Published in NY Times Social Qs column August 22, 2013
My high school boyfriend and I will be starting at different colleges in the fall. The schools are several hours apart. We’re talking about a long-distance relationship and visiting each other every weekend. My parents think this is a bad idea. What would you do?
Jean, New York
Your question has given me the freedom to pursue a topic of particular significance to everyone, a thing concerning human kind’s social and spiritual condition. For do not long-distance romantic relationships provide one with the opportunity to revive epistolary intercourse? Your generation, however, has shown preference for those modish forms of communication wherein the thumbs alone are used to scribble the message, upon different types of electronic gew-gaws----having, alas, left letter writing, as they say, in the dust-heap of history. Yet 'tis clear that one’s beloved still remains the best letter correspondent one may have. And is not this gradual movement---away from the epistolary arts towards the more liberal arts, shall we say, of twittering and emailing---is not this transition analogous to a change of residence from a Palladian country house to that of a sod-house, or a tipi? Indeed, as it has been accepted by many classical authorities, the art of letter writing allows man to perfect his intellectual and spiritual development by providing him with opportunities to make minute written accounts of matters which on a daily basis affect his mind and spirit most intimately.
Firstly, as you are a lady at the beginning of your university studies, and as your boyfriend is in much the same situation, it is most proper for you to compose letters to each other both expressing your thoughts on the substance learned in your university classes. For instance, you will likely be required to take a chemistry class at the beginning of your university---and concerning this class you may rail against the abandonment of the chemical principles of Hermes Trismegistus in favor of Robert Boyle. You will also likely take a class on Imaginative Literature---whereupon you may write of your outrage at any author who fails to make proper condemnation of human sin through their works---or a class on Literary Theory---whereupon you will find much to write about on the wretched state of all feminist rakes, post-colonialist dandies, or Marxist beaus. Finally, as you will also take a class on economics you will want to write about our modern society’s gross corruption of Mr. Adam Smith’s principles. These are some examples of topics upon which you may discourse, as they will lend your pen the ease and grace it deserves.
Secondly, letter writing will provide you both with an opportunity to reflect upon all sorts of spiritual matters, by which I include that aspect of our lives the modern philosophers are wont to call the moral dimension. You may, for instance, discourse upon the likelihood of the vile Turk’s conversion to our great faith. Or you may condemn the severity of the wicked treatment of the servant classes in our society, or the gross inequality between the plebian and patrician classes here in America. Wherein does this inequality reside, in the people's material or spiritual conditions? These are examples of some of the topics that will enable lively discussion between you two.
Thirdly, you will find that letter writing offers an excellent opportunity for one to discuss matters of the heart, or as the modern people may call it, gossip or self-gossip, with your beloved. In this capacity, you must be warned against a too ready acceptance of other people’s follies, as is the habit among the modern gossip industries. You are of course encouraged to express your romantic feelings towards each other in your letters, preferably in 14-line sonnet form, yet you are to avoid an overmuch focus on the sentimental or indulge in excessive Rousseanism. This proscription will make your letters a pleasure to read and a joy to respond to.
To learn how to become a great letter writer you are advised to study the works of the Lords Bacon and Chesterfield, as well as the collected works of yours truly, Samuel Richardson.