Monday, November 14, 2005

Capote, Correspondence And Communion

I went to see the movie Capote a few weeks ago, and I've been floundering over a written piece ever since: not a review of the film, nor a commentary on the book, In Cold Blood, but rather a reflection of the time. I'm still stewing with it. I will say this about the movie. It left me haunted and thinking for days afterwards--always the sign of good cinema in my mind. In the meantime, I went back and re-read In Cold Blood for the third time. One of the big issues when this book appeared was that it heralded a new method of writing: "historical fiction," so my latest reading was, more than anything, analyzing Capote's style. I've also ordered up from the library Gerald Clarke's biography of Capote, and I just finished reading his correspondence, Too Brief A Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke. Overall, the letters were a disappointment. For all of his love of his craft, for all of his love of society and gossip, it turns out Capote was rather a mediocre letter writer. Clarke states that Capote didn't write with posterity in mind, but rather in a free and natural voice. That proves unfortunate, because the decades fall flat even though they cover a succession of name dropping, a chronicle of the Trans-Atlantic gay crowd that Capote called "The Lavender Hill Mob," moanings about getting on with his work, and all of the varied physical ailments. He was, however, a dedicated friend and letter writer, and he did strenuously keep up with friends as he moved around the world. It is little remembered that Capote spent ten years of his life living in Europe, and oftentimes he was residing in remote, rural areas. You would have thought Capote was hunkered down in a hotel room in Holcomb, Kansas, but the bulk of In Cold Blood was written in a tiny village in Switzerland, while he was out taking the air with his pet bulldog or buying friends cuckoo clocks.

Our collective past relied so heavily on letter writing to keep in touch. I've often wondered what historical papered archive will survive in our generation of e-mails and texting. I just finished reading Capote's correspondence today, and in one letter written in 1962, he talks about the difficulties of sustaining friendship. He said, "There are certain people with whom one can be the closest and longest and most loving of friends--and yet they can quite quickly drop out of one's life forever simply because they belong to some odd psychological type. A type that only writes letters when he is written to, that only telephones when he is telephoned. That is--if one did not write him or phone him, one just will never hear from him again. I have known several people like that, and this peculiarity of theirs, this strange eye-for-an-eye mentality, has always fascinated me. Phoebe Pierce was like that: I have not heard from Phoebe in six years--merely because one day, in the nature of a test, I decided I would wait and let her call me. And she never did. Never. After sixteen years of the closest friendship! No quarrel. Nothing. It was just that all of the mechanics of the friendship had been worked by me. But--as I say, she would have behaved that way with anybody. It's a type." He was writing this to a man he did sustain a friendship with over time, a man who well knew societal isolation having being fired from Smith College over issues of his homosexuality.

Reading this struck a chord within me, because this past weekend I spent time updating all of my social calendars for 2006 which encompassed birthdays, anniversaries and days of note, as well as re-doing my address book, including a Palm Pilot form
at which I had written of earlier. Every year it's always amazing who gets "dropped." I may carry some of those "types" that Capote writes of on my lists for several years then finally give up and cast them off. I still mail Christmas cards with personal letters inside, and this is another dated concept with little return. That list, too, undergoes revisions every year. I'm as baffled as Capote was when he wrote that letter in 1962 in terms of the mechanics of friendship. I was talking to two friends online yesterday about this. We were discussing people we mutually knew and how they just never made any effort to keep in touch or show any effort to sustain a viable friendship, and like Capote, there was never any contention or upheaval to announce a break. Another friend today (speaking of this same group) said, "I would be happy with just an occasional "hi."" It is just beyond their capabilities or interests to do so, and thus the people fall away from us. One group of friends that I belong to have managed to keep together, and we talk with pride that we haven't had these silences and droppings off. We do pick up the telephone to reunit, we do mark important passages in each others lives (two had birthdays this weekend), and we do value what we've learned from holding on to this connection that binds us. The tasks I undertook this weekend, the conversations I had, and the reading of Truman Capote's correspondence reminded me of the work good friendships command. The friend I was speaking with this afternoon said, "Perhaps the real question we should be asking is "why do we go on trying?"


Blogger Velvet said...

