August 2023

Love Lines

A suggestion on some letters of the Yukaghir

David Allen White

Figure 151 from Waldemar Jochelson’s The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926. According to Jochelson, it depicts two individuals who once were a couple but are no longer together. The crossing stripes over the person on the right express grief, he notes, while the person on the left occupies an incompletely drawn house—a home that is, or will soon be, abandoned.

The following letter came to me via its recipient. With their permission, and the permission of its author, I have reproduced it here.

Dear [name redacted],

I’m writing with a reference I think you might find useful, and because I have devoted some thought to its relevance re: your research into Joyce’s letters to his wife. (He really was a dirty man.) I hope this letter finds you well. It’s been a while. I know that you might be at work on an article, and it is my hope that this bit of research could be illuminating to that project.

The reference I have in mind I first encountered in Waldemar Jochelson’s multi-part ethnography The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus published between 1910 and 1926. Franz Boas commissioned the text in 1900 for the American Museum of Natural History. It concerns the people—previously thought to have disappeared—then living in the Kolyma River region of Siberia. Jochelson’s study is extensive, covering broadly the details of Yukaghir language, religion, song, material culture, social life, etc.

One section in particular, though, stopped me, and I was reminded of you and your work. In his chapter on “Art and Pictographic Writing,” Jochelson discusses a set of images produced by the unmarried women of the Yukaghir culture. They were each collected, with one exception, in 1892 by Samuel Shargorodsky, a political exile and friend of Jochelson’s who three years later published what he learned of their meaning in the Russian journal Zemlevedeniye. Shargorodsky developed a close relationship with the Yukaghir he lived with, which was how he came to know of the young women’s images and their apparent meanings. Shargorodsky recorded the meaning of each image for his article, and Jochelson, in his own study, translated them into English. For ease, I rely primarily on Jochelson, who reproduced large portions of Shargorodsky’s writing, along with versions of Shargorodsky’s images. For a while, I struggled with how to describe these images to you—to find the right word. Ultimately, I settled on the same term Jochelson chose. Love letters. It made me think of you.

I want to describe them in some depth, but let me start by saying that I have my own theory about the purpose of the love letter, which I hoped to share with you as follow-up to our last conversation. (Yes, I know it’s been a while.) It’s a theory I arrived at through a certain amount of personal pain. The evidence of its accuracy I carry around inside me, and I admit that one half of myself feels almost that it isn’t worth bringing to bear on the subject the full force of a scholar’s work. Though I am sometimes a scholar, I do not always feel like a scholar, and so I fear that work. Specifically, I fear the pain that I might endure in justifying through another’s experience the emotions that weigh so heavily, and with such truth, on me already. (What evidence does one need to justify love? What scholarship would benefit our understanding of its pains?) Indeed, what argument could I make that would illuminate why love sends some of us to writing, as it sent Dante and Catullus and Yeats and Goethe and Dickinson—though of course not only them. Why does love send even those of us without words to whatever writing that we have?

As I said, I have a theory, and it begins with making clear that the love letter does not occur simply because the lover has found something to say. It does not come into being simply by virtue of love’s existence, no matter the strength of its passions. The presence of love, even the greatest of loves, will not on its own produce writing because these passions, like an electrical current, will find their path of least resistance. I don’t think it’s a great stretch to suggest that the written word is not usually that path of least resistance, not when an unambiguous, joyous, requited, certain love exists, because such a love is a love expressed directly. It is a love communicated between faces and between hands and ultimately between bodies, and the written love, the love of the letter, is a love that cannot be that. It is a love at a distance. Or it is a love of pain. It is a love without requital. Or a love that is forbidden. The love letter occurs because those emotions it contains have yet to find their proper outlet and, frustrated, must be stored in whatever form they can be. The hope is that once stored, this passion may later be deployed successfully.

This is all to say that, in my opinion, the love letter is not so much a collection of words as a vessel for a passionate energy that would, if unreleased or improperly contained, overwhelm whatever poor soul had produced it. The love letters produced by young Yukaghir women in Siberia, I feel, illustrate that fact, and I must admit that I am much in debt to Jochelson’s account.

