Why letters? Because letters!

I have always sworn by letters.

It started when I was 12. First, I loved receiving them. Then, writing them. In those lucky times when, like most people, I had no idea what an e-mail is, I found everything about postality enjoyable. Checking on the mailbox again and again, opening the envelope, unfolding the letter, reading it and wondering at what time of day the sender wrote it, from where, with what pen, expecting what from me reading it. I was 17 and ripping out an envelope was some sort of telepathic moment that repeated the closeness of two writing souls who just would not call one another on the phone. Pure magic.

This experience was obviously bound to be disappointed by reality itself. But by the time I had realized that, I had reached a point of no return in my love to letters – which had revealed themselves to me as texts too, and texts that are no less interesting than novels, dramas or poetry. It even seemed to me that correspondence is  the literary genre that allows to ask the most accurate questions as to whom a text is written for: Who is a letter written for? How can it be addressed to several persons? Could it be that a correspondence, in the very moment when it is put on the paper and somehow preserved, simply ceases to be a private matter? This was the main point of my paper “Ein Versuch, die ‘Berliner Klassik’ zu zähmen – zur Erforschung von Schriftstellerbriefwechseln” (in:  Tableau de Berlin. Beiträge zur „Berliner Klassik“, ed. by Iwan d’Aprile, Martin Disselkamp and Claudia Sedlarz, Hannover-Laatzen, 2005).

I think it is one of my best papers because it is the one in which a new thesis of mine emerged. This one does not deal so much with letters as texts than with the question of making them a reference corpus likely to be interpreted in different ways. In what order are letters supposed to be read? This concerned specifically a constellation in which more than 2 persons exchanged letters. Two triangular constellations and one with about 6 persons involved were the corpora on which I developed what was more of an unanswered question at the time. First triangle: Solger, Heinrich Voss and Rudolf Abeken; second one: Solger, Tieck and Raumer. Those exchanges resulted in several configurations: one addressing the 2 others in one letter or writing 2 letters to each of them the same day, 2 writing to 1, the whole construction getting even more complex as there were crossed discussions going on and live meetings taking place in between letters. Then I started considering the letters of the whole Freitag-Gesellschaft: Solger, Raumer, von der Hagen, Abeken, Krause, and a few others, who got acquainted while they studied together in Halle and remained in contact for 50 years (for those who lived long enough). Their literary and political analyses shed light on half a century of Prussian intellectuality. But what should be the order in which to read those letters?

The best order is, of course, the digital one. Because it is open enough to allow the user to chose, from a whole series of sorting options, the one that is more relevant to him or her. This is what Solenne Coutagne writes in her report on her work as an intern in my group in the last summer. But as much as it can be satisfying to be able to shape and reshape a text for the sake of analysis, as much as it multiplies the text, though, I still feel it reduces it to a source of information. It is as if it were not a text for a human being to read any more, but a text for a machine to read. Somehow the digital edition of letters is asking the question of the addressing of the letter as a text in a completely different way. Also, how can you mark the absence in such a format – all the letters that are missing and are part of the text insofar as they are missing – where do they belong?

If I may quote some Derrida to put this all in a not so deconstructive perspective (La Carte Postale, p. 190-191, dating February 1979):

Je réfléchis à un principe assez rigoureux de destruction. Que brûlerons-nous, que garderons-nous (pour mieux le griller encore)? (…)

Nous sommes la carte, si tu veux, et comme telle, comptables, mais ils auront beau chercher ils ne nous y trouveront jamais. Par endroits, je laisserai toute sorte de repères, des noms de personnes et des noms de lieux, des dates authentifiables, des événements identifiables, ils se précipiteront les yeux fermés, croyant enfin y être et nous y trouver quand d’un coup d’aiguillage je les enverrai ailleurs voir si nous y sommes, d’un coup de plume ou de grattoir je ferai tout dérailler…


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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