the new lovers who try to get to know each other by email or Facebook-messaging alone: it’s like seeing the subtitles without the movie.

* * *

One of the great sorrows of reaching middle age in the Age of Digital Media is not merely that the old pen-pals of my youth have gradually fallen away, but that no amount of effort on my part seems sufficient to win them back. In trying to do so, I’m pitting my own puny strength against a vast and overwhelming cultural tide. I’m the guy standing at the edge of the roaring superhighway with his thumb out, because it “used to be easy to hitch a ride,” and “you’d meet such interesting people.” Better to have died before, or been born after, than to live through the Revolution itself.

But truthfully, it’s my own fault if I feel sorrow at this, and feel alone in my sorrow. Most of my former correspondents simply don’t have time to write any more. Unlike me, they’ve built careers, gotten married, started families, while I still spend most of my waking hours day-dreaming and writing things down in little notebooks and working my Sisyphean way through a growing stack of New Yorkers.[6] It’s to be expected that I would feel abandoned by my friends, when the fact of the matter is, by standing still, I’ve simply been left behind.

But something has changed around me too. There was a time when the accumulation of years brought a corresponding accumulation of friends, and one reads of the aging Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, devoting his entire morning to answering letters. It would be easy to point out the way all of our “time-saving” devices are really only so many machines for consuming time by fooling us into believing we can do more. But as the average American standard of living has slipped, those of us who belong to the “99%” have in fact been forced to work harder and longer hours in order to maintain the illusion of middle class comfort. Between work and working-out, there’s no time left for such slow, tortoise-like pursuits as writing letters by hand. And who wants to read a letter scribbled on the fly, mere reportage, a stock phrase or two of cheerful greeting dashed off on a postcard? You might as well just give someone a poke on Facebook.

But time is the issue here in a deeper sense too, I think. Letters not only require time to compose, but the rituals of arranging and numbering the pages, folding them, inserting them in the envelope and sealing it, addressing it, affixing the stamp and finally, bringing the mail-ready letter out to the mailbox or to the post office – all of this requires yet more time, not to mention a special sequence of physical actions. And we still have said nothing of the time involved in waiting for an answer, which can feel like an eternity. The wry denigration, snail mail, is subjectively accurate. With letters, the entire “conversation” is slowed down by many orders of magnitude in comparison to electronic communication. Which of course, in terms of convenience, is a major disadvantage.

Convenience in this sense, however, measures time only instrumentally, or if you will, quantitatively. I have only so many usable hours in the day; I cannot “afford” to spend two of them, plus the cost of a stamp, on a single communicative act. But this is surely not the only way to understand time. There is also, as one is often at pains to remind oneself, that existential or qualitative aspect of time; and it is this aspect that letter writing opens up and makes available. Because writing a letter requires such an inordinate commitment of quantitative time, one feels obliged to have something worthwhile, something qualitative, to express in a letter, and hence to do some thinking about what that might be. This thinking, this meditation and discovery––which, for me at least, often happens in the act of writing the letter itself – brings one into contact with a different, non-linear, “thick” sense of time. The surface of trivialities dissolves, and one gazes down into the world of things that really matter, of details that point to larger, more significant patterns of experience. In a quite literal sense, one dwells in time differently.

But here it must be remembered that we are not talking about individuals. Letters only make sense as the elements of a “correspondence” between people. It is an aspect – in some cases an extremely important aspect – of a human relationship. A friendship or a love that is enacted at least in part through letters weaves itself more complexly into time than a relationship that lives only in the evanescent exchanges, whether digitally mediated or face-to-face, of the present moment. By virtue of the meditation they make necessary, and by their persistence as physical objects one must “deal with,” letters send the roots of a relationship out into the past and the future, and deeper into the present. They reassure one that beneath the distracting buzz and glare of the moment, a more profound connection endures. They remind one that gone is not forgotten. They embody and enact the truth that, in the end, all we have is each other.

* * *

I distinctly remember as a teenager getting a big new box of stationary every Christmas and having only a few sad envelopes left by the first of May. But I’m physically afraid to go back through my boxes of old letters to see whom among my friends I once depended on to write me back. Some I know are no longer alive; others are no longer friends. But many others have simply faded away into their lives, and I’m sure from their perspectives I’m just the vague memory of a peculiar guy they used to know. In recent years, many has been the Sunday afternoon when the light has slanted in through the café windows onto the table where I sit with the melancholy remains of my espresso, and I’ve thought to myself, “Now I’ll write a letter,” only to realize with a pang that I have no one to write to, except perhaps a couple of old friends in Germany from my time as an exchange student there. And as those years sink deeper into the past, the difficulty of composing a letter in German becomes, finally, insurmountable.

