• Elisabeth Hanscombe

This essay explores the practice of personal letter writing with reference to autobiographical theory, memory and trauma. It considers the extent to which the process of writing letters can assuage the difficulties of growing up in a family riddled with secrets and trauma. The writer uses her youthful fantasies of the philosopher Nietzsche and her mature understanding of his life, alongside her relationship with an authoritarian and damaged father, to explore some connections between these two seemingly disparate lives and how they link to her own. Letters to self, to family and friends, and in adulthood to other writers, including Drusilla Modjeska, Helen Garner and Gerald Murnane, frame the creative efforts to reorder lived experience. The narrative weaves between letter writing and life experience, at different stages, to explore how the rational abstractions of a philosopher and the idiosyncratic musings of an autobiographer might come together in unexpected ways. The creative element derives from the juxtaposition of such elements and the writer’s attempts to make sense of them.

Keywords: letter writing—memory—trauma—autobiography—family

 

My dear friend, what is this our life? A boat that swims in the sea, and all one knows for certain about it is that one day it will capsize. Here we are, two good old boats that have been faithful neighbors, and above all your hand has done its best to keep me from ‘capsizing’! Let us then continue our voyage—each for the other's sake, for a long time yet, a long time! We should miss each other so much! Tolerably calm seas and good winds and above all sun—what I wish for myself, I wish for you, too, and am sorry that my gratitude can find expression only in such a wish and has no influence at all on wind or weather.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Letter to Franz Overbeck, Genoa, 14 November 1881
 

The man who wrote this letter is not the Friedrich Nietzsche I first met through my father’s words when I was a young woman. This Nietzsche, the philosopher and creative thinker, the ‘genius’ and man of unfathomable ideas, was then beyond my reach. He had the power to intimidate me even before I had read any of his writings, simply because my father thought Nietzsche would be good for me. But today when I read this letter I am left with a different view of the man and can see now how much I may have misjudged him. Letters give us an opportunity to revisit old places and states of mind.

Nietzsche and his contemporaries wrote many and often long letters. In those days, during the 19th century, it was the principal method of communication when unable to speak in person. These days, letter writing is considered a dying art, replaced by emails and text messages that are typically short and to the point. Still, I prefer the written letter.


Letters

We have a long history of letter writing in my family. What you cannot say face to face you put into a letter, in the knowledge that at least it will, in all likelihood, be read if not understood. Even when we, the various members of my family, live two suburbs away from one another, there are times when a letter feels safer than a phone call, an email or a face-to-face conversation. It is one way of skipping over potential conflict.

There are also the letters that never reached their destination. Letters I once wrote in passion, but chose never to send. These are the letters I have archived in dark cabinets, an aid to memory and no more. The unsent letter is the letter we write in a space in between thinking and speaking. We write to unburden ourselves. We write freely in the knowledge that the person supposedly on the receiving end of this letter will never get to read it, and therefore we are safe from the retaliation or distress that might follow. Some destroy their versions of these letters, but I collect mine. They become evidence of states of mind that I have long since forgotten. They help me to remember.

In the early 1960s The Age had a special section, and children from all over Victoria were invited to submit their work. I sent off letters to the editor, along with poem after poem, in the hope that, one day, one of my poems might appear in print. It never happened. Instead, I received a series of A5-sized certificates of merit in red print on a cream background. I understood that if I collected enough of these certificates I might one day receive a prize: money or publication. I did not always receive a certificate in response to my poetry. Often I sent a batch of poems. Sometimes I received a batch of certificates, but it was entirely unpredictable as to whether or not I would receive a certificate, or how many.

This was my first foray into the world of publication, or of non-publication as it turned out then. I liken these attempts to letter writing: to my efforts to find an audience; my efforts to find a voice; my efforts to be heard. I still have the certificates, yellowed now, in a large, torn envelope. I look at them from time to time and wonder at the child I once was, her ambitions and her romanticism.

I also use letters to help me to recover the past. In so doing I try to remain faithful to my memory, but it is a fickle faithfulness. Beneath my writing desk I have a trunk full of letters, including one I wrote to myself in 1970. I had sealed the letter in an envelope addressed to me, to be read three years hence, when I would turn 21.

‘Please excuse the paper and the cramped writing,’ my 18-year-old self wrote. ‘Did you get into university? If you didn’t I hate to rake up bad memories. Is life terribly painful? Any major disasters?’ I asked my future self question upon question. ‘So far life seems pretty complicated but the complications, the ups and downs and all the dreams make life interesting. Are you still a dreamer? I don’t suppose three years could change you that much.’

Until now I have kept the letter to myself. My smug goody-two-shoes 18-year-old self appals me. She may not seem smug to you, my 18-year-old self, not from what you have read of her letter so far, but I base my judgments on my memory of her. I judge her as I remember her, and not perhaps as she was. I judge her from the inside, but my letter compounds my judgment.  

Paul John Eakin writes about the notion of memory traces, such as this letter. They are like the bone the dog buries to retrieve later, and become examples of what Andre Aciman has described as ‘remembering remembering’ (cited Eakin 2008: 165). I remember the evening I wrote the letter, seated at the laminated kitchen table, the radio in the background playing Frank Sinatra. And I remember that even as I was writing this letter I was deluding myself. I was not doing it ‘my way’. I was 18 years old, and on the brink of my career in social work and psychology. But I was also deeply troubled, and anxious about what might happen next.

Was I defending my self against my helplessness? My mother had decided that we should all return home, she, my siblings and I, after a year of living separately from our father. I did not want to go back to live with my drunk and abusive father, no matter how many miracles my mother was convinced had occurred, but I was powerless. I had no say in the matter.

Avishai Magarlit believes that ‘art is born of humiliation’, in that ‘we remember insults better than we remember pain’, and it is the memory of these experiences of humiliation that are reconfigured, reconstructed in memory, as he observes, ‘between the cold contemplation of past emotion and the hot reliving of it’ (Margalit 2003: 120). This letter becomes my object of memory, a trace of my 18-year-old self that I remember remembering, a type of ‘conscious marking’ (Eakin 2008: 70). It is full of cliché and grandiosity, and is evidence of my young self’s attempts to speak severely to some future self—almost a bid to dictate the future.

I have a memory of trying to be honest with myself, trying to write my way out of any sense of abjection. And I have another memory of my disappointment in my 18-year-old self when I first opened the letter as a 21-year-old. How could I ever have been such a priss? But the letter is an accurate memory trace and I must honour its existence, however much I might want to re-write my own history.

There are many approaches to the study of memory—from the literary to the physiological, from the psychological and individual to the collective and sociological, from the normative to the pathological as in trauma—and each perspective offers a different view on memory, too wide to consider here. There are also multiple perspectives on the nature of creativity, but to me its essence lies in our willingness to try and try again. Similarly, Drusilla Modkeska refers to the artist Grace Cossington Smith’s notion of a continual try:

It’s true of painting, it’s true of writing, and it’s true of life. The process of staying with that continual try can produce long low loops and sudden illuminations, which we see in retrospect as springing open and banging closed. But in the tug and pull of time it is another day lived, another piece of board on the easel, another squeeze from the tube (Modjeska 1999: 322).

And so it is when I write letters and go back to my childhood memories. I can try again, knowing that each time I remember, my recollection shifts. As I record the images from my memory—the table, the house, the radio of my 18-year-old writing self—they seem clear to me. But then I come to a block, to details I cannot fill in. Everything that happened in my childhood memory happened in the summer or the winter. Of course, that could not be. Where were the springs and autumns, the in between times when life like the weather took on a balanced aspect, not too hot, not too cold? They disappeared between the extremes. I begin to make things up, to make calculated guesses. I create a narrative. I condense and concertina events. I wrote the letter at Christmas time, it must have been summer. It was probably hot. I would have been wearing a tee shirt, but I cannot remember.

To write too often that I do not remember is to distract my reader and do damage to my narrative. But still I must be faithful to my memory. I try to reach the emotional truth of past experience. Such emotional experience is faithful to memory and, when memory fails, as the memoir writer Nancy Miller writes, ‘I let language lead. The words take me where I need to go’ (Miller 2004: 150). It is a future reading of an act rather than simply a leap into the past. In the end I am not so much faithful to my memory as faithful to my recollected emotional experience and to my construction of narrative. To tell a story, I need an audience—hence the letter, the many letters I write, and even the letters I write to myself. As Franz Kafka suggests, letter writing is ‘an intercourse with ghosts’: not only, he argues, with the recipient, but with oneself, the letter writer (Kafka 1990: ix). I write letters to recreate reality. I write letters to write. And when, as Eakin notes, the bond to parents is troubled, and there is ‘unfinished business’, I write letters to repair (Eakin 1999: 87).


Lived experience

Towards the end of the summer of my eighteenth year, I was the only one from my matriculation class at the University of Melbourne. In Orientation Week I went to the Catholic Students’ Youth Camp at Mt Evelyn. I wore my new white jeans. I was fat, but at least the jeans made me look like the rest of the students. We met at Spencer Street Station and took the bus to the gum trees of Mt Evelyn. We shared rooms in groups of four, girls separate from boys. We stayed up all night, as if by requirement, and I jumped up and down on the trampoline in the gym to stay awake. I walked to the top of the mountain with a boy I had never met before. I was breathless with anticipation. Would he kiss me?

He did not. We did not even hold hands. We simply walked and talked. I was overwhelmed with the burden of desire. I wanted more. But I do not think I experienced his failure to touch me as rejection. He, too, was a good Catholic. He, too, was shy. Perhaps this is why he chose me to climb the mountain with him.

On the final afternoon the priest in charge of the camp called us together for prayers. ‘If any of you have anything you’d like to discuss with me of a personal nature, please find me later for a chat.’ A chat—I heard it as a call to confession. I wanted to confess to my sin of desire, my sin of lust, my impure thoughts. The very wanting seemed wicked. Others milled around the priest, a young Dominican in a flowing white cassock with black hood, fresh out of the seminary. I kept away.

At this time I was exchanging letters with my favourite teacher from school, a nun. Among her words of advice she wrote: ‘there is no definite length of time for the duration of a kiss but you will know when it is too long—when it changes from an expression of love to a means of getting some selfish pleasure from the other.’ I resisted the impulse to visit the priest to confess. Something told me he would not understand. Priests were celibate. How could a priest understand my desire? Besides, I wanted to tell him other things. I wanted to tell him about my father’s visits during the night.

During the blessing I imagined speaking to the priest later, without the wire grille of the confessional dividing us. I practised the words in my head, the words I might say to the priest, in private away from the throng of students, but I knew I could not speak them. In his quiet office beyond the camp hall the words would disappear before they even reached my mouth. Some unspoken knowledge held me to secrecy. Even in the letters I wrote to my favourite teacher, I could not spell it out, though I tried often enough to let her know that things were not right in my home.

My father had been surprised when my final marks at school were good enough to take me to university. He could imagine his sons at university, but not his daughters. I did not tell him then that I had secured my place by rote learning, parrot fashion, getting it all inside and holding onto it for as long as I needed till after the exam, then letting it drift away, like so much spent paper. I could have filled several wastepaper baskets with this torn-up knowledge, and when I reached university I recognised the consequences. Assaulted by my ignorance, I could not think. I could not write.

In that first year at university I walked most days from Warrigal Road to the Cheltenham railway station to take the train into the city. I carried a hardwood clipboard with a silver fastener on top to which I attached my loose-leaf sheets. I carried it in a calico bag. After a day interspersed with lectures, I hurried away from the psychology practice lab on the top floor of the Redmond Barry Building where we had compiled lists of things, such as how many students in each prac class could roll their tongues to demonstrate a certain innate genetic ability. We had experimented with memory; how many words in a list could each remember. Words at the beginning of the list and those at the end were the most easily remembered. We were meant to complete these experiments like scientists, but my work was sloppy. This was not the psychology I had wanted to study. This was not an exploration of the inner life of a person. This did not help me to understand myself or anyone else, especially my father.

I walked down the corridor past the black-framed picture of Oscar Oeser, and other former dignitaries from psychology. I heard sometimes, from my lecturers, mutterings about the death of psychoanalysis. The real stuff now was in behaviour and cognition. There was no point in delving into the past, these people argued. The past was irrelevant.

The hippies were everywhere, commanding us to make love, not war. One evening, outside the Admin Buildings, the radical students were gathering to demonstrate against conscription to the Vietnam War. They wore ragged clothes from the opportunity shop, the girls in long granny skirts in velvet and calico and the longhaired boys in jeans, chanting and waving banners.

I was wearing my tight woollen skirt, a hand-me-down from my older sister, and stockings with sensible walking shoes: the only pair I possessed. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I wore my white jeans. I washed them every second night and hung them to dry in front of the lounge room heater after everyone had gone to bed. The skirt I wore on the other two days, and washed it on weekends. Although I told myself I did not want to be like these hippie students, the ones making all the noise down near the Union Building, I hated to see myself as old-fashioned.

I hurried past the dangerous group of students. The police had arrived with batons and shields. I had no more lectures that day. I could leave the university for home, not for the safety of home but for its familiarity. The university was a place of strangeness. The hippies broke rules. I obeyed them. But I could not obey the unwritten rules at home, those unspoken rules that we should go about our business as if everything were in order. My father might drink too much. My father might at any moment become abusive, violent like a ticking bomb, but we should be polite to him and ignore him, like my mother did under a veil of sweetness.