I know from Henry van de Velde that the line is powerful. You already know this, though. You know this because you were the one who first gave me van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbliche Laienpredigten. “A line is a force. Like all elemental forces, it is active. … It derives its power from he who drew it.” Do you remember? Section 34 of “Prinzipielle Erklärungen.” I’ve done some digging myself and uncovered a passage I prefer more. It comes from van de Velde’s article “The Line.” “Lines are transposed gestures, overt psychic expressions. … They bespeak latent forces within us, aroused and unleashed by sudden longing, forces impatient to express themselves in actions.” I like it more because it says where the line receives its power from. It comes from something inside its creator, something that is desperate to find expression but can find it nowhere else. Why make as a line what could be made as words? For van de Velde, the line is not powerful despite not speaking. It is powerful because it speaks. It speaks things that could not be said in any other form. As Jochelson’s ethnography of the Yukaghir people shows, the birch bark letters drawn by the young women embody this suggestion. For them, it is the line that communicates. It communicates love, and ultimately it is with the line’s failure that communication fails.

While the modernists in Europe were arguing the power of the line, young Yukaghir women in Russia were producing images that put its power to the test. For these young women, that the line had power to communicate was not a theory for sympathetic aesthetes (not to diminish van de Velde’s earnestness). It was a principle on which their romantic ambitions depended.

A Yukaghir map, originally carved into birchbark, reproduced in The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926. The image was captioned: “Picture writing of hunting and fishing.”

Romance was a principal element in the life of a young Yukaghir woman. As Jochelson writes, “intercourse of the sexes among the Yukaghir begins very early. I knew young men of the age of sixteen or seventeen years who cohabited with girls of the same age and even younger.” It was at this age that young women would produce love letters. Only unmarried Yukaghir women made them; neither men nor married women did. Sometimes the letters are the product of jealousy. As Jochelson describes, “the longer a boy is absent, the more jealous his girl becomes; then she cuts a letter on birchbark saying how sad she is.” What were the exact contexts in which such an image would have been produced? Shargorodsky’s account, which Jochelson includes, tells us that the letters were drawn in public during festive gatherings organized together with neighboring settlements once the fishing season had concluded and sufficient wood had been collected for the winter. This holiday gave young Yukaghir women the time and opportunity they needed to produce the letters. As Shargorodsky relates, “usually one girl is writing and the bystanders, boys and girls, try to guess the meaning of the drawings.”

A Yukaghir map, originally carved into birchbark, reproduced in The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926. The image was captioned: “Picture writing of scenes of winter life.”

Right away, you’ll see that these letters are not letters in the proper sense of that word. (Shargorodsky himself did not use the term; he called them “writings” and “love explanations.”) They involve no words, written or implied. The symbols they use are not linguistic. There is no grammar. There are no phonemes. Though you might recognize in the images some suggestion of sound, these are not words. This is just speech, abstract speech. A young woman might be shown speaking, but what she has to say is not contained in that pictured speech. It is contained, instead, in the lines themselves. Lines are what the letters have instead of words. Shapes, squiggles, and dots. Each one of these lines is visually evocative, though their meanings are not always immediately obvious. You must understand the language to understand them. They need to be read. I’ll admit to having had little understanding of how that should be done (more also on this later) prior to Jochelson’s text providing some guidance. How they should be read is important, though, because they are not read in the way you might read a book. Nor are they read in the way you might read a painting—as a collection of gestures or figures or expressions, all of which derive some power from their ambiguity. These letters are something else. They have something to say, and that something is specific. There is information in them—information to be transferred from one person to another, information that needs to be understood properly. Information that we might, in reading these letters, not so much unpack or interpret—but translate. As I suggested, and as you’ll see, translation is what these letters require. Indeed, it is what Shargorodsky did in his own analysis, which is in turn translated again in Jochelson’s text.

