The novel, or play, La Celestina, a.k.a The Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea, considered one of the greatest works in all of Spanish literature, is an intricate tale of love and treachery, written entirely in dialogue. Fernando de Rojas, the author and a descendant of converted Jews, published his work in 1499, just when Spain was exiting the Medieval period and entering the Renaissance. There was a lot going on in Spain at that time. It was only seven years after Columbus reached the Caribbean, and after the Spanish monarchy violently expelled the Muslims and Jews, some of my ancestors among them. La Celestina is historically and artistically significant in all kinds of ways, and I won’t get into any of that at all.
I read La Celestina in grad school, wrote some kind of paper on it, and then, like most of what I read and wrote back then (about 15 years ago now) forgot the whole thing. There was, however, one tiny bit that I remembered, something insignificant that nevertheless attached itself to my brain and stayed with me. This bit is a passage in which the character Areúsa, a prostitute who lives independently, has something to say about friendship. At this moment in the narrative, Areúsa is talking with her cousin Elicia, also a prostitute, and the title character, Celestina, a crafty older woman they both work for.
Here is the passage and my faulty translation. Areúsa says:
Assí goze de mí que es verdad; que estas señoras ni gozan deleyte ni conocen los dulces premios de amor. Nunca tratan con parientes, con yguales a quien puedan hablar tú por tú, con quien digan: Qué cenaste? Estás preñada? Quántas gallinas crías? Llévame a merendar a tu casa. Muéstrame tu enamorado. Quánto ha que no te vido? Como te va con él? Quien son tus vezinas?”, y otras cosas de ygualdad semejantes. Oh tía, y qué duro nombre y qué grave sobervio es “señora” contino en la boca!
Take it from me, it’s the truth; that these ladies neither enjoy nor know the sweet rewards of love. They never deal with relatives, with equals, with whom they can speak familiarly one to another, with whom they say: What did you have for dinner? Are you pregnant? How many hens are you raising? Take me to eat at your house. Show me your lover. How long since I’ve seen you? How is going with him? Who are your neighbors? And other things like this. Oh Aunt, what a hard name, and what grave arrogance is the word “Lady” in one’s mouth!
I think the reason I’ve remembered this random paragraph all these years is because I found it endearingly familiar, in that the small details that constitute friendship are the same now as they were over 500 years ago. There are bigger and deeper themes we share with our friends, but I think if you care to know what your friend had for dinner last night (Facebook posts notwithstanding), or how many hens she has, those are markers of real affection and intimacy.
Back in the old days, and now I’m talking about my own old days, in the period between high school graduation (1988) and when email took over completely about 10 years later, I and my long-distance friends kept in frequent touch by writing letters and artsy postcards. Pretty much everyone did. Of course, letter writing goes back hundreds of years, and even for me dated from before 1988, but that’s when it started for me in earnest because my friends and I dispersed to different places.
Email killed letter writing, and then Facebook and texting quickly killed email as a means of keeping in touch long-distance. The phone still figures in somewhere, and the rest is a mystery to me. I don’t know what people do. Several years ago, living in a new place, I suddenly needed a way to connect with friends that didn’t depend on time (as in schedules aligning) or space (or money or fossil fuels), so I decided to start writing letters again. I did this with a personal policy that I shared with the people I wrote to. Here it is: 1) I don’t expect anyone to write back. Everyone is so busy, for one thing, and unless you are weird in the ways I am, you aren’t going to make writing letters a priority. 2) I only write to people who will actually enjoy getting the letters. I can’t pour my heart and soul and humor (and the petty details of existence) onto the page if I think the recipient will find it tiresome.
The main thing I get out of writing letters is the feeling that I’m hanging out with the person I’m writing to. Real hanging out is much better, but I have people dear to me that I rarely get to see or talk to, so this helps. Writing also helps me process my life, and while I could do that by keeping a journal, I’ve never been very interested in that. What’s the point of recounting something funny to yourself? I’m totally not knocking journal writing –it’s hugely valuable to lots of people– it’s just not the thing for me.
I actually have gotten some letters back, that’s a thrill. And the friends who haven’t written have let me know in other ways that they appreciate getting the letters. Even if the letters are full of a lot of minutiae, on par with numbers of hens or ingredients in dinner or how it’s going with the love interest, the important thing is that the friendship gets nurtured. If women like Areúsa valued this 500 years ago in the same way I do, then it must be a universal human thing. Maybe that’s obvious.
In less elegant terms, you could call talking about whatever “shooting the shit.” This is a great expression because it means you’re doing something that seems meaningless just for the pleasure of it, just because you are connecting with another person. In the Age of Disconnect, which I think we could reasonably call our age, when you have to work at connecting rather than having it occur naturally, we sometimes have to get creative. And sometimes getting creative means reaching into the past and resurrecting something that has fallen out of the culture.
I know I’m not the only person who writes letters, there are other people out there who need some slow ways to be in the world, slow food, etc. I wonder who they are and why they do it. I wonder what they write about, and who they write to, and I hope they sometimes get letters back.
Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.
Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.