I’ve been reading Franz Kafka’s letters. We don’t really write letters anymore.
I can only speak for myself, but my communication with any given individual is highly fragmented, a kaleidoscope of Twitter DMs, Whatsapp messages, email, texts and phone calls.
If anyone tried to piece together my correspondence it would be nigh on impossible. (Not that anyone would out of any literary interest as they have for Kafka, though possibly more likely in a let’s-work-out-what-finally-sent-the-bastard-over-the-edge-and-why-he-was-found-on-the-M25-pelting-cars-with-offal-screaming-about-the-end-of-all-things kind of way.)
The other thing that’s changed, of course, is that modern communication is instantaneous. On FB messenger a conversation happens live and I can hurl insults, primarily at Ryan O’Sullivan, in real time (though digital offal-pelting capabilities have yet to be developed).
Kafka wrote his letters, on the other hand, to ghosts.
“The easy possibility of letter-writing must — seen merely theoretically — have brought into the world a terrible disintegration of souls. It is, in fact, an intercourse with ghosts, and not only with the ghost of the recipient, but also with one’s own ghost which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing and even more so in a series of letters where one corroborates the other and can refer to it as a witness. How on earth did anyone get the idea that people could communicate by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold — all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts.”
— Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenská
Were we an early 20th Century letter writer, our correspondence would take days, weeks or even months to be delivered. It would be written to someone who is nowhere nearby- someone not seen for an extended period of time. It would therefore be written to our past memory of the recipient’s past self. Their change would not have been documented for us by Instagram pics and Twitter feed updates. We may not know if their marital status has changed, never mind having them Snapchat us pictures of their lunch.
We would write that letter to our memory of the recipient, one that would only exist any more in our own memory. Since then they would have changed, even if we are not aware of it, even if only minutely.
This phenomenon isn’t entirely gone in my experience. A friend spent 9 months volunteering in Uganda a little while back, and would only touch a computer about once a month or so. In this case our letters became something like Kafka’s ghost letters (at one point I did send him a bona fide letter in a care package of vegan chocolate buttons and Zero Tolerance magazines). The fact remains, however, that delivery of those emails was instantaneous. If by fluke we found ourselves sat at computers at the same time the emails would fly back and forth, and so to me they still don’t feel like authentic ghost letters.
Gone is the uncertainty. Gone are the days of eagerly waiting weeks or months as a loved one’s letter oozed its way across land and sea, not guaranteed to even arrive, only to tear open the envelope to reveal a letter that has been sent by yet another temporal ghost, a figure that has morphed in ways that we can only speculate about since sending said letter.
As such, the sent letter became a form of spectral time travel, flinging one’s past self towards an unforeseen future to communicate with the yet-to-exist temporal versions of our loved ones that we knew (or bloody well hoped) resided there. The received letter then became a time capsule, opened to receive messages sent by ghosts of the past.
The simple rejection of this point of view would be to point out that all writing has, by very necessity, happened in the past. That if you are reading this, it means that it has been written. In the past.
However, though this is an act of communication, this is not a letter. This is not a piece of disposable private correspondence, intended for a particular person, as a letter is. This piece is self-aware in the knowledge that it will be available to be read. A letter is not. My Whatsapp messages are not, they are personal, and I won’t be posting them on a blog. (That would be weird.)
Kafka’s letters were personal too at the time they were sent, but we’ve all decided, with probably a slightly dubious morality, that they should instead have the role of public documents. After they were opened and read by Milena or his father or whoever else they went under a form of (sigh…) metamorphosis (so sorry) and became a document of past time just like any other piece of writing, as opposed to a piece of living correspondence.
The point is that if Kafka wrote a letter in anger, and then calmed down and regretted it before it arrived, the recipient would still open the letter to be confronted by a furious Franz. A ghost of his dissipated anger, trapped in paper. Not that this sounds particularly appealing, but it’s been interesting enough that I’ve been chewing it over for a while.
Of course, there’s so much equally interesting about the spasmodic split-narrative chaos of the multi-channeled cut-up that is modern correspondence, and the speed that it’s evolving is something we can only marvel at (I’m sure they’re working on developing those digital offal throwing capabilities as I type).
But I’ll still admit to being very slightly jealous that I’ll never catapult myself into the future as a time ghost.