Monday, April 23, 2012

The art of letter writing

After Stefan Zweig had fled the Nazis, he established himself in Petrópolis in Brazil. Once he complained against his friend Jules Romain that weeks passed by that he didn’t receive any mail. Gradually Zweig had received less and less mail, which was, so Romain, a way the world told him that he wasn’t important any longer.
In those days letter writing was an important way of communicating and the letters you received said something about your personal network and your importance. You could talk with someone if you met him or her in person. Or maybe you could call him or her, but most people didn’t yet have telephones in those days. When talking or calling was not possible or when you didn’t want to do it for some reason, you wrote a letter. I have no statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if till not so long ago letter writing was the most important form of communication that was not from face to face. It had been for ages so. Letters were used for personal communication or for expressing ideas; or for both, of course. Therefore they often give a good view of the time that they were written. The letters written by the Roman philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero are well-known and still worth to be read, for instance. Letters were such an important way of expression that they had developed also into a special literary genre. Epistolary novels are a case in point.
But nothing is eternal and so the art of letter writing is gradually disappearing. People write fewer and fewer letters. Does this mean that people are less in touch with each other and become more isolated? Just the opposite. Today, maybe Zweig wouldn’t have felt himself so isolated and meaningless in Petrópolis that he committed suicide. New ways of “networking” and keeping contact have come into being. First, letters were more and more replaced by phone calls, and then, it’s superfluous to tell it, we got the Internet with its possibilities to send e-mails and with its social network sites. I can write a lot here about this new way of communication and how it has changed the world, but others can do it (and have already done it) better than I can. Yet, for me receiving an e-mail is not the same as receiving a hand-written letter with a stamp. By saying that, I am a bit a hypocrite. For not only do I write more e-mails than I have written old style letters (“snail mail”) ever before, but I write my “snail mail” only exceptionally by hand. Usually I do it with my computer (and people who know me can assure you that I am still a fervent snail-mailer). But, okay, time doesn’t stop and one has to take the best of both sides.
I value a lot the arrival of e-mail and social network sites (and I have “friends” there, too), so you cannot excuse me of not keeping up with the changes, but like Stefan Zweig I receive fewer and fewer letters, and I miss it a bit. The difference is, of course, that Zweig got nothing instead, while I make full use of the new possibilities of the Internet. But receiving a paper letter with a stamp that falls through your letterbox on the doormat is different from getting an electronic version in your e-mail box. It’s a matter of feeling, but then I must say: for me it feels so. It’s true, snail mail contacts were often flimsy, but many Internet contacts are flimsier to a greater extent. And will e-mails ever be valued that way that they will lead to a new literary genre? A kind of digital epistolary novels? Maybe, although nothing like that is known to me so far (I admit, it can be my failing). Yet a first step in that direction has been taken. For what has been just published in the Netherlands? The Philosophy Twitter Canon: the thought of 43 important philosophers comprised in the 140 characters of a tweet for each thinker. Brilliant briefness or superficiality? There is no way back in time.

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