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A Point of View: The guilty thrill of reading other people's mail

woman with laptop looking suspicious Image copyright Thinkstock

Adam Gopnik loves reading the letters of dead writers, so why does the publication of famous people's emails make him recoil?

I love reading other people's mail. As I turn around and look at my own bookshelves, I see there, in greater density even than novels or history, collection after collection of old letters. Filled as they are with embarrassing endearments and endearing embarrassments - there is nothing like reading letters sent and received to show you the whole man or woman. I would much rather read Lord Byron's letters than his poems, and while I would rather read Philip Larkin's poems than his letters, there are so few poems - and so many letters - that I end up reading more delivered in his mail than from his muse anyway.

Why then do I recoil a bit at the gawking, leering response to the sudden release a few weeks ago of a flood of modern letters by a much talked of public person? I'm speaking of Hillary Clinton and her emails, released at the demand of various investigators - emails largely innocuous but written originally with an expectation of privacy. They had in them no particularly scandalous revelations, just the usual human sound of mixed and sometimes slightly two-faced emotion - obviously overdone praise of a friend's book, confusion about the timing of a meeting, one thing said to one friend and then a slightly different thing said to another. They were also touched by the leitmotif of all digital age communication undertaken by those past 50, and that is confusion about digital age communication. Short of flirtatious emails to one with whom one is infatuated, or pornographic ones to actual lovers, it was the usual human mix.

And yet it met a lip-smacking, gawking, leering reception that made me feel uneasy, even a little queasy. It wasn't an isolated case. I had the same feeling earlier this year when malicious cyber-thieves stole all the emails of Amy Pascal, the joint head of Sony Pictures in Hollywood. What was shocking was less their contents than the self-righteous glee, the malicious delight, so many journalists found in poring through other people's mail - only to find within it all the normal inconsistencies of human existence.

Amy Pascal, it seems, had exactly the life that a studio head could be expected to have. She was mildly duplicitous, encouraging a doomed project perhaps without telling its makers it was doomed, gossipy about salaries and billing. By the way, the reason that studio heads or theatrical producers have always talked out of both sides of their mouth, more even than the rest of us, is simple. They know that it is only the rare project that will actually get staged or filmed, and the still rarer one that will succeed - but if they said this in advance they would lose the goodwill of the makers of that one good project, whose identity, of course, they don't yet know. If they said, "We're not sure it's likely to work - let's develop it" they would lose the prospect to the producer who said, "We love it more than life itself and would give our children to have it!", even though the writers and the producers involved both know perfectly well that each statement means exactly the same thing. Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue (as Oscar Wilde said), and duplicity is the compliment that producers pay to creative vanity.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sony executive Amy Pascal's emails were stolen by unknown hackers in 2014

The many-sidedness of people's exposed correspondence can be called, and called out, as mere hypocrisy. But it is truer to call it mere humanity. In order to be anyone at all, you have to be several people at the same time. In order to function in the world as it is, you have to show only a part of your face or mind to one person at a time. If we knew everything that was actually said about us by the people we like and trust and work with, there would be no living. No, we have to be many people at once to be anyone at all. The people who are all one thing or another are either crazy, or else monomaniacs and ideologues.

I followed the Clinton and Pascal leaks, and felt ashamed for my profession - and yet, as I say, there is nothing that gives me more pleasure than reading good letters that may have an embarrassing content. Yes, of course, Clinton and Pascal are not Byron and Larkin - but even stray second-rate letter-writers can still move us if they reach us over the canyon of centuries. So why does privacy seem essential to living people - and then suddenly seem to vanish as a value when we die, leaving us with an eager appetite for more disclosure?

No doubt, one of the ends of reading is to see private life made public. And yet this truth takes some time to be true in. One of my heroes, the drama critic Kenneth Tynan, is a prime instance of this. After his death his diaries and his letters were added to the rich body of his profiles and reviews, vastly increasing our store of provocative opinion and irreplaceable sentences - but revealing what had been known to his intimates in private, that he had been an enthusiastic (though very humane) spanker of readily willing women. This merely expanded my sense of the comedy and humanity of his existence - the razor-sharp Tynan emerging from the compulsive and fetish-minded Ken. The contradiction was not the material for smug giggling, but for a kind of awe at how lust tugs on us all, and tugs at the smartest of us in the strangest ways. The same thing seems true about the revelation that Dr Samuel Johnson, too, seemed to have a taste for being fettered by a friend. The truths were merely human, but had these truths come out in Tynan or Johnson's time it would have seemed scandalous and embarrassing and a cause of pain for both of them.

Kenneth Tynan 1927-1980

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Famously eccentric theatre critic who wrote for the Evening Standard, Observer and The New Yorker
  • Tynan's Diaries were published to great fanfare in 2001
  • Played a key role in the fledgling National Theatre in the 1960s, becoming its literary manager in 1963

It is as if we instinctively sense, or have painfully learned, that human existence as much as agriculture needs a kind of confessional crop rotation to make it grow. We accept that the act of making private life public is good. But it depends on respecting a zone of privacy in the first place. The practice of showing what life is really like later depends on keeping some parts of life clandestine while they're happening. Virginia Woolf's diaries have nourished several generations of novelists. But we have them because Virginia believed that her diary was, and would for her lifetime, be hers alone.

This truth has a very practical face for historians. Mrs Thatcher's biographer, Charles Moore, has written just recently that while writing about her, he had a welcome cornucopia of written material including much that was digital and online - but that now, with freedom of information laws in force, fewer people would be committing their truths to paper or pixels. Instant transparency does not increase openness - it merely mutes conversation into corridors and off-the-record.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Virginia Woolf's last letters to her sister, Vanessa Bell, at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014

Transparency is a better thing than opacity, but a little translucency of tone, I think, is better than either. In France there is an arrangement called "en viager" in which you buy property from an elderly person at a discount, but then can claim it only when the owner dies. Decades can sometimes go by while the purchaser waits for the owner to pass away. Meanwhile you co-exist. It would be terribly bad form to wish for death to happen. You just have to wait.

Just waiting in the presence of what we want is a civilising process. In order to have private lives to share in the long run, we need to have private lives kept private in the short run. If we did not have diaries and letters to read then history would be dull indeed. But if we make every diary public and publish every letter now, then life will become dull very quickly. All conversations would be whispered in secret, as they are in totalitarian states. In this sense, the destruction of privacy and the rise of tyranny are part of the same package.

That a secret comes to us over time - and so brings its time with it - is one of the things that separate mere gossip from true confession. Old letters ripen into permanent poetry. Waiting for what we want is one of the things we have to teach our children. Learning to want what we wait for is one way we civilise ourselves.

A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST

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