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.”