The lure of Letters

letter envelopesAah the art of letters. I always believed that the best part about letters which is lost in all forms of electronic messaging is that tiny colourful piece of paper that’s glued to the envelope in the corner – yep stamps, and why you may ask. Why, simply because it teaches us so much about the origins of the letter. As a child I loved collecting stamps and its a habit that I still try to keep although its getting to be increasingly difficult to find stamps in this electronic age. To discover that some of the countries whose stamps I have, no longer exist, is quite thrilling indeed. Over time though, the stamps gave way to the persons behind the letters. I began developing a passion for the people who wrote heartfelt letters – baring their soul to the reader; their desires, their anger, their faults, their desperation, their joys…

Obviously, there is a lot of personal touch in hand written letters, a bit like reading a book versus reading the same book electronically. A shame indeed that we have moved on from that era.

In a letter to his mother, van Gogh writes “For me, life may well continue in solitude. I have never perceived those to whom I have been most attached other than as through a glass, darkly.” These two sentences are a cry of despair from a man we have romanticized through the ages but have rarely made an attempt to understand.

The myth of van Gogh is largely known – a madman misunderstood genius painter who cuts off his own ear in a frenzy and spirals into a vortex of further mental illness and kills himself, all while being a prolific painter producing over two thousand paintings in the span of a decade. Perhaps his paintings are all very well known. The strokes of his brush are immediately discernible even for a person not remotely involved in art. The man, van Gogh therefore, is lost behind the fable. In his letters, we discover the man….a man of high intellect and classic tastes; a man who struggled with being misunderstood for his choices in life, a man who quarrelled with his father, a painter who struggled through utter poverty and a brother who passionately writes about the influences of fellow painters, writers and peasants.

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A copy of Van Gogh’s letter to his brother – enclosed is a sketch

Reading through the letters filled me with infinite sadness. We are initially introduced to a man whose ideologies are bathed in fervent religious ideologies. When through the course of time the painter in him blooms, he is riddled with tragedies one after the other – he never got the love of a woman that he always wanted. When he took to painting with unbridled optimism, the fear of poverty always loomed large. When his vision of carefully curating a house that could host struggling artists was coming to fruition, his mental illness got the better of him. His paintings were never given the due appreciation in his time and he had to scrape and ask for money, paints and canvas from his brother every single time; it was only natural that the failures were bound to break him and yet…and yet we see rays of positivity in his letters…coherent, passionate and incredibly readable letters. Alas it all had to come to an end when he could not take it any longer. Tenderness for humanity has rarely touched me so.

Another of my favourite set of letters is from Feynman. He wrote incredibly well crafted and heartfelt letters – letters – to his wife Arline well after he had lost her “You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive” he wrote, two years after her passing away

An abstract from a letter from the genius, beautiful man to a student

Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. now your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naive ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.
Richard P. Feynman. 

This letter was for keeping, wasn’t it?

Did you know that Feynman dabbled in drawing but used a pseudonym ‘Ofey’ so that his drawings wouldn’t be critiqued for the bias his academic credentials garnered?

There are many letters that I have enjoyed reading – many among Feynman’s but my favourite letter incident of all time is Gandhi’s letter to his father when he was a child. There is no copy of the letter available, but in his autobiography, Gandhi relates this incident –

“The other theft was committed when I was fifteen. In this case I stole a bit of gold out of my meat-eating brother’s armlet. This brother had run into a debt of about twenty-five rupees. He had on his arm an armlet of solid gold. It was not difficult to clip a bit out of it.
Well, it was done, and the debt cleared. But this became more than I could bear. I resolved never to steal again. I also made up my mind to confess it to my father. But I did not dare to speak. Not that I was afraid of my father beating me. No I do not recall his ever having beaten any of us. I was afraid of the pain that I should cause him. But I felt that the risk should be taken; that there could not be a cleansing without a confession.

I decided at last to write out the confession, to submit it to my father, and ask his forgiveness. I wrote it on a slip of paper and handed it to him myself. In this note not only did I confess my guilt, but I asked adequate punishment for it, and closed with a request to him not to punish himself for my offence. I also pledged myself never to steal in future. I was trembling as I handed the confession to my father. He was then suffering from a fistula and was confined to bed. His bed was a plain wooden plank. I handed him the note and sat opposite the plank.

He read it through, and pearl-drops trickled down his cheeks, wetting the paper. For a moment he closed his eyes in thought and then tore up the note. He had sat up to read it. He again lay down. I also cried. I could see my father’s agony. If I were a painter I could draw a picture of the whole scene today. It is still so vivid in my mind.
Those pearl-drops of love cleansed my heart, and washed my sin away. Only he who has experienced such love can know what it is. As the hymn says:

Only he
Who is smitten with the arrows of love,
Knows its power.

This was, for me, an object-lesson in Ahimsa Then I could read in it nothing more than a father’s love, but today I know that it was pure Ahimsa. When such Ahimsa becomes all-embracing, it transforms everything it touches. There is no limit to its power.
This sort of sublime forgiveness was not natural to my father. I had thought that he would be angry, say hard things, and strike his forehead. But he was so wonderfully peaceful, and I believe this was due to my clean confession. A clean confession, combined with a promise never to commit the sin again, when offered before one who has the right to receive it, is the purest type of repentance. I know that my confession made my father feel absolutely safe about me, and increased his affection for me beyond measure.”

It is fascinating to read that these seeds of Ahimsa sown in the child, Gandhi, were to become hallmarks of the character of the Mahatma.

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The letters between Tagore and Gandhi make for fascinating reading despite their vastly different personalities. Similar correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi are a delight to read

I have developed a liking for epistolary novels off late. Words frustrate me a lot since they can never convey the feelings of an individual accurately. However, words that pour down in letters of passion are the closest that I can come to understanding the people I admire.

2 thoughts on “The lure of Letters

  1. What a lovely article! Letters are fascinating. The waiting pen, the crumpled corners, the crossed out words… Even if written and rewritten carefully to erase its history, they still say so much. Somehow the expression of a well-written can’t simply be matched by a tweet, an SMS or even a voice call. They are far too crude to express the slow simmering emotion glimpsed in the curved letters of hand-written words.

    Liked by 1 person

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