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On Letters and Letter Writing

If I knew for sure that you would get this letter, I would tell you something about my stay in Paris. Of course, there is nothing that might become the stuff of an even moderately exciting novel: just the usual succession of hopes, anxieties, failures and, at last, some success. Or maybe you are not interested. I would not blame you in the least. Please tell me about you, and I promise that I will do the same from Barcelona, as soon as I recover from my first days of fiery sun on some gentle beach. [Cherbourg, July 14, 1960]

You truly detected some melancholy mood in my Cherbourg letter, but you already know how quickly my mood can change. You have also deeply penetrated my habit of not stating facts. . . . Whatever the case may be, the success I was talking about is obviously not in the realm of literary production: my literary (or philosophical) sterility is now as intense as it has been from the moment I started this European trip.

I realize that I am still using the ambiguous language you are already familiar with, but this is probably due to the fact that I can no longer eradicate this language: it belongs, to use a pathetic expression, to the very root of my mind. When I see you again—and time is approaching—I will tell (or narrate) whatever you care to hear, but I suspect that by that moment neither you nor I will any longer be interested in the past. Time will come, alas, when the past will impose itself on the future, but for the time being the future still has the upper hand.

My stay in Barcelona does not bring me any flood of old memories (perhaps for the reasons stated above). [Barcelona, July 20, 1960]

I realize that the former paragraph has a truly Teutonic flavor, but I already told you that I am by now literarily uninspired. As a rule, my letters seem to be constructed in a rather (although unprepared) architectonic fashion. This rule may have exceptions now; my letter is likely to be somewhat surrealistic, at times incomprehensible, always uninteresting. If it does not make much sense, do not despair: I will extract sense from it as soon as I see you again. [Barcelona, July 27, 1960]

Do you find my letters uninteresting, to the point of considering it a waste of time to read them? Or do you still wish me to write to you? I hope the latter is the case, even if at times I do not succeed in telling you anything worth telling. I am a little lost in all these more or less fragmentary conversations with publishers, editors and intellectuals “at large.”

If I had to give you an account of my activities, I could stop right now, for, as you will subsequently see, there have been none. An account of my thoughts would not yield more fruitful results, for during the last seven days I have been living in a state of torpidity (vegetative, and at times mineral). It is high time to tell you the reasons (or more exactly, the cause) of this almost Hegelian Negativität; I have been sick—in a way, I still am. This is not very encouraging to start a letter, which I am writing in an exceptional moment of solitude—I mean being alone in the tiny apartment—the very first day I got up for a brief walk through the three contiguous rooms, and a quick glance over the pretty terrace surrounding the flat. I hope, however, that you will not mind if I tell you something about my disease. I ask you to be patient and forgive me for my account of an insignificant event, as compared with flights by cosmonauts, civil wars in Vietnam, and meetings of statesmen in the four corners of the globe.

The case is that the day after I wrote you I began to feel rather dizzy and, if I may say so, rather miserable. I had chills, high fever, and all the symptoms enjoyed by someone who feels that the world may not always be a comfortable place to live in. . . . Apparently I have been attacked not by one virus, but by a whole army of virulent viruses enjoying themselves in the interior of my perishable organism. . . . I have begun to eat again, but, alas, insipid boiled things instead of the rich sophisticated sea food and shell fish I had eventually projected (and with which, by the way, I had started).

Except for brief and very slight illnesses I had not been sick for years and years, so this has come to me as a surprise. . . . Vegetative torpidity having been for a few days my dominant state of mind, I find that I can say very little about such a state; yet, occasionally, in the midst of vague sleepiness a flame of lucidity suddenly flared up. Then I mentally wrote some of the most beautiful pages I have ever produced, or I imagined myself lecturing with such diabolic clarity that my invisible audience could at last understand what the greatest thinkers of the past had left obscure. These things, I assume, happen often, or at least not infrequently. They are probably an illusion, since in the state of wakefulness the usual darkness again permeates one's brain. At any rate, I am at the present moment a thousand leagues distant from any kind of lucidity. But the latter will come back, I am sure of it, if only in dreams. [Barcelona, Aug. 10, 1961]

Does the present letter make any sense? I wonder. Let us assume, however, that it does. In point of fact, this is a tricky philosophical question, for ‘Does the present letter make any sense?’ may mean ‘Does what the letter says make any sense?’ or ‘Does the letter itself, der Brief an sich, make any sense?’

