As one year ends and another begins, there are letters to consider, lives to examine, the uses of time about which to inquire. In Jacob's Room Virginia Woolf does this magnificently. The technology of letter writing has changed radically; are emails and tweets and blog entries forms of letter writing? are all letter forms equal? Woolf plumbs ontology via the letter. There's so much to dwell upon here. What an interesting entrée into the next year.
Let us consider letters--how they come at breakfast, and at night, with their yellow stamps and their green stamps, immortalized by the postmark--for to see one's own envelope on another's table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien. Then at last the power of the mind to quit the body is manifest, and perhaps we fear or hate or wish annihilated this phantom of ourselves, lying on the table. Still, there are letters that merely say how dinner's at seven; others ordering coal; making appointments. The hand in them is scarcely perceptible, let alone the voice or the scowl. Ah, but when the post knocks and the letter comes always the miracle seems repeated--speech attempted. Venerable are letters, infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost.
Life would split asunder without them. 'Come to tea, come to dinner, what's the truth of the story? have you heard the news? life in the capital is gay; the Russian dancers...' These are our stays and props. These lace our days together and make of life a perfect globe. And yet, and yet...when we go to dinner, when pressing finger-tips we hope to meet somewhere soon, a doubt insinuates itself; is this the way to spend our days? the rare, the limited, so soon dealt out to us--drinking tea? dining out? And the notes accumulate. And the telephones ring. And everywhere we go wires and tubes surround us to carry the voices that try to penetrate before the last card is dealt and the days are over. 'Try to penetrate,' for as we lift the cup, shake the hand, express the hope, something whispers, Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain? Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices, which fall upon the tea-table, fade upon the passage, making appointments, while life dwindles, to come and dine? yet letters are venerable; and the telephone valiant, for the journey is a lonely one, and if bound together by notes and telephones we went in company, perhaps--who knows?--we might talk by the way.
Well, people have tried. Byron wrote letters. So did Cowper. For centuries the writing-desk has contained sheets fit precisely for the communications of friends. Masters of language, poets of long ages, have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes, pushing aside the tea-tray, drawing close to the fire (for letters are written when the dark presses round a bright red cave), and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart. Were it possible! But words have been used too often; touched and turned, and left exposed to the dust of the street. The words we seek hang close to the tree. We come at dawn and find them sweet beneath the leaf (90-91).
Emily Dickinson: "A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend." written to Thomas Wentworth Higginson June 1869 (L33)