This is fascinating. Both the nod for the Capote movie and your thoughts on the one-sided friendship. I was just having this conversation with my neighbor yesterday and it's so true that people just disappear. I have made somewhat of a resolution of sorts to not have any selfish people in my life. And there go all those crappy friends with that one...

7:01 PM  
Anonymous skunkeye said...

Thank for your thoughts - I'm in solidarity.Future generations are facing blank lierary corresondence and a huge void as we've all basically become dependent on the internet rather than written/postal/even fax medium.
Keep up yr site, pare!

8:29 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I am fascinated with this idea of how friendships are sustained. I can identify with Capote's comments on Phoebe Pierce, having given several friends my BLOG address and never heard from them again. Was learning what's really in my head that scary? I'm still waiting for a reply...

8:37 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Velvet: I've been following your blog with enjoyment. I've long considered myself to be an appreciator of Capote: read everything he wrote, etc., but I have to say the movie wiped me out. It addresses so many issues not only about Capote and how this book altered his life, but also about society and change. I could be writing off Capote for days, only to bore everyone to tears, but I am almost certain I will be doing one more piece inspired by him. The movie and Capote's life literally haunted me for days. I may even go back and see it again. Tonight I started reading a book called Conversations with Capote by Lawrence Grobel, which I've read before and is a series of interviews conducted over a few years covering topics like writing, fame, drugs and booze, celebrities. Going back to the subject of people in Capote's life who betrayed him, he said, "There are people I would erase out of my life with a blowtorch." And this from a man who was a known loyal friend.

Skunkeye: How can anyone be a man or woman of letters if they never write letters? Who copies out their emails and saves them over time? I even feel guilty when I write letters to friends, and I haven't written them out by hand, but I've been a letter writer since I could write. It started early with me.

Barbara: It's funny how seeing the movie, reading Capote's words and then speaking with friends brought this about. I was part of a social circle in Washington, much like many of the D.C. bloggers have now that join together for happy hours, etc., but on a much larger scale, closer to 40 in number. We knew each other for several years, and then in one or two acts, the unit blew apart, and those scattering of us that remain wonder what on earth happened to have these people drop off the earth and never speak again...yet we seem to live in times conducive to rapid change and transition so this becomes a standard...unfortunately.

9:28 PM  
Blogger always write said...

This is always an existentialist crisis for me. I think we go on trying because the more history we accumulate, the more we define ourselves by it. And to consciously let a relationship go feels like -- well, it sort of is -- discarding a piece of ourselves. Should I stop responding to my boring friend's e-mails now that she lives so far away? Should I let my ex back into my life now that four years have passed and we've both changed? It's hard to tell what's rotten without really sticking my nose in there to smell it.

9:37 PM  
Blogger playfulinnc said...

I have always wanted to "have a good story." Mostly, I speak of this when looking at my current flame and what story we would tell the grandkids.

No great story to date.

Our grandparents have these wonderful tales to tell us, with the letters and photos as evidence. If gmail and flickr go under, I will have no record.

There is something extremely unsettling about this.

On the other hand, I broke up with a few folks last year, and only regret one of them. Blowtorch indeed.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Though I wanted to respond to your amazing post as soon as I read it, I needed time to think about it, and in fact, I need more time to think. There is so much in this post, Cube, so very much! The very first thing I should say is thank you, and yes please "bore" us with further thoughts. I like the use of the word "haunted" - as if Capote's ghost is functioning as a doorway into a new understanding. I feel you are right on the edge of articulating something important not only about friendships but about communities, too. I don't want to guess what you're about to discover - you are the genius in this case - but there's something about cycles and lifespans of friendships and communities that's just between the lines of this incredible post.

I'm so curious to hear what comes of your stewing. I salute you. Thank you!

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was also moved by the film; I even felt queasy at the end (the intensity, I think). I am still mulling it over.

Why do we try? Because if we do not, we will regret it. I do.


10:06 AM  
Blogger Rhinestone Cowgirl said...

Great post.

I'm running out of time here in DC (moving across the world in January), so I've noticed an interesting trend in myself of only giving time to people who really mean something to me. We all have friends-of-convenience, but the people who are truly significant in our lives are few and far between.