When I walked into my house through the front door that evening I could see my father through the window. He had the crumpled look that came over him when he had drunk too much. I knew as soon as I walked past the double glass doors of the lounge room that he would call out to me. I tried to move past quickly.

‘How’s university?’ my father asked. ‘What are you reading?’ He did not wait for an answer. ‘Have you read Nietzsche yet?’ My mind shut down. I could not think. The name held a significance I could not fathom. I knew Nietzsche was a philosopher but I had not read his writings. To me then Nietzsche was as ancient as ancient history and I did not want to be troubled by him. I did not want to tell my father that philosophy was not part of my studies nor did I want to speak to him at all. I mumbled a greeting and fled from the hallway.


Trauma

My mother stood at the kitchen stove weighing out portions of the best steak, the best vegetables. My father had diabetes and was on a restricted diet. My mother had a pair of weighing scales on top of the bench. She doled out everything, weighed and measured. She cooked the steak in sizzling butter and the kitchen was full of the smell of fresh meat and gravy the colour of mud. We children ate bread and porridge, sometimes chicken or rabbit, and pea soup with bacon bones, but we never shared my father’s red meat. I told myself I did not miss the red meat. All that blood. How little I understood in those days. How mysterious it seemed. I looked for clues to make sense of him, my father, this strange dark man and the passions he exuded.

My father roamed the house at night looking for a spare bed, a bed to share with another; most likely, I thought then, with one of us, his daughters, starting with the oldest. He checked at doors. I could hear the rattle of the door handle; smell the alcohol on his breath as he stood over me. I pretended to sleep. He turned to my sister and I heard him busy himself with her – the rustle of sheets, blankets peeled back, the murmurs and creaks. I turned to face the wall, squeezed my eyes shut and prayed that my turn might never come. When, later, my father spoke to me of Nietzsche I saw it as a prelude, a type of grooming. Soon my father would practise on me.

By the time I had reached my second year at university and had a real boyfriend, I rebelled against my father. I learned not to ask questions. I learned to look into books for knowledge. I took myself off to the Medical Library and looked up books on human sexuality.

My favourite nun from school wrote me letters about notions like ‘existential chastity’, which can be realised, she wrote, only in the state of virginity, but also in that of marriage. ‘An attitude of respect, of consideration and fine restraint, which must be invoked even in the sexual act where spiritual love finds bodily expression, if this is to reach its perfection.’ None of this should take place outside of marriage. She had worried then, my favourite teacher wrote, that I was ‘going overboard with boys’, and that I should save my love for my family and friends, and for marriage, unless I should choose like her to be celibate.

At the end of this second year at university I stopped writing to my favourite teacher when she, too, finally left the convent. Then when I left home my mother began to write me letters instead. ‘The thing that bugs me’, my mother wrote, ‘is your ideas about sex without marriage … When you want to live without any discipline at all, you are not growing but heading for disaster …’

As a small child I had longed for letters addressed to me. ‘You have to write letters to receive them’, my mother said. She did not tell me what a risky business it could be—even in those first letters to The Age’s Children’s Corner. The stiff reply on a single sheet of paper and the merit certificates had been enough for a start. Letter writing was an intercourse of sorts, an intimacy that felt safe, far safer than sex. There was no need for the physical touch of another, only the sheen of the envelope, the slicing open with penknife, the feel of the paper, a whiff of perfume, the chemical smell of the ink, the leftover hint of cigarettes, and then the words.


Nietzsche

When my father spoke to me of Nietzsche, he spoke of someone and something I did not understand, some mystery—the mystery of sex. I was 19 years old. Until then I did not understand sexuality except for a muddled version my older sister had told me five years earlier. She had wanted me to know the facts of life, she said, not the way she had learned them from our father, curled up on his lap each Saturday morning. On Saturday mornings our mother was away at work. I would scurry past the open lounge room door, not wanting to look in, ashamed. There was something about the way my father and sister sat together, something about the way he held her sprawled across his lap and whispered in her ear, something that caused my cheeks to redden and my heart to race. My father sought comfort in my sister. My father was unhappy. He had needed more than my mother could offer.

Even when I wrote letters to my favourite teacher, I could tell her none of this. Instead she advised me how to deal with boys and I provoked her by telling her what fun I was having with them.

