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Talking It Up

Underlying this code of good manners is the assumption that good conversation is not a lecture, a performance, a diatribe, a sermon, a negotiation, a cross-examination, a confession, a challenge, a display of learning, an oral history, or a proclamation of personal opinion. And herein lies the great difficulty with the conversation that Miller calls art. While it is easy to explain what it is not, it is nearly impossible to say what it is. One is reminded of the Supreme Court justice who could not define pornography but knew what it was when he saw it.

Typically, Michael Oakeshott, the late British philosopher, thought conversation should have a distinctive lack of purpose. Conversation “has no determined course, we do not ask what it is ‘for,’” he said. It is “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” As with gambling, “its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.”

Miller makes a halfhearted effort to define it. His preface says he is writing about “everyday conversation—including what we call light conversation or small talk.” To ask how the Book of Job and the Socratic dialogues, to which he devotes separate chapters, can be called “everyday conversation” or “small talk” is to miss the point. Miller is not in the defining business. He is trying to talk about art, which is always hard to do without becoming incoherent. He is trying to help us grasp immeasurable and indefinable factors that distinguish conversation from “conversation.” Why do some conversations approach the sublime while others remain just talk? How do we get from chitchat and prattle to art?

Since the questions are abstract and even a bit ponderous, Miller’s playful, sometimes mischievously imprecise style serves the double purpose of keeping the reader entertained while displaying the very qualities that go into the making of “good conversation.”

For help he leans heavily on a host of writers that includes Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Daniel Defoe, the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Henry Fielding, David Hume, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Fanny Burney, Plutarch, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, William Hazlitt, and Virginia Woolf, among many others. This is what contemporary jargon masters might call an all-star cast of foremost conversation experts. Happily for the reader, they not only provide Miller with a rich supply of good talk to lighten his book, but also offer plenty of sound advice for people wishing to improve their own conversation. What is striking is that almost all of them speak of conversation as a way of taking pleasure, much as a modern American might speak of an evening spent browsing the Internet. For some the pleasure seems almost physical.

Montaigne finds a sharp conversational exchange physically and mentally exhilarating. Conversation, says Swift, is the “greatest, the most lasting, and the most innocent, as well as useful Pleasure of Life.” Dr. Johnson thinks “there is in this world no real delight (excepting those of sensuality), but exchange of ideas in conversation.”

In eighteenth-century England, Miller says, the word “conversation” was sometimes used to mean “sexual intercourse,” and “criminal conversation” was a legal term for adultery. After the Earl of Halifax willed his mistress Catherine Barton a bequest of twenty thousand pounds, a malicious wit said Halifax had shown his appreciation of Miss Barton’s “excellent conversation.”

Montaigne speaks like a man for whom conversation is an exhilarating workout at the intellectual gym. Conversation, he said, was “the most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind” and “the most delightful activity in our lives.” It afforded “teaching and exercise all at once,” he wrote.

If I am sparring with a strong and solid opponent he will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left; his ideas send mine soaring. Rivalry, competitiveness and glory will drive me and raise me above my own level…. Our mind is strengthened by contact with vigorous and well-ordered minds.

Not everyone approves of Montaigne’s zest for an intellectual competition. Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson agree that conversation must not become an attempt to display one’s intellectual superiority. Johnson, however, was apparently not above breaking his own rule occasionally. He might not have passed muster in Virginia Woolf’s ideal conversational group. “There must be talk, and it must be general, and it must be about everything,” she states in a 1931 essay.

It must not go too deep, and it must not be too clever, for if it went too far in either of these directions somebody was sure to feel out of it, and to sit balancing with his tea cup, saying nothing.

Displays of brilliance, she thought, were simply unforgivable. In the 1931 essay “Portrait of a Londoner” she describes a fashionable London salon which attracts many “clever” guests. In this gathering, “if anyone said a brilliant thing it was felt to be rather a breach of etiquette—an accident that one ignored, like a fit of sneezing, or some catastrophe with a muffin.”

