The decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. Historians depend on the written record. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that they are at the mercy of that record. Land transactions, birth and death records, weather reports, government documents—to the historian, nothing written is trivial, because it all contributes to the picture we have of the past. In the last century or so, as historians have turned away from their fixation on the doings of the great and included the lives of average people in their study, the letters those people left behind are invaluable evidence of how life was once lived. We know what our ancestors ate, how they dressed, what they dreamed about love and what they thought about warfare, all from their letters. Without that correspondence, the guesswork mounts.
Gaps in the historical record have always existed. American slaves were largely illiterate, often by law and sometimes by laws that threatened them with death. The epistolary record belongs to free people, and in most cases that means free white people of property. When we reflect on how dearly we would cherish letters written by people in bondage or any people who, through some circumstance of history, were voiceless, we begin to grasp the preciousness of the written record—any written record: laundry lists, ancestral records in family Bibles, love notes—and how poorly historians of the future will be served by our generation, which generates almost no mail at all.
There is e-mail, certainly, and texting, but this is communication that is for the most part here today and deleted tomorrow. And there is the enormous trove of information about daily life multiplying by the hour in the digital record—television, camera phones, spycams, YouTube and chat rooms all capture what seems like every second of every life on the planet. The problem is not that there is not enough information about what we think or how we live. The problem is sifting through that sea of data. The most common complaint of our time is that we are overwhelmed by information, unmediated and unstoppable.
Maybe we miss letters at least a little because we miss the world, the blessedly—to our eye at least—uncomplicated world where letters were commonplace by necessity. Surely, though, there is more to our fondness than mere sentimentality. When we read a letter, we develop an image of the letter writer unavailable to us in any other way. Abraham Lincoln's speeches leave us in awe of the man. His letters make us like him, because we hear a more unburnished voice and more unbuttoned personality. Lincoln the letter writer was less shackled by thoughts of how history would read his words. He loosened the reins on his humor, his anger and his melancholy. He was, in a word, human. Moreover, his correspondence proves that the more one writes—and Lincoln wrote a lot—the more relaxed the writer becomes, the more at ease he or she is in the act of writing and the more able to fully express thought and emotion. Writing a lot of letters will not turn you into Lincoln or Shakespeare, but if you do it enough, you begin to put your essential self on paper whether you mean to or not. No other form of communication yet invented seems to encourage or support that revelatory intimacy.
O'Connell quotes this lovely passage from a piece by Catherine Field in the New York Times.
A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.
BBC Radio 4 Short Cuts
Series 12 Postcards
One of the oldest cases of schizophrenia in Gogol's Diary of a Madman
Besides intrinsic historical and literary interest and clinical usefulness by providing good exemplar cases, the study of the history of a disease can provide clues to its pathogenesis—it is necessary, but not sufficient, that the cause of a disease be at least as old as the disease itself. Here I note one of the oldest and most complete descriptions of schizophrenia, in Nicolai Gogol's classic short story Diary of a Madman (1834).
Nicolai Gogol's classic short story Diary of a Madman (1834) contains one of the earliest, and most complete, descriptions of schizophrenia
Beyond intrinsic and historical interest, this case is important because it has implications for the antiquity, and possibly the aetiology, of schizophrenia
From a literary point of view, the story can be appreciated as a sketch—albeit a most brilliant one—of the disease
History of schizophrenia
It might seem unnecessary to need to prove that schizophrenia is an old disease because “every town had a fool.” However, the only case of schizophrenia that possibly meets the diagnostic criteria for the disease (see box) much before 1800 is that of Edgar or Poor Tom in Shakespeare's King Lear.3-5 This has led to the tentative suggestion that some factor—a virus, environmental toxin, or perhaps “modernity itself”—in play since 1800 has greatly increased the incidence of schizophrenia.3 As the signs of schizophrenia can be noticed without any laboratory test or even specialised training, the extreme dearth of old cases of schizophrenia cannot trivially be due to lack of advanced diagnostic equipment or medical education in days of yore. The “mad” ravings of a local town “fool” could have been secondary to mania, temporal lobe epilepsy,6 substance misuse or withdrawal, vitamin deficiencies, or heavy metal poisoning.
Diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia (according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, third edition)
The person must have at least two out of five symptoms—(i) delusions, (ii) hallucinations, (iii) disorganised speech, (iv) grossly disorganised or catatonic behaviour, or (v) negative symptoms (such as alogia, avolition, etc)—for a substantial portion of a one month period
Required exclusion criteria are substance misuse or dependence, general medical condition, mood disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder