Last year I was part of a curious show.
An artist named Tino Sehgal cleared out all the art in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, assembled a group of good talkers, and instructed them to start conversations with the museum’s visitors about “progress” – what they thought it was, whether they believed it even existed. I was one of the talkers.
One of the ways we approached the subject was to get the visitors thinking about emails, text messages, Facebook. Were they “good”, “bad”, necessary, unavoidable? Did they represent progress, regression, or just distraction? Their responses were unexpected. Granted that they weren’t the usual tourists, or New Yorkers killing an hour before going to the dentist, but many – even the young people – didn’t care for electronic communication or “social networks”. They felt that the machines were taking up too much of their time and energy; they were addictive rather than helpful. One 15 year-old told me that she was the only kid in her circle who didn’t have a cell phone.
“When I want to communicate with my friend, I write letters.”
“But don’t you and your friend get impatient?”
“Maybe, but we like the waiting; it makes it more exciting. And the letters are kind of like secrets. Like whispering on paper.”
Whispering on paper. The phrase came into my head the other day when my second cousin, a mischievous lady of 92, slipped me an announcement that my ex-wife and I had sent her when our daughter was born. Baby is 34 now.
The little note catapulted me right back to the past. I saw us sitting at a round wooden table writing – thinking out each word, counting and measuring them, trying to squeeze as much information as possible onto the tiny card. Each note had to be different. What would Jim or Aunt Mollie want to know about Lilly? Her weight? Whether she had hair? Proof of her 3 week-old brilliance or gorgeousness? How do you say the same thing 100 different ways? The tone of each note had to be different, too – some funny, others sentimental, others more restrained.
So it wasn’t that easy to write the notes. And it was tedious. But the tedium was a break from the grander tedium that had taken us over, where night and day merged into a dreamy haze and our sleep patterns were directly linked to Lilly’s stomach. The girl in the Guggenheim was right: writing the announcements was a kind of whispering to friends and family that we were still alive, and that we wanted to reconnect with them and share our terror and wonder.
My handwriting was so careful, so deliberate! The paper felt stiffer now than it had been then; actually it felt a little petrified. But it wasn’t just the paper. The words themselves looked as if they’d become partly fossilized; after 34 years, they were less transitory, more solid.
I’ve just finished reading a book called Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss about a 15-year clandestine marriage in the waning years of the nineteenth century between a white patrician New Englander and a black nursemaid.
Clarence King was attractive and well-placed; he could count among his friends a Secretary of State, the grandson and great-grandson of US Presidents, the best known artists and writers of the day. Ada Copeland was a dark-complected ex-slave who’d found her way from the South to New York, where she eked out a living any way she could. It wasn’t a marriage made in the social register, but then these people didn’t fit the ethnic stereotypes: King had always admired “native” women with their “oceanic fullness of blood and warmth”; Ada Copeland was a proud, ambitious person, not slavish by any standard but birth.
The record of their marriage is to be found primarily in King’s letters to Copeland. (Her letters were apparently destroyed.) Concealing his true identity by telling Ada that he was James Todd, a light-skinned railroad sleeping car attendant, he wrote letters gushing with sentimentality. It was a side of King that would have made his sophisticated friends cringe; upper-class WASP society isn’t exactly known for its displays of emotion. This is how King sounded as Todd:
I have lain in my bed and thought of you and felt my whole heart full of love for you. It seems to me often that no one ever loved a woman as I do you. In my heart there is no place for any other woman and never will be. My whole heart is yours forever.
King was no Abelard, or Keats writing to Fanny Brawne; the language of the letters comes from romances and Valentine’s Day cards. But their very banality makes them touching. Laden with sincerity, longing, the wish for purity and simplicity, they whisper all the things that King didn’t dare to say to anyone but Ada, and even then only under an assumed name. King was whispering not just across distances, but lines of color and class as well.
If letters were whispers, the machines that came after them made all sorts of noises: the telephone’s Christmassy bell tones, the fax machine’s chugging gears, the helicopter sound of a computer revving up.
There was something excitingly “modern” in each of those sounds, at least when we first heard them. The first time I encountered emails was at the home of a friend in Washington, D.C. He’d been a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union, and now his son had married a Russian girl and was living in Moscow. “Look at this!” He pointed to the humming monitor, where emails were shimmering in reverse black and white. “I can write to Brennan for free, he receives it faster than a fax, we can virtually talk to each other. Isn’t it fucking amazing?”
It really was. For the first years, emails were magical: the whole world was whispering in more or less real time. Yet somewhere along the way the magic started to fade. While some exchanges remained intimate and exciting, others became sloppy. The care that I saw in my cramped handwriting – to say nothing of the gorgeous penmanship of the past – devolved into hasty typing, abbreviations, half-sentences, smiley faces and LOLs. Which in turn may have fostered an emotional and intellectual sloppiness. Think of the images of letter writers of the past sitting at a desk chewing on the end of a pen while forming their thoughts. Thought was expected to precede action; now the writer could type and send faster than she could think, with a result far removed from the elegance that letter writers aspired to.
When did it become less necessary to respond to emails than it had been to letters? And why? Was it because they were easier to write, and therefore less formidable? Was the effort that it took to write and mail a letter – as well as the thrill of receiving one – an implicit demand that it be honored with a reply? Hard to say. But a measure of civility seemed to have been lost. The private transaction between what Martin Buber called “I” and “Thou” was replaced by a more generalized, public exchange between “I” and “Whoever”.
Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter and all the other social networks waiting to be born will no doubt blur the public/private distinction even further. An acquaintance of mine (actually a Facebook “friend”) recently posted a video of her fianc proposing to her. It was charming. She looked genuinely surprised; he looked proud and shy. You could say that they were just sharing a happy moment with their friends. But something was… off. Maybe because they knew they were being filmed, everybody was too happy, too public. Some of the more painful, embarrassing emotions had been left out. Where was his fear, her relief, the absolute strangeness of two people pledging to be together for the rest of their lives?
I’m sitting in the subway watching a girl who could be the twin of the girl in the Guggenheim. She’s typing a text-message – judging from her excitement, it’s to a beloved girlfriend. Shoulders hunched, knees drawn toward her chest, she’s focusing all her energy on the hamburger-sized machine that she’s holding in her lap with both hands. She’s very animated. Her fingers are dancing. Her forehead shines. She’s smiling. Occasionally she remembers that she’s in a public place and looks around, half-dazed yet a little embarrassed that people might catch her in a guilty pleasure. But then she plunges back into the machine, her fingers going faster than ever. To me it looks very much like a form of whispering.
So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe text messages are every bit as intimate as letters, with speed and convenience added. But why did the Guggenheim girl go back to writing letters? Was she was a Luddite and a snob who wanted to set herself off from her peers?
Maybe she had a secret ambition to be a Great Writer, whose words are passed down from one generation to the next. And maybe what’s been lost isn’t privacy or civility as much as a sense of permanence, or at least longevity.
Because of the convenience of the electronic word, the girl in the subway will probably not bother to preserve the exchange between her and her pal; at some point she’ll press delete, and the moment of shared feeling will be lost forever. Her words will never go through the metamorphosis that my little note, and King’s letters to Ada Copeland, went through: originally meant for a single person, they gradually entered a realm of universal emotions, shared situations. The loss of that sense of longevity, however insignificant it may seem, feels like the loss of a hope for immortality, and that makes me sad.