I have written about the lost art of letter writing in a previous post. There is inherent intimacy in the hand written letter. Putting pen to paper requires a certain amount of courage as the ink cannot be rewritten so easily by using the delete key. It also requires a certain desire to connect to the other, investing our time in opening up to them.
My favorite poet is Rainer Maria Rilke. Wikipedia definitions aside, he is German language's gratest 20th century poet. Let me show you the rhythm of intimacy and modern thought in his famous Letter to a Friend, which he wrote in 1904.
In this time that has gone by without a letter, I have been partly traveling, partly so busy that I could not write. And even today writing comes hard to me because I have already had to write a lot of letters so that my hand is tired. If I could dictate, I would say a great deal to you, but as it is, take only a few words for your long letter.
Have you ever found yourself sending a quick email to apologize for not writing sooner? We have borrowed that opening from the art of letter writing. It dictates that you open a letter by responding to the previous correspondence from the addressee.
I think of you, dear Mr. Kappus, often and with such concentrated wishes that that really ought to help you somehow. Whether my letters can really be a help, I often doubt. Do not say: yes, they are. Just accept them and without much thanks, and let us await what comes.
This is a fine way of saying I care and extending the conversation.
There is perhaps no use my going into your particular points now; for what I could say about your tendency to doubt or about your inability to bring outer and inner life into unison, or about all the other things that worry you -- it is always what I have already said: always the wish that you may find patience enough in yourself to endure, and simplicity enough to believe; that you may acquire more and more confidence in that which is difficult, and in your solitude among others. And for the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me: life is right, in any case.
Notice how modern the concerns of Mr. Kappus sound and how sound Rilke's advice is.
And about emotions: all emotions are pure which gather and lift you up; that emotion is impure which seizes only one side of your being and so distorts you. Everything that you can think in the face of your childhood is right. Everything that makes more of you than you have heretofore been in your best hours is right. Every heightening is good if it is in your whole blood, if it is not intoxication, not turbidity, but joy, which one can see clear to the bottom. Do you understand what I mean?
Reason, empathy, balance. Each addresses a concern.
And your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don't give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from the destroyer it will become one of your best workers -- perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.
The inquisitive mind at work.
That is all, dear Mr. Kappus, that I am able to tell you today. But I am sending you at the same time the reprint of a little poetical work that has now appeared in the Prague periodical Deutsche Arbeit. There I speak to you further of life and of death and how both are great and splendid.
Even sharing knowledge. In a few short paragraphs, Rilke manages to go to the heart of his friend's letter, respond to his concerns and be philosophical and enlightened about life. And this is a translation, albeit a very good one. We have not lost our ability to communicate so succintly and effectively. Sometimes we can even read a piece that touches us more deeply. The desire to connect comes through clearly.