Monday, June 08, 2009

Joyce Carol Oates on Salinger's Love Letters

And on intimacy in the public sphere, in general:

The Hawthornes' devotion to each other, and to the idealized image of each other they presented to the world, would seem to be a powerful rebuke of the debased and exploitative nature of intimacy in our time, in which lovers routinely betray each other in salacious ''memoirs'' (the most despicable of which must be James Hewitt's memoir of his love affair with Princess Diana, at a time when she was distraught over her failing marriage with Prince Charles) and by the peddling of intimate love letters (the most recent, 14 letters by J. D. Salinger, written in the 1970's to his much-younger lover Joyce Maynard, scheduled to be auctioned off by Sotheby's in June). No doubt, through the millennia lovers have betrayed one another, but the mass-marketing of such betrayals, at high prices, is a relatively new development in what we call civilization.

Romance is a turbulent surf that, withdrawing, leaves a tangle of debris in its wake. Without the shimmering aura of love, mere words can be . . . mere words, and embarrassing. Without the stratagems of art, which are rarely spontaneous and unmediated, even the most heartfelt utterances not only sound banal, but are banal.

It may have been that Nathaniel Hawthorne, the consummate artist, rereading his wife's ''maiden'' letters, decided to burn them as much for aesthetic as for personal reasons; for nothing leaves us more exposed and vulnerable, like a mollusk pried out of its shell, than heartfelt declarations, especially when examined by a neutral eye.

It's a rare love letter that transcends the ephemeral occasion of its composition and endures as art, like those brilliant letters dashed off by Virginia Woolf to her flamboyant lover Vita Sackville-West or those teasingly enigmatic little notes composed by Emily Dickinson for her more intimate friends, both female and male.

Usually, love letters are painful to read, especially after love has died; should we succumb to the temptation to read them, we are made guilty voyeurs. The collector who buys Salinger's letters will require, like all voyeurs, a convincing rationalization for his or her behavior. (Scholarly zeal, of course?)

Anyone who confides in any writer risks being transmogrified into art if he or she is sufficiently interesting; the best protection is to be dull, bland and predictable.

Conversely, anyone with a modicum of a public identity must know that he or she is continually at risk in behaving impulsively in this rapacious era of memoirs, taped conversations and wiretaps. To commit one's most intimate feelings to paper, in letters, is the height of naivete, or hope. Immanuel Kant's great moral imperative -- that we should behave at all times in such a way that our actions might constitute an imperative for all human beings -- might be modified as a warning: we should assume that any confidence made to anyone, verbally or in writing, no matter in what private, precious circumstances, will possibly be betrayed, if only inadvertently.

When personal letters of mine written to a former friend were first offered for sale, some years ago, I reacted with shock, hurt and disappointment. I was embarrassed that I seemed to have made a fool of myself, in writing openly and impulsively (and without revising!) to one who thought so little of me, and may have intended exploitation from the first. (These were not love letters.)

In time, however, I came to view such ''betrayals'' in a philosophical light. The act of sending a letter is an act of generosity, even if, in retrospect, it might seem reckless. Why regret one's generosity? Why regret one's impulsiveness, one's misjudgment of others? The inevitable discovery that someone is selling letters you'd written in trust is simply to discover an obvious human truth: there are those who don't cherish us as we'd cherished them, and had wished to be cherished by them.


I share plenty of personal stories on this blog, but I rarely regret this. I do, however, regret the many, many words I've written to former friends and lovers. I highly doubt that such letters will ever be "sold," though certainly I expect that intimacies have been betrayed. I also regret, more abstractly, wasting so many words on such people. So many feelings contained in those words. So much honesty, hopefulness, love and trust, that such words were not going to be thrown away to people who did not deserve them. Perhaps, in time, I will attain the philosophical perspective of Oates, and learn not to regret my "generosity, impulsiveness, misjudgment of others." It's hard to get there, though.

As I've gotten older, less naive, and less romantic in nature, I've learned to devalue the written word. But in a good way! I trust more in action, unspoken gesture, and subtle intimacy, over effulgent prose with so many failed promises. I trust more in the idea of things "feeling right" than in "saying the right things." Though I confess that occasionally, I do want to hear the right thing. There are a million idiosyncratic ways to express affection and reinforce intimacy. Declarative statements are but one vehicle, and I've learned to highly mistrust purple prose. I've also learned to be more restrained with my own words. While I will still verbally express affection and will go so far as to write such sentiments down, I've become less extravagant and more economical in how I express such sentiments. Less "I'd climb the highest mountain," and more "I'd hang out with you." It does feel more authentic and honest. I also share less

Somewhere, the 18 year old lit major inside me is dying. When I was 19, I complained about my too naive, too-romantic nature to a friend, who said that was what he liked best about me. At the time, it was the best compliment I'd ever received. Nowadays, I'm not so sure.

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