Sunday, December 11, 2011

`The List Would Fill the Book'

“Talking, drinking, and smoking go better together than any three other pleasant things upon this earth. And they are best enjoyed in company, which is almost as much as to say they are not best performed at home.” 

I love conversation (with the proper company), no longer drink, and never smoked, but otherwise heartily endorse Arthur Ransome’s prescription in Bohemia in London (1907) for a civilized gathering. The English are better at this sort of thing than we Americans. Perhaps it’s our inveterate one-upmanship. Especially among men, conversation soon turns competitive and boastful, often in an un-playful manner. As one person speaks, the other treads water, waiting to rebut what his friend hasn’t yet finished saying. Conversation with women is always easier and usually more interesting. 

Ransome suggests we adjourn to a coffee-house or tavern: “Get you and your company into a cosy room, with a bright fire and a closed door, where you may be free before the universe.” Freedom: that’s the essential ingredient for a successful kaffeeklatsch or kegger of conversation. No censors or dullards, no scripts, no policing for political correctness. What I’m describing is an exclusionary democracy, where the First Amendment applies only to those already admitted to the club. Ransome channels Charles Lamb:                                                                                                                                                                                 

“Then may your words express the mood you feel, the liquor hearten you, and the smoke soothe you in argument; and if with that you are not happy, why, then, the devil fly away with you for a puritanical, melancholiac spoilsport, whom I would not see with my book in his hands, no, not for four shillings and sixpence on the nail.” 

There are such places. One is literature. Another is its anteroom, the more bookish precincts of the blogosphere. I work for a university and so have few opportunities to meet happily well-read, well-spoken people. Instead, I look to the blog roll on the left. No excuses for dull company accepted. Ransome writes: 

“What an illustrious company is ours: Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Herrick, Congreve—the list would fill the book.”


Andrew MacGillivray said...

Talking, drinking, and smoking go better together among the Dutch than among most peoples. A very civilized and therefore largely forgotten book by Hendrick van Loon, written in uncivilized times, commemorates a congenial gathering of the good and great (‘being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages ... who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year'). Among the guests are Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, the Bachs and the Breughels, Shakespeare, Molière, Descartes, Emerson, the Archbishop of Bithynia, Cervantes, Queen Elizabeth and Theordora of Byzantium, St. Francis, Hans Christian Andersen, Mozart, Napoleon, Plato, Confucius, Beethoven, Peter the Great, Dante, Emily Dickinson, Chopin, Rabelais and Thomas Jefferson. Seating arrangements are unclear but despite 'booze' and 'uproar' being Dutch words, nothing gets out of hand. Van Loon’s Lives (1942) is dedicated to Juliana, ‘heir to the throne of the Free and Independent Kingdom of the Netherlands, to the memory of those valiant men of our beloved Zeeland who died while trying to preserve and maintain that most cherished of their possessions, their LIBERTY’. Rubbish dumps in the vicinity of local libraries occasionally stock a copy.

The Sanity Inspector said...

In a perfect Friendship this Appreciative love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day's walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life -- natural life -- has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?
-- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves