July 23, 2021

“We are not interested in debate,” declared the authors of a recent open letter to the Danish Academy of Arts. Instead, “let us together break down what these walls have built”. But what did the walls of the Danish Academy of Arts build, exactly? Prior to the letter, a bust of Frederic V, the man who founded the Academy, had been tossed into the ocean on the assumption that the construction work was financed by slave trade. Not only was it not — it was financed by trade with China, where no Danish colonies ever sat foot — this statue-toppler was later found to be a Head of Department within the academy itself.

Lettered demands of such a kind are not too rare. In just the past two months, some 140 academics at Oxford University signed a statement saying that they would boycott students at a college with a statue of Cecil Rhodes; journalists at America’s leading newspapers called on their industry to stop obscuring “the systemic oppression Palestinians”; and England’s football manager wrote an impassioned letter defending his players taking the knee.

So far, so uninspiring. Yet that hasn’t always been the case. The most famous open letter is arguably J’Accuse by Émile Zola. Published in 1898 by L’Aurore, Zola launched an epistolary missile against the French authorities’ decision to sentence Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French artillery officer, to lifelong penal servitude. The decision was made following suspicions of Dreyfus having treasonously crafted and leaked a bordereau containing military secrets, to the Germans. What Zola did was to prove that no such evidence was present. By means of a larger epistolary campaign, Zola managed to mobilise broad public support for his cause. Dreyfus was released from his Penal Colony and rehabilitated.

Just as effective at utilising the open letter for political means was the ardent satirist Jonathan Swift, who in the years 1724 and 1725 wrote the not-at-all-satirical Drapier’s Letters. In a similarly prolonged epistolary crusade, Swift managed to mobilise much of Ireland against the nobility and the fraudulent, debased coins of a certain William Wood — and the Irish needed mobilising, for, according to Swift, “no people ever appeared more utterly void of what is called public spirit”. Wood’s patent was withdrawn, and Swift’s epistolary success quickly earned him the title “darling of the populace”.

Later, Thomas Mann, the great German novelist, fell back on the open letter when in 1937, after his excommunication from Germany, The University of Bonn “obliged to strike your [Mann’s] name off its roll of honorary doctors”. Mann encouraged the Dean to advertise Mann’s letter on the bulletin board, as it may give a student “a brief revealing glimpse of the free world of the intellect that still exists outside”.

And it was the intellect of his homeland, rather than a petty honorary position, that Mann sought to address. He foresaw what would happen to the Germany he loved, and he hoped to inspire broadly — with the Dean merely a proxy — the whole nation to reconsider its nationalist socialist parade. That Mann addressed the whole of the German nation becomes clear near the end of the letter. “I had forgotten, Herr Dean, that I was still addressing you.”

Dreyfus was falsely accused, John Wood did indeed attempt a nation-wide scam and we all know what path the German nation was on in 1937. In Zola’s, Swift’s and Mann’s cases, they risked careers to turn open letters into truth and justice. It was direct democracy at its most appropriate. How, then, did the open letter lose its way?

Perhaps we should admit, before advancing, that the open letters of today share one thing in common with the earlier epistolary triptych — a reverence of the letter as a tool of direct democracy. In March, for example, the economic historian Gregory Clark was deplatformed with an open letter because the title of his presentation, For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls, was “recognised as offensive” by prospective attendees.

The letter was effective at achieving its goal, just as Zola was. What was missing — contra Zola, Mann, Swift — was the obvious truth of the argument present in the letter. The democratic function of the letters of Zola, Mann, and Swift was a product the sheer brilliance of argument and fact presented in the letter. No signatories were needed. The letter spoke for itself. The Clark letter, as well as any other contemporary letter, is quite a different beast.

It was a game of signatories; given enough signatories, any demand may be fulfilled, however base, and modern letter writers have realised this. With only one signatory, there is nothing but the naked argument. With a million signatories, the argument stands in the shadows of numbers. Zola, Mann, Swift revolted against a specific, particular case, and relied on fact and argument to present their case. Our letters of today retreat from such a practice.

