DEAD LETTER OFFICE
Recently I’ve acquired a penpal, perhaps a little bit odd given that we probably live about thirty minutes apart. But the endless days of lockdown are ravenous for any activity which eats up the hours. Letter writing is one of those. The shockingly slow movement of words appearing across a page, so different from the rapid fire sentences of a keyboard. Spending heaps of time alternating between coloured pens, sketching little pictures, pressing stickers between paragraphs turning it into a little art project, then tucking it away into its envelope. I’ve even enjoyed the walk to the post box, unfortunately right outside of tesco, sticking out of the pavement like a big red totem pole.
Opening up my own letter from my penpal got me thinking about something I fear quite spectacularly. Something that makes me feel the same way Ronette’s dream in twin peaks does: riddled with fear and teetering on the edge breaking into cold sweats. (any twin peaks fans will know that this is not an unreasonable reaction) I read Herman Melville's Bartleby in the winter of 2014, filling two school lunch breaks, huddled up against a radiator collecting biscuit crumbs in the folds of the pages (let's hope they’ve been brushed out). I don’t usually regret reading literature but I could have gone without knowing of the existence of the dead letter office for my entire life. Happily living in the idealism of a first-class postal service, everything ending up where it should.
The dead letter office is a graveyard of undeliverable mail; letters and postcards and parcels that can’t get to who they’re meant for.
Usually down to incomplete or incorrectly written addresses, people leaving or moving, an untraceable sender and so on. Bartleby is profoundly affected by working within the dead letter office, a place where his day is spent destroying unfinished conversations, being the hand to cut the lost and desperate lines of communication forever. Bartleby becomes so wrapped up in disconnection that it burrows its way into his own life, eventually becoming utterly detached from the world. Though my reading of Bartleby did not lead me down the path to complete apathy and bewildering emotional detachment, I do feel a heavy sadness being made so aware of so much failed communication. People desperately trying to reach out and connect through language but to no avail, their words dissipating like sugar in water into the postal void.
Right now the world feels very quiet, which has left many of us desperate to just hear another person’s voice, to speak, to be among the imperfect melody of the everyday; the ordinary. Snippets of small talk, a child wailing in its pram, buses gasping for breath lugging their huge bodies across tarmac, horns and bikes and alarms, the heavy clunk of 9.a.m. Life without other people is savagely hollow and the current climate has thrown that into sharp relief. There feels a huge disconnect and I've found myself thinking back to Bartleby often, trying to ignore the parallels between his reality and mine. I am so afraid of ever living in my own dead letter office, sitting with all the words I've left much too late to be said.