Each letter was scratched with a knife into a sheet of birchbark. This was a common technique for the Yukaghir, who also used it for making maps. According to Jochelson, the images produced on birchbark could be divided into one of the two categories—maps or pictographic letters. Those maps are interesting in themselves for what they reveal about how Yukaghirs (in this case, the men) communicated through the use of birchbark. As Jochelson writes, both the letters and the maps were used as “substitute[s] for oral communication.” For the Yukaghir, it seems they served some of the roles written language serves for us. This is important because it gives us a sense of the role birchbark images played in Yukaghir society and what birchbark letters would have meant for young Yukaghir women. Yukaghir maps were used for a variety of purposes and so needed to communicate a broad range of information, including not only details about space (as you would expect for a map) but also events in time. For instance, a Yukaghir map might, in addition to using figures drawn along a river to record the location of good hunting grounds, begin to encode, in narrative detail, the qualities and events associated with that hunting ground—the drama of the hunt, how the dog chased an ermine up a tree, how the nets across the river yielded a good catch, etc. All of this would be communicated through the maps’ drawing system, making these birchbark images an essential form of media.

Though the maps could be powerful communication devices, the letters of these young women go a step further. They not only record the layout of spaces or events. They also encode these spaces and events with emotions—longing, jealousy, anger, love, etc. Love is the central emotion. Right away, a Yukaghir would recognize a young woman’s love letter as such from the way it enfolds symbols of romance from Yukaghir culture. For instance, the figures in Yukaghir love letters are drawn to look like pine trees. In Jochelson’s text, these figures are described as resembling “folded umbrellas,” but I suspect that their shape is better explained by Jochelson’s observation that attractive Yukaghirs are frequently compared to trees. As Jochelson writes, “the beautiful complexion of the face is likened to the yellow needles of a larch-tree in autumn; a tall, well-shaped youth is likened to a young larch-tree or to a mountain-ash. … In one song, which was also sung to me by the Yukaghir of the Omolon, Vassily Vostryakoff, the beloved girl, is likened to a high fir-tree, which no one could bend down; but the singer had conquered her.” Jochelson’s survey of Yukaghir love songs reveals that these comparisons are prevalent in the culture’s repertoire. This prevalence is important because it suggests a potentially intuitive relationship between the manner in which figures are abstracted in the letters and the topic of love. It is how we know that the lines themselves are the substance of the letters and that this substance is romance.

Indeed, the primary mode of communication for the Yukaghir letter is the line, and the qualities of those lines are what communicate information to the reader. Dots on a figure, for instance, represent joints—knees, elbows, ankles, etc. A line of dots descending from the top of a figure represents a young woman’s braided hair. Houses (or rather, tents) are important. Most of Jochelson’s examples include them. They are drawn as a simple stepped enclosure, using just enough information to demarcate inside and outside. Their inclusion in the letters is testament to their importance. Tents were important to the love life of an unmarried Yukaghir. As Jochelson describes, “a girl, having reached the age of puberty, is given a separate sleeping-tent, and becomes quite free to receive visitors. When the lights in the houses of the Yukaghir are put out and the people retire, the youths quietly leave their homes and find their way to the tents of the neighboring girls. Unmarried young men very rarely pass the nights at their own homes.” For a Yukaghir love letter, then, a house does not mean just a house. The drawing of a house suggests a household. To be drawn under the same house means to share a home, to share a bed, or simply to share love. An incomplete drawing of a house, as in figure 154, means that this house has been abandoned or that its owner has picked up and moved away. An incomplete house might mean also that love has picked up and moved with it. (Moving homes was possible for those Yukaghirs who still lived in the traditional tents.)

Figure 154 from The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926. The female figure is x-ed with grief and appears in a house not completely drawn, which signals abandonment.
Figure 150 from The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926. It depicts the bonds between a couple living together in a house.

The minds of individuals are similarly abstract. They are drawn as lines. The articulation of this line is significant in that it reveals the mental state of its owner. A line reaching out to another figure indicates longing. A couple of loops might be an invitation. A line that has wadded itself into a knot shows consternation. More lines means more longing or more sorrow. An X across the head can indicate utter grief.

The images, which Shargorodsky collected and Jochelson included in his study, illustrate well the many ways young Yukaghir women used lines to represent and communicate emotion to their intended lovers. Figure 150 shows two individuals in the same house, united by a dozen short lines. Jochelson’s text gives us the following interpretation for it in English. “I love thee with all the might of my soul.” The number of lines is sometimes significant. Here, more lines means more love. Their straightness and their number demonstrate certainty and devotion. Elsewhere, many lines suggest how complex the relationships between young Yukaghirs could become. Figure 155, for instance, shows eight separate figures, each tied to the others in a complex web of lines. The five figures on the left are linked in an alternating pattern of men and women. The three figures on the right are shown in a love triangle, one in which the young woman to the right of the man blocks the advances of the young woman to his left. In figure 153, similarly, the incomplete lines suggest many potential relationships among the young Yukaghir. Figures that are joined with complete lines and Xs are married couples. Figures without complete lines are single. Only one figure, represented upside down in her house, is shown without any potential matches. Her thoughts reach out to a young man who returns her thoughts, though he is already shown married to another young woman. Jochelson’s text provides the following translation, “Each youth his mate doth find; my fate alone it is of him to dream who to another wedded is, and I must fain contented be, if only he forget me not.” As Jochelson’s text says, these lines show how readily “love connections among the Yukaghir young people are taking place.” Both young men and women would typically pursue a number of potential romantic partners, as the many ties between figures indicate, before settling on one.

Figure 155 from The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926, which, according to the author, depicts the romantic affinities among eight separate individuals.
Figure 153 from The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926, which similarly depicts the relationships between a large number of people.

Elsewhere, a single line might indicate the strength of a young man or woman’s affection. In figure 152, for instance, a single curling line emanating from the figure on the right suggests that he is interested in only the one young woman, the purported writer of the letter. The same goes for this young woman, whose figure is second from the right. The line representing her mind reaches for only the one man, the purported addressee of her letter. This representation of romantic interest as either a single line or multiple lines is consistent with how romantic attachment is represented in the Yukaghir language. In Yukaghir, a young woman who is faithful to her love (meaning does not sleep with other men) is referred to as o’nmogi-irki’ei-ma’rxil‘, which translates as “a girl with one thought.” Conversely, a girl who sleeps with multiple men is referred to as “a girl with many thoughts.” Jochelson does not indicate whether there existed a similar term for Yukaghir men.

For figure 152, a single line suggests faithfulness. Similarly, multiple lines can represent multiple romantic interests, multiple thoughts. The letter in figure 149, for instance, depicts two girls who pursue the same wealthy man. (My hunch is that this may be Jochelson himself, but that’s a longer story.) Unable to gain the man’s affections, they settle for alternative suitors. The multiple lines emanating from the two girls indicate multiple romantic pursuits. Here, the qualities of the lines become meaningful. A single line emerges from each girl and moves in the direction of the man. These indicate the two girls’ attempts to gain the man’s attention. Each is straight, and the clarity with which they are drawn indicates that the girls make their declarations happily and without hesitation. Each line, though, then halts above the man’s house with a small loop. This indicates that their advances are rejected, and the progress of the line is turned away from the man and back to the two girls. The wavy shapes of these returning lines indicate the girls’ consternation. All is not lost, though, as additional straight lines reaching to other men indicate that alternative suitors eventually returned their affections. They found love elsewhere, and the doubled diagonal lines with dots in the center show that they ultimately also both married. Each couple, however, is not equally happy in their marriage. The couple on the right, which is united by two diagonal lines instead of one, appears to be more devoted to their match. This figure tells a complete story. By varying their characteristics, the lines are made to represent a broad range of information: romantic interest, the nature of that interest, the emotional effect of rejection, and even the health of the two marriages.