It all started with Erasmus of Rotterdam, who sought to unite the Catholic south and various reformations in the North by popularising the letter as a road to inner reflection and rediscovery of a true, forgotten nature of ancient times. However, the unifying project of Erasmus and the Renaissance humanists did not entirely succeed. As the Roman Orthodoxy met the North and its various reformations of the church, the unity of the republic of letters began to deteriorate. The scholastic north wanted to break with the humanist south and sought to use the epistolary form not so much as a window into the soul or to a forgotten past of complete unity, but as a means of scientific, precise communication across borders.

Indeed, by the time of the Enlightenment some centuries later, what united a new, emerging Republic of Letters was no longer common ancestry, but common respect for the pursuit of knowledge and nature. In a distinctly demonstrative move to swiftly dispense of the humanists’ reverence of the ancients, the new scholarly community switched from Latin to French as their favoured language of correspondence.

But while the humanist letter was no longer a respected means of communication, other forms of writing made headway. As such, printed journals and pamphlets entered the scene and travelled not only across Europe but also across the Atlantic, where a lettered spirit was also starting to flourish. In France, Diderot and D’Alembert published the famous Encyclopedié, collecting texts from over 130 writers, mostly scientists, and in Holland, in 1684, Pierre Bayle began publishing his newsletter Nouvelles de la République des Lettres.

Alongside the emergence of pamphlets, newsletters, and encyclopedias, which united scholars across the biosphere, the density of the network of private correspondences also intensified. According to Voltaire, in his Letters on England (1733), “there never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period”.

The first organised break with the Republic of Letters and scholastic community occurred in the pietist Germany, a country which didn’t have a firing squad of philosophes and who, scientifically and economically, lacked behind France, Holland, and England. The attack was to be called Romanticism. As Marc Fumaroli put it, for the Romantics, per the end of the 18th century, “all that was left was hell, the interim millennium during which the arts were interrupted”.

This was to change, and the letter would once again be a means of artful introspection. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in his book, The Roots of Romanticism (1965), sees the Romantic movement as deeply rooted in the pietists “contempt for learning, contempt for ritual and for form, contempt for pomp and ceremony, and a tremendous stress upon the individual relationship of the individual suffering human soul with her maker”. Romantic figures such as J.G. Hamann, Herder and Giambattista Vico revolted against the general, scientific systems of the French philosophes on the account that it betrayed the uniqueness of the individual. The letter was again to be a window into the soul, and the novel to be seen as a respected medium for inquiries into truth. “A man… in knowledge of all the sciences which the Encyclopedists had recommended — such a man would be a form of death in life,” Berlin notes.

For the romantics, authenticity, not generality, was the heart of human affairs. Each man, each culture, at all times, must be treated with care, to reach its utmost, authentic expression. In some sense, the Romantic movement represented a radical individualism of self-expression where any attempt at generality would be an unnecessary reduction of the fullness of life. But according to this logic, a nation is also an individual which must strive to fulfil its utmost expression.  The nation, in the form of “ethnotypes” became an open letter, or a novel, to be read on its own terms and not to be interfered with.

There is an echo in our time of Renaissance Humanism and Romantic thought in our reverence of the open letter. The Romantic movement saw any nation, any culture, any group, as having the right to sign a letter and have their voice be heard. Correspondence was risky, for it would interfere with the authenticity of and respect for the individual. The last few years has witnessed a rise in such understanding of the convenience of a certain type of open letter. It has foreseeably been accompanied by much talk about “lived experience” from politicians. Overwhelmed by fictions and disinformation, we retreat into what we know — ourselves. One can put a signature on one’s lived experience and values. No one can deny it, just as no one can really confirm it.

Our new Republic of Letters is also deeply its own. The Romantics would have despised the game of signatories. It hollows out the voice of the single individual, they probably would have said. The Enlightenment Republic of Letters would have also despised it, arguing that no good can come of favouring personal signature over correspondence and dialogue.

Likewise we can, and we should, reject it. The success of a society can be partially measured by, accelerated and decelerated by, the letters it writes. And so far, for us at least, it’s not looking too promising.