Real Absences

Barbara Johnson

‘Reading others people’s letters, like reading private diaries, offers thrilling and unexpected glimpses into the lives of others,’ claims the dustjacket of The Oxford Book of Letters. In contrast, Vincent Kaufmann cheerfully introduces his study of writers’ letters by admitting that ‘there is nothing more tedious in a writer’s work than his correspondence.’

Thrilling or tedious? Isn’t this somehow the question always raised by the prospect of being let into the private lives of others? On the one hand, we have Janet Malcolm famously describing the biographer as a burglar at the subject’s keyhole, shamelessly marketing voyeuristic delights. On the other hand, it is often asserted that nothing is more boring than hearing the narrative of other people’s dreams. Are letters more like dreams or more like primal scenes? What’s the difference?

In many ways, no two books could be more dissimilar than Kaufmann’s closely focused critical analysis of the correspondence of nine modern (mainly French) writers, and the sprawling Oxford anthology, edited by Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode, of 328 letters written in English between 1535 and 1985 by 175 different hands. But the contrast does not lie only in matters of format and genre. The difference goes to the heart of what a letter is.

In a short introduction to The Oxford Book of Letters, the Kermodes disclaim any pretence of having assembled a canon of letters in English:

It will be obvious, and, it is to be hoped, welcome, that this book makes no attempt to provide a ‘canon’ of English letters. Such an enterprise would from one point of view be heroically foolish, and from another tediously constricting: above all, it would involve the insupportable and presumptuous claim that the editors had the authority to bind and loose, to decide between the canonical and the apocryphal. Consequently we have been compelled only to do as we please.

Doing as one pleases can also, of course, involve presumption. Yet there does hover over this collection an unmistakable sense of freedom from dutifulness or principle. But if this is not a canon of particular letters that every well-read person should know, what is it? It is a display of all the things an individual letter, or occasionally an exchange of letters, can do (e.g. declare love, transact business, report events, spread gossip, express grief, seek or refuse intimacy, meditate, apologise, brag, defend, accuse, entertain, mislead, console etc). The selections include Queen Charlotte Sophia chastising her son William for being ‘a true trifling character’, emigrant Anne Francis on the ants and jackals greeting colonists in South Africa, Fanny Burney on her mastectomy, two reports of witnessing executions and five different accounts of hot-air balloon voyages. There is John Addington Symonds’s description of Tennyson and Gladstone discussing Governor Eyre’s suppression of the 1865 uprising in Jamaica, during which Tennyson sounds like a 19th-century Mark Fuhrman (‘Niggers are tigers, niggers are tigers’). Jane Austen reports to her sister Cassandra on the physical characteristics of a long list of guests at a dance (‘She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck’; ‘I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me’) but also offers her niece Fanny Knight sage words about falling out of love (‘It seems as if your being secure of him had made you indifferent’). Each letter is written in a state of stylistic concentration or appropriate distraction. The principle of selection seems to be a desire to combine political or literary interest, historical gossip, individual personality, rhetorical animation and thematic variety.

As a reference work, the anthology seems designed to resist being ‘used’. It contains too few of the ‘obvious’ letters to serve as an epistolary Bartlett’s. The biographical sketches that accompany the letters are often almost comically condensed (‘Henrietta, Countess of Bess-borough, was the sister of the Duchess of Devonshire and the mother of Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s mistress and wife of William Lamb, later Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s Prime Minister’). We are not told where a letter is sent from, or where it is received. In addition, the index lists only the writers and recipients. The lay-out makes it impossible to see much of anything at a glance. The letters are chronological except within the correspondence of an individual writer – which means, in practice, that they are not. In some ways, therefore, the editors have succeeded in producing a book that can only be read for pleasure. It does not illustrate a thesis, define a genre or establish a canon. It cannot be read for a purpose. But it can be read, with pleasure, but not all at once, for no purpose. It is a good book for the bedside, the bathroom radiator or the dentist’s waiting room.

