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.”

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