Boots and Rallies
A certain author who’s been the focus of a good deal of my attention over the past few years has a habit of writing that he can feel his friends’ presence by his side when reading the letters they send him. This resonates with me since this practice of writing long, circumambulatory letters is not unfamiliar to me. I think my choice to write long emails to my friends while they were in Greece and Paris and South Africa gave rise to some of the best elements of my “Dartmouth Experience.” There was also a time when I wrote long letters back and forth with others that were of a somewhat different character — less biographical exposition, more violent swinging from intensive philosophical considerations into outrageous declarations of love or persnickety argumentation over contrived, exotic forms of irony and lots of title-dropping. I deleted them all as part of an ill-conceived damnatio memoriae omniae campaign. I regret that. If I believe in a soul at all, then all my writing constitutes my very soul. I love whenever I find any of it that I happened to save or something that survived. My memory of what it was like to be me in 2004 or 2009 or even 2012 is in thistly tatters. I have so little I could not even rub it between my fingers. The rest has fallen into the bottomless crater of death.
You’d have to call it death. Forgotten memories are as distant to living selves as an entire life to the dead. Only in writing is my soul preserved above the rim of that crater. I wish I could at least revisit, at a surface level, that time in my life. Now I only have memories of memories, a few photocopies. As much as it has been necessary to my healing for forget everything about this or that, I regret that it means letting go of myself.
Likewise I think my letters to and from my friends are infinitely precious. One of these friendships wound up among the most significant things to occur to me. I do not think that regularly sitting down and trying my best to recall what it was like to have her around, reading new letters or re-reading old ones is somehow to simulate friendship. It is still real and worthwhile and beautiful to me, even if I never see her again in my life. So long as the words stay together, the emotions they enclosed are invulnerable to disintegration and the teeth of time in the way that flesh is not. There is a living being that grows, breaths and pulses with each keystroke. That being is the animus and the genius of our friendship. In a thousand years, someone could re-read our letters and it will be like rousing a genie out of the lamp in which it has slumbered — dormant but never dead.
I am so giddy and passionate about this, and I think it’s possible the most important thing in human existence. Love is the thing that with the aid of writing and reading frees us from existence in the ordinary way. We help each other up out of the painful humdrum and into transcendence. Keats wrote (not insignificantly, in a letter) “Love is my Religion — I could die for that — I could die for you. My Creed is Love, and you are its only tenet.”
I am centimeters away from having that tattooed on my arm, except that tattoos are texts written on a surface that is bound to vanish.
When I write, I create a text that might very well never, ever disappear, thanks to the nature of the digital age. I am talking about the actual possibility of something close to true immortality here. Spoken words fizzle into an echo. Children die, and their children die. Manuscripts are rubbed down with soapstone and written over. But there exist little pieces of the soul of Aeschylus nestled within still-beating hearts under the rock of Herculaneum, with brothers and sisters up in the surface of the world in young hands. The coals of burnt timber set ablaze by the fires of Vesuvius faded and went colorless centuries ago. The embers of Aeschylus still hold their heat in the hearts of readers today, and readers yet to come.
This is why it’s worth being open and honest and authentic when I write letters — actually it’s why I must be these things. Otherwise the world will preserve a record of a thing that was untrue, a person I was not, a pseudo-J Diedre Horowitz addressing a pseudo-thou. I’m not in the business of erecting shams of myself. I want to give my true self in writing so that I can know that there is a true self of mine to give. It’s also why it’s worth taking the time to make sure these letters aren’t tripe. Honesty requires good writing. As Dr. Selma Helmholtz, my aesthetics and analytics instructor at DAIUS use to incant repeatedly: “Only boring people could write poorly of themselves without deception.”
Indeed many times I’ve given copies of letters I’ve written to other people, knowing that by reading that kind of writing, they can get to know me faster than just hanging around me, taking turns breathing the same dank air. In writing, souls know each other. My writing is my Trojan horse. I am waiting inside to ambush you with weapons of essence.