Before There Was 'Sexting,' There Were Love Letters

To celebrate the Jewish holiday of love, we mark Tu B'Av with a look at how people used to express their feelings in writing in the days before the Internet.

When do we know that something fundamental about our collective history has changed? The abysmal differences between "then" and "now" are not only captured in those big, grandiose changes such as trains, planes or the Internet; they can also be captured in a fleeting moment of daily life, in a thin, barely visible piece of paper, weighing no more than a few grams.

This insignificant object, unremarkable by its weight, consistency or color, occupies the central place of Johannes Vermeer's oil painting "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter." The letter the woman holds in her hands is where her eyes are riveted, where her heart leaps, where her mind is concentrated. It is the point the viewer keeps puzzling over: What is she reading? This letter marks the irruption of an outside and unknown force into the harmonious peace of this interior. This almost-colorless, thin, barely visible piece of paper is the focal point of this painting; its quiet drama. And yet, our culture has become unable to understand the silent power of this painting, because we have lost the ability to understand the power of letters.

Aside from its pictorial virtuosity, this painting has fascinated Europeans because its center is (what we assume to be) a love letter. The woman in blue has interrupted her morning toilet to read - or perhaps reread - the love letter. Everything in this room is still and suspended, the only life comes from her act of intense absorption in the reading of her letter. The act of reading was an act of taking possession of an object.

This woman holds the letter to read it, but in fact she wants to make it hers through her eyes, her hands, her entire body. A love letter is not just any letter. It is the trace of someone absent. Like the relic of a saint, it is a part of someone infinitely dear who is not here but "there," somewhere we cannot reach.

Love letters were kissed, caressed, tucked inside one's garments, put into sealed boxes, shrouded in an aura of sanctity and mystery, and left for posterity. Love letters carried the deepest recesses of people's interiority but were the tangible, visible answer to the anxious question of whether one was loved. The poet Robert Browning wrote to his lover, fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett: "The regard and esteem you now give me, in this letter, and which I press to my heart and bow my head upon, is all I can take and all too embarrassing, using all my gratitude." Love letters were revered and worshipped, because they marked the end of those moments of excruciatingly pleasurable anxiety.

Absence and presence

This precious object had a strange materiality. As an object, it was something one could hold in one's hand, turn, fold, read and reread, long after it was received. Yet, the materiality of this object was thin, frail, disposable. In fact, in the painting it is barely visible. And it was that frailty that was entrusted with the role of making absence into presence. The map on the wall behind the woman in blue gives us a sense of the vast spaces that probably separate her from her lover. The world that separates the lovers irrupts into the tranquillity of this domestic life.

Vermeer's painting, then, has the power of representing to us the quiet struggle of absence and presence played out in this letter. Read through love letters from the 17th century until World War II: Many - perhaps most - are attempts to cope with space and absence through words and imagination.

Writing to the Countess Evelina Hanska, Honore de Balzac explained how in imagination he crossed the space separating him from his Polish beloved: "I can no longer think of anything but you," he wrote. "In spite of myself, my imagination carries me to you. I grasp you, I kiss you, I caress you, a thousand of the most amorous caresses take possession of me." The soil that nourished imagination was the vast empty space of absence.

Love letters procured an intense sentiment of one's individuality. In the 17th century, they marked a new form of competence - writing on relatively cheap paper - and a new way of enjoying one's sense of subjectivity, feeling oneself to be empowered to express one's secret desires.

The woman in blue's letter is read in a closed, private, secluded space. People read letters in such enclosed spaces; they did it in hiding, in solitude, in privacy. And they did it first as a privilege, then as a right, because privacy for the working and even middle classes was a luxury they came to enjoy only after the Renaissance.

Mary Wordsworth writing to her husband William Wordsworth, the English poet: "Oh My William! It is not in my power to tell thee how I have been affected by this dearest of all letters - it was so unexpected - so new a thing to see the breathing of thy inmost heart upon paper that I was quite overpowered, & now that I sit down to answer thee in the loneliness & depth of that love which unites us & which cannot be felt but by ourselves, I am so agitated & my eyes are so bedimmed that I scarcely know how to proceed..."

Written in the penumbra of privacy and solitude, love letters were radical acts of affirmation of individuality, of the power of one's mind and heart to overcome the real, of the force of words to maintain the force of sentiments. But because love letters were acts of individual emotionality does not mean they were not also social.

As material objects, letters were circulated through vast social networks of post, carriages, domestics; they were nodes in social networks. Letters could also be used by courts because words, and the letters that sealed these words, were binding. A love letter committed the person who wrote it. So much so that courts could and did use such letters to force a person to honor their promise to marry another. Love letters thus could not be written mindlessly. They expressed the inner depths of one's feelings, passed through many hands, contained the unwritten moral rules, and were always located somewhere at the invisible threshold of law, society and morality.

In love letters one spoke to a lover through social and moral codes, invisible yet powerful. Where are our love letters today? Love letters have quietly disappeared. They have evaporated under the heat of the electronic fire of the hundreds of "messages" we send and receive weekly. They have been replaced by the never-ending stream of "sharing," "networking," "winking," "wall posting," "sms-ing," "emailing," "surfing," "browsing," "call forwarding," "caller id-ing," "Skyping," "tweeting," "Facebooking," "cyber-sexing," "cyber-dating."

We write endlessly. We write not to the one and only, but to an ever-larger circle of friends turned into an audience, and an audience turned into friends. We write not in the gulf of absence but to create electronic presence, through online status, chatting, instant message. These technologies have erased waiting and longing, making us into the historical experts of "presence." We write to obliterate the anxiety created by the gaping holes always left by others. We write not from the center of our souls, but with the deft expertise of people who write fast, with abbreviated words, with single letters. We write so that our words display lightness and coolness. We write in blogs to show our educated opinions, speedily formed with the speed of news. We write comments online to show our anger or approval. We write as public performers of ourselves, of our opinions, of our emotions.

Intelligence must not mourn what cannot be anymore. Its primary task is to understand the unseen promise of what is. Yet, I confess: No Facebook post or tweet manages to rouse me as Vermeer's thin, pale piece of paper. It is to those handwritten lines, to the fragility of the paper on which they are written, to the absence they mark and the silence they break, that my heart leaps to. This thin piece of paper belongs to a time when words had power.

Franz Kafka implored Felice Bauer to stop writing to him every day because her words were more than he could bear: "Write to me only once a week, so that your letter arrives on Sunday - for I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. I answer one of your letters, then lie in bed in apparent calm, but my heart beats through my entire body and is conscious only of you. I belong to you; there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough."

Kafka could not endure a daily letter; we glibly surf on the smooth surface of a never-ending stream of words, on a beaming stage of confessions, information, communication. The electronic stream of words with which we are bombarded would have made Kafka entirely healthy: he endless flow makes words harmless. The secret recesses of our private life are now available for everyone to see and comment on.

Compare these new public intimacies, endlessly staged under the heat of bright, strong and constant lights, to Denis Diderot, who unexpectedly came to visit his lover, Sophie Volland. When he found out she was not home, he sat down and stayed in her waiting room. After a few hours of waiting and longing, the candle slowly diminishing under his eyes, he could do nothing but write her a letter, in almost total darkness: "Partout ou il n'y aura rien, lisez que je vous aime": Wherever there is nothing, read that I love you.