On Receivers, Metaphors and Postcards
Writing to others even when writing privately
I love writing postcards because of their unassuming, non-confidential and unsolicited nature. Especially when writing to someone proves to be the only way of writing at all. Since I experience this to be true in practice, I find the theory behind communication models to be a little unsatisfactory. These diagrams vary, but usually the message is in the centre, connecting the sender (on the left) to the receiver (on the right), implying that communication originates in the sender (the writer, the speaker) and involves the receiver only after the message is delivered. As such, the receiver’s presence, or its absence, does not seem to make any difference to the construction of the message.
What I am trying to picture is more layered, and it operates at the level of the sender itself. I would argue that the sender/writer is already harbouring a receiver/reader—or, in St Antony’s words, “the eyes of other people”—within the act of writing, no matter what one is writing or for whom one says to be writing. There seems to be an interstice located in “the act”, somewhere between the sender and the message, inhabited already by the receiver. Even when there is no apparent receiver at all, for example in the case of a diary, one always writes to others, because “the act of writing gives us the impression of being in public” (Pierre Hadot, 1995).
In Italian, a receiver is called destinatario, a word reminiscent of destination, as well as destiny. By being the only possible source of feedback, a receiver destinatario shapes the message just by being there, like a vanishing point eliciting a certain perspective, under certain rules. There are as many rules as receivers. In the case of letters, for example, the same text will obviously change when written for different people (grandmother, friend X, friend Y) and the change is more than just a matter of style, formality or disclosure. We would never photocopy a letter written and addressed to X and send it to Y, unless we imply that Y does not deserve to be written to individually, as an individual (reason why the closure of I love Dick by Chris Kraus is so uncompromising and shattering, the receiver becoming merely an audience to her own demise as receiver). A receiver/destiny is the receptionist you hand your key to, when a key is all you have; the You whom the I must confront with and lose something in the process. Again, Chris Kraus conceded in an interview that now that we use e-mails, the delirious writing behind I love Dick “would have been over within two days”.
In letter writing, you lose the letter in the moment of posting it. Obviously, e-mails do without such symbolism, since by default both sender and receiver hold onto their own sent messages, unless they delete them on purpose. In the inbox there is no disappearing letter falling into the postbox (as in the opening scene of Broken Flowers, by Jim Jarmush) to become something for the receiver only to receive. On most postcards, moreover, there is not even an allocated space for the sender’s address. Thus, postcards may be turning communication models the other way around, insofar as the sender has no ownership of the message.
Ultimately, receivers are crucial because a message without a receiver becomes autoreferential. By referring to itself, it creates a narcissistic loop, as in selfies—seen on Instagram and other mirror-like platforms for messages which, being for nobody in particular or, at best, for the amalgamated average, end up being by the sender for the sender—or in advertising, by the sender for the sender’s sake. Autoreferentiality here does not build bridges outside of itself, but causes a sort of repatriation. However, there is a particular form a message can take, a trope that will etymologically “transport us beyond” (metà-phorà), standing as a guarantor for departures, destinations and destinies, and this is where we will go next.
To begin with, although it may seem pedantic, metaphors are not similes. I still remember encountering this distinction in school, in a child-friendly way: the simile (“I am strong like a lion”) became a metaphor (“I am a lion”) as soon as the teacher covered strong like with a menacing cloud of chalk. Malcom Lowry knew well that metaphors were not similes when revising the draft of his unpublishable novel, which was full of metaphors, and turning it into Under the volcano as we know it, exploiting through similes the power of hallucinations and uncertain likelihoods, of things that look and feel like others, when drunk, but are not, when sober.
Similes are modest, reserved figures. Like two strangers facing one another on a train or, in what Martin Buber (1937) reported as the Fuegian translation of ‘far away’, a “seven-syllabled word whose precise meaning is: they stare at one another, each waiting for the other to volunteer to do what both wish, but are not able to do”. Similes are unable to metamorphose one’s identity, or merge two entities together in a metaphor. Instead, the word like acts discerningly: revolving doors scanning between domains of experience, suggesting a possible exchange as long it fits orderly into the shaft. In this sense, similes are safe and well accepted. Like Carnival (which is a simile).
A metaphor, instead, is about becoming, but not becoming similar or exchanging selected features in a parallelism. It is in fact almost illegal: an immediate complicity, an emergency blood transfusion (between the person and the lion), taking place for both parties at the same time. A mutual, a-parallel theft, as Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet (1977) defined conversations. It is a trace of becoming, plurality and otherness, a Carnival that never ends, because identity is not a property. It is ultimately about encountering new guests, or what Buber called, referring to the I entering in relation to the You: “a happening profoundly twofold, confusedly entangled”.
Situating itself between at least two layers (or two solitudes), a metaphor multiplies our imaginative possibilities in the same way speaking other languages does. I would like to believe that we acquire a supplementary personality for every language variety (including dialects, accents and styles) that we speak. People speaking other languages become other people, conceive the world differently because they host inside themselves many outsiders, an internal population of speakers that seek different nuances. As for me, English became the language of events, while French became, for a time, the language of ideas: I am employing an English housekeeper to clean my mind and report over facts, and a French concierge, who falls in love with the postie. In this domestic scene (which was a metaphor), my first language, although not spoken often, would be the postie, the little Italian who knows everybody and delivers late, but still links everything up before anyone else, and counts very quickly. Apparently, when a language is being forgotten and is ‘dying’, it still tends to be used to do these three things: “counting, praying and dreaming” (Janet Holmes, 1992).
Deleuze and Parnet quote Proust, “Good books are written in a sort of foreign language” to claim that we do not need to become bilingual in order to develop a style, but rather that we need to become strangers in our own (first) language in order to speak a sort of langue minoritaire. My Italian postie has always thought that was a very French thing to say. On the other hand, with Goethe, those who do not know other languages may know nothing of their own. In other words, observe and write, find a receiver, if you can (they are hard to find) and most importantly: send them a postcard.
I’ve Always Believed in a Very Open Meaning of the Word ‘Poetic’
Maintenant series interview, second act, #101: Maja Jantar