At once intimate and detached, passionate and calculated, love letters have been for centuries a key weapon in the arsenal of lovers. In The Seducer’s Diary, Soren Kierkegaard draws a distinction between the ‘living word’ of speech and the ‘dead word’ of a letter, arguing that both are vital in creating the perfect romance. In a letter, he writes, one can throw oneself at a woman’s feet without shame, while in real life such an act would only provoke laughter. Moreover, the distance of a letter allows the idealization of the lover to remain intact: love letters are free of the physical imperfections that can break the spell in a face-to-face conversation. A love letter can be folded and kept in a breast pocket or treasured in a hidden drawer. It provides tangible, enduring evidence of an often all-too-fleeting emotion.
Today, unless I am dating entirely the wrong kind of people, the art of the love letter has fallen into disuse. It seems anachronistic – why take the time to write on paper how you feel when it takes mere seconds to call up the object of your affections? For those who find it difficult to open up in person, instant messaging and email are electronic alternatives. But in the service of convenience lovers have sacrificed so much of what makes romance beautiful: the anxiety of waiting, the authenticity of personal communication and above all the aesthetic impact of an actual letter.
Restricting written declarations of love to an electronic medium means that they are read by the dead light of a screen, in the same font and in the same place that your lover deals with the most mundane daily tasks. There is something romantically unsatisfying about a heartfelt email; the term itself seems contradictory. How much more beautiful would the same words be on actual paper, dappled with shadow from an overhanging tree, or read by torchlight underneath a blanket?
This is not to say that technology can offer nothing to romance. Electronic messages provide useful shades between Kierkegaard’s ‘living’ and ‘dead’ forms of communication. Instant messaging is as immediate as speech yet as detached as a letter. Emails, like letters, can be composed with care, and unlike letters they are convenient for casual conversations.
However, consider that the object of your affections might appreciate a physical letter from time to time. I know I would.