In Western culture, conversation as art probably reached its highest level in eighteenth-century England and France. (It would be interesting to know if complex ancient cultures in Asia and Africa evolved conversational traditions comparable to the West’s, but this is beyond the scope of Miller’s essay.) London, with its hundreds of clubs and coffeehouses, spawned what the philosopher David Hume called “the conversible world,” and the salons of Paris, some said, spawned the French Revolution, though Miller strongly disagrees. Conversation, he says, was widely considered a stabilizing social pastime which helped to keep violent political passions subdued in England as well as France. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a hero to France’s revolutionaries, detested the salons and the calm conversation they encouraged.

In London, Hume’s “conversible world” was predominantly a masculine society of “clubbable” men who met to eat, drink, and talk for the pure pleasure of eating, drinking, and talking. Scores of London clubs flourished for a bizarre variety of reasons, not always edifying. There were clubs for “modern midnight conversation,” which Miller translates to mean “heavy drinking,” and clubs for sexual “conversation,” like the Roaring Boys Club whose members met in a tavern, got drunk, and went to the Covent Garden brothels. “The Hell-Fire Club’s main activities were heavy drinking, reading pornographic literature, and engaging in orgies,” Miller writes. “The Mollies Club was for male cross dressers.”

In 1764 Dr. Johnson founded the Literary Club for the sole purpose of “solid conversation” while eating and drinking. Its members included the poet Oliver Goldsmith; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the leading painter of his generation; David Garrick, the most popular actor of the day; Edward Gibbon, the historian of the Roman Empire; the economist Adam Smith; the playwright Richard Sheridan; and the politicians Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox.

These giants of their age assembled once a week to savor the delights of talk about whatever struck their fancies as the wine traveled around the table. Two centuries later the American humorist Fred Allen, whose work compelled him to lunch frequently with corporate executives in New York, wrote to a friend about the progress of conversation in America. In Dr. Johnson’s day, he said, big men sat around enjoying small talk; now small men sat around enjoying big talk.

Like most of the arts, conversation may come naturally to an untutored primitive while a person of education, power, and position may find it impossible. Miller has no theory about this. Could it simply be a matter of having the right genes? If so, Benjamin Franklin surely had them; John Adams certainly did not. Adams was “impatient with light conversation,” Miller writes. Did Adams envy a gift that helped make Franklin one of the most popular men in France? He certainly seems cranky in writing that “the life of Dr. Franklin was a Scene of continual dissipation.” His Paris lodgings, Adams complained, were always surrounded by carriages bringing “all sorts of People…but by far the greater part were Women and Children.”

Among the sadder cases of conversational impotence Miller presents is an eighteenth-century Parisian, Monsieur Geoffrin, whose wife presided over a salon famous for the elegance of its talk. Geoffrin was so incompetent at it that his wife let him come to dinner only if he would sit at the end of the table and never attempt to join the conversation.

Dr. Johnson would probably have rejected the genetic theory of conversational aptitude, since he seemed to believe that the art could be learned by hard work. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell tells of a businessman who has made a fortune, “but was absolutely miserable, because he could not talk in company”—“I am invited to conversations. I go to conversations; but, alas! I have no conversation.”

Johnson thought the man unduly hard on himself. “Man commonly cannot be successful in different ways,” he told Boswell. “This gentleman has spent, in getting four thousand pounds a year, the time in which he might have learnt to talk; and now he cannot talk.” Johnson obviously thought that a man could learn the art of conversation by sacrificing the time he would need to make a fortune.

Many persons fail in conversation because they so enjoy talking that they cannot bear to listen. Here is Goethe on his meeting with Madame de Staël: “It was an interesting hour. I was unable to get a word in; she talks well, but at length, at great length.” Miller quotes an acquaintance of former President Clinton: “He just talks. You don’t really have a conversation with him.”

William Hazlitt says Coleridge carried “just talking to you” to nonsensical extremes. With his “inexhaustible flow of undulating speech,” Coleridge could “talk to all sorts of people on all sorts of subjects, without caring a farthing for their understanding one word he says,” Hazlitt said, “and he talks only for admiration and to be listened to.”

Rousseau too enjoyed his own talk, but was contemptuous of conversation as practiced in the salons: “Every woman in Paris gathers in her apartment a harem of men more womanish than she.” And so on. Miller paints the great Romantic as a blowhard who took such pleasure in celebrating himself that he was incapable of the etiquette required for conversation.

I delight in living like a peasant, which I feel is my true vocation,” Rousseau wrote while living rent-free in a large isolated farmhouse. This would-be peasant, Miller says, spent his mornings copying music, walked in the afternoons, and wrote in the evenings, while his common-law wife tended to his needs.

Miller is pessimistic about the future of the conversational art in America and finds few witnesses who are not. The common explanation at the moment is the “polarized” state of our politics, which is said to be so advanced that sensible folk scarcely dare speak on any subject more arresting than food and weather for fear of igniting some human powder keg in a conversation-ending spew of rage. This is to surrender to an excess of politeness which, as La Rochefoucauld observed, can become a kind of slavery.

Early-eighteenth-century England offers a parallel. Embroiled in the War of the Spanish Succession, England too seemed to be “polarized.” Defoe described how anger about the war made conversation difficult:

Unhappy Nation! What End can these Things lead us to? Not a Publick Society, not a Coffee-house, not a meeting of Friends, not a Visit, but like Jehu to Jezebel, who is on my side? Who? Who is for Peace? Who is for carrying on the War?

Politicians had “worked the Nation into a most unnatural Ferment,” Addison wrote when starting the Spectator. Its aim, he said, would be to calm the country’s “furious Party-Sprit, [which] when it rages in its full Violence, exerts it self in Civil War and Bloodshed.” Miller seems a bit too quick to blame our bilious political condition for the stifling of conversation. Americans have more often than not in the past been enraged about politics. Rage over the slavery issue produced wholesale political murder in Kansas and assault and battery in the Senate, but it did not prevent Lincoln and Douglas from discussing it publicly in one of the best conversations ever heard. Americans could not have been more “polarized”—they were about to start killing each other in civil warfare—but conversation did not fail, the Constitution did.

Many factors unrelated to political fury are working to stop conversation, and some of them go very deep. One is the decline of the love for language and phrasemaking, which used to be as common among the plain people of America as among English majors. People incapable of taking pleasure in expressing themselves are not likely to be much good at conversation.

The lifting of restraints on coarse speech, for example, is usually viewed as a gain for free expression, yet good as this may be for freedom, it may be crippling to expression. To illustrate, imagine that an eminent and powerful statesman—say Vice President Cheney—wishes to respond offensively when greeted by a senator who irritates him. Think of the glorious variety of cruelly stinging words the American language places at his disposal. Which shall he select? Poor Cheney, thrust suddenly into this very situation last year, experienced total language failure which left him powerless to say anything but “Go fuck yourself.”

A distinguished American resorting to this worn-out old relic of slum argot when a brilliant insult is called for—this is evidence that we are losing the language skill required for the art of conversation. Once upon a time our politicians could bring artistry to the handling of the language. In the 1890s, Speaker of the House Thomas Reed could dispose of one irritating colleague by observing that “with a few more brains he could be a halfwit,” and of another by saying, “He never opens his mouth without subtracting from the sum of human intelligence.” A mere fifty years ago I myself heard Senator Everett Dirksen foretell the death of an opponent’s bill by saying, “It will have all the impact of a gentle snowflake falling on the broad bosom of the Potomac.”

Conversation has always had enemies in America. Consider the popularity of the laconic hero. He is a figure extensively delineated in western movies, especially those directed by John Ford, who boasted of how few words he permitted his actors to speak. As the playwright Herb Gardner once noted, American boys since the Coolidge administration have gone to the movies to learn how to live their lives; it is reasonable to conclude that speech-deprived heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper have provided conversation models for the past two or three generations of American men. The result is the silence with which America’s laconic male is expected to confront the wonders of life.

In this world men who talk a lot are thought to be comical, ineffectual, or effeminate. Real men keep their thoughts to themselves. If they feel an emotion they are expected to suppress it. In movies, of course, they might express it by firing a gun, blowing up a bridge, or throwing a punch. In real life they can only clench their jaws and silently ponder a couple of cold ones until it passes over.

As Miller explains, the style descends from the Spartans, who inhabited the Greek region of Laconia. The word “laconic” derives from the Greek word lakonizein, which meant to speak in the distinctive Spartan way. Among other things, this involved keeping speech to a minimum. “Spartans thought men who talked a lot were not likely to be men endowed with military spirit,” according to Miller.

