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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

What We Leave Behind

TS letter page 1

16.11.22


Dear Joel,


Where do you see yourself in one hundred years? Dead, likely, of course - so perhaps it is far more helpful of me to ask where you see the world in one hundred years. Where will we be as a species, do you think? How will we communicate? What was once the prime form of human-to-human contact we now refer to, quite unkindly, as ‘snail mail’ - the art of crafting a letter now largely swept aside in favor of the lightning-fast reach email and text messages have afforded us. And perhaps it is a good thing - a letter, no matter how exquisitely crafted, resides in the realm of the ephemeral. Paper, given time and condition, will someday dissolve into memory. Ink will bleed, and edges will rip and tear away, but the internet is forever. Once the send button is hit what is said will never again be un-said. No candle is hot enough to burn away what is committed to the screen.

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“Why not then move the paper to the screen?” is what I am sure you are wondering, “why not transcribe our history and make it immortal?” why not indeed? For many things, it is an essential activity lest our literature, our history, and our words slip from our fingers in a blaze or in a bin. But a letter? One’s private correspondence? Their innermost thoughts meant only for the eyes of the privileged? Does it not set your teeth on edge as it does mine? Even when it is not so dire, not their journal entries nor their love notes but their inconsequential scribbles and grocery lists, all laid bare for decades, centuries, millennia removed to study and to gawk - is there not a harrowing feeling brewing in your gut at the voyeurism of it all? When you write a text message or an email, do you consider how in forty, fifty, one hundred years your words may be shown to prospective thousands in a classroom or a library as a window to the early 21st century? Do you consider how your recollection of a messy, drunk night out with friends will reflect upon your society to those with no other conceptions? Of course not! And yet it may still.

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It is out of your hands once you have been put into the earth. It is as likely that something you intend to be remembered for eternity will crumble into dust as it is that a throwaway tweet will be posted and re-posted long after you are dead and buried. Either way, it will be forever unknown to you. The peephole into the lives of the deceased only works in one direction.


“But it is good history!” I am sure you will cry, “How else are we to then obtain first-hand accounts of our past? How else are we meant to learn?” My friend: I agree with you! It is true, real value in looking back to the writings of our forefathers, intended to be spread and not, to better understand the world in which we live. Understanding the human condition is fundamental to understanding history and we, as human beings, are our most authentic selves when we believe that we have little to no audience to judge us - thus explaining why personal communications and journals serve our historic endeavors so exceptionally. Any discomfort felt by myself or anyone else for peering into history is entirely self-imposed - the person will never know, and thus will never care, who reads their writing even if [...]

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[...] they might have raised an objection regarding such transparency in life.


Then and now, it is understood that the privacy of those who exist with some manner of celebrity is inherently subjective. The price of fame is paid in tabloid articles and leaked photographs. for the most part, this is something that we as a society have all deemed ‘fair game’ - you exist in the public and thus you belong to the public. Mary Butts existed as a notable figure in her time; be it because of her upbringing, her writing, or her closeness to figures such as Jean Cocteau. That her life would be closely watched, even after her passing, would not have been something Mrs. Butts would be ignorant of. We can even say definitively that the voyeuristic pleasure of reading someone’s personal correspondence had been on Butts’ mind. Her novella “Imaginary Letters”, so named for its presentation of a one-sided series of messages, never intended to be sent, digs into the dark excitement of reading something not meant for your eyes; in equal parts discomfort and deliciousness.


What is said can never be unsaid, what is written can never be unwritten, and what [...]

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[...] is submitted to the Archive of The University of Victoria can never be un-submitted. Perhaps Mary Butts had known, in some part of her brain, that her “Dear Douglas” would one day outlive her. Perhaps she had finely crafted one, some, all of her letters in such a way to finely reflect the human condition - “as found in the turn of the century!” - and then sent them off hoping on hope that they would not only be preserved but donated to a museum as proof of a life lived. Every instance of asking for money, every snide remark, every reference to opium carefully masked by sickness, and even the godawful handwriting could very well be Mary reaching through time and inviting us back home with her. It could - and it couldn’t. Because Mary Butts is very much dead and her letters are very much intact they exist in a state of equal consent and non-consent. Perhaps she would have welcomed her letters being entered into an archive but turned her nose up at their transcription to online spaces. Would she have been fine with some letters but rather we burn others? Would she have preened or howled at the thought of a gaggle of students creating art around her, digging into her, making assumptions about her?

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It is impossible to say and so we become no better than an academic tabloid - assuming that consent is given because it has not been, cannot be, taken away. And this is how it must be done - because it is good history.


Where do you see yourself in one hundred years? What do you think you will leave behind?

Might I borrow five dollars?


Best, Taliesin Stearn

Reaching Across Time: A Personal Reflection

As cold winds howl across Vancouver Island, shaking trees and blanketing the coast in snow, I am struck by the impermanence of human life. What are we, compared to the vast powers that shape this world? The pounding of the sea, the shaking groan of continents, all occur regardless of our knowledge or abilities.

The world turns, as it has for so long before us. As it will for so long after us. We feel, we see, we understand nothing.

And yet in spite of this powerlessness, or perhaps because of it, human lives are built on the foundations of our accomplishments. Our dreams, our fear, our victories. Our legacy. Constantly we strive to leave something for future generations, something that will outlive our brief lives and achieve immortality. The overwhelming desire to pass on knowledge, culture and art is as natural as breathing- an urge that is literally coded into the genes of every living creature. In humans, this compulsive need reached its zenith with the creation of literature. Perhaps no other cultural tool is as essential, as effective at communicating across the void of time than the written word. Stories and legends from ages long past shape so much of our modern world, they are sometimes indistinguishable from the present. Through writing, men and women of all nations and backgrounds can leave their thoughts behind, a part of them that endures beyond the limits of mortality.

Still, the world turns. Names are forgotten. Writing is lost. The cruel tempest of time rages on, with no thoughts of mercy or preservation. Literature fades to memory, fades to legend, fades to dust.

And yet.

Like the burning embers of a torch, legacy can be reignited. Manuscripts discovered, letters unearthed- suddenly windows to the past are cracked opened, and we catch glimpses of glory through their thin shutters. Sometimes, knowledge of a person is like light from a star. It burns brighter than belief, and then explodes outwards, expanding in time with the universe and desperately trying to brighten everything it touches. Someone’s hopes, desires, fears, dreams- all sweeping towards us, frantically trying to avoid oblivion.

The star is dead, but its light travels on.

At some point, the choice becomes ours. Yours. Mine. To bask in the light, enjoying its warmth, or to make it brighter, to send it on its way to illuminate more regions of the dark.

A chance, perhaps, to make something that lives on.

-Thomas Armstrong (UVIC)

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