We all love riddles and the best stories are often in the form of riddles; the adventures we crave come from solving (and resolving) the narrative. We want to find out what happens. In the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt, two modern-day scholars chase clues in the letters, journals and poems of two fictional Victorian poets — Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte — who may or may not have had a romance. These literary sleuths (and us the readers) try to uncover “what happened.”
Yet after reading (and discovering the answer to the above question) and rereading Byatt’s book many a time over the years, there is still one mystery left for us to solve. Ash and LaMotte’s writings were conducted in a world where letter writing and poetry were art forms. Keeping a daily journal was the respectable and expected pastime of gentlemen and ladies alike. One put one’s thoughts down clearly and carefully.
Today, how many of us still take the trouble to write letters by hand when there is the near-instantaneous delivery of email? How many of us would spend time to write in a journal when one can blog or tweet? A hardbound journal with actual pages made from paper seems a bit dated in the age of Tumblr and Facebook. And let’s not even get started on poetry — can one get any more twee?
With social media we write more than ever — we certainly self-publish an extraordinary amount without the constraints of censorship or good editing — but do our words mean anything anymore? Perhaps the final riddle or adventure that Byatt poses to us is this — whatever happened to the lost language of words? Whatever happened to real words that mean something, words with weight and worth?
There is something terribly wrong, one of my friends once told me, when you can divorce your wife via a text message. And perhaps she’s right — how poorly we seem to conduct our relationships and personal affairs these days. One has barely enough time to read a message, much less digest its meaning, before the next one appears. We are expected to reply, to respond, right now or else the moment is lost — Next!
Where is the romance when saying “I love you” is so easy? (Certainly, there are plenty of smiley icons that will serve the purpose.) Ash and LaMotte’s letters and poems to each other seem almost quaint and shy by comparison — oh how indirect and bothersome that must have been, we exclaim — yet beneath their placid surface lie thunderous passions and desires. I fear our own desires in the present may be fuelled by less fire, especially when we only bother to copy-and-paste template love poems from a website for the objects of our affection.
If fast love is the order of the day, then people get hurt just as quickly these days and move on as easily. We are too conveniently connected in the digital world — being able to contact each other at the click of a mouse or tap of a smart phone touch-screen, where in the past, we may have been miles away from each other and every letter took days or even weeks to reach their destination. Today we are connected without truly connecting.
I remember a scene during a family gathering last Chinese New Year where everyone was busy tweeting or sending/replying to text messages on their mobile phones. I observed that no one was having a real conversation. Sure, we were talking to each other — but with an eye on our BlackBerries or our iPads. We fear missing out on something — but what is it? What could we fear missing out that is more precious than this moment with the people in front of us right now?
I believe that we communicate because aside from connecting with one another, we seek affirmation that we are doing well, that we are leading our lives right. Perhaps that is why we want to leave a legacy — a little bit of ourselves, the best part of who we are — to those who come after us. The poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash left their own literary legacies but there was no way of them knowing this in advance. Even if one is truly confident in one’s prowess, how could one be entirely sure that what one leaves behind survives?
A man who plants a row of oak trees does so knowing that he may not live to see them in their full-grown glory but does it all the same, for the generations yet to come. I wonder, then, what legacy will we leave our children when all the words we have are digital bits and sound bites, when there is no physical trace that we were once here, that we laboured and lusted, that we sought liberty and love? Once, we had put them in the only form we knew how, in a language of words — again, real words — that had power and promise to, when they were spoken aloud or read in silence, fill the hearts of men and women with hope and heartache. I wonder, has this language been lost?
I hope not. We have time still to write as we did before. To write letters by hand to our dearest near and afar. To learn to love words for their precise meanings and to marvel at what that does for us. To write a poem, even a “bad” one (and I believe there is no such thing), in order to express ourselves in a different way and because the effort itself makes it worth it.
We have time to write something we would want to read later and remember. We haven’t lost the words yet.