10:18 AM  
Blogger cuff said...

Beautiful post. I was actually digging through some old letters two weekends ago and was struck with some similar many ways email is more permanent because it's cached somewhere -- but the letter writing feels much more permanent because we hold those words in our hands and stick them in shoeboxes stuffed under the bed. Email is such an interesting form because it seems so ephemeral, and we treat it that way, condensing many phrases to acronyms, dispensing with capitalization and other common usage rules, and in general not re-reading or reflecting on what we've written before hitting the "Send" button. And then it's out there. It's infinitely reproducible.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

I'm floored by these incredibly well thought out, intelligent responses I'm getting. I am still heavily in Capote, and this isn't my first time around the block with him. Having finished Conversations with Capote last night, I am now reading a book called The Journalist and the Murderer trying to address questions I have about that fine line of using people to achieve your artistic end, much as Capote did with Perry Smith. There's probably another blog entry in there somewhere.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous DRFS said...

I still write letters...not as many as I once did...but a few here and there. I have letters from my grandparents and friends from elementary school, high school and college. Now my college friends and I just e-mail or call one another. There is a freedom in that...but you lose a lot also. My dad always says that you can have a lot of friends, but the people you travel through the majority of your life with are few and far between. People have children...or don't and their lives drift apart. Sometimes you can hold it together...but both sides have to try. And there are always people in our life we try to keep up with for whatever reasons we have. If I have something important to say...often I'll send a letter with those thoughts in it rather than an e-mail.

11:58 AM  
Blogger ThaiMex1 said...

MYGOD!!! So many articulate entries to a daring topic. It certainly stirs up provocing thoughts about friendships lost and found; about the circle of friends in which we move in and out and how tenatiously we try to hold on to all the threads.

I can only say, "DITTO!!!" to ALL the good people that have read Cube's entry and registered their thoughts...they are so WELL put.

4:20 PM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

I found your comments on Capote via the DC Blog, and you've sold me on the value of the film, which I've been resisting for some reason (I see *every* other art house film I can).

Your comments on letters/print culture are intriguing, in part because one of my close friends writes on 18th century print culture, and I think you raise some good questions about what an archive of the present will look like. I'd agree that letter-writing, as we know it, may not provide this function, especially with email serving as more crucial form of communication.

I do think that blogs might play an interesting role here, especially given the existence of blogs authored by public figures (Margaret Cho, Bob Mould, William Gibson, etc) and the publication in book form of significant blogs (Salam Pax, Riverbend). Obviously most blogs will disappear, but many will function as archives of the present.

Interesting comments about sustaining friendships, too. I've certainly had old friends contact me after Googling my blog or colleagues from grad school admit they've been reading my blog. Will be interesting to see how these channels shift and change.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

I used to think of blogging as a contemporary form of journaling, but all these fascinating takes on letters, print, communities and the viscissitudes of frienships have changed my mind. I believe blogging is an Age of Aquarius form of letter writing. They're letters to written to anyone who wants to read them, kind of like those group letters people send at Christmas (which, by the way, I really love), so they aren't personal, one on one. They are collective.

I've been reading about water, about how cohesive it is as a "community" - though the molecules are individually promiscuous, as a group, they really stick together, which is why a belly flop hurts so much, also why surface tension is possible.

Cube I am flabbergasted to think that you had a group of 40 friends who all stayed connected over time. Forty? Wow!! That's water-like.

I've been a part of so many collectives and groups - City Movie Center, a film collective and the looser community of people who came to see the idiosyncratic choices we put on our program, later on the Reclaiming Collective, the central pillar of the ecofeminist wiccan revival in San Francisco during the 80's, and most recently, DCBlogs.

I'm an Aquarian and maybe that's the reason that the goings-on of groups is of more interest to me than individual friendships. I've had to let go of a lot of personal friendships over the years, for a variety of reasons. I grieve those losses while at the same time am fascinated by how those changes affect the larger group within which personal relationships exist.

Blah blah blah. I should shut up now and go have a Sputnik, even though from the recipe it sounds like it would give me a headache.

Thanks for making me think, Cube. Thanks for letting me go on and on.

9:20 AM  

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