Figure 149 from The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926. It represents two young women who pursued the same man.
Figure 152 from The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, 1926. It depicts a woman who desires a married man and who is pursued, in turn, by a suitor.

Some letters, however, use lines to indicate that unrequited affections are unending. For them, the point of the line is to communicate that their stories are unresolved. If you become aware of such a letter, it is a call to action, a plea for recognition. It means that there is a love out there, waiting for you—unacknowledged or unclaimed. It pines for you. It demands to be known. The letter of figure 152 is one such example. It tells of a man who has married a Russian woman, though the woman who has written the letter still loves him. She suspects that he loves her too, though the Russian he is married to blocks her way. She has written this letter to get his attention before it is too late. His wife may become pregnant, and the woman would have to give up and perhaps marry the man who has been pursuing her. In the letter, a pair of lines reaches out from the man to the author, like a pair of arms. A line from the man’s Russian wife, however, cuts between them. Hers is a determined line, shooting forcefully to the bottom of the bark so as to indicate its strength and certainty. The line from the author’s figure is less certain. It attempts to bypass the wife’s shield, hovering at the top of the image like a cloud. It is unable, however, to breach the wife’s barrier, and so lingers there, becoming ever more fraught and ever more tangled the longer it waits. This is what a love line looks like when it fails to find resolution—when it remains unrequited.

This type of line, a line that has tied itself into a knot, appears in many of the letters. One I am taken with (in part because of its simplicity and in part because of the complexity of feeling that Jochelson’s text attributes to it) shows two figures, each in a separate ruined house (figure 154). The young woman’s anguished mind reaches for the young man; her fractured thoughts, drawn in multiple strands, collect in a cloud that drifts above him. Jochelson’s text offers this as the translation—“Thou hast gone hence, and of late it seems this place for me is desolate; and I too forth must fare, that so the memories old I may forget, and from the pangs thus flee of those bright days, which here I once enjoyed with thee.” There is some depth of feeling there, I think. I can’t help but identify with the young woman, sending out lines again and again, only to have them end in the same place, unable to reach their target. If that were not enough, she has a big X over her head.

The more I look at this last image, the more I think that the love letter, as a form, is in fact something like this cloud floating away from the woman’s head. Emotions, uncontainable, burst forth from multiple places. The strands collect, but the shape they form is a mess, and even more, they remain unable to meet the person they’re intended for. They hover there, in place. For young Yukaghir women, these letters were born out of necessity. As Jochelson writes, “drawing on birchbark is the only means for a young girl to confess her love to a man, as according to Yukaghir custom only the man may declare his love in words.” Without words, what is left? Knowing this, I find further meaning in these images, which are utterances that could have taken on no other form than this. They must be drawn because these feelings could not be written in words and could not be said.

And here is where I get to that quality of the letters that I have come to find most tragic. They are, of course, difficult for me to read—without help, I would never have been able to figure out what they meant—but Jochelson notes that their meanings can escape even the Yukaghir themselves. I mentioned earlier how a young Yukaghir woman might write a letter as bystanders attempt to guess its meaning. The account from Shargorodsky, which Jochelson reproduces, goes on to say that “when the guessing fails, there is opportunity for jest and laughter.” I am glad that the Yukaghirs’ misreadings end in jest and laughter. I could just as easily see them ending in despair. Though we might enclose our heart within a text, we cannot know entirely that it is our heart a reader will find. How could we possibly know how someone will read our heart once it is unfolded? And then, will they feel the same in return? There is a misconception among those who love secretly that if they could find a way to perfectly communicate what is in their heart, they will find their love returned. They believe that with a love so fully, so passionately, so truthfully felt as theirs, to know of it means to return it. For the love letter, then, its power to communicate is especially important. A failure to adequately express one’s feelings means a failure to find a love returned. This is a heavy burden to place on a sheet of birchbark. This is a heavy burden to put on the reading of a line.


[named redacted]

David Allen White is a designer based in Boston. He has previously worked in New York, Kansas City, and Kigutu, Burundi.

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