Among the ‘obvious’ letters not included in the Oxford anthology are many by canonical writers concerning literature. The Kermodes give us the love-wracked and dying Keats, for instance, rather than the Keats who wrote:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

‘Negative capability’ is perhaps the best description of what differentiates Kaufmann’s perspective from that of the Kermodes. While The Oxford Book of Letters features letters that are, as the expression goes, ‘full of presence’, Kaufmann is interested in writers’ letters to the precise extent that they are, in a negatively capable way, full of absence: ‘Letters give the writer a chance to avoid dialogue. Such is the hypothesis of this book, where I discuss a number of writers’ correspondences as so many workshops where non-communication is constructed and carefully maintained.’ In other words, Kaufmann sees a letter not as an individual unit of meaning but as part of a dynamic, a structure of writing whose actual purpose and effect may be at odds with what it appears to express. What matters in this structure is the dynamic of address, the space of writing, the distance between the correspondents, not the message or the individual.

Kaufmann studies Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer, Flaubert’s to Louise Colet, Baudelaire’s to his mother, Proust’s to his many worldly correspondents. Artaud’s to his editor, Rilke’s to his several female guardian angels, and Mallarmé’s to his circle of literary acquaintances. In each case, the correspondence exists not to achieve closeness but to hold something at a distance. Astutely, through the fascinating details of each writer’s letters, Kaufmann paints a picture of a correspondence taking shape not as a collection of communications but as a network of avoidances, as an address not to another but to the Other, a no man’s land through which the writer passes into Literature.

Kafka, for example, writes to Bauer: ‘Don’t deceive yourself, dearest; the cause of the trouble lies not in the distance; on the contrary, it is this very distance that gives me at least the semblance of having some right to you.’ He confides to her:

I have often thought that the best mode of life for me would be to sit in the innermost room of a spacious locked cellar with my writing things and my lamp. Food would be brought and always put down far away from my room ... For who am I? A shadow who loves you infinitely, but who cannot be drawn into the light.

Kaufmann comments: ‘He needs a presence to vouch for his absence. Letters allow Kafka to show himself for the shadow that he is.’ The ‘engagement’ between Kafka and Bauer is one designed to result not in marriage but in writing.

Love letters from Kafka to Bauer or from Flaubert to Colet thus install a distance, a distance that then becomes independent of the eventually-disenchanted addressee and turns into the medium of fiction. What matters is not whether Flaubert or Kafka (not to speak of Bauer or Colet) get what they want, but whether they are capable of playing their roles long enough to allow the fiction of desire to be fully developed in its unfulfilment. ‘The existence of their correspondence itself precludes the possibility of the proximity it continues to promise.’ ‘Distance is the sine qua non of their relationship.’ ‘Proust, Kafka and Flaubert attach themselves to letters in order to lose themselves ... Letters have been, for all three, an exercise in disappearance as well as an apprenticeship in displacement and representation ... From [Flaubert’s] correspondence with Louise ... and in return for all of its demands on the imagination, have come Emma, Rodolphe and Leon.’

The figure who must be kept at a distance but whose reliability as that anchoring Other allows the writer to perform his disappearing act properly is often associated by Kaufmann with the writer’s mother. This is particularly true for Baudelaire and Proust, but other mothers surface as well. Kaufmann does not make much of this, preferring to describe in itself the fort-da configuration of writing. In this, Kaufmann’s analysis is Lacanian rather than Freudian, a matter of symbolic positions and signifying structures rather than biographical referents.

The epistolary relation between Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé in many ways epitomises this dynamic. As Kaufmann summarises it, ‘the other must be able to see him when he repulses himself. He writes to her when unable to find the solitude that will allow him to write for himself.’ It is no accident that Andreas-Salomé had become a psychoanalyst in the years after she and Rilke were lovers. The structure Kaufmann describes is one in which the silent other occupies the space of the perfect analyst, a space that allows one to make demands on someone who is capable of not providing the asked-for satisfaction. Kaufmann’s book thus offers a psychoanalytic account of the dynamic of writing, but it also in a sense reveals psychoanalysis to be a practice of Modernism.

