Thursday, August 17, 2006

The love letter: a write-off

This story popped up last year:

A flick through last weekend's newspapers should have been an illuminating experience for anyone interested in learning more about Tony Blair. Graphologists - handwriting experts - had been invited by some of the press to analyse a sheet of paper containing doodles by the prime minister during a meeting at last week's World Economic Forum.

Some of the results made alarming reading. According to a graphologist consulted by the Times, Mr Blair's use of triangles represented a "death wish", symbolic, she said, of "the risk to his political career".

Elaine Quigley, a graphologist consulted by the Daily Mirror, thought the scribbles showed "the Blair Flair at work without the overlay of public performance". The circling of words was, she said, a sign of the prime minister's "quick mind and ability to turn on the spot and come up with a fluent answer".

Conversely, graphologist Helen Taylor, quoted in the Independent, found the badly formed circles revealed "an inability to complete tasks".

The only blot in the copybook came later when Number 10 disowned the doodles. The scribbles of this reckless, struggling incompetent were actually the work of fellow delegate Bill Gates, who as founder of Microsoft is possibly the world's most successful self-made businessman.

All of which leaves an even bigger question mark hanging over the already controversial practice of handwriting analysis.

Graphology challenges homeopathy and astrology for title of most blatant pseudoscience con-job, but I do occasionally mourn the death of handwriting – or more specifically of my handwriting, which, even if it didn’t reveal much about my personality traits, did at least of itself form a significant part of my projected persona.

The trusty cartridge fountain-pen that saw me through so many examinations and milestone letters still resides in a box somewhere, but I fear the script that evolved over the years to achieve an optimum balance between speed, individual style and legibility is long gone. These days I can barely scribble a few spidery biro notes or fill in a form without resenting the manual labour and the subsequent writer’s cramp. Heck, it even annoys me if I can’t use the Autofill thing in online forms.

But it seems the wider implications for western society of this 21st century attitude to writing might be grave:

From the BBC:

One in five have never received a love letter, and half haven't had one for a decade, a government survey of 2,000 women suggests.

The survey from the Department for Education and Skills said 77% of women would prefer to receive a love letter to an e-mail or text. And yet just as the e-mail is inexorably killing the ordinary letter, so it seems its predations are dooming the love letter.

Love letters? How would a lad today even know where to begin with a love letter? He can’t even hold a pen.

Yet even though the carefully-crafted and perfectly-timed romantic letter has been the foundation of all the greatest love stories ever told, I’m doubtful that many men have ever really been able to write them without descending into clumsy and cringe-inducing cliché, and few blokes will miss the pressure of getting them right. Talk about a minefield.

Darcy’s knock-out efforts have Elizabeth Bennett swooning in Pride and Prejudice, but only because they were actually written by Jane Austen, a woman. Rudolphe keeps Madame Bovary on the boil with his secret notes, but Flaubert, a man, chickens out of showing them to us, and all we know is that they’re there, and they’re ‘shorter than she would have liked.’

That’s the essence of the love letter – they’re purely a female invention: women not only write the ones they want to write, they read the ones they want to read.

Oscar Wilde captured it in this exchange from The Importance of Being Earnest:

Cecily. Yes, you’ve wonderfully good taste, Ernest. It’s the excuse I’ve always given for your leading such a bad life. And this is the box in which I keep all your dear letters. [Kneels at table, opens box, and produces letters tied up with blue ribbon.]

Algernon. My letters! But, my own sweet Cecily, I have never written you any letters.

Cecily. You need hardly remind me of that, Ernest. I remember only too well that I was forced to write your letters for you. I wrote always three times a week, and sometimes oftener.

Algernon. Oh, do let me read them, Cecily?

Cecily. Oh, I couldn’t possibly. They would make you far too conceited. [Replaces box.] The three you wrote me after I had broken off the engagement are so beautiful, and so badly spelled, that even now I can hardly read them without crying a little.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Nice piece, Brit. The truth of that insight, though, should be reserved to middle-aged men and treated as Forbidden Knowledge for younger men. I can never decide how much deliciously savage Wildean or Gilbert and Sullivan-like wit is good for us.