Mail being what it is, in contradistinction to what it ought to be (for the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ and the possible, or desirable, subordination of the former to the latter, see Plato Complete Works, any edition, passim), there is no guarantee that this letter will reach you on Tuesday. As a matter of fact, there is no guarantee that this letter will reach you ever. Or this letter may reach you, namely, your mailbox without said box being looked at. In any of these cases, i.e., if the letter does not reach you, is not picked up, or goes astray, nothing will be lost for its content is minimal, the message being here equal to the medium (for the identity between medium and message, see M. McLuhan, an author passé). Yet, it pleases me to write this letter for the following reasons: (a) per se; (b) guessing that it will surprise and/or please you; (c) giving me a presently rather unusual, or unused, opportunity to wish you a happy, and successful, first class. Speak slowly, economize your thoughts, spend most of the time explaining what it means to do whatever you plan to do. (There are many ways of introducing philosophy. There is no orthodox way, for there is no orthodox philosophy. Philosophy is fundamentally heterodox. By the way, orthodox comes from the Greek: ortos = right, and doxa = opinion. Now, to assume that there is a “right opinion” is to claim that there is only one opinion which is the right one. It leads to authoritarianism, and what not. And so on. . . . )

You will find two notes in your private mailbox. This is the second one. The reason for this duplication is that I suddenly feel the urge to communicate with you and since you are not present— where are you . . . ? In some heaven or hell, of our own—I can only put pen to paper, which is an old metaphor rather than an actual description of the thing itself.

I have been dozing off between streams of thought, and two quick visits to the Library to check something (I'll tell you what, if you are interested). Why am I so tired and exhausted these days? A deficiency in vitamins, minerals, calcium, hormones, carbon peroxide? Or seasonal changes? Or is it that I have been burning too fast? Or that life is, indeed, ebbing out of human beings? Don Fabrizio, the great Prince in The Leopard (I finished reading this novel, at last), died just that way: “Now it was not a river erupting over him but an ocean, tempestuous, all foam and raging white-flecked waves . . . . ” Characteristically enough, death appeared to the vital, woman-loving Prince as “a young woman, slim, in brown traveling dress and wide bustle.” Perhaps Goethe was right:

Das Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan

While I was dozing off, marvelous ideas filled my brain. I unraveled the mystery of Being and the no less tantalizing mystery of Language. I wrote down a few notes for my lecture tomorrow . . . but I am certain now that whatever I can say is only a pale reflection of what I thought. The trouble is that probably I did not think anything marvelous; I only dreamt that I had. Perhaps I only dreamt of bath tubs and rationalized such dreams in terms of Essence and Existence. What queer things we, human beings, can be at times.[Bryn Mawr, nd]

I enclose herewith a letter which you probably lost somewhere. It seems to be written by a curious, albeit unexciting type of person. The writer of the letter has a definite (and annoying) tendency to speak of himself as if he occupied a central position in the universe. On the other hand, he has a philosophical mind, as testified by his sweeping (and trite) definition of ‘life’ as ‘the blink of an eye’ (which eye? the right one? the left one? He does not make the matter clear). He also seems relatively well informed in pre-Ziffian philosophy, unless he shows off, which is quite probable—no really humble person would dare write that he is afraid of “having mixed neofrisianism with Pfänderian phenomenology.” I wonder whether he knows what neofriesianism is; I thought only I knew. As to Pfänderian phenomenology, this must be a joke. The author of the latter gives what seems to be an exhaustive account of his activities, without bothering in the least whether such activities are likely to interest anyone. [Bryn Mawr, nd]

Here is another piece for your file. Some day you may decide that it is not worth the trouble to keep it up to date, unless you want to write a novel, and use the material to illustrate one of the characters. [Bryn Mawr, 1961]

Now, seriously, what are you going to do with all my letters? If printed, they would fill a volume; with a proper introduction, footnotes, and index, two volumes.[Bryn Mawr, 1961]

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