When you read a bit of 18th Century literature you see the degree to which private letters have played a role in people’s sense of self, sense of worth, sende of belonging. They are forever hiding compromising letters, never for some reason destroying them. Also, given the precious nature of much 18th Century language, epistolary language is often ambiguous and can lead to fatal misunderstandings. I do not think that this is just the genre of fiction that requires quid pro quos and surprising reversals; it holds true for non-fictional work too (Rousseau in his Confessions was constantly undone by his inability to call a spade a spade in his correspondance).
Have we changed? I don’t think so. We retain this pathological desire to commit taboo thoughts to paper or, more likely, screen. We love to document, leave a record, take a selfie, write a blog, issue a tweet. And the trail we leave behind ourselves is more voluminous than it was in the 18th Century. And, like in the 18th Century, it will break you. Something you thought acceptable in 2010 will bring you down in 2020; culture moves so quickly. What’s more, everything is pushing you to participate. I do not possess a smart phone. For a range of reasons, the main one being that I don’t want to participate in this endless round of chat and counter-chat on any one’s terms other than my own. On Friday in Peckham we came across a pub that looked alluring. Not too crowded, with an empty spot outside. We thought we might try it. The first pub in nearly four months. But when I went in to order a drink I was banned because I didn’t have a smart phone. Covid 19 has brought this about, but not just. I have experienced situations where I was banned from buying a train ticket at a station from an actual human being because I didn’t have a smart phone. We are being locked into the labyrinth, and there will be no Theseus to kill this particular Minotaur.