This view of literature as a kind of encomium to the negative was central to the work of a wide variety of literary theorists in the Seventies, many of whom, like Kaufmann, drew their inspiration from the work of Baudelaire, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Proust, Rilke, Artaud and Kafka. The exploration of the text’s non-referential dimensions, its rhetorical self-consumption, was at the heart of the theoretical revolution. But many of the theoretical reading strategies developed at that time depended on a heuristic separation between the author’s life and the author’s work. The author was considered ‘dead’ for interpretative purposes, leaving the text to speak, as Mallarmé put it, ‘on its own’. What Kaufmann has done is to show that this ‘death of the author’ can occur at the very heart of an author’s life. ‘The thanatographic must be read and understood, not in philosophical terms but in biographical terms. After all, not everyone can experience the author’s death. It requires not only a taste or a gift for self-sacrifice, but also a capacity for becoming inhuman, sometimes even cruel or monstrous.’

‘Dead author’ theories of literature have been vigorously critiqued for being ahistorical, apolitical and élitist, and for privileging the work of those who occupy the default position on the spectrum of authors (i.e. canonical white males). Women, post-colonials, and members of minority groups are not permitted to die into abstraction – and into authority – so easily, though perhaps that in itself is the problem. The importance of such historical and political questions in literary studies today makes Kaufmann’s analysis seem, in some ways, dated. (The book was originally published in French in 1990.) But the ‘taste for distance and perversion’, the ‘capacity for becoming inhuman’, should not, I think, be seen as the preserve of the white male. Might not women writers achieve literary equality, for example, not when men all become nicer but when women writers can be fully and freely monstrous, reclusive, perverse and self-centred? Why are the life choices of even as canonical a woman writer as Emily Dickinson so often pathologised while Flaubert’s identical strategies of withdrawal are taken as evidence of his devotion to his art? Kaufmann seems quite blind to the gender dynamics of some of what he analyses, but there might be something to be gained by allowing Dickinson, for example, to thrive under the same rules.

Kaufmann’s book is a refreshing reminder that literature feeds on indirection, avoidance, discontinuity and displacement, and that these same structures have their counterparts in human desire. What would become of literature if Tess Durbeyfield and Angel Clare, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, Billy Budd and John Claggart, had been able to communicate perfectly from the beginning? Lacan has put it succinctly: ‘There is no sexual relation.’ Which is to say: the sexual relation is literary.

This is not to argue that it is not healthy to question the complacent love of the unreachable, or to combat the sometimes imperialist, racist, and misogynist effects of the cult of literary monsters. But it is to say that the counterintuitive, the non-referential, the unconscious, and the anti-positivistic can sometimes get lost in such critiques. And they need not.

Both Post Scripts and The Oxford Book of Letters assert the value of the textualised life. In both, writers are presented within a world of address. The fact that it is the Other as much as the other who is addressed becomes apparent in very different ways in the two books. In the Oxford anthology, the very fragmentation of the format means that all the letters have been purloined from their original contexts and have ended up being delivered to us. In Kaufmann, the shape of entire correspondences is revealed as a network of productive non-deliveries. In literature, of course, all letters are in some sense purloined letters. If Kaufmann argues that a writer’s letters transmit a ‘death’, a point of opacity, within their language, he also argues that the great insight of Flaubert, Baudelaire, Kafka and Proust was to convey the functioning of that point of opacity in the lives of their fictional characters. Think not only of Mme Bovary’s imagination hijacked by novels but of Marcel watching the reality of Albertine’s cheek dissolve as he tells himself the narrative of a kiss.

It is, of course, possible to define literature otherwise, not as a constitutively purloined letter but, say, as a letter that acts within a historical context. In Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’, after all, the stakes of the letter are political even though its actual content remains unknown. In fact, the staying power of literature must arise from the way in which both of these descriptions of it must be true. The Oxford Book of Letters does not claim to offer a theory of literature while Post Scripts does just that: the juxtaposition of the two books shows how important both the seductions and the equivocations of epistolarity have been and continue to be for literary history.