He describes an oppressively male, homoerotic, military culture in which the only lively art was warfare. Boys were taken from their parents at the age of seven to begin military training and were expected to have a male warrior as lover after the age of twelve. Spartans apparently took pride in avoiding and even being unable to understand complicated discussion. The laconic style has never made for lively conversation.

Other conversational impediments Miller cites include the American obsession with electronic gadgetry and the easy availability of what he calls “ersatz conversation,” a term embracing the nation’s inescapable torrent of TV and radio talk shows. In these the audience has no conversational role; it is a passive presence at the conversation of others, which in most cases is a fake conversation staged to promote a business project or advance a political cause. Talk shows may give the occasional telephone caller a chance to submit a brief observation, but even this may produce an anti-conversational flurry of abusive insult unless it endorses the prejudices of the presiding “host.”

Miller counts approximately 1,300 talk shows in America. Most of them are devoted to arousing political passions, and the great majority promote right-wing policies. This is the stuff nowadays that produces anger of profoundly bitter intensity and pounding pulses. Their power to enrage makes talk shows profitable both commercially (by boosting book sales and stations’ audience ratings) and politically (by rousing a bored and cynical electorate out of its inertia).

Though these shows violate all rules of conversational etiquette—conversation should never make pulses pound—the illusion of conversation may be satisfying for anyone failing to sense that he is just a passive onlooker at a dog-and-pony show. To be sure, even “ersatz conversation” may sometimes produce something like real conversation—as it sometimes does on, say, The Charlie Rose Show—but the viewer still remains a passive nonplayer, never able to know the pleasures which Montaigne, Johnson, and Swift identified as the conversationalist’s reward.

Television and radio, alas, are no longer the only irresistible forces destroying conversation. They are now supported, perhaps even outdone, by iPods, cell phones, computers, BlackBerries, electronic games, Netflix, and the Internet. For years books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and recordings have helped people achieve what Miller calls “conversational avoidance,” but in this new age of electronic miracles amok, conversation is being hard pressed to survive. The man who wants to say a few words of his own nowadays may have trouble finding anyone to listen, but never mind, he can always retreat to the solitude of his Web site and speak to the whole cyberworld through the electronic megaphone he calls his “blog.”

Miller tells of a family of six described in The Washington Post. They are “awash in conversation avoidance devices”: nine television sets, six computers, six VCRs, six cell phones, three stereo players, three digital music players, and two DVD players.

There is another way of looking at this. If conversation is shutting down it may be because the country is too rich to have room for it anymore. Our electronic marvels do not come free. They are comforts and toys for the well-heeled. When you are talking about six computers, three stereos, nine TV sets, and six cell phones, pretty soon you are talking about real money. Not just a world of time killers so encompassing that there is no time left for speculation about the salary of kings or the wisdom of Solomon, but real money.

One of my childhood memories, from Depression days, is of lying in bed at the edge of sleep and hearing the murmur of people, grown-ups, talking, talking, talking into the night. Our house was small, intimate, and overcrowded with adults who had not worked for a long time, and money was scarce. So they talked, and talked, and talked. It seemed to be reminiscence mostly; they were brothers and sisters of a big family with memories that needed reexamining. They must have joked because there was a lot of quiet laughter, but they talked about serious matters too. Woodrow Wilson was discussed a lot. They wondered whether Wilson had been “an idealist.” Was that why he had failed? And had he been gulled by the English, and hadn’t the United States been tricked into pulling Europe’s chestnuts out of the fire? It felt safe going off to sleep to the steady murmur of that conversation.

The conversation of course was affordable. It was free. Nowadays we are so rich in expensive ways to pass an evening that it may take considerable ingenuity and resolution to find anyone in the house willing to turn off the elctronic gimcracks and talk about Woodrow Wilson, or the ablative absolute, or how to dispose ethically of a broken laserjet printer.

Speaking of electronic gimcracks, I was encouraged by Miller’s reference to Michael Oakeshott to tune in to the Internet, and am indebted to it and to Professor Oakeshott for the following meditation on our subject:

As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian. Indeed, it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails.

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