A digital pen pal is not so different from a pen pal who uses ink. As the nuclear family is no longer the main formation for cohabitation, as villages bleed into suburbs of big cities, there are so many new ways of getting in touch, and we can keep a far greater number of people around for longer, and never be entirely sure, when they disappear, that they’ve disappeared for good. Throughout history, there have been relationships based mostly or entirely on correspondence, often stretching over months or years — certainly by the Victorian era, letter-writing had become a part of daily life.
The success of the telegraph in the 19th century was considered a product of the growing number of women in the municipal workforce — the job of telegrapher was low-wage and temporary. Women who now found themselves out of the house wanted to hear from their lovers and friends at intervals throughout the day, just as we now check our phones when we’re supposed to be working. In telegraphist Ella Cheever Thayer’s languid 1879 novel Wired Love — which charts Nattie’s correspondence with “C,” a promptly responsive country operator — when the protagonist operator is asked of her office job “Don’t you find the confinement rather irksome?” she replies: “Sometimes, but then there always is someone to talk with on the wire, and in that way a good deal of the time passes.”
One of the anxieties of these URL–IRL liaisons is that they won’t translate. One pen pal tells me I won’t like him in real life. Another is far too confident that I will
As a woman of words and varying interests, I have many digital pen pals. Often the modern pen pal origin story is lost in the mess of favs and comments we emit daily: I enjoyed his posts so threw a fav around here and there, then he posted an article he found fascinating, or a poem he wrote, or a track he made and I complimented him on it … How we started DMing is beyond me! Or at least, that’s how all my pen pal origin stories seem to go. Somewhere amidst the sea of @ replies, Instagram likes, right swipes, status updates, certain members of the network you are tapped into emerge as people you want to communicate with beyond the odd push of a thumb. The difference, now, is the volume of accumulation: we can start smaller, less bravely, with a tap of the screen to send a fav that acts as the smallest of hellos, a wave from the distance even, and progress to pouring our hearts out in an email slowly, after we have the reassurance of our intended correspondent sending a few favs our way. But where does this desire to communicate intimately with people I don’t actually know and may never meet come from?
The “stranger” can represent a confessional space where the person unloading feels unburdened by judgment or the impact on other, closer relationships. The stranger, wrote the sociologist Georg Simmel a 1908 essay of the same name, “often receives the most surprising openness — confidences which sometimes have the character of a confessional and which would be carefully withheld from a more closely related person.” To the stranger, Simmel assigned the freedom of objectivity, which meant not passivity but a “positive and specific kind of participation” within particular boundaries; the stranger’s objectivity and commonality “connect us only because they connect a great many people.”
This desire to know someone more intimately than what they have presented publicly extends into our time, where we may encounter someone at an event, look them up and re-introduce ourselves, as did the married painter Baladine Klossowska and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke after one chance meeting, in the early process of forming a decade-long partnership. When Klossowska’s young son Balthazar, later known as Balthus the artist, lost his pet cat and drew a series of panels about it, Rilke wrote to the child’s mother what would later become the concept of his story, “Mitsou”: that when one loses something or somebody, one possesses it more strongly internally than they ever possessed it externally. “Of course you felt this, Balthusz,” he wrote, “No longer able to see Mitsou, you bent your efforts to seeing her even more clearly.” Rilke seems to have found himself in these friendships of letters fairly often — through an epistolary relationship with a presence that wasn’t quite there, but definitely not lost — later in life we see him joining the correspondence between the Soviet poets Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, which began when Pasternak wrote Tsvetaeva a fan letter after reading her collection Versts. (Tsvetaeva’s husband had been exiled to Prague earlier that year, and so writing was their only forum.) The others had every intention of traveling to Switzerland to meet Rilke IRL and take the relationship off the page alone, but their plans were thwarted when Rilke died suddenly of leukemia in 1929.
Digital communication often allows a reduction in time and effort — the two fluid concepts so timelessly paired to approximate the idea of attention
In an age where we meticulously scrutinize every opinion we place online and often post on “best behavior,” it can be a relief to encounter someone in the ocean of online performativity to be frank with behind the closed doors of a private chat. The openness with which we may approach these new friends is often a product of carelessness at first, making no marked difference if this person sticks around. Or, as Simmel put it, “The inhabitants of Sirius are not really strangers to us … they do not exist for us at all; they are beyond far and near.” This is the internal possession of Balthus and Rilke’s absent Mistou, without a sense of incompleteness or loss. Before ever cultivating a meeting to look forward to, a stranger can be familiar in their strangeness.
After a brief encounter in Sydney in 1995 between punk novelist Kathy Acker and the younger philosopher McKenzie Wark, the two entered a two-week long emailing fit. In the intro to I’m Very into You, a recent collection of these emails, editor Matias Viegener writes, “If paper letters were best suited for love, perhaps email does best with crushes.” At one o’clock in the morning in 1995, though, Acker wrote, as an aside to having started The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common by Alphonso Lingis, which she said reminded her of him, “I love emailing you … like a sudden opening into a forgotten territory … emailing must be pure narcissism.” A week and 60 emails later, Wark wrote, under the subject line “the important stuff,” that “If I appear to be playing games, it’s not deliberate, it’s unthinking.” And then “It’s really very simple: if I’m in SF, I want to see *you,* I want to sleep with *you.* … I was writing to you from the office and it really wasn’t the place or time to think about what I really wanted to say. My cavalier use of this medium.” And then 20 minutes later, he replies unrelatedly to another thread entitled “neo-cons,” about Elvis, Nietzsche, and porn; 20 minutes after that, to “re: love’s executioner,” dwelling on Bataille. The two engage in the nerdiest of all flirtations, seducing each other through games of words and philosophical puzzles.
“These emails were hastily written, casual and often indirect,” Viegener writes, describing the reduction in time and effort — the two fluid concepts so timelessly paired to approximate the idea of attention — that digital communication allows. Upon reading these emails, it seems that the “hastily” in this description refers to the ease at which they were fired off, the pleasure in the immediacy of communicating with someone who is on a similar intellectual or referential plane. For the emails do not seem hasty in thought or content. The intensity of the three-week communication leads to the flabbergasting conclusion that after a second IRL meeting, the correspondence just trailed off. But then, it happens.
It can be a relief to encounter someone in the ocean of online performativity to be frank with behind the closed doors of a private chat
As many an anxious millennial unfortunately thinks, if your crush doesn’t respond to your DM, send them another one just in case; it’s often much easier to confess your crush over the DMs than face to face. It can be agony awaiting a response, especially when responses require much less than a quill, ink, paper and a writing desk. Franz Kafka announced his feelings to his future fiancee, and future ex-fiancee, by letter after weeks of stressful over-thinking, and was soon inundating her with obnoxious questions daily. It seems Bauer left Kafka on read for months, and his attentions continued full throttle until she finally started responding in kind. Unsurprisingly, upon realization that the receiver of his letters was an actual flesh and blood human, Kafka seems to have — how do I put this delicately — freaked out and pulled a complete 180. Realizing she was close to accepting his previously unwelcome proposals, Kafka writes, ”The life that awaits you is not that of the happy couples you see strolling along before you in Westerland, no lighthearted chatter arm in arm, but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly.” Indeed, the shock of plunging suddenly into material space with someone you’ve been solely corresponding textually with can cause immediate and ultimate detonation.
Barbara Browning’s latest novel The Gift explores the development of an international online relationship between the extroverted and incredibly nurturing narrator, Barbara, based in New York, and the reclusive musician Sami who lives in Berlin, who she met through Myspace. Early on we are privy to a familiar scene when Barbara flies into a panic at not receiving a response from Sami, but when their correspondence resolves, it turns out Sami was worried he’d offended her by some off-hand comment and thus had reverted into recluse mode as self defense. The difficulty of maintaining a healthy and loving connection with someone you’ve never actually met is felt on every page. A benefit of chatting online is it allows an opening for people with social anxieties but feeling closeness with someone who cannot walk with you, eat with you, look with you, who you cannot touch, can be confusing. Sami does his best to explain his propensity to isolation, but the ease and joy of their communication feels like the opposite.
Knowing as much as she does about Sami’s condition is a blessing and a curse for Barbara, on the one hand she has a perfectly good explanation for why he might be taking space for a short time and on the other, an explanation for why he might have decided to disappear altogether. Kafka felt a similar strain of absence cruelly while writing to Felice, and appears to have not handled it well, chastising her in a letter for taking to long to respond to the one previous, and then over-apologising in the next for being so difficult. “If a day goes by without a note from Felice, he berates her for disappointing him, then abjectly apologizes in his next letter for making her feel guilty, for having become such an insufferable burden.”
Parameters around these relationships are as important to establish as they are difficult to stick to. “I broke my own rule and wrote a second message that day,” a particularly anxious Barbara admits, when she can see Sami has posted to his blog and not responded to her. After a year of corresponding the anxiety persists, “I went to bed that night feeling relatively calm, but the next morning I awoke in a panic, thinking, ‘Barbara, why do you persist in holding onto this fiction?’” She persists because she’s come this far, she has spent a year getting to know someone intimately in text, video, voice recording. At this point in a correspondence relationship, it feels remiss to abandon it because you have yet to meet. Correspondence continues because there’s still potential, excitement, things to learn, even if the correspondence has to peter out.
The loss of Rilke to the correspondence threeway with Tsvetaeva and Pasternak caused the Soviet poets’ correspondence to trickle into what we nowadays refer to as benching until a disappointing meeting 10 years later, of which Tsvetaeva declared, “It happened — and what a non-meeting it turned out to be!” Truly, one of the anxieties of these URL–IRL liaisons is that they won’t translate. The apprehension of not matching the image you’ve created of yourself in text will often prevent a meeting. One pen pal tells me I won’t like him in real life. Another is far too confident that I will. Browning’s Sami flits nervously between the two positions, finally deciding he’s not yet ready for a first encounter. Barbara and he continue to correspond, but at a reduced pace, with reduced urgency. Barbara settles for communicating with the idea of Sami, at least for a while, from her position on the bench. She decides to have faith in his assertion they will meet, eventually.
It seems that we’re not seeing the emergence of a new kind of relationship exactly, as we enter these tenuous back and forths with someone on the other side of the screen. What we’re seeing is the acceleration of the relationship, correspondences that revolved around a weekly letter or daily email are allowed to expand as much as the correspondents would like, across mediums. Wark and Acker attempted to respond to each email the other sent, sometimes writing multiple times in a sitting. Barbara and Sami’s semi-fictional relationship begins in the ether of Myspace and continues daily through email, YouTube videos, and voice recordings. What we’re seeing is relationships emerging at an accumulative rate, after an initial vetting process. We have more access to strangers now as our ability to encounter new people has increased. We have the ability to hold strangers in our lives longer, with very little labor involved, which is what we’re reckoning with when we say we’re feeling “benched.” Instead, perhaps we are reckoning with the vast spaces in between hellos that Victorians were able to blame entirely on the postal service. As we wait, anxiously, 24 hours, a week for a reply, or months, years for an IRL meeting, we could remember that our foremothers had to wait much, much longer.