But although we have all come to see the late 19th century as the epitome of dark patriarchical oppression, does this not hint that modern feminism may have traded equality in public life for submission to the reign of male sexuality in the war between the sexes? Here is a modern-day Wilde's take on the current situation:

Only yesterday boys and girls spoke of embracing and kissing (necking) as getting to first base. Second base was deep kissing, plus groping and fondling this and that. Third base was oral sex. Home plate was going all the way. That was yesterday. Here in the year 2000 we can forget about necking. Today's girls and boys have never heard of anything that dainty. Today first base is deep kissing, now known as tonsil hockey, plus groping and fondling this and that. Second base is oral sex. Third base is going all the way. Home plate is being introduced by name.

You will recall the closest the DD got to triple x fare was a few months back in a discussion about female fantatsies in popular books and magazines and umm...artistic websites. As with most lunk-headed modern males weaned on Freud, the consensus seemed to me to be that: "Gee, if they like to read and fanatsize about it, it must mean somewhere deep, deep, deep, deep down they really want to do it." Ha! That's not the way the other team plays The Great Game, although far, far too many young modern ones have been convinced it is and a lot of confusion and damage has resulted.

The best modern TV comedy about marriage and family is Everybody Loves Raymond. This week's show had Raymond's wife encouraging him to work at home to help her out and experience their young kids' growing up. He does so with some trepidation and slowly gets into it, but she is obviously suddenly wary and off-balance. Finally, she goes out for the day and comes back to the predictable chaos. Upset as all heck, she asks him to go back to the office. When he gives her that wounded puppy-dog look every shrewd husband masters and says: "But you told me you wanted me home", she answers guiltily: "Yes, I can see it is confusing. I think I wanted you to want to stay home. But I don't think I want you to stay home."

Which is why forgetting birthdays is a disaster for you but there are no points for remembering them.

BTW, Brit, if we ever meet, the first order of business will be to call you to account for the e-mail you sent us all addressed to Duckian "rape-fantasists". Yuck, yuck. It only took me about two sweaty hours to explain crazy old Brit's priceless sense of humour.

August 17, 2006 8:35 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Heh heh. It must have been a pretty set of steps you had to go through to explain that one...

Might have mentioned this before, but there was a terrific scene in the film 'White Men Can't Jump', where the young couple are in bed and the girl says 'I'm thirsty.' So the fellow sighs and gets up to get her a glass of water.

'No no no!' she cries. 'I don't want to you get me a glass of water, I want you to sympathise with my thirst. All you do is offer solutions!'

August 17, 2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Never underestimate the power of words.

I have read that masochism did not exist until Sacher-Masoch wrote 'Venus in Furs.' In a fit of curiosity, I bought a paperback copy of 'Venus in Furs,' but it's still in the to-be-read pile.

Better than letters are poems. Women love to have poems written to them. And they are not choosy about the quality, either.

August 17, 2006 11:52 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Ray Barone is everyman. I especially love the vacant stare he gives his wife when he knows that he is screwed whatever he says. Once he replied to her question by saying "what is it that you want me to say?". He perfectly captures the feeling of relating to a woman as someone would relate to a superior alien species that landed on our planet.

The whole sympathizing-not-solving routine is a hallmark of male/female conflict. For a man, the worst thing you can do about a bad situation you can't solve is to talk about it. Talking about it only reminds you of your impotence and makes you feel worse. Better to ignore it and totally forget about it. Which is why women are frustrated when they ask a man "so how was your day" and he says "OK" and then sits in front of the tube to escape to some fantasy world.

August 17, 2006 5:04 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

In my experience, men get into stylistic trouble writing love letters because they go on for too long, and they try to match history's best examples of love letters, which are, as Brit notes, written by professionals.