* * *

As I say, it’s been several months now, and I no longer expect or even hope to hear from my young acquaintance in New York. Nor would I have placed myself in the vulnerable and absurd position of hope to begin with, were it not for the fact that, after a certain age, one so rarely encounters a kindred spirit; and when one does, the urge to reach out is shocking and a little scary in its intensity. More to the point, it’s nearly impossible to resist – at least for someone of my temperament.

I won’t go so far as to say I’ve learned my lesson. I’m actually pretty incorrigible about certain things. But I have learned that my incorrigibility has consequences. For me personally, those consequences include bewilderment, disappointment, self-loathing, a sense of alienation––evils more than sufficient unto the day. Of course I try to reason with myself. The world as presented to the senses, the world we live in now, has become so much more dense with information and titillation and apparent possibility, with things that seem to demand immediate attention. Walter Benjamin was right when he wrote of Modernity as being characterized by a state of nervous distraction. And that was a long time even before television came along. For most of us now, there really is no such thing any more as solitude––not even the solitude of the early morning or the late night, when there is nothing to do but think, or read, or write. Now even the dead of night is no guarantee of privacy against the digital swarm. The ant and his legions are everywhere. The smart phone is by the bed. And as the world shrinks and the galaxies fly apart, time itself is accelerating.

* * *

Who am I to resist these things? Much less to expect it of someone else. I can’t really blame her for nipping our little correspondence in the bud. Allowed to flower, it would certainly have taken up valuable space in the daily planner. And who knows to what volatile human complexities and obligations it might have lead? One would have felt beholden, exposed, vulnerable. Isn’t life challenging enough already? Isn’t it better to stay focused on the innumerable tasks at hand, and on the future those tasks lay out before us?

My fountain pen goes back in its case, and the case goes back in the wooden box with the paper and the matching envelopes. And the box goes back in my desk.

At least for now.


Notes:

[1] Here, with a blush of humility, let me confess that I have more than once received compliments on the neatness and distinctiveness of my handwriting. “Classical” one particularly sharp young barista called it not long ago. Yet it is also the case that my handwriting is very small; hence for our purposes here, three 8.5”x11” pages is actually quite a bit of text.

[2] In all fairness, I’m not that much older.

[3] Conversely, many is the Facebook user who has discovered too late that personal information can all to easily slip out of one’s control. The fact that any stalker with a cell phone can take a picture of you in a public place and post it on the internet more or less instantly with your name attached means that digital technology, like all technology, can cut both ways. Yes I can work, shop, travel, and “socialize” without ever having to leave my computer or endure the terror of facing another human being in real time, but my digital persona is still subject to traduction and even exploitation. The question is whether the persona is in any way “me” to begin with. And yet (again conversely), real people have lost their real jobs because of Facebook postings and blogs.

[4] The “smart phone” has of course only exacerbated this. Now email no longer even requires that one be seated at a computer. One can be having a conversation in the break-room, or trying to hail a cab, or looking for the rest room in a smoky bar, or indeed: occupying the rest room in a smoky bar.

[5] Or rather, something like: “Don’t hold that like, totally passive-aggressive thing I just wrote against me.”

[6] That’s an exaggeration, but not enough of one to make a difference.

About the Author:


Photograph by ShaLeigh Comerford

Originally from western North Carolina, John Crutchfield is a writer and performer currently based in Berlin, Germany. His plays Ivory, The Songs Of Robert, Ruth, Twelve Treatises On Memory, The Labyrinth, Solstice, Landscape With Missing Person, Come Thick Night, and The Strange And Tragical Adventures Of Pinocchio have been produced regionally in the U.S., as have numerous shorter works. He has collaborated and performed with X Factor Dance, Sans Pointe Dance, J. Alex and The Movement, Legacy Butoh, Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, and Anemone Dance Theatre, and has been an artist-in residence at the Djerassi Artists Foundation, Headlands Center for the Arts, the Association d’Art de La Napoule (France), and the Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe (Germany). At present, he teaches creative writing part-time through Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Center for Graduate Studies, freelances as a literary translator, and serves as Associate Artistic Director at The Magnetic Theatre. More info at: www.johncrutchfield.com

  • Albertine Disparue

    How could you have lost a “pen pal” if you did not have one to begin with? She was just a digital pal who agreed to be part of something she maybe never intended to do.

    A request to write letters to someone in our “digital” times could translate to commitment and “intimacy” (yes, the world can see our selfies, read our thoughts in blogs, or wherever we can spill them out, but our handwriting would be just too much of an exposure). So maybe it was too much to ask, and too soon. But she could have always said no.

    However, you can never know. Maybe she is still writing it. Maybe life got in the way, maybe she is still waiting for that perfect moment when she will have something worth writing with her Mont Blanc fountain pen on cotton paper.

    If this is not the case then let it serve as a lesson for the future. Do not allow yourself to get carried away for the wrong reasons such as the desire to make use of your writing paraphernalia and expose yourself to the undeserving individuals.

    So far something good has come out of this whole experience: this article.