Thus Friends Absent Speak
By Yu Guangzhong
To get letters from friends, especially airmail letters from overseas that bear the stamp of exotic climes, is unquestionably one of life's greatest pleasures, provided, that is, that they do not call for a reply. Answering letters is a heavy price to pay for the enjoyment of reading letters. The inevitable consequence of tardiness or infrequency in answering letters is a corresponding reductioning, and ultimate cessation of, the pleasure of receiving letters, in which case friendship is prematurely broken off, until the day in sackcloth and ashes you summon up the willpower to put pen to paper again. Through this dilly-dallying the pleasure of receiving letters has turned to the misery of owing letters. I am an old lag in this respect: practically every one of the friends I have made in my comings and goings can recite from my crime sheet. W. H. Auden once admitted that he was in the habit of shelving important letters, preferring instead to curl up with a detective novel; while Oscar Wilde remarked to Henley: "I have known men come to London full of bright prospects and seen them complete wrecks in a few months through a habit of answering letters." Clearly Wilde's view was that to enjoy life one should renounce the bad habit of answering letters. So I am not the only one to be faint-hearted in the regard.
If it is conceded that replying to letters is to be dreaded, on the other hand, not replying to letters is by no means a matter of unalloyed bliss. Normally a hundred or so letters are stacked on my bookshelf, of diverse maturity of debt outstanding, the longest being over a year. That kind of pressure is more than an ordinary sinner can bear. A stack of unanswered letters battens on me like a bevy of plaintive ghosts and plays havoc with my smitten conscience. In principle the letters are there for replying to. I can swear in all honesty that I have never while of sound mind determined not to answer people's letters. The problem is a technical one. Suppose I had a whole summer night at my disposal: should I first answer the letter that was sent eighteen months ago, or that one that was sent seven months ago? After such a long delay even the expiry date for apology and self-recrimination would surely have passed? In your friends' eyes, you have already stepped beyond the pale, are of no account. On the grapevine your reputation is "that impossible fellow".
Actually even if you screw up all your moral courage and settle down at your desk to pay off your letter debt come what may, the thing is easier said than done. Old epistles and new missives are jumbled up together and stuffed in the drawers or strewn on shelves; some have been answered, some not. As the poet was told about the recluse he was looking for: "I know he's in these mountains, but in this mist I can't tell where." The time and energy you would spend to find the letter you have decided to answer would be several times that needed to write the reply itself. If you went on to anticipate that your friend's reaction to receiving your letter would be less "surprised by joy" than "resentment rekindled", then your marrow would turn to water, and your debt would never be cleared.
To leave letters unanswered is not equivalent to forgetting friends, no more than it is conceivable that debtors can forget their creditors. At the bottom of such disquietude, at the end of your nightmares, there forever lurks the shadowy presence of this friend with his angry frown and baleful looks: no, you can never forget him. Those who you really put out of your mind, and do so without qualm, are those friends who have already been replied to.
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