Friday, November 18, 2011

`To Fill a Great Barrel of Silence'

When Boswell complained of attending a dinner “without hearing one sentence of conversation worthy of being remembered,” Johnson replied, “Sir, there seldom is any such conversation,” and in two and a half centuries, the conversational well has only run drier. Ours is a noisy but empty age. Chatter is not conversation. A friend on campus writes:

“I was thinking about you today while getting a manicure. They had three televisions on, all tuned to a ladies' talk show. I can honestly say I've never seen anything so imbecilic, so completely vacuous, in my entire life. It was so painfully stupid that I was embarrassed to be watching it even though I had no choice. And this is how the Vietnamese manicurists learn English! God help us.”

The problem, of course, is democracy. Because they have a right to speak, people feel obliged to do so when they have nothing to say. Egos throb and blather proliferates. It’s a shame, because good conversation ranks among the chief pleasures of civilization.

Helen Pinkerton has passed along Exemplary Lives (University of George Press, 1990) by the late David Levin, a scholar of American literature whose teachers included Perry Miller and F.O. Matthiessen at Harvard and Yvor Winters and Wallace Stegner at Stanford.

When Levin arrived at Stanford in 1952, he was writing his Ph.D. thesis on four American historians – Bancroft, Prescott, Motley and Parkman. On their first meeting, Winters, then age fifty-two, asked Levin, who was twenty-seven, “Which one was the best?” Knowing Winters by reputation, he reluctantly answered, “I suppose Parkman was the best historian.” Winters replied, “Parkman’s the worst. Motley’s the best.” Some would judge Winters’ forthright pugnacity a conversation-killer. Not Levin. That first conversation was, he says, “an epitome of the most exemplary service that Winters’s criticism and his personal conduct performed for me and others.”

I sense that the model for most contemporary conversation is the therapy session: “And how did that make you feel?” Or, the flip side of that inanity, the drunken rage. Both parts are scripted and neither calls for listening or thinking. Levin goes on:

“That first laconic exchange also left me with the feeling that I was somehow obliged to fill a great barrel of silence, which Winters himself had opened. Even after I had come to know him well, he remained one of several friends who left silences for others to fill, friends whose mute, expectant bearing suggested that their own silence had been provoked by the inadequacy of their interlocutors. Winters was not at ease in idle conversation. He frequently spoke with startling wit, and he was an excellent raconteur, but casual speech often seemed to make him uncomfortable. He preferred to write, and he often did.”

In Winters we have a man who embodied an old-fashioned strain of American laconicism. No one is obliged to talk – or listen. “The young are quick of speech,” he reminds us, as are the middle-aged and older. In another poem Winters writes:

“That in this room, men yet may reach,
By labor and wit’s sullen shock,
The final certitude of speech
Which Hell itself cannot unlock.”

3 comments:

The Sanity Inspector said...

One of the reasons we find so few persons rational and agreeable in
conversation is that there is hardly a person who does not think more of what he wants to say than of his answer to what is said. The most clever and polite are content with only seeming attentive while we perceive in their mind and eyes that at the very time they are wandering from what is said and desire to return to what they want to say. Instead of considering that the worst way to persuade or please others is to try thus strongly to please ourselves, and that to listen well and to answer well are some of the greatest charms we can have in conversation.
~ Duc de La Rochefoucauld 1613-1680, Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims no.139 (1687)

William A. Sigler said...

Your account of contemporary conversation baffles me, for I’m literally surrounded by sparkling conversationalists. It’s just expected in my part of the world to be able to combat wit with wit, cross-reference with cross-reference, to pull sublimity out of the most parochial of complaints. It’s hard to recall, since conversations are like dreams, but just in the past 24 hours I’ve had conversations about the meaning of Native American spiritual totems on the Oklahoma flag; the fragmentation of civilization into passionate, discrete camps that know nothing of each other; how all the world’s record companies came to be owned by one frustrated songwriter; whether Jack London was the most rooked writer of the 20th century; the philosophical debate about whether movies (like J Edgar) that put one to sleep may actually be more beneficial (for the sleep) than movies (like the Rum Diaries) that are goosed to the gills but don’t have air in their tires – all of it randomly generated from such inauspicious beginnings as disagreeable people, football games, UPS guidelines and TV programs. Good conversation, like a good jam session, can open up, effortlessly, whole new ways of looking at or articulating things. More importantly, it requires listening, feeling, giving, putting oneself in another’s shoes – qualities people increasingly value as technology makes the propagation of ideas ever easier and ever colder. Talk –about anything – rekindles the human heart.

George said...

Recently I've been reading volume I of Trollope's North America. What he says of the Midwest of 1862 suggests to me that democracy does not, of itself, produce babbling:

"A western American man is not a talking man. He will sit for hours over a stove with a cigar in his mouth, and his hat over his eyes, chewing the end of reflection. A dozen will sit together in the same way, and ther shall not be a dozen words spoken between them in an hour."

Talk shows strike me as a special case of the Curse of Bandwidth. Every channel of communication that an engineer can devise, an entrepreneur will fill, with little concern for the material.