There’s a pretty postcard pinned up on the drab beige board in front of my desk. An old friend sent it last month, scribbling on the back of a picture of some perfect gilded Burmese shrine: “Sailing down the Arawatty; not the worst way to welcome in the New Year! Lunch soon?” Getting a postcard is like taking a shot straight from a bottle of Ribena: sugary thrill of happiness, touch of cloying sickliness, something you’re unlikely to do every morning.
They’re cute, of course – but too smug, you think. All sincere-seeming with their physicality but super trite, kind of meaningless. The only thing more discomfort-inducingly clichéd than an ‘Oh I so wish you were here!’ is a tacky pink heart on Valentine’s Day, gently placed in your pidge by the guy you’ve been dating since primary school.
I mean, the closest thing to a Valentine I received this year was the fortune cookie a friend pidged me for Chinese New Year about a week beforehand. Perhaps this is just my various character/facial fl aws at play, or perhaps it’s that the sort of romance achieved in Friday night snogs at Plush isn’t super conducive to flowers and love letters the next morning.
But, to be frank, the only thing that’s worse in turn than Valentine’s Day is the self-deprecatory Valentine’s Day joke. At least that little paper heart and £2.50 Tesco rose I’m defi nitely not jealous of are a vaguely genuine gesture, are actual straightforward, real expressions of emotion. Sincerity seems gross, but that’s our problem.
It’s a cultural disease: terrible, terrible fear of sincerity, and an even greater terror of triteness. We’ve drowned in a postmodern scepticism of meta-narratives and ended up with an aestheticised, simplistic distrust of anything attempting to convey meaning. And irony is so easy: it – or at least an air of it – is the ultimate wall of defence, the absolute fi nest way to protect your self-esteem and ego.
Even lad culture has caught the bug. No more can we have that pile of refreshingly direct cockiness, even if it was really just a façade for all sorts of weird psychological knots. No, no, instead we’ve got this semiironic, not-really-ironic-but-we’re-all-kind-ofsignalling-like-it-is performance of competitive masculinity. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of mannish posturing, but surely it’s a little mad to put it through a fi lter of ‘irony’?
Scepticism of sincerity can be fantastic, of course it can – is there anything more juicy than brutal sarcasm, the waspish gay, Private Eye? The sort of person who doesn’t have a sense of irony will be dry, they’ll take themselves far too seriously and miss various little moments of cheap cheerfulness. But slapped on all over the place like a wannabe Instagrammer’s attempt at a contour it’s a dead end and a cheap trick, about as satisfying as an e-cigarette.
Postcards are the last vestige of sincerity in an ironically ironic world, where self-referentiality is a cliché and even sarcastic clichés are passé. Everything is constructed, performative, hollow, fi ne. But we’ve already done nihilism to death and anti-art has about as much life left in it as the Church of England. Chic Parisians on chic holidays may not be sending oneeuro scraps of printed card back to their Yves Saint Laurent-clad friends or beautiful lovers, but they’re possibly also spending more on cigarettes than food. Is that safe feeling of trendiness really worth it?
There’s a practice in traditional Japanese court poetry: learned poets or lovers would exchange notes in the form of short poems, tanka or similar haiku-like forms, instead of writing love notes or prose letters. Or they’d sit in conversation, like that game where you go round a circle of friends to create a story sentence by sentence, composing a haiku in turn, each of which delicately drew out a theme from the previous person’s.
Postcards are the haiku of the stationery world. They’re direct, pithy, often surprisingly emotionally charged for what they are. Both come across as eff ortless expressions, and something created by completely deliberate action.
It seems like a paradox, but that’s the magic of a postcard: short-form friendliness in something you can hold, that has the literal imprint of someone who’s close to you. Postcards don’t pretend. Letters, phone calls, Skype, Facebook Messenger, all of these things are approximations of real life communication. Postcards don’t even try: they say, ‘We’re apart, but that’s alright – and here’s a bit of my excitement.’ Those lovers swapping notes were doing just the same thing, sending an image and a few words in a physical object. Humans put so much meaning into physical objects; just think of how much we scorn the idea of an ‘e-card’.
And what even is this worry about triteness, about cliché? There’s a poem by the famous Matsuo Basho:
in the capital:
ninety-nine thousand people
It’s of no importance how many people are seeing the spring flowers, and it’s of no importance for how many years they’ve been looking at them. Lover meets lover and eventually they end up together. You’ve seen that chick fl ick a thousand times, but nothing gets worn out. Every movie is a little diff erent, just as every interaction, every postcard will be diff erent. A formula is just as powerful as something completely ‘new’, if not more powerful – even those ‘Make It New!’ modernists knew that nothing can be really, totally new.
It’s a cliché to ‘stop and smell the flowers’ and people have been looking at them since time immemorial, but no one’s ever truly looked at an apple tree in bloom and dismissed it as ‘trite’. Keep sending postcards, and unapologetically pidge someone a Valentine next year. Sincerity is only as lame as viewing the blossoms in spring.