My father later told me that Nietzsche was a nihilist. It fitted with my sense of my father’s negativity and despair. For years afterwards the idea of reading Nietzsche became abhorrent to me. I imagined I could never understand his writing. Nietzsche, I imagined, was too much like my father. My father had roamed the streets of Holland, as a latch key child, my mother told me. His parents worked long hours, his mother a cleaning lady, his father an archivist. When they came home at the end of the day his mother cooked the best pieces of meat for her husband, and the children ate leftovers and scraps. As a young boy my father took comfort in his studies as a way of overcoming the hardship of his childhood, much like Nietzsche had sought comfort in his studies. When I was younger I believed one needed great intelligence to study philosophy. Philosophers were society’s geniuses. Philosophers plumbed the depths of knowledge in ways other mortals could not.

I found out later, after university, that the cause of Nietzsche’s ill-health—beginning in his childhood with ‘severe headaches, eye pain, nausea, colic, and general debility’—is still uncertain; nevertheless it was sufficiently severe that he could not marry, find ready employment or make friends easily (Pletsch 1991: 182). As a consequence it seems, Nietzsche was determined to ‘make a virtue of deprivation’ and he consciously used his isolation as the basis of much of his writing (Pletsch 1991: 207). After he had broken free of the institutions to which he had once been attached, namely the church and university, there were some who considered his writing outrageous. But when my father spoke to me about Nietzsche he turned him into an intellectual icon. He reinstated the great man within the institutional hierarchy. My father’s question, ‘Have you read him yet?’ put me outside of that institution, as much as he may have intended to invite me in.

Nietzsche wrote about the ghosts of the past, the great thinkers and artists from earlier civilisations, including the Christian God under whose weight he and his generation struggled. He was born into a family top heavy with theologians and was steeped in the demands of religion to be a good boy. My father, too, came from a long line of religions. The story goes that my father had been baptised five times throughout his childhood—no one can say why—and later converted to Catholicism in order to marry my mother. He too abandoned religion once his experience of war and migration had turned him into a nihilist. By then life had become meaningless for my father. He lost himself in alcoholism and despair until, a few short months before he died, he found God again in the form of Judaism and began to learn Hebrew. Nietzsche died similarly in a state of despair or madness—possibly caused by tertiary syphilis, which it is believed he first contracted when he was a student—but without the redemption of a new language and religion (Pletsch 1991: 225).

Trying to study Nietzsche was, for me, like struggling with mathematics. I could read and re-read his ideas but I could not take them in. It was like a wall before me that blocked my way. I was comforted to read that others, too, struggled to understand Nietzsche’s ideas, while some pluck sentences from his translated works—as I have done at the beginning of this essay—and spread them around like a sprinkling of sugar on porridge. Like many significant thinkers Nietzsche made absolute statements in one breath, only to reconsider them in another. Absolute statements about abstract ideas, as statements of fact, contradict the notion Nietzsche himself espoused ‘that knowledge is useful only insofar as it serves life’, and creativity as I understand it arises from challenges to any sense of the absolute. Reading Nietzsche’s philosophy can still make my head hurt, but not so his letters.

Nietzsche was a man in advance of his time, who had anticipated the roll of history as it unfolded; but he died a ‘mad’ man who had struggled with his thoughts and feelings. This Nietzsche had upset the establishment by declaring that God is dead, and announcing the failure of conventional morality as a guiding force. This Nietzsche had declared through his notion of the Superman, his ┼░bermensch, that one must find one’s own way and not be driven always by one’s predecessors; one must assimilate history to one’s own uses rather than be ruled by it. I thought then that this Nietzsche was like my father. In his writing it was as if he, Nietzsche, were trying to shed the weight of the past. My father tried to shed it, too. But no one of us can entirely shake our pasts free from our present.


Letters to writers

In my filing cabinet I have another folder, ‘Letters to and from writers’. It contains letters I have written to those whose writing has inspired me to make contact. In 1997 I wrote to Drusilla Modjeska, emboldened by the biography of her mother, Poppy. I wrote to Modjeska about the difficulties of autobiographical writing, and she responded on a postcard showing Grace Cossington Smith’s The Lacquer Room. In her note Modjeska told me that writing nonfiction and autobiography is not for the fainthearted, but responses can be surprising. Those whom you imagine will be critical of your efforts are not, and those whose support you expect can turn on you. Writing letters is for an audience of one. Writing for a larger audience becomes more dangerous.

I wrote a series of letters to Helen Garner, one after the publication of The first stone, another after The feel of steel and finally after I had read Jo Cinque’s consolation. She wrote back every time. Towards the end of 2004 I found the courage to suggest a meeting on the pretext of my doctoral thesis, ‘Life Writing and Revenge’. Garner wrote back, a short note on a pink slip of paper: ‘I don’t know that I know much about writing and revenge (not consciously at least) but perhaps we could meet for coffee and see what transpires’. We met in a café on Brunswick Road and talked about the thin divide between fact and fiction, about ways of reaching an audience and about the desire for revenge.

‘It all depends on the sort of relationship you want with your reader’, Garner said. ‘Your attitude to your reader. You don’t have to tell everything but you can’t be defensive’. We were sitting at a rickety table. One of its legs did not reach the ground and I had to resist the urge to stick something underneath to stop it from shaking.

I had wanted to meet Garner for so long; I did not want our meeting to end. But of course it did. After our goodbyes, we stood at the intersection at right angles to one another as we each waited for the lights to change colour. I did not look back. Later I sat in my car and took notes. I wrote a transcript of our time together as a way of holding onto the experience and I puzzled over my disappointment. I knew beforehand it had been unrealistic of me to expect more—that I should be grateful for any time together—but I had wanted more, an ongoing friendship perhaps. I wrote more letters but Garner did not respond.

I once sent a long passionate letter across the world to the famous Alice Miller and did not hear back; it took over two years before I received a formal letter of thank you in reply to a letter I sent to Margaret Humphreys after I had read her book The lost children of the empire. These days I correspond with Gerald Murnane. I have no desire to meet him. Letters are better.

I addressed my first letter to him as ‘the man of the perfect sentence, the man whose writing I have come to love, [who] sits on my shoulder like Nietzsche’. Unlike Nietzsche, who tells me this is all nonsense, I imagine the man of the perfect sentence will tell me he is bored. Bored by my dishonesty, bored by my inability to craft the perfect sentence, bored by my feeble attempts at imitation and bored by my failure to follow an image.

But it turns out that Murnane and I share too much in common to be bored with one another. He is older than me, but we were both raised in troubled Catholic households, and we both write letters. Murnane has more than 19 drawers of steel filing cabinets in which he keeps his unpublished writings and his letters to and from others. Since 2005 I have become one of his regular correspondents. A writing friend, also a correspondent, jokes that our words, hers and mine, will be archived forever in one of those filing cabinets.

Letters are the great fixative of experience,’ writes Janet Malcolm. ‘Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience’ (Malcolm 1993: 110). Letters can provide an unedited view of what goes on between Kafka’s ghosts, the ghosts of the recipient and of oneself. Nietzsche’s letter to Overbeck contains the metaphor of life as a boat tossed on the sea, a boat as container. Letters, too, are like containers. They carry us through life, they contain our thoughts and feelings, they lead us to new destinations.

These days I also use emails to connect, but I still write letters. There is something sacred about the written letter addressed at the top: the agonised introduction, the long slow unfolding of my reasons for writing, the vague apologies for my intrusiveness. All these qualities go into my letters to distant writers whose published writing I read as a letter to me, and a call to respond.

When I slide my stamped addressed letter into the red letter box, often addressed via the publisher of a writer’s latest book, I brush a kiss against the whiteness of the envelope to wish my letter well, in a ritual of hope that my letter will be well received, and that I might get a response, and not just another merit certificate or a nod of approval from Nietzsche.

If Friedrich Nietzsche were alive today I would write him a letter. I would write to let him know that I am not scared of him any more. Now when Nietzsche sits on my shoulder, I can spell his name without hesitating. When Nietzsche sits on my shoulder, and looks down on the page, then tells me my work is nonsense, I can shrug him off and write him a letter instead, as if I were writing a letter to my father, now long dead, and saying all the things I never could have said while my father lived.

 

Works cited: 

Eakin, PJ 1999 How our lives become stories: making selves, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Eakin, PJ 2008 Living autobiographically: how we create identities in narrative, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Kafka, F 1990 Letters to Milena, New York: Schocken Books

Malcolm, J 1993 The silent woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, London: Picador

Margalit, A 2003 The ethics of memory, Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Miller, M 2004 ‘The ethics of betrayal: diary of a memoirist’, in PJ Eakin (ed) The ethics of life writing, New York: Cornell University Press, 147-60

Modjeska, D 1999 Stravinsky’s lunch, Sydney: Picador

Nietzsche, F 1996 Selected letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (ed and trans C Middleton), Chicago: University of Chicago

Pletsch, C 1991 Young Nietzsche: becoming a genius, New York: Free Press