You’ve got mail

‘We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.’

Goethe

Shaun Usher is the mind behind a wonderful blog called Letters of Note, a sort of cultural Mount Pleasant Sorting Office for “fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos.” The site has been going for a while, which means you now encounter a rich and varied selection of personal correspondence, from a memo about the casting of Star Trek (Wesley Snipes considered for the role of Geordi) to revealing missives and scandalous jottings from a range of writers, artists, politicians, executives and scientists.

There are some profoundly important pieces in this collection – asides, sideswipes and deeper ruminations that bring the often complex theories and personalities of individuals into the language of everyday life. I’m particularly enamoured with a letter from Albert Einstein to philosopher Erik Gutkind, who had recently written an acclaimed book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt. Albert lays bare his views on the subject of religious faith:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish… For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong … have no different quality for me than all other people.

There’s a notable touch at the end, when Einstein offers (if you’ll forgive a reference from the Book of Genesis) an olive branch:

I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.”

I might use that.

Usher includes lots of entertaining pieces where celebrities and other high profile individuals lose it on paper. Madonna to Letterman is memorably mad. There are also some deliciously unreconstructed memos to employees from the CEO of Tiger Oil, Edward ‘Tiger Mike’ Davis. Take this:

Do not speak to me when you see me. If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don’t want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you sons-of-bitches.

I was chortling from that when I clicked to IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER. I’ll let Usher, who writes elegant introductions to each piece, set up the story:

On July 18 of 1969, as the world waited anxiously for Apollo 11 to land safely on the surface of the Moon, speechwriter William Safire imagined the worst case scenario as he expertly wrote the following sombre memo to President Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman. Its contents: a contingency plan, in the form of a speech to be read out by Nixon should astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become stranded on the moon…’

You can see and read the original memo here. It’s a remarkable speech. It also reveals something of the strange life of the speechwriter at their desk; mustering emotion ahead of time. I felt moved by Safire’s attempts to find solace and spirit in the face of potentially shattering events; by the way he draws feelings into ideas, and ideas into the words needed to anoint a tragedy that might never happen.

Tim

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