A good love letter should be a love note, unless the author is truly moved by the muse. Otherwise, it should just attempt to convey "I think of you often", and "I really like you."
Along the lines of: "I saw [something pleasant, double points for exotic or romantic] today, and it reminded me of the time that we [did something together]. The [something about the viewed scene] made me think of [something attractive about the woman being written to]. Love, [Romeo]."

"Third base" was oral sex? D'oh !!
Now I've got to re-evaluate all of my box scores. In my time and place, "third base" was below-the-belt groping.

As with most lunk-headed modern males weaned on Freud, the consensus seemed to me to be that: "Gee, if they like to read and fantasize about it, it must mean somewhere deep, deep, deep, deep down they really want to do it."

Mainly 'cause they do, as you have acknowledged before, and not so deep, deep down either. Pretty much on the surface, although as you say, in a different way than males do.

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is any merit to the thought that modern males are "weaned on Freud", what would change modern males' paradigm ?
Who should next-gen males be weaned upon ?

The best modern TV comedy about marriage and family is Everybody Loves Raymond.

Except that Raymond, although sometimes funny, is primarily about dysfunction, and just happens to be set in a household.
It's the home version of The Office.

I have read that masochism did not exist until Sacher-Masoch wrote 'Venus in Furs.'

It may not have been named until then, but some people have always wanted to be hit. Or to be martyrs.
It's part of human nature.

Once [Ray Barone] replied to [his wife's] question by saying "what is it that you want me to say?"

I used to get so frustrated that I would literally ask my wife that exact question - until I trained her to ask questions that had possible answers that would satisfy her. And she trained me to... Something.
She could say better than I how I've changed, but I learned somehow to both tell the truth as I know it, and also to avoid giving unsatisfactory answers.

Romance novels helped, too, in that most of the conflicts therein are the result of poor or mixed communication. So, taking a lesson from them, I try to make sure that I explain myself fully, and to repeat back to her a paraphrase of what she's saying, to ensure that we're on the same page.

August 18, 2006 4:11 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Hey, Oro, we'll just have to agree to disagee and I'll leave you to go out into the world and fend off all those lavicious women. Try not to dress too provocatively and be careful not to drink too much alone in strange bars. In fact, bring a friend to watch out for you. We men have to protect ourselves.

But Everybody Loves Raymond is most definitely not about dysfunction. Seinfeld and Cheers, equally hilarious, were about dysfunction. Raymond is about the absurdity of function, at least for those of us who aren't much good at training our wives.

August 18, 2006 4:25 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

"they try to match history's best examples of love letters, which are, as Brit notes, written by professionals."

Actually, what I said was that they are written by women.

August 18, 2006 6:01 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

All of the main characters on Raymond, with the notable exception of Raymond's wife, are dysfunctional, and even "Debra"'s mother is portrayed as being odd.

There are many comedic shows about the absurdity of fairly normal interaction between relatively normal people. Raymond isn't one of 'em.

But, it is amusing that someone finds the characters on Cheers to be less functional than those of Raymond.

August 18, 2006 6:52 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter, you're conflating "sexual desire" with "predatory behavior", which even in men isn't the predominant case.

It's always good advice to take a buddy with you if you're going to get drunk in public, regardless of sex or gender.

August 18, 2006 7:01 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


I gather you didn't marry into a Mediterranean family.

August 18, 2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Technically, I did marry a Mediterranean - but only through blood, not at all by culture.

Genetically, she's half Spanish, 3/8 Mexican mestizo, and 1/8 Yaqui Indian, which makes her mostly a Spaniard by blood. Culturally, however, she's 112% American. (I added a bonus 12% because she's much more nationalistic than I am).

In any case, the Mediterranean cultures of Italy and Spain are failing, their peoples are reproducing at a slower rate than all but maybe a half-dozen nations on Earth. While not actual proof of much, that dynamic strongly points to a meta-dysfunction within those cultures.

So, while the fictional Barones might be almost normal within modern Italian culture, possibly just turned up to 11 for comedic effect, it's also true that being the least-crazy person in the loony bin doesn't make one sane.

August 18, 2006 10:52 PM  

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