Dear John Barthes

Dear John Barthes, 

I love your squirrely handwriting, and how you speak of writing as a precursor to seduction, implying that the writer must get the reader out the door and build a sense of motion into the book or the apartment before any seducing can take place. We writers talk a good game only to neglect the textual logistics of getting the reader into that room they can’t resist. 

Reading your books, I often imagine they were written for me—and how I see myself differently when reading you. How your words indict me, or make me part of the room. And how this feeling resembles the self created by a letter, or the persona which emerges from a series of letters that become what we call a correspondence

Am I the same character across different correspondences with lovers? I don’t feel the same. . .   Each particular self only existed in the context of that particular relationship; she is unrecognizable to the others. Reading through boxes of X-letters, it seems clear that each seeks its interlocutor, its particular You– and this happens in the present tense, in the immediacy of “now.” Oddly, the shoeboxes of letters resemble time capsules, archives of former selves. Each time capsule speaks to a stranger in the future, or it occupies a future tense that speaks from the present. Unlike the letter (which doesn’t have to be preserved or saved), the time capsule serves as an intended archive: it aims to retell a story selected by inclusion and exclusion of various objects. In saving these letters, I created an archive for the future that feels like a form of literature

I’m looking for coincidences now, or things which co-incide, events which happened at the same time. Maybe you knew Paul Auster during the time he lived in France as a translator. Or maybe you knew his ex-wife, Lydia Davis. Or maybe you dined with a friend who knew them. Or maybe I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which you comment on the novel where the mature Paul Auster addresses the younger self he finds in letters to ex-es— particularly his decision to edit out his feelings for his ex-wife, who happened to be the mother of his son. 

“I wanted to write you a long letter in order to hold your attention for as long as possible,” the young Auster tells Davis in “Time Capsule,” a chapter of a novel that unfurls with an eye to the posthumous self, to the character he wants to be for eternity. Isn’t this what the writer does to the reader when constructing an archaeology of selfhood? Doesn’t it till the soil for whatever fiction we prepare to plant?

Like you, Auster makes use of ellipses in order to create suspense, or to build a field of blank implication, by leaving things incomplete. The ellipses gesture towards what is excluded, as symbolized by “[….]”: it seduces by pointing to an erotic gap on the page, something like that space between fabric and flesh mentioned by Anne Carson. Because eros infects the reader as well as the interlocutor, there is something shameful and exciting about reading the letters of others; an element of voyeurism at play in the the writer’s attempts to persuade and implore us to see them in a certain way. 

I’m thinking of an ellipsis you leave open in the book about your mother’s death, a book that was only published after your own death—a book composed of post-it notes and dated fragments in the period of mourning. I’m thinking of how you reference photos in this book, and how you use them to remember your mother literally and figuratively, to piece her back together. I’m also thinking about whether it can be said you authored a book made from dated post-its that you never organized or compiled as a book?

Who are you this time, John Barthes?