About three years ago, one of my beloveds sent me this short email:
I’m not sure if I’ve ever shared with you my creed, which was put into words for me by the considerate E.M. Forster. This is it:
“I believe in aristocracy, though–if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”
And that is why the existence of you is something I am profoundly grateful for.
I remembered this while recently reading Two Cheers for Democracy, which is where the passage may be found; S. had never answered my query about where it came from so I’d forgotten it, which is a damn shame.
This, also, is a shame: It was only when I re-read her email that I understood it for what it is: a love letter. It got me thinking about just how many platonic love letters I’ve received in my life; it got me feeling all cozy inside; it also left me a little bemused, for it seems entirely obvious that we all write each other such casual and friendly, but no less valuable for that, love letters all the time.
And I keep them all, even if it’s only later I realize their importance. Others, of course, are more obviously adoring when they arrive, and which I keep close to hand: On my fridge, there’s a note from N., written when my back exploded last autumn. In it, she exhorts me to partake of the victuals she and M. dropped off while I was in the emergency room.
There are many more love letters from the living that I could bring up but I don’t want to neglect those that come from the dead. My Nana loved to write in books, and I recently discovered my name in her handwriting in an old copy of Our Amazing World of Nature. Seeing it felt as solid and reassuring as her warm kiss on my cheek or her dry, wrinkled hand holding mine. Her inscription is a love letter sent in 1980 and that I can discover anew every time I open the book:
My grandmother’s writing in books was, also, her love letters to those books; not limited to dedications to people she knew, she wrote notes throughout everything she read. Books were to her, I think, almost living beings and responded to as such:
A photo of the Aurora Borealis elicited this surprisingly un-punctuated comment, given she was a schoolteacher: “These are spectacular seen often in Saskatchewan Beautiful weird”–beautiful and weird, just like her.
As I sometimes gently kiss the covers of very good books, I recognize a love letter addressed to a book when I see it; she wrote a lot of these, and this one–addressed to both books and the natural world–was penned when she’d already left the specatular nights of the prairies for the grey and seeping skies of Nova Scotia, where she died in 1991 in the particularly drab month of March.
All this has come of my reading Two Cheers for Democracy. Before I’d figured out why that passage was so familiar, I nonetheless felt like I was reading a love letter, one written to me, if not only to me.
(I’m not certain Forster and I would have recognized one another as belonging to one another’s “aristocracy of the sensitive, considerate and plucky,” but I know just what he means by that; and I like to think we would have. At any rate, I’ve recognized others this way any number of unexpected and lovely times.)
I’ve been thinking how much books in general feel like love letters to me; like a hand in the dark, a trusted voice in the maelstrom. And so, while I know what Forster meant about people, I also know what Thackeray meant about books when he had poor Dobbin feeling “quite lonely, and almost happy” as he read the Arabian Nights beneath a tree in Vanity Fair.
How can I reciprocate a still growing lifetime’s worth of love letters received from dead authors? How write back to my Nana? Keep reading, at minimum.
A commenter on one of my recent posts said she was having difficulty drawing comfort from books in these fractured and angry times, that even Wodehouse wasn’t doing the job; I too have been reading Wodehouse and other literary comedians more frequently than had been my wont before last November.
There is no space now for playing it safe, for holding our hearts close and cold for fear of being hurt or spurned or humiliated or dismissed. To me this means, as Auden wrote in likely one of the most straightforward love letters ever written, that “we must love one another or die.” I’m less optimistic perhaps than he was, and think it’s just as likely that we will love one another and still die; but the second clause is not the really important one in that line of poetry.
In the wild exchanges that can occur between people whether or not they meet in person, whether or not one of those people is an author who’s been dead nearly fifty years or even longer, whether or not that person is only a character in a book, put down by a hand that would clasp yours warmly if it could–there are countless love letters just looking for recipients. Never mind the pain: speak, read, hold the words in your hands. Above all, reciprocate.
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Refreshing thoughts for our challenging and vulnerable times.
I need to contradict you on the Auden tag, “We must love one another or die.” I don’t think he meant to die in the literal sense. I think he meant that without love we are dead or that where we don’t love, we hate; or when we don’t love,we become less than human; or again all that is evil follows failure to love.
I may be wrong, but my point still stands. 😉
But in all seriousness, yes–but we can both be right in our reading of this line, I think.
Lovely post. This is indeed a time to focus